How to Keep Batteries at Peak Performance
Battery-powered equipment can reduce trip hazards, extend the reach of cleaning equipment and eliminate back-and-forth trips to power outlets. Today’s batteries power a range of floor machines and backpack vacuums, allowing custodians to maneuver with ease for extended periods of time. But batteries, like equipment, need TLC to ensure their longevity.
Unfortunately, not all batteries are created equal, and maintenance that works for one battery type may not work for another. To help facility cleaning staff separate fact from fiction, distributors dispel four common myths about batteries that can lead to corrosion and/or shorten their lifespan.
Myth #1: Batteries should be charged whenever equipment is not in use.
It’s called opportunity charging: taking advantage of downtime to recharge batteries for short intervals throughout the shift. While this is common practice for lithium-ion batteries in cell phones, distributors do not recommend the practice for cleaning machines, particularly those with AGM or GEL batteries.
“Don’t head to your break thinking you want to top off the charge on an AGM battery,” says Bill Allen, territory manager for Fagan Sanitary Supply, West Elizabeth, Pennsylvania. “Every time you charge a battery, you shorten its lifecycle and its runtime.”
Typically, lead acid batteries are good for 500-1,000 cycles, while GEL and AGM batteries last approximately 500-700 cycles before reaching the end of their life; therefore, distributors advise facility cleaning staff to take full advantage of every charge cycle.
“Be mindful of the way you charge your batteries,” says Keith Schneringer, senior director of marketing - facility care and sustainability at Waxie Sanitary Supply, an Envoy Solutions company, San Diego, California. “Some machines indicate when it’s time to charge. For those that don’t, keep in mind that for every hour of run time you will need to charge the battery for a couple of hours.”
According to Schneringer, custodians often make the mistake of running equipment for several hours, charging it for 30 minutes and then repeating the cycle.
“When this happens you never get your battery back up to 100 percent charge, so you degrade the life of the battery,” he explains.
Although lithium-ion batteries tend to have a longer life — about 1,500 cycles or more — Schneringer still recommends avoiding opportunity charging when possible.
“Although this can be convenient, it can potentially shorten the life of your batteries,” he says. “If you want to prolong their life, keep them charged and charge them before they die.”
Myth # 2: Batteries should be depleted before recharging them.
Just as frequent opportunity charging can shorten a battery’s life, so can draining a battery before recharging it. In fact, totally depleting a battery is a “true life-sucker,” according to Schneringer.
To avoid this problem, distributors recommend recharging batteries when they reach 20 percent of their runtime. This is also the preferred practice for lithium-ion batteries, which are often the most expensive to replace.
“Don’t go too long without charging batteries, otherwise they’ll be junk,” says Kevin McCalla, executive vice president, McCalla Company Janitorial Supplies, Van Nuys, California. “And if you’re not going to use the machine for several weeks, make sure that you charge it during that time, because batteries lose their life after sitting stagnant.”
Allen recalls numerous occasions when his customers had equipment repaired and then stored it for the winter, only to find that the battery had died come summer.
“I don’t recommend storing batteries or having equipment sitting around without being run,” he says. “It’s no different than a car battery: If the car doesn’t run, you pull the battery out and put it on a trickle charger. Cleaning equipment should be checked every so often when not in use and charged accordingly.”
As a rule of thumb, batteries should be charged for a maximum of five to six hours at a time. To ensure that the battery is not overcharged or undercharged, distributors advocate using a smart charger designed to detect the battery’s status and provide a full charge or trickle charge as needed.
Additionally, distributors caution custodians to let the battery cool down completely after use before recharging it, as well as after charging before reusing the equipment.
“Batteries, especially wet cell batteries, get hot when they’re charging,” notes Allen. “Make sure you take them off the charger and give them some time to cool down for a few minutes prior to running the equipment.”
Myth #3: Aside from recharging them, batteries do not require maintenance.
“Battery maintenance can be as simple as having a handful of items on a bullet-point list to check every couple of weeks,” says Allen. “These include cleaning the terminals, checking the connection of the wires to the terminals, checking the caps, checking the water levels, and making sure you have a good charger connection.”
While sealed batteries, such as AGM or GEL, are considered “maintenance-free” because they don’t require the addition of water, flooded lead acid batteries — also known at wet cell batteries — are still the most popular choice in the cleaning industry. Regular maintenance is a must with these batteries.
“Unfortunately, a lot of facilities don’t take good care of the batteries, and as a result the equipment suffers,” notes Schneringer, who used to work as a sales rep and would give his customers a maintenance log to track recommendations for battery maintenance tasks on a daily, weekly and periodic basis.
First and foremost, flooded batteries need to be filled with distilled water on a routine basis — usually every two to four weeks — to replace lost electrolytes, thereby preventing deterioration.
“People make the mistake of not refilling the water or filling it too high,” says McCalla. “If they overfill the battery, the water boils over when they charge it. They can get battery acid on top of the terminals, creating bad connections.”
To avoid over or under-filling batteries, Allen suggests incorporating battery watering procedures into training reviews when purchasing equipment. Facilities can also purchase battery watering kits that reduce the labor involved in refilling batteries and ensure that they are filled correctly.
Myth #4: Storage conditions have no bearing on battery life.
Where facilities store batteries or battery-operated machines is an important consideration when reviewing equipment maintenance procedures. According to distributors, storing individual batteries is uncommon in facility cleaning departments. Rather, cleaning equipment is stored with batteries installed, and batteries are replaced as needed.
Extreme heat can shorten the life of batteries and cause corrosion, which is why battery-operated equipment should always be stored in a cool, dry place.
“High temperatures can sap the life out of batteries, so you typically want to store your equipment in a place that is less than 75 degrees Fahrenheit,” notes Schneringer.
And when it comes to storing equipment that runs on lead acid batteries, air circulation is equally important.
“In addition to watching your temperature, you want to store lead acid batteries in a well-ventilated space, because when you charge them the water heats up and causes off-gassing,” says Schneringer. “GEL and AGM batteries, on the other hand, do not have as many storage variables as lead acid batteries because they are sealed; therefore, they don’t have that off-gassing.”
While heat is a primary threat when storing batteries, cold temperatures are also cause for concern. When storing lead acid batteries for the winter, for example, facilities should ensure that the battery is charged prior to storage. This will prevent the liquid electrolyte from freezing and expanding, which could cause the battery casing to break.
Facilities are likely to have a wide range of battery types throughout their equipment fleet. For this reason, Allen recommends reviewing battery maintenance procedures with the manufacturer or distributor for each battery type.
“A facility may have eight pieces of equipment — six with AGM batteries and two with wet cell batteries — but they treat them all the same,” he says. “They forget about the two with wet cell batteries, and in a year the batteries are dead because no one checks the water levels.”
Keeping track of different batteries and their needs can be confusing at times, which is why Allen uses the following analogy to make the task seem less daunting:
“It’s no different than your lawn care equipment,” he says. “You fill your lawnmower with gas, but your other equipment has a gas/oil mix. If someone fills the leaf blower with gas instead of the gas/oil mix, it’s not going to run properly.”
Similarly, with proper care and maintenance, batteries should last for several years, regardless of type.
Kassandra Kania is based out of Charlotte, North Carolina, and is a frequent contributor to Facility Cleaning Decisions.