Trucks at Work

Extending lead-acid battery life

The conundrum traditional lead-acid batteries face in trucking is that the long operating hours coupled with harsh conditions – extreme heat and cold, supporting hotel loads, etc. – can wear them out before their time.

Indeed, I talked with David Baker – VP of maintenance at nationwide flatbed hauler Boyd Bros. – not long ago and he told me his fleet ended up switching from lead-acid batteries to advanced glass mat or “AGM” models because the lead-acid variety were wearing out after 18 to 22 months of service.

[FYI: you’ll see more of that interview in the Maintenance Bay column within Fleet Owner’s June issue.]

Yet something called pulse technology is now being touted to combat this problem, termed “premature battery death.”

Not only that, Rick Miller – sales manager at PulseTech Products Corp. – explained that pulse technology can actually extend lead-acid battery life up to five times its normal cycle.

“Basically, a lead-acid battery will continue to store and supply energy if enough of the active plate material is available to allow an energy transfer to occur naturally,” Miller noted in a recent white paper on the subject.

“In theory, lead-acid batteries should last many years, but they usually don’t because of a series of detrimental problems caused by what’s known as ‘excessive sulfation buildup,’” he explained. “That is related to the natural and necessary formation of sulfate crystals on the surface of lead battery plates.”

What happens is this: As a battery ages through use or sits unused for periods of time, naturally-present lead sulfate crystals enlarge and can build up excessively to the point where they create a physical barrier across the surface of the lead-acid plate, said Miller (seen at right).

“Before long, this buildup can become so dense that a battery is no longer able to accept or release energy,” he pointed out.

What pulse technology does, then, is create a “wave” or “pulse” based on a specific frequency, amplitude, and voltage of electrical current to more evenly distribute lead sulfate crystals over the surface area of the battery plates.

Miller noted that X-ray examination also revealed a significant reduction in the size of the lead-sulfate crystals on the lead acid plates from such regular “pulse” maintenance.

“These microscopic changes, kind of an electro-mechanical ‘stirring’ or ‘cleaning’ action on the plate surface, greatly improve a [lead-acid] battery’s ability to accept and store more energy,” he said.

Yet even Miller acknowledges that at some point a lead-acid battery plate will wear out, meaning the battery will need to be replaced. Pulse technology, in his view, just puts that day of reckoning farther out in the future.

That’s a big deal from where Miller sits because it’s estimated that batteries currently operating in vehicles on the road worldwide contain more than four million tons of lead – with a substantial quality of that battery lead coming from recycling batteries themselves.

Certainly, this will do nothing to solve the argument over what battery material works best in trucking operations – there are many studies and white papers extolling any number of substrates. Yet in the case of the lead-acid variety, which is the most commonly used at the moment, pulse technology might be able to help fleets reduce some of the life-cycle costs associated with this particular material.

Time will tell where that is concerned.

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