Lithium batteries in the boating world 

Is the arrival of Lithium batteries in the boating world a safe choice? Let’s take a look at the latest information …

WHY THEY ARE SO POPULAR…

There are essentially 2 main categories of marine batteries: lead-acid (gel, wet cell and AGM) and lithium.

Due to the considerable weight reduction they offer, lithium batteries are increasingly used in the marine sector. Compared to the traditionally used lead-acid batteries, the weight saving is about 70%. Other advantages of lithium-ion over lead-acid batteries are a higher storage capacity (4x), a longer life span, almost zero maintenance potential and they recharge faster (up to 5 times faster).

Another major reason for the transition to Lithium batteries in the maritime sector is that this technology contributes to a more ecological navigation. Indeed, let’s think about electric or hybrid propulsion.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) estimated that the amount of carbon dioxide emissions from the maritime sector accounted for 2.2% of global man-made emissions in 2012. It expects this figure to increase by 50 to 250 percent by 2050 if no action is taken.

FIRE HAZARD

The increasing use of lithium batteries is leading to an increased risk of fire. In a European Union report, scientists conclude that a lithium-ion battery fire on board a ship can be more deadly than a sinking ship. Indeed, a lithium battery fire is one of the most dangerous and difficult fires to control and extinguish.

The EU authors point out that traditional fire booster systems are not effective for battery fires. In fact, a conventional pressure relief system would make the situation worse.

WHAT CAN CAUSE A FIRE

The approach to battery safety at sea is different from that on land. A ship’s hull is struck by waves, sometimes at a very high frequency in bad weather. The effects of shock and vibration can eventually lead to structural damage to the battery case, and potentially trigger a short circuit. One aspect to keep in mind is that it takes much longer for emergency services to reach a burning vessel.

LITHIUM BATTERIES, POPULAR IN THE BOATING WORLD

For smaller boats (2 to 24 meters), Li-ion technology has already replaced many combustion engines and lead-acid batteries for electrically powered boats. These batteries are also becoming more popular for recreational boats.

Niche markets such as yachts, watercraft, and underwater vehicles will also eventually switch to lithium batteries.

Despite still relatively limited use in the marine sector, a number of battery fires at sea have been reported. According to EU researchers, many fires go unreported because the fire destroys the evidence.

But it is important to know that there are different types of lithium batteries. The vast majority of lithium-ion systems installed on boats use lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4 or LFP) batteries. The cathode material LFP has a very high thermal stability, which means that these batteries are much safer than cobalt-based lithium-ion batteries.

So find out what type of Lithium batteries you need before you install or buy. The car manufacturer TESLA has announced that it will now use Lithium LFP instead of the one with Cobalt (also called Nickel Cobalt Aluminum Oxide).

But unfortunately, there are some very low quality lithium batteries on the market, make sure of the quality of the battery that will be installed in your boat. The price of the battery and the professionalism of the seller is very important.

Also, to ensure that the battery operates within safe limits, each battery (or battery bank) must be equipped with a battery management system (called a BMS). A BMS is an electronic circuit designed to protect a lithium battery from dangerous situations such as overcharging or over discharging, charging or discharging at high or low temperatures. If the BMS detects any of these conditions, it disconnects the battery from charging sources or loads.

This system offers you reassuring safety, but make sure it is installed by a qualified professional.

STORAGE AND PRECAUTIONS

It is not advisable to store a discharged Lithium battery in the cold.
The complete discharge from not using the battery for too long a period of time can damage the battery. If the battery is exposed to cold temperatures (during winter storage), it can cause the electrolyte to decompose and form flammable gases.

Ideally, a lithium battery should be stored in a dark (with little light), dry, but cool, and especially frost-free location.

Lithium is a highly flammable element, reacting to shocks and contact with water. In contact with water, lithium releases hydrogen which is a flammable gas.

INSURANCES, A PROBLEM TO COME…

Insurance companies are essential when purchasing a boat and they always analyze the risks before covering a property. These companies are currently analyzing the introduction of these new batteries for boats and the risks associated with them.

There is talk (nothing is yet in writing) for boats equipped with Lithium batteries to install them in a watertight compartment that in case of sustained heat beyond normal, a system would allow to flood with water the battery compartment in order to limit the damage and to offer a better way to control a possible destructive and very difficult fire to extinguish.

It is easy to imagine that this will increase the cost of designing the boat and how this compartment will be managed after being flooded.

At the last SAMS inspectors’ convention in the United States, this subject was discussed.

First electric charging station in Canada (Ontario)

CONCLUSION

There are many advantages to using these new Lithium batteries, but one must not ignore the other characteristics associated with this type of battery. Always be prepared for all eventualities and safety measures associated with these components.

It is difficult to make a definitive decision if we install such batteries in our boat.  However, we can be more concerned about the monitoring systems of the battery temperature provided by the manufacturer if aboard a new boat.  Also, be aware on what a boater can do to control or check the state of his batteries at any time.

It is important to know what the best protocol to follow is if overheating is noticed. How can we regulate the situation or what type of fire extinguisher to use in case of fire. It is therefore necessary to see if your on-board extinguishers indicate the Agent f-500 or vermiculite component in order to be effective for this type of battery.

According to the available literature, it seems that the types of extinguishers with these components are the most effective replacements for conventional extinguishers.

Image : extincteurs avec agent F-500

It is also mentioned that fire extinguishers with AVD for Aqueous Vermiculite Dispersion would also be very effective against fires involving Lithium batteries.

Ask an expert or the seller about the protection mechanisms, the two types of extinguishers mentioned above are not the only systems on the market.

Click here to see a video that explains all choice of battery for boat.

The brokers at Ita Yachts Canada will be following this issue closely. For the moment, the insurers and manufacturers have not announced anything on this subject.

The purpose of this article is to inform you in depth on the arrival on the market of this new battery so that you will be able to understand the characteristics to ensure that you will always be in a highly safe environment and that you will have on board all the necessary safety measures.

 Do not hesitate if you have any questions, we (the brokers at Ita Yachts Canada Inc and it’s division ProprioBoat.ca) are at your disposal.

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