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Understanding the

VRLA Batteries


The Hazard
One of a series of publications designed to
help FM Global customers understand
everyday hazards present in their facilities.

Need More Information?
Ask your FM Global representative
about the following:

Real life loss examples demonstrating
how VRLA batteries failed, resulting
in lost property and downtime.
An explanation of how to run a capacity test of your battery bank, to be sure
it will perform when called upon.

Hazard or Risk?
Many of your critical operations and
electrical protection devices rely on
battery systems to assure continued and
effective operation. Often, these battery
banks utilize valve-regulated lead acid
(VRLA) batteries. While these do not
require the regular maintenance of their
cousins, vented lead acid batteries, they
still need regular maintenance to assure
they will respond when called upon.
Failure to do this represents a risk your
FM Global engineer will be glad to
discuss with you.

By supplying the power needed to trip circuit breakers, batteries serve as an uninterruptible power source for critical processes or systems. When a battery fails, it will
prevent a circuit breaker from clearing an electrical fault, resulting in severe arcing,
equipment damage and power supply interruption. These circumstances can then cause
dangerous process upsets, loss of information and business interruption.
It is important to understand the two main types of battery designs commonly used in
industry: flooded or vented cells, and the sealed or valve-regulated cells found in
valve-regulated lead acid (VRLA) batteries.
Flooded or vented cells consist of a transparent plastic jar filled with a liquid electrolyte, lead plates and plate separators. The liquid electrolyte is a diluted sulfuric acid,
and its spills and leaks are an inherent hazard associated with flooded cells.
To prevent battery failure, the VRLA battery design was developed about 15 years
ago. In these batteries, the liquid electrolyte is immobilized when it is either absorbed
by a sponge-like material or combined with a silica compound to form a gel. The
VRLA battery is sealed in an opaque plastic case, which is fitted with a pressure-relief
valve to vent internal pressure.
Because their sealed design does not allow conventional flooded battery maintenance
to be carried out, VRLA batteries are marketed as maintenance-free. However, industrial experience indicates that VRLA batteries are more sensitive to service conditions
and environments than vented batteries, and are more likely to fail prematurely in those
circumstances. It is therefore important to properly maintain and regularly test VRLA
batteries to detect deterioration.

The Science of the Hazard
VRLA and vented-type lead acid batteries essentially operate the same way.
During discharge, lead on the negative plate and lead dioxide from the positive plate of
the battery combine with the sulfuric acid electrolyte to form lead sulfate and water. A
voltage is generated across the positive and negative plates as a result of this chemical
reaction. The chemical reaction is reversed when an external voltage is applied across
both plates to recharge the battery.
Batteries will self-discharge if left alone, therefore, a float charge is needed to maintain
the cells in a fully charged condition. The float charge passes a current through the battery to overcome its tendency to self-discharge.
Usually more current is provided than needed, flooding the cell. This causes water in
the electrolyte to disassociate into hydrogen and oxygen – which explains why you can
occasionally see bubbles in the battery jar. Water is lost when this happens. In flooded
cells, the water is replaced by periodically topping off the cell with distilled water.

where it recombines with lead and sulfuric acid to form lead sulfate and water. which did not allow heat to dissipate. VRLA batteries provide a way to recombine oxygen gas. High currents increase heat generation. in extreme cases. The common causes of VRLA battery degradation and failure are described below: Dryout The recombination process in a VRLA battery is self-regulating and should result in minimal loss of water from the electrolyte. Inspect all cells for cracks or leaks. To maintain the right electrolyte concentration. This arrangement resulted in poor air circulation through the batteries. the rate of internal gas generation will exceed the cell’s recombination ability. Thermal runaway can generate sufficient heat to rupture the battery case and.What you can do in your facility Now: Check that the maximum ambient temperature at the VRLA batteries does not exceed the manufacturer’s recommended operating temperature range. . Excess gases are vented through the pressure-relief valve and will lead to dryout. pressure-relief valve and battery case If the electrolyte loses too much water. The battery bank was located on the turbine operating floor adjacent to the steam turbine. increasing the battery’s internal resistance and possibly leading to thermal runaway.) Soon: Establish a battery maintenance program as described on page 4. there is no means of topping off the cell to replace lost water. The recombination process in VRLA batteries also generates heat and will contribute to aging if this heat is not adequately dissipated. Check that the battery charger is the correct type recommended by the manufacturer (constant potential type or constant current type). result in an explosion. Float-voltage variation VRLA batteries are sensitive to float-voltage variations. Loss History A VRLA battery bank was used to supply power to a DC emergency lube oil pump for a steam turbine generator. As a general rule. All rights reserved. which in turn results in even higher currents. Check that the float voltage and current is within the manufacturer’s recommended operating range. Temperatures on the operating floor regularly exceed 25 C (77 F). Clean all electrolyte leaks with a bicarbonate of soda solution. Temperature VRLA batteries are sensitive to heat and will degrade at an accelerated rate if operated at high temperatures. Excessive water loss also can create large voids in the electrolyte. Operating batteries at elevated temperatures also can lead to thermal runaway. the life of VRLA batteries is halved for every eight degrees above 25 C (77 F). The VRLA batteries were closely stacked together and placed immediately against a wall. High battery temperatures require more current to maintain float voltage. If the float voltage is too high. This chemical reaction prevents hydrogen gas from being formed at the negative plate and minimizes water loss. In a VRLA battery. battery capacity is reduced. ©2001 Factory Mutual Insurance Company. Oxygen generated at the positive plate is transported across the electrolyte to the negative plate. Clean and remove excessive corrosion and contamination using a bicarbonate of soda solution. Your FM Global loss prevention consultant can discuss other less-common causes of VRLA battery failures and degradation with you. Solid metal panels enclosed the sides and top of the batteries. Other processes also can contribute to water loss: • Normal corrosion of the battery plate • Periodic venting of gases due to battery overcharging • Evaporation of water vapor through the seals. This cycle eventually causes the case to rupture. (Remember to correct the float voltage for the ambient temperature. Check all battery terminals and connections for corrosion and contamination.

a small resistive load is connected across the battery bank. if used. Thermal runaway If VRLA batteries are located in the same area as sensitive telecommunications or electronic equipment (computer rooms. float current. and the discharge duration is too short to adequately test the battery bank. … time needed to carry out a capacity test? This will depend on the rated capacity and the condition of the battery bank. PLC/DCS/DMS rooms). reduce the current below the threshold that will sustain thermal runaway. — Disconnect the battery from the charger.During a trip of the steam turbine generator. … the fact that I have online battery monitoring? Most online battery monitors and passive battery testers only provide information such as float voltage. but as a rough estimate. reduce the voltage below the threshold that will sustain thermal runaway. — Turn off the charger. This system should take measure of two of the following parameters: — Battery temperature — Battery voltage — Float current — Battery conductance • If there are indications of conditions leading to a thermal runaway. — Enclosures around the batteries. — For constant current-float operations. But what about … … how to carry out capacity tests? To perform a capacity test. one of the following should be done: — For constant voltage-float operations. and the discharge current is measured and trended for a short duration. should be of noncombustible construction. the following improvements are needed: • Establish a battery monitoring system to warn of thermal runaway. Some of the more advanced battery monitoring systems are equipped with a quick discharge function. it is acceptable to test one set at a time without having to provide a temporary set of batteries. The cost was estimated at nearly US$10 million in property damage and time element losses. and the time measurements taken for the battery terminal voltage to reach its minimal voltage is measured. This demonstrates the need to operate VRLA batteries within the manufacturer’s recommended temperature range. Contractors normally supply a set of car or truck batteries to replace the set being tested. the VRLA batteries failed to supply power to the emergency lube oil pump. usually a bank of resistors or light bulbs. The capacity test is the best method to determine the condition of your battery.000 for a bank of about 50 cells.with adequate ventilation to control temperature and prevent hydrogen buildup. This should not be considered a replacement for a full capacity test. Lack of lubrication caused wiping of all the steam turbine axial and thrust bearings as well as some rubbing of the steam turbine blades. . Monitoring these parameters does not provide information on the life of the battery and does not replace the need to carry out a capacity test. The discharge current is very small. … battery power during the capacity test? It is important to ensure that a temporary set of batteries is provided during the capacity test. temperatures and internal cell resistance. … the cost to carry out a capacity test? This will depend on several factors. the charger is switched off and the battery is connected to a variable load. and the need to allow for proper heat dissipation from the batteries. a capacity test will cost about US$2. If you have multiple sets of batteries and only one set is needed. The battery is discharged at a constant current. A typical capacity test on a battery bank used for supplying tripping power to circuit breakers may take up to eight hours.

fmglobal. • Visually inspect each cell for corrosion. whose card is attached below. leaks. • Measure and record the temperature of the negative terminal of each cell.Understanding the Hazard Don’t let this happen to you… One of a series of publications designed to help you understand the everyday hazards present in your facility. IEC Standard 896-2 or Australian Standard AS 4029. cleanliness. call Customer Services at (781) 255-6681 or toll free in the United States and Canada at (877) 364-6726. contact your FM Global engineer. Recommended Battery Maintenance Program Monthly • Check and record the voltage at the battery terminals. • Check and record the ambient temperature and condition of ventilation equipment. Semiannually • Measure and record the voltage of each cell. • Measure and trend a representative sample of intercell connection resistance (10 percent or six connections). Quarterly • Measure and record the internal resistance of each P0111 Printed in USA (9/01) . • Measure the AC ripple current and/or voltage imposed on the battery. Annually • Measure and record all intercell connection resistance. measure all intercell connection resistance. • Carry out a capacity test in accordance with IEEE Standard 1188. cracks and distortion.2. For additional copies of this publication and other FM Global resources. • Check and record the charger output voltage and current. fax (781) 255-0181. Proper maintenance of the batteries assures the circuit breaker will be tripped and prevent a disastrous consequence like the transformer fire pictured above. For more information on how you can better understand the risk inherent in your operations. • Construction • Equipment Hazards • Fire Protection • Human Element • Process Hazards Transformer throughfaults can have severe consequences. Visit our Web site at www. If an upward trend is noticed. Protection against throughfaults relies on properly functioning batteries to trip the circuit breaker and clear the fault.