Generally, there are two types of lead-acid storage batteries, based on their method of construction. These batteries are either classified as flooded (vented) or sealed. Flooded and sealed batteries also differ in their operation. All lead-acid batteries produce hydrogen and oxygen gas (gassing) at the electrodes during charging through a process called electrolysis. These gases are allowed to escape a flooded cell, however, the sealed cell is constructed so that the gases are contained and recombined. It should be noted that hydrogen gas is explosive in air at only 4% by volume. Flooded and sealed lead-acid batteries are discussed in the following paragraphs.
Flooded Lead-Acid Batteries
Flooded cells are those where the electrodes/plates are immersed in electrolyte. Since gases created during charging are vented to atmosphere, distilled water must be added occasionally to bring the electrolyte back to its required level. The most familiar example of a flooded lead-acid cell is the 12-V automobile battery.
Flooded Lead Acid Automobile Battery
Sealed Lead-Acid Batteries
These types of batteries confine the electrolyte, but have a vent or valve to allow gases to escape if the internal pressure exceeds a certain threshold. During charging, a lead-acid battery generates oxygen gas at the positive electrode.
Sealed lead-acid batteries are designed so that the oxygen generated during charging is captured and recombined in the battery. This is called an oxygen recombination cycle and works well as long as the charging rate is not too high. Too high of a rate of charge may result in case rupture, thermal runaway, or internal mechanical damage.
The valve-regulated battery is the most common type of sealed battery. It was developed for stationary and telecommunication battery applications. These types of sealed batteries have a spring-controlled valve that vents gases at a predetermined pressure. Typical pressure thresholds are from 2 to 5 psig (0.1 to 0.3 barg), depending on the battery design. Although the term ‘valve regulated’ is often used synonymously to describe sealed lead-acid batteries, not all sealed batteries are valve-regulated. Some battery designs employ replaceable vent plugs or other mechanisms to relieve excess pressure.
Sealed batteries were developed to reduce the maintenance required for batteries in active service. Since electrolyte levels are preserved by trapping and recombining off-gasses, there should not be any need to add distilled water over the life of the battery. These batteries are often misnamed ’maintenance free.’ In fact, all maintenance practices applicable to unsealed type batteries are applicable to sealed type batteries. The only exception is that electrolyte levels cannot, and should not need to be, maintained.
Sealed type batteries are often avoided for backup power source applications for several reasons. One reason is that the state of charge of sealed type batteries cannot be ascertained by the usual specific gravity measurement; reliable alternative methods to measure the state of charge for sealed type batteries are under development. A second reason is their sensitivity to high temperatures.