Batteries - a market going flat?

8th of June 2017
Batteries - a market going flat?

As an increasing number of cleaning machine manufacturers turn to lithium-ion, where does this leave the market for traditional AGM, GEL and flooded batteries asks Ann Laffeaty?

Lithium-ion is enjoying a surge in demand as a growing number of manufacturers choose to power their machines with batteries that are smaller and lighter than traditional alternatives.

Meanwhile other new battery technologies using sodium ion, magnesium ion and lithium air are currently in the development stage. But where does this leave the more traditional lead-acid options? Is the market for old-fashioned batteries going flat, or is there still a place in the commercial arena for a range of products of all kinds?

Lithium-ion has a number of advantages over traditional offerings according to Delta-Q Technologies research manager Chris Botting. “They are up to four times lighter in weight than lead-acid batteries and require no maintenance,” he said. “They are also up to three times smaller and have a longer run time, higher power, a reduced charge time and a 10-15 per cent lower charging energy cost. 

However they can cost between three and five times as much to buy which is their main drawback. For this reason it may take some time before lithium-ion is fully adopted.”

Lead-acid is still used in the vast majority of cleaning machines according to Botting. “There is a particular preference for sealed gel batteries in Europe,” he said. “The cleaning market is currently dominated by flooded, AGM and gel batteries and for cost reasons I think these will continue to play a major role. But we think we’re going to see many floor machine manufacturers introducing lithium-ion batteries in the near term.”

Premium performance

He believes lithium-ion will find a market among those customers who are willing to pay a premium for higher performance, longer life and lower operating costs. “Whether lithium-ion can entirely replace lead-acid batteries will depend on how low their prices can actually go in the next five to 10 years,” he said.

According to Botting one of the advantages of lead-acid batteries is their lower safety risk. “The safety risks associated with lithium-ion can be managed by a battery management system but this adds complexity and cost,” he said.

However he feels that the other main advantage of lead-acid batteries – that of low cost - is being eroded by the price reductions of lithium-ion batteries year on year.  “And since lithium-ion batteries offer a higher performance with a longer life and a lower capacity fade, it is often possible to use a lower capacity lithium-ion battery which further reduces the cost premium,” he said.

One environment in which lead-acid batteries may be preferred is in counter-balanced forklifts, he says. “Here the battery’s mass is actually required as ballast and the reduced weight of lithium-ion would not be valued,” he explained.

 “However lithium-ion would have other benefits in this application such as faster charging which would result in less machine down-time.”

Meanwhile, other new post-lithium-ion battery technologies are being developed, according to Botting. “Research breakthroughs are regularly being announced,” he said.  “Some are improvements based on lithium-ion such as lithium silicon - which replaces the graphite anode with silicon - or solid state lithium-ion which replaces the liquid electrolyte with a solid material.

“Others are new battery chemistries such as lithium sulphur, sodium ion, magnesium ion and lithium air. However none of these technologies are past the research stage and all still have fundamental challenges to overcome so it’s unlikely they’ll reach commercial use within 10 years.”

Delta-Q Technologies works closely with lead-acid and lithium-ion battery makers and offers a range of chargers ranging from 650 watts to 1500 watts.

Kärcher’s floor cleaning product manager Cassio Murillo confirms that lithium-ion batteries are becoming increasingly popular in the cleaning industry. “Instead of heavy lead plates and acid electrolyte, lithium-ion battery packs are lightweight and can provide the same voltage as lead-acid batteries with a higher energy density,” he said. “They also have a low memory effect and low self-discharge.”

Long life span

Another major advantage is the expected life cycle of lithium-ion batteries, he said. “They have a life span of around 2,000 to 5,000 cycles while lead-acid batteries are typically only good for 500-1000 cycles,” said Murillo.

“Lithium-ion batteries can also be fast charged to 100 per cent of their capacity. Unlike lead-acid there is no need for an absorption phase to ensure that the final 20 per cent is stored and if your charger is powerful enough, lithium batteries can also be charged incredibly fast.

“If you can provide a sufficient quantity of charging amps you can actually fully charge a lithium-ion battery in just 30 minutes.” Other advantages are the fact that Li-ion batteries are completely maintenance free as well as being CO2 neutral if charged with alternative energy sources, he said.

“Machines equipped with lithium-ion batteries can be lighter and more compact and be used many times per day thanks to features such as fast charging and low memory effect which enables the option of daytime charging,” said Murillo.

However he adds that traditional alternatives still remain popular in the cleaning industry. “The lower price is still the key advantage of traditional batteries, particularly where a high capacity is required,” he said.

Sometimes dangerous

“Lithium-ion batteries can also be dangerous under some conditions and can pose a safety hazard since they contain a flammable electrolyte and are kept pressurised. As a result of this the testing standards for these batteries are more stringent than those for acid-electrolyte alternatives which means they require both a broader range of test conditions and additional battery-specific tests.”

However he adds that lithium-ion batteries are preferable in most applications since they are completely maintenance free. “They also perform better than traditional batteries in harsh environments where they will continue to deliver very high energy while lead-acid batteries may lose up to 70 per cent of their capacity,” he said.

The type of battery chosen to power a cleaning machine will depend on machine type, says Murillo. “Compact models need to be light while offering outstanding handling and mobility,” he said. “They will also be used many times per day for spot cleaning. Lithium-ion batteries are perfect for this machine class since they combine a compact size with a low weight and the possibility of opportunity charging.

“Large walk-behind and ride-on machines on the other hand need very large batteries since they are used in wide open areas and are operated during long working shifts. The price of lithium-ion is still a barrier in this class.”

Kärcher offers machines powered by traditional AGM, gel and flooded batteries as well as by lithium-ion.  New from the company are the BV 5/1 Bp backpack vacuum and the T 9/1 dry vacuum cleaner, both fitted with lithium-ion batteries.

“For the first time these can deliver the same performance as a mains-operated machine,” said Murillo. “Besides selective cleaning both models can also be used for maintenance cleaning by contract cleaners in the transport industry – on buses, trains or planes – as well as in hotels and in the retail trade.”

Diversey Care offers machines powered by various types of battery such as gel, acid, XFC and lithium-ion. Each has its own advantages according to global Taski machine portfolio manager Laurent Ryssen.

“Acid batteries are the lowest-cost option but they require more maintenance than other types,” he said. “Gel is maintenance-free and XFC batteries are similar to gel while also offering opportunistic charging.

“Lithium-ion allows for opportunistic charging and discharge levels are very low - close to zero, in fact -  without killing the battery. The battery itself is also maintenance-free, very lightweight and smaller. But it is also the most expensive option.”

He says cleaning machine manufacturers are increasingly opting for lithium-ion, however. Diversey Care’s latest models include the TASKI swingo 150 Li Ion and TASKI swingo 350 Li Ion.
“However the trend towards mechanical cleaning is also increasing,” he adds. “For that reason I would say that demand for more traditional options such as AGM, gel and flooded batteries is likely to remain stable until the price of lithium-ion becomes more accessible.”

Price is the key driver for customers when choosing a power source, according to Ryssen. “Safety is another important consideration,” he adds. “We experience fewer problems with gel but in terms of safety I would say that lithium-ion is safer than AGM/acid batteries.”

He says the choice of battery depends largely on the size of the machine being used – and that this depends on the size of the area to be cleaned. “Lithium-ion will be more often used for opportunistic cleaning in smaller areas whereas large machines operating in food service environments, reception areas and offices are still using gel batteries” he said.

More and more popular

“Lithium-ion is the most popular type of battery for smaller machines due to their light weight, opportunistic charging and the fact that they can be easily transported from site to site.”

So does he feel the market for traditional batteries is going flat?  “Anything is possible,” said Ryssen. “It all depends on the equation of cost/customer perceived value.”

The benefits of lithium-ion batteries make them more and more popular each year adds Kärcher’s Cassio Murillo. “The challenge is to make them affordable to replace bigger batteries in big machines,” he said.

But their cost is already falling according to Delta-Q Technologies’ Chris Botting. “Lithium-ion technology continues to incrementally decrease in cost while improving in performance every year,” he said.  “So the bottom line is, lithium-ion batteries will be the dominant battery type for at least the next 10 years.”


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