The Many Faces of Lead-Acid Batteries: A Deep Dive into the Technology Powering Our World

Lead-acid batteries are one of the oldest and most widely used rechargeable battery technologies in the world. Invented in 1859 by French physicist Gaston Plante, the lead-acid battery was the first rechargeable battery ever created. Despite more modern battery chemistries being developed over the years, lead-acid batteries continue to be a staple technology with a myriad of uses.

The reason lead-acid batteries have persisted for over 150 years is their reliability, affordability, and adaptability. Lead-acid batteries are robust and tolerant to abuse. They also provide greater power density at a lower upfront cost compared to alternatives like lithium-ion. By modifying factors like the electrodes, electrolyte, container materials, and structure, many different types of lead-acid batteries have been designed for various applications.

This article will provide an overview of the different lead-acid battery varieties and their typical uses. We will explore the technological basics of how lead-acid batteries work, then dive into the characteristics and applications of the major lead-acid battery types - flooded, valve-regulated (VRLA), deep-cycle, and stationary.

Lead-Acid Battery Basics

Lead-acid batteries consist of a lead-based anode and cathode immersed in a sulfuric acid electrolyte solution. On discharge, a chemical reaction occurs spontaneously where the lead and acid react to create lead sulfate, producing an electrical current. Recharging the battery reverses the reaction, converting the lead sulfate back to lead on the anode and cathode.

Key components in a lead-acid cell are:

  • Anode - Made from a lead alloy grid filled with a paste of lead oxide. Connected to the negative terminal.

  • Cathode - Typically made of a lead alloy grid filled with a paste of lead dioxide. Connected to the positive terminal.

  • Electrolyte - A diluted sulfuric acid solution.

  • Separators - Prevent short circuits between the anode and cathode while allowing ion exchange. Usually made of absorbent materials like glass mat or microfiber.

  • Container - Holds the cell components and electrolyte. Can be made of plastic or rubber.

Advantages of lead-acid batteries include:

  • Low upfront cost compared to other battery chemistries.

  • Simple charging method - use a constant voltage power source.

  • Tolerant to overcharging and deep discharge.

  • Provide high surge currents.

  • Mature technology that is well-understood.

Disadvantages include:

  • Heavy weight due to lead content.

  • Can spill dangerous acids if damaged.

  • May emit hydrogen gas which is explosive.

  • Eventual degradation of components over 2-5 year lifespan.

Despite the tradeoffs, lead-acid batteries offer an unmatched combination of cost, power, reliability, and availability that makes them suitable for many applications. Let's now look at the different types and their uses.

Flooded Lead-Acid Batteries

Flooded or wet cell lead-acid batteries are the simplest, most affordable, and commonly used variety. They are characterized by a liquid electrolyte that can spill or leak if not handled properly.

In a flooded lead-acid battery, the electrodes are fully submerged in the electrolyte solution. Oxygen and hydrogen gases produced during charging and discharging are allowed to escape freely from the cells. The battery must be refilled periodically with distilled water to replace fluid loss.

Key attributes of flooded batteries are:

  • Lowest upfront cost design.

  • Require regular maintenance checks of electrolyte levels.

  • Can leak corrosive electrolyte if tipped over.

  • May need to refill water every 1-6 months.

  • Vent open to atmosphere - possible hydrogen gas buildup.

Uses for flooded lead-acid batteries include:

  • Engine starting - Extensively used in vehicles and boats. High power density provides strong surge current.

  • Mobility applications - Wheelchairs, golf carts, forklifts. Low cost suits frequent deep cycling.

  • Back up power - UPS systems, emergency lighting. Provide steady power supply for hours.

  • Off-grid solar/wind systems - Coupled with renewable charging sources.

Proper maintenance is key to ensure flooded batteries reach their typical 3-5 year service life. Checking electrolyte levels monthly and adding distilled water as needed prevents drying out. Equalizing charges help prevent sulfation buildup. Warm temperatures and sufficient ventilation also promote longevity.

Valve-Regulated Lead-Acid (VRLA) Batteries

Valve regulated lead-acid (VRLA) batteries offer an improved sealed design over flooded types. The electrolyte is absorbed in a medium and internal valves release excess gas pressure, eliminating the need to add water. They are also known as sealed lead-acid (SLA) batteries.

The two main VRLA battery designs are:

Gel Batteries: The electrolyte is mixed into a silica gel, making it immobile. The thick gel prevents spills and damage from vibration. Gel batteries are more expensive than flooded and require a voltage-limited charging method.

Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM) Batteries: Fibrous boron-silicate glass mats absorb and immobilize the electrolyte solution. AGM batteries are less prone to drying out than gels. They can also withstand deeper discharges and recharge faster with less maintenance.

Benefits of VRLA/SLA batteries include:

  • No acid spills - electrolyte is captive in glass mats or gel.

  • Can be operated in any orientation - even upside down.

  • Vibration resistant due to immobilized electrolyte.

  • Valves prevent gases from escaping and allow recombination of hydrogen/oxygen.

  • Don't require adding water over service life.

  • Sealed construction allows indoor installation.

Applications well-suited for VRLA batteries include:

  • UPS backup - Reliable shutdown during power outages. Withstand frequent charge/discharge cycles.

  • Alarm and security systems - Often mounted in various orientations. No risk of acid leaks.

  • Emergency lighting - Long shelf life and operation in any position.

  • Telecom systems - Vibration resistance prevents signal disruption.

  • Electric wheelchairs - Allow mobility indoors and outdoors.

The tradeoffs are higher cost than flooded batteries and possible faster capacity loss in hot temperatures. But for applications that need a maintenance-free sealed battery, VRLA technology provides a stable and safe option.

Deep-Cycle Lead-Acid Batteries

While starting batteries are designed to provide quick bursts of power, deep-cycle lead-acid batteries are engineered for continuous power delivery over long durations. Their thick lead plates can withstand repetitive discharges down as low as 20% state-of-charge.

Key characteristics of deep-cycle lead-acid batteries include:

  • Thicker lead plates that resist deterioration.

  • Allow repeated discharges down to 80-90% depth of discharge.

  • Lower CCA (cold cranking amps) rating but higher overall capacity.

  • Ideal applications involve lengthy continuous power demands.

Deep-cycle batteries are commonly used in:

  • Electric golf carts - Provide extended run times over 18 holes. High cycle life in daily use.

  • Mobility scooters/wheelchairs - Enable independence for disabled users. Reliable range per charge.

  • Floor cleaning equipment - Withstand repeated discharges over long shifts.

  • Marine trolling motors - Quiet, emission-free propulsion for fishing boats.

  • RV auxiliary power - Run appliances and lights off-grid.

Deep-cycle lead-acid batteries allow users to operate equipment untethered from the grid for extended periods. Proper charging after each use is key to maximize service life. Keeping them fully charged when in storage preserves capacity.

Stationary Lead-Acid Batteries

Stationary or standby lead-acid batteries provide backup power security for facilities and grids when primary power is disrupted. They range from small single cells to huge banks rated in the megawatt range.

Stationary batteries for large scale applications have distinct characteristics:

  • Bulk storage capacity from 100s to 10,000s of amp-hours.

  • Designed for occasional discharge cycles with lengthy recharge times.

  • Heavy duty grids and plates withstand prolonged constant voltage float charging.

  • Advanced alloys and plate treatments improve longevity.

  • Lower internal resistance allows enormous discharge currents.

There are two principle types of duty in stationary applications:

Float Service: The batteries are kept fully charged continuously through low rate constant voltage charging. This maintains them in a ready state for sudden power demands. Float service batteries handle occasional discharges.

Cyclic Service: The batteries experience regular discharge/charge cycles. Cyclic service batteries see deeper discharges but are still kept near full charge when not in use.

Stationary lead-acid batteries have vital roles in:

  • Telecom networks - Maintain continuity of service. High reliability in float applications.

  • UPS systems - Protect critical equipment like servers from power fluctuations and outages.

  • Utilities - Help stabilize grid frequency and voltage. Mitigate renewable energy intermittency.

  • Hospitals - Backup power for life support equipment if mains electricity fails.

  • Data centers - Preserve uptime of mission-critical systems.

  • Commercial buildings - Safely evacuate occupants if fire alarms are activated.

Larger deep-cycle stationary batteries are also used for energy storage from renewable sources like solar PV and wind. They store excess daytime solar energy to dispatch at night, or collect variable wind energy for release when needed.

Advanced stationary designs like absorbed glass mat and tubular gel optimize performance factors like service life, depth of discharge, and high current output. With plates made using pure lead and tin alloys, modern stationary batteries can achieve lifetimes measured in decades.


Despite the emergence of lithium-ion and other battery technologies, the humble lead-acid battery remains a staple of modern life. Lead-acid batteries continue to power our transportation, infrastructure, industries, homes, and daily activities through their unique combination of cost, durability, and technological maturity.

From the original flooded wet cell design to modern absorbed glass mat and tubular gel stationary batteries, lead-acid technology has adapted to serve diverse applications. With capacities ranging from single-digit amp-hours to megawatt-scale, stationary installations, lead-acid batteries provide the backup power critical to the smooth functioning of society.

Understanding the different lead-acid battery types and their purposes allows matching the right technology to the application need. With proper use and maintenance, lead-acid batteries deliver reliable power wherever and whenever it’s needed - from starting the car to running a telecom network, lead-acid batteries keep the world running. Their longevity and ubiquity is a testament to the enduring usefulness of one of humankind’s earliest rechargeable battery inventions.

  • Nov 03, 2023
  • Category: News
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