Wednesday, June 26, 2013

When Batteries Go Bad

When it rains, it pours.  And when marine batteries go bad, they go bad pretty quick.

When we were in St. Maarten, Scott noticed that our battery voltage was low.  Like, really low.  For the record:  we have had two 12 volt 8D AGM batteries as our house bank.  They were reading 11.4 in after a night at anchor when they should have been reading in the high 12 range.  Much to his annoyance, I had been telling Scott each morning for days that our refrigerator didn't seem cold (I am ever fearful of wasting cheese!) and now, it seemed, we knew why.  Our batteries were dying a slow and steady death, and taking our cheese down with it.

Since we have a generator on board, this was by no means an urgent matter - or so we thought.  We continued on our normal course south, figuring this was nothing more than a minor annoyance, and that we'd replace our battery bank once in Grenada.  Our batteries, of course, had other ideas.

Each day our battery voltage dropped lower and lower, quicker and quicker.  We started going into energy conservation mode, turning off all systems at the breakers, and finally shutting the refrigerator off at night.  This attempt to tourniquet the outpouring of energy from our AGM's did next to nothing for the health of our batteries.  They continued on their downward slope, slowly draining a little more life, each and every day.  I was getting worried.  We ran our generator more to keep up with our energy needs.  While this charged our batteries for a spell, they just couldn't hold on to it.  Almost immediately after the generator stopped running, the voltage would drop.  I watched our Victron battery monitor religiously, hoping to see something positive.  It never came. Our fridge began to smell.  Food began to rot.  The mood on the boat drained along with the battery acid.

Then we couldn't start the engine, and this is when I began to cry.

I know we are a sailboat, I know that sails don't require power - but to me, an engine represents safety and when, after running our generator for thirty minutes, we still couldn't start our engine, I got very nervous.  We had a problem. (Note: our engine starter is tied to our house bank.  I know that this is not ideal, and it's not the way we would have set up this boat - but it's the way it was - we are learning there are LOTS of things the previous owner did that we would not have done).

After more generator running and some desperate pleas to the Universe to "please let our engine start one more time" our trusty old Perkins laboriously coughed to life.   And then I smelled sulfur which, unless you are near Old Faithful, is not a normal smell.  New smells on boats are bad and require investigation.  I did some quick Googling and after reading words like "over charged batteries" and "explosion", it was an easy decision to limp into a marina.  Which is exactly what we did.

Within an hour we located an electrician.  He went in the engine room and told us our batteries were "hot"...after which he smiled and shook his head "too hot".  They needed more ventilation.  We took note.  And he continued to poke around.  After a spirited "discussion" with Scott about what the problem might be and what, exactly, this "electrician" was doing (he never told us anything we didn't already know) - I decided to take a walk with Isla to give the men some room to work.  When I came back our 12V 8D AGM batteries had been replaced with 12V 4D wet cell batteries.  Not ideal, but they should get us through.  Thanks to the advice given to us on our Facebook Page, we changed the settings on our charger from 'AGM' to 'wet cell' and have added "check battery water" to our list of weekly chores.  We are also going to be much more cognizant of voltage and battery monitoring moving forward.

Neither of us feel entirely confident that our problem is solved - we're not entirely certain that we don't have some other electrical snafu that might have caused this in the first place.  But for the meantime, we have put a band-aide on the problem.  Hopefully, this band-aide sticks until we get to Grenada.  In the meantime, I'm going to eat me some cheese.


Barb at Sea said...

I feel your pain -- which is what I just opened with on Mike and Rebecca's post about living on the hard. Our batteries went as well and I learned a few things. Currently working on my post about it. Do you follow The Boat Galley? She just wrote about batteries, too. Good tip.

Steve said...

Long time listener, first time caller. I would seriously consider installing an extra battery dedicated to only starting the genset and/or engine. A simple car battery from Walmart would work.

I have seen this happen many times where the house batteries die and there is no way to get the motors started. Having a dedicated battery just for engine starts is an essential fail safe backup. It is easy to hook up. You should also invest in a cheap battery charger for this new battery. You can also get this at a Walmart type store. A trickle charger will keep this battery topped up while you are on shore power or running your genset.

$150 bucks and you will never have to worry about this scenario again. For added redundancy, I would buy a set of jumper cables too. Just in case this new start battery dies, you can jump the engine from the house batteries if you need to.


Michael said...

Hi Guys,

Check to make sure the Heart Inverter/Charger is working properly ( I.e. charging at the proper voltages). AGM batteries are sensitive beasts. We had the same charger that you have ( sorry to sound stalkerish, we saw it in a picture you posted) and it finally died before it could kill our batteries, but it was over charging the house bank at to high of a voltage for a few weeks before it finally bit the dust. Noticed the issue when our carbon monoxide detectors kept going off without cause. Turns out hydrogen can set them off and it was indeed the bank that was being over overcharged thus allowing the normally closed vents to release pressure and vent hydrogen. So, we replaced the old dead charger with a new victron and all is good with the world. No battery change needed. I sure we would have had the same melt down as yourself if we hadn't check the charge voltages. It was only off by .75 of a volt.

Hope that helps with the problem solving.



Mike Boyd said...

Hey guys

"...and it is not the way we would have..." sounds like many of the previously owned purchases I've made, so I feel your pain.

I'm no battery expert but I second the vote to check your charging system. If you find you are adding water to these new batteries often or get the acidic/sulfur smell (or the batteries "boil over") it is likely overcharging. My understanding is that repeated overcharging can shorten battery life significantly.

Good luck!

MaryJo Boyle said...

Aw man, that whole battery crap really sucks. Hope you get it all figured out.
May your cheese never mold! =0)

Sixbears said...

New reader here. Enjoying your blog.

Keep an eye on your charge controller. On the bright side, your "wet" batteries are a lot less sensitive than AGM. Keep the water level up and they should be fine.

Chris Witzgall said...

We have had lifepo4 batteries onboard since 2011, with great results. Check out the us Distributor for Winston cells:!/~/product/category=4218089&id=18005962

Four of those would give you more usable capacity then a 1400ah bank, and weigh a whole lot less. YOu need smart regulation on our charging sources, and a battery balancer for a few hundred, (look at the house power BMS at cleanpowerauto)

In a nutshell - 80% discharge to 2000 cycles, perkerts of almost 1, they don't even start to taper charge until 90% full, safer then wet cells. They are also completely happy sitting at 50%, unlike AGM or wet cells, so no need to top off, or equalize. Can be air shipped.


golfstrom said...

geez I love you guys. "eat me some cheese" made my day. keep posting, especially high highs and low lows - because this is about pursuing happiness :)

Freedom-Kewl Change said...

As always guys, the pictures are incredible......We have all felt your pain with the battery issue......

Stephanie said...

Our batteries are also on the fritz...must be that time of the year. Enjoying your travels, stay safe and relish in the rainbows!

Patricia Wald said...

It's highly advisable to check your battery from time to time so that you won't experience any problems your your using it.

Richard C. Lambert said...

Since we have a generator on board, this was by no means an urgent matter - or so we thought. We continued on our normal course south, figuring this was nothing more than a minor annoyance, and that we'd replace our battery bank once in Grenada. Our batteries, of course, had other ideas.batteries for remote controls

Peter Floyd said...

Nice post

Jenkins Brandon said...

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Peter Floyd said...

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