Battery Technology for Data Centers and Network Rooms: Lead-Acid Battery

Battery Technology for Data Centers and Network Rooms: Lead-Acid Battery
Battery Technology for
Data Centers and
Network Rooms:
Lead-Acid Battery
Options
By Stephen McCluer
White Paper #30
Revision 11
Executive Summary
The lead-acid battery is the predominant choice for Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS)
energy storage. Over 10 million UPSs are presently installed utilizing Flooded, Valve
Regulated Lead Acid (VRLA), and Modular Battery Cartridge (MBC) systems. This paper
discusses the advantages and disadvantages of these three lead-acid battery technologies.
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Introduction
Energy storage technologies in data centers play an important role in maintaining system uptime. Should
utility power fail, the first line of defense is usually batteries that are incorporated as part of an
Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) system. Although alternative energy storage technologies such as fuel
cells, flywheels, lithium ion, and nickel cadmium batteries are being explored (see APC White Paper #65,
“Comparing Data Center Batteries, Flywheels, and Ultracapacitors” for more details) data center and
network room UPS systems almost exclusively utilize lead-acid batteries. This paper reviews and
compares the three major lead-acid battery technologies available today.
Lead-acid Battery Technologies
Vented (flooded or wet cell) - The oldest of the technologies is the flooded (or vented) cell.
Commonly
used in automotive and marine applications, this technology is predominantly used in UPS applications
above 500 kW. An example of a flooded battery is shown in Figure 1. Characteristics of the vented battery
include the following:
• Non-sealed system for serviceability
• Continuously vents hydrogen and oxygen
• Requires periodic water replenishment
• Electrolyte stored in liquid form
• Usually too heavy to be lifted manually
• Transparent container allows inspection
of plates and electrolyte level
• Operate at high currents
• Connected by large bolted terminals
• Stored in open frames or large cabinets
• Requires spill containment and
Figure 1 – Flooded (Vented) Battery
hydrogen detection
• Typically 15-20 year life
• Usually considered part of the facility
Valve Regulated (VRLA) - VRLA batteries have been utilized for approximately 20 years.
This
technology offers a higher power density and lower capital costs than traditional vented cell solutions.
VRLA batteries are typically deployed within power systems rated below 500kVA. An example of VRLA
batteries is shown in Figures 2 and 3. Characteristics of VRLA batteries include the following:
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•
Sealed system for electrolyte (“non-spillable”)
•
Hydrogen and oxygen recombine internally
•
Opaque container
•
Electrolyte is immobilized (absorbed glass mat or gel)
•
“Starved electrolyte” makes it weigh much less than vented cells
•
Operate at high currents
•
6 and 12-volt “Monobloc” for small & medium UPS
•
2-volt steel-clad modules for large DC systems
•
Connected by bolted terminals or quick-connects
•
Stored in open frames or large cabinets
•
Pressure relief valves open under fault conditions
•
Typically 3-10 year life
•
Usually considered part of the electronic equipment
Figure 2 – Modular
VRLA Front-connected
Figure 3 – “Monobloc” VRLA with top
posts
Modular Battery Cartridges (MBC) - MBC battery technology was introduced several years ago.
This
solution utilizes modular, multi-cell VRLA cartridges arranged in a parallel-series architecture that allows for
easy installation and replacement. An example of a modular battery cartridge is shown in Figure 4.
Characteristics of MBC batteries include the following:
•
Sealed system
•
Electrolyte immobilized in absorbent glass mats
•
Contains thin lead plates for high-rate discharge
•
Typically used in multi-string (redundant)
applications
•
Enclosed modular cartridge
•
Easily attached to a common DC bus
•
Plugged into pre-manufactured battery cabinets
•
Contains temperature and monitoring sensors
Figure 4 – Modular Battery Cartridge
(MBC)
Attributes
Each battery technology presents a unique set of features. The following section will compare each battery
type by installation requirements, life expectancy, and typical failure modes.
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Installation
Installation requirements differ significantly between the technologies.
Vented cell systems (also known as “flooded cell” or “wet cell” systems) require a substantial investment
upon installation due to safety code requirements. See APC White Paper #31, “Battery Technology for
Data Centers and Network Rooms: Safety Codes” for more information. Vented cells are usually housed in
open frame racks and are shipped fully charged, but can be transported dry, partially filled, or fully filled with
electrolyte. Flooded batteries require on-site battery rack assembly, battery installation and commissioning
by authorized and qualified personnel. Because they continuously vent gases, flooded batteries must be
installed in controlled-access areas such as specially ventilated battery rooms with spill containment.
Flooded battery systems are usually considered part of the building’s fixed power infrastructure. Flooded
batteries require periodic inspection of electrolyte and plates. Maintenance often includes measurement
and recording of electrolyte specific gravity and replenishment of water when required.
Conversely, VRLA and MBC solutions are sealed systems and therefore do not require special
maintenance. VRLAs typically ship connected in series within a cabinet, or they may require installation
and connection at the site. MBCs are usually shipped uninstalled. However, the MBCs are easily installed
and do not require installation by authorized technicians. The modular cartridge simply slides into premanufactured cabinets and connects via a floating connector to a common DC bus. These differences are
summarized in Table 1.
Table 1 – Installation requirements as a function of battery technology
Flooded
VRLA
MBC
Site specific battery rack / frame design
Yes
Varies
No
Mechanical assembly required at site
Yes
Varies
No
Site specific engineering required
Yes
Varies
No
Field wiring (electrical connections)
Yes
Varies
No
Hazardous material per DOT regulations
Yes
No
No
Acid filling required
Yes
No
No
Potential shock hazard when handled
Yes
Yes
No
Life expectancy
Life expectancy varies with battery type. Flooded cell systems traditionally enjoy long lifetimes provided
that they are regularly maintained and serviced. VRLAs and MBCs are sealed systems that do not require
or even permit the maintenance needed on flooded batteries. As a result, the lifetime of these battery types
is significantly shorter than flooded cell systems. Table 2 shows the battery lifetime expectations.
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or stored in any retrieval system of any nature, without the written permission of the copyright owner. www.apc.com
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Table 2 – Life expectancy
VRLA
Large
Flooded
VRLA
Medium
VRLA
Small
MBC
Design life
20 Years
20
7-10 Years
5 Years
7-10 Years
Expected lifetime
15 Years
7-13 Years
5 Years
3 Years
3-5 Years
Failure modes
The different battery types vary with respect to their failure modes and mechanisms. Failure modes vary
with respect to their predictability, Mean-Time-to-Recover (MTTR), and consequence on the critical load
protected. Table 3 indicates the distribution of failure modes by battery type. Please see APC White Paper
#39, “Battery Technology for Data Centers and Network Rooms: VRLA Reliability and Safety”. Note: The
values in Table 3 are for primary failure mode. Dry out is often a secondary effect of other failure modes
Table 3 – Failure modes
Flooded
VRLA
MBC
Grid corrosion
86%
59%
59%
Cell short
10%
< 1%
< 1%
Leakage
1%
2%
1%
Block interconnect open
3%
3%
1%
Cell interconnect open
<1%
1%
2%
Dry out*
<1%
33%
36%
Interconnect overheat
<1%
<1%
<1%
Thermal runaway
<1%
1%
1%
Cell reversal
<1%
1%
<1%
Failure mode (primary)
Shorted
Open
Open
*Dry-out is often a secondary result of other failure modes. The values in Table 3 are for the
primary failure mode. The values in this table are approximate.
Grid corrosion / cell short
Although VRLA batteries and MBC can experience grid corrosion, VRLAs frequently fail due to dry out prior
to the grid corrosion failure. Vented cell systems also experience corrosion on the positive gird. Grid
growth causes loss in mechanical strength and eventually leads to loss of contact with the grid. This is why
visual inspection of a flooded cell battery is required. The internal resistance increases and the capacity
decreases. A common mode of failure in vented batteries is a shorted cell because the dross material
collecting in the bottom of the container eventually creates a short between the plates. This failure mode
reduces capacity of the cell, but the string can still provide energy to the UPS.
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Electrolyte leakage
The leakage failure mode is different between the battery technologies. In vented batteries, “wicking” of
electrolyte at the terminal posts typically leads to corrosion of connections and hardware. The leakage is a
result of a crack or hole causing liquid electrolyte to escape. Ironically, a common cause of electrolyte loss
on vented batteries is dripped liquid during specific gravity inspections, as part of routine maintenance. The
primary hazard is that areas wet with battery leakage constitute conductive paths to ground that can pose a
very serious risk of ground fault. The biggest concern for vented batteries is that the battery could
somehow tip and spill its liquid contents during maintenance or natural disaster. That is why containment
systems are required around vented battery racks.
VRLA batteries, by contrast, contain significantly lower volumes of electrolyte and the electrolyte is
immobilized. Ordinarily, electrolyte is captive inside the container. In the event of a crack or rupture, the
primary consequence of leakage is non-hazardous premature dry-out of the battery. If wicking occurs
through a post seal or a failed VRLA jar seal, the risk of electrical shock is the same as for vented batteries.
Dry-out
Over time, VRLA and MBC systems will lose water and dry out (82% - 85% of the failures exhibit signs of
dry-out). In normal operation at “room temperature” the typical failure mode for a VRLA or MBC system is
negative strap corrosion, and the loss of electrolyte will be gradual. In high temperatures and / or high
voltage charging, dry-out is accelerated. This leads to loss of capacity and eventually the cell will fail open.
If the cell is arranged in a series configuration, this will prevent energy from being delivered to the UPS.
Because of this failure mode, it is recommended VRLAs be deployed in parallel redundant strings. By
design, MBC are arranged in a series-parallel arrangement thereby always providing energy to the UPS in
the event of a cell failure. Dry-out is only a concern for vented batteries in the absence of proper
maintenance. Plates must be kept immersed in electrolyte. A drop in liquid level that exposes the tops of
the plates can result in rapid failure of the cell.
Interconnect
Most interconnect failures result in an abrupt open circuit condition and are not hazardous. However, a
small fraction of interconnect failures are stable high resistance conditions. In flooded and VRLA battery
systems, interconnects operate at very high currents during discharge and a high resistance
interconnection can result in serious overheating or fire. Battery systems with current and temperature
monitoring can detect and / or prevent this type of failure mode before it becomes critical. MBC systems
with parallel strings typically operate at much lower currents and consequently do not have the same
dependence on low resistance connections.
Thermal runaway
Vented batteries rarely experience thermal runaway because convection currents in the liquid electrolyte
stop the process. The primary hazard of thermal runaway with VRLA and MBC systems is the emission of
hydrogen (a flammable gas) and hydrogen-sulfide gas (an irritant). It is possible for these batteries to enter
a state in which heat is generated faster than it can be dissipated during charging. The increasing battery
temperature results in more current being drawn from the charger, which in turn further raises the battery
temperature. The cycle continues until build-up of internal battery pressure causes the vents to open.
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According to the Concorde Battery Technical Information Library, “The battery will reach a moderate
internal temperature (approximately 260 °F / 126 °C) at which point the water in the electrolyte vaporizes
and the battery vents steam. As the separator is glass, it is unaffected by this temperature. The loss of
water caused by the venting reduces the conductivity between the battery plates and the battery ceases to
accept further charge. The battery slowly cools.”
1
When implementing VRLA or MBC solutions, best
practice calls for temperature compensated voltage charging as well as current-limited charging protection.
Cell reversal
Cell reversal is associated with large series strings of batteries and is primarily restricted to VRLA batteries.
This occurs only during battery discharge and when the following two conditions are true:
•
One cell in a series string has a much lower capacity than the other cells in the string (possibly
due to battery degradation or manufacturing defect)
•
The remaining good cells drive the lower capacity cell into a reverse condition. The overall
voltage of the string is sufficiently maintained despite the reversal of the subject cell, such that
the load continues to draw current from the string.
Cell reversal rarely occurs on UPS systems with a battery bus voltage below 100V, or on systems with
parallel battery strings. Under the combination of the two conditions listed above, the reversed cell can be
subject to power dissipation of up to 5% of the entire battery power capacity, which can cause catastrophic
failure.
Fortunately, the risk of cell reversal can be eliminated in the system design by use of:
•
Parallel strings of batteries
•
Reduced UPS DC bus voltage
•
Monitoring and control of voltage charging within the battery string
Paralleling of battery strings nearly eliminates the second condition because when the voltage attempts to
reverse on the subject cell the current diverts to an adjacent battery string. MBC systems utilize parallel
strings and rarely experience this failure mode.
Conclusion
Vented (flooded or wet cell) batteries have a very long life but present significant complexity of installation
and maintenance, the most significant being the need to build a separate battery room. These limitations
have historically restricted the application of vented cells to very high power installations.
The VRLA battery was developed in response to the limitations of the wet-cell battery, and provides
significant benefits in the area of installation costs, maintenance costs, energy density and safety.
However, VRLA reliability can be compromised through improper installation and / or misapplication.
Although the battery life of the MBC is shorter than that of vented cells, the benefits of this technology, even
1
http://www.concordebattery.com/products/techinical_info/thermal_runaway.htm , 09/2001
©2005-2008 American Power Conversion. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be used, reproduced, photocopied, transmitted,
or stored in any retrieval system of any nature, without the written permission of the copyright owner. www.apc.com
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with a shorter battery life, present a compelling value proposition for today’s data centers and network
rooms, especially in systems smaller than 500kW.
All of the hazardous failure modes can be controlled by appropriate system design. Parallel string designs,
ventilation, overcharge protection, temperature compensated charging, and battery monitoring are the
principal techniques utilized to eliminate battery failure hazards.
About the Author
Stephen McCluer is a Senior Manager for external codes and standards at APC by Schneider Electric Critical Power and Cooling Services Division. He has 25 years of experience in the power protection
industry, and is a member of the IEEE Stationary Battery Committee where he chairs three working groups.
He also is on three NFPA standards technical committees, and is a contributing member of ICC, IAEI,
ASHRAE, BICSI and the Green Grid. He is a frequent speaker at industry conferences, and has authored
technical paper and articles on power quality and batteries.
©2005-2008 American Power Conversion. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be used, reproduced, photocopied, transmitted,
or stored in any retrieval system of any nature, without the written permission of the copyright owner. www.apc.com
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