Golf Cart Batteries
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Golf Cart Battery Explodes

Yet another golf cart battery exploded here in The Villages last week. Luckily, the owner was not injured but her house was... it caught fire. But, only the carport was damaged. This time the news reached Orlando news centers and it was on TV. (I think it was a carport, or it could have been the garage after the explosion and fire.) Seems like a good time to review the following information so none of us have a similar occurrence.

     Golf Cart by Chula Vista Recreation Center
     Causes of Battery Explosions
     Battery Types
     Prolonging Battery Life
     Maintaining Your Cart's Electrical System
     If Batteries Aren't Taking a Full Charge
     Can I replace just the bad batteries?
     Storage Over Extended Periods of Time

Golf Cart by Chula Vista Recreation Center

Thanks to Cindy & Mike Vrooman for passing this along.

This was an electric golf cart prior to blowing up from a battery explosion outside one of our recreation centers. No one was hurt and no other carts were parked next to it.

Seeing this, I wondered what would cause a battery to explode, so I Googled it. Hope you find the following useful.

Causes of Battery Explosions

Much of the following information is from Bill Darden, an expert in batteries, as well as other sources I Googled.

The average electric cart is powered by lead acid batteries (called flooded cell or wet cell batteries) which are positioned under the seat. Flooded/wet cell batteries give off hydrogen and oxygen gasses while charging and discharging, and even while standing idle. If the hydrogen accumulates in a battery compartment, or in a room or a depression at the ceiling, it can explode if ignited by a spark, flame or an arcing contact. That is why recharging needs to occur in well ventilated areas. As little as 4% hydrogen gas in the air is considered explosive.

To fully charge any storage battery, a certain amount of overcharge is necessary. This overcharging equalizes the power in the cells of the battery. As each cell reaches 80% of capacity, it dissipates the surplus energy by boiling. This causes the water in the electrolyte to separate into hydrogen and oxygen gases, which vent from the battery and reduce the electrolyte level. Distilled water must be added to make up the loss or the battery could be ruined. The danger is that many require adding distilled water constantly to keep the leaded plates submerged in the battery's sulfuric electrolyte. Many owners don't realize the batteries need this constant attention, and it isn't uncommon to fold back the seat of the cart and find all 6 batteries and all cells desperately in need of fluid. When batteries run dry, they can smoke and even explode.

The most probable cause of internal battery explosions is from a combination of electrolyte levels below the plates, and a low resistance bridge that is formed between or across the top of the plates, and a build up of hydrogen gas in the cell. The low resistive bridge or "treeing" occurs between the positive and negative plates. When current flows in the battery, residual gas is ignited in one or more of the cells. An overheated lead-acid battery can actually explode. It is essential to check your golf cart batteries on a regular basis.

  • While spark-retarding vent caps help prevent battery explosions, explosions can occur when jumping, connecting or disconnecting charger or battery cables, and starting the motor. If the vent cap was clogged or a defective valve did not release the gas, internal temperature can reach 300º F for each percent of hydrogen accumulated. An overheated lead-acid battery can actually explode. The largest number of battery explosions while starting a motor occurs in hot climates.
  • Hydrocaps can be used to prevent a hydrogen gas explosion and reduce maintenance. The chemicals inside Hydrocaps catalytically recombine the hydrogen and oxygen gases into pure water and return it to the cell during the charging process. This reduces watering and washes the electrolyte spray back into the battery extending its useful power. Not only do they eliminate the danger of a hydrogen gas explosion, they also stop corrosion because the acid spray and fumes are contained. However, different batteries have different cap sizes and styles, so Hydrocaps must be fitted for a particular battery.

Another possible cause is a manufacturing defect in the weld of one of the plate-connecting straps causing a spark, but this is not common.

Replacing just bad batteries can also cause a meltdown of battery connections, cables, even exploding a battery.

Battery Types

All lead-acid batteries require some preventive maintenance, some types more than others.

  • Flooded Cell batteries (sometimes called Wet Cell batteries) are the most common lead-acid battery type. The plastic container has one or more cells molded into it, each cell has a grid of lead plates, along with an electrolyte based on sulphuric acid. Since the grid is only supported at the edges, flooded lead-acid batteries are mechanically the weakest batteries. Since the container is not sealed, you must be very careful that you not come in contact with the electrolyte or you'll get burns. They should be charged every time you use the cart or at the end of the day.
  • Absorbed Glass Mat (AGM) batteries use a fiberglass-like separator to hold the electrolyte in place. The physical bond between the separator fibers, the lead plates, and the container make AGMs spill-proof and the most vibration and impact resistant lead-acid batteries. Also, AGMs use almost the same voltage set-points as flooded cells, so they can be used as drop-in replacements for flooded cells. However, since they are sealed, controlling the rate of charge is very important. The higher charge efficiency allows you to recharge faster with less energy. Flooded/wet cells convert 15—20% of the electrical energy into heat instead of potential power... AGMs as little as 4% is converted to heat.
  • Deep-cycle batteries are lead-acid batteries that are designed to be regularly deeply discharged using most of its capacity, discharging between 50% and 80% of its capacity, depending on the manufacturer and the construction of the battery. Although these batteries can be cycled down to a 20% charge, the best lifespan vs. cost method is to keep the average cycle at about 50% discharge. There is a direct correlation between the depth of discharge of the battery, and the number of charge and discharge cycles it can perform. Deep cycle battery plates have thicker active plates, with higher-density active paste material and thicker separators. The thicker battery plates resist corrosion. They should be charged at least once a week.
  • Gel Cell batteries use a thickening agent like fumed silica to immobilize the electrolyte, so if the battery container cracks, the cell will continue to function. The thickening agent also prevents movement of electrolyte. Gel cells are sealed and cannot be re-filled with electrolyte, controlling the rate of charge is very important or the battery will be ruined in short order. Furthermore, gel cells use slightly lower charging voltages than flooded cells so the set-points for charging equipment have to be adjusted.

The term Maintenance Free generally refers to wet, sealed lead-acid (AGM) and deep-cycle batteries with calcium added to the positive and negative plates. In hot climates, the water is lost due to evaporation caused by high temperatures and normal charging. Water can also be lost due to excessive charging voltage or charging currents. Using non-sealed wet Low Maintenance (Sb/Ca) batteries (with filler caps) is encouraged in hot climates so distilled water can be added when this occurs.

Make sure you only use a charger designed for your cart or a charging system that adapts to battery types. Some battery chargers are designed to work with multiple brands and types of batteries. Check the list of compatible batteries before charging your golf cart with one of these chargers or buying a new charger.

Prolonging Battery Life

The strength of your golf cart is determined by its batteries — the stronger the batteries, the more power your golf cart will have.  A strict maintenance regimen and proper battery usage is the only way to maximize battery life. Be sure to develop and stick to a regular maintenance program. You can dramatically shorten the life of your batteries without proper care and maintenance, especially flooded/wet cell batteries.

One key aspect of proper usage is the cycling — a cycle is one complete discharge and recharge of your cart's bank of batteries. You do not want to drain your batteries beyond 20—30% of their overall capacity before charging; for one thing, today’s smart chargers require a nominal voltage of around 20—30% before they’ll kick on. Going below 20—30% before charging can damage your batteries.

Charging the batteries every time you use the cart, no matter how much or little it is used, actually does more harm than good as compared to cycling the batteries until they are nearly drained. This is because lead dioxide can build up on the positive plates in clumps rather than in an even film at very short cycles. Try to stick to 50% usage (about 4 hours of use) to avoid over-charging, short cycling, and causing low-voltage damage. Let your cart's battery charge meter be your guide as to when to charge the batteries. Hitting the 30% mark on occasion, or charging when you’ve only cycled 10% because you need the capacity for tomorrow, isn’t necessarily a big deal, but try to avoid it if you can.

To lengthen the lifespan of batteries, make sure your batteries are fully charged, then check the water level in each battery cell, especially older batteries, refilling with pure distilled water as necessary. If you fill the battery cells before charging the batteries, the heat generated by charging can cause the acid mixture to expand and overflow. Fill only to the plate level; water levels that are too high cause the acid mixture to overflow and corrode surrounding parts.

Depending upon the battery type or manufacturer, check the battery water levels at least once a month to ensure that the leaded plates in the battery are submerged in liquid. Here in Florida, especially during a hot spell (relatively speaking) where evaporation is high, you may need to check the water level twice a month or even once a week. Add just enough water to cover the plates. Only fill when your cart has been fully charged, when needed, and do not over fill. If levels are low or empty, the battery plates will dry out and batteries will no longer take a full charge.

Maintaining Your Cart's Electrical System

Battery maintenance is critical and an overheated lead-acid battery can actually explode. It is essential to check your golf cart batteries on a regular basis.

  • Work in a well-ventilated area, and do not smoke in the vicinity or use solvents or spray cleaners.
  • Inspect the batteries for leaks, cracks in the container and other damage, The smell of rotten eggs is a sign of leakage. Charging a leaking battery can be very dangerous.
  • Inspect and clean all battery cables, clamps and posts. Remove jewelry before working with the batteries.
    • There shouldn't be any corrosive phosphorus buildup growing around the terminals. Corrosion buildup makes it harder for the cart to connect strongly with the batteries and may eventually keep the cart from starting. Make sure the cart is turned off. Remove the battery clamps, and clean them and the insides of the clamps with a baking soda solution (1 tablespoon of baking soda with 1 cup of water) using a brush (an old toothbrush will do). Rinse away any residue and dry with a clean cloth.
    • While the clamps are off, clean the top of the battery and posts with the baking soda and water solution. Don't allow foreign matter to get inside the battery. Keep the area around the battery clean and dry.
    • Replace any frayed or broken cables.
    • Reconnect the cables and clamps.
    • Coat terminals with a thin layer of petroleum jelly or battery terminal anti-corrosion gel.
  • Plug the batteries into the charger and fully charge the batteries, making sure the charger's amp gauge needle switches on; the gauge will register 0 when batteries are fully charged. An 80% percent recharge can be done in 2 hours, but the last 20% can take 6 or more hours. If your device has a manual timer, charge the cart for two to three times longer than you drove it. For an automatic device, charge overnight for best results. If an automatic charger won't turn off, one of the batteries may not be able to hold a charge any more.
  • When not in use, leave the vehicle in neutral, remove the key from the ignition, and engage the parking brake.

If Batteries Aren't Taking a Full Charge

There are two reasons this may be happening:

  • If battery levels are low or empty, the battery plates dry out and the batteries will no longer take a full charge.

    Especially in hot climates, keep a close eye on the water level, especially in older batteries, and NEVER let it get below the plates. Also a dirty, acid-covered battery will self discharge at a faster rate than a clean one. The heat of a Florida summer can cause a battery to self-discharge in as few as 30 days, and a discharged battery will sulfate (hard lead sulfate crystals clog the tiny sponge-like cavities of the battery plates). The longer the state of discharge lasts, the more this hard-to-dissolve crystalline material builds up, resulting in less battery capacity. It is a harmful, and costly, condition if left untended. Adequate charging avoids this situation.

    If golf cart batteries are not taking a full charge, it's time to replace all of them. Replacing one battery in a set with a brand new one may not be the best idea.
    • Is it time to replace the whole set?
    • What is the code date stamped into the terminals of each battery? Ideally, your cart's battery bank would have identical batteries manufactured on the same day.
  • It may be the charger. It needs to put out enough voltage to put out sufficient charging current over a long enough period of time to charge the battery pack.
    • If you've got an automatic timing circuit in your charger, is it shutting off too soon?
    • If you've got a manual timer, did you set it for long enough?

    You can handle troubleshooting the unit up to this point.

If you don't know anyone at a golf cart service shop or you don't have the number of a mobile service guy, start shopping for one now. Many will work with you to assist you in arriving at a correct diagnosis for a problem, or can help you get replacement batteries or other parts for your cart. When it comes to used parts, those who are "in the business" are the best source.

Can I replace just the bad batteries?

You can, but manufacturers don't recommend it. As a result of charging and discharging, the older battery's ability to hold a solid charge is not there. The charger treats the pack as one system and it may boil the new battery while it tries to bring the others up to full charge, which can eventually ruin the new battery.

Putting a new battery in a golf cart leads to a meltdown of battery connections, cables, and even exploding a battery. The system is only as strong as its weakest battery. The current traveling through the cables and batteries will find the weakest spot and meltdowns occur because it gets hot in that area. The new battery that was installed will become the same as the old batteries due to the heavy draw from the old batteries. Old batteries do not become refreshed by putting new batteries in the cart. The old batteries will draw off the new batteries until they become equal with the old, its that simple.

The life expectancy of golf cart batteries is generally 5 years. Some brands claim that their batteries can last up to 7 years, but 5 years or less seems to be the norm for all batteries, especially on golf courses and in golf cart communities where the batteries are run through the gauntlet of charge and discharge cycles.

Storage Over Extended Periods of Time

Depending on the type of battery and temperature, batteries have a natural internal self-discharge (electrochemical "leakage") at a rate of 1% to 60% per month. Over time the battery will become sulfated and fully discharged and higher temperatures will significantly accelerate the self-discharge process. A battery stored at 95° F will self-discharge twice as fast than one stored at 75° F.  Also, a dirty acid-covered battery will self-discharge at a faster rate than a clean one.

  1. Clean the batteries. Make sure all the cell caps are fastened tightly, then unplug the charger and clean the battery area. Spray battery neutralizer (baking soda and water) on the top and between the batteries. Also clean the inside walls of the body panels. Use a paint or old toothbrush to clean and scrub smaller areas of the battery compartment.
  2. Make sure all the cable connections are tight and secure. Carefully wiggle the cables back and forth; they should not be too close. If there is any corrosion, clean it off.
  3. Check the water levels in all the battery cells. Use distilled water to fill the cells past the plates.
  4. Charge the batteries, but do not overcharge them. Don't leave cart plugged into the charger for extended periods of time. Once the charge is finished, unplug the charger from the wall and from the cart.

    If you have a friend who can look after your cart for you, ask them to plug the charger in for a few hours once a month so the cart maintains a full charge. The charger should be unplugged from the car and the wall after charging.

    Note: If you have a Battery Life Saver, it must be disconnected when the cart won't be used for awhile. If it is not disconnected, it will discharge the batteries.
  5. If you have a ‘ReGen’ model electric (1995 and newer), be sure to turn the switch under the seat from the RUN position to the Tow or Tow/Maintenance position. If left in RUN mode, the controller capacitors stay energized by drawing off the limited battery juice. This can run the battery voltage below the critical charger 'cut-on' voltage, which can lead to excessive lead sulfate buildup on the plates and diminish battery capacity.
  6. Leave the cart in Neutral and turn the key off.
  7. Secure the wheels to prevent the cart from rolling so you can leave the hill brake released. This prevents strain on the cables and the brake shoes can't lock to the drums.
  8. Check the tire pressures and inflate to 20—25 psi, then roll down the rain curtains and zip them part way down.

Viola, you're good to go.

When you return,

  • If the batteries are fully charged, you can run the cart. 
  • If not, put the car on charge and allow the charger to run its full course. It will take 10 or so charge/discharge cycles to bring the batteries up to full capacity after a long layover.

If you have a ‘ReGen’ model electric (1995 and newer), be sure to turn the switch under the seat from Tow or Tow/Maintenance back to the RUN position. This electrically reactivates the cart for use after storage. If left in Tow or Tow Maintenance mode, the electronic speed controller stays dormant and won't permit the car to move.

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