Maintaining Your Pop Up Camper Battery
The life of your deep cycle battery will be greatly affected by the way you use and maintain it. How the battery is used, how deeply it is discharged, how it is recharged, temperature, and how it is stored are all things that factor into a battery’s life span. I’ve read in many forums that you can expect to get 4-8 years from a deep cycle battery, but when we purchased the battery at Costco, we were told we’d be lucky to get 2 years from our battery. We’re hoping to prove them wrong by following these guidelines:
Charging Your Battery
Remember, we said deep cycle batteries were meant to be deeply discharged and recharged over a long period of time, but sitting for extended periods of time in a partially discharged state is hard on deep cycle batteries. Part of the problem with our battery was that we were deeply discharging it, but we weren’t recharging it fully or in a timely manner. The life cycle of a battery depends heavily on how soon it is recharged. The sooner the better. We were aware that we needed to recharge our battery after our trips, but we thought our camper’s converter/charger was doing that job for us while we were plugged into shore power or driving to our next destination. While it’s true that your camper’s converter will charge your battery, it isn’t the most effective method. Most older campers aren’t equipped with a converter than can properly charge your battery. For proper battery charging and maintenance, you’ll need a 3-stage charger like the one we purchased. It’s a BatteryMINDer 2012, and we were very impressed with how easy it was to charge and check our new battery.
Proper battery charging takes place in three basic stages: bulk, absorption, and float. Bulk charge is the first stage of charging and is when about 80-90% of your battery capacity is replaced. Once that is reached, the absorption stage begins. Here the voltage remains constant, but the current tapers until the battery is about 98% charged. Then we move on to our float charge. After batteries reach full charge, charging voltage is reduced to a lower level to prolong battery life. The main purpose is to keep an already charged battery from discharging, so you’ll often hear this stage referred to as maintenance or trickle charging as well. This stage is important, because if your camper charger isn’t designed to provide a proper float charge and the voltage is too high, it will begin to boil off the battery’s electrolyte level. There are a lot of fantastic websites that go into greater detail on battery charging and care, if you want to read more in depth information. One of my favorite sites is this one.
Don’t assume that just because you bought a new battery, it is topped off and ready to go. When we hooked up our new battery to our BatteryMINDer, I was shocked to see that the charger went straight to the bulk stage. Mr. TypeTwoFun reminded me that we had no idea how long the battery had been sitting on the Costco shelves. After a few hours, though, our battery was topped off and sitting in the float stage. Another great thing about this charger is that it also desulfates the battery. Sulfation is a build up of lead sulfate crystals within the battery and is a major cause of battery failure. All batteries will develop sulfation over time, but they will develop sulfation more rapidly if they are overcharged, undercharged, or left discharged for long periods of time. A desulfating battery charger uses high frequency electronic pulses to dissolve sulfation crystals, and thus extend the life of your battery. If battery life is important to you, I’d suggest looking for a charger with a desulfation mode.
Once you’ve got your battery all charged up, you can either choose to leave it hooked up to your charger in float mode until you are ready to use it, or you can check and charge it periodically (at least once a month) to make sure it is charged and maintained. We chose to leave it hooked up, so it would be ready when we needed it. I just know I’ll forget to check and charge it monthly. Now I just have to remember to put it in the camper before we leave! 😉
Testing Your Battery
Of course, you should visually inspect your battery frequently for corroded terminals or cables, low electrolyte fluid, and damaged cases, but you should also test your battery’s voltage. Even if you keep your battery on the charger when not in use, it is still important to periodically test your battery. It will indicate if there is a problem with your battery–and you don’t want to find that out when you’re boondocking. Trust me on that one!
Before you test your battery, you’ll want to make sure there is no “surface charge” that will cause an inaccurate reading. If you’ve been charging your battery, you’ll want to disconnect the battery from the charger and let it sit for six hours with no load or charger connected. There are other ways to remove the surface charge if you’re pressed for time, but we find that this is the easiest method. If you’d like to know about other methods, you can check out this article. There is lots of great information in there.
There are two ways to test your battery. The first method uses a digital voltmeter, much like the one we installed in our camper. If you have a maintenance-free battery, this is your only testing method. Compare the reading you get on your voltmeter with the chart below to determine the state of charge of your battery.
The best way to check the state of charge of your flooded cell battery is by using a hydrometer to check the specific gravity in each cell. A hydrometer can be purchased fairly inexpensively at any auto parts store or online through Amazon. This is a great way to tell if you have a dead or weak cell in your battery. If there is a .050 or more difference in the specific gravity reading between the highest and lowest cell, you have a weak or dead cell(s).
Care and Storage of Your Battery
If you purchased a flooded cell lead acid battery, like we did, it requires a little maintenance. You’ve got to keep an eye on the electrolyte levels of your battery and keep the levels above the plates inside the battery at all times. Electrolyte is lost whenever the batteries are deeply discharged or recharged. Once a month you should check the electrolyte levels of your battery–and more frequently during the hot summer months. To replenish the battery electrolyte, simply add distilled water as necessary. Don’t overfill. The electrolyte simply needs to cover the plates. Never add acid or tap water, as the chemicals in tap water can kill your battery early.
Caution: Batteries contain sulfuric acid, which is highly corrosive. Make sure you wear the appropriate protective gear and goggles when checking the electrolyte levels and testing the specific gravity of your battery cells. In case of a spill, immediately flush the area with plenty of cold water to dilute the acid.
Batteries that sit in your camper for extended periods without use will self-discharge over time. You have things like your CO2 monitor that are always on and will drain the battery slowly over time as well. Deep discharges reduce the life of your battery, and a partially charged battery is also prone to freezing in extremely cold temperatures. Freezing will kill a flooded cell battery. It’s a good idea to store your battery in a warmer area, like the garage, during those winter months. Remember to stay on top of charging and maintenance, and your battery will be ready to go come springtime.
I think that about covers the basics. There is so much more information to learn about batteries and maintenance, but if you want to hear it from the professionals, I highly recommend these websites. They were instrumental in helping us figure out just what we’d done wrong. Did you already know all the ins and outs of battery maintenance? Have any helpful tips or tricks to add? Sound off in the comments below! I’d love to hear from you! 😀
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