Batteries are becoming more prevalent today than ever before. They are commonly used in a variety of equipment, including:
- Computer equipment – mainframes & mini-computers
- Mobile material-handling equipment (e.g. fork-trucks/tow-motors)
- Wireless building equipment (e.g. alarms)
- Personal equipment such as smartphones, tablets, and wearables
With the increase in battery usage in your daily operations, it is important to understand the different types of batteries and recognize the potential hazards associated with each one.
The major types of batteries used in businesses include:
- Lead-acid: There are different variations (flood lead-acid, valve-regulated, etc.), but the primary type used is flood-acid, otherwise known as “wet cell” batteries, commonly used in forklifts or tow motor equipment. This is largely because the price is competitive, the batteries are heavy and provide a weight counterbalance for lifting loads, and they are recyclable. These batteries require regular maintenance, such as adding water and cleaning of terminals. They have a long (typically overnight routine) charging period, thus requiring multiple equipment or batteries. Gel-cell batteries are a more recent technological development of these batteries. A silica additive reduces maintenance and off-gassing of hydrogen, but also introduces a greater hazard of over-charging.
- Nickel Cadmium: These batteries use an alkaline electrolyte (potassium hydroxide). They have advantages over lead-acid, including a longer life-span (five or six times the charging life-cycles as lead-acid), less maintenance, and less off-gassing of hydrogen. The drawbacks are high cost, heavier/larger for comparable current output, and high recycling costs (environmental impact is higher).
- Lithium-ion: This type of battery has more technological advantages over other types, however, they are costly. They are maintenance-free and require no filling. There is no off-gassing, and they have a high recycle value. Their charge depletes faster than lead-acid, however, they take considerably less time to recharge (2-3 hours). They have many times more charging cycles than Nicad or lead-acid batteries.
Looking at each type of battery, they require specific controls to protect your business against battery-related hazards.
- Since lead-acid batteries produce hydrogen gas and other fumes, proper ventilation in the battery charging area is extremely important. A concentrated area with many chargers can elevate the exposure to health and fire. Hydrogen gas is colorless and odorless, but it is lighter than air and disperses quickly.
- Fans/ventilation systems, an appropriate Class I electrical conduit (“explosion-proof”), and hydrogen gas detectors are recommended.
- The battery room should also be segregated from combustibles, open to outside air, or optimally ventilated at 1 CFM per minute.
- Building materials should be non-combustible and an appropriate automatic sprinkler system in place.
- Fire extinguishers should be installed in the area and on equipment in accordance with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), standards NFPA 10 and NFPA 13.
Nickel Cadmium batteries
- Always handle and store/transport cells filled with electrolyte with vents upwards.
- Avoid direct sunlight, high temperatures and high humidity. Store in a cool and dry place.
- Do not connect positive terminal to negative terminal with electrically conductive material.
- Do not store/operate the Nickel Cadmium batteries in the same room where the lead acid batteries are stored/operated.
- Keep away from water.
- Do not use the tools (hydrometer and thermometer, etc.) used for lead acid batteries on Nickel Cadmium batteries.
- Do not store any other material on top of the batteries.
- Batteries should be stored in adequately ventilated areas.
Lithium batteries require a few more precautions than other batteries.
- While they can be stored for short amounts of time in non-climate-controlled warehouses, lower temperatures are most ideal. Temperatures between 55- and 77-degrees Fahrenheit is best for prolonged battery life.
- These batteries should be stored at a charge between 30 and 50 percent.
- Protecting the terminals can help prevent short circuits and fires. You can protect the terminals by making sure they are covered with a non-conductive material. Workers should not have jewelry on when working near exposed terminals.
- It is important to prevent batteries from being crushed or damaged. You can do this by packaging them in a way that insulates them and prevents them from shifting. Review warehouse racking and forklift handling procedures to reduce damage to the units.
- Contact with metal objects can puncture and short circuit a battery terminal.
- There are specific regulations for air shipment. These batteries should be shipped via ground for safety reasons. This includes batteries returned to the supplier.
- Keep the battery dry. Water can damage the packaging and short circuit the terminals.
- Avoid rough handling or dropping the battery. If damaged, workers should be trained to inspect for damage and leaks. Any swollen, dented or otherwise damaged batteries should be disposed of or recycled. Review your spill protection and encapsulation of leaking battery procedures.
- Segregate the storage area. They should be stored away from direct sunlight, heat sources, and water away from other commodities in the warehouse. Batteries should be stacked so that they’re stable and won’t be bumped, knocked over or otherwise damaged. Never stack heavy objects on top of batteries or devices containing batteries. Lithium metal batteries should be isolated from other types of batteries and all batteries should be isolated from flammable or explosive materials.
- Develop unique labels to identify the product and prevent the batteries from being stored in any other areas of the warehouse.
- Update your employee training and spill handing equipment to handle any leaking or damaged units.
- As with all products, please use a warehousing system like FEFO (first expiring, first out) or FIFO (first in, first out) to keep the batteries in your warehouse fresh and moving smoothly.
Here are some additional best-practice controls for all types of batteries and battery-powered mobile equipment:
- Separate equipment by at least 25-40 feet when parked and unattended. Also, be sure all mobile equipment is parked away from heavy wood debris that may easily caught fire. This will help reduce a catastrophic property loss of multiple machines.
- On the equipment, batteries need to be mounted in a protected area with a non-conductive cover.
- On the equipment, install and maintain a fully charged multi-purpose fire extinguisher that is a minimum of 10lbs in size, or if space is a factor, two 5lb extinguishers for each piece of mobile equipment. Appropriate fire extinguishers should be placed within the building in accordance with NFPA 10.
- Regular housekeeping within the engine compartment, hydraulic compartment, and cab area is a must. Cleaning and removing debris daily will help prevent a fire situation. Also, maintaining proper side panels, hood top shields, and other safety shields will protect these internal components and help maintain your housekeeping strategy.
- Install, use, and maintain a manual electrical disconnect (master switch) on each piece of mobile equipment. This safety switch needs to be used during shutdown in times of maintenance and in emergencies.
- Lockout procedures should be followed when performing service, maintenance, and other repair situations. To prevent personnel injury always shut down, ground, and lock all power sources.
With battery usage being commonplace, it is important to keep on top of safe usage and storage practices to help protect your employees and safeguard your business and property.