Upgrading to Lithium Batteries: Part 1

Why we’re doing it and why we selected the Lion Energy Safari UT1300

 

Disclaimers: This is not an endorsement. We purchased everything at a price available to anyone. Also, we are not battery or electrical experts. This is purely documentation of what we did, the decisions we made, and the results we saw (part 2). Please do your own research and make decisions based on your own requirements, conditions, and comfort level.

The Story

We decided to upgrade the AGM batteries in our VanDOit campervan. The batteries are only two seasons old, so you might ask - "Why?".

Well, on a camping outing last fall in overcast and snowy conditions, we couldn't seem to keep sufficient charge in the batteries. Five or six times during the day, we noticed our charge level in the low 60% range and had to start the van engine to allow the engine alternator to recharge the AGM batteries. Each time the batteries got low, we'd run the engine for 15 minutes and ended up with a 90% charge - at least for a little while.  It didn't seem like we were being energy hogs. Our hot water heater was turned off. We were only operating our small Dometic refrigerator (paid link), running a small USB fan (paid link), charging our electrical devices, using our ceiling LED lights at 50% brightness, running our Espar heater, and hoping to use an Instant Pot (paid link) for cooking dinner. It wasn't super cold and the Espar only ran occasionally. At bed time we ran the engine again to get back to a 90% charge and by morning it would be in the low 60% range again. Hot water for breakfast and coffee had to wait until we ran the engine for about 15 minutes. Last year we operated the same with the exception of the Espar heater and we don't recall having to monitor the power level so closely. We wonder if at some point, we unknowingly drained our AGM batteries below the recommended 50% charge level and caused them to deteriorate faster than expected. Should our current batteries actually be operating at specs and the quicker than expected depletion is the result of running the Espar heater (its fan and fuel pump run on 12V), then it's still an issue to not have enough storage as we want the heater on when it's cold. That's what it's there for, right?.

Anyway - that's the state we are in and we wish to see if we can improve upon the length of usage between chargings. Hence, this led to our decision to swap our three 100 Amp hour Interstate AGM batteries out for three similar amperage lithium batteries. In theory this should double our storage capacity as lead acid and AGM batteries should not be discharged below 50% charge to prevent damaging the battery. Lithium can be taken to a 0% discharge without damaging the battery. For us that means we currently have a total of 150 Amp/hrs (3 batteries x 100 Ah x 50%) and at the end of the project we should end up with 300 Amp/hrs of effective use. In theory, that's twice the power available to us in the same physical space. What follows describes how we came to choose one lithium battery option from a list of possible manufacturers, makes, and models.

Battery Research

Our research started off by compiling a spreadsheet of batteries available from various manufacturers. We looked at 100Ah batteries with integrated Battery Management System (BMS) from Renogy, Lion Energy, Battle Born, Victron, and Dakota. As many key specifications as thought to be important were captured for each battery so that comparisons were possible and a selection could be well informed. Our spreadsheet is available at this link.

Our electrical cabinet with the batteries at the bottom

We anticipated paying up to $1000 per battery at the start of this process. Though if all things were equal, our primary metric for selection was going to be the form factor and the ability for a new battery bank that would most easily fit the space of the current one. Our battery cabinet could accommodate taller batteries with no or little modification to raise the shelf above. Wider batteries would mean cutting and moving a piece of t-track that acts as a side bracket to keep the batteries from sliding side to side. Longer batteries would mean not only moving t-track (which in this case is likely a cabinet structural issue), but also other electrical components such as the inverter behind the batteries would need to be removed and relocated. And in keeping with the plug-n-play theme, we wished to avoid replacing any of our existing GoPower solar/charger/inverter equipment.  

Therefore, no or minimal rework of the battery storage area would be our primary factor in a purchase decision. From our five options, the Lion Energy Safari UT1300 battery appeared to be the only one that would require no storage area modifications for them to fit the space. It also turned out to be on sale for a limited time at Costco for $1400 for two batteries ($700 per battery). 

The Review Process

Having decided to pursue Lion's battery further, we started exploring several Safari UT1300 battery reviews by Love Your RV, Big Truck Big RV, fullmoonadventureclub, and DIY Solar Power with Will Prowse. All four of them stated that the UT1300 performs very well. While that's true and the RV people all loved them, Will Prowse gave a somewhat mixed, love-hate, review.  

Some Review Concerns

There are a few items that could cause pause before jumping in with the Safari UT1300. Some of these were raised by people in the VanDOit Owners Facebook group and some were raised by Will Prowse. Let’s list these out and talk about them.

  • Warranty: The Lion warranty is the only one that is not quantified in terms of years of validity. Lion states theirs as a Limited Lifetime of 3500+ charge cycles. To us this looks very comparable or better than the number of charge cycle the other manufactures list for their batteries.  
  • Charging Temperature: In comparison to the other batteries, the maximum charging temperature is 113 degrees F. This is about 20 degrees lower than typical. While the battery may not charge above 113, it is still usable for discharge up to 131 degrees. If it got over 113 degrees in our van, more than likely our van was sitting in the sun. In which case, the batteries were probably charging via solar up to that point. If we anticipate heat, we would normally leave the van vented with a roof fan on and put some window shades in. That's a typical practice for us. We didn't see this spec to be a concern for our situation, though it is something to keep an eye on.
  • Case Sturdiness: Will Prowse talked about how the case sounded cheap (by knocking on it) in comparison to Battle Born and questioned if things would hold up under vibrations like an RV. Given the multi-year, real world usage of three other RV people, we think the case construction will be sufficient.
  • Case Construction: On a similar vein to the above, Will mentioned that the Lion case could be easily disassembled and is not fully sealed.  His main concern is that the case is not weather tight. Our installation is inside an enclosed cabinet inside a vehicle and will not be subject to rain or other water spray.
  • Reset Buttons: It looks like the Lion battery is the only one (that we noticed) with reset buttons on the battery. This is good in a way since if the battery (BMS) did need to be reset, it's possible to do. However, our battery cabinet doesn't allow for easy access to the battery so that we could use the buttons. So while the form factor fits the space requirements, a front access door on the battery compartment might be worth looking into.
  • Terminal Sizing: Probably the more concerning of Will's issue list is that to him the Lion battery terminals are small/undersized in comparison to other brands and may not hold up to high current. This point took some thought but after some research it turned out that the terminal sizes of the Lion were exactly the same size as the Interstate AGM batteries we have used for two seasons. The current draw on the Lion batteries would be no larger than our AGM batteries, so we don’t think this is an issue in our installation. (And by the way - the tall terminal stud shown on the battery does not have to be used.  You can remove it and bolt directly to the top of the battery).
  • Lithium Technology: While Lion uses the same, safe, LiFePO4 (Lithium Iron Phosphate) chemistry as all the other batteries we considered, it does use a different "packaging" of that chemistry. Most batteries are a collection of cylindrical cells reminiscent of a AA battery, but Lion's product uses what is called a prismatic cell. While we won't pretend to understand all the details about the technologies, one item of concern stood out. With cylindrical cell construction if one cell in the pack goes bad, the battery effectiveness is reduced a little bit but the battery itself still functions. For prismatic technology, if a "prism"(?) goes bad, the entire battery becomes useless. On the surface one might think that this would be a show stopper and to stay away from Lion's battery. However, as we see it, if that were to happen, this is where the Lion warranty would kick in and a replacement would be sent out. We see this as a low risk possibility for our use that is at most a temporary inconvenience and not a safety concern or a financial loss.

Customer Service

During the research phase, we contacted customer support three times via email for clarifications or questions. We were very impressed with how quickly they responded - basically within the hour. This was reassuring to us.

The Pros of the UT1300

At this point the major pros of the Safari UT1300 are:

  • It has a size and form factor that can fit in our battery compartment without requiring any modifications.
  • It has the lowest cost we could find of any of the batteries.  (True at our time of purchase)
  • It has the highest Amp hour rating of any batteries at 105Ah per battery compared to 100Ah for the rest of them.
  • The weight of this battery is the lightest of the bunch at 23 pounds.
  • Lion Energy has a very responsive customer service department.

The Decision and Purchase

It's probably obvious by now that we decided to purchase the Lion Energy Safari UT1300 batteries. The best pricing we found for them was through a Costco offer for $700 per battery, but you must buy two at a time. This offer seems to happen occasionally but we have no idea how often that is. We went in with a fellow VanDOit owner to purchase three sets of two from Costco and split the cost. With minimal online searching it is possible to find sources for Lion coupon codes that offer 15% off of the $999 list price ($850 per battery) for any quantity at any time of year.

If you are interested in buying Lion batteries, you can use our Lion 15% discount link (Note: discount code 92 and the 15% is applied during check out and we receive a commission from Lion on your purchase).

Up Next

In Part 2 of this article we will discuss our DIY process of installing the Safari UT1300 batteries into our VanDOit GO Model van, go through the setup of new parameters in our GoPower charger, and perform and compare results from some before/after testing.

Check out our related video: Upgrading to Lithium Part 1

(LB)