The run-time for a battery-operated UPS depends on the type and size of batteries and rate of discharge, and the efficiency of the inverter. The total capacity of a lead–acid battery is a function of the rate at which it is discharged, which is described as Peukert’s law.
Manufacturers supply run-time rating in minutes for packaged UPS systems. Larger systems (such as for data centers) require detailed calculation of the load, inverter efficiency, and battery characteristics to ensure the required endurance is attained.
Common battery characteristics and load testing
When a lead–acid battery is charged or discharged, this initially affects only the reacting chemicals, which are at the interface between the electrodes and the electrolyte. With time, the charge stored in the chemicals at the interface, often called “interface charge”, spreads by diffusion of these chemicals throughout the volume of the active material.
If a battery has been completely discharged (e.g. the car lights were left on overnight) and next is given a fast charge for only a few minutes, then during the short charging time it develops only a charge near the interface. The battery voltage may rise to be close to the charger voltage so that the charging current decreases significantly. After a few hours this interface charge will spread to the volume of the electrode and electrolyte, leading to an interface charge so low that it may be insufficient to start a car.
Due to the interface charge, brief UPS self-test functions lasting only a few seconds may not accurately reflect the true runtime capacity of a UPS, and instead an extended recalibration or rundown test that deeply discharges the battery is needed.
The deep discharge testing is itself damaging to batteries due to the chemicals in the discharged battery starting to crystallize into highly stable molecular shapes that will not re-dissolve when the battery is recharged, permanently reducing charge capacity. In lead acid batteries this is known as sulfation but also affects other types such as nickel cadmium batteries and lithium batteries. Therefore, it is commonly recommended that rundown tests be performed infrequently, such as every six months to a year.
Testing of strings of batteries/cells
Multi-kilowatt commercial UPS systems with large and easily accessible battery banks are capable of isolating and testing individual cells within a battery string, which consists of either combined-cell battery units (such as 12-V lead acid batteries) or individual chemical cells wired in series. Isolating a single cell and installing a jumper in place of it allows the one battery to be discharge-tested, while the rest of the battery string remains charged and available to provide protection.
It is also possible to measure the electrical characteristics of individual cells in a battery string, using intermediate sensor wires that are installed at every cell-to-cell junction, and monitored both individually and collectively. Battery strings may also be wired as series-parallel, for example two sets of 20 cells. In such a situation it is also necessary to monitor current flow between parallel strings, as current may circulate between the strings to balance out the effects of weak cells, dead cells with high resistance, or shorted cells. For example, stronger strings can discharge through weaker strings until voltage imbalances are equalized, and this must be factored into the individual inter-cell measurements within each string.
Series-parallel battery interactions
Battery strings wired in series-parallel can develop unusual failure modes due to interactions between the multiple parallel strings. Defective batteries in one string can adversely affect the operation and lifespan of good or new batteries in other strings. These issues also apply to other situations where series-parallel strings are used, not just in UPS systems but also in electric vehicle applications.
Consider a series-parallel battery arrangement with all good cells, and one becomes shorted or dead:
- The failed cell will reduce the maximum developed voltage for the entire series string it is within.
- Other series strings wired in parallel with the degraded string will now discharge through the degraded string until their voltage matches the voltage of the degraded string, potentially overcharging and leading to electrolyte boiling and outgassing from the remaining good cells in the degraded string. These parallel strings can now never be fully recharged, as the increased voltage will bleed off through the string containing the failed battery.
- Charging systems may attempt to gauge battery string capacity by measuring overall voltage. Due to the overall string voltage depletion due to the dead cells, the charging system may detect this as a state of discharge, and will continuously attempt to charge the series-parallel strings, which leads to continuous overcharging and damage to all the cells in the degraded series string containing the damaged battery.
- If lead-acid batteries are used, all cells in the formerly good parallel strings will begin to sulfate due to the inability for them to be fully recharged, resulting in the storage capacity of these cells being permanently damaged, even if the damaged cell in the one degraded string is eventually discovered and replaced with a new one.
The only way to prevent these subtle series-parallel string interactions is by not using parallel strings at all and using separate charge controllers and inverters for individual series strings.
Series new/old battery interactions
Even just a single string of batteries wired in series can have adverse interactions if new batteries are mixed with old batteries. Older batteries tend to have reduced storage capacity, and so will both discharge faster than new batteries and also charge to their maximum capacity more rapidly than new batteries.
As a mixed string of new and old batteries is depleted, the string voltage will drop, and when the old batteries are exhausted the new batteries still have charge available. The newer cells may continue to discharge through the rest of the string, but due to the low voltage this energy flow may not be useful, and may be wasted in the old cells as resistance heating.
For cells that are supposed to operate within a specific discharge window, new cells with more capacity may cause the old cells in the series string to continue to discharge beyond the safe bottom limit of the discharge window, damaging the old cells.
When recharged, the old cells recharge more rapidly, leading to a rapid rise of voltage to near the fully charged state, but before the new cells with more capacity have fully recharged. The charge controller detects the high voltage of a nearly fully charged string and reduces current flow. The new cells with more capacity now charge very slowly, so slowly that the chemicals may begin to crystallize before reaching the fully charged state, reducing new cell capacity over several charge/discharge cycles until their capacity more closely matches the old cells in the series string.
For such reasons, some industrial UPS management systems recommend periodic replacement of entire battery arrays potentially using hundreds of expensive batteries, due to these damaging interactions between new batteries and old batteries, within and across series and parallel strings.