Aircraft Batteries – Battery Charging

in Aircraft Electrical System

Battery Charging

Operation of aircraft batteries beyond their ambient temperature or charging voltage limits can result in excessive cell temperatures leading to electrolyte boiling, rapid deterioration of the cells, and battery failure. The relationship between maximum charging voltage and the number of cells in the battery is also significant. This determines (for a given ambient temperature and state of charge) the rate at which energy is absorbed as heat within the battery. For lead-acid batteries, the voltage per cell must not exceed 2.35 volts. In the case of NiCd batteries, the charging voltage limit varies with design and construction. Values of 1.4 and 1.5 volts per cell are generally used. In all cases, follow the recommendations of the battery manufacturer.

Constant Voltage Charging (CP)

The battery charging system in an airplane is of the constant voltage type. An engine-driven generator, capable of supplying the required voltage, is connected through the aircraft electrical system directly to the battery. A battery switch is incorporated in the system so that the battery may be disconnected when the airplane is not in operation.

The voltage of the generator is accurately controlled by means of a voltage regulator connected in the field circuit of the generator. For a 12-volt system, the voltage of the generator is adjusted to approximately 14.25. On 24-volt systems, the adjustment should be between 28 and 28.5 volts. When these conditions exist, the initial charging current through the battery is high. As the state of charge increases, the battery voltage also increases, causing the current to taper down. When the battery is fully charged, its voltage is almost equal to the generator voltage, and very little current flows into the battery. When the charging current is low, the battery may remain connected to the generator without damage.

When using a constant-voltage system in a battery shop, a voltage regulator that automatically maintains a constant voltage is incorporated in the system. A higher capacity battery (e.g., 42 Ah) has a lower resistance than a lower capacity battery (e.g., 33 Ah). Hence, a high-capacity battery draws a higher charging current than a low-capacity battery when both are in the same state of charge and when the charging voltages are equal. The constant voltage method is the preferred charging method for lead-acid batteries.

Constant Current Charging

Constant current charging is the most convenient for charging batteries outside the airplane because several batteries of varying voltages may be charged at once on the same system. A constant current charging system usually consists of a rectifier to change the normal AC supply to DC. A transformer is used to reduce the available 110-volt or 220- volt AC supply to the desired level before it is passed through the rectifier. If a constant current charging system is used, multiple batteries may be connected in series, provided that the charging current is kept at such a level that the battery does not overheat or gas excessively.

The constant current charging method is the preferred method for charging NiCd batteries. Typically, a NiCd battery is constant current charged at a rate of 1CA until all the cells have reached at least 1.55V. Another charge cycle follows at 0.1CA, again until all cells have reached 1.55V. The charge is finished with an overcharge or top-up charge, typically for not less than 4 hours at a rate of 0.1CA. The purpose of the overcharge is to expel as much, if not all the gases collected on the electrodes, hydrogen on the anode, and oxygen on the cathode; some of these gases recombine to form water that, in turn, raises the electrolyte level to its highest level after which it is safe to adjust the electrolyte levels. During the overcharge or top-up charge, the cell voltages go beyond 1.6V and then slowly start to drop. No cell should rise above 1.71V (dry cell) or drop below 1.55V (gas barrier broken).

Charging is done with vent caps loosened or open. A stuck vent might increase the pressure in the cell. It also allows for refilling of water to correct levels before the end of the top-up charge while the charge current is still on. However, cells should be closed again as soon as the vents have been cleaned and checked since carbon dioxide dissolved from outside air carbonates the cells and ages the battery.

Battery Maintenance

Battery inspection and maintenance procedures vary with the type of chemical technology and the type of physical construction. Always follow the battery manufacturer’s approved procedures. Battery performance at any time in a given application depends upon the battery’s age, state of health, state of charge, and mechanical integrity, which you can determine according to the following:

  • To determine the life and age of the battery, record the install date of the battery on the battery. During normal battery maintenance, battery age must be documented either in the aircraft maintenance log or in the shop maintenance log.
  • Lead-acid battery state of health may be determined by duration of service interval (in the case of vented batteries), by environmental factors (such as excessive heat or cold), and by observed electrolyte leakage (as evidenced by corrosion of wiring and connectors or accumulation of powdered salts). If the battery needs to be refilled often, with no evidence of external leakage, this may indicate a poor state of the battery, the battery charging system, or an overcharge condition.
  • Use a hydrometer to determine the specific gravity of the lead-acid battery electrolyte, which is the weight of the electrolyte compared to the weight of pure water. Take care to ensure the electrolyte is returned to the cell from which it was extracted. When a specific gravity difference of 0.050 or more exists between cells of a battery, the battery is approaching the end of its useful life and replacement should be considered. Electrolyte level may be adjusted by the addition of distilled water. Do not add electrolyte.
  • Battery state of charge is determined by the cumulative effect of charging and discharging the battery. In a normal electrical charging system, the aircraft generator or alternator restores a battery to full charge during a flight of 1 hour to 90 minutes.
  • Proper mechanical integrity involves the absence of any physical damage, as well as assurance that hardware is correctly installed and the battery is properly connected. Battery and battery compartment venting system tubes, nipples, and attachments, when required, provide a means of avoiding the potential buildup of explosive gases, and should be checked periodically to ensure that they are securely connected and oriented in accordance with the maintenance manual’s installation procedures. Always follow procedures approved for the specific aircraft and battery system to ensure that the battery system is capable of delivering specified performance.