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Recently I asked how to charge a (lead-acid) car battery at home and looks like the answer is very dangerous, don't do it unless you really really have to.

Meanwhile people charge Li-Ion batteries of laptops and power tools in-house every day. Those Li-Ion batteries are smaller than car batteries yet still have enough chemistry inside to cause trouble should anything go wrong. I guess anyone who says laptop batteries shouldn't be charged in-house would be labeled paranoid immediately and then ignored.

So it looks like Li-Ion batteries are much safer that lead-acid batteries or at least are perceived so.

Why exactly do these two types of batteries differ in safety so much?

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In domestic use LiIon (Lithium Ion) batteries are, all things considered, MORE dangerous than "lead acid" batteries, not less dangerous. But both are "reasonably safe" [tm] when used properly.

The advice that you linked to above is actually titled "What precautions are needed when charging a car battery in an apartment?" and that is quite different than charging a car battery at home.

Specifically, a car battery is a one of a range of variants of lead acid batteries and contains liquid acid and while it has plugged vents and fillers it is not "sealed" in any adequate manner. Under certain conditions which are reasonably liable to be encountered in normal charging it may liberate either acid fumes or Hydrogen gas, or both. If it is charged in a car or outside it is unlikely to cause many problems.

Lithium Ion batteries when being charged do not usually liberate hydrogen or release electrolyte. Both are possible, but only if a damaged or incorrect charger is used. In exchange for not doing these things. instead they occasionally catch fire and "explode" - actually not a true explosion.

Each 18650 cell in a typical laptop battery contains the energy of about 12 high energy load '44 magnum' shells or about 24 "standard" .44 Magnum rounds, and that's just the electrical energy. (The energy from combustion can exceed 300 kJ, or over a hundred .44 Magnum rounds!). An entry level netbook has 3 such cells and a top notebook PC may have 9 or even 12 of these. This can be released in about 10 seconds with flame and 'lots of heat'. The standard industry term for this, somewhat tongue in cheek is "Vent with flame". The fact that a standard industry term exists indicates that it's a well known problem. The "melt down" mode can be triggered by charging to too high a voltage, discharging excessively and then charging normally, charging at an excessive current rate, puncturing them, or in selected cases* giving them a slightly harder than usual knock which causes internal parts to short together and - Wow!. (* This is obviously a manufacturing fault but has happened in a number of independent cases due to too tight manufacturing tolerances and substandard assembly).

All that said - given how many there are, LiIon batteries have proved to be very safe considering how many there are and how they are treated. Despite the horror stories I have never seen a real world "vent with flames" event.

Lead acid batteries do not have an equivalent failure mode to "vent with flame" However, drop a spanner, vacuum cleaner metal suction tube or similar across the terminals of a car battery and you'll get immense energy release. The battery may be damaged by such treatment but usually won't explode. Charge them too fast or too long and Hydrogen gas will be produced and WILL leak out and can form a flammable or explosive mix in confined spaces. Battery acid from other than fully sealed lead acid batteries seems to be special Houdini grade - skilled at escaping in many unexpected instances. If you carry the battery and your arms itch, Wash them NOW. Next time you wash your clothes small holes with brown edges may appear(Ask me how I know). Charge them inside at above gassing point and you may be sorry. I was :-).

BUT Lead acid are also very safe as long as they are used as intended. Charging a wet plate lead acid car battery "inside" at home is not included in "as intended".


Some excellent related links, recommended by Nick Alexeev:

MPower UK - Lithium Battery Failures

SE EE - Why is there so much fear surrounding LiPo batteries? - good question and eleven good to great answers.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Love the use of "reasonably safe" [tm] nice touch :) This is a good answer that covers all the main points +1 \$\endgroup\$ – Jim Feb 13 '12 at 9:55
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There are two kinds (a bit more really, but good enough here) of lead-acid batteries - gel (a few variations) and flooded cell (can be sealed or not).

Cars use flooded cell batteries because they are cheaper (UPSs use gel cell batteries). Flooded batteries have liquid electrolyte (sulfuric acid). If you tip over the battery, the acid may spill out and do a lot of damage. Also, when charging, lead-acid batteries produce hydrogen. Gel cell batteries usually have some way of containing it inside the battery (and a pressure relief valve), but car batteries do not, since they are usually outside anyway. If the room is not ventilated, the hydrogen can accumulate and result in an explosion if there is a spark. So, there are two hazards - acid on the floor and hydrogen explosion.

Li-ion batteries do not have electrolyte that can spill out, but they can catch fire if overcharged or punctured.

Gel cell lead-acid batteries have the acid in gel form, so they can be used inside and they are used in UPSs since they are cheaper than other types of batteries (but more expensive than car batteries), can provide a lot of power and nobody is moving a UPS around that much, so the weight is not as important as for, say, a laptop or a cellphone.

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It is safe to charge a lead acid battery in an apartment, just as it safe to charge your laptop and phone in an apartment. BUT the assumption is that you have charging equipment designed for an apartment. For instance, in Australia the NBN (National Broadband Network) puts a box in your house to connect you to the fibre-optic cable for both internet and voice communications.

The old copper telephone lines used to carry a small voltage to power your telephone, but fibre optics can't carry a voltage. Therefore to mitigate the risk that people could not use their telephone in a grid outage, a lead-acid battery is included in the junction box. So millions of houses around Australia now have a lead-acid battery permanently charging somewhere inside the house. Is this safe? Yes.

Is it perfectly safe? No - just like charging your laptop isn't perfectly safe.

But you seem to be asking whether you can set up your own charging station from scratch inside your house. In that case the answer would be: if you need to ask, probably not.

Because if you need to ask, then you likely don't understand enough to set it up safely. But if you become aware of all the risks and set up a well-designed charging station, then you are no less safe than someone with an NBN box or a laptop. For instance, if you asked if it was safe to design and build your own battery management system for a lithium-ion battery, I wouldn't be able to say NO! loudly enough. There is very significant risk that you would send the battery into uncontrolled thermal runaway resulting in flame venting. But the charging software in your phone will almost certainly prevent this from happening.

So "safe" lead-acid charging means something like:

  • investing in a battery charger that will not overcharge the battery;
  • designing an enclosure for the battery that almost guarantees that you can't directly connect the negative and positive accidentally (say with a screwdriver or spanner);
  • understanding the need to prevent hydrogen traps above the battery;
  • providing adequate ventilation (local Standards will specify how much forced and natural ventilation is necessary, and for one 7 amp-hour battery in a large room the likely answer is none); and
  • keeping kids away from the setup.

It's not hard to safely charge a lead-acid battery. But, in general, chargers are not designed for indoor use, so it is also not hard to do it wrong.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The huge problem with this answer is that you are overlooking the difference between a wet lead acid battery as the question asks about, and a gel one as used in subscriber telecom backup, computer UPS's, etc. This makes your response largely irrelevant. Also note that this question is seven years old and has seen no recent activity. \$\endgroup\$ – Chris Stratton Jun 12 at 5:49
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Rather than the particularities of charging, the main problem for a layman would be mishandling. Any of those batteries can cause a fire if shorted accidentally. But a car's 60~100Ah 12V battery is way more dangerous than a cell phone 3800 mAh because the car's simply has more energy. Of course big fat li-ion batteries do exist, but they are usually safer nonetheless because they tend to have a) safer connectors and/or b) built-in overdischarge protection. The car battery has big terminals that require manual operation to connect and no intrinsic protection. Hence, they're more dangerous.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ If you downvote my answer, it would be nice of you to also leave some feedback. Thank you. \$\endgroup\$ – Guillermo Prandi Jun 22 at 3:33

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