Lithium RV Batteries: Should You Upgrade in 2021?

Should you take the leap and upgrade to lithium batteries? Let’s take a closer look at why it might be worth your attention.

One of the main reasons people go camping is to relieve stress. The last thing you need is to run out of juice on a rainy day in an RV with bored kids. If you’re thinking about upgrading your rig, you’re not alone. The 2019 Aftermarket Parts & Accessories Customer Survey found that a whopping 83 percent of RVers were considering the same purchases.

Upgrading to a lithium RV battery fits right in with the latest trends driving the industry. It is no longer a major ordeal to take a leap into the 21st century. RVs used to be required to have a vented compartment to hold flooded lead-acid batteries (FLAs) because of safety issues, but now, with the approval of the RV Industry Association Board of Directors, you can make the switch painlessly. You can put that non-vented, high-end lithium battery in your rig. That’s great news, especially if you have the toys for glamping.

Benefits of Lithium Batteries

One of the top reasons to upgrade your battery is that lithium-ion batteries require no maintenance. That’s quite a change from the old FLAs. The premise for lead-acid and lithium batteries is the same, but the primary difference is the materials. FLAs use lead plates, whereas sealed versions use glass, gel, or valve-regulated wet cells. Lithium units use, well, lithium.

There are other maintenance tasks you need to do on FLAs, such as adding distilled water and checking the specific gravity. Heaven forbid if it falls over while you’re on the road. Then, there’s that venting issue. Moving it is also a pain because they’re so darned heavy!

You don’t have to worry about any of that with a lithium battery. It’s also lightweight and more compact, which is a good thing if you’re short on space.

Depth of Discharge (DOD)

This factor may likely tip a lithium RV battery into the dealmaker category. Lead-acid batteries charge quickly, which is one of the advantages they offer. Unfortunately, there’s a limit to how much you can drain at a time.

The depth of discharge (DOD) is around 50 percent. That’s the proverbial Achilles heel with lead-acid batteries. The reason is that you have to keep it at that level to get the maximum life out of them. It’s a different story with lithium batteries.

You can tap 80–90 percent of its juice before you have to recharge it. That’ll give you more power and more efficiency, which makes it a better option if you go off the grid and can’t rely on shore power.

If you camp in warmer places or during the summer, you’re going to be running the A/C a lot. We all know that these appliances are energy hogs and probably use the most juice.

The same thing applies to winter camping. Space heaters aren’t much better than A/Cs. Besides, there’s a lot to be said for a hot shower after a day of cross-country skiing. The best thing about the lithium unit is that running it that hard isn’t going to damage it, either.

Going Solar

Lithium RV batteries are an ideal choice if you dry camp frequently or want to go solar. Their optimized energy usage makes them an eco-friendly choice, too. This falls in line with where the industry is going, with innovations like solar-assisted battery systems, off-grid self-sufficiency, and units with more amp hours to power more toys.

Lithium batteries handle power management more efficiently. You can run your solar system and maximize its output. The tech is only getting more and more innovative to match the needs of millennials who are opting for the RV lifestyle. Let’s just say we’ve come a long way from the days of pop-up trailers and sleeping bags. When you consider these factors, you can get a close-up view of how far the technology has advanced.

Cycles and Lifespan

More and more people are switching over to the RV lifestyle. Over 1 million people have taken to the road because remote work and homeschooling make it possible.

When it comes to full-time RVing (and part-time, for that matter), battery cycles and lifespan are significant factors. You can expect to get about 400 cycles with a high-quality FLA. An absorbent glass mat (AGM) bumps it up to 700–800 cycles. The lithium RV battery can push it up to 5,000 cycles, giving you reliable power for a longer time. You’ll be able to go out more frequently and for longer stretches of time.

There has also been an increase in glamping, which saw a nearly 400 percent increase from 2019 to 2020, according to the North American Camping Report. The industry has responded with more accessories that make shopping for gear more fun. Besides, you’ll need a bigger and more powerful battery to run your hot tub.You’ll likely get at least two years out of your deep-cycle battery – more if you’re good about maintenance and managing your power correctly. You might be able to push it up to five years. With a lithium battery, you’re talking up to 10 years or more. We’ve seen some manufacturers boast about 30 years! That makes it a lifetime investment – literally!

Misconceptions About Lithium RV Batteries

The idea of using lithium is scary to some people. It’s an element that we associate with different things. The truth is that lithium batteries have gotten a bad rap. Remember: technology doesn’t sit on its collective hands. It moves forward like a shark. Let’s do a deep dive to get down to the facts.

The Dangers of Lithium Batteries

You don’t have to be on the forums long before you see the safety of lithium RV batteries get tossed around by RVers. It’s a cool element when you think about it. It’s light and it takes a lot of energy to heat it up, which makes it safer than you may think. Yes, it is a volatile chemical, which is probably the reason for the concern.

Lithium is natural and part of the Earth’s crust. It’s also found in living organisms. The danger factor comes from its chemical reactivity. That’s where the concern lies with putting in a battery of any type, whether it’s lead-acid or lithium.

You may remember the stories circulating about the electric car batteries exploding, particularly during sub-freezing weather. Then there was that infamous chain of events with the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones. Few consumer products had so many warnings, from airlines to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

However, it’s important to put the above issues in perspective. News stories like these are bound to make headlines. Nonetheless, how many incidents have actually occurred relative to the number of smartphones worldwide? In 2020, there were 3.6 billion global smartphone users. In contrast, there were 35 reported cases globally before Samsung took action and pulled it off the market.

That’s a 0.00000000097 percent chance of an exploding smartphone in your pocket. Compare that to over 75,000 RV accidents that occur every year. Enough said.

The takeaway message is how quickly manufacturers reacted to these incidents. While we’re not trying to downplay it, your chances of something bad happening using a lithium battery are slim, at best.

Cost

Okay, we have to address the elephant in the room before it runs us down: the cost. It’s true that a lithium RV battery can cost as much as a used car. And, yes, you can get a lead-acid, decent deep-cycle battery for a couple of hundred bucks.  Many campers take one look at the price and decide to opt for deep-cycle products.

Let’s do the math before you turn down the lead-acid battery aisle.

We said earlier that you may get two to five years out of those old-school batteries if you take care of it and store it right. The chances are, if you have a bigger rig, you may have more than one. Over the course of ten years (the lifespan of a lithium battery), you might pay anywhere from $500–$1,000 or more, if you’re not so good about maintenance.

The fact is, that either way, you’re well within the ballpark of paying for a lithium RV battery.

It’s a no-brainer if you go RVing a lot or are a full-timer. The average RVer goes out 20–25 times a year, but that number is growing, according to the North American Camping Report. About 23 percent are hitting the road more frequently in 2020 versus 2019.

If that sounds like you, you certainly have more than enough fodder to justify the upgrade.

Things tend to get cheaper as technology advances. This is certainly the case with solar power, which follows similar research and development paths. It’s starting to sound more and more like a smart investment to get a lithium battery.

Getting the Most Out of Your Lithium Battery

Experienced RVers know that camping is a numbers game. You must have a handle on how much electricity you’re using, especially if you’re not relying on shore power. An underpowered RV will limit the amount of time you can spend vacationing. At some point, it just becomes more of a hassle than it’s worth.

You can find lithium batteries in a range of sizes. We’ve seen them as small as 20 amp-hours. However, you can get a decent unit with 100 amp-hours for around $1,000, which is certainly enough for most rigs. That’s more power for running your fridge, AC, and water heater. Remember that we’re talking one compact battery, weighing less than 30 pounds or half that of an AGM deep-cycle unit.

Upgrading Your Energy Plant

We’ve been talking up lithium RV batteries and perhaps you’re convinced that it’s time for an upgrade. That’s where we have to address one downside to them. It’s not a matter of simply swapping out your current lead-acid units with a new one. Bear in mind that your rig is wired for what’s in it now. Switching the power source might prove problematic.

Lithium units handle power differently, meaning you’ll have to also invest in a battery management system (BMS) if your rig doesn’t have one already. Some of them also include a smartphone app to manage it and give alerts for DODs and other useful information. We suggest checking how often the manufacturer updates their apps to gauge their usefulness.

However, installing lithium batteries is a pro job. Balance this added cost with what you get with an upgrade. Can we say no maintenance?

Countering the Downsides

You’ll find that batteries perform better in certain conditions, which is why we put them on the table when considering an upgrade. For example, gel-cell AGMs do well in hot weather. AGMs, in general, perform well in the cold. Lithium batteries are at a disadvantage that is easily overcome with the right product choice.

However, tech has come to the rescue once again. You’ll find lithium batteries with built-in heaters and power management systems that make them even more efficient, which is good news because this follows the path of the RV industry. Expect to see more smart devices, more creature comforts, and even better WiFi. A lithium battery will make it easier to run every accessory you want to buy.

Final Thoughts

Managing power is an essential part of RVing, no matter what battery you use. The challenge is the same: matching usage with the availability of electricity. Lithium batteries offer RVers another option that gives you the best bang for the buck. It’s also environmentally friendly. As the technology develops, the prices will drop to make them even more affordable.

In the meantime, think about the options that upgrading to a lithium RV battery offers. You can camp more often and stay on the road longer. It even opens up the possibility of a lifestyle change.

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