Duncan Kent looks into the latest developments, regulations and myths that have arisen since lithium batteries were introduced

Lithium iron phosphate batteries: myths BUSTED!

Although there remains a large number of lead-acid battery aficionados in the more traditional marine electrical businesses, battery technology has recently progressed in leaps and bounds.

Over the past couple of decades, the world’s top battery experts have been concentrating all their efforts on the development of more efficient energy storage, both on land and at sea.

But despite this, there remains a great deal of confusion among boat owners, marine businesses and chandlers as to which batteries are safe to install into sea-going vessels.

Traditional batteries

Most interested parties have their own theories and experiences of which type of battery is best for use in the marine environment, particularly boat owners who live aboard for extended periods.

In the past, the choice was inevitably big and heavy, open flooded lead-acid batteries if you wanted them to last and handle a certain degree of mistreatment.

Many still swear by this simple, flooded lead-acid technology, where you can top them up with distilled water every month or so and regularly test the capacity of each cell using a hydrometer.

Batteries on a boat

Lead-acid batteries remain cheaper than lithium iron phosphate batteries but they are heavier and take up more room on board. Credit: Graham Snook/Yachting Monthly

There’s a certain amount of truth in the old saying ‘heavy is best’, referring to the fact that the heavier the battery was the thicker the plates were likely to be and the longer they would last.

Indeed, they’re still easy to source and less expensive initially than newer tech batteries.

However, their main drawbacks: their large size, extreme weight, resistance to rapid charging and tendency to lose their capacity over time are what is gradually condemning lead-acid batteries to the recycle bin in favour of more modern battery designs.

It is now generally accepted by most of the marine industry’s regulatory groups that the safest chemical combination in the lithium-ion (Li-ion) group of batteries for use on board a sea-going vessel is lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4).

While rumours about ‘lithium’ batteries causing fires are rife, most of these arise in the electric vehicle (EV) arena, where there have indeed been some quite frightening cases of the more volatile types of lithium-ion batteries bursting into flames and the fire services being unable to extinguish them quickly.

A safer alternative

Although part of the lithium-ion group of battery chemistries, LiFePO4 batteries have been proven to be as safe, if not safer than the more traditional lead-acid variety when installed and managed correctly.

Experiments have been carried out by numerous regulation bodies, including the particularly stringent American Boat & Yacht Council (ABYC), and all have (in some cases reluctantly) agreed that LiFePO4 batteries are the safest of the group and the only lithium-ion batteries it would approve for use on board.

Admittedly, this is supplemented by their insistence that any LiFePO4 battery bank must always be professionally installed and/or certified.

Benefits and limitations of lithium iron phosphate batteries

Like all lithium-ion batteries, LiFePO4s have a much lower internal resistance than their lead-acid equivalents, enabling much higher charge currents to be used.

This drastically reduces the time to fully recharge, which is ideal for use in boats where charging sources and time can be limited. In addition, they offer a cycle life way beyond that of any lead-acid battery, including top-quality absorbent glass mat (AGM) batteries.

An oven and microwave on a boat

You’ll need to plan your LiFePO4 battery system carefully if you plan to run heavy current draw items like a microwave and an electric cooker

The maximum discharge rate of an LiFePO4 battery will be limited, however, so you’ll need to know what this is for any particular battery when you’re planning your new system.

This is especially important if you want to run heavy current draw items such as an electric cooker, microwave, kettle, water heater etc, via a direct current-alternating current (DC-AC) inverter, as you may need to install several batteries in parallel to supply the total current required.

Battery management

All lithium-ion batteries require an electronic battery management system (BMS) to ensure they achieve their optimum performance and condition, while remaining safe at all times.

A good quality BMS will…

  • protect the battery from a dead short
  • provide reverse polarity protection
  • monitor and balance the voltage level of each cell in the battery
  • warn and prevent the cells from being over- or under-charged
  • warn and prevent the battery from overheating
  • prevent the battery from being charged if its temperature is below freezing
  • monitor the battery status and transmit the relevant data to the user via a display or to a smart device via Bluetooth
  • communicate with the charging system to ensure optimum performance

Most LiFePO4 batteries come with a built-in BMS and are often sold as supposed ‘drop-in’ replacements for lead-acid batteries.

However, there really is no such thing as a ‘drop-in’ LiFePO4 battery.

You could, in theory, simply add an LiFePO4 battery in parallel to an existing lead-acid battery bank, but not without really knowing what you’re doing and only if you’re prepared to risk alienating your insurer.

A panel of a battery management system for lithium-ion batteries

Battery management is key when running a lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) battery system on board. Victron’s user interface gives easy access to essential data and allows for remote troubleshooting. Credit: Rupert Holmes

You would also find it very tricky to get anyone else to work on your system should it fail as few qualified engineers would go near such a hybrid of differing chemistries!

Often poor quality, the more basic integral BMSs usually provide far less protection.

Some only offer under/over voltage, overload and over-temperature monitoring, with the triggering of any of these events resulting in the battery simply shutting down – not ideal when you’re navigating at night, especially as many of them then require a spike from another, non-smart 12V source to reactivate them.

In many ways, it is safer to buy LiFePO4 batteries with no integral BMS and add a top-quality one yourself.


Apart from any mistakenly perceived fire risk, LiFePO4 batteries do have a few drawbacks.

To start with they’re still a relatively expensive investment when upgrading from an existing lead-acid system, although prices of the LiFePO4 batteries have more than halved over the past five years.

Lithium-ion batteries

Some LiFePO4 batteries come with an internal battery management system (BMS), like this range from RELION, although it may be best to fit an external BMS

The extra expense is because much of the ancillary equipment also has to be upgraded to make it properly compatible with the LiFePO4s.

This frequently involves the purchase of a new AC-DC charger, alternator charging system and split charger.

Plus you’ll probably need to beef up the cables due to the higher charge currents and upgrade the main fuse to T-class.

Charging LiFePO4 batteries

When considering a change from lead-acid to LiFePO4 it’s important to understand their limitations and quirks, especially their charging parameters, in order to create a safe and efficient energy bank that will last a very long time.

Most importantly, LiFePO4 cells must never be overcharged.

Unlike lead-acids, they actually prefer to remain between 40%-80% charged most of the time.

If regularly cycled then charging them closer to 100% state of charge (SoC) makes sense and does no harm, provided you stop charging them as soon as they are full (usually 3.65V per cell or 14.6V for a nominal 12V battery).

Unfortunately, the SoC cannot be accurately determined by monitoring the battery voltage alone, which is likely to peak when the battery is only actually half-charged.

Continues below…

Fully charged, a 12.8V LiFePO4 battery has a rested voltage of between 13.3V-13.4V, notably higher than the 12.6-12.7V of a regular lead-acid battery.

At 20% SoC it could still be registering 13.0V, so it is almost mandatory to install a good quality, shunt-based battery monitor with current measuring capabilities.

LiFePO4 cells should be charged at a constant current until the charge current drops to between 0.03C-0.05C (depending on the maker’s specifications), at which point charging must cease immediately so as not to overcharge the cells.

Most will accept at least half of their own capacity (0.5C) in charge current, ie a 100Ah battery will accept a constant 50A charge.

Depending on the make, some even allow up to a 1C (100A) charge rate, although this results in very rapid recharging, which can damage the batteries if done repeatedly.

No LiFePO4 battery likes an absorption charge as it stresses them and can cause overheating.

Ideally, you need to skip the absorption stage entirely and set the float level to between 13.3V-13.5V.

Depending on the BMS, most LiFePO4 batteries do need to be charged between 3.5V-3.65V per cell at least once a month in order to allow the BMS to rebalance the cells.

AC-DC chargers

Li-ion compatible AC-DC chargers don’t actually require a multiphase regime, just a bulk charge to nearly full and then off.

So, you could, in theory, use a simple single-stage charger, provided you’re there to switch it off immediately when it reaches full charge.

Older, transformer-style battery chargers are not suitable for Li-ion, though, as their output is often too crudely formed.

A man with a battery charger on a motor boat

LiFePO4 batteries can not be used with older, transformer-style battery chargers. If you have a smart power charger for your lead-acid batteries, check it has a dedicated lithium mode

They can sometimes be used to ‘spike’ a sleeping BMS into action again if it has shut down for any reason, although this action is not recommended unless you know what you’re doing.

If you already have a ‘smart’, multi-stage shore power charger for lead-acid batteries you may still be able to use it providing it offers an LiFePO4 setting or a customisable output that offers sufficient control over the charging regime.

You will need to be able to limit the bulk charge to 14.4V (or a little less if preferred), plus disable the float and de-sulphation (aka: equalisation) functions.

The increased voltage of an equalisation charge, often up to 16V, can quickly destroy unprotected LiFePO4 cells and risk system meltdown.

If in any doubt ask the manufacturer of the charger for advice as this is very important for the ongoing health of the batteries and the safety of the installation.

Alternator charging

A standard marine engine alternator with its own internal regulator is only really designed for charging a thin-plated, starter type lead acid battery.

It is expected to supply a high current initially, before rapidly dropping to a level well below 50% of its peak output capacity.

Because of its very low internal resistance, however, an LiFePO4 battery will suck everything it can from any charging source until it is nearly full, which is a quick way to overheat and destroy a regular automotive-type alternator.

An alternator on a boat engine

LiFePO4 batteries can put a strain on your alternator due to the high charging current draw. It’s advisable to replace it with a marinised, high-output alternator if you’re using it to charge the LiFePO4 batteries. Credit: Harry Dekkers

Not upgrading your charging sources and management systems not only risks damaging your new LiFePO4s, but could also negate their principal benefit, their capacity for rapid charge acceptance.

If your engine alternator is your principal source of charge for your batteries then I’d recommend you replace it with a proper marinised, high-output version, along with a high-tension drive belt and pulley arrangement.

Furthermore, unless your new alternator has a smart regulator, it is highly advisable to fit an external regulator designed specifically for use with Li-ion cells, such as the Wakespeed WS500 or Balmar MC-614-H, which will ensure you get the optimum charge without the risk of damaging either the alternator or batteries.

A Wakespeed WS5000 external alternator regulator for a boat

It is best to fit an external alternator regulator – like the Wakespeed WS500 – so you get the optimum charge without damaging either your alternator or batteries

Apart from the risk of overheating your alternator, another concern is what happens when your batteries reach full charge.

Without a smart regulator to take control of the situation before problems arise, the BMS is likely to abruptly disconnect the charge source when it sees the battery is fully charged.

Disconnecting the load on a standard alternator when the engine is running will instantly blow its internal diodes.

Solar charging

Solar is an ideal method of charging LiFePO4 batteries, particularly for long-term cruisers who spend a lot of time at anchor.

You can feed as much power into the bank as the solar panels will produce during their most productive part of the day, only topping up via other methods in the evening if more power is needed.

A solar panel on a boat

Solar panels are the best way to charge LiFePO4 batteries as they’ll not be damaged if the battery management system turns off. Credit: Harry Dekkers

Because of the LiFePO4’s ability to accept a high current bulk charge, some owners choose to charge their batteries exclusively from solar energy.

This works particularly well as solar charge controllers aren’t vulnerable to damage should the BMS abruptly switch off the charge when the batteries are full.

As LiFePO4s don’t mind being put to bed at a low state of charge, they will happily sit idle all night ready for the sun to come up in the morning.

Temperature compensation

One disadvantage of the use of LiFePO4s in the northern hemisphere is their behaviour in low temperatures.

Although many will still supply power down to -15°C, they won’t actually accept any charge if the ambient temperature is below freezing.

Boats with covers on them in a marina with snow on the mountains in the background

Lithium iron phosphate batteries will not charge in temperatures below freezing unless heated externally

If you’re planning an extended cruise in extreme latitudes then you’ll need to find a way of keeping them warm, ideally above +5°C.

This is common in electric vehicles, where the Li-ion battery modules are self-heating.

The heating element, of course, consumes some of the stored power. Li-ion cells don’t like being too hot either, 60°C being the point at which most battery management systems (BMSs) will choose to disconnect for safety purposes, which rules out their installation in most engine compartments.

Status monitoring

I’d also suggest you incorporate a shunt-driven battery monitor with programmable parameters and a switch to disconnect the charging source once the battery reaches the manufacturer’s recommended maximum charge threshold.

A battery monitoring system for lithium-ion batteries on a phone

It’s advisable to make sure battery management data can be sent via Bluetooth to your phone so you can keep an eye on your lithium-ion batteries

Furthermore, when choosing your smart batteries or buying an external BMS, I strongly advise you purchase the type that can transmit the BMS data via Bluetooth to your phone or tablet, as this will give you the real-time status of each individual battery cell.

Communication is the key to a safe and efficient energy system, so try to buy equipment that will network together and share vital data with each other.


If you are thinking of installing lithium iron phosphate batteries on your own boat then please read everything you can find on the subject first and speak to as many suppliers as you can.

Even then I’d recommend you seek the advice of a professional marine electrician, at least during the planning stage, unless you’re a competent DC electrician with extensive Li-ion battery knowledge.

It’s also worth checking with your boat insurer before you shell out on an expensive new system as not all are happy to accept any type of lithium battery bank, even LiFePO4.

The situation is changing as they become more knowledgeable about the subject, but even then they might well insist on professional certification of a DIY installation.

Pros and Cons of LiFePO4 Batteries

Pros: they…

  • are much lighter than the equivalent capacity lead-acid marine battery.
  • can be discharged down to 10% of their total capacity (almost double the ‘useable’ capacity of similar-sized lead acid batteries).
  • will provide many more (often up to 10x) charge/discharge cycles in their lifetime than any type of lead-acid battery.
  • can be charged very much quicker thanks to their low internal resistance.

Cons: they… 

  • are relatively expensive compared to lead-acid batteries.
  • require your existing charging sources to be Li-ion compatible.
  • put a strain on your alternator due to the high charging current draw.
  • have temperature limitations when charging unless heated/cooled externally

Useful websites 

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