Top Four Considerations for Battery Management in a Connected World

Chris Mangum, CEO and Chairman • Servato

Marching towards the world is the Internet of Things (IoT), the technological trend of connecting everything to the Internet. It seems every industry is busily preparing for the rush of updated products and services that will capitalize on IoT. This puts growing pressure and expectations on telecommunications companies, the companies that provide the connectivity that will actually enable an IoT future. The Internet of Things will only be as useful as networks are expansive, fast and reliable.  

Changes to network communication standards and other network changes are being designed and implemented with coverage and speed in mind to support IoT, but not all companies have been thinking about reliability with the same fresh perspective and urgency. The foundation of network ability to withstand power outages are backup batteries, which today are often not adequately cared for to ensure backup power. For the IoT revolution to truly flourish, this practice must change.

Telecom service providers are dependent on these batteries and often have to juggle between high maintenance costs and good service. Keeping track of hundreds or thousands of batteries can be a very expensive proposition, so in many cases managing battery performance has given way to simply replacing them on a preset schedule, whether or not they need replacing. Occasionally these cycles are complemented by manual maintenance checks with unavoidable long stretches in between.

All of this means that unmonitored batteries may fail before they are scheduled for maintenance, leaving no reliable backup solution in place. The scale of this battery mismanagement is worth mentioning: 41.8 percent of Stationary Lead-Acid batteries are sold into the telecommunications market to cover hundreds of thousands of wireless towers, central offices and outside plant cabinets. Millions of batteries meant to protect the Internet and enable IoT are not receiving the attention they truly deserve, particularly in the face of more impending growth in telecom infrastructure.

There is a concerted push in the market and from the government to improve reliability and speed in rural markets. The Connect America Fund II is committing over $1.5 billion dollars per year to carriers for improvements in these areas. As money flows to building out networks, batteries will continue to be deployed to provide redundancy. However, the maintenance problem could worsen and the risk could grow even greater.

With all the batteries sold to telecommunications companies and the growing importance of backup batteries to support the IoT trend, it’s time for some of the poor battery management practices to be changed. Outages will become more costly to both residential and enterprise customers, and carriers will face increasing pressure to deliver reliability. There are four key considerations when it comes to thinking about remote battery management:

  •    Reliability: How sure is it that the batteries will turn on when needed.
  •    Uptime: How sure is it that the batteries will provide the necessary amount of uptime? Are there enough batteries and are they healthy enough? How quickly can the site be restored to normal functions?
  •   Maintenance: What steps can be taken to minimize the risk of failure of the backup batteries and thus improve how networks handle outages.
  •   Monitoring/Remote Management: How can IoT technology be leveraged to automate time-consuming maintenance and create other efficiencies?

Reliability can be used as a blanket term for battery management as a whole, but in this article, reliability represents the level of confidence that network backup batteries will actually turn on when an outage occurs. It is a natural starting place, before worrying about other aspects of the batteries we need some indication that they will work to begin with. Within this category are several aspects: proper installation, adherence to standards and recommendations, and an understanding of the many risk factors.

Reliability starts with proper installation and site planning. It goes without saying that all standards and manufacturer’s recommendations should be adhered to.  Site-specific planning should be performed in as much detail as possible since factors such as temperature can have an impact on battery performance and can vary site to site. If float-charging is the only option, rectifiers should be adjusted based on these factors to charge batteries at their recommended setting. Heat is the most powerful influence on short-term and long-term battery performance and will also impact maintenance regimens. To mitigate this effect, some studies have shown that intermittent charging has the potential to extend battery life.

It is also important to realize that even new or unused batteries may have issues before they are installed. Manufacturer’s defects occur, and they can sometimes be easy to spot with simple tests before the batteries are installed. An assumption that a new battery will function properly can turn out to be a costly and painful one if a defective battery ends up in the network. A defective battery in a string can end up affecting the health of the other batteries. And, batteries that sit unused in a warehouse for months before being installed can be subject to sulfation, and a “freshening” charge can be useful before installation.

Finally, lead-acid batteries are sometimes stolen right from the sites they are meant to be protecting. This is a major problem because companies are often completely unaware that the batteries are missing until the next routine check-up or the next outage. Locking cabinets and ensuring proper security measures are absolutely necessary. Overall, it is crucial that steps are taken before, during and immediately after installation to improve the reliability that batteries will be available for backup power. Ensuring that the batteries turn on is just the first step to ensuring adequate backup power and reliability for the IoT.

The batteries can’t just turn on; steps need to be taken to ensure that the batteries will last long enough and that the site is easy enough to get back up and running. Network operators need to think about a couple of factors. How much uptime would they like to promise to customers? Are there any regulations around uptime? What sort of issues can exacerbate outage duration?

Uptime first and foremost has to do with the decisions made by the company over how much time they would like to have at a site. How much time will then dictate the number of strings necessary based on the site requirements. Further, some PUC’s have regulations around backup power for network sites and there is some evidence to suggest that stricter regulations may be in the works as the IoT wave gathers force. Uptime decisions will be made considering internal ideas, industry standards and regulations.

Secondly, uptime is largely influenced by the health of the batteries at the time of the outage. After installation with initial checks and parameter setting, battery health can only be influenced by the maintenance routine. This is covered in the next section.

Outages are not always simple. They can be exacerbated in a number of ways that can be major headaches for network operators and technicians. Weather events can sometimes damage equipment making manual recovery necessary, instigating service to many sites and stretching technicians. Many network technicians have horror stories about running generators frantically around to different sites. This is one reason it is so important to know how much uptime each site should have. Some automated monitoring and management systems can automatically tell you battery uptime. This is an incredibly useful function during emergencies.

Another particularly frustrating uptime problem sometimes occurs when sites are recovering from an outage. In a counter-intuitive way depleted batteries can pose a problem for the sites they are supposed to maintain. When grid power returns, batteries may draw the entire AC load, inhibiting site telecom equipment from returning. If possible, technicians should restore the site first and use a generator to charge the batteries (or vice versa). An even better solution is new equipment on the market that allows special charging to enable both the site function to resume and the batteries to start charging for further backup needs.

On the whole, it is critical to be aware of any internal or regulated standards for uptime and to make sure there are enough batteries (assuming they’re in good health). Always check and prepare for worst-case scenarios because in an IoT world every minute of downtime counts.

After taking initial steps to ensure batteries will turn on, to improve uptime, and to mitigate risk of outages going from bad to worse, proper maintenance is crucial to ensuring battery issues are avoided over the long term. However, as mentioned earlier, maintenance is a balance between ensuring great backup power and keeping costs down. Further, battery maintenance traditionally ranks low on the list of priorities for network technicians. Thus, maintenance should also be as easy and painless as possible. The surest way to minimize cost and time spent maintaining batteries is to be as proactive as possible. The net result will also improve reliability.

There are several ways to accomplish this goal of ensuring reliability and uptime. Starting with the most basic, companies can consider a regular, manual battery-testing regimen. Batteries should be checked as often as possible given other maintenance considerations. This may be a timed cycle, an attachment to other maintenance work, or may be done on a seasonal schedule. No matter what, any time batteries are checked before an outage has exposed a problem at the site, it is a win for maintenance. It its worth noting that this seems like a logical and reasonable practice even in a pre-IoT world. Nonetheless, many Internet service providers find it difficult to justify financially adherence to robust maintenance regimens.

The problem with any regimen that relies on manual testing, no matter how frequent that testing is, there can still be long periods when a failed battery sits in the field. A failed battery can actually damage the charging of other batteries if they all sit on float. If a whole string fails, that could constitute the entire backup power plant at the site, and an outage would automatically result in loss of service. On the other hand, a cycle may also end up replacing perfectly healthy batteries and thus prematurely result in a CapEx spend.

Another fear that is not always mitigated by manual testing is the prospect of catastrophic problems such as thermal runaway.  While not common, it is not unheard of for batteries to destroy an entire remote site. This has even occurred in residential neighborhoods.

A more and more popular option is to use a remote monitoring technology to identify battery issues immediately and remotely. The market has a number of companies that offer some form of this functionality with varying degrees of accuracy. All offer some sensors that, when attached to the batteries, are capable of sending alerts about their status to the network operators using the technology. When it comes to maintenance, it’s important to skew practices to be proactive and regular. If possible, battery-monitoring technologies can be employed to further improve insight in to the network’s batteries. Battery Power Magazine has previously published articles that cover industry maintenance standards in great detail, including this one.

Monitoring/Remote Management
Monitoring solutions can provide up-to-the-minute information on batteries as well as critical alerts. Compared to data collected on some monthly (or annual) testing regimen, this is a remarkably more accurate way to protect batteries that enable a connected world.

These technologies offer a leg up from manual testing regimens. Manual checks can be replaced by accessing data via the Internet. Rather than discovering a failed battery weeks, perhaps even months after it has actually failed, real-time alerts can tell technicians about issues as soon as they arise. This is a tremendous improvement. It not only represents an obvious operational efficiency but a fantastic way to mitigate the time failed batteries spend in the field. As soon as a battery dips below the 80 percent capacity technicians know to replace it.

Moreover, if the data collected is good enough, it can be used to predictively to detect battery issues, which allows technicians to even more proactively mitigate reliability risk and improve uptime. The good news is that more and more companies and technologies are reaching the market across many price points with increasingly advanced functions, such as these predictive battery analytics. In some cases, these functions promise new frontiers of reliability.

Battery Failure Servato
Figure 1. Data from a Remote Management System Demonstrating
Battery Failure

These devices, depending on their price and promise, offer ROI to installers through improved equipment management (CapEx) and reduced maintenance costs (OpEx). To go into more detail, technicians save time by reducing truck rolls (which can also be expensive and incur the opportunity cost of preventing other maintenance.  For remote sites where maintenance may require many hours of driving time each way this can be especially meaningful. The utility of monitoring goes beyond handling day-to-day replacements. Monitoring technology can be extremely useful during broad outages like weather events when knowing which sites have properly working batteries is just as important as which sites are experiencing more complicated issues.

There is even more reason to be excited about these technologies. The latest advances in technology are pushing the boundary of monitoring alone and actually allow for remote management. Some technology is capable of adjusting the charging of the batteries based on data collected from measurements to proactively manage the way the batteries are charged. There is some evidence that indicates adaptive charging can improve battery performance long-term and extend battery life, and new technology is already bringing this to batteries in the field. This capability further improves ROI for the remote monitoring/management system and further reduces maintenance needs by extending time to replacement.

It is a great idea to examine all monitoring options based on capabilities and price to streamline maintenance. Compare this to the cost of an ideal manual testing regimen (still of lesser quality than automated testing) rather than what is currently spent as the manual testing may not happen as often as planned. To enable an IoT future all carriers should be thinking about investing in remote management technology.

Batteries are often an out-of-sight-out-of-mind proposition. How often have people put batteries in an emergency flashlight only to find the batteries have died when the flashlight is needed most? Backup batteries in telecom networks are often the victims of the same neglect, but when these batteries fail, the result can affect service for thousands of customers.

Yet telecommunications companies have been slow to address this network weakness. Predictions anticipate 50 billion connected devices by 2020, and to be sure they will require greater speed and coverage. However, only a fraction of the concern garnered by network growth is being paid to what happens when these devices cannot connect because of network power failure. For many individuals and businesses, it will mean disruptions and inconveniences that go far beyond a stalled app. As IoT expands more and more critical services and products will be affected by interruptions to Internet service.

It is imperative that telecommunications companies recognize the inadequacy of current battery management procedures. Simply installing batteries at a site is akin to putting batteries into the flashlight and forgetting about it. And this is not one flashlight, but hundreds of thousands of sites supporting service to thousands of individuals and devices each. Unless the battery management changes, service interruptions will be an inevitable part of an IoT future.

Chris Mangum is a seasoned leader and entrepreneur with extensive experience in strategy, business development, M&A, innovation and entrepreneurship across a broad range of business models. From 2007 to 2012, Mangum led corporate strategy and business development for CenturyLink where he was part of a leadership team that grew the rural telecom’s market capitalization from $2.5 billion to over $25 billion.

Servato is a provider of active battery management solutions to telecom, power, transportation and solar companies. Servato’s solutions allow leading companies and infrastructure operators to reduce CapEx and OpEx by extending battery life, reducing maintenance costs and streamlining operations. Utilizing highly accurate data, proprietary algorithms, adaptive charging and cloud-based visualization software, Servato provides unprecedented insight and control over distributed DC power assets in industrial settings.

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