I recently stopped to think about how many devices I now have that run off of rechargeable lithium batteries, and how well they work. Of course I have an electric bike, but..more and more devices can actually work safely and quite well on rechargeable lithium battery power.
[The ebike shown above is my Electra Lux Fat, with a BBSHD and a large 52V GA-cell triangle-shaped Lithium battery pack. The seat-tube had to be notched to fit the motor inside the frame triangle]
Cordless Hand Tools
After reading and researching 18650 cells a few years ago, I found out that the high-amp and high-capacity cells that ebikers pay a premium for have been developed and improved for the global cordless tool market. Many people know that most laptop computers also use the now-common 18650 format cells (cylindrical, 18mm in diameter, 65mm long), but laptop cells only need to provide low current, so they compete on lowest price. Laptop 18650’s do not provide the high amps that we need on ebikes.
I’ve had several cordless drills in the past, but the first one that was truly satisfying at what it does is my 18V Makita cordless drill and driver set. If you are a handyman around your house, you already know how useful it is to have a cordless drill, and also how disappointing they can be if they are weak (my previous 12V drill was “adequate”, but not great).
There are stronger drills than the Makita 18V (like the 28V and 36V units), but it is my new standard for the minimum power I would recommend in a homeowner hobbyist drill.
There is nothing more iconic in the middle class as having a yard full of grass that needs to be edged and mowed. I am not wealthy enough to pay for that to be done by a service, and so I am forced to edge, mow, and spray for weeds (if I want my wife to stay happy). The problem has been that…in the summer, it gets pretty hot fairly early in the morning, However…if I mow early in the morning (when it is still cool), it can disturb my neighbors…and Saturday morning might be the only time that they can grab a little extra sleep.
I have tried electric “string trimmers” (weed wackers?) that had a cord. They are very affordable and work well enough, which allows me to trim the edges of the lawn very quietly in the early morning before it gets hot. However…the damn 50-foot long cord is so annoying!
I have been watching the improvement of cordless trimmers over the years. I was so disappointed in the early 18V units, that I didn’t try any more until this year, when a friend recommended his 56V trimmer from EGO. Over the years, I have seen cordless power systems that used 24V, 28V, 36V, and even more. I own a 56V trimmer now, and after using it this past year, I can’t imagine getting anything less powerful…for two reasons.
First, you need more amps and volts to get enough watts (horsepower) to have a tool that actually works well. Most yard tool systems have a battery that can swap between several other tools. For instance, the 56V battery pack on my trimmer also can power a leaf blower, plus a small chainsaw for trimming branches, and also…a mower.
Next summer, I plan to retire my 5 year old gasoline mower, and buy an electric mower. So, which one has enough power? I truly don’t know yet, but the EGO 56V has gotten a good review from people I trust, so I was thinking I’d try that one, when the time came. And that decision leads me to what I did at the beginning of this past summer. My gasoline edger finally wore out, so I thought I’d get the cordless 56V trimmer now, so their batteries would match when I get the mower next summer. I honestly thought that 56V would be way more power than I needed for edging, but…like many things in life, now that I have used it? I don’t want any trimmer that is weaker than this.
That’s the first reason, now for the second. There are cordless tool systems that have battery voltages up to 80V now. I already knew these companies “round off” the voltage numbers. Lithium 18650 cells are 3.6V each during the fat middle of their discharge curve, and they are 4.2V each when fully charged. That means when you have 14 cells in series, the system voltage will be roughly 51V in the middle, and 58V when fully charged.
There are several electric bicycle battery pack suppliers that retail 14S battery packs. One calls them a 50V pack, and the largest retailer in North America (Luna Cycle) calls them a 52V pack. The EGO lawn tool systems use a 14S configuration (14 cells in series), and for whatever reason, they call it their 56V. The Echo brand calls their 14S batteries a 58V system, so they “round up” as far as their marketing allows them to get away with.
This means that whatever the voltage on the label might be, one 14S lithium-Ion battery will work on any other 14S lithium-Ion tool. Of course…each manufacturer has their own proprietary interface, so the actual packs won’t plug into someone else’s tool, but…if you have a soldering iron, I’m sure you can make an adapter. And that means that…
When my 14S / 52V ebike battery pack gets a couple years old and will only provide 80% of its rated capacity…I will buy a new one for the ebike, and I can now use the old one to edge and mow my grass! 52V X 15-Ah = a whopping 780 watt-hours of lawn mowing run time! (maybe 600-WH when worn?). If you only ride your ebike once a week, it will likely last many more years than my packs.
Be aware that the Echo 58V tools are also 14S (just like the EGO 56V), but…the Snapper 60V and DeWalt 60V battery packs are both 15S
Sangean portable radio
I have to include this, but it doesn’t actually use lithium batteries. It has a dual-chemistry switch in the battery compartment (you can use 1.5V disposables, like Duracell and Energizer, or…flip the switch and use rechargable 1.3V NiMH’s).
The outstanding feature of this radio is that it has an on-board charger, so when ever you plug it into the wall, the battery pack is automatically topped off (plus the cord is built-in, so you can’t misplace it). Some devices with a rechargeable battery are designed where you have to remove the cells to recharge them in a separate device, and I always felt that doing that was annoying.
This particular radio uses four NiMH cells in the “C” format. Those are not easy to find in stores, but C-NiMH’s are easy to find online, and I recommend the Sony Eneloop brand. It is so nice to have a rugged radio I can just grab and go (on battery power) when I am working in the yard or my shop. Then, when I plug it into the wall, it automatically begins charging the on-board pack. I like that the cord is connected, because separate “wall wart” power supplies are so annoying to keep track of.
A rechargeable battery-powered radio is a vital component for my home. When I lived in California, we were at risk for a power outage due to an earthquake, and when I lived in Utah we experienced a power outage due to a brush-fire that was started by lightning. Now?…we live in a tornado zone in Kansas.
If Sangean is reading this, here are some suggestions. Switch to using two 18650 lithium cells (or four?). Make the tuner a rocker switch (pressing only up or down) mounted on the face of the radio, and the remaining single knob on top should be a combination on/off switch and volume. If you have an on-board charger, you don’t need to use AA, C or D batteries as an option. 18650’s are easy to find online now.
USB-charged LED Flashlight
I sometimes have to take my turn working a night shift for a couple of months, so you can imagine that a flashlight is a vital accessory. My employer provides junk flashlights for free, and sometimes saving money on a product doesn’t save you anything if they don’t work when you need them most.
As you can imagine, I have gone through many flashlight models. I found several models that used a single AA battery, and the small size and adequate run-time were useful. I even found a model that has a dual-voltage capability, using an on-board voltage regulator. This is when I found out you can order a rechargeable lithium cell in the AA size, and it is called a 14500 (14mm diameter, 50mm long).
That is one of my “go to” flashlights, because of its handy size. However, it is annoying to me to have to remove the 14500 cell to recharge it, and its small size means it has to be recharged often. Plus, I haven’t been able to find a 14500 cell from Samsung, LG, or Panasonic…which are the only brands I trust now. (The Sony Eneloop brand makes a NiMH rechargeable AA cell, and that is what I ended up using the most in the tiny flashlights, but I still had to remove them from the flashlight to charge them.)
I found several models of flashlight that used a single 18650 cell. The smallest ones don’t have an on-board charger, but the run-time on an 18650 was so good, It became my new standard for a workhorse flashlight.
A short while ago, I stumbled across a model that had a very bright LED emitter, and also had an on-board charging jack. I knew they existed, but I didn’t like needing to keep track of a wall-wart with a proprietary jack and uncommon voltage. I almost bought one that was charged by 12V, because I have to drive a car to work and back, and that would be the ideal time to charge my work flashlight. Doing that is a viable plan, but…
I never go anywhere without my Samsung smart-phone, and these days, almost all brands of smart-phone use a Micro-USB port for battery charging. I have one at work, and one in each car. Even our work-trucks have a Micro-USB charger in them for everyone to use. I found a bright LED flashlight that uses a Micro-USB port on its side to charge the single 18650 cell. It continues to be my favorite, in spite of its slightly larger size. The model is SingFire SF-349
A couple years ago, I bought a “battery bank” that uses two 18650 cells. Its a great idea, so when your cell phone has a low battery, you just pull it out of your pocket and plug it into the battery bank to charge up. Sounds good, but in practice I have never used it. It is charged through a Micro-USB port, and then output power is sent through a standard sized USB port.
This is the configuration on the flashlight I bought, so now I only have one of these flashlights in my car and at work, and the battery banks have been retired. The input/output cords for these are literally everywhere, since the “USB to Micro-USB” cords are now the world standard for phones.
As a writer, of course I have a laptop computer, which allows me to write where-ever I go. I have a Toshiba and a Dell, and once I wore out the stock battery pack, I upgraded to a “double thick” replacement pack, so my cordless run-time is awesome now. Since my laptops all have USB ports (which output 5V) I can use my laptop to charge my smart-phone and flashlight in an emergency.
Speaking of emergencies, as I stated before, I live in “tornado country”. I don’t fear being hit by one directly (the odds are actually quite rare), but I do anticipate a significant power outage will happen several times in my life here. My back-up for this is the 12V interface found on cars. It is easy to find solar PV panels that output 14V (which is the input voltage needed to charge a 12V battery), so I bought a panel that is fairly large, but small enough to fit through my front door (so I can store it inside at night).
My car has a 12V to 5V USB adapter, and my portable solar panel can charge a deep-cycle 12V battery during the day. Between these two, I can keep my smart-phone, my laptop, and my flashlights charged in an power-outage emergency.
If your digital camera has a form-fitted lithium cell, it can be more compact than if it uses the common cylindrical cells, whether they are rechargeable or disposable. However, because my wife and I have visited remote places, we used an older camera that was powered by two AA cells, which can be purchased at any tourist site in the world (with spares easily carried in her purse as a back-up).
I recently saw a water-resistant digital camera that had video capability, and also used a form-fitted lithium cell. I became interested when I saw that the on-board lithium cell was charged by a Micro-USB port. I can charge it from my cars “12V to mini-USB” that we use for our phones when traveling. Plus, when we are afraid we might use up the battery when we are away from our car, we can carry the cars flashlight…which doubles as a battery bank!
Ebike batteries to 120V AC inverters
I don’t have one of these inverters to take a pic of, but here is a very good reason to have an electric bike if you live where you fear a power outage.
First of all, it’s not entirely crazy to think there may be a shortage of gasoline delivered to local gas stations for a week or so. Also, if you live within 10 miles of your work, an ebike is a very viable back-up system to ensure you can get to work, whether there is any gas available, or even if your car simply needs some minor repair.
Secondly, you can easily find an inverter that will convert you ebike battery packs DC voltage into 120V AC, so you can run household appliances. Of course you wouldn’t try to run a large air conditioner, but if you are a diabetec who is dependent on insulin, your medicine must remain refrigerated, even in a power outage emergency (as just one example).
A while back, I investigated off-grid power systems that used solar panels and wind-generators to charge a large battery pack. The most common battery-to-AC inverters used an input voltage of 12V (for boats, RV’s, and remote cabins)….OR…a nominal 48V.
[The pic above is my “junkyard dog” test mule, shown here with a large 30Q battery pack. At 52V and 17-Ah, it has a whopping 884 Watt-Hours (WH), and can be used as a back-up for a variety of 120V AC components, if you buy a common inverter]
This means that mass-produced and reliable inverters are available that can take your ebike battery pack and use it to provide 120V AC. I checked up on the specs, and the vast majority have a variable voltage input that is a “nominal” 48V, but…the input can safely go as high as 60V (check individual component specs before purchasing). A 14S / 52V ebike battery pack is usually charged to a max of 58.8V!
This means that if you have a 13S / 48V pack, or a 14S / 52V pack…your ebike battery can power a 120V AC inverter in an emergency.
Lithium batteries, are they dangerous?
If you only take away one thing from this article, please remember this…only purchase rechargeable lithium batteries from a trusted vendor, using authentic NON-counterfeit cells. Do you ever worry about the battery in your cordless drill, your smart-phone, or your laptop computer? If your favorite device uses high-quality authentic cells with a reliable BMS, and a brand-name charger…you can sleep easy at night without fear of any issues.
Written by Ron/spinningmagnets, November 2016