Caravans rely fairly heavily on good batteries these days, and when my parents iTech lithium batteries failed in the middle of South Australia we knew it was going to be a pain in the backside.
After a nice afternoon at the beach, I returned to camp to find Dad running his 4WD with their van plugged in, and when I queried what was going on, he said there was a fairly major electrical issue with the battery setup.
Just what you want!
We dug into it, and as soon as you’d turn the water pump on, there was a distinct clicking from his electrical control panel (low voltage cut out device), and everything would go off, and then come back on a split second later.
After that, the solar regulator was showing it was on, but no charge going into the batteries, and it didn’t take long for me to wonder if the BMS in the battery (or both) had shut down, and weren’t allowing any power to be released from the batteries themselves.
I jumped on the iTech website to confirm the recommended advice for resetting an iTech battery that’s gone into safe mode, and it mentions a number of different ways you can go about it.
All of them require you to disconnect all inputs and outputs from the battery before you proceed, and we mucked around with the batteries for some time. Connected together, we were getting all sorts of strange voltage readings on the multimeter, and when you separated them they became better.
We tried resetting the batteries with the AC charger in the van to no avail, and eventually got them going using his car, but the problems didn’t go away.
For reference, these are not the iTech 120X batteries; these are the original Itech 120’s.
What is a BMS?
Every decent lithium battery should have a BMS, or Battery Management System. This looks after the battery, and provides some protection for it should things go wrong.
If you over charge it, or draw too much current too quickly, or run it too flat, the BMS should kick in and shut the battery down, essentially putting it to sleep to preserve the life of the battery cells.
This will often take a battery down to around 1 volt on the multimeter, which would traditionally mean your battery is completely dead, but if its lithium it might just be in safe mode.
Itech mention a number of ways in which their batteries can go into safe mode, and without investigating further you really have no idea what causes it.
How can you get a lithium battery out of safe mode?
As I mentioned above, if your lithium battery goes to sleep, there’s a few ways in which you can wake it. All require you to disconnect all inputs and outputs (loads and charging) from the battery.
From there, you can:
Connect another battery in parallel
The easiest way to get a lithium out of safe mode is to take another battery, and connect it together with the lithium.
This will result in both battery voltages equalising, and then you can put a charger on (solar, AC or DC) and then disconnect the ‘starter battery’.
Use a jump starter
You can do the same thing with a jump starter, which will kick the lithium back into life
Connect an AC charger
Some AC chargers can wake a lithium battery as well, but the above options are preferred (and you can use the AC charger to keep the battery charging if needed, once its woken).
Use an unregulated panel (according to iTech)
This seems a bit suss to me, but their advice is to hook one up for 5 minutes, and then to put the battery back on charge.
I’d do this as a last resort, but maybe its perfectly safe. We did actually try this later on, and it worked (but so did the other methods to jump start the battery), but I’d rather use a different battery as my primary choice of waking a lithium.
I don’t like the caravan battery setup
Before we go on too far, I want to point out that I was not a fan of the setup in my folks caravan, and its a fairly standard one.
When my folks bought the van, it had two 100aH lead acid deep cycle batteries, and one failed, so Dad needed to replace it.
iTech’s advertising (and phone conversations with them) assured Dad it would work as a drop in replacement, and as a result he ordered two of their lithium batteries on a sale that they had going.
The lithium batteries were put in with zero other changes, relying on a cable from the 4WD vehicles starter battery to the rear, and then into an Anderson plug that ran to the batteries on the van.
We checked the voltage at the rear of the vehicle and it was usually over 14V, but trying to charge lithium batteries off an alternator with a 9 metre run, auto-resetting circuit breaker and no isolator, or DCDC charger is not the right way to go about it.
It also means that you are effectively paralleling a cranking lead acid battery with lithium batteries on the van every time you plug the Anderson in, which is not the recommended (or common) practice (and iTech specifically say on their website not to parallel them?!).
However, with two solar panels on the roof of the van, and a basic PWM regulator the lithium’s would at least get some charge from the panels, and hopefully keep them healthy.
Itech use a graph for their state of charge, and rely on voltage change, which is very unreliable for lithium batteries as the curve is almost flat, and the voltage you read can have a huge band of possible depth of discharges.
You really want a regulator with a lithium profile, and an AC charger that is compatible with lithium batteries (my folks charger manual says it is lithium compatible, but I’m not sure how true that really is).
With no isolator in place, every time you start the vehicle with the Anderson on the rear connected to the caravan, some power would be stolen from the caravan’s iTech lithium batteries, which just seemed so wrong to me.
Nonetheless, iTech said it was fine, and that’s how it got set up, and was running for nearly 3 years.
The iTech batteries kept going into safe mode
Over the next few days, the issue kept re-appearing, to the point where you could no longer use anything 12V in the van unless the caravan was connected via the Anderson to the vehicle (and thus the cranking battery).
Despite trying a number of things, the batteries would continually go into safe mode, then after being reset do it again, and again, and again.
Initially the suspect item was the water pump, as when you ran this it would trip.
I suggested that we try and load the batteries up with something else to see if it would do it (and prove it was the batteries and not the pump), and Dad got it to shut down just by turning his inverter on, which draws a small amount of power on start-up.
For a few more days, Dad just left the car constantly hooked up to the caravan, as the moment you disconnected it and turned the water on, or the inverter the batteries would die and you’d have to go and disconnect the solar, then connect the car via the Anderson plug to wake them back up to use anything.
I’m was fairly confident that the entire caravan system was just running off the cranking battery on the car, and the solar would charge that as it was depleted, with the iTech batteries doing absolutely nothing.
When we arrived in Port Augusta, Dad and I separated both iTech batteries, and noted they would sit at 13.6V with nothing attached, but the moment you applied load they would go to 0.8V (safe mode).
Dad proceeded to grab a test light, and just this teeny, tiny 2W load would make each battery go into safe mode, which is ludicrous.
Of course, iTech were contacted during this debacle, and their recommendation was to package the batteries up and send them back for a look.
They have no agents anywhere else in Australia, and require you to send the batteries back to Perth for diagnosis, which isn’t an easy feat on the other side of the country, especially when they are your only source of power!.
Ironically the batteries first shut down just one day after the 3 year warranty expired (based on Itech arguing that it was from the sale date, not from the date of collection day 3 days later), but despite this any reasonable consumer would expect a lithium battery to last longer than 3 years, and you could argue the product is not fit for purpose if it fails so early on.
iTech advertise that these batteries will last up to 10 years, and what you advertise, you have to stand behind.
That said, Dad (and I) noticed that his LED lights in the caravan would flicker quite badly when using the water pump on low flow not that long after swapping to the iTech batteries, and they didn’t do it with different batteries, so maybe the BMS’s weren’t allowing the lithium batteries to supply pulsing load smoothly right from the start.
The voltage dips were much worse leading to the batteries shutting down completely, which would suggest one of the two likely failed earlier.
So, what to do with no batteries?
Ultimately, there was no way Mum and Dad could continue travelling Australia reliably with the iTech batteries, and they were either a bin job, or they needed to be sent back for a hopeful warranty claim.
They decided (logically) to do the latter, and push hard for a warranty, as 3 years is ludicrously short for a lithium battery. One of the selling points of these is longevity, and if you are going to get the same lifespan of an AGM, why would you upgrade?
We skip caravan parks most of the time, and running your van off the cranking battery is a recipe for disaster, so I said to Dad ‘just go and buy a cheap lead acid battery to keep you travelling’.
He found a 96aH Century deep cycle lead acid for $270, and grabbed that, and we put it in, so the van could be disconnected without losing lights, water pumps and the ability to charge a basic laptop.
It meant that he couldn’t run the washing machine due to a too high current draw for the new battery and had to be more careful running other appliances due to the drastic reduction in capacity, but at least they could travel, and finally disconnect the car without losing all 12V power.
What did iTech do about the failed lithium batteries?
Of course, probably the most important part of this post is how iTech reacted to the failure. We’re not in the business of shaming anyone, but we are factual, and if things have gone sideways, that gets reported here with zero glossing over it.
One of the benefits of being independent means that we aren’t attached to any particular business; we just share our experiences however they work out, for you to consider.
Itech weren’t overly quick to respond to requests, but eventually emailed instructions to have both batteries returned to Perth, for $35 each. Dad had to find suitable packaging, and sent them off a few weeks after they stopped working, and waited for information back from iTech.
This happened over the Christmas and New Years break, so we were expecting an even slower turn around, and Dad eventually heard from them in the middle of January, where they stated ‘we found a small issue with the BMS’ and ‘even though this is out of warranty we have replaced the BMS and re-cased them’.
In our opinion it was not a small issue, as both batteries were basically paperweights, and it was still technically in warranty, but either way, the batteries were repaired and sent back to Adelaide (and cost my folks $70 in freight plus the new battery at $270 to keep them travelling) and reinstalled.
So far they’ve been going fine for the last couple of months, and we’ll see how they go in the future. Of course, I’ll update this if anything else changes.
Now, credit where it’s due; asides from the inconvenience and cost (which certainly wasn’t insignificant), iTech did fix these batteries, and even covered the freight costs to send them back after Dad requested it (once he’d received the batteries), so we can’t fault them there.
They were very slow to ship them back, but these things happen, and things certainly could have gone a lot worse overall.
Battery failures are a major pain
No one likes to have things break on them, and when it comes to batteries in a caravan its a fairly major headache.
I did say to Dad that at least if an AGM is on its way out, you’ll usually get some notice, and you can usually keep using it during that period, just at a lesser capacity.
For the iTech lithium batteries, they were working one day, and dead the next with no way of bringing them back and keeping them online, and that’s a major problem.
Dad spent $270 getting a replacement (much smaller) battery to keep them limping along, and we both spent a huge amount of time stuffing around with the system to try and get it going again.
The frustrations and stress of not having reliable power in your van isn’t much fun at all, and is a major pain in the backside. Fortunately my folks have a 3 way fridge; if they had a compressor one it would have been a nightmare.
We also spent a lot of time diagnosing the issue, and its fortunate that we have some basic skills to do this, as a lot of people wouldn’t know where to start.
Do you know how hard it is to get an Auto Electrician to look at a caravan in many tourist towns at the moment?!
Would we get an iTech Lithium Battery?
If you do a bit of digging online, you’ll find iTech has a pretty varied reputation. Some people love them, and have had great success.
Others are sponsored by them and rave about them, with discount codes coming out of their ears. Then, you have a lot of lithium battery manufacturers, independent experts in the field and general consumers that dispute their claims and marketing, and don’t look favourably at iTech at all.
Our very own auto electrician no longer works with iTech batteries ‘due to problems that he has experienced’ (his words).
From our perspective, I actually purchased a brand new iTech 120X a long time ago, with a battery box as a bit of redundancy for a trip up north.
It got used once to run a mates fridge overnight, and then I sold it when we returned home. The intention was to do some testing on it, but I never got around to it.
Up until now, my opinion of the iTech lithium batteries was that they were a medium quality player in the lithium game, with some marketing and advertising that severely pushes the boundaries, and if you’ve kept an eye on their pricing, sales and discounts then that’s an interesting facet on its own.
I’ve seen tear downs of them, and from what I’ve seen, they are pretty reasonable but not top of the game.
I’ve also seen several usable capacity tests on them, which don’t come in at the claimed 120 amp hours, like they advertise.
I have no doubt that iTech have sold thousands of these batteries over the years, and you inevitably will hear more about their poor performance than a smaller seller, but I would compare their prices, backup and service and usable capacity against other brands before I purchased one.
I’d also dig very deeply into the idea of ‘drop in lithium batteries’ before I laid any cash down.
On a personal level, I wouldn’t get one again, with so many other options out there but lots of people are.
Would you? Have you had a good, or bad experience with iTech Lithium Batteries?