Batteries for Portable Amateur Radio Use 46

My LiFePo Batteries Side by Side

My LiFePo Batteries Side by Side

One very common question I get about portable Amateur Radio operation is what do I use as a battery? I have answered this question individually more times than I can mention so I thought I’d write it up as a post to help others.

I’ve used everything from car batteries, Sealed Lead Acid Batteries (SLAB), standard AA’s, Lithium Polymer (LiPo) and Lithium Iron Phosphate Batteries (LiFePo). These all work, but all have disadvantages, just some for my type of operation are much larger than others.

My portable operation tends to take two forms:

  1. QRP Operation (10w or less) from a hilltop/SOTA summit for 4 hours of less. This could be a casual SOTA activation or it could be a contest.
  2. QRO Operation (50w-100w) for a short amount of time (2 hours or less), maybe to dip into a major contest to make some DX contacts

My initial SOTA activations used a SLAB battery. These are very common batteries and you can pick them up very cheaply at radio rally’s. The downsides for me were twofold and pretty major. First of all the weight is substantial even for a low capacity battery and secondly it only supplies 12v out which drops off pretty rapidly with discharge. This meant I could only ever run a maximum of 5 watts out from my Elecraft KX3, which under tough conditions is, well, tough!

Sealed Lead Acid Battery

My First Battery – Sealed Lead Acid Battery (SLAB)

My  Choice

LiFePo batteries are my chosen battery based on the current technology available. They hit the sweet spot of lightness vs performance. For the same capacity they are half the weight of SLAB batteries which is pretty significant if you have to walk any distance to your operating location.

LiPo batteries offer similar performance, but with quite a major drawback, they’re quite prone to catching fire while charging! LiFePo batteries are a lot safer in this regard while offering the same level of performance.

Here are the advantages I’ve found:

  • Light – Half the weight of SLAB batteries of the same capacity
  • Supply 13.2v – This is enough to power my rigs at their full output where a 12v battery wouldn’t be man enough
  • Slow Discharge Curve – The high voltage is maintained almost until the battery is depleted, certainly not the case for SLAB’s!
  • Fast Charge – My 4200mAh LifePo4 battery takes less than 1 hour to charge
  • Stamina – I’ve yet to deplete one of these batteries in one session, indeed I ran a pileup for 4 hours on one EA8 SOTA summit and it was still fine running my KX3 at 10 watts.

I own two of these LiFePo batteries:

Side on view for some sense of size difference

Side on view for some sense of size difference

The 4200mAh battery is the one I use most often for SOTA activations and any QRP operation. This must have had over 75 outings to date and is holding up well with no discernible decrease in performance.

I use the 8400mAh battery less often for shorter QRO operations with my Yaesu 897, once again I haven’t had any issues with this battery:

LiFePo4 8400mAh Battery for 50-100w Portable Work

LiFePo4 8400mAh Battery for 50-100w Portable Work

Note: The connectors you get by default on the batteries are meant for radio controlled cars. I replace these straight away for Anderson PowerPole connectors (which I also fit to the charger). Be very careful not to let the exposed positive and negative wires touch when doing this, I did and thankfully still have a working battery, others have not been so lucky!

I made a video explaining the two and comparing them for YouTube if you want to find out more:

Charging

A quick word on charging these LiFePo batteries. You will require a special balanced charger for these batteries. I use the Turnigy Accucell 6 Charger/Balancer (around £25 from hobbyking.co.uk) which can charge a multitude of battery types including Lead Acid, NiCD, NiMH, LiPo and of course LiFePo.

Balance charging is important to keep each cell healthy and evenly charged. LiFePo batteries have a separate balancing cable which you connect to the charger to help with this. Here’s my charging setup:

Balance Charging the LiFePo4

Balance Charging the LiFePo4

Auto Detecting the Cells of the Attached Battery

Auto Detecting the Cells of the Attached Battery

Charging Overview

Charging Overview

Individual Cell Voltage Level During Balancing

Individual Cell Voltage Level During Balancing

Conclusion

LiFePo batteries are justifiably popular with a lot of serious portable operators and seem to be the defacto choice by a lot of SOTA operators. From my point of view their weight to performance ratio is fantastic compared to the other options currently available. They do cost more but this is repaid by better performance.

Can you use a cheaper SLAB for portable use? Sure you can. But when you walk up a mountain for 3 hours you will pay that little bit more for something half the weight!

Got any further questions? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll try and answer.

46 thoughts on “Batteries for Portable Amateur Radio Use

  1. Reply wb7ond Aug 30,2016 13:29

    Banggood.com has a little “low” voltage alarm that plugs into that little 4 pin “leveler” connector. Good for 1S to 8S. It sound when the voltage falls to 3.3 volts, Its alarm voltage is settable. They are only about $3 or $4 USD.
    http://www.banggood.com/2-x-2-in-1-Lipo-Battery-Low-Voltage-Tester-1S-8S-Buzzer-Alarm-p-973987.html

    I tend to forget about the battery until the KX3 shuts down by itself, it might then be too late.. The battery vendor warns about letting these batteries drain too low.

    • Reply James Stevens Aug 30,2016 19:01

      Thanks for the great link Richard, I’ve not seen these before and have just ordered two. Very useful devices!

      I have also previously read warnings about not running these batteries too low and now I’ll have a way of telling if I’m in danger of this 🙂

      73, James M0JCQ

  2. Reply Jim K9YC Aug 30,2016 16:51

    I’ve had similar excellent results with LiFePO4 batteries. The best vendor stateside (quality, price, attitude) is Bioenno Power. https://www.bioennopower.com/

    More than a year ago, my neighbor and I each bought a 20Ah LiFePO4 battery pack with the primary goal of supporting AF6RT, who was going to hike several miles and climb 1,000 ft to activate a rare grid on 6M. We also loaned him a KX3 and KXPA100 amp. At the end of a day of operation he still had power left in the first battery!

    For nearly two months, I’ve been powering the radios in my shack from a 100Ah LiFePO4 battery. So far, I’m a very happy camper. I had previously been using a pair of 220Ah 6V golf cart batteries. My reason for changing to LiFePO4 was primarily the much better discharge characteristics. I feel the far longer life of LiFePO4 chemistry justifies the much greater initial cost. I got less than 2 years from those golf cart batteries, and they were below 12V for most of their discharge curve. That’s the kicker for me — higher voltage means a cleaner signal. For backpacking, of course, the advantage is weight.

    The other good NA vendor I know of is batteryspace.com They offer a far wider range of batteries, but you must order battery, charge balancing system, and charger separately (they sell them all), so comparative pricing is confusing. Bioenno Power batteries all come with the balancing system built in. Both companies have people who know what they are talking about responding to email and landline questions.

    73

    • Reply James Stevens Aug 30,2016 18:57

      Thanks Jim, I’m sure other US readers will find the stateside suppliers useful!

      Interesting to hear about the larger capacity LiFePo5 batteries you’ve used. I’ve not seen them offered in the 100Ah capacity, impressive!

      73, James M0JCQ

    • Reply wb7ond Sep 2,2016 20:24

      I have had good success with HobbyKing.com here stateside.

      http://www.hobbyking.com/hobbyking/store/uh_listCategoriesAndProducts.asp?idCategory=86&LiPoConfig=4&sortlist=&CatSortOrder=desc

      They seem to have good prices, and a great selection of all types, you can filter by how many “cells” you want, 3S, 4S, ah, type battery, and accessories and chargers. I use their 4S 5000ma rc battery with the KX3 with a metered bucking device, equip both ends with Anderson Power Poles(APP), set the “cell” voltage alarm and I am ready to go..
      As you say, they really last a long time…

      Don’t forget your accessory “fire bag”… (:-)

      Dick

  3. Reply Pete Sep 10,2016 20:33

    Thanks.
    My gaggle of SLAB’s just went flat.
    Now after reading this I will get LiFePo’s.
    Great newsletter, will subscribe.
    Keep it up!
    Pete / W6LAW
    ==========

    • Reply James Stevens Sep 12,2016 08:37

      Glad you found it useful Pete, you won’t regret the decision to switch. I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the size/weight difference 🙂

      73 James M0JCQ

  4. Reply Curt KB7CJA Sep 10,2016 20:39

    This is topic of great importance to me, as I live in a tsunami zone and must prepare to leave on foot.

    • Reply James Stevens Sep 12,2016 08:35

      Wow, thanks for your message Curt. I’m glad it was of some use, obviously my uses are much less serious, but glad you found it useful none the less!

      73, James M0JCQ

  5. Pingback: Batteries ? Learning from the amateur radio operator that have the experience… | CT1DBS/CU3HF

  6. Reply Steven Kiel Feb 20,2017 15:50

    Hi James, as I await the result of my exam to see if I get an M0 call sign or not, I’ve bought the lipo version of this battery to use my FT857 portable. Now if you wouldn’t mind can you possibly guide me through how you linked the radio and battery please? I’ll be honest if not feeling a little daft, but not sure what the best way to go about it is!!!

    Regards
    Steve 2E0WEO

  7. Reply Thomas, F4HPX Apr 9,2017 18:41

    Hi James
    How do you manage transport of LifePo batteries when travelling abroad ?
    or you buy them locally once arrived ?
    I am going on holidays on Indian Ocean’s islands
    I am stuck with that issue….

    Regards
    Thomas F4HPX

    • Reply James Stevens Apr 28,2017 09:58

      Hello Thomas,

      I’ve transported them a few times to EA1, EA8 and CT7. There’s some basic advice, it’s allowed in hand (carry on) luggage only by the airlines. Make sure the ends are terminated properly so they can’t be shorted. LiFePo batteries aren’t susceptible to fire like LiPo batteries but you could also get a fire proof bag to add a bit more safety. Also make sure the battery is less than 100Ah, this was the limit at my last check.

      To be honest my small 4200mAh LiFePo never gets picked out during security screening, my SLAB on the other hand attracted quite a bit of attention!

      73 James M0JCQ

      • Reply Thomas, F4HPX Apr 28,2017 12:41

        Thanks

        I eneded buying LiIon set from Elecraft for KX2 as it is getting inside and is compliant with current regulations
        My LiFeFo is 22AH and so more than 160WHr thus no way to pass it through since the recent stories with Galaxy Note… and Acid Lead are officially forbidden too.
        I will buy one 12A/7Ah once on site – they are cheap so will recycle before going back

        Thomas

  8. Reply Damian Apr 14,2017 09:36

    Steve here’s a video on connecting Anderson power
    pole connectors, my advice when connecting
    to lipo batteries is cut, strip and solder only one lead at a
    time.

    https://youtu.be/hUPWKxPGRGI

    In depth solder technique.

    https://youtu.be/JwvUaP2tbgY

    Regards Damian G4LHT.

    • Reply James Stevens Apr 28,2017 09:47

      Thanks Damian, only stripping one lead at a time is a good plan. I once accidently let the two exposed battery wires touch, it was quite a frightening experience! In this instance the battery continued to work afterwards but others have not been so lucky..

  9. Reply Rob Janoska Apr 27,2017 22:13

    Hi James, when using the 8400mAh battery, how long does it last and what power do you use?
    Cheers
    Rob
    VK4AAC

    • Reply James Stevens Apr 28,2017 09:49

      Hi Rob,

      When using this battery I tend to operate at 50w rather than the full 100w, this will keep the battery going for longer without sacrificing much in terms of S points.

      I’ve run it at 100w for around 2 hours, but not sure how much was left in the battery, as I wasn’t (at that point) using a voltage monitor.

      Hope this helps!

      73 James M0JCQ

  10. Reply Robert, KN1TER Jul 31,2017 17:10

    Was just getting into SOTA. Only rig I have is IC706MKIIg. Takes a bit more current than the KX3 that I can’t afford! Would you suggest bigger (more AH) batteries, or just a few more smaller AH batteries?

    Thanks
    Robert

    • Reply James Stevens Aug 1,2017 13:49

      Hi Robert,

      The Icom706 is a fine portable rig and does everything you’ll need it to do, but you’re right, it’s more power hungry! We tried running one from a 12v SLAB battery once but it would shut down each time the current dropped beneath 12v, a LiFePo battery will supply a steady 13.4v until it’s just about dead so this will be a better option. I’d suggest one larger capacity LiFePo battery (8400mAh or more) to minimise hassle in the field (changing batteries) and at home (remembering to keep more than one battery charged..)

      Make sure you keep a voltage monitor connected as well, I have mine set to warn me when battery drops to 13.0v – this stops me from inadvertently discharging the battery too much and causing permanent damage – easily done when running 50-100w!

      73, James M0JCQ

    • Reply Jim K9YC Aug 1,2017 17:23

      Take a look at the newer, less expensive KX2. It omits coverage of 160M and 6M. Even smaller and lighter than the KX3, $750, add $180 for the built-in antenna tuner. Draws only 135mA on receive, works fine at only 11VDC. And there’s an optional internal LiIon battery pack! The IC706 draws 1.9A on receive, which means that you need a battery that’s 13X larger to run it!

      When thinking about cost, consider the cost (and weight) of the batteries needed to run the 706.

      The designer of Elecraft rigs is a backpacker, and started out designing backpacking rigs. They’re great radios!

  11. Reply Kim AA4GD Sep 13,2017 02:21

    Great blog! I found this very useful. Can I ask what plug you use to power the radio with this battery? Does it go to the 13.8v plug to the back of the radio?

    • Reply James Stevens Sep 13,2017 08:16

      Thanks Kim! I use Anderson PowerPole connectors from the battery straight into the 13.8v socket in the back of the radio, nothing fancy except fuses inline to protect the radio.

      73, James M0JCQ

      • Reply ScottL Mar 16,2018 04:11

        Great videos James. I’m trying to work through all my equipment needs and your vids are a big help. I was looking at the same LifePo4 Zippy batteries, but it looked like the charge cables were too big (AWG) for Powerpoles. As I re-watched your video I thought I saw some tape…did you modify your leads to fit the powerpoles? If so, with what? thanks!

        • Reply James Stevens Apr 3,2018 10:55

          Good spot Scott!

          The wires from the battery are too thick to fit the PowerPole connectors, so I took to some creative trimming of these wires, until I’d whittled them down to fit. From memory I had to cut away half of the strands for it to fit!

          Hope this helps.

          73 James M0JCQ

  12. Reply Martyn Nov 16,2017 19:55

    Excellent article and very interesting responses. I have used HB1A off Lion cells but hate charging them. I am moving up to an FT-857d soon so will need to make allowance for the larger current draw and your advice invaluable,

    many thanks and vry 73
    Martyn, GW6ITJ

    • Reply James Stevens Nov 17,2017 12:29

      Glad you found it useful Martyn! The majority of people I’ve spoken to run the 857 at 50w when using a portable battery, it strikes a good balance between power and battery consumption. The S Point difference isn’t really worth it unless conditions are truly marginal.

      73, James M0JCQ

  13. Reply Jim K9YC Nov 17,2017 18:12

    Another reminder that the Elecraft KX2 and KX3 are designed for packing, drawing only about 135mA on receive. The KX3 also integrates very nicely with the KXPA100 power amp, and are very stingy about current draw. I also urge packers to try more QRP, especially from a peak, even a small peak. A few years ago, W6GJB and I took his KX3 and two lengths of #22 wire to a peak near Sacramento, deploying one wire by taping it to a tapered fiberglass pole and the other as a counterpoise laying on low brush. In less than 15 minutes, we had worked a half dozen stations on three continents on 15M.

    BTW — the 3dB difference between 50W and 100W is only one-half S-unit; the difference between 5W and 100W is two S-units. A more efficient antenna can often make a 6 dB (1 S-unit) improvement, and operating from the peak of even a small hill gives signals a boost of one or two S-units.

  14. Reply Greg Dec 15,2017 09:44

    Thanks for taking the time to write this article, I found it very useful indeed.

    I have been looking at your recommendation of the ZIPPY Flightmax 4200mAh 4S2P on hobbyking.co.uk and noticed that there is also a smaller and lighter 4S1P version available, which appears to have the same capacity and discharge current. Are there any downsides to choosing the 4S1P over the 4S2P?

  15. Reply Tait VK1FTRA Jan 21,2018 10:17

    Is discharge rate something we have to consider?

    Hobby King have some 10Ah batteries that are 10C continuous (~100A) https://hobbyking.com/en_us/multistar-high-capacity-4s-10000mah-multi-rotor-lipo-pack.html is that enough for most radios? It’s hard finding some definitive information in this area

  16. Reply Carl M0SER Feb 7,2018 12:02

    Hi James, great post as always. Can I ask how you go about charging the batteries once you’ve changed the power connectors to power pole? Presumably you’ve made a powerpole to (?) connector to bridge the battery to the charger?

    Cheers,
    Carl
    M0SER

    • Reply James Stevens Apr 3,2018 11:02

      Hi Carl,

      Thanks for your comment, and sorry for a really delayed reply (I’ve been away)!

      That’s correct, I changed the charger cable to have PowerPole connectors as well, it’s straight forward and works well.

      Hope this helps!

      73, James M0JCQ

      • Reply ScottL Apr 3,2018 19:45

        Thanks James!!
        I asked Hobbyking what the AWG of the battery charge wire was and they said 10AWG…I dont have much experience yet with APP but shouldn’t that fit fine with the 45amp APP? Thanks!!

        • Reply James Stevens Apr 5,2018 08:28

          Ah sorry, I think I’ve misled you!

          The power cables from the battery were far too thick, so I had to use a chocolate box connector (this is what you’ve seen wrapped in tape) to connect these wires (after trimming width) to narrower cables for the APP connectors. I’ve done this on both of my LifePo batteries to get around the issue.

          I’ll email you some pictures to help you see what’s going on 😉

          73 James M0JCQ

          • Reply Jim K9YC Apr 5,2018 17:17

            #10 AWG does fit the 45A Power Pole insert, but it’s a tight fit and requires some skill. I’ve done a fair number of these, because I use #10 extensively in my shack. If the wire is stranded, I suggest removing some strands first to reduce its diameter, tin the wire, then carefully use needlenose pliers to crimp the connector to the wire, then solder it, again being careful not to increase the diameter so that it fits inside the red/black fitting.

            73, Jim

          • Reply James Stevens Apr 6,2018 08:36

            Thanks for the tip Jim, I’ll give it a go next time I have to do it. Soldering it before sliding into the connector is a good idea, I didn’t do this, probably where I went wrong!

  17. Reply ED DUTSON Apr 28,2018 13:59

    JAMES would you recommend 8400mah bty for use with ft857d using upto 50wts thanks ED

    • Reply James Stevens May 10,2018 09:49

      I sure would Ed, that’s exactly what I use with my 857. It’s the right balance between capacity and weight 🙂

  18. Reply Peter Harling May 11,2018 17:26

    Hi ….Just had the shock of my life when while charging my newly acquired
    HB-1B Mk4 a battery exploded, luckily the cheap 3 battery container supplied with the radio was not sealed into the radio so no damage was done to the HB-1B.

    I had purchased the recommended 700mHa 3.7V Li-ion 14500 batteries and was charging with the YouKit charger supplied with the radio. I still don’t exactly know the cause of the failure, but There is no way I wish to seal batteries inside the HB-1B … Can you please recommend a suitable external power pack for this model. ….Regards …Peter G4LDD

    • Reply James Stevens Jun 7,2018 10:13

      Sorry to hear that Peter. I can’t personally recommend a replacement, but maybe someone else reading this can!

      73 James M0JCQ

    • Reply Jim Brown K9YC Jun 7,2018 19:11

      All types of Lithium batteries must be charged with a charger specifically mated to THAT TYPE of battery and THAT battery’s voltage and current ratings. Batteries sold with radios are using designed for NiMH or NiCad batteries, and your result was predictable.

      • Reply Peter Harling Jun 8,2018 14:16

        Actually, Jim I was using the battery charger supplied by the manufacturer of the HB-1B! Who had specified the danger of using any other charger …
        Peter, G4LDD

  19. Reply ED DUTSON May 21,2018 20:32

    MANY THANKS JAMES ALL THE BEST AND 73S ED 2E0ETU

  20. Reply Jim K9YC May 22,2018 18:31

    I see photos of backpackers still using Yaesu radios. While they certainly work OK (and for some hams have the major advantage of being bought and paid for), the Elecraft KX2 and KX3 are specifically designed for backpacking — their designer, Elecraft co-owner Wayne Burdick, N6KR, has long been a backpacker, and that’s how Elecraft started 20 years ago. Backpackers know that weight is one of the most important parameters, and batteries are a major component of that. Wayne’s backpacking rigs help a lot with that by minimizing battery drain on receive — the KX2 and KX3 pull only about 160mA! This can make a big difference in both weight and cost of the batteries needed, as well as how long you can operate with what you can carry!

    This concern with battery drain extends to their use with the KXPA100 100W amp — it’s outboard, so you can choose to pack it or leave it home, AND power control built into the KX2 and KX3 turns the amp off until you crank up the power above the 5-10W that the rig puts out. The amp also has an optional antenna tuner.

    The KX2 is smaller, lighter, and less expensive than the KX3, and covers only 80M-10M. Although their factory is only 30 miles from me, I have no business relationship with Elecraft, but I’ve been a happy user of their rigs since buying a used K2 in 2004.

    73, Jim

  21. Reply AJ Fager May 29,2018 02:37

    Looking at a multi-day excursion… Has anyone had success charging with Solar?

    KC9CUY

    • Reply Jim Brown May 29,2018 10:07

      You need to do your homework (lots of it) researching and adding up the cost and weight of solar panels that you drag up the hill and compare them with the weight of additional batteries. And as noted in my previous post, you need to take current draw on receive when choosing a radio to buy or borrow. You also need to determine whether sunlight is available where you plan to camp — at a rare grid we want to activate on 6M, it’s in deep shade. Solar panels big enough to do anything useful are heavy and they aren’t cheap. Also consider how many guys there are to carry what you need. When I’ve done that homework, I’ve bought another LiFePO4 battery (or two). A 20Ah 12V LiFePO4 battery weighs about 5.5 lb and costs about $200.

      For Field Day, we drive to a site, so weight is not a consideration. We have a pair of big solar panels that keep our batteries charged. We enter a single QRP (5W) station battery powered. We’ve won this class three times in five years. Every engineering problem is different. 🙂

      73,

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