BU-803a: Cell Matching and Balancing

Discover that quality cells are the best foundation for a lasting battery pack

A manufacturer cannot predict the exact capacity when the cell comes off the production line, and this is especially true with lead acid and other batteries that involve manual assembly. Even fully automated cell production in clean rooms causes performance differences. As part of quality control, each cell is measured and segregated into categories according to their capacity levels. The high-capacity NiMH and other cells may be reserved for special applications and sold at premium prices; the large mid-range will go to commercial and industrial markets; and the low-grade cells might end up in a consumer product or in a department store. Cycling will not significantly improve the capacity of the low-end cell, and the buyer should be aware of differences in capacity and quality, which often translate into life expectancy.

Cell matching according to capacity is important, especially for industrial batteries, and no perfect match is possible. If slightly off, nickel-based cells adapt to each other after a few charge/discharge cycles similar to the players on a winning sports team. High-quality cells continue to perform longer than the lower-quality counterparts, and fading is more even and controlled. Lower-grade cells, on the other hand, diverge more quickly with use and time, and failures due to cell mismatch are more widespread. Cell mismatch is a common cause of failure in industrial batteries. Manufacturers of professional power tools and medical equipment are careful with the choice of cells to attain good battery reliability and long life.

Let’s look at what happens to a weak cell that is strung together with stronger cells in a pack. The weak cell holds less capacity and is discharged more quickly than their strong brothers. Going empty first causes their strong brothers to overrun their feeble sibling to the point where a high load can push the weak cell into reverse polarity. Nickel-cadmium can tolerate a reverse voltage of minus 0.2V at a few milliamps, but exceeding this will cause a permanent electrical short. On charge, the weak cell reaches full charge first, and then goes into heat-generating overcharge, while the strong brothers still accept charge and stay cool. The weak cell experiences a disadvantage on both charge and discharge; it continues to weaken until giving up the struggle.

The capacity tolerance between cells in an industrial battery should be +/– 2.5 percent. High-voltage packs designed for heavy loads and a wide temperature range should reduce the capacity tolerance further. There is a strong correlation between cell balance and longevity.

Figure 1 illustrates the cycling performance of five aged Li-ion packs as a function of cell match. The cells are connected in a 2P4S arrangement with a center tap, forming two battery sections that in our example are poorly matched. The capacity differences between the two sections are 5, 6, 7 and 12 percent. When cycled, all batteries show large capacity losses over 18 cycles, but the greatest decrease occurs with the pack exhibiting 12 percent capacity mismatch.

Cell Balance
Figure 1: Cycling performance as a function of cell match
Battery packs with well-matched cells perform better than those in which the cell or group of cells differ in serial connection.
Configuration: 5Ah prismatic Li-ion connected in 2P4S (14.8V, 10Ah) with center tap

Quality Li-ion cells have uniform capacity and low self-discharge when new. Adding cell balancing is beneficial especially as the pack ages and the performance of each cell decreases at its own pace. A problem arises when a cell in a string loses capacity or develops elevated self-discharge. This can be attributed to high-temperature spots in a large battery. Low-quality cells may also be prone to unequal aging. Li-phosphate has higher self-discharge that other Li-ion, and this complicates cell balancing. (See BU-802b: What does Elevated Self-discharge do?)

A battery expert once said: “I have not seen a cell balancing circuit that works.” For multi-cell packs, he suggested using quality Li-ion cells that have been factory-sorted on capacity and voltage. This works well for Li-ion packs up to 24V; packs above 24V should have balancing. Most balancing is passive; active balancing is complex and is only used in very large systems.

Passive balancing bleeds high-voltage cells on a resistor during charge in the 70–80 percent SoC curve; active balancing shuttles the extra charge from higher-voltage cells during discharge to those with a lower voltage. Active balancing is the preferred method for EV batteries, but it requires DC-DC converters. The corrected currents are in the mA range only. Applying a heavy load during acceleration, followed by rapid-charging with regenerative braking requires well-tuned cells in a high-voltage battery to attain the anticipated life. EV batteries in the Tesla, BMW i3 and other EVs employ active balancing to minimize cell stress.

Single-cell applications in mobile phones and tablets do not need cell balancing. The capacity between cells can vary and each cell is allowed to age on its own terms without causing harm, other than delivering shorter runtimes. The consumer accepts this decrease; it’s part of planned obsolescence in consumer products. (See BU-801a: How to Rate Battery Runtime.)

All Li-ion cells require a protection circuit that assures that serially connected cells do not exceed 4.25V/cell (most Li-ion) on charge and that disconnect when the weakest cell drops to 2.80V/cell or lower. The discharge disconnect prevents the stronger cells from pushing the depleted cell into reverse polarity. The protection circuit acts like a guardian angel that shields the weaker siblings from being bullied by the stronger peers. This may explain why Li-ion packs for power tools last longer than nickel-based batteries without a protection circuit. The protection circuit also safeguards the battery from excessive load current. (See BU-304: Protection circuits)

With use and time, battery cells become mismatched, and this also applies to lead acid. Cells that develop high self-discharge will lead to imbalance and subsequent failure. Manufacturers of golf cars, aerial work platforms, floor scrubbers and other battery-powered vehicles recommend an equalizing charge if the voltage difference between the cells is greater than +/– 0.10V, or if the specific gravity varies more than 10 points (0.010 on the SG scale).

An equalizing charge is a charge on top of a charge that brings all cells to full-charge saturation. This service must be administered with care because excessive charging can harm the battery. (See BU: 404: Equalizing Charge) ) A difference in specific gravity of 40 points poses a performance problem and the cell is considered defective. (A 40-point difference means one cell has an SG of 1.200 and another 1.240.) A charge may temporarily cover the deficiency, but the flaw will likely resurface again after a few hours due to the high self-discharge of the faulty cell.

Last updated 2016-04-02


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Comments (11)

On October 11, 2016 at 8:32am
Ricardo Vasquez wrote:

VERy good articlr on batteries !

On December 14, 2016 at 3:27am
Mait wrote:

As described here as elsewhere Li based batteries age mostly because of overcharged or too empty, not because of cycles. This leads to conclusion, that the older (and more unbalanced) battery you have, the more you must use middle range of the battery. That is not to load full and not to run empty, or you speed ageing. Correct or not?

This is quite opposite to natural instinct to load older battery a little more for more capacity. It seems there great business opportunity to produce even smarter chargers and balancing boards to make your battery live longer even with internal unbalance arisen.

On December 14, 2016 at 3:39am
Mait wrote:

One question still remains. If you have bad row of 9 parallel cells in the middle of battery. One cell dead. In the middle more heat and other cells same row could be aged more than other rows. Lets assume they have lost 2% more capacity. So then you decide to replace dead cell. It should be by this story equal to the others in row. However, then the full row will be weaker than other rows and get overheated overloaded etc. Logical solution would be to compensate this difference whit replaced higher capacity cell. And it it is one to eight of 2% then it should be already 16% higher capacity used to have balanced row.

Mostly this kind of logic is killed with some simple technical detail (ie voltage/current curve or something similar). So, why it is not suggested solution?

On January 23, 2017 at 7:23pm
Peter Machesney wrote:

Hi, i have 12 NIMH D cells in Series , nominal voltage is 14.4 volts and capacity of the stick is rated at 6500mAH
I exercised the stick by discharging the cells to 0.9 per cell I then charged the cells to full at C10 for 16 hours on a smart charger which showed full at 7200 mAH
I tested the resistance and have used the DC Ohmic method using a 3.7 amp load for 2 seconds and by calculation i get a reading of 0.045mohms
But when i discharge the cells fully (with a 3.7 amp load to 13 volts and then 0.05 amp load to 11 volts)  i am only getting 4,800 mAH which is a difference of 44% which seems a very high loss.
Finally i wish to balance the stick with a number of other sticks so do i balance with resistance or capacity in mind ( or both)
Hopefully you can advise on the above
NB the cells are Panasonic D cells industrial quality and approx 6 years old removed from a Hybrid battery pack .
Thank you

On July 18, 2017 at 6:22am
Rex Allen wrote:

I am planning to increase my solar system by adding one brand new 100AH battery to my existing 2pcs. 26AH battery(surplus) all connected in parallel. I only designed 50w to 100w
solar power(for emergency purposes only…like for emergency lights and radio and low powered T.V.). Will my Brand new battery be degraded easily if I connect it to the surplus? I thought battery will help each other specially if connected in parallel and have the same voltage output?

On December 17, 2017 at 5:04pm
mike wrote:

i am a battery guy/car guy/creative geek.  some info for anyone else who comes across this webpage.  I have been REBUILDING lithium TOOL battery packs for a few years now and thought this should be shared to fellow people.  big companies like dewal-, milwauke-, etc’  use ballanced or MATCHED cells in there tool packs. (this is why a REAL battery pack costs so much- not china fakes)  Big wallets (companies) get GRADE A cells(18650 most common as of 2017) that have internal resistence and Mah MATCHED when the tool battery pack is built on the factory line.  Like The 90’s and today, the best cells go to the biggest spenders. If you ever decide to rebuild a lithium battery pack, PLEASE match all cells as close as possible. i have personaly seen a few people do this without ballancing and matching 18650 cells in packs, and when i fix them i find that after a year or so, they have lost almost 25% of the rating. (most common value seen so far) matched and ballanced cells far MUCH better and only seem to lose 10% Max. (FYI: TOOL battery packs have ballancing and protection circut built in, but cant defend against MIS-MATCHED cells) 
anyways, keep this in mind if you have lithium packs rebuilt.

(i still use a turbo35 Charger on my old nicad packs from the 90’s with flawless results, as nicad can actualy go 1000’s of cycles with almost ZERO losses, but only if taken care of correctly)
Its sad nicd batteries are almost gone, as they were one of the best batteries to date.  lower power density/weight/toxic etc: all led to there demise. properly taken care of nicad packs last DECADES.  lithiums on the other hand, have limited cycles 300-500-1000 cycles at most.

On December 30, 2017 at 8:54pm
Max wrote:

I’m looking at the idea of operating all the cells in parallel and following them with a boost converter. Could I then check the temperatures of the cells to detect ones that were out of tolerance?

On April 26, 2018 at 4:27pm
Charles wrote:

So I have many batteries from old laptops.
Got rid of the dead cells and the remaining ones are not bad at all.
Looking to build a 2p6s (12 cells) balance battery power bank with usb and quite good power as all 12 cells have an average of more than 1500mah.
Charger would be an imax 6s v2 and using the balancing pin.
My question is the following:
Even if I use a balance charger, is it ok to mismatch li-ion cells that are from different brand / age / capacity?
I’ve heard that a difference of capacity that is too big between the 2 would not work even with balancing.
Should the capacity of each cell should be quite close even if balanced?
If yes that is the acceptable range.
Charles Garnier

On May 24, 2018 at 2:09pm
luis perez wrote:

mike, please elaborate, if you ever get to see this: What is proper care for nicad?

On July 4, 2018 at 2:41pm
Malcolm Kent wrote:

Is it now technically acceptable for individual cells to be connected DIRECTLY in parallel, i.e. with nominally ZERO Ohms between individual cells in parallel?

During my apprenticeship (early1960s) whilst working on portable nucleonic monitors, we performed some experiments on battery capacities having individual cells in parallel and found that there was no accurate correlation between one cell’s individual capacity and a battery consisting of several such cells. In that frequently, over time, we would ‘lose’ 10% or even more of the ‘calculated’ capacity. We concluded, from experiments, that due to minor differences in terminal voltages, and/or internal impedances, that once a parallel ‘bank’ was connected that leakage currents would start to flow between cells with slight differences in individual characteristics.

We found that ‘buffer’ resistors of even fractions of an Ohm were enough to reduce this effect to almost nil, although after some months there was evidence that some capacity had been lost especially if the packs were stored (unused) at normal room temperature.

On August 24, 2018 at 6:03pm
Steve wrote:

As I read the comments, I find that the lack of understanding given in paralleling Lithium Ion cells and then building higher voltage packs is being done with good success.  It does however take a concerted effort to properly detect and then assemble like cells (capacity and Impedance) into a Module (paralleled cells)  Once many of the Modules are assembled, they too must be characterized and selected for common capacity and impedance to be series assembled into a pack.  When a cell that is dissimilar within a module, it will maintain the modules voltage but its SOC will deviate and continue to deviate more as its cycled to take the module capacity down. It can ultimately fail.  Thus, the available energy decreases as previously understood and the weakest link correlation to chain.