Over the past few years, advances have been made in automotive battery technology that should be considered the next time you are in the market for a battery. Spiral or orbital cell batteries from manufacturers like Exide and Optima seem to offer many benefits over conventional wet cell lead-acid batteries. We were intrigued enough by this technology to install an Exide Select Orbital in our truck. Before we get into the benefits of this new technology, let’s compare the internals of the new spiral cell units to that of traditional wet cell batteries.
The traditional wet cell battery has been around since the dawn of the automotive age and are in service in all but a tiny percentage of the cars and trucks on the road today. In the cutaway image (below), you’ll see that it contains rectangular lead/calcium alloy plates running in parallel. These plates are suspended in a corrosive electrolyte composed of sulfuric acid and water. If you shake one of these batteries, you can hear the electrolyte sloshing around. If tip one of these batteries over, the acid will leak out of the vent or filler caps. A good quality wet cell battery will last about 3 to 5 years depending on the severity of its service.
As you can see in the cutaway image of this Optima battery (below), its design is a considerably different. High purity lead plates are tightly wound into 6 spiral cells. This cell design delivers twice the surface area of conventional rectangular cell configurations. As the plates are wound, they separated with an absorbent fiberglass matting material. This material performs two tasks. First, it lowers internal resistance. Secondly, it completely absorbs the electrolyte like a sponge. This means that the battery will never leak, even in the event of a puncture or impact. Couple this with the fact that the battery casing is completely sealed and has no vent. Gases are recycled within the sealed design, so the battery will not vent noxious gases. Spiral cell battery posts will never corrode and the owner never has to add water. They can be mounted or stored sideways and can be safely used in the interior of the car. They will even work after the case has been broken.
This is all well and good, but do spiral cell batteries perform better and last longer than conventional designs? The answer is yes on both counts. Regarding performance, this design will deliver about 30% greater cold cranking power and are highly resistant to freezing. On the flip side, they are also more resistant to heat damage and provide greater performance in the heat. Did you know that batteries actually have a lower life expectancy in extremely hot climes than in cold areas? This is due to the chemical changes that occur within a battery under high heat. The spiral cell design is also many times more resistant to vibration damage. The cells in conventional batteries can make contact under extreme vibration causing the battery to short out. This benefit makes this modern design particularly appealing for use in off-road vehicles. Another important attribute is that these batteries discharge very slowly making them ideal for seasonal vehicles or those started very rarely. These batteries can sit on the shelf for 12-18 months and still be put into immediate service without needing a charge. Optima claims that their battery will lose just 0.2 volts of charge after 6 months of inactivity. The lower internal resistance allows these batteries to charge much faster than wet cell batteries when run down. As for actual life expectancy, expect twice the life span of a good quality wet cell battery. You can also expect a greater price tag. Expect to pay 50-100% more than a traditional design. Given the multitude of performance advantages offered by spiral cell batteries, we decided to give one a try. As dead batteries seem to occur at the least opportune times, we welcome the opportunity to limit the odds.