When it comes to electric bicycle batteries, you’ve got two main options: lithium batteries and lead acid batteries. Sure, there are a few other types of ebike batteries out there, but the main two types you’ll see all over the place remain lithium and lead acid. Of course lithium batteries and lead acid batteries each come with their own distinct advantages and disadvantages, and knowing the difference will help you decide which is best for your ebike.
Lithium ebike batteries
There are many different types of lithium ebike batteries to choose from. I’ll give a short summary of the different types of electric bicycle specific lithium batteries here, but you can get a more detailed description as well as the pros and cons of each type of lithium battery in my article Not All Lithium Batteries Were Created Equal.
Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4)
LiFePO4 batteries are some of the heaviest and most expensive lithium batteries, but are also the safest and longest lasting.
Lithium Manganese Oxide (LiMn2O4) and Lithium Nickel Manganese Cobalt Oxide (LiNiMnCoO2)
LiMn2O4 and LiNiMnCoO2 batteries fall into the mid range of lithium batteries in terms of size, weight, safety, lifespan and cost. They are a good middle ground in nearly all regards.
RC Lithium Polymer batteries (RC LiPo)
LiPo’s are the smallest, cheapest, lightest and most powerful lithium batteries. Their disadvantages include short lifespan and propensity to combust into giant fireballs if not cared for correctly (I’m not kidding, check out the short video clip below).
Benefits of lithium batteries
Now that we’ve got the summary of different types of lithium batteries out of the way, lets look at how these lithium batteries stack up as a whole.
One of the first advantages of lithium batteries is their small size. You can fit a lot of lithium on a bicycle frame. This alone can give your ebike some seriously impressive range. Two or three mid to large capacity lithium batteries could easily fit on one ebike, giving potential ranges of 100 miles (160 km) or more. I guess this would be great for people that don’t mind sitting on their bike for three to five hours at a time, or that for some reason don’t want to charge up for weeks (hey, when riding your ebike through a zombie apocalypse, the last thing you want to be doing is searching for an outlet).
Lithium batteries made specially for ebikes often come with specific bicycle mounting points making them easy to bolt to the bike frame, seat post or rear rack. If you go with a different type of lithium battery without ebike specific mounts, you’ll likely have to put it in a bag on the bike, which is still a good option, and one that I even prefer sometimes. (Link to blog post of mine about center frame triangle batteries).
Lithium batteries are also small enough to allow you to place your batteries pretty much anywhere on your bike. This is especially true for people who want to assemble their own pack or use heat shrink wrapped lithium batteries instead of hard case lithium batteries with prefabricated bicycle frame mounts. This can help spread the weight around or hide the batteries to make a stealthier bike.
Lithium batteries (with the exception of RC LiPos) last much longer than lead acid batteries. LiPo batteries are usually only rated for a few hundred charge cycles but LiFePO4 batteries keep going after thousands of charge cycles. Every manufacturer rates their batteries differently, but most LiFePO4 ebike batteries will be rated for between 1,500 to 2,200 charge cycles.
Disadvantages of lithium electric bicycle batteries
A big downside of lithium batteries is that they are much more expensive than lead acid batteries. Prices vary depending on the voltage and capacity of the lithium battery, but standard ebikes usually have lithium batteries starting in the $300 range and rising quickly from there. Most bikes I build have lithium batteries in the $400-$500 range.
However, when you factor in the shorter life cycle of lead acid batteries, they become comparable to lithium batteries over the entire life of the electric bicycle. For example, a lithium battery may cost five times the price of a lead acid battery, but it could easily last five times as long as well, making the price about the same over the life of the lithium battery. You’d have to buy at least four replacement lead acid batteries (maybe even more) by the time your lithium battery finally kicks the can.
One other disadvantage of lithium batteries that isn’t talked about often, but should be, is their potential for theft. Lithium ebike batteries have become huge targets by bike thieves as a result of their combination of small size and high price tags (the same factors that keep shaving razor cartridges behind lock and key at the drug store). Thieves see an easy target and ample resale market, meaning you have to be extra careful about locking your ebike up and leaving it alone in public.
Most lithium batteries that are designed to mount to ebikes also come with some form of locking system. These have varying degrees of effectiveness. The type with a little pin that slides into a thin sheet of steel are the easiest to steal by mangling the thin steel locking plate. Just take a look at your battery and ask yourself “how easily could I steal this battery if I had some basic hand tools and a 60 second window of opportunity?”
For this reason I like to either add a second lock specifically through the handle of my lithium battery (if it’s a removable style battery) or permanently secure it to the bike so it isn’t removable at all. The second option is less convenient because it means you have to bring the charger to the ebike, but it’s a much more secure option if you find yourself locking your ebike in public often.
Lead acid ebike batteries
When it comes to lead acid batteries for ebike use, you’ll generally be looking for what’s called a “sealed lead acid” or SLA battery. SLAs come sealed in a hard plastic case and can be turned in any orientation safely without leaking acid. This makes them appropriate for ebike use. Wet cell lead acid batteries, like many car batteries, would leak dangerous acid if turned on their side or upside down, making them a bad idea for use on an electric bicycle, which is a lot more likely to get knocked over than a car. Remember to stick with SLAs – not wet cell lead acid batteries – for electric bicycle use.
Lead acid batteries are much larger and heavier than lithium batteries, limiting their placement on ebikes. They almost never come packaged with ebike specific mounting hardware which means that they generally have to go in a bag on the rear rack or in panniers on either side if the rear wheel. Mounting them up high on the rack isn’t a good idea either because it will negatively affect handling. Generally speaking, you want to mount your batteries as low as possible to keep the center of gravity of the ebike lower towards the ground. This will significantly improve your ebike’s handling.
Advantages of lead acid batteries for ebikes
The biggest advantage of lead acid batteries is their price: dirt cheap. Lead acid batteries can be purchased from many different online retailers and local stores. Purchasing SLAs locally helps save on shipping and makes them even cheaper. Many hardware and electronic stores carry them. Even Radioshack has them, though you’ll pay more there.
Another advantage of lead acid batteries is their high power output potential. Lithium batteries generally don’t like to handle too much current. SLAs, on the other hand, can provide huge amounts of current. If you are planning a very high power electric bicycles, SLAs might be a good option for you.
Disadvantages of lead acid batteries for ebikes
One of the main disadvantages of lead acid batteries is their weight. There’s no beating around the bush here, SLAs are HEAVY, as you might guess by the inclusion of “lead” in the name. You’ll need a strong mounting solution on your ebike to handle the extra weight of SLAs. You should also be aware that lugging that extra weight around is going to negatively impact your range. The best way to improve the range of any electric vehicle is to reduce weight, and SLAs are kind of going the opposite way in that regard.
Another disadvantage of lead acid batteries is the shorter lifespan. Most claim to be rated for over 200 cycles, but in practice I usually find many SLAs start showing their age at around 100 cycles. They’ll still work as they get up in years (or charge cycles), but you’ll begin seeing your range quickly decreasing. If you were traveling 15 miles per charge when the SLAs were new, a year later you could find yourself barely getting past 10 miles.
SLAs come in 6V or 12V increments, meaning you have to build your battery pack by combining these smaller SLAs in series and/or parallel to get the specific voltage and capacity you’re aiming for. This can be both an advantage and disadvantage; it gives you more room for customization but requires some work to combine the individual SLA batteries together into a larger pack.
Who wins? That’s up to you
(…but it’s actually lithium)
When I’m experimenting with some new ebike parts and want to test different battery voltages for different speeds, I often use lead acid batteries because I can try many different voltages using very cheap batteries. Then when the results of my lead acid battery tests show me whether I want to go with 36V or 48V or 60V, for example, I then commit to buying the appropriate lithium battery.
There are only three instances where I recommend to use lead acid batteries instead of lithium
- You are absolutely trying to build an ebike on a very tight budget
- You are building an electric tricycle, which can easily carry SLAs without balance or stability issues
- You want to test out different battery voltages on your system (make sure your controller can handle the voltage range)
For any other case, lithium batteries’ advantages greatly outweigh SLAs. Of course, for your specific ebike you might have other reasons that could sway you either way. At the end of the day, your ebike is all about you. I hope this information helps you make the right choice for your own battery needs.
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