Which batteries are suitable for use in (higher-powered LED) flashlights and (higher-drain) tools in cold weather?
The quick answer: lithium.
In general, alkaline batteries perform very poorly in cold weather. As alkaline batteries are engineered with a water-based electrolyte, cold near-freezing point temperatures can lead to reduced ion mobility which slows down the chemical reactions that provide electrical battery power. This leads to a drop in performance, runtime, or both.
In some cases, cold temperatures can cause alkaline batteries to burst and leak.
Rechargeable batteries tend to perform poorly in cold temperatures as well. I typically use Sanyo Eneloop NiMH batteries in my AA and AAA-sized flashlights, but these batteries aren’t any better than alkalines when temperatures drop near freezing.
According to Sanyo’s datasheet (PDF), basic AA Eneloops are only rated down to 0°C/32°F. Any colder than that and you can probably expect to see greatly reduced performance in medium and high-drain flashlights and devices.
Lithium batteries, on the other hand, perform quite well when it’s cold out.
Panasonic’s CR123A lithium batteries (PDF) have an operating temperature range of -40° to + 70°C (-40° to 158°F), while Energizer’s Ultimate Lithium L91 AA batteries (PDF) have a similar operating temperature range of -40° to 60°C (-40° to 140°F).
Based on recommendations stated in Panasonic’s datasheet and this capacity vs. temperature chart in Energizer’s L91 datasheet, both battery types are practically effective at temperatures down to about -20°C, or -4°F. Beyond that you are likely to see greatly diminished performance.
In addition to cold weather performance, CR123/CR123A and Energizer Ultimate Lithium batteries have longer shelf lives and higher charge capacities than alkaline batteries. You wouldn’t want to buy premium lithium batteries to power your TV remote, but they typically do work better and last longer in high-drain devices (such as bright LED flashlights).
I am not trying to suggest that alkaline batteries cannot be used in cold weather applications, but that lithium batteries will perform better, especially in higher drain devices. According to an Energizer white paper (PDF), and another by Duracell (PDF), their alkaline batteries will work at freezing temperatures, albeit at greatly reduced capacity.
In regard to alkaline batteries – but applicable to all other battery chemistries including lithium: as current drain increases, temperature impact becomes more dramatic. (Section 5.4 of Duracell’s bulletin.)
You can find both types of batteries for under $2.50 each in retail stores, or under $2/each online.
Buy Now: Energizer L91 (AA), Energizer L92 (AAA), CR123 (via Amazon)
With CR123/CR123A batteries, stick to reputable brands such as Streamlight, Energizer, Surefire, and Panasonic.
Energizer has a newer more economical Advanced Lithium battery, but their Ultimate Lithium batteries are the ones you want for cold weather applications.
There are plenty of CR123 lithium battery options, but we’re still searching for AA and AAA-sized alternatives to Energizer Ultimate Lithium batteries. If you know of any, please let us know!
For nearly 2 decades I camped with a boy scout troop in the winter – mostly in the mountains of PA, NY, NJ and New England. While camping on Katahdin is hardly the same as K2 – we nonetheless kept our flashlights and transistor weather radio in the sleeping bag overnight to keep those alkaline batteries warm and working. Doing it again today – the flashlights would be the LED variety and that batteries probably LiIon.
Don’t assume that lithium means weather resistant. The type of battery mentioned here is a Lithium primary cell, which are the non-rechargeable expensive alternative to alkaline AA cells (or NiMH cells).
Li-ion battery packs (rechargeable) are a different chemistry and follow different rules. They cannot be charged at or below freezing temps and their output really suffers as the temperature drops. You’ll really notice this with li-ion packs on tools and equipment that have battery monitors – they normally warn of low remaining charge (10-25%) when cold, but if you simply warm the pack up to body temperature you’ll be back to 70%+ available capacity.
While I was referring to lithium primary cell batteries as you mentioned, lithium-ion rechargeable batteries have come a long way as well.
Right now I’m looking at a datasheet for Samsung’s INR18650-20R battery (3.6V, 2.0Ah), which Milwaukee uses in their latest M18 battery packs, and it’s rated for use down to -20°C (-4°F).
For this battery, the capacity drops to 60% at -4°F, and 80% at freezing. This if for a 10A constant current discharge. At room temperature, a 2.0Ah battery will last for about 12 minutes under a 10A load and single charge. Per the datasheet information, the battery will run for 9.6 minutes at the freezing point (32°F) and 7.2 minutes at -4°F.
High performance Li-ion batteries or battery packs wouldn’t be too bad to use in cold weather, but the discussion is somewhat apples vs. oranges.
The lowest power 18650 LED flashlight I could find with a quick search delivers 400 lumens, and it goes way up from there.
Thanks for the clarification about battery chemistry. It’s been a long time since I studied Chemical Kinetics – but recall that Arrhenius and Van’t Hoff had things to say (not to me personal as I’m not that old) about reaction rate dependence on temperature. As I recall , if the chemical reaction is not diffusion limited then simplification of Arrhenius’ equation might suggest as much as a halving of the chemical reaction rate for a 10 degree (Kelvin) drop in temperature. While EV batteries are not likely to show up in your flashlight, I’m guessing that with EV’s becoming more popular – the battery suppliers are working to improve cold weather performance – maybe by improving electrolyte conductivity, reducing conduction paths etc.
Maybe a tutorial on this topic would be worth a future post ?
It’s not so much the mean kinetic temperature and Arrhenius, it has more to do with the water content of the electrolytes. Lithium primary cells don’t have water, and therefore don’t freeze.
I don’t believe the Arrhenius equation is accurately applicable to electrochemistry, but will have to check.
As the Arrhenius equation supports that many common chemical reaction rates are reduced by 50% for every 10 degree drop in temperature, it also says that the chemical reaction rate would double for every 10 degree increase in temperature. This simply is not the case with batteries, which will perform no better – or worse – at elevated temperatures than at room temperature.
The internal resistance in battery cells increases as temperatures decrease. The electrochemical reactions slow down, possibly not exactly described by the Arrhenius equation, but ion mobility of the electrolyte will also be reduced. I believe this is why there is often a gradual decrease in capacity (or increases in losses) at lower temperatures, until the point where capacity plummets.
At the point where performance or capacity starts to drop drastically for any additional drop in temperature, that’s likely the point where the ion mobility in the electrolyte becomes significantly affected.
Very interesting information you have. My statement is… I live in Canada, we work outside in the cold…ie: along the highway at -20 and -30 Celsius.Or…framing a house with battery drills. The 18v lithium ion doesn’t last very long. If you leave your batteries in your work truck over night, your lucky to get 10 minutes out of them.
Does anyone know of a 3 volt LI battery (rechargeable) for flashlights that is better..
Thanks guys, good to see everyday topics of knowledge posted.
Will it harm a 2000 volt lithium battery if left in my car at -20 degrees below weather?
You’ll probably want to check with the manufacturer on that one.
What kind of uses are there for 2000V batteries?
Possibly the poster is referring to a 2000mAhr lith polymer battery?
I think you might agree that it’s not a good plan to store batteries in an environment that cycles thru extremes of temp – Condensation forming on the battery terminals will cause oxidation leading to a decrease in conductivity thru the terminals.
What about the old type of carbon-zinc batteries in the -24 Celsius weather we’re having today?
NiCd and NiMH works better on cold weather. Some NiCd have operating Temp as low as -40 °c and some good NiMH about -20°c
The problem with NiCd is that it is not environment friendly. Some countries even banned it. Also it has lower capacity usually 700mAh. The only good thing is the rechargeable ones charge really fast.
Lithium are expensive but slowly being used everywhere. So for best bang for buck I use NiMH on my outdoor devices.