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By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
One thing mechanical officials never want to worry about — or even think about — is whether their locomotives will start. C&S officials, too, shouldn’t have to wonder if crossing gates, wayside signals or switch machines are operational. With more strain being placed on rail networks and, therefore, equipment, than ever before, it’s vital that railroads install reliable batteries.
And railroads are willing to spend more for a reliable battery or solar-power system. In return, they expect the products to hold a charge longer, require little maintenance and provide a high power output, suppliers say.
So, suppliers are continuing to upgrade decades-old products with features designed to suit today’s railroads and expand product lines to include new battery sizes, maintenance-free batteries, and renewable energy power systems and components.
Surrette Battery Co., for one, offers a line of flooded locomotive starting batteries in various sizes and two versions: monoblock, featuring four cell units that each hold an eight-volt battery, and unitized, featuring a pair of 16-cell batteries.
Fine-tuning flooded batteries
Flooded lead acid batteries — which feature plates situated in an acid-filled case — need to be watered at regular intervals, though most suppliers have extended battery watering cycles.
For example, Surrette offers a cap that captures hydrogen and oxygen, then recycles the gases into the battery as water, extending watering cycles from 90 to 180 days, says President James Surrette.
EnerSys Inc. manufactures locomotive starting batteries with longer watering cycles, too. EnerSys — which also provides locomotive battery repair services — offers a tubular positive plate battery that lasts longer than standard batteries and a flat plate battery, both of which extend watering to 180 days, says Elvin Beck, vice president of National Railway Supply Inc. (NRS), which markets EnerSys batteries.
Extended watering cycles also are a standard feature on locomotive starting batteries manufactured by GNB Industrial Power, a division of Exide Technologies.
And, Exide/GNB offers railroads another option to reduce battery maintenance: the Element™ SLS series. The line of sealed locomotive starting batteries absorb electrolytes in glass mat separators, enabling oxygen to recombine within the battery to eliminate the need for watering.
GE - Transportation recently installed the batteries in 120 new Norfolk Southern Railway locomotives; NS plans to specify Element SLS batteries for new locomotives this year, says Sid Bakker, vice president and director of engineering for Transportation Products Sales Co. (TPSC), which markets Exide/GNB batteries.
Exide/GNB plans to expand the SLS product line and currently is developing a sealed battery for Electro-Motive Diesel Inc. locomotives, says TPSC President Walter Winzen.
Although Exide/GNB recently began offering sealed batteries for locomotive starting applications, the company has been marketing sealed batteries for C&S applications for years.
Exide/GNB currently offers the fourth generation of the Absolyte® IIP valve-regulated lead acid battery, which was introduced in 1983. Every Class I and most regionals in the United States have purchased the Absolyte IIP, says Bakker.
The explosion-resistant battery can be installed inside a bungalow instead of in a battery box outside the enclosure.
Another space-saving battery: C&D Technologies Inc.’s Liberty® Series 1000 sealed lead acid C&S batteries, which don’t need to be stored in a large battery box.
The small footprint batteries feature six individual cells inside each case that can be connected in various ways to provide different combinations of voltage and capacity, says Phil Hess, western region sales manager for Rails Co., which markets C&D Technologies’ batteries.
EnerSys also supplies lead acid batteries designed for C&S applications. The company’s PowerSafe group recently introduced a version that contains only pure leads and can operate in extreme hot or cold temperatures, says NRS’ Beck.
In addition, EnerSys produces nickel cadmium C&S batteries. The company recently purchased a nickel cadmium plant in Germany, which will produce batteries for the rail industry.
Meanwhile, many roads are using Saft nickel cadmium C&S batteries to power highway crossings because of their 20- to 25-year life expectancy, says Tom Ulrich, president of The Arthur N. Ulrich Co., which markets the batteries. Nickel cadmium batteries are more expensive than lead acid batteries, but last longer, he says.
“In the last five years, railroads have spent more up front to gain better reliability and lower life-cycle costs,” says Ulrich.
There’s another power supply industry trend that’s evolved over the past few years — more railroads are turning to solar power as an alternative to maintaining or replacing pole lines in remote locations. Solar products can power various equipment, from wayside signaling systems to crossings to switch machines. So, several suppliers offer batteries designed to provide renewable energy.
For the past decade, Exide/GNB has offered the Sunlyte photovoltaic and alternative energy valve-regulated lead acid battery. Thousands of the batteries have since been installed in solar-powered switch machines, says TPSC’s Bakker.
Surrette Battery also markets a renewable energy battery. In the past year, the company has introduced larger sizes that provide 3,435 and 2,400 amps per hour.
“Systems are getting larger and the components they support are getting larger, so railroads want larger batteries and fewer of them,” says James Surrette.
For the past few years, Saft has marketed the Sunica.plus nickel cadmium battery designed for solar and wind energy applications. NS, BNSF Railway Co., CSX Transportation and Union Pacific Railroad either have tested or plan to begin testing the battery, says Ulrich.
“We’ve really just begun deploying them in the last year,” he says. “I think it’s going to gain popularity.”
Soaking up the sun
The Ulrich Co. and other suppliers hope for a similar response to their solar power systems. During the past few months, The Ulrich Co. has begun marketing the systems — which the company has been designing for several years — through division RedHawk Energy Systems.
The division provides solar, solar hybrid and integrated power systems.
Solar hybrid systems incorporate solar and wind power, solar power and a generator set, or a combination of all three. Integrated power systems, which RedHawk recently developed for BNSF, include batteries, controls and a hybrid generator set.
“It’s essentially a drop-in power source,” says Ulrich.
Kyocera Solar Inc., which also supplies solar power systems, last year boosted the power output of its solar modules from 120 watts to 130 watts. Kyocera plans to continue increasing power output.
“We want to squeeze more energy out of the same surface area,” says Industrial Products Sales Manager Rich Griswold.
Kyocera supplies solar power systems to most Class Is and several short lines in the United States, as well as railroads in Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Australia.
Demand has picked up in recent years because roads have determined solar power systems are more reliable and cost effective in remote locations than pole lines, which are susceptible to damage from ice or tree branches, says Griswold.
“Solar becomes economically feasible in areas where a railroad needs to extend a power line or run power over a great distance,” he says.
More railroads also are beginning to acquire Kyocera’s hybrid solar power systems, which utilize more than one power source to maintain a charge. Similar to the RedHawk hybrid system, Kyocera uses wind machines and/or propane-powered engine generators to back up the solar power system.
“That’s the biggest shift over the last year — we’re seeing more hybrid power supplies as railroads seek higher reliability,” says Griswold. “It’s a low-cost method of backing up the solar system and makes it more reliable. When the sun’s not shining, the wind’s usually blowing.”
Whether it’s a solar power system, or locomotive or C&S battery, reliability is always key. When a power system fails, it isn’t only a railroad that’s inconvenienced.
“If it’s a battery at a crossing that fails, you’re dealing with public safety. If it’s a battery at a signal that fails, you have to slow down traffic,” says Ulrich. “Railroads cannot afford to compromise reliability.”