Some owners may be surprised to learn their car includes a 12v lead-acid battery. We’ll explain why and delve into everything about the 12v battery used in Tesla vehicles today. (Updated Jun-2020)
- History and Use
- Battery Types
- Battery Longevity
- What is Different About How Tesla Uses the Battery?
- Improving Longevity
- Charging the 12v Battery
- Battery Failure Warning
- Battery Location
- What Kills an AGM Battery?
- Why Lithium-Ion 12v Battery is a Bad Idea
- Why Lithium-Iron Phosphate 12v Battery is a Good Idea
The earliest Tesla roadsters didn’t include a 12v battery but used a portion of the main lithium-ion pack to supply 12v for accessories and lights. This was not ideal, and in 2010 Tesla switched to a separate 12V battery in the Roadster 2.0. All Tesla vehicles since that time also include a separate 12v battery.
The reason for a separate 12v battery is to power critical systems in the event of a high-voltage battery disconnect. This keeps key systems operational such as emergency blinkers, airbags, seatbelt pre-tensioners, brake booster, and a host of other systems. The high-voltage battery might be disconnected due to several rare events – such as a high-impact crash, internal main battery pack problems such as some types of cell failures, a contactor failure, and a few other unlikely situations.
Many parts of the Tesla vehicles today are powered by the 12v battery, including:
- All lights, such as headlights, turn lights, fog lights, taillights, backup lights, license plate, and interior lights
- LCD Display –Instrument Cluster (S/X) and the main display
- The MCU and many modules with processors (50+ in the Model S/X)
- Non-traction motors, such as windows, liftgate (S/X), wipers, washer fluid, seat motors, side mirror adjusts, sunroof (if equipped) charge port door, steering assist, fans, valves, and coolant pumps
- An audio system including tuners, antenna amplifiers, and audio amplifiers
- Safety systems, such as airbags, brake booster, and seatbelt pre-tensioners
- Autopilot systems including cameras, sensors, and radar
- Heated items, if equipped such as seats, steering wheel, washer nozzle, side mirrors, rear defrost and camera heaters.
- Other items like the alarm, rearview mirror dimmer, USB ports, horn, HomeLink, air suspension (if equipped) and various latches (doors, trunk, frunk, glovebox)
- High-voltage battery pack contactors
Only a few items are directly powered by the high-voltage battery pack. This includes the traction motor(s), the a/c compressor, cabin air heater, battery coolant heater (S/X only) and the DC to DC converter for 12v power and charging the 12v battery.
Tesla ran into a major snag with the introduction of the Model S in 2012. The 12v battery was sourced from an American firm, who unbeknownst to Tesla, outsourced the battery to China, and the Chinese company outsourced it to Vietnam! The quality was sub-standard and rarely lasted more than a year. Tesla switched vendors in 2013 and replaced all the marginal batteries in early build cars with a far more reliable battery under warranty.
The Model S uses a 33 or 35 Ah sealed AGM (Absorbed Glass Mat) deep-cycle lead-acid battery. One early supplier for the pre-refresh Model S was the C&D Technologies DCS-33IT, now discontinued. For these older cars, Tesla now recommends the C&D DCS33-UNCR. For the refreshed Model S, Tesla now uses the AtlasBX U1 a 35 Ah AGM battery.
The Model X uses a 40 Ah AGM battery. The primary battery used is the AtlasBX with the model 60B19RS.
The Model 3 uses a 45 Ah, AGM Battery. One supplier is AtlasBX with the model 85B24LS.
AGM batteries provide more power for size and weight than traditional lead-acid batteries. Deep cycle versions, like those used in Tesla vehicles, are designed to be repetitively charged and discharged. If you were to use a typical lead-acid battery in this application, it may only last a few months! AGM batteries are also sealed, which eliminates acid spilling accidents and the need to periodically add water.
In new Tesla cars, the 12V battery lasts about 3-4 years for most owners, although paradoxically, if you put a few miles on the car, it may last as little as 1-2 years. The difference is how many discharge/charge cycles the battery goes through and how deeply the battery is discharged. When driving, the DC-DC converter helps power the 12v system, and fewer charge cycles occur. A car left sitting, will need more charge cycles, and will age the 12v battery faster. Some Model S owners still have the original battery after 4 years and over 170,000 miles of use! The Model 3 is too new to evaluate its battery longevity, but Tesla made considerable changes to the electronics, which may increase battery life as well.
Your Tesla maintains power for some key computer systems all the time, so you can disarm the alarm, unlock the car with your FOB (or phone for the Model 3), and when you enter the car, everything starts up without any pause. In addition, the cellular connection for remote access needs power. All these systems require power even when the car is not in use. This is often called the car’s vampire drain. Tesla, via software, has significantly reduced the vampire drain of all cars over the years, but it can’t be eliminated.
Newer cars also use modules that take a bit less power when the car is parked, so that helps. Even the oldest cars should easily get 2-3 years of 12v battery life, although there can be rare exceptions. Just like ICE cars, sometimes the battery fails prematurely.
Often an ICE car goes 3 to 5 years before replacement. The way the 12v battery is used in ICE cars is quite different than an EV. When the motor is running, normally the alternator powers all the 12v items in the car and charges the battery. The primary use of the 12v ICE battery is to start the car, which takes 2-3 seconds with very high currents. After starting the car, the battery is not really used. When the car is off, very little power is used, otherwise the battery would die in short order.
A few BMW ICE models, and perhaps other makers, use a far larger battery and intermittently use the alternator. This reduces gas use with less alternator drag on the motor. The downside is the far more charge/discharge cycles means the battery is replaced about once a year, a $700 hit in the BMW!
Tesla provides one option that may slightly improve the 12v battery longevity if that is important to you. Turn off Mobile Access. This means you cannot access the car via your phone app.
For most owners, the battery replacement cost is a negligible part of the ownership costs. Having remote access is a great feature, usually worth trading off for a slightly shorter 12v battery life.
The 12v battery is always charged via a DC-DC converter from the main battery pack. This takes the packs high voltage and converts it to about 14v to charge the 12v battery. It’s a bit more complex, as the voltage to charge the AGM battery is tightly regulated and is compensated due to temperature.
Even when you are charging the car, only the main pack is connected to external power. While quite rare, if the DC-DC converter fails, the 12v battery can no longer be charged.
The Gen 2 DC-DC converter in the refreshed Model S accepts 220 to 430 VDC at 15 amps and outputs 9 to 16 VDC. When outputting 12 VDC, it can deliver about 200 amps.
The Model 3 and Y integrates the charger and the DC-DC converter into a single package, the PCS (Power Conversion System).
Tesla included additional hardware at the battery to help detect when the battery is nearing its end of life. Should the battery get within 3-4 weeks of the end, Tesla warns you with a clear message that the 12v battery needs replacement. This is dramatically better than most ICE cars, where the battery dies without much if any, warning.
Part of the reason ICE car batteries often die unexpectedly is the type of battery used. A standard lead-acid battery will degrade over time, but the lead sheds during use and can short out plates at some point, causing the immediate cell death. An AGM battery, like the ones Tesla uses, should never fail this way.
In all Tesla, the 12v battery is located under the hood. Over the years and models, it has moved around somewhat. The classic Model S RWD had the battery deep on the passenger side in front of the firewall. This location is tricky to get access too, but a trained Tesla tech can often replace this battery in less than 20 minutes. For someone not familiar with the process, it will take quite a bit longer.
Starting with the AWD Model S, the battery was relocated to be easier to access and replace – on par with most ICE cars. The location remains about the same for the S, X, 3, and Y. There are several easy to remove plastic panels to gain access to the battery. No tools are required to gain access.
One rare failure mode is open contact between two cells. This is usually caused by improper manufacture of the battery or an external short. The battery voltage goes from normal to zero as soon as the open occurs, usually early in the life of the battery.
Heat is also bad for an AGM battery, but the heat conditions encountered in a Tesla are fine. AGM batteries are not suitable in an ICE engine compartment that exceed the AGM’s maximum charging temperature of 140°F (60°C).
There are 12v lithium-ion drop-in replacements for ICE car batteries. These are quite a bit more expensive but do weigh less – so you’d think they would be great in an EV. Not so fast. Turns out for Tesla’s application the frequent deep charge/discharge cycles would greatly shorten the life of a lithium-ion battery designed for ICE cars, perhaps only lasting 6 months to a year. Since there is no climate control on the 12v battery, it’s life would also be shortened if you encounter climate extremes. Lithium-ion 12v battery makes little economic sense in a Tesla.
Ohmmu makes a 12v battery replacement specifically for Teslas. These batteries use different chemistry that works in a Tesla and should give superior life over the standard AGM battery. This special chemistry is not as energy-dense as conventional Lithium-Ion cells, so they are not effective for the main battery, but can work well in Tesla’s 12v application. These batteries handle a wide temperature range, support deep discharges, and many more charging cycles than the AGM battery. Ohmmu includes a 4-year warranty. The only downside we see is the expense.