Why Batteries Discharge More Quickly in Cold Weather

The Effect of Temperature on Batteries

Man jump starting a car in snow

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If you live in a place that gets a cold winter, you know to keep jumper cables in your car because there's a good chance you or someone you know will have a dead battery. If you use your phone or camera in really cold weather, its battery life drops, too. Why do batteries discharge more quickly in cold weather?

Key Takeaways: Why Batteries Lose Charge When It's Cold

  • How long batteries hold their charge and how quickly they discharge when used depends on battery design and temperature.
  • Cool batteries hold a charge longer than warm batteries. Cold batteries discharge faster than hot batteries.
  • Most batteries can be damaged by excessive temperature and may ignite or explode if it's too hot.
  • Refrigerating charged batteries may help them hold their charge, but it's best to use the batteries near room temperature to ensure they last as long as possible.

The Effect of Temperature on Batteries

The electric current generated by a battery is produced when a connection is made between its positive and negative terminals. When the terminals are connected, a chemical reaction is initiated that generates electrons to supply the current of the battery. Lowering the ambient temperature causes chemical reactions to proceed more slowly, so a battery used at a low temperature produces less current than at a higher temperature. As cold batteries run down they quickly reach the point where they cannot deliver enough current to keep up with the demand. If the battery is warmed up again it will operate normally.

One solution to this problem is to make certain batteries are warm just prior to use. Preheating batteries is not unusual for certain situations. Automotive batteries are protected somewhat if a vehicle is in a garage, although trickle chargers (aka battery maintainers) may be needed if the temperature is very low. If the battery is already warm and insulated, it may make sense to use the battery's own power to operate a heating coil. Keep smaller batteries in a pocket.

It is reasonable to have batteries warm for use, but the discharge curve for most batteries is more dependent on battery design and chemistry than on temperature. This means that if the current drawn by the equipment is low in relation to the power rating of the cell, then the effect of temperature may be negligible.

On the other hand, when a battery is not in use, it will slowly lose its charge as a result of leakage between the terminals. This chemical reaction is also temperature-dependent, so unused batteries will lose their charge more slowly at cooler temperatures than at warmer temperatures. For example, certain rechargeable batteries may go flat in approximately two weeks at normal room temperature but may last more than twice as long if refrigerated.

Bottom Line on the Effect of Temperature on Batteries

  • Cold batteries hold their charge longer than room temperature batteries; hot batteries don't hold a charge as well as room temperature or cold batteries. It's good practice to store unused batteries in a cool location.
  • Cold batteries discharge faster than warmer batteries, so if you're using a cold battery, keep a warm one in reserve. If batteries are small, keeping them in a jacket pocket is usually good enough.
  • Some types of batteries are adversely affected by high temperatures. A runaway effect can occur, potentially leading to a fire or explosion. This is commonly seen in lithium batteries, such as you might find in a laptop or cell phone.
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Your Citation
Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Why Batteries Discharge More Quickly in Cold Weather." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/why-batteries-discharge-quickly-cold-weather-607889. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2020, August 28). Why Batteries Discharge More Quickly in Cold Weather. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/why-batteries-discharge-quickly-cold-weather-607889 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "Why Batteries Discharge More Quickly in Cold Weather." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/why-batteries-discharge-quickly-cold-weather-607889 (accessed May 31, 2023).