There are three types of chargers for nickel-based batteries. They are:
Slow Charger — Also known as ‘overnight charger’ or ‘normal charger’, the slow-charger applies a fixed charge rate of about 0.1C (one tenth of the rated capacity) for as long as the battery is connected. Typical charge time is 14 to 16 hours. In most cases, no full-charge detection occurs to switch the battery to a lower charge rate at the end of the charge cycle. The slow-charger is inexpensive and can be used for NiCd batteries only. With the need to service both NiCd and NiMH, these chargers are being replaced with more advanced units.
If the charge current is set correctly, a battery in a slow-charger remains lukewarm to the touch when fully charged. In this case, the battery does not need to be removed immediately when ready but should not stay in the charger for more than a day. The sooner the battery can be removed after being fully charged, the better it is.
A problem arises if a smaller battery (lower mAh) is charged with a charger designed to service larger packs. Although the charger will perform well in the initial charge phase, the battery starts to heat up past the 70 percent charge level. Because there is no provision to lower the charge current or to terminate the charge, heat-damaging over-charge will occur in the second phase of the charge cycle. If an alternative charger is not available, the user is advised to observe the temperature of the battery being charged and disconnect the battery when it is warm to the touch.
The opposite may also occur when a larger battery is charged on a charger designed for a smaller battery. In such a case, a full charge will never be reached. The battery remains cold during charge and will not perform as expected. A nickel-based battery that is continuously undercharged will eventually loose its ability to accept a full charge due to memory.
Quick Charger — The so-called quick-charger, or rapid charger, is one of the most popular. It is positioned between the slow-charger and the fast-charger, both in terms of charging time and price. Charging takes 3 to 6 hours and the charge rate is around 0.3C. Charge control is required to terminate the charge when the battery is ready. The well designed quick-charger provides better service to nickel-based batteries than the slow-charger. Batteries last longer if charged with higher currents, provided they remain cool and are not overcharged. The quick-chargers are made to accommodate either nickel-based or lithium-based batteries. These two chemistries can normally not be interchanged in the same charger.
Fast Charger — The fast-charger offers several advantages over the other chargers; the obvious one is shorter charge times. Because of the larger power supply and the more expensive control circuits needed, the fast-charger costs more than slower chargers, but the investment is returned in providing good performing batteries that live longer.
The charge time is based on the charge rate, the battery’s SoC, its rating and the chemistry. At a 1C charge rate, an empty NiCd typically charges in a little more than an hour. When a battery is fully charged, some chargers switch to a topping charge mode governed by a timer that completes the charge cycle at a reduced charge current. Once fully charged, the charger switches to trickle charge. This maintenance charge compensates for the self-discharge of the battery.
Modern fast-chargers commonly accommodate both NiCd and NiMH batteries. Because of the fast-charger’s higher charge current and the need to monitor the battery during charge, it is important to charge only batteries specified by the manufacturer. Some battery manufacturers encode the batteries electrically to identify their chemistry and rating. The charger then sets the correct charge current and algorithm for the battery intended. Lead Acid and Li-ion chemistries are charged with different algorithms and are not compatible with the charge methods used for nickel-based batteries.
It is best to fast charge nickel-based batteries. A slow charge is known to build up a crystalline formation on nickel-based batteries, a phenomenon that lowers battery performance and shortens service life. The battery temperature during charge should be moderate and the temperature peak kept as short as possible.
It is not recommended to leave a nickel-based battery in the charger for more than a few days, even with a correctly set trickle charge current. If a battery must remain in a charger for operational readiness, an exercise cycle should be applied once every month.