It’s often said that prevention is better than cure. However, the new battery installation standards in Australia will probably do more harm than good towards battery manufacturers, installers and customers. Released by Standards Australia in October, the AS/NZS 5139:2019 standard looks at electrical installations and the safety of battery systems that are used with power conversion equipment for all home battery storage systems under 200kWh.

One of the key concerns of the standard is that it fails to recognise that not all home batteries are created equal. The released standard puts all home battery systems – from individual battery modules and pre-assembled battery systems to pre-assembled integrated battery energy storage systems (BESS), regardless of chemistry type – in the same category with terms of safety.

However, systems produced by different manufacturers using different battery technology will perform and function very differently. For example, some systems have batteries, a built-in inverter and management systems all in one enclosure, while others are made up of components from a range of companies and can only operate with a compatible inverter.

Manufacturers supplying home battery systems are already subject to a multitude of Australian as well as internationally recognised standards to allow their products to be sold and installed in Australia.

Sonnen systems already complies with BESS product safety standards set by the Clean Energy Council under its battery assurance program. It is one of 14 home battery brands that are compliant with the product safety standards in the best practice guide for battery storage equipment electrical safety requirements.

The general consensus in the industry has been the one size fits all approach in the published standard simply does not work. It places large home battery manufacturers such as LG Chem, sonnen and Tesla who have an established safe installation track record, product design investment in R&D, manufacturing and international compliance testing and certification in the same category as some battery system manufacturers who have not placed the same rigour in developing home battery systems.

This new standard covers the installation of all batteries – both grid-connected and off-grid – and poses unfair limitations on lithium-based batteries which in many cases is unnecessary given the proven stability, safety and strong track record of these technologies which are already deployed globally. With over 50,000 installed systems globally, sonnen has not recorded a single fire hazard incident in over 10 years of operations.

The new standard has not made any consideration as to how home battery systems and their capabilities have evolved since the standard was drafted from battery technologies that existed in Australia five years ago.

What it has failed to acknowledge is how battery and safety technology have improved over time, as well as international safety and testing certification. Many home battery systems available in the market are more stable and safer to operate than the standard acknowledges.

New installation requirements

The international standard IEC 62619, which has been adopted in Australia, already defines testing procedures to highlight which batteries are safe for installation in households and as such, makes up part of the listing requirement by the CEC. What Standards Australia has not recognised in the final publication is developments in UL Standards as well as the fundamental principle for the need for a product standard to be in place before an installation standard.

To address the perception of a fire risk, the released standards has outlined two major requirements that will have a significant impact on manufacturers, installers and homeowners.

If a wall is classed as made from combustible material, that is, anything that is not brick or tiled, will require additional compressed concrete sheeting to be installed as a fire barrier. It will be compulsory for installations on any walls which are connected to a room that is habitable (for example, a living room or laundry). The concrete sheeting must be placed between the wall and a battery unit and have a clearance area of 600mm on either side of the battery and 900mm above the battery. Additionally, if the battery system is within 900mm of any ceiling then the ceiling also needs to be covered to 600mm larger than the extent of the system’s cabinet.

Clearance restrictions of an additional 600mm will apply with doorways, windows, stairs, ventilation, hot water systems, air-conditioning to any other non-associated electrical appliance. These restrictions are likely to significantly impact on the installation of home batteries in garages due to space constraints should there be existing appliances that are already installed in these garages.

Implications for manufacturers

The estimated cost to install a home battery is likely to increase by up to $1,000 for each site depending on a manufacturer’s battery type and dimension. Installers will also need to allocate more time for battery systems to be installed to the new standards.

Besides adding costs which are unnecessary, this makes the installation of home battery systems much more complex and restrictive. The space requirements specified by Standards Australia may also rule out battery installations for some homes even though accredited battery systems are internally certified to not be a fire risk or have been proven to be a risk and are even classified to have “no fire risk” in the standard itself.

With product variations in each home battery, manufacturers like sonnen are working closely in consultation with industry partners to identify what is the most effective approach to adopt. Some manufacturers may even be required to modify their product to meet the new standards imposed on the industry.

What lies ahead

Since the AS/NZS 5139:2019 is now a published standard, installers and home battery manufacturers will need to comply. Many installers and manufacturers are only starting to get their heads around the revised standards and will be working closely with the Smart Energy Council and Clean Energy Council for updates.

A process is underway to lodge an amendment application to have the onerous risk mitigation requirements removed from the standard for products that have proven that the risks do not apply. Sonnen does acknowledge there are products on the market and product arrangements which are unproven and therefore may well require additional fire proofing, not as a prevention to known or experienced risks but due to lack of evidence to support the fact that the risk does not exist.

Likewise, the Battery Best Practice Guide for battery systems has also kicked off a review to broaden its scope for battery technologies and call up testing parameters of newly published international standards for the purpose of safety. The irony of AS/NS 5139:2019 is that when the Best Practice Guide gets updated to reflect the cutting edge of product safety, it will fall outside of the scope of recognition as the installation standard clearly locks in version one of the guide, meaning that it only recognises product certification from back in 2018.

The adoption of home batteries in Australia is still at its infancy when compared to rooftop solar panels. State governments have embraced the role of home battery systems in providing greater energy independence to homeowners through subsidy schemes and/or interest-free loans. The industry sees the new standard as overbearing with unnecessary assumptions on risk and it is likely to create a speed bump for the home battery market.

What may be perceived as a preventative measure has certainly not been a cure.

James Sturch is technical director Australia and New Zealand for sonnen.