by John Salt - Updated March 2021
RC Battery Chargers are one of the single most important items you need to purchase when getting into electric flight, or any electric powered RC vehicle for that matter. LiPo batteries have after all revolutionized our hobby.
LiPo RC chargers are also one of the most misunderstood items in the hobby and most people just get what the advertisement or sales person recommends without doing a little research first.
This generally leads to getting an inadequate charger for your needs; either overpowered, but in most cases under-powered or without some very important features. I will also be talking about how you power your charger because I get so many e-mails on that single topic alone and once again, there are many misconceptions.
Since LiPo and various forms of lithium chemistry such as LiFe, and lithium ion, are so popular these days, good lithium battery charging & balancing support is what makes or breaks a computerized charger in my opinion.
Recent marketeering has started calling computerized RC battery chargers "smart chargers."
I have no idea where, why, or how this misnomer started, but it's factual nonsense; at least if you accept the industry standard definition of a smart device.
"A smart device is defined as a microprocessor controlled electronic device, connected to other such devices or networks via different wireless protocols such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooh, 3,4,5G, etc."
So, I'll be sticking with the term "computerized charger" throughout this article. There are BUMP & Spektrum true Smart chargers, and I'll talk about them too shortly - I'm not a fan...
With that said, modern day computerized RC chargers certainly could be considered smart in that they have small microprocessors running sophisticated charging & discharging algorithms with voltage, current, and temperature sensing to provide automatic, efficient, and safe usage and improved battery health.
In this day and age with all the good computerized RC battery chargers
on the market, the only chargers that I am going to talk about and
recommend support all rechargeable battery types (NiCad, NIMH, PB, and
of course lithium); the reason being, one charger will support all your
Myself, I'm an iCharger guy... iCharger in my opinion offer the best bang and quality for your charging buck. I've been using their various chargers for over 10 years now and have been very happy with the long term performance. That's something I can't say for most other brands.
Getting a quality computerized battery charger should be seen as an investment for your long term enjoyment of this hobby, most certainly if you are into electric powered flight. Computerized chargers have all sorts of benefits, but there are three that stand out in my opinion:
The Video below shows me charging the wife's vehicle battery with one of my iChargers. Computerized RC battery chargers like this offer great value for many charging applications beyond that of RC.
A short video I made below showing the basics of how to use a typical RC battery charger to charge a LiPo battery.
The first item to consider when looking at a computerized RC Battery Charger is how much power it can deliver and maximum cell count it will support.
Cell count is pretty easy to figure out, and most good computerized RC battery chargers support at least 6S LiPo cell counts and up to 15 or more NiCad, NIMH celled packs. The confusion for most comes into play with the maximum charge current.
This is where many people select the wrong charger for their actual needs. From my LiPo battery write up , you have a good understanding of the amount of charge current measured in amps that your specific battery can handle. You must understand that before you can determine what size charger you need; so if you haven’t read my LiPo page, or it is still a little foggy, have another look.
Let’s take a popular size LiPo used in a 500 size/class helicopter for example such as a 3000 mAh 6S (22.5V) pack. At a 1C charge rate, the charge current for this battery would be 3.0 Amps. A 2C charge rate (getting to be very normal these days) would be 6.0 Amps.
So when you go out to get your RC Battery charger, your thought is to get one with at least a 6 Amp charge rate – right? Well, there is another very important specification on RC battery chargers that you must also look at, and that is the wattage output rating (measured in Watts).
The problem is many RC battery charger manufacturers just boast of the maximum charge current & voltage or cell count.
Without the wattage rating, you may be in for a big surprise the first time you go to charge your battery and select a high current charge rate only to find out that the charger won’t deliver it.
Watts are calculated by multiplying the voltage by the Amps.
So our 3000 mAh 6S LiPo battery when it's near a full charge voltage of 25.2 volts while being charged at 3 Amps, will be drawing about 76 watts of power (25.2 volts x 3.0 Amps).
If we charged it at a 2C rate, that wattage number would increase to around 150 Watts (25.2 x 6.0) and so on.
This doesn’t take into account any efficiency losses in the charger or the input voltage to the charger which also both play a roll. However, for ease of explanation, let’s just say if that’s the largest battery you will ever charge at nothing higher than a 2C charge rate, you need to get a charger rated not only at a 6 Amp charge rate, but also a 150 Watt or higher power rating.
If the charger is only rated at 80 Watts for example, but boasts a 10 Amp charge rate, it would still be able to only deliver about 3 Amps when a 6 cell LiPo is nearing it’s full charge voltage of 25.2 volts (80W divided by 25.2 volts = 3.17 Amps).
As you can see, even though the charger is rated at a maximum 10 Amp charge rate, it would only be able to deliver 3 Amps at 25.2 volts and that is not taking into account any efficiency losses that are usually in the 10% range reducing the charge current even more.
So why can the charger manufacturer in this example claim a maximum charge rate of 10 Amps?
Well, depending on the voltage of the battery you are charging, a 10 Amp charge rate is possible. If you were charging a two cell LiPo pack for example (8.4 volts fully charged) on this 80 Watt charger, at that voltage it will be able to deliver almost 10 Amps (80W divided by 8.4 volts = 9.5 Amps).
The manufacturer is certainly not lying about the maximum charge rate, but if they don’t include the wattage rating of the charger along with that number, you are only getting half the story!
With more advanced charging methods such as multiple pack parallel charging becoming very popular, even if you never got into larger models that required higher voltage/capacity battery packs, even an 80 Watt charger would be somewhat limiting.
The good news is some of these very high wattage RC battery
chargers don’t really cost that much more than lower powered ones.
If you intend on getting into 500 size and larger birds down the road and want to charge at higher C rates or want to charge multiple packs in parallel to save time, you really have to start looking at more powerful chargers in the 200 to 400 Watt range. For instance, a typical 550 size electric RC helicopter uses a 5000 mAh 6S battery pack.
At a 2C charge rate, the charger would have to not only support
both a 6 cell count (25.2 volts) and a 10 Amp charge rate, but would have to be rated
at a bare minimum of 250 Watts (10 Amps x 25.2 volts).
As I mentioned, this one gets lots of email time, and in fact many folks are pretty upset when they get any computerized RC battery charger to find out it doesn’t come with any way to power it!
Yes, you generally need to purchase or build a separate power supply. WHY?
There are several reasons, cost and size being the biggest two, followed by charging out at the flying field. Almost every computerized charger on the market is built to accept at minimum, a 12-14 VDC input from a vehicle battery or flight box battery to charge your batts out at the field.
Some of the better RC Battery charges on the market will accept over 30 volts DC in order to charge higher voltage packs more efficiently at higher charge and wattage ratings but will still operate at lower voltages as well.
There are certainly some computerized chargers on the market that have the ability to support both a 12 VDC input and household 120 AC using a built in power supply. The problem with all these “built in power supplies” is they offer very low power and only work with lower power chargers up to about 50-100 Watts maximum.
The reason the output is limited comes down to size... To pump out 100 Watts or more at 14 VDC, the power supplies get large; much larger than the chargers in fact; not to mention the heat that large power supplies generate that would cook the charger without adequate cooling fans and heat sinks that would make them even bigger.
There are a few 100 – 125 Watt RC battery chargers on the market that have built in power supplies but they are usually big, heavy, and expensive not to mention 125 Watts is nothing these days. You can get into a nice 250 to 350 Watt charger and separate power supply for much less money since the price of high amperage power supplies and chargers has plummeted in recent years with higher power RC electric flight becoming so popular.
Depending on the RC battery charger you get, will dictate the power supply you need. For example if you were to get a 250 Watt charger, you would need a power supply rated at about 20 amps @ 14 volts output (20 amps x 14 volts = 280 Watts). Remember, no charger will run at 100% efficiency, there are always losses so if the charger is rated at 90% efficiency for example, that 280 Watt number comes in at about 252 watts at 90%.
These are very basic calculations and things like how the power
supply is rated and the output voltage all come into play, but this
should give you a good starting point when choosing a power supply. If
your power supply is under rated, a good computerized RC battery charger
will simply limit the amount of charge current it is able to deliver,
it won’t ruin the charger, but it could perhaps overheat the power
supply if you are pushing it to its maximum rating. In other words, it's better to over-size your power supply then under-size it.
Most power supplies these days, even the fairly cheap ones will have over current and over heat protection so it is generally not an issue, you just wouldn't be able to charge at the maximum charge rate your charger is rated at as the power supply automatically starts limiting output if it is being overworked.
Many of the features to look for in a good computerized RC battery charger I already covered on the LiPo Battery page, but here is a recap plus other important features:
If you're not sure of what BUMP or Spektrum Smart technology is, it's basically an RC charger that reads a "digital" identification signal from a BUMP/Smart equipped battery. Yes, these are true "smart" chargers.
The idea is all you have to do is swipe or tap the area of the battery that has the identification chip (tag) onto the charger's external or internal BUMP/Smart receiver/controller and it automatically selects the correct charging/other settings for that specific battery.
Are we really becoming that lazy and dependent on microprocessors to do all the thinking for us?
Moreover, consider the drawbacks such as premium priced proprietary battery packs, lack of charging control, and forget about multi pack parallel charging. Sure, you can override to select all that manually, but then why spend the BUMP/Smart premium in the first place if you are going to be manually overriding it all the time?
Again, this is just my opinion; but I really do see this as nothing more than a bunch of marketers sitting up into the wee hours of the morning, inventing something we don't need or even want; but trying to convince us we do. No doubt, it will appeal to some newbies who don't want to learn about all this cool RC charging stuff.
BUMP/Smart rant over with, back to what to look for in a good computerized charger.
This is a really simple calculation I use to determine the "working value" of any RC battery charger. If you divided the price of the charger into the number of Watts, you get the dollar per Watt value.
For example, a $150.00 dollar charger that has a maximum Wattage rating of 500 Watts, would therefor have a cost of $0.3 or 30 cents per Watt. ($150.00/500 Watts)
This is not the only value consideration number to go by naturally. You need to consider features and quality as well, but cost per Watt is one of the first things I look at when deciding between two or more chargers with similar specifications, features, and quality.
To help you out, in all the following charger recommendations, I will jot down the cost per Watt (CPW) number in red.
Many RC battery chargers these days are very similar in operation and menu/button layout which is convenient.
The generic name "4-button charger" is used often to describe them (just like the example I used in that video above). It goes without saying, all the chargers I list support all common RC battery chemistry's such as NiCad, NiMh, PB, and of course all lithium types (LiPo, LiFe, LiIon).
These are a few recommendations based on features, price, and quality. These of course are just my recommendations and new chargers are hitting the market all the time, but my recommendations should give you a good idea of what's out there, pricing, and what to look for in a good computerized RC battery charger.
I feel one of the better value and quality RC battery chargers that you can easily find online is the SkyRC iMax B6AC V2.
It's a combination AC/DC charger meaning the power supply is built right into the charger so you can just plug it into any standard household AC outlet.
It can also be powered from a DC power source such as a vehicle battery for field/track charging.
At around $60.00 USD, the value is good.
Like most chargers with built in power supplies, it's low on power at only 6A & 50 Watts. This is not a charger for people who need more serious charging power in other words, but for newbies just starting out with smaller RC aircraft that don't have too many packs to charge, it makes for a nice first charger. ($1.20 per Watt)
Once past the realm of the lower power chargers, and you are getting into larger birds or multiple pack parallel charging, it's time to start looking at higher power options such as this amazing small yet powerful iCharger X6.
You may be surprised to find out most have considerably lower cost per Watt numbers and offer better value in that respect, but remember, they don't come with any sort of built in power supply.
They are powered externally from an AC to DC power supply or a DC battery (such as a car battery or several car batteries).
As I already mentioned, my personal top pick when it comes to computerized RC battery chargers goes to the iCharger line. Buddy RC in Columbus Ohio is where I have gotten all mine. These chargers offer both long term quality and the best charging bang for buck in my opinion (best power to cost ratio).
They are robust, reliable, and accurate. Most everyone loves them! Their highest power one is the 4010 Duo rated at a whopping 2000 Watts!
The pricing for these chargers as I mentioned is outstanding.
Advanced features they offer include:
PC interface data logging, automatic variable speed cooling fan, internal resistance measurements, intelligent balance charging, and regenerative discharging, intuitive & easy to navigate menus to name just a few of my favorite features.
Here are the basic specifications for the full lineup, along with approximate costs and links to check them out yourself.
Another popular RC charger brand is iSDT.
They have a nice assortment of fairly powerful yet compact chargers at very good pricing.
Quality and accuracy however are not up to the standards of iCharger in my opinion; not enough to rule them out however and they are most certainly worth consideration.
So many visitors to my site say nothing but great things about their iSDT chargers!
Regardless of what brand or model of computerized RC battery charger you choose, you are going to need a way to hook your batteries up to it.
This requires a charge cable (also called a charge harness) or a para-board if you choose to parallel charge.
One end plugs into your charger by way of a positive and negative 4mm banana/bullet plug. This is pretty much universal and I don't know of any good charger that doesn't use 4mm banana's.
The other end/s plugs into your battery. You can use universal charge cables like the one shown above with many different battery connector types, or you can get plug specific harnesses.
I generally make my own RC charge harnesses, but if you just want to purchase your charge cables; Buddy RC's selection of cables is unmatched. As is their para-board selection if you want to use a para-board instead of a harness.
Below is a video I made showing the basics of how to make your own parallel charge harness so you can get a better idea of the materials and skills involved. It's usually less expensive to just purchase a ready made cable from Buddy RC or other vendor unless you already have all the parts on hand. I build mine mostly because I find it a fun & enjoyable part of the hobby.