Captain, we need More Power! About batteries part 1

A battery can come in two basic types: rechargeable and non-rechargeable. In some sizes (Such as watch batteries), there is only one type, and in the common sizes there are several types.

Camcorders, cellphones, portable DVD players, laptops, and some digital cameras, as well as many other devices, have proprietary rechargeable batteries. Some are not user-replaceable. I’d avoid these devices. The battery will last an average of three years, and then you’re expected to trash the device and buy another. If the battery is replaceable, the only choice you usually have is whether to buy one from the original manufacturer or an aftermarket source, and sometimes you get a choice of capacity. The safest and most expensive route is to buy the replacement battery from the manufacturer or an authorized dealer.

If you get a device that uses standard battery sizes, especially AA, you can usually use rechargeable Nickel-Metal Hydride batteries to save money, Lithium AA for longer use, or standard Alkaline if nothing else is available. As you can see, standard batteries give you a lot more options. Don’t use rechargeable batteries in low-power-drain devices such as clocks and TV remotes. You’ll be changing/charging them more often because they’ll go dead from sitting faster than they discharge from use.

While there is very little chance of an aftermarket battery causing damage to your device, the manufacturing quality control could be lower, and you have no way of knowing that, since it may not have a recognized brand name. The most likely problem with cheap aftermarket batteries is lower than advertised capacity or short service life. I am not recommending against buying no-name batteries; I have had enough luck with them to consider them well worth the money, since they often cost ¼ as much as the name brands. Ebay and other online merchants are good sources for these inexpensive alternatives. Sometimes you get lucky if a product is popular enough, and a big name battery manufacturer will make a battery for your product. This is a safe bet, and will still cost less than the “Official” accessory.

Battery capacity is measured in Amp-Hours (Ah), or more likely for electronics, milliamp hours (mAh). The important thing to remember is that 1000 mAh equals 1 Ah, and that higher numbers represent longer run time. A 1500 mAh battery will give about 1½ times the usage of a 1000 mAh battery. This is a useful basis of comparison when shopping for any kind of rechargeable battery. Disposable batteries have these ratings too, but they are normally not published on the package.

Button cell batteries, such as watch batteries, don’t give you much choice. The only thing to watch out for is Zinc-Air hearing aid batteries. You should only use hearing aid batteries for hearing aids, even though some of the sizes are interchangeable with others. Hearing aid batteries used in other devices will give unsatisfactory service. Other than Zinc-Air, button cell batteries come in Silver Oxide, Alkaline, and Lithium types. Lithium is not interchangeable with the other two. Many non-lithium batteries are available in Silver Oxide or Alkaline, the Alkaline being less expensive. For watches or any critical application, use Silver Oxide, for toys and such, Alkaline is fine.

Standard size (AA, AAA, C, D, and 9 Volt) batteries come in several flavors as well. Non-rechargeables come in Alkaline, Lithium, and Carbon-Zinc, although Carbon-Zinc is virtually extinct except for the super cheap ones that come with something you just bought and last about 10 minutes. Alkaline batteries are so superior to Carbon-Zinc that they are now the norm. Thankfully, battery manufacturers are putting shelf dates on their packages now. You should expect fresh Alkaline batteries to keep for at least 4 years. Lithium batteries cost about 4 times as much as Alkalines, but have a longer shelf life and 3 times the power, so sometimes they’re well worth it.

Next time: Common battery types explained – Best types to use in all your devices

This post has been adapted from my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now! Click here to read all about it.

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