Rechargeable Batteries-Fact, Fiction, Reality on Going Green

We’re in love with portable devices and this is a digital world. Digital cameras (SLR and point & shoot) use 4 AA batteries. Digital voice and music recorders use them. Wireless headphones use them. Guitars, keyboards, effect pedals, clock radios… the list is obscenely long, and that’s not even counting all of the battery-operated toys the kids just got for over the holidays and for their birthdays.

Most of us would be broke if we bought high-quality one-use Alkaline batteries for these devices, so we’ve moved to Rechargeable batteries. Ah, nirvana! (No, not the band.) We’re in heaven! For the first few weeks, it’s magic. Just stick ‘em back in the handy-dandy recharger, and you’re set… if you’re one of the lucky ones. Sometimes, they never even take a charge the first time. Returning them to the store may gain you more hassles as they examine everything suspiciously, making sure you’re not pulling a fast one. Eventually you return with a new pack of batteries, ready to be elated again, only to find that these are duds too! What gives?

What gives, mostly, is the science in the batteries you’ve bought. Lithium Ion batteries are used in laptops, but you won’t find AA and AAA LiIon batteries. They’re still a bit too dangerous to let the consumer play with them. So mostly what we can buy are Nickel-Cadmium (NiCad) rechargeables. These store power in crystals. As the crystals are depleted, they become smaller. But if you don’t discharge them all the way, they regrow over the old stones while being recharged. This is why they sometimes don’t last as long as they used to. There are other things that can happen to them, (including overheating on cheap chargers) but we’re trying to keep it simple here.

Discharging them completely (sometimes called cycling or re-cycling) is one way to try to regain the other hundreds of charges the manufacture has promised. Few chargers will give you that option (and none of the cheap “plug it in the wall” types. The Fujifilm S5600 camera has that utility, but you’ll have to hunt for it… or explore a bit via Google and find out how to put a resistor to them, if you’re handy that way. Once discharged, so long as there’s SOME trace of current potential left, they should be given a full charge and be right as rain, or nearly so.

Sometimes they need a kick in the crystals to get their lungs started. That’s most often performed by allowing a paperclip to join the two positive terminals together (though we cannot recommend or endorse any such method, of course.) The lawyers make us say that, but really, if you manipulate the batteries, you do so at your own risk. Once again, having cleared the battery, it should be up for some more charges.

The problem is two-fold. First there’s the batteries themselves, which are often an exercise in marketing misinformation. Yes, perhaps they spec at twice the milliamps that they used to, but that doesn’t mean they MAINTAIN that charge for very long at all. Some only go days or hours. And part of that MIGHT be attributed to the second aspect, which is the charger. As a general rule, poor chargers do a poor job. You’ll often find them bundled with batteries at the checkout area for $10-20. Fair warning: It’s in their best interest that the charger NOT safeguard your batteries. Once invested, you’re more likely to buy their brand again, putting more batteries into the same irreverent unit. Not all manufacturers are that unscrupulous, but if you get a short lifespan or hot batteries, or both, it would be unwise to put more NiCad cells in that charger.

NiCads are best charged slowly. Charging them rapidly can be done, but burns away a lot of the battery’s life expectancy — and not consistently either. Then you’re left trying to figure out which of the four cells is bad. Unless you’re truly in urgent need, you’re far better off to buy an extra set of batteries and keep them at ready, always doing a slow overnight charge instead. See the next paragraph for a solutions to all these problems.

There may not be any such thing as a free lunch, but there are some reliable, quality chargers. One such option is the La Crosse Technology BC-900 AlphaPower Battery Charger. It can take over on automatic, or you can monitor the batteries’ status on various factors via the LED displays — one for each cell. This unit features 4 modes (charge, discharge, recharge and test) Four AA nad four AAA batteries and a carrying case are also included, so at about $40, you’re getting a nifty gadget, eight more batteries and adding hundreds of charges to your existing batteries!

There is another model for a few dollars less, but it doesn’t include the batteries or case: La Crosse Technology BC700 Alpha Power Battery Charger. Like the BC-900, this model also performs in 4 modes (charge, discharge, recharge and test) but we recommend taking advantage of the package deal.

Another important factor is the quality of the batteries themselves. Of course, we always prefer Green companies, and so here we can recommend Green Batteries.

We’d also take this opportunity to remind you of the solar-powered battery chargers which we’ve written up before and highly recommend.

Summing up, while rechargeable batteries are a great innovation and good news for the planet, slow-charging will let your batteries last a lot longer. Fully discharging them is important, and investing in a quality charger can save a bundle! Thanks for doing your part in Going Green!