Monday, January 12, 2009

Batteries NOT Included...

OK, the tree is packed away, the lights have been taken down from the housetop and Mr. Rumpke has disposed of the wrapping paper and boxes. All is right with the world. But wait, it is now time to replace or recharge those batteries powering the plethora of electronic gizmos that wound up under the Christmas tree this year. Devices of all sizes and shapes rely on batteries to keep them, playing, ringing, talking, moving, navigating and sometimes irritating. I thought that this would be a good time to review some basics about batteries.

The “Holy Grail” for many designers and manufacturers of everything from cell phones to automobiles is to produce a light-weight, long-lasting, powerful battery. Unfortunately as the saying goes, “pick one of the three.” You can’t have all those features. At least not right now. This is a much more critical issue with large batteries used in hybrid cars than it is for the Wii Remote or Zapper. In reality, battery technology has improved radically, especially for small batteries used in portable electronic devices like mobile phones and iPods.

There are two basic types of batteries that you might use in your home or office. One category is designed to be used once and discarded and the other recharged many times. Both have pros and cons. For example, for devices that will be used seldom, like flashlights in the car, your best bet is to use non-rechargeable batteries as they have longer shelf life than most rechargeables. Of course you need to remember to check them periodically so you don’t get caught with a dim light on a dark and stormy night.

Most new portable devices now use rechargeable cells and their life between charges has gotten much better over the past decade. The lap top I am writing on right now and my cell phone both use Lithium Ion cells. These, and their cousin, Nickel-Metal Hydride, are very common in consumer applications. They are small, light weight and maintain their charge for longer periods of time than the old nickel-cadmium (NiCad) batteries of years gone by. Those cells were prone to “memory” problems. That means that if the battery was not completely discharged when you recharged it, it would only recharge to about 50% of capacity. Lithium and Nickel Metal Hydride cells do not have memories so they can be recharged anytime. Even newly designed NiCads have less of a memory problem.

All rechargeable batteries have a finite number of charging cycles. For example, my laptop battery is about three years old and will only run for about 25% of the time than it did when it was new. But I am cheap and am usually near an electrical outlet. Also most rechargeable cells will loose their charge faster than non-rechargeables when left on the shelf. So remember to recharge those camera batteries before going over the river to grandma’s house next year.

A few things to keep in mind. NEVER try to recharge a non-rechargeable battery. It will not work and they can explode. ALWAYS use the charger that is designed for your battery. A rechargeable battery can also explode if it is not designed to handle the charging current. Storing non-rechargeable batteries in a cool or cold environment will help them maintain their charge.

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