Friday, October 18, 2013

A battery of questions

First of all, apologies for the long delay since my last entry. I was busy with work during the week, and we spent the weekend at a folk festival that left me too tired to even dash off a quick blog entry when we got home. I'll try to make it up to you all with some extra entries this weekend.

What's most on my mind right now, though, is a survey I took recently for (one of the multiple survey panels on which I take Internet surveys for fun and a little extra cash) about our household battery use. This survey was a bit more complicated than most: instead of just asking me a bunch of questions online, the panel actually sent me a booklet in the mail and asked me to fill in a chart listing, in minute detail, every device that we had in our home that used batteries, along with the number and type of batteries it contained. I also had to note  how often each device was used, who used it most often, and how often the batteries in it were changed or recharged. The whole booklet was eight pages long: three pages for devices with removable batteries, two for devices with battery packs or built-in rechargeable batteries, and one for extra batteries in storage. Brian and I took a look at it and thought, "This is ridiculous! Who could possibly have that many things that use batteries?"

Well, we were in for a bit of a surprise. We didn't think we had that many battery-powered devices, but once we started searching room by room, we ended up counting more than 35 items with removable batteries alone. And many of these were multiples of the same item: four remote controls for the various pieces of our home entertainment system (not counting the wireless keyboard and mouse we use for our media spud), two identical smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors (one for upstairs, one for downstairs), two travel alarm clocks (his and mine). There were also several items with teeny-weeny little batteries in them that we didn't even think about as powered devices at first, like our car keys and the tiny remote control that operates a floor lamp in our living room. Plus we had nearly a dozen items more that contain rechargeable batteries or battery packs, from Brian's beard trimmer to our hand-cranked weather radio (which we actually had to list twice, because it also contains three plain old alkaline batteries as a backup power source.)

It was a bit disconcerting to realize just how many battery-powered gadgets we actually own. To be fair, the main reason we didn't know how many we had is that many of them, like our electronic stud finder and three battery-powered toys from Brian's collection, seldom if ever get used. But an even ruder awakening came when I got to the "extra batteries" section of the survey and discovered that every single one of our rechargeable nickel-metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries—eight AA's in all—was sitting in a drawer with the charger. All the gadgets we had that contained regular (removable) batteries, many of which took the AA size, were running on alkalines.

Now, admittedly, there's a good reason for this. Most of the battery-powered devices we own fall into two categories: items that are only used occasionally (such as emergency flashlights and an MP3 player that we take on long car trips) and items that run continuously, using very little power (like our alarm clocks and programmable thermostat). And for devices of both types, rechargeable NiMH batteries aren't really practical, because they leak—that is, not leak fluid the way really old alkaline batteries do, but leak charge. So if they're inserted, fully charged, into a seldom-used emergency flashlight, then when an emergency actually does come up and you grab the flashlight to use it, you're liable to find that it's almost out of juice. And likewise, if you put them into a device that uses only a trickle of charge, like a smoke detector, they'll run down much faster and need to be changed more often than a regular alkaline battery.

So the only devices we have that really could reasonably use our rechargeable batteries are the few items we use on a fairly regular basis: the camera (which already has its own built-in battery pack), the TV remote, and the wireless mouse and keyboard. But those are currently loaded with alkalines too, because we had a bunch in a drawer that had been partly discharged and could no longer power anything with a high startup load—so Brian decided to put them in a low-drain device to run down the rest of their power before tossing them. And this is, of course, a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and more ecofrugal than using (and regularly charging) our rechargeables while the partly-used alkalines simply sit unused in a drawer, or worse yet, go to the landfill before they're actually used up. But nonetheless, I felt rather embarrassed filling out the online portion of the battery survey, listing item after item loaded up with unsustainable alkaline batteries. Particularly when I got to the series of questions at the end about my attitudes toward the environment, and I had to "strongly agree" with statements like, "I am actively trying to reduce my carbon footprint" and "I believe rechargeable batteries can save money in the long run," all the while knowing that my actual battery usage made it look like I wasn't putting my money where my mouth was. I was hoping for an open-ended question at the end like, "Do you have any additional comments?" that would allow me to explain the situation, but alas, I never got the chance.

So I guess there's not much I can really do about our battery-using habits until we've exhausted our current supply of partly-discharged batteries. But I have made up my mind that when those are gone, I'm not buying any more batteries of this type—at least not in this size. During my examination of the rechargeables currently languishing in our drawer, I discovered that four of them are labeled "pre-charged," which means, according to Michael Bluejay, that they are the Low Self-Discharge type—ones that don't run down nearly as fast as a standard NiMH. So the next time an alkaline battery runs down in a low-drain device like an alarm clock, I'm going to replace it with one of these instead. In fact, I might even invest in some batteries of this type in other sizes, like maybe some AAA's for our carbon monoxide detectors. And as for the smoke detectors, I think next time those get changed I'll put in lithium batteries, which Bluejay claims can last as long as seven years. Might cost a little more up front, but it's better than removing a half-drained alkaline twice a year and tossing it in a drawer.
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