Monday, August 22, 2016

Battery update

A few years back, I took a survey about our household battery use and was distressed to discover that:
  1. We owned a lot more battery-using devices than I'd ever realized; and
  2. None of those devices was using rechargeable batteries (aside from built-in battery packs).
Even though we owned a set of rechargeable AA batteries and a charger, we were still using alkaline batteries in all our devices that used that battery size. The reason: nearly all our devices were either infrequently used or very low drain. This made them impractical to use with old-school NiMH batteries, which drain away their charge much faster than an alkaline battery, both in storage and during use.

At the time, I vowed to fix this. Noting that some, though not all, of our rechargeable AA batteries were the new low-self-drain (LSD) type, I pledged to start using those in more of our devices. And to this end, I bought a new set of LSD batteries and a new "smart" battery charger at IKEA. With these on hand, I reasoned, we'd never have to buy alkaline batteries again.

So when, a few months ago, we were invited to take that same household battery survey again, I felt fairly confident that our battery usage would look better this time around. And in some respects, it did. For instance, we had ditched some of our old battery-using devices, such as Brian's beard trimmer, which we'd replaced last year with a corded model that we hope will hold up better. And yet, when it came to actual numbers, we were still using just as many battery-powered devices in 2016 as we were in 2013. And the number of our new LSD rechargeable batteries in use was...zero. Every single one of our shiny new batteries was just sitting in a damned drawer.

Trying to puzzle out what was going on, I looked at the numbers in more detail. According to the survey, we had 14 devices that used AA batteries, containing a total of 30 batteries among them. However, about half of these were used only occasionally—from once a month to almost never. And of the other seven, about five were continuously running devices with very low drain, such as clocks and smoke detectors. So it was clear why we weren't using our new rechargeable batteries in these; they simply hadn't needed new batteries at any time in the past three years. The alkaline batteries in them were still good, and there was no point in pulling them out and tossing them before they were spent.

But still, this left three devices that took AA batteries and were actually used regularly: our wireless mouse, keyboard, and TV remote control. We use all of these three to four times a week for watching TV, since we watch mostly through the Internet with our media spud. So surely these, at least, must have needed new batteries at some point. Why weren't we using the rechargeable ones?

The answer turned out to be that, after three years, we were still working our way through a backlog of partially-discharged alkaline batteries. We hadn't bought any new alkaline batteries, but Brian was trying to squeeze the last few drops of power out of our old ones before discarding them. Well, I could hardly blame him for that. After all, having bought the disposable batteries in the first place, it would surely be a waste to throw them out if they weren't used up. But we'd nearly used up our supply of these old alkaline batteries, so when those ran out, then it would be time to load up our gadgets with the rechargeable ones, right?

Well, it turned out there was a slight sticking point there too. Apparently, after his experiences with the old NiMH batteries, Brian was leery of using rechargeable batteries—even the new LSD ones—in our remotes. He'd found rechargeable batteries so unreliable in the past that he feared if we loaded up our devices with them, they might stop working at any moment, leaving us with no way of watching our shows until we loaded up a freshly charged pair.

So, to set his fears at rest, we charged up a set of our new rechargeable AA's—which shouldn't have needed it, since they come pre-charged, but we were just making sure—and popped them into the keyboard and mouse, keeping the old alkaline batteries they'd been using in reserve. And as it turns out, they did perfectly fine. The keyboard, in fact, is still running off that same set of batteries several months later, and they haven't even needed a recharge. The mouse, it's true, has been a little testy, complaining several times that it was out of juice when the batteries in it were still fresh from the charger. But then, it often did that with the old alkaline batteries too, so it's possible this mouse is just really finicky about the placement of the batteries. In any case, swapping in a fresh rechargeable out of the drawer seems to work fine.

Emboldened by this success, we decided to try the rechargeable AA's in a few other places as well. We put a freshly charged set in one of our smoke detectors, relying on Michael Bluejay's claim that the LSD batteries work okay for this purpose, but it turned out not to be the case for us. Within a matter of days, the smoke detector started chirping, claiming its batteries were low. So we decided to go for the next-best option and replaced the alkaline batteries with longer-lasting lithium batteries. They cost more, but they can probably keep the detector going for years (probably the rest of its life, actually, since these things are only guaranteed to last ten years). So we'll spend less in the long run, throw out fewer batteries, and be spared the inconvenience of changing them.

Brian also discovered that his emergency lantern, which normally runs on D cell batteries, had a set of adapters that would allow it to use AA batteries. It won't run as long on these, of course, but then, it doesn't get used that often anyway. So he slipped three of our rechargeable AA batteries, in the adapters, into this lantern, and when we tested it last night, they were still lighting it up just fine. And if we do have a prolonged power outage and run down these batteries, we still have some D-cell alkalines in a drawer as a backup.

So, as of now, all our rechargeable AA batteries are in use except two (and those two are on standby to get swapped into the wireless mouse when it starts complaining). We don't have alkaline batteries out of our lives completely, at least not yet, but we shouldn't be needing to buy any more of them. As the batteries currently in use start to die, we can replace them with rechargeable ones. When we no longer have enough rechargeables to power everything, we can just spring for another batch. (IKEA now offers a low-power rechargeable for only a buck per battery, which should work fine in our low-drain devices.) We could also pick up a set of AAA cells, which will fit in our current charger, to use in the alarm clock and the few other devices that take this size.

Down the road, we might even be able to start using rechargeable batteries in bigger devices, the ones that take C or D cells. I recently worked on the battery report for ConsumerSearch, and I found that Energizer is now offering a rechargeable that comes in these larger sizes and does pretty well in professional tests. On the other hand, it might not be worth making this switch, since we would need a new charger to accommodate these larger batteries—and most of the devices we have that take them aren't used very often. On the whole, we might be better off just getting some more battery adapters so we can use our rechargeable AA's in them, and keeping D's on hand for backup.

But at least I know that, next time we're asked to fill out this battery survey, I'll be able to say yes, we are using rechargeable batteries, thank you very much.
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