When is the last time you heard someone brag about the batteries they use?
Ultracool plasma TVs or trendy new Macintosh computers attract attention. But if batteries were people they’d wear plain blue suits and brown shoes. No one would talk to them at parties.
But, dull though they may be, we all notice batteries when they run out of juice somewhere over Albuquerque as we fly from Atlanta to Los Angeles. And we sure notice them when – as is possible with lithium ion batteries – they cause our laptop computers to burst into flames.
The recent recall of 4.1 Dell laptop computer batteries – fueled by fears of fire – started me thinking about these supporting actors of the technology world.
Let’s start with the most humble of the humble, the kind of batteries you see in big value packs at the grocery checkout line. Nowadays most of these are alkaline batteries instead of the even older zinc carbon batteries. Most alkaline batteries are not made to be recharged. In fact, unless the label specifically says a battery is rechargeable, never put it in a charger.
But there are plenty of uses in which these inexpensive batteries make sense. These applications take advantage of the fact that – unlike rechargeable batteries – most of the charge remains even when the battery is stored for a year or more.
It’s a good idea to stockpile batteries like this for flashlights, fluorescent lanterns and the like. They’re also the right choice for TV remote controls and fire alarms. And when the rechargeable batteries I use in my digital camera run down when I’m away from home, I pop these batteries into my camera.
Nickel-cadmium batteries were one of the first types of rechargeable batteries I remember, although nowadays you’re more likely to find nickel-metal hydride batteries in the rechargeable aisle.
I use rechargeable batteries in power-hungry devices that would drive me into bankruptcy if I had to buy new batteries each time the charge ran down.
The main things to remember is the fact, mentioned earlier, that the charge will gradually run down even when the battery isn’t in use. So you should charge these batteries right before you use them. It’s also a good idea to use most of the charge before recharging.
Also, make sure you use a charger that is made for the type of battery you use. So double-check, when you buy a charger, that it matches the batteries. I take this to an extreme and also use a charger from the company that markets the batteries.
My advice is to follow any charging directions that come with the batteries, even if they disagree with what I say here. Generally I charge brand new batteries overnight before using them.
While these batteries don’t have the same kind of built-in dangers as lithium-ion batteries, it’s not a good idea to carry a bunch of them in your pocket. It’s possible – although not likely – to create a short-circuit as they bump around with pocket change, other batteries and your car keys. A fire in your pocket can ruin the day.
Now we get to lithium-ion batteries. They have drawn rave reviews – rightly so, I think – because they offer longer battery life and pack more power per ounce than any other generally available battery.
You probably have a lithium-ion battery in your cellphone, your MP3 player and your laptop computer. But as the Dell recall underlined, these are delicate creatures.
Even when correctly made and used, there are some frightening aspects of lithium-ion. They are the only generally available battery that uses flammable materials stored under pressure.
That article will tell you about possible replacements under development for lithium-ion batteries. Meantime, the advantages of lithium-ion batteries are too strong to ignore. So, for me at least, I’ll keep using these batteries in my laptop computer and cellphone.
I won’t tell you what to do in your own house – I don’t want a fire on my conscience – so make up your own mind. Keep in mind that a few incidents can make it seem as if the world will be ending tomorrow.
I hope you got a charge out of this. If you have battery stories to tell, pass them along.
Bill Husted writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail: bhusted AT ajc.com
Copyright 2006 Cox News Service