Thursday, February 02, 2006

Batteries Not Included

Alternatives to America's power struggle

by Carla Diana

December 26, 1996 -- In the afterglow of holiday [Image]
hysteria your lives may be filled with more
portable playthings than ever: a new Discman perhaps, a
pager, a personal stereo for your kids, a cellular phone
or a universal remote control. Amidst the glory of giving
and consuming someone has to fork over the bucks for the
most mundane of accessories: the battery.

Buying a couple of AAs here and there is relatively
painless, but when just one appliance asks for six
batteries or more (like the VideoGuide unit that my
boyfriend and I are hopelessly addicted to), your power
requirements may start costing as much as the appliance
itself. Ouch! If this weren't enough, there's the
indignity of fiddling with plastic trap doors and
overanxious springs that send your batteries ricocheting
back towards you.

Aside from the money you'll have to spend, shopping for
batteries can bring some confusion. Name brand or
generic? Rechargeable or disposable? You've got to be
careful -- cheaper "heavy duty" and "general purpose"
batteries look just like alkalines, but they offer
one-half and one-fourth of the power, respectively. And
what about all these green claims that battery-makers are
bandying about? Most alkalines have reduced mercury
content to make their disposal easier on the environment,
but the best way to reduce the threat is to use fewer
batteries.

One way to save some cash and do the right thing for the
eco-system is to go with rechargeables, which last
through hundreds of uses and can be recycled if returned
to the manufacturer. You'll eliminate the problem of
throwing mercury into the landfills, but the cadmium used
in rechargeable NiCds (nickel-cadmium batteries) may pose
an even greater threat if used cells are conveniently
thrown in the trash. Rayovac rechargeable alkalines are a
good way to go green, but they last through only 25 to 50
charges, so they'll wind up costing more in the end.
[Another alternative is Toshiba's rechargeable
nickel-metal-hydride or NiMH battery, now available in
the AA size. NiMH batteries are also prominent in laptop
computers. -- Ed.]

Many manufacturers have tried to ease the battery-picking
dilemma through built-in batteries and chargers, like the
laptop computers that need only be plugged in to a wall
outlet to get juiced up. These succeed in offering
convenience at first, and well thought-out products have
indicator lights that make battery life less of a mystery
than it is with loose batteries. The benefits, however,
end there. With more and more portables like cellular and
cordless phones being introduced into our lives, we're
running out of space on the wall outlets and power strips
to accommodate all our nomadic accessories. If your
portable appliance doesn't come with a spare battery (or
the battery isn't removable) you'll have to be vigilant
about returning it to its docking station on a regular
basis if you want to make sure it's always working. Good
rechargeable appliances will last a few years, but when
that battery finally does keel over, finding a
replacement for your particular model may be no small
chore.

In one attempt to make everyone happy some cellular
phones come with an adapter that allows you to use
standard AA batteries if you can't get to an outlet in
time to recharge when you need it. This is a great,
convenient alternative, but it's really just a patch kit
for a battery problem which is crying out for a better
solution.

As a designer, I generally oppose standardization since
it can stifle the creativity needed to develop innovative
products. Where power is concerned, however, a standard
rechargeable battery system for portables might make life
a little easier, especially if you need to keep a few
spares on hand. Duracell began making batteries to fit
laptops, but only a few manufacturers have designed
around them. Black & Decker recently introduced its
VersaPak line of portable products with one central
charging station for batteries that fit in a variety of
products from flashlights to power sanders. This is great
for Black & Decker and not so great for you, since the
next time you get a portable hand drill, you're forced to
buy Black & Decker's if you want to make the most of its
VersaPak system.

Some day our portables may not require such heavy duty
maintenance. Wouldn't it be great if the things
spontaneously recharged themselves through some wireless
connection to a central electrical supply? In the fantasy
of my dream home there'd be a solar charger on the roof,
constantly storing energy from the sun's rays. Walkman
out of power? No problem, just point it at the charging
station, press the "recharge" button and you're back in
business.

# # #

This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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