The Importance Of Disposable And Rechargeable Household Batteries
A Guide To Batteries
It is very difficult to overstate just how important batteries are to our every day life and for survival in a major power grid failure. Personal devices to vehicles, big or small, rechargeable or disposable, batteries very literally make our lives work.
When portability is a premium or when tethering a device, appliance, installation or vehicle to an existing power grid is impossible or impractical, batteries are relied upon to supply the needed electrical power.
Even people who are planning to leave the smoldering remains of modernity in the dust after the balloon goes up will very likely not be giving up on batteries.
Plenty of crucial toys like flashlights, radios, GPS systems, optical sighting systems and more rely on the compact power source that is the battery. However, when society goes belly up so too will the ability to get more batteries or recharge the ones you have unless you know what to do.
A all people should start to treat batteries like the incredibly precious and potentially life-saving resource that they are.
The capability that batteries can afford you can be nothing short of game changing in a survival situation and for that reason we should all strive to learn absolutely everything we can about them, especially when they will become scarce and precious in the aftermath.
Everything you need to know about these compact, portable powerhouses.
There Is Much To Learn About Batteries!
If your overall response plan to a major power grid failure situation or even a lesser crisis is to abandon every trapping of modern life, forgo every piece of electronic gear, and "return to monke", living austerely off the land alone, then this information might not be of much assistance to you.
But if you or anyone else are taking true responsibility for their life and the lives of your loved ones, I implore you to strap in and read on.
Pop Quiz: Consider all of the items in your stash, bug-out bag or similar emergency response loadout. How many of them rely on batteries, including non-removable ones? How many of them are classified as essential, for you?
You probably have an assortment of flashlights, maybe some headlamps, maybe a weapon mounted light or two, personal communication solutions (be it a smartphone or radio of one sort or another) and very likely a GPS system, among many others.
Obviously, without batteries those tools are useless, or nearly so. Look at it another way; even if you have batteries, the performance of your devices will be significantly degraded unless you have the right kind of batteries of suitable quality. Just like everything else we buy, discuss and argue over in the preparedness sphere, it turns out that batteries are not created equal.
Do you know which batteries will last the longest in any given device that you rely on? Specific brand and type?
Do you know what kind of effect long-term storage will have on the useful life of your battery? How about ambient temperatures? You would be in a pickle indeed if you were relying on one of your devices only to find out it is barely operable, if at all, in extremely cold weather.
This is what you need to know, just like the best way to build a fire in any conditions with any materials at hand. Just like knowing which one of your routes you should pick in a given season, or the best way to protect yourself from an attacker.
Batteries are serious business, and do not delude yourself into thinking that they are not! If you have been a "swap and go" battery consumer for your entire life, that ends today.
How Batteries Work - (battery electricity working principle)
Chances are, the only things you know about batteries is their standard size and their basic electrolyte type: Alkaline or lithium, AA or AAA, etc. But as you are probably expecting there is so, so much more to learn and know about batteries!
Does knowing the ins and outs of battery anatomy let you make better use of them or give them an edge somehow? Not necessarily, but you will be better equipped to make better decisions and further increase your own education on the topic going forward.
As it turns out, batteries are really pretty simple in principle if not in actual operation.
Years ago, nomenclature was somewhat different than it is today. Informal or less educated sources may refer to the electrodes or plates of the battery as contacts or something similar.
Electrolyte - The electrolyte is the juice actually a solid, paste or liquid that makes the battery function, this is the chemical or combination of chemicals that contains potential electrical energy. There are all kinds of electrolyte formulations, each with advantages and disadvantages. The primary fork in the electrolyte tech tree is that some are used up, or exhausted, once they are drained of their electrical energy and can only be thrown away while others may be recharged or otherwise reconditioned to be used over and over.
Anode - The terminal, or contact, of the battery that develops a negative charge. On common household and residential batteries that are cylindrical in shape this is usually the end that is totally flat, although you will sometimes see certain varieties with multiple, small raised protrusions. Marked with a "minus" (-) symbol.
Cathode - Conversely, the terminal or contact on the battery that develops a positive charge. Once again, examining typical, small, standard format cylindrical batteries this terminal will appear flat or even have a small, truncated protrusion commonly referred to as a "button" top. Marked with a "plus" (+) symbol.
Cell - When we are talking about a single, individual battery for a small device and sometimes a larger, vehicular battery, what we are really discussing is a cell. Probably defined as a self-contained, singular source of electric power. Way back in the day, multiple cells that were connected together gave rise to the term "battery", named such because they looked like an array of guns or cannons all in line; a battery of guns!
Module - A module is a portable power source consisting of multiple cells connected together. Connection could be in series or in parallel. Often utilized for applications where smaller, individual cells are insufficient output or otherwise inefficient.
Pack - A pack is to a module what a module is to a cell, consisting of multiple modules connected together in order to meet greater power demands than would be possible with a module or cell alone.
Battery Pack A battery pack is also used colloquially to refer to any detachable power source that is of non-standard size by the uninitiated.
Battery Bank - A battery bank functions the same as any other battery pack, or module, but they are invariably large, fixed installations or structures designed to provide on-demand power, typically emergency or backup power, to a structure or massive vessel. Battery banks can be large or small, with smaller systems being sufficient to power energy intensive rooms or homes and the largest being capable of power and communications relays, life support equipment and hospitals and oceangoing ships or large aircraft.
It is difficult to quantify just how many different kinds of batteries exist. Batteries, or at least batteries as we understand them as a commercial product, have been around quite a long time, and seen many innovations and many formats come and go.
Certain chemistries that start out state of the art do not remain that way, and older chemistries may get a new lease on life as production processes are improved or specific uses emerge.
We will get into the various standardized sizes in a bit, but even that is complicated somewhat by the greatly varying regional and international standards laid down by various corporate and technical interests.
Standard sizes in Europe and Asia do not necessarily sync up with those in North America and so on and so forth. But no matter where you go, you can group batteries into two broad categories, non-rechargeable and rechargeable.
Expendable / Non-Rechargeable Cells - Batteries that are designed to provide their electrical payload until their electrolytes can produce no more or no more useful electrical output are called "primary" cells, or more often in common usage expendable or non-rechargeable sales.
These cells cannot be recharged because their electrolytes either change form in such a way that they cannot be changed back chemically or recharging them via the direct application of electricity does not work or is impractical for one reason or another.
Expendable "cells" used to be the only thing going commercially, and even though a wide variety of rechargeable batteries are available non-rechargeable batteries are still the most common and the most widely used, typically being employed to power low drain devices.
Even though they cannot be recharged batteries in this category typically enjoy higher energy densities which can make them a better pick in certain applications where long, continuous run or up time is paramount.
Rechargeable Cells - Rechargeable batteries, more technically referred to as "secondary" cells, function just like non-rechargeable batteries in common devices but have a major advantage in that they are capable of having their electrical charge restored via the direct application of electricity to the battery.
This regenerates the reactants in the electrolytes, meaning the battery will be ready to put in work once again- after some time, of course!
Rechargeable batteries are employed in all manner of small devices and personal electronics all the way up to large, high-output and heavy-duty vehicle batteries.
Historically rechargeable batteries gave up a considerable amount of capacity and peak output compared to non-rechargeable batteries, but innovations in modern electrolyte formulations have narrowed and in some cases exceeded this disparity.
Common Electrolyte Chemistries By Type
You may think that you need not be concerned with the intricacies of electrolyte chemistry, but you would be wrong. So you do not need to be a chemist to correctly and intelligently get the most out of your batteries, it does pay to know a little bit about the most common electrolyte formulations.
As I mentioned previously, they all have advantages and disadvantages, and complicating things a little bit more is that your primary chemicals in the electrolytes might yield different performance metrics depending on whether or not they are used in a rechargeable or non-rechargeable battery.
Do you want to get the most out of your investment? Do you want maximum assurance that your batteries will function, and function at a high level in a given device? The only way you will answer these questions in the affirmative is by learning your way around electrolyte chemistries.
Rechargeable - Today, there is a variety of rechargeable battery chemistries to choose from, but all focus on energy density and minimizing self-discharge over time. We will talk a little bit more about self-discharging, but for now everything you need to know is in the name. A fully charged secondary battery will slowly "leak" or lose its charge even if stored in a box on the shelf doing nothing.
Lead-based - Lead-acid: Most folks are familiar with heavy, bulky lead acid batteries from their typical use and automobile and small vehicle batteries. Although possessed of good energy density and slow self-discharge rates, these batteries can be problematic because they are very heavy, and the lead and acid contents can be hazardous if the battery is ruptured or otherwise damaged. Not a great choice for the most demanding, power hungry applications but generally dependable.
Nickel-based - Chances are if you buy standard size, off the shelf rechargeable batteries today they will contain some type of nickel-based electrolyte. Common, reasonably affordable and highly adaptable, nickel can be considered the defacto choice in consumer rechargeable batteries for most devices.
Lithium-based - By now everyone has heard of lithium batteries and most people use them on a daily basis, even if they do not realize it. The battery of choice for powering the hungriest mobile devices such as laptops, smartphones and similar items, lithium electrolyte formulations are extremely capable but so energetic and vulnerable to damage they mandate special requirements for safe handling and storage.
Non-rechargeable Considered the defacto consumer battery for the longest time, non-rechargeable batteries still enjoy overwhelming market share even though their performance is becoming increasingly overshadowed by rechargeables. However, certain formulations provide excellent shelf life and minimal self-discharge over time compared to rechargeable batteries, meaning that non-rechargeable batteries still might be the best-in-class option for certain applications.
Alkaline-based - Everyone reading is probably already familiar with alkaline batteries, and they are still the most common and plentiful type of battery sold today, at least in the United States and North America. Alkaline batteries are named such because they produce electrical energy from a chemical reaction that occurs between manganese dioxide and zinc. Hallmarks of alkaline batteries are high energy density and high voltage output but many common formulations struggle with similarly high rates of self-discharge and drastically limited shelf lives compared to the ever-popular lithium equivalents.
Nickel-based - Nickel-based electrolyte formulations are far more commonly encountered in rechargeable battery formats today, though there are still some manufacturers and specialized batteries that rely on them for fueling non-rechargeables.
Lithium-based - Similar to rechargeable cell formulations, lithium remains a pricey, highly energetic and high-performance option in a non-rechargeable battery. Chances are if you are feeding a device that is power hungry and must be reliable for long periods, you will be relying on lithium batteries.
The Most Common Standard Battery Sizes (U.S. / North America)
Like I said above there are lots, and lots and lots of batteries out there. All shapes, sizes and configurations for every imaginable purpose, and a whole lot of purposes you can not imagine. The following list is not conclusive, but these are the most common types of battery you will encounter in the United States, particularly for sale in the usual places.
CR123A - The short, stubby CR123A is among the most common non-rechargeable lithium cells you will find on the market. Commonly utilized for high output, long duration applications like tactical flashlights, ultraviolet water purification pens and certain cameras. Note that there are rechargeable versions of these batteries, but their performance is often dodgy.
AA - Probably the most common battery on the market and one that can be found in every home throughout North America. This one has been around a long time, since the beginning of the 20th century. Typically alkaline, but lithium versions featuring an internal voltage regulator are available. Used in remote controls, personal electronics, flashlights, and every other handy gadget you can imagine. Note that there are lithium batteries with an identical size profile that produce significantly higher voltage and are not genuinely cross-compatible.
AAA - These are another venerable format that has been around since the beginning of the 20th century. Nearly as common as AA's, these are used for similar purposes and personal electronics, remote controls and small flashlights.
AAAA -This standardized format used to be more popular but today is pretty rare. You will often have to snag these from a specialty electronics or battery shop. Typically used for specialized, thin inspection lights, calculators, fishing lures and other tiny applications.
C - A common high density alkaline battery that is starting to go the way of the dodo as high output, high density lithium batteries become more and more prevalent. Often used in old fashioned, large flashlights, portable work lights, radios and sound systems. Especially noteworthy is that C batteries may be replaced in all these devices by utilizing much more common AA's with appropriately sized battery spacers.
D - Among the largest commonly available alkaline batteries, D format cells are large and heavy, first introduced at the tail end of the 19th century. Fun fact, the very first proper flashlights used D cells and they have stuck around ever since for much the same purposes. These are regularly used in flashlights (Maglites), lanterns and any other application that is modestly power intensive over a long period of time. Like C format batteries above you can replace D batteries with AA's using specialized spacers.
F - A veritable oddity to most, F cell batteries are ones you probably have not encountered before, at least in a way that you readily recognize. These jumbo-sized cylindrical batteries are actually what forms the battery module commonly called a lantern battery, typically packed inside that rectangular casing in a bunch of four. To my knowledge there is no common commercial or residential application that utilizes F cells in any other way.
Button batteries come in a dizzying array of formats all their own. These tiny, drum-shaped batteries feature a variety of electrolyte chemistries and are used in everything from watches to hearing aids.
Rectangular / Flat / Other
E - E cells are popularly known by another name, the "9-volt". These small, rectangular batteries are well known as smoke- and carbon monoxide alarm batteries and are sometimes relied upon to power walkie talkies, electronic toys and other similar devices. Fun fact, some 9-volt cells contain six smaller cylindrical cells that are approximately AAAA in size.
Smartphones, laptops and other energy-hog portable devices rely upon a bewildering array of flat, thin lithium batteries to provide power on the go. Sometimes user replaceable and sometimes not, these batteries are employed where form factor and thinness are essential design criteria.
Lantern batteries come in a variety of sizes and form factors, and feature almost as much variety in their terminals. Spring terminals, screw in terminals and stud or snap-on terminals are common. As mentioned above, many lantern batteries are actually modules containing a series of smaller, cylindrical cells within.
This is all very interesting but it is not going to do you very much good unless you put it into the right context, specifically the context of surviving a serious power grid failure event and relying on your battery powered devices to help you do that. As I alluded to above, here is what we know. Batteries do not grow on trees. Most batteries are consumable in nature, meaning that once they are used up they are garbage.
But even rechargeable batteries which can be used again and again dozens or hundreds of times are not exactly easy to produce without a significant industrial base. This means that in really bad times, say societal collapse or a major depression, the supply of batteries could very well dry up.
If you depend on batteries in any capacity that means you have to take such eventuality very seriously and prepare accordingly. Consider all of the following before you start stockpiling batteries for the big one.
Batteries are expensive, and they never seem to last as long as you would have them last. Therefore, taking maximum advantage of modern, reliable energy-dense rechargeable batteries is a great idea. Not only will you save big bucks in the long run, but you have turned what is nominally a consumable item into a semi-renewable resource.
Instead of throwing away your expended primary sales, would it be better if you could just pop your rechargeable batteries into a charger and gas them up again for another round in your flashlight, radio or any other device? Of course it would be, but there is only one problem with rechargeable batteries and it is still that they require electricity to recharge, a resource which itself might be in extremely short supply in the middle of an event.
Does it sounds counterintuitive? Getting a whole lot of batteries so you would not have to rely on on-grid electrical sources for the duration only to have your chosen batteries be more dependent on that electrical grid in return!
Hear me out: Unlike days gone by, you can now reliably create your own electricity in abundance, or at least abundance enough to keep your batteries charged and working.
Whether you are bugging out or bugging in modern electrical generation technology like solar power, windmills and even small hydrodynamic generators afford us previously unimagined capability.
You can even rely on a gasoline-fueled generator to pipe power into a larger battery pack or battery bank that you can then, literally, trickle down to your smaller devices.
Even people who do not choose to rely on such technology or do not want to for whatever reason would still be well served to install a small battery bank in their home, whether or not it will be powering any appliances and other modern niceties. A small array of high capacity, deep cycle batteries will be capable of refueling your smaller cells dozens of times with ease.
You can think of such a setup as an excellent hedge against a regional or society-wide loss of power. You might grumble in having to go through all these extra steps to set up this technology prior to an event, but I promise you will be thanking your lucky stars (and your dear author here!) if you are ever forced to call on it.
Assess the useful life of your batteries in your devices. It is possible to figure out, generally, about how many batteries you will need for a survival situation lasting a given length of time. However, the only way to do this is by carefully assessing how much useful life you will get out of a given set of batteries in a given device under specific usage conditions.
What this means is you need to determine, for instance, how long one brand of batteries will run your flashlight or lantern compared to another brand.
It is possible to perform simple tests and record your data, or rely on basic record keeping and reckoning to come up with an approximate figure. Both are valuable enough for our purposes. Keep in mind that the performance metrics of various brands of battery, even different lines offered by the same brand, can vary radically and you should not assume any given brand will afford you the same capability. It is also worth estimating how much less "up time" you will have if your usage rate increases significantly.
Essentially, you should not make a wild-ass guess about how many batteries you will need to survive a 3-month grid down scenario and then buy a 24 pack assuming that is plenty: Do your research, understand the data and shop accordingly.
Your batteries have a shelf-life! Self-discharge is one of those things that will absolutely screw you when it comes to your batteries, because it does exactly what the name suggests.
Over time, completely unprovoked and without any outside interference, the batteries you have sitting snugly in their boxes on your shelf, set aside as a potentially life-saving preparation, will slowly but certainly lose the potential electricity stored within the chemicals. Understanding this is paramount and is one of the key factors for properly and effectively stashing batteries as an emergency item.
Every variety of battery, every type, every size and every different electrolyte has a different self-discharge rate. Some batteries discharge extremely slowly, and if they are a standard size or just one you require this makes them a great option for long-term storage.
Others discharge pretty quickly, and might give up half or more of their total charge in as little as a few years time, meaning you will need to rotate these just like you rotate your food supplies.
Beyond the logistics of this reality this can become a financial problem. If you buy batteries in bulk to stash but you don not go through batteries in and around your home and anything even approximating a rate to warrant such a quantity, what will you do with all the surplus batteries aside from watching them go bad before throwing them out?
Are you willing to do that as just the cost of staying prepared for the gravest extreme? How do we mitigate this eventuality? You have a few options:
Where there is a will, there is a way, but failing to account for self-discharge means that the batteries you are counting on are highly likely to be uselessly drained when you really need them.
Ambient temperatures will affect your batteries' performance. One easily overlooked factor that will affect the performance of your batteries is ambient temperature. All batteries are affected by temperature, to a greater or lesser degree if you will pardon the pun, but certain electrolyte formulations are seriously impaired when the temperature drops too low, and others can perform erratically or even reach a dangerous condition if they get too hot.
If you live in a region known for environmental extremes, be it the frozen northern reaches or a scorching equatorial desert, make sure you understand what you can and cannot expect from your batteries and tailor your purchasing, and if needed your equipment selection, so that you can make use of cells that will not let you down.
Another thing, take every manufacturer's recommendation or specified performance gradient with a grain of salt, and make it a big, heaping tablespoon of salt while you are at it. Although good manufacturers are generally trustworthy nothing, and I mean nothing, beats lived experience. You need to know what your equipment is capable of when using a specific battery, period.
Battery "Sabots" Can be Your Best Friend! A common enough item that is often overlooked by those who are binging on battery buying as part of their preparations is the battery sabot, or battery spacer.
These ingenious little devices allow you to use a much smaller but similarly rated battery in place of a more energy dense but equivalent cell. This can allow you to get your equipment back in gear using alternative battery sizes when the primary cells cannot be found.
Two of the most popular variations are spacers for C and D cell devices that will allow them to accept AA's. As anybody who has relied upon these large alkalines can tell you they are expensive, spendy and they never seem to last as long as you would like. Compared to AA's, all that C and D cells do for you is provide you with longer run time as they have no inherent performance advantage over AA's. If you buy AA's in bulk, or are only using larger devices intermittently, these spacers can save you a ton of money.
Even if you do not plan on using alternative batteries in conjunction with spacers they are a great contingency item to have on hand especially during long or indefinite term events because as the supply of batteries dries up you will be forced to improvise and these spacers can save the day.
Proper Storage And Safety Measures For Your Batteries
So now that you know everything there is to know about batteries on both the technical and practical levels, it is time to talk a little bit about safety, particularly proper handling and safe storage. In my experience, most people don not give battery safety a second thought and the extent of their concerns on the matter extends to "do not lick it."
But, as batteries grow increasingly energetic, provide ever greater energy density, and become increasingly complex and delicate, safe handling and storage procedures will become paramount.
Aside from potential mishaps that could lead to injury, or even your entire house being burned down, you will also be able to expect your batteries to last longer and perform their best so long as you treat them with a little bit of care.
Lithium batteries can explode or catch fire! As it turns out, the spectacular and highly publicized failures experienced by some lithium batteries is not just the stuff of pie-in-the-sky hand ringing. These batteries are extraordinarily energetic, and are among the most delicate (read: vulnerable to damage) batteries commercially available. The fact that they are nearly ubiquitous now only increases the likelihood that there will be an accident and things go wrong.
Lithium battery test - ThunderSky Winston (Puncture, Overcharge, Short-circuit, Ignition)
Pretty much every type of commonly available lithium cell is designed to do two things: Put out a lot of power over a long period of time and maintain a very low rate of self-discharge.
If you ever cared to open up and "autopsy" one of these common lithium batteries you would find a surprisingly intricate arrangement inside the electrolyte solution. The entirety of the contents is also kept under pressure, and those two factors together means that lithium batteries must be manufactured to an extremely high standard to function safely and also means they are vulnerable to damage.
Should a lithium battery be compressed, impaled or otherwise compromised, a short condition will be highly likely. The sparking short, thanks to the energetic lithium chemistry, will easily create a raging fire. Worse, subpar manufacturing processes or faulty QC from a good manufacturer can mean that a lithium battery might experience a condition known as thermal runaway, a vicious cycle of increasing pressure that results in increasing temperature until eventually the battery ruptures with dangerous explosive force.
Either event can certainly ruin your equipment, but they can also ruin you, inflicting serious injuries or starting raging fires. Do not buy bargain bin lithium batteries as a rule, and make sure you take care of the ones you have.
Store and Transport Batteries Properly. When it comes to getting the most out of your batteries and preventing poor performance or accidents, correctly storing and transporting batteries is essential. You definitely do not want to do what most people do and just dump your batteries out into a valet tray or, even worse, the junk drawer in your kitchen.
Anytime batteries are allowed to collide terminal to terminal with each other or any other object efficiency can be reduced or accidents can happen. If the insulating wrapper of the battery is nicked, torn or otherwise damaged a dangerous short condition can result. Simply storing them improperly, if nothing else, will accelerate self discharge and ruin your batteries more quickly.
You have two options when it comes to storage containers for your batteries. The first option is to keep them in their factory packaging, but many factory packages are not conducive to tidy, convenient stacking and cubby holing that we love. And, newly purchased rechargeable batteries should be charged and quality inspected.
The second option is to buy appropriately sized, non-conductive and protective battery cases to keep them in. Wherever you store your batteries make sure you keep them out of direct sunlight and extreme temperatures, particularly in the case of highly energetic batteries, such as lithiums. Or, store them properly using your own battery storage system.
When transporting batteries, do your best to prevent them from being crushed by any means. A crushed battery is inoperable, obviously, and also dangerous. Consider that the vast majority of batteries contain corrosive or otherwise dangerous chemicals and you will want to prevent this outcome.
Are Batteries Vulnerable To EMP Effects?
One common argument you will see pop up regarding the long-term storage of batteries is whether or not they are vulnerable to the effects of an EMP.
For the uninitiated, an EMP, electromagnetic pulse, is a phenomenon that is generated by the detonation of a nuclear warhead high in the sky, a specialty device for the purpose, or even powerful celestial phenomena that is capable of devastating any device utilizing a circuit board with other electronics besides.
Only devices that are specially designed to withstand this event, or hardened, or devices that are stored and specially protective environments will survive and remain functional in the aftermath. Some theorize that the powerful effects of an EMP would drain batteries of their charge or otherwise render them inoperable, if it does not cause them to overload and explode somehow.
However, a quorum of expert opinion on the matter indicates that batteries currently not installed in any device will not be affected by an EMP. Batteries themselves all feature insulating wrappers or other housings that do afford them plenty of protection from such events so long as they are not connected to any device or grid.
If one wanted to exercise an abundance of caution, you could store your batteries inside a Faraday cage, box, or specially lined room but this is not required. If you are really worried about an EMP frying your batteries and battery powered devices you would be better served by keeping dedicated battery powered tools on standby with their batteries removed in order to protect them from the EMP effects.
Our modern life will not go on without batteries, and the tools you are counting on to help see you through the aftermath of a major event are also likely to depend on these small, portable sources of electrical power.
The need for batteries will remain constant no matter the status of society, so a smart person is well advised to stock up now while they can, but do so intelligently.
Only by understanding all the variables attendant with battery selection, use and operation will you be fully informed about these indispensable devices.