Get The Most Out of Your Battery

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Rechargeable batteries work best in high-drain devices, such as digital cameras. Photo: Amanda Wills,

Rechargeable batteries are no doubt an investment. The upfront cost makes those $5 single-use batteries seem much more appealing.

But despite the price, The National Electrical Manufacturers Association has estimated that U.S. demand for rechargeables is growing twice as fast as demand for non-rechargeables.

Just how high is that demand? More than 350 million rechargeable batteries are purchased annually in the U.S. Plus, the Battery Act of 1996 provides easy ways for the public to recycle these batteries because it is mandated by law.

But if the price is a concern, and you can’t afford to purchase rechargeable batteries for every electronic in your household, which ones suck the most power and are worth the extra buck? Here are some products that deserve the splurge, saving you money in the long run.

1. Digital cameras

What to look for: Let’s get a little techy here. Batteries are rated in milliAmpere-hours (mAh) – thousandths of amp-hours. So a 2,700mAh battery is equivalent to a 2.7Ah battery. In layman’s terms, the higher your mAh number, the better.

Battery experts recommend the new hybrid Nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries for most purposes. These batteries have at least 500 charges in a lifetime. The problem with regular NiMH batteries is that they quickly loose charge in storage – 1 percent a day to be exact. While that may not sound like a lot when broken down, the capacity actually drops to about 73 percent in just one month. That’s money down the drain.

How to maximize power: In order to preserve the maximum battery life, use a high-capacity charger designed for your specific battery. According to Bill Howard of PC Magazine, “NiMH batteries are sensitive to overcharging and require closer monitoring by the charger; plug NiMH batteries into a charger designed for NiCads and you may overcharge and damage them.”

One of the biggest power drains on a digital camera is its flash – both built-in and external. If using a DSLR camera, adjust the shutter speed and try to make it without using the bright bulb. Natural light usually turns out a better photo anyway.

2. MP3 players

What to look for: We know what you’re thinking, “I don’t even know how to remove my iPod’s battery.” That’s because most latest and more popular MP3 players already have a built-in lithium-ion battery that has up to 36 hours of playback time when fully charged. But your built-in battery may loose juice over time, and you may just have to spring for a new one (Psst! If you take your old iPod to the Apple store for an upgrade, you’ll get a 10 percent discount, and they’ll recycle it for free).

But short lifespan is how consumer electronics keep us hooked. So, if you’re looking for a long-term relationship with a certain special MP3 player, consider getting one with a removable battery pack. We’ll give you an insider tip: Be sure you stock up on the specific battery packs while they’re still around because there’s no guarantee they’ll be available in two years.

If it sounds like too much work, and you just want that bright pink iPod shuffle, Apple has a program designed for spent batteries. For a $70 fee, you can mail in your iPod, and Apple will replace the battery for you.

How to maximize power: A li-on battery pack guarantees 500 complete charge cycles, but you could get up to 2,000 charge cycles. Go for partial charge cycles as much as possible, and don’t let your battery run completely dry before charging. But the biggest drain for MP3 player batteries is heat, so keep your gadget at room temperature.

Also, you can adjust the settings on your MP3 player to allow for maximum battery life. Keep your consumption low by turning the backlight down or off, and if you’re using an iPod Touch, disable the Wi-Fi so it’s not constantly searching for a signal (this works in cell phones and laptops as well).

3. Electric toothbrushes

What to look for: There are two types of electric toothbrushes: rechargeable and battery-powered. A rechargeable electric will often come with a wall charger that uses inductive charging and often use a different type of cleaning technology called oscillating-rotating or sonic technology. Battery-powered toothbrushes typically use AA batteries and have a similar design of a manual brush. According to Oral-B, rechargeable electrics are usually more technologically sophisticated. However, you’ll still get a decent cleaning experience with a battery-powered, and it will be a lot cheaper.

How to maximize power: If purchasing a battery-powered toothbrush, sticking with your standard AA or AAA Nickel-cadminum (NiCd) is usually a safe bet. Most of the toothbrushes will have a battery power indicator light and will have an option to set your brush time. Make sure your battery charger is tailored to your type of battery. Let the batteries cool to room temperature before charging as well.

Rechargeables are more expensive upfront and sometimes get a bad rap for not offering enough “bang” for your buck. They also contain a great deal of heavy metals, meaning that if you don’t recycle them, contamination is much more likely. Photo: Amanda Wills,

When single is OK

Alkaline batteries also store well and lose only about 2 percent of their charge per year and work best in slow-drain devices, such as TV remotes, smoke detectors and wall clocks. David Pogue’s comparison tests for The New York Times show that regular alkaline batteries last longer in a device that’s on continuously.

Your local solid waste department may tell you to put alkaline batteries in with your regular trash. This is partly due to the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act passed in 1996, which phased out the use of mercury in alkaline batteries, making them less of an issue when disposed in landfills.

But this doesn’t mean alkalines are not recyclable. Because they are available on a wider scale, many major retailers will accept them for recycling.

Need even more battery life?

If you’re still looking for ways to cut corners and save an extra charge, Call2Recycle has even more tips for maintaining battery life:

  • Always follow the charging guidelines provided by the manufacturer. There are specific recommended charging times for each individual product that should be followed before the product is used for the first time.
  • Never return a fully-charged battery to the charger for an extra boost. This will shorten the life of the battery.
  • Never place a non-rechargeable battery in a battery charger.
  • Do not leave a rechargeable battery in the charger when it is not charging.
  • Let a discharged battery cool to room temperature before recharging.
  • Recharge batteries only when they are close to being fully discharged.

We also heard that because rechargeable batteries have a high leakage rate, storing them in your refrigerator or freezer once they are charged will decrease their drain, but we haven’t tested that theory yet.

No matter what kind of battery you use, recycling them at their end of life is key to preventing pollution and recapturing valuable metals to be reused.

Because of their materials, these batteries may or may not be considered hazardous waste in different states. So, you should always check with your local government health, solid waste or recycling department before you consider their disposal.

Related articles
Cool Battery-powered Gadgets
The Ultimate Battery Guide
Single-Use vs. Rechargeable

Earth911 partners with many industries, manufacturers and organizations to support its Recycling Directory, the largest in the nation, which is provided to consumers at no cost. Call2Recycle is one of these partners.

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  1. This is great article,very informative; but it fails to answer a question I’ve spent a lot of time researching in the internet (and that’s the search that drove me to earth911): Does anyone know what should be done with used alkaline (one-use) batteries – AA’s and AAA’s, D’s, C’s, 9-volts?. I thought it was still illegal to simply throw them out with the trash. Do they have any recyclable parts, or are they just hazardous waste? My locality’s website says that all the trash collected by the town is sifted through, both mechanically and manually, for recyclables. Since batteries no longer contain enough mercury to be deemed hazardous, are they expected to be found in the trash?

  2. Amanda, I am disappointed that you did not use my suggestion for “Spy Glasses” as one of the best places for rechargeables. I mean, the battery comes built in and you have 3-4 HOURS OF SPYING based on this tiny little battery. And who doesn’t like spy glasses?? hahaha


  4. Nice article Amanda, very informative. But like Daniel, more needed to be said about recycling
    of alkaline batteries. My company has started using walkie talkies for communication between
    departments, ( I instituted the program ), and even though I’ve switched over to rechargeables,
    we’ve got quite a collection of spent alkalines that I’ve refused to throw away. I’m sure I’ll be able to find someway to dispose of them, as I’ve just started my search. Oh, and, Chole, you need to get out more!, ha ha.

  5. What are the components of most alkaline batteries? Steel and carbon, and an electrolite. So why not recycle alkaline batteries with other ferrous metals?
    Some battery cases, usually the 6-volt type, are now made of plastic instead of metal, so that again brings up a reycling issue.

  6. I would also recommend that you invest in a good battery charger, a good battery charger can help extend the life of rechargebable batteries. Those $20 chargers you find at Radio Shack are OK but after a while I find that they don’t charge fully charge rechargeable batteries.

    To Daniel, the EPA says that you can safely throw regular alkaline batteries in the trash. 99.99% of all alkaline batteries today do not contain mercury. (Though you must recycle rechargeable batteries). If I recall, Radio Shack will take your spent rechargeable batteries for recycling.

    Landfilling alkaline batteries doesn’t appeal to me. Waste Management has a mail in program to recycle your alkaline batteries. I think it is expensive, but at least I can get rid of the last of my alkaline batteries!

  7. One myth I would to see exposed is about the vampire power draw. People are grossly exagerating the savings involved, and underestimating the effect unplugging your electronics daily has on the internal components.
    If your TV or DVD player uses a few watts while turned off , it costs you a few dollars per year.
    The added heating and cooling expansion and contraction the electronics go through when you unplug them will cause premature failure in the device. So you can save a few dollars per year , and spend a few hundred to replace those devices early. Not to mention the environmental impact of discarding and manufacturing a new electronic device , compared to a few kWh of electricity.

  8. Great writing, and I, too, love that photo. Just wanted to contribute another green method of battery use. I work for a company that markets the ReZap Battery Engineer in the States. It’s very effective, and lets you charge any size battery up to ten times. Check it out at We also made a funny video for it that maybe you guys will enjoy.

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