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Exploding batteries and other problems

Once upon a time my parents bought me a remote- controlled R2D2 robot that crawled about an inch a minute across the kitchen linoleum, turning its head and making all those "bleep bloop bleep" sounds that won over legions of young Star Wars
andrewbyline

Once upon a time my parents bought me a remote- controlled R2D2 robot that crawled about an inch a minute across the kitchen linoleum, turning its head and making all those "bleep bloop bleep" sounds that won over legions of young Star Wars fans, circa 1978.

The main drawback was always batteries. It took four D batteries to get R2 to move, plus a couple of C batteries for the remote. Both would start to run down after about an hour, which got kind of expensive.

My parents fixed that by going to Radio Shack and buying what was probably the first home battery charger to hit the market. It solved the problem for a little while, although the charges seemed to get shorter and shorter with every recharge. One day, after losing interest for a few weeks, I tried to fire up R2 but got no response. I went to take the batteries out to put in the charger, only to discover that two of them had started to leak and had corroded the inside of my droid with whatever heavy metal-acid combination they used to keep churning out volts. R2 sat on my shelf for about 10 years after that, awesome but useless – he never bleeped again.

Since then I’ve had batteries blow in my Walkman, in flashlights, in chargers, and even in the package as I stored them for future use. You can only shrug when it happens – if you use battery-operated devices every day, it’s only natural that some of them will turn out to be duds.

Why anybody expects any different from laptop batteries and batteries for other portable devices is a mystery, but then people can get sensitive when $2,000 worth of hardware gets toasted by a malfunctioning $100 battery.

Apple (www.apple.com) is just the latest company to issue a mass recall of laptop batteries – 1.8 million this time around for overheating problems. That recall was just one week after Dell issued a mass recall for 4.1 million laptop batteries that could cause fires and explode if damaged or overheated.

These recalls – both batteries made by Sony – will cost Apple and Dell millions of dollars while ensuring they’ll be well behind delivering orders during the lucrative Back to School season.

In the past other recalls have been issued for cell phone batteries, a different kind of Apple laptop battery, batteries for various digital cameras and portable devices, and so on – every few months it’s something else.

The thing is that there’s not much you can do when a battery is flawed except heed the recall notice – chances are 98 per cent of the batteries out there are fine anyway but are being recalled as a precaution. But you can take steps to ensure the batteries in your own portable devices last longer.

According to Propellerhead ( www.propellerhead.tv ), a high tech news and review site, there are some things you can do to prolong battery life (thereby reducing the chance it will go dead or start to leak).

First, start with the assumption that your battery capacity is not a fixed quantity, but rather a moving target that will deteriorate steadily over the life of the battery. Your goal is to slow that deterioration, and hopefully prevent an explosion.

One way to do that is to keep the battery cool. A Lithium-Ion battery used and stored between 20 to 25 degrees Celsius will lose about four per cent of capacity in its first year and about 20 per cent every year after that. Reduce the drain by storing your laptop in cool areas, don’t leave your laptop in hot cars, and if your laptop starts to heat up after a few hours you should give it some time to cool down. If your laptop will let you pop out the battery while you’re plugged in, pop away – the processor and memory heat will only reduce your capacity over time.

Having two batteries is not a bad idea because you can always store one in the fridge when not in use. By rotating batteries (always let them warm to room temperature again), you can probably keep your system running for five years or more without any major issues.

You should also be careful not to run your battery down too often. Running capacity down to nothing or nearly nothing just 100 times can reduce your battery capacity by up to 75 per cent.

Keep in mind that even a well-maintained battery has a useful life of about three to five years, depending how much time that battery spent on the shelf before you bought the laptop. When you buy a replacement, always look at the date – like milk, fresher is always better.

Website of the Week

Softpedia ( www.softpedia.com ) – Although there are shades of Downloads.com ( www.downloads.com ) and TuCows ( www.tucows.com ) with the latest downloadable applications, some news, driver libraries and more, Softpedia is user friendly, updated frequently, and the news section often has a lot of tech and science news off the beaten track. The sports and entertainment news is a bit UK tabloid for my tastes, but overall it’s a pretty sound site.




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