The Amateur Amateur: Assaulting the Battery II
By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
February 12, 2002
on The Amateur Amateur
I described how the battery for my hand-held stopped holding a full charge,
vented my frustrations regarding a battery seller, and went on to
discuss my dubious attempts to revive my failing battery.
I had zapped and
frozen my ailing NiCad battery pack and gotten nowhere. I didn't even
know if the so-called "whiskers" said to form inside NiCad
cells--and which I was trying to destroy--were real or just in the
mind of a chemist who had inhaled too many fumes. All I knew was that
if the battery hadn't been dead before, I surely must have killed it.
I decided to perform an autopsy.
Battery cases are
really designed to be opened, so my battery dissection was
not particularly neat. Once inside, I found 10 cells--individual
1.2-V NiCads--of about the same diameter and half the length of
regular AA cells. I found a local vendor who sold replacements and
bought 10 of them. I then carefully measured the charge of each of
the old cells (yes, I actually know how to operate a voltmeter) and
determined that two of them were in bad shape. I removed the two bad
cells, replaced them with new cells, closed up the case and
everything worked perfectly. Yeah, right.
Battery and battery-ettes--the cells found inside.
You know me better than that. Of course
that's not what happened.
Everything was true up until "I removed the two bad cells . . ."
The cells were linked in series by what appeared to be metal tape. I
tried peeling off the tape. Nope. It wasn't held on with glue. I
tried unsoldering it. That didn't work either. I examined the cells
and "tape" under a magnifying glass and found tiny little
marks indicating the tape had been sort-of riveted
cells. I busted a lot of "rivets" and tore up much of the
tape, but did manage to extract the two bad cells. I soldered in two
new ones and closed up the case.
Before I could
attach the repaired battery to a charger, I noticed it was getting
warm. No, hot. Very
hot. I suddenly felt like I was in a World
War II movie holding a live grenade in my hands. I resisted a strong
impulse to throw the battery through the nearest window then drop to
the floor and cover my head. Instead, I quickly disassembled the
battery and yanked out the collection of cells. It only took a moment
to find the short circuit. I carefully
reassembled the package
and closed the case. It stayed cool this time.
I charged up the
repaired battery. After one day's use, it still
acted as if
two cells were bad. I disassembled it again. I checked each cell
again. There were
two bad cells--two of the older cells that
had checked out okay the first time. I replaced them.
The same thing
happened the next day. And the day after that. I felt like I was in
some sort of time warp in which the same events repeated themselves
day after day (remember that movie, Groundhog Day
time I replaced two cells, two more of the original cells would die.
Each time I broke the "riveted" tape, things got messier.
And for some reason, each time I opened the battery case, it was
harder to close.
I gave up the
idea of replacing cells. It just wasn't working. Replacing all
the cells with new ones cost about the same as just buying a new
battery. I decided that doing the latter was easier and safer.
But why had my battery died in the first place?
Battery charging station: Check the oil, wash the windshield, and charge
I heard a
lot about something called the "memory effect." This is, by
far, the most talked-about "problem" with NiCad batteries.
I did a little research into it and found a vast amount of
conflicting information. Some people described the phenomenon in
great detail. Others said that the memory effect existed only in
certain NiCads, and definitely not the ones in popular use. Yet
others insisted that the memory effect was nothing more than an urban
legend. Egad! Who was an amateur amateur to believe!?
I was not a
battery scientist. I didn't know which "expert" to believe.
I knew, for sure though, that the memory effect was not
battery. The reason my battery failed was that the
fast charger had cooked it. Literally.
pump electrical energy into the batteries at such a high rate that
the batteries heat up. The heat eventually causes a chemical
breakdown. Many battery vendors do not mention this when you buy a
fast battery charger. They will sell you batteries, then sell you the
means to destroy them, apparently so that you will have to buy more.
There is another
well-known battery vendor that sells nickel metal hydride (NiMH)
batteries. If you browse this vendor's Web site and look very
, you will find a very small message telling you that
the vendor recommends using only slow
chargers on NiMH
batteries. It seems that fast chargers can cause NiMH batteries to
explode. The vendor sells a special fast charger that apparently
shuts itself off when the battery gets hot (notice that I didn't say
the battery gets hot, but when
the battery gets
hot). I guess it's more like putting it in a crock pot than putting
it in a microwave oven.
I kept checking
the Internet, but cold-fusion batteries hadn't hit the market yet.
Since it looked like I was stuck with NiCad and NiMH batteries for a
while, here's what I did.
Dead but still deadly. Dispose of carefully. Visit the
RBRC Web site for more information.
I threw away my fast charger and bought three
battery packs. I
rotate these in service. When battery A is in the radio, battery B is
a backup and battery C is in the slow charger. At the end of the day
I simply put A in the charger, B in the radio, and C is the new
backup. None of them gets cooked, stewed, or nuked.
I received a lot of advice on the proper way to "zap"
NiCads back to life. Except for one hellishly dangerous
recommendation (use a stun gun), all of the suggested techniques
required much more time, equipment, and effort than I'm willing to
invest. Although I'm taking the easy route (just buy a new battery),
I do wish to thank everyone who wrote to me.
NiCads are dangerous. I was considering having a
nice, quiet burial ceremony at a toxic waste dump. Before I actually
did that, however, I found information on how to recycle them on the
Missouri Household Hazardous Waste. (Your state's recommendations and
regulations may vary.) The
Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp
is a nonprofit
organization that provides recycling assistance in the US.
Do I have any
final advice? Yes. If it takes a hacksaw to open something, there's
probably a reason for it, and it's best left alone.
For additional information, see "Honey, They've Shrunk the
Batteries!" by Ken Stuart, W3VVN, in December 2001.
Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in
Florissant, Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's
name-- "The Amateur Amateur"--suggests the explorations of
a rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His
wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related Web page. Readers are invited to
contact the author via e-mail, [email protected].
© 2002 American Radio Relay League