Whats With Flashlight Batteries?

By Tom Neale, 6/26/2008


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Energizer AAA Batteries, just opened
We have over two dozen flashlights on “Chez Nous.” They all use batteries. We also have other battery powered safety equipment. We never know how quickly we’re going to consume our batteries. All it takes is one storm, one engine room disaster, or one of many other types of incidents to cause us to consume multiple sets of batteries. Some lights and other pieces of equipment use 4 or even 6 at a time. We often stay out where we can’t buy batteries for long periods of time. Frequently, when we need a flashlight or, say, a handheld VHF, we need it NOW and for safety. More and more I’m finding that the equipment doesn’t don’t work because the batteries have leaked or died or, worse, ruined the equipment. I’m really unhappy with mainstream consumer “flashlight battery” manufacturers—especially the Energizer™ folks.

I’ve experienced far too many failures, in my opinion, with their products. Duracell™ may be just as bad. I don’t know because I haven’t used them as much, although I’m going to start. I can say that I’ve never had any Duracells™ to leak in their original unopened packaging as I’ve had with Energizers™. Take a look at the photo of the package of AAAs I opened. The photo was taken in June of 2008. The date on the batteries was 2009. From other packaging, one would assume that this is a “shelf life” or “best if used by” date. One or more had leaked, emitting corrosive material, which had already ruined other batteries in the package and would soon have affected surrounding areas. The leakage had obviously been going on for awhile, although I’d checked these batteries within the past two months or so.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had this to happen. I’ve also had it to happen far too often in lights, and once in a VHF handheld, ruining the equipment. I’ve taken Energizer™ up on their offer to replace damaged equipment once. They did and the people were pleasant to deal with. But it was a hassle, it took a while, and it didn’t help at all when I was at sea and needed to use the ruined equipment.

Cleaning battery corrosion with Corrosion Buster Pen

Equipment powered by these batteries is often relatively expensive, such as the NightRay™ by Black Diamond. This is a light that you wear on your head for hands free work in dark spaces—often a very critical function aboard. It has LEDs so that it consumes very little battery power. Unlike some others I’ve owned, it stays in place on the head and the light doesn’t flicker because of cheap switches or other circuitry. Recently, as I was getting ready to use this light, I found that the batteries had leaked, and were in the first stages of ruining the light also. Fortunately I discovered it in time to save the light. The second photo shows me cleaning off the corrosion from one of the spring contacts with one of StarBrite’s Corrosion Buster Pens.

So what’s happening with the typical consumer batteries that we buy off the shelf? I’m talking about the AAs, AAAs, C cells, D cells, 9 volt batteries etc. It can be a really big issue for you and me as boaters, because when there’s a failure, we’ve got a lot more at issue than a cute pink bunny who’s suddenly unable to beat his drums.

About Small Batteries

1. Manufacturers say to store batteries at room temperature, whatever that is. The bottom line is that it shouldn’t be too hot or too cold. So, for example, if you keep your boat where winter comes, take them to your house during winter storage. If you take your boat to the tropics, store them in a relatively cool (but dry and salt-free) place.

2. DO check the batteries in your equipment regularly. This can be a real pain in the neck if you have a lot of flashlights (like me) but it’s far more inconvenient than having a favorite light or VHF destroyed by leaking batteries.

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My guess is that there’s been an increasing tendency to cut quality to make more money. (This is merely a personal opinion from a consumer relying on his limited unscientific observations.) This probably doesn’t matter much for the millions of “typical” consumers who buy only one package at a time and use them for unimportant things like running a toy truck, a boom box or occasionally a flashlight. But it matters greatly for boaters, particularly for cruisers, who must buy and store several packs so that we’re ready for those emergencies which usually occur when we’re far away from civilization and retailers. And I suspect that when the manufacturers put a use by date on the package, they’re assuming that it isn’t particularly important to the overwhelming majority of consumers, because these folks don’t use a lot of batteries, don’t have to store a lot and can zip down to a retailer whenever they run out.

I’ve always believed, and still do, that cheap batteries aren’t the way to go, especially on a boat. But the typical high end Energizers™ and Duracell CopperTops™ are hardly cheap (at least not to me), and they’re usually the best you can readily get without special ordering. The concept of special ordering or getting really expensive batteries is great, but not if you have over two dozen battery powered lights which you use often in emergency or critical circumstances and if you have to carry large battery stores of many different sizes because you stay at sea for long periods at a time.

These batteries aren’t as simple as they may seem at first look. Check out a section of the Energizer™ site, http://data.energizer.com/PDFs/alkaline_Xsection.pdf , and you’ll see that there’s more to making one of these batteries that meets the eye. This site gives an artist’s rendition of a cross section of their AA. This is not only interesting; it indicates to me that there are a number of things that can go wrong with a battery, even though it looks relatively simple from the outside.

“Alkaline batteries are an efficient battery type that is both economical and reliable. In alkaline batteries, the hydrous alkaline solution is used as an electrolyte. The most common use of this solution is in a manganese-dioxide primary cell with potassium hydroxide as an electrolyte. During cell discharge, the oxygen-rich manganese dioxide is reduced and the zinc becomes oxidized while ions are being transported through the conductive alkaline electrolyte.”

Modular Surrette Batteries

Some of us try to deal with the problem by getting rechargeable batteries. There are increasingly more of these available and it’s been my observation that they are getting better. And in some cases, these may be a good solution. It’s certainly a “greener” solution. But when I’ve got an emergency going on out on the water and my batteries fail, I don’t have time to recharge. I probably couldn’t recharge, even if I did have the time—particularly if I were in my tender. I need to quickly chunk in a new set and get on with business. Sure, I could have several sets and keep them all charged, but not really. I have too many different types of lights (and I use them all) requiring different sizes of batteries to be able to afford to do this.

There are some significant exceptions. For example, my Profiler II spotlight by Golight is exceptionally effective and useful. The manufacturer says that the Lithium-Polymer battery gives a run time of 60 minutes in the searchlight mode and 50+ hours in the convenience mode, with a recharge time of 2 hours. Also, there’s a battery status indicator. This is a relatively expensive light, but you’d expect that for a really good spotlight.

Humans can make good batteries. For years, entire submarines ran submerged for many hours at a time on just battery power. They used the good old bullet proof lead acid batteries. I just wish that my “flashlight” batteries were as reliable as these batteries and their more modern progeny. The last picture is one of my house bank on “Chez Nous.” I’ve used it hard, for day after day, for years. It consists of two 8 D modular Surrette (Rolls) 12HHG32 5BS. www.surrette.com

“Modular” means that the cells are separate. Rather than lifting and shoving the whole battery into place you install it one cell at a time and them bolt them together. And they have ““Hydrocaps”” that minimize gassing and the need for topping up. No, you can’t put these in a flashlight, and that technology wouldn’t serve well for most flashlight type applications. But it’s nice to know that there are some batteries out there that do what they’re supposed to do.

Short of spending large sums of money on special order batteries or a lot of high quality recharge equipment, I don’t see an easy out for boaters. One solution is to treat batteries with a great degree of care, just as we do other equipment aboard. Another is to take the time to send equipment damaged by a battery to the battery manufacturer with a demand that it be replaced. (Energizer™ and others will pay shipping if you go through their channels.) Market place voting can be a powerful tool. But regardless of what we do, a battery going bad can really ruin your day (or night) on a boat. So here are a few more tips that may help.

Copyright 2004-2008 Tom Neale