Batteries | Tech Talk with Evan Vanderpool


This is just the aftermath of a battery fire. Luckily, it wasn't trapped inside a phone...

This is just the aftermath of a battery fire. Luckily, it wasn't trapped inside a phone...

Let’s address the elephant in the room before I jump into my discourse about Batteries. If you have a Samsung Galaxy Note 7 and you haven’t yet sent it back, you should probably do that as soon as possible. I say that from both a personal and professional standpoint. As fantastic of a device it would be if it weren’t explosion-happy, the benefits of owning a Note 7 are severely outmatched by the risks. Take a mental tour of where your phone is during the day. Mine’s typically in my pocket, on the desk next to electronics (most of which don’t belong to me), or in my lap. I don’t want a battery fire in any of these places.  Do you? I assure you there’s no such thing as a safe place for a battery fire.

With that unpleasantness out of the way, it brings up why I’m writing on this topic in the first place- there’s been a sizable increase in concerned customers who might not have paid as much attention to charging/discharging habits of the batteries in their personal electronics. I’m going on the record to provide a consolidated FAQ of sorts. Even if you don’t personally care to adjust your own habits, if you’re under the age of 30 people will expect you to know about electronics so, it can’t hurt to brush up and provide reliable information.

Q: What should I do if I witness a battery fire?
A: Grab the nearest fire extinguisher for the safest route, but the low quantities of lithium in portable batteries means it’s generally okay to use anything traditionally relied upon for small fires, whether that’s CO2, ABC dry chemical, or good-ol’ tap water.

Q:  Are there any fire indicators or warning signs before it catches flame?
A: Lithium-based batteries are relatively stable compared to alternatives. Most fires are caused by trauma to the battery cells themselves and with most phones that’s hard to do.  If, however, it’s going to happen despite all odds, there is usually a hissing sound from the gasses emitted coming from the jacket. If you smell a gas that reminds you of “Juicy Fruit” gum, stop inhaling - the gas is toxic.  Take the device/battery away from anything combustible. And if you can’t move the device, move the combustible items.

Left: Bloated; Right: Normal.

Left: Bloated; Right: Normal.

Q: I went to a phone repair shop and they told me my battery is “bloated.” What does that mean?
A: It means your battery is not so safe. A bloated battery’s cells are actively degrading and will eventually become unsafe. How quickly this process happens, once started, is completely variable. It’s not guaranteed that it’ll  imminently explode, but it becomes significantly more likely as it starts putting more and more pressure on the surrounding components. It can only ever cause harm to the device at that point.

Q: When should I replace my battery?
A: Research on modern lithium batteries has converged on the following rule of thumb: assuming “normal” daily use, a battery’s effectiveness degrades roughly 20% per year. That means that at the end of a two year contract, someone who keeps the same phone with the same battery will have effectively 60% of the battery life they started with if everything else remained constant. Considering we (iFixOmaha) see batteries bloat and push the screen up in otherwise-coddled devices at around the 2-3 year mark, two years seems a reasonable expectancy to either get a new device or get a new battery if you’re satisfied with your current device.

Q: Can I charge my phone while I sleep?
A: Absolutely. Modern rechargeable batteries contain circuitry that intelligently draws current only until capacity. Even if your device is on the charger 24/7/365, it’s really reading “100%... ~99.5%... 100%...” and not displaying it to the end user as it charges and discharges. I’d never suggest 24/7/365 charging to anyone due to the wear that puts on the cells from staying at that high of a voltage/temperature for such a long time, but 6-10 hours at night while not in use is not going to shave a significant amount of time off the battery’s life expectancy.

Q: Which charger should I use? Is there a “best” one?
A: Device manufacturers often only warranty charging-related issues if you’ve used it exclusively with the original charger. It might seem nutty at face value, but there is a bit of logic behind it as the original charger was used in laboratory conditions for durability and any other number of concerns. An A/C adapter (or charge/sync cable) with faulty or out-of-spec circuitry will interfere with what they’ve expected for the device.

Apple has their MFi (Made For iDevices) certification that shows a warning when you’re using something they haven’t approved (this hefty licensing fee is why third party accessories for Apple devices typically cost more.) Android devices operate under the USB standard that includes a whole slew of safety/regulatory requirements, but there’s not a lot stopping companies from cutting corners until it’s already fried devices and the bad reviews are written.

If using the originally included charger isn’t an option for whatever reason (life happens, after all,) don’t skimp and get the cheapest thing you can find at the nearest gas station or on eBay. While it’s entirely possible the offerings mentioned will be perfectly reliable and safe, it’s unlikely someone or some organization would want to sell you a reliable accessory for less than a trip to Starbuck’s.

There’s no such thing as a luxury brand of charging accessories- even Apple’s own USB Type-C cable is mostly negatively reviewed due to the unnaturally short lifespan of the tip. Higher price tags don’t necessarily imply higher quality in mobile electronics.

I won’t officially endorse any one brand or product- especially since a few brands I used to trust released out-of-spec USB Type-C accessories. (Side note: I’ll devote a separate post to Type-C for the curious) Fortunately, more and more sites are catching onto questionable practices and have forbidden incentivized reviews, so the line between quality and mediocrity should be a bit easier to discern. If you want to buy a few cables to last you a few years, read the contents of a few reviews before pulling the trigger- don’t just base everything on stars.

We currently offer charging accessories at our UNO Bookstore location (iFixUNO) and will expand these offerings to our other locations in the near future. These have all been tested by our staff and we can attest to their reliability. We understand how important it is to have the devices you rely on every day ready to go.

iPhones don't offer "quick charging" per se, but an iPad charger is a huge help

iPhones don't offer "quick charging" per se, but an iPad charger is a huge help

Fun fact: the iPhone 6 and newer ship with a 5V/1A (5W) AC adapter (yep, even the brand new iPhone 7), but can safely draw up to 10W. The Plus editions are rumored to handle up to 12W if powered by a 5V/2.4A iPad AC adapter, but there’s no official confirmation from Apple as far as I’m aware.

Evan is an iFixOmaha repair tech by day and a nerd by night (and doesn't mind whichever connotations may apply.) When not tinkering with some electronic device physically, he'll spend equal time with software modifications. Even if he's a fan of nearly everything with a power button, you wouldn't  guess as much from spending a day with him in the company of his wonderful wife and snort-filled pug.