It’s happened to everyone.
You open up a drawer, pull out an old piece of electronics, be a remote, toy, game controller, or what have you. You try using it, and you find it’s dead. Just need some new batteries of course. You flip open the battery compartment door, and that’s when you see it: exploded batteries. The bane of all vintage electronics.
Personally, I’ve had enough. It’s time to say no to alkaline. Especially when it comes to film photography equipment.
The Problem with Alkaline
Did you know that it’s not a matter of if an alkaline battery explodes, but when? Yes, every single AA alkaline will eventually pop and leak out that difficult-to-impossible crystal goo if not removed. The reason is once an alkaline battery begins to discharge, it must continue discharging until it is fully drained. If it’s sitting unused in a remote, but has been used even once, it’ll pop.
That’s why you’re supposed to remove the batteries in something if you’re not using it. But that’s not how humans work. When a mouse gets put in a drawer, we’re not thinking ahead to if we’re going to use it in the next three months. And the lifespan of an AA alkaline battery can be surprisingly short. Depending on humidity and temperatures, I’ve had batteries explode on me in a matter of weeks, ruining electronics and contributing to the ever-growing problem of e-waste.
Many older (and even modern) film cameras use AA batteries, which means that when they come into my hands, the first thing I have to check is how much damage has been done to contacts. Sometimes I can salvage the contacts with alcohol and a lot of patience, but many times I can’t. Even cameras I’ve bought new, like Fuji Instax cameras, I’ve accidentally left batteries in for more than a few months, resulting in a dead camera (RIP my Instax Wide 300).
This is part of the reason why so many vintage Polaroid cameras have survived – they don’t have any batteries stored in the camera itself. Instead, the batteries are in each film cartridge, so there’s little chance of a leaky battery ruining the entire camera. While this system is wasteful in many ways, it’s why vintage Polaroid cameras are able to keep up many decades after their manufacture.
Proprietary Lithium Versus AA Lithium
To be clear, I’m not ragging on the AA battery standard. In fact, I think AA batteries are a much better option than proprietary lithium packs or odd battery sizes. I much prefer the Fuji Instax Mini 11 with its two AA batteries over the built-in lithium packs of the new Polaroid Now cameras.
AA batteries are easily replaced, while built-in packs are just that, built in. Rechargeable lithium batteries always eventually need to be replaced, so that Polaroid Now camera is e-waste in 7 years unless you can a) find a replacement battery and b) figure out how to take it apart, replace the battery, and put it back together. Those are two big ifs. This is the same problem that is fueling the right to repair movement as manufacturers like Apple and Microsoft make their products increasingly difficult to service.
The Way Forward
Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with alkaline AAs if you’re vigilant about removing them the second you’re done using them. In fact, occasionally there are electronics that require the specific voltage characteristics of alkaline (see: my ancient thermostat and the wireless mics I use at work). However, there’s a better way.
Rechargeable lithium AA batteries have become cheap and plentiful. I personally use and love standard Eneloop batteries, but there are generic brands if you really want to save some money. I use them everywhere – they last months upon months in my Nikon F100, my Fuji Instax Mini 11, all my mice, remotes – literally everywhere I need a battery. I’ve been doing so for years and have had no issues with any of my photography gear. I even run a high-powered remote flash off of rechargeable AAs.
While alkaline will eventually leak and ruin your electronics, if you forget a AA rechargeable battery in something, it’ll just run out of charge. However, I will say that lithium does have its own issues. In rare cases, you can get an expanding lithium battery (this seems to be more common in built-in packs, which are thinner, have no reinforcement, and more prone to damage) which means that it’s on its way to catching fire. If you ever see an old laptop, phone, or rechargeable device expanding, get rid of that thing immediately, or at the very least get it out of your house. While I’ve encountered many an expanding iPhone battery, I’ve yet to encounter a lithium AA suffering from the same fate. (Also I’m going to acknowledge there are issues with the mining and processing of lithium, but there are literally ethical issues with every stage of large modern electronic manufacturing and distribution – we can’t fight all the battles at once folks)
So modern camera and electronics manufacturers – just say no to the built-in lithium pack or odd battery sizes. Give us slots for AA batteries, but also give us the rechargeable AA batteries that go in the product instead of packing in cheap alkalines.
A good way to reduce the catastrophic amount of e-waste we produce is by extending the lifespan of electronics as much as possible. Rechargeable batteries make sure that Game Boy you dig out of your drawer will still turn on when you dig it out ten years from now, ready to take Link’s Awakening for another spin.