Come Christmas morning, the three most dreaded words in the English language might be "batteries not included."
Without these mini-power-packs, many a gift becomes no more useful than a tree ornament - great to look at, but lifeless.
Still, selecting a battery isn't easy. Are all batteries environmental equals? Are rechargables a better long-term investment? Which lasts longest?
"The battery market is already quite confusing," says Tim Mooney at Consumer Reports magazine. This probably won't change as companies like Duracell, Energizer, and Rayovac grapple in a world market with annual sales exceeding 20 billion batteries for the most common sizes (AAA, AA, C, D, and 9-volt).
Demands for portable power are growing as cellular telephones, portable CD players, and palmtop computers become more common. One measure of the trend: a 60 percent increase in battery-operated devices in American households between 1987 and 1995, reports Duracell.
Most people buy the nonrechargable alkaline batteries (80 percent of all sales) and toss them when done. But what about environmental concerns?
If they are nicad-free alkalines the environmental impact is negligible, says John Grady, a senior director of technology for Energizer. After extensive research, "our official position is that there is absolutely no problem with disposing of [nonrechargeable alkalines] in the household trash, but if you live in an area with battery recycling available to you, by all means, we encourage that."
The US Environmental Protection Agency offers similar advice: It's OK to throw out alkaline batteries, but best to take them to a recycler. Check with your local public works department or state authorities.
The environmental scorecard for rechargeables is mixed. They seem the logical choice for the environmentally conscious, except that many contain nickel-cadmium, a toxic metal. This makes them unwelcome at landfills.
The industry has addressed the pollution issue by creating the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp., a nonprofit organization that works to keep nicad batteries from entering the solid-waste stream.
About 20,000 retail stores in the US (Wal-Mart, Target, Circuit, Ace Hardware, etc.) and about 4,000 in Canada accept used nicad rechargeables. A special door decal identifies participating stores. There's also a toll-free information line: 1-800-BATTERY.
Bottom line: Nonrechargeable alkalines are versatile and safe, with no hazardous chemicals. Nicad rechargeables are less convenient because they must be recharged regularly and taken to a recycler when exhausted. They also are more expensive at the time of purchase (often double or more the cost of alkaline, not including the recharger).
Over the long haul, however, rechargeables can be charged hundreds of times over several years, making them more economical than the alkalines.
If you choose the nonrechargable alkaline route, brand difference is minimal, according to Consumer Reports. An article in the magazine's Dec. 1997 issue concluded that all eight brands of alkalines tested were "excellent performers." CR's Mr. Mooney, who supervised the tests, won't endorse any one, since performance varies by device and usage pattern. "I could take two big brands," he says, "One brand finishes first in one CD player and I go to a different CD player and the order is reversed."
Between brands, battery life can vary by 15 percent. But because price differences often range more widely, Consumer Reports suggests buying alkalines by price, not by brand. It also recommends stocking up since batteries often have a shelf life of five years from the "best if used by" date on the battery.
A BATTERY OF TIPS
* Don't mix old and new batteries in the same device. This drains the fresh battery and may cause leakage.
* Stored batteries should be kept dry to prevent corrosion. Refrigerating them may marginally enhance their usefulness.
* Keep the contacts of rechargeable batteries clean - wipe them with a cloth soaked in alcohol.
* Don't toss 'dead' batteries. First, try them on a low-demand device. TV remote controls are often a good place for weak batteries.