Being Smart with Laptop Batteries

Over the last several weeks we have been dealing with the largest recall in history that the laptop segment has ever had. This one is particularly important because the result of a battery failure, which could come at an increasing rate, is a very hot fire that is potentially life threatening and incredibly difficult to put out. This points out the danger of any technology that stores energy. Even a Cell phone, were it to short out, could create a fire or cause a burn suggesting that if the battery on one is damaged it should be replaced immediately.

But laptops have large batteries and their danger is simply greater which is why both Dell and Apple did the right thing and issued a recall placing the safety of their customers ahead of their own need to control cost and protect the brand. Sadly, in this case, it wasn’t their fault but it was their problem to address it and fortunately Sony is covering their costs. However there remain a couple of things that concern us.  

The Missing Laptop Vendor(s)

When we started down this path Sony was adamant that only Dell was impacted because the batteries came off a manufacturing line that had been dedicated to Dell. Then Apple announced their recall and it was clear, and we’ll be kind here, that Sony was “mistaken”. Our understanding is that the root cause of this problem is a combination of a manufacturing process shared across multiple Sony lines.

Rough estimates suggest that something like 2M additional batteries attached to laptops from other vendors will remain active in the market after the Dell and Apple recalls finish. At this time we can’t be sure who the remaining vendor is but this information does suggest that it would be prudent to be careful regardless of who made your laptop computer.   

Qantas Wrong Headed Response

Last week Qantas initiated a program which prevented certain Dell laptops to be used on the plane with their batteries attached. While this may look like a prudent plan, given the problem had nothing to do with use or over charging, it isn’t clear how it did anything but inconvenience their customers. The short can occur when the laptop is powered off fully charged and it may actually be safer to have the laptop in the cabin where the fire can be dealt with rather than in the luggage compartment where it could grow out of control before discovery. The battery doesn’t even have to be in the laptop for the short to occur.

Strangely enough the laptop industry has applied the vast majority of the technology in place to prevent battery fires into safe charging. If the systems in a laptop are working properly, and all branded laptops have these systems, the battery shouldn’t charge on a plane in the first place while the laptop is on even if it remains in place.

In addition, Qantas targeted Dell, but over time Dell and Apple may be the only companies we can be certain replaced the defective cells so they are not only responding incorrectly, they will be calling out the wrong vendor and, if they add Apple, which is likely, two wrong vendors.

Personally it makes me nervous when a transportation vendor implements safety rules which have nothing to do with the safety problem because it suggests a policy that makes me wonder where else they applied that same flawed logic. I mean, if they were to hear that the wings on some planes were weak would they have the pilots flush the toilets for luck three times before take off?   

Safety Recommendations One thing to keep in mind is that the Sony practice that resulted in the contamination was apparently widely done a few years back by virtually everyone in the industry. Sony was simply slow to do the required line upgrades which are partially why the problem is hitting them first.   Newer batteries have better protection and, while nothing is certain, replacing your older battery is probably wise regardless of who built your laptop computer.

Lithium Ion batteries, under normal laptop use, have a service life of about 18 months anyway and if you have one that is older, it is probably time to replace it. A newer battery will not only be safer, but it should give you battery life that is a substantial improvement over what you are now seeing.

It is safer to store any high capacity battery discharged rather than charged, if it does short out for any reason, the lack of power makes the short a non-event and it will simply fail when you try to charge it rather than creating a fire.

It is not only safer to run a laptop on AC with the battery removed it will add to the life of that battery significantly. We’ve seen reports indicating that most rechargeable batteries, including Lithium Ion, can almost last indefinitely if they aren’t constantly charged. Treated properly, your new Lithium Ion battery could outlast your laptop if you simply remove it and set it aside while your laptop is plugged in. If you do this with a charged battery put it someplace where it isn’t near flammable materials and you should be relatively safe and your notebook will be vastly better protected.   

The Silver Lining to Apple and Dell’s Recall

The Product Safety Commission continues to investigate this problem and should they “discover” another vendor is covering up a potential hazard they will probably order a recall. The repercussions for that vendor and Sony will be very bad but not nearly as bad as if one of those laptops catches fire and causes loss of life; there is a very real possibility that such an outcome could end a company. At the very least Dell and Apple have limited their exposure and they now have an opportunity to touch a large number of their customers, and if these customers have a good experience, they will likely buy from both companies again.

Recall that in the 90’s Dell product reliability was relatively low but their customer service was outstanding which led to them having vastly higher customer satisfaction numbers and sales than did Sony who had better product but horrid customer service. Dell just dramatically improved their customer service processes and if they work to expectations this could work to their benefit long term.

Apple has generally had a better customer service experience then most other vendors and this will be a chance for them to remind their customers of this. If those customers go into an Apple store they are likely to leave with an additional purchase giving Apple an even stronger benefit from doing the right thing.    However this all turns out, be prudent and be safe, you should be afraid of your batteries but you should, much like you do with other hazardous materials, treat them appropriately and if yours is under recall make sure to replace it as quickly as possible.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.


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