One of the biggest game-changers in the world of consumer electronics was the introduction of the dry cell battery, especially the small yet powerful AA battery. A wide range of toys, appliances, tools, and gadgets suddenly became compact and portable, no longer tethered to a power cord and a household electrical outlet.
The AA battery made it possible to carry a powerful flashlight in a pocket or play a transistor radio on the beach. AA batteries also powered many popular motorised toys, electric razors, remote controls, and electronic clocks. AA is still one of the most popular battery sizestoday.
The technology behind AA batteries has improved significantly over the years, with rechargeable brands and conventional brands with longer lifespans and boosted power. Replacements are readily available and are still surprisingly affordable. Modern AA batteries are also more eco-friendly, with recyclable components and packaging.
Size AA batteries were first introduced by the Ever Ready company in 1907, although size D batteries had been available since 1893.
How to buy the best AA batteries
How AA batteries work
Dry cell batteries of any size are essentially electronic fuel cells that depend on a chemical reaction to work. The positive end of an AA battery is also called a cathode. The negative end is also called an anode. In the space between these two poles is a chemical solution known as an electrolyte. During a chemical reaction in the electrolyte, excess electrons flow toward the anode, but they have nowhere to go. The repelled electrons want to flow to the positive cathode but require a connection to form a closed loop. An insulated wire provides this connection, and the result is an electrical current that can power small motors or other electronics.
Types of AA batteries
It is important to determine the ideal type of AA battery to power different devices. The manufacturer will often include recommendations for a specific type of AA battery to use for maximum performance or those types to avoid in order to prevent damage. There are three basic types of AA batteries to choose from:
- Alkaline AA batteries: Standard alkaline AA batteries are the most common type found on store shelves and come at an affordable price. The term “alkaline” refers to the chemical electrolyte inside the casing, which generates a steady flow of electrons until the chemicals lose their potency. A few alkaline AA batteries can be recharged, but most have a shelf life of five to 10 years, depending on usage.
- Lithium AA batteries: AA batteries using lithium as an electrolyte are generally promoted as high power or long-lasting. They are noticeably more expensive than standard alkaline batteries and are usually recommended for high-drain devices, such as drones, cellphones, and laptop computers. It is important to note that lithium batteries are not rechargeable, unlike lithium-ion or li-on batteries.
- Rechargeable AA batteries: Recharging an AA battery involves reversing the natural flow of electrons and restoring the electrolyte to its original state. The first rechargeable AA batteries were made from nickel and cadmium (NiCd), but modern versions are more likely to contain nickel-metal hydride (NiMh) or lithium-ion (li-on). One advantage of rechargeable batteries is that they will self-balance, meaning an older battery will still perform well with a newer one, unlike disposable alkaline batteries that can become unstable when mixed.
High-drain vs. low-drain devices
When choosing the best AA battery for a new electronic device, it is important to determine if that device is considered high drain or low drain. A high-drain device draws a significant amount of power in a short amount of time, and some AA batteries cannot keep up with the demand. A low-drain device only requires a steady trickle of power to work, but some AA batteries may be too powerful.
Common high-drain devices include cell phones, portable gaming systems, remote-controlled toys, and digital cameras. Manufacturers usually recommend AA batteries engineered specifically for high-drain devices, typically lithium or rechargeable batteries.
Low-drain devices, such as remote controls, LED flashlights, small toys, and clocks, can function properly with standard alkaline, lithium, or rechargeable batteries. When in doubt, there are lists available of common devices considered to be high-drain or low-drain. Low-drain alkaline batteries should never be used in high-drain devices, but high-drain batteries can be used in low-drain devices if necessary.
AA batteries should be stored in a nonconductive container out of the reach of children.
Features of AA batteries
Rechargeable battery technology has improved to the point where it makes good economic sense to invest in rechargeable lithium-ion or nickel-metal hydride AA batteries for most devices. A battery charging station is a worthwhile accessory to keep these batteries fully charged.
Alkaline dry cell batteries should not be stored in places where contact with metal is a possibility. Instead of storing spare batteries in a catch-all drawer or toolbox, consider using a nonconductive storage case. These compartmentalised cases protect the batteries from conductive materials and also protect other items like clothing from chemical leakage.
Battery spacers (sabots)
While forcing the wrong size battery into a device designed for an AA battery is a dangerous practice, it is possible to substitute a larger battery like a C or D with an AA using a special battery spacer or sabot. The spacer fills the compartment completely while the AA battery supplies the power.
DID YOU KNOW?
AA batteries account for an estimated 60% of annual alkaline battery sales worldwide.
How much do AA batteries cost?
Some single-use AA batteries from lesser-known manufacturers can be found for less than $5 for a package of four. Individual AA batteries from recognised brands can also be found in the $1 to $5 price range.
Most consumer-grade AA batteries fall into the mid-range price range, generally between $10 to $30 per multipack. Standard alkaline dry cells from name brands can be found here, with designations for high-drain and low-drain devices. Rechargeable lithium and NiCad batteries are also available at this price point but not usually in bulk sizes.
AA batteries costing over $35 are typically rechargeable or designed for commercial-grade performance. There are also bulk sizes of standard alkaline batteries available in this price range.
Because AA batteries are commonly used in small flashlights, they are sometimes called “penlight batteries.”
- Use batteries from the same brand. Different manufacturers use different ratios of ingredients, and the variable power output can damage devices.
- Never use a different size battery without an adapter. Using an AAA battery in a device designed for AA batteries can lead to an imperfect connection and performance problems.
- Consider recycling old batteries. Many consumers are concerned about the recyclability of spent AA batteries because of chemical leakage, but in reality, up to 90% of a battery’s components are recyclable.
- Avoid charging standard alkaline AA batteries. There are battery chargers available that claim to recharge single-use batteries, but improper charging of a disposable battery can be very dangerous.
- Store AA batteries in a cool, dry place. Moisture can damage a dry cell battery very quickly, and excessive heat encourages chemical leakage.
AA batteries can replace other battery sizes in devices through the use of a plastic battery spacer, also known as a sabot. There will be some loss of power output, however.
Q. How long does a standard AA battery last?
A. Most AA batteries have an estimated lifespan of five to 10 years, but the actual answer depends on a number of factors, including the device’s power requirements and the manufacturing quality and rechargeability of the batteries.
Q. Can I take AA batteries on a commercial flight?
A. Most airlines do allow passengers to pack devices containing AA batteries, along with a reasonable number of spares. The key is proper storage since some rechargeable AA batteries are considered a potential fire hazard. Batteries can be stored in the electronic devices themselves, but loose batteries should be stored in plastic bags or storage boxes in checked baggage.
Q. Why do AA batteries leak over time?
A. All dry cell batteries continually produce a small amount of power, even when they are not in a device. One byproduct of this process is hydrogen gas, which builds up pressure inside the sealed casing. As batteries age, the trapped gas and other chemicals leak through the seams.
Q. Is getting AA batteries in bulk a good idea?
A. There are many economic and logistical advantages to getting AA batteries in bulk whenever possible. The cost per battery should be much lower, and the unused batteries will not lose much potency if they are stored properly. Having a supply of replacement batteries during emergency situations is always a good idea, especially those sizes commonly used in flashlights and weather radios.