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Do rechargeable batteries always outlast disposables?

Illustration of batteries charging

Our latest tests have found that the best rechargeable batteries will outlast alkaline disposables in high-drain appliances, like children’s toys, but is there still a place for both types in the battery market?

A few months ago I asked, ‘Why don’t we phase out disposable batteries?‘ – and your responses were not only numerous, but also very varied highlighting a number of issues around the subject.

While some of you were keen on the idea – Leonard said, ‘non-rechargeable batteries should definitely be discontinued’ – others were less keen. They cited self-discharge, sudden power loss and incompatible appliances as reasons why rechargeables shouldn’t replace disposables outright.

The poll also reflected this split – with 36% showing support for phasing out disposables, 42% disagreeing and 22% still feeling confused about what’s best. And I think Dave Darwent’s comment summed up the general feeling that ‘the question posed doesn’t have a one sized fits all answer’.

Both batteries have a place

On reflection, I think I agree – for now, both rechargeable and disposable batteries have a place in the market. But what exactly should we be using each type for?

I accept that, for convenience, it is easier to use disposable alkalines for low-drain appliances that run over a long period of time – items like remote controls, clocks and doorbells where you only need to change the batteries every year or two.

Because disposables don’t suffer from self-discharge they are more convenient for this type of use over a long period of time (although hybrid rechargeables are starting to compete).

Rechargeable battery reviews

But when it comes to high-drain appliances (your electric razor, kids’ toys) and very high-drain appliances (your digital camera and DAB radio) it really does make sense to use rechargeables.

Not only can they save you a lot of cash (we calculated that a set of eight Best Buy rechargeables could save you more than £500, compared to alkalines, if you reused them 100 times) but on average high-capacity rechargeables will also outlast alkaline batteries in high-drain appliances.

Here are the average lifetimes we worked out, based on our test results from the last few years:

Graphic showing high-drain usage for AA batteries

Which batteries do you use?

Of course there are other factors to take into account. These lifetimes were under test conditions and if there is a long period between when you charge your batteries and when you use them you won’t get as great a performance due to self-discharge.

Check out our rechargeable batteries review to see full test results for all the batteries we sent to the lab for our latest tests, plus discover which hybrid and high-capacity rechargeables are Best Buys.

I think it’s hard to deny that rechargeable batteries are a pretty appealing option right now. Do you use disposables, rechargeables – or a mixture of both? And will our test results influence you to make changes?

Comments
Member

I still think a mixture of both, predominantly rechargeable when it is a dedicated battery designed for the equipment, such as ‘phone batteries, and the Which? test results won’t influence me to change at all because on Batteries, energy saving bulbs and one type of major Appliance, Which?’s results have proved to be alarmingly different from the real life experience, doubtless largely because, as Hazel says, the tests are in lab (“ideal”) conditions.

All the same, where a dedicated or other well proven rechargeable is available I fully agree that it should be used and used well.

Member

I think a mixture of both too. Several of my devices need – note need – the 1.5 volt of the “disposable” to work at all.well – they fail to work with the 1.2 volt rechargeables .

I wonder why nobody has mentioned the chargers that will actually charge 1.5v disposable batteries when used as top ups of the partially discharged ones – extending their use by many months? I have one – use it often.

Member

I used to recharge 9 volt alkaline batteries in the mid 70s for use in my LED pocket calculator, which took a lot of power. It saved money, but I eventually bought a rechargeable LED calculator.

I did not try recharging 1.5 volt batteries because they used to be so prone to leakage. If I recall correctly, one manufacturer’s slogan was something like ‘No other battery looks like it or leaks like it’.

Member
David says:
23 April 2011

Yer, I agree I think both types of batteries have their place. Must admit I’ve never heard of “chargers that will actually charge 1.5v disposable batteries when used as top ups of the partially discharged ones” though, so thanks for that!

Member
David H says:
23 April 2011

I use both types and find that each have good and bad points. I mainly use AA batteries for all sorts of applications and find that overall they are more cost effective when rechargeable.
However my understanding is that they do not recharge indefinately and this has been my experience over the years. They also lose their charge fairly quickly.
As a keen photographer I usually have my small camera with me when going out on walks, cycle rides etc and on more than one occasion have been let down by rechargeable batteries both in the camera and the spares I always carry even when they had only been charged up a week or so earlier and the camera hardly used. A bit of a pain when you have travelled 100miles plus to see something. I could always charge them up immediately before use but frankly don’t always have the time if I go somewhere at short notice nor is it good for the batteries if you keep full charging them and then let the charge run out because you don’t use them or so I have been told.
I now use ultimate lithium batteries for that camera and carry a spare pack. They last for months and I always know there is a fully charged pack available to change to.

Member

In the 21st century, manufacturers should consider that users might want to use rechargeable batteries. Anything that will only work on disposable batteries is poorly designed and should be returned promptly for a refund.

The only problem I have encountered is that battery level indicators are intended for use with disposable batteries and don’t give much useful information when rechargeables are used.

Member

Ummm……

The majority of the devices that only use disposals that I have are over ten years old – and I certainly wouldn’t return them for a refund – nor would I buy new devises simply to use a rechargeable battery – particularly when most of my devices last for months or even years before needing new batteries – and as I said I have a “universal” AAA – AA battery charger I bought from “Innovations” (though have seen them in other catalogues) that will recharge disposables providing they are not discharged fully first. Normally doubles or triples the usable life of the disposable.

Member

I do believe that he point was made in last autumn’s convo on this topic, that in fact the irony is that most older appliances work better on rechargeables than most newer ones, basically because older electronics generally tend to be “less fussy” about getting exactly the stated voltage and tolerate a bit below.

Wavechange’s point is important and well made, but I would venture to suggest, with some little experience in this field, but nothing like enough to speak with authority, that making modern things (like DAB radios for example) work well from rechargeables could end up making them uneconomical to run (or make).

It’s somewhat chicken and egg like but I return to my previous point that rather like low energy lightbulbs, we are being coerced down the road of rechargeables without the necessary technology being in place first.

Member

Errr….I think Which?’s server may be having “a moment” …. no avatars showing and my last post repeated several times. Did someone forget to buy it an Easter Egg??????

Member

When I bought a digital camera a few years ago I bought some Duracell high mha rechargeable batteries. They worked well but lost their charge within 2 weeks after a year.
Trawling the internet I found people praising hybrid rechargeables, and purchas 4 Uniross Hybrio for £7.99 p+p included from “battery logic” over the internet.
They perform well, and the charge lasts for months even when they are not in use. They take about 1.5 hrs to recharge in my charger.
I can thoroughly recommend them, though not tested in this months Which mag

Member

Have had very little success with Uniross – but have excellent results with GP – excellent shelf life and high capacity.

Member
Brian Springthorpe says:
25 April 2011

I use non-rechargeables in things like TV remotes.

In most other things I use rechargeables. In these things I would include cameras at the high end and motorised pepper and salt grinders at the low end. In between there would be torches, of the halogen and conventional bulb type.

What I do make sure of is that they are all high capacity at around 2800 mAh. My digital Fuji camera especially requires these.

The report in Which magazine reported on several well known brands but I have found that Aldi sell thier own particular batteries (of all popular sizes) and not only are they high capacity, (well over 2000 mAH), but they are cheap too.

What the report doesn’t actually say is that if you are going for a high capacity rechargeable is that you need a good charger that will cope with the capacity. Chargers are often supplied with a set of batteries at outlets such as Comet and Jessops and the charger will be suitable for what ever batteries come with it, but if higher capacity batteries are inserted the charging period increases dramatically.

If you go for a charger that is typically 250mA for 4 x AA type batteries, increasing the capacity this could mean that it will take more than 24 hours to charge 4 x 2800 mAh batteries.

The supplier I went to had a formula which unfortunately I have forgotten for the moment but any good supplier will be able to let you know this so that you can come to an informed decision when purchasing.

Member
Chris H says:
25 April 2011

I think it very unlikely that buying a set of 8 rechargeable batteries would save £500 over 100 charge cycles or anything like that amount ! My experience has been that such batteries are thrown away well before much profit is seen.
When they are new, rechargeables seem to achieve their nominal capacity and retain it over fairly long storeage periods but after perhaps as few as 10 charge/recharge cycles, their ability to retain their charge for long periods seems to drop off significantly. That has been my experience, particularly with AA rechargeable batteries of ~2500mAh capacity made by a well-known manufacturer recommended in this latest article !!
When used in cameras or portable audio recorders the batteries tend to spend long periods inactive however the user absolutely depends on them working on demand say after 1 month, or even 3+ months. It is quite infuriating to find that batteries are flat when you know they have hardly been used. This is the point when they end up in the bin !
I think the Which testing has missed this point so the results are not as informative as they might be. It would be more useful to put batteries on test through say 10-20 charge /recharge cycles and only then measure their % charge retention after 1, 2, 3 months on the shelf.
It does seem to be the case that the newer ‘hybrid’ rechargeables are much better at retaining their charge over long periods. This could be confirmed by conducting the tests as above. Then we would all know whether to buy more rechargeables or go back to using the old reliable – Duracells.
I have had good results so far with Maplin hybrid rechargeables however.

Member

Lithium rechargeable batteries, which are used in phones and laptops, are very well behaved and can often be charged hundreds of times. For example my MacBook Pro battery has gone through 630 charge cycles and still appears to have 95% of its original capacity. The big problem is that these lithium rechargeable batteries are made for a specific purpose and to work reliably, the charging must be carefully controlled by electronic circuitry.

What we need is for manufacturers to get together and agree standards, so that the same battery can be used in different makes of phones, cameras, etc. Some manufacturers have already agreed on a standard phone charger.

Member

Making comaprisions is difficult enough without vendors saying the same thing in differnet ways .. and even Which does it.. in their article they mention that one brand ‘retained 90% of their charge after 50 days’ and then that another brand ..’losing 11% of their capacity after 50 days’.
so we have 90% vs 89% … Please keep the language straightforward.

Member

Agree with GC, so what they actually found was that one of the best higher capacity “normal” batteries was as good at charge retention as the best “pre- charged” lower capacity battery. ( 90% v 89%)
So no need to buy more expensive lower capacity pre-charged batteries then !
A figure for retention after say 3 and 6 months would be very useful , this would give us a chance to way up the need to use Alkaline or Lithiums instead of re-chargeables in emergency items like torches.

Member
Frank says:
4 May 2011

I found it astonishing that the Which? article didn’t point out – as Richard has done above – that rechargeable AA batteries operate at a lower voltage than disposables. They are simply not appropriate for many devices that use 4 disposable AA batteries as they’ll deliver 4.8 V instead of 6.0 V – a big difference.
My own experience of rechargeables, in common with other commenters here, is that they don’t sustain adequate performance for many charges. Even worse, if they’re left unused for any length of time, or if they’re left in a device that is also plugged into the mains (e.g. my wireless doorbell) they become useless.

Member
Alan says:
21 April 2012

I have bought some “Ultra Max” AA Ni-MH batteries from Poundland at £1 for 2

They are shown as 800mAh and upto 1000 X

They are replacing some uniross batteries that did not hold their charge in a hand held magnifier light that is used intermitently.

I suspect that the low initial cost but more frequent re-charging will make evaluating these batteries difficult.