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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.