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Put To The Test: Gephardt Finds Out The Best Battery For Your Buck

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Kids all over Utah will get some great toys and gadgets this Christmas. But to make them really great, they’ll likely need batteries.

Not every battery is right for every task. With so many different ones on the market, it’s hard to know if you’re choosing the right power source for your toy or device.

AA and AAA batteries are the workhorse options for consumer electronics and battery-powered toys. Disposable batteries come in three varieties: alkaline, lithium and zinc-carbon. In packs of eight, they vary in price from $2 to $20.

Does paying more get you more hours of fun and happier kids for the holidays? The KSL Investigators put the most common options to the test in an endurance race to find out.

Endurance Tests

At Eaton’s Intermountain RC Raceway’s starting line, I met RC enthusiast Chris Shaw and his daughter, Taygen. Each of us used identical radio-controlled cars using AAA batteries — four in the car itself and two in the controller.

Matt Gephardt takes on RC enthusiast Chris Shaw and his 9-year-old daughter, Taygen, in an endurance race using RC cars powered by alkaline, lithium and zinc-carbon disposable batteries. (KSL-TV)

Taygen popped lithium batteries into her car. Chris used alkaline batteries. And I chose good, old-fashioned zinc-carbon batteries for my RC car.

It didn’t take long for track owner Joel Eaton to predict a winner.

“My initial take is lithium is going to produce the longest runtime. They’re also the lightest battery,” Eaton said. “Some of [the other batteries] will notice some power performance loss pretty quickly, I believe.”

The biggest advantage of zinc-carbon is the cost. They are by far the cheapest option. The KSL Investigators paid $2.25 for an eight-pack.

Shaw’s alkaline batteries have three to five times more capacity and a substantially longer shelf life: five to 10 years, compared to a zinc-carbon battery’s three to five years. They are also pricier at $8.29 an eight-pack.

Besides being lighter, Taygen’s lithium batteries also supply more juice than the other two types. Their shelf life often goes past 10 years. At $13.49 an eight-pack, they are also the most expensive type of AAA battery we bought for the race.

But, 24 minutes into the endurance race, the higher price tag did not seem so bad.

That’s when my zinc-carbons died. Drained, kaput, no more. Not only that, some sort of non-battery-related glitch put the kibosh on Shaw’s alkaline powered car. That left Taygen’s lithium batteries as the winner by default.

Taygen’s lithium-powered RC car was the winner of the first race by default. (KSL-TV)

A default is no good, so we put together another test.

This time around, the KSL Investigators popped fresh batteries into each car and ran them on blocks until each wore out. The zinc-carbon AAA batteries lasted an hour and four minutes. The alkaline batteries quit after two hours and five minutes. And the lithium batteries took a whopping three hours and 35 minutes to drain out.

The Better Value

While lithium scored high for endurance, which of the three types had the best value?

With their relatively short running time, the six zinc carbons cost us $0.63 an hour to run. The lithium batteries offered a far better value, at $0.35 an hour. But the alkaline batteries barely took the top spot, at $0.34 an hour.

The Buzz Words

One place not to look for value is the packaging. If you have ever tried to make sense of all those extra words on packs of batteries – like Fusion, Ultimate, Max, High Energy, Optimum and so on – the good news is, you don’t have to.

AA alkaline batteries are a workhorse in the consumer battery industry, while their pricier lithium counterparts are touted for handling higher-drain devices. (KSL-TV)

We asked Terry Lowe, second-generation owner of Battery Specialists in Kaysville, what exactly do those words mean? His answer: Not one thing.

“You know, ‘Max’ and ‘Ultimate,’ I would think max lasts longer, but ultimate lithium is their top-of-the-line product for the AA size,” Lowe said of two batteries manufactured by Energizer. “So even across the same brands, you can’t go off just that name.”

In other words, don’t fall for the buzz words?

“Yeah, the buzz words mean absolutely nothing,” he affirmed.

Terry Lowe, owner of Battery Specialists, explains to KSL Consumer Investigator Matt Gephardt the positives and negatives of each disposable battery type. (KSL-TV)

Many of those buzz words are registered trademarks. Lowe described them as marketing jargon with no benchmarks that battery makers must meet to use them.

“Duracell … they have a Coppertop and an Optimum. They are different, but the names don’t tell you anything about that,” he explained.

Lowe recommends using internet search engines and manufacturer websites to discern that difference.

Choosing The Right Battery

As far as what is best for your wallet, Lowe said it depends on what you’re trying to power.

While lithium works for everything, “Price-wise, you will probably be better going with alkaline in a lot of things,” he said.

That means alkaline is your best choice for many household goods, toys, flashlights, portable radios, music players and smoke alarms.

The pricier lithium batteries are really good performers in high-drain devices – such as digital cameras, handheld video games and RC cars. Plus, experts say lithium batteries can handle extreme temperatures more capably than alkaline batteries.

If you’re looking for hours of fun on Christmas day, zinc-carbon is likely not what your kids will want to find under the tree.

They are a good bet for TV remotes and some wall clocks and not much else, although Lowe suggested they could be a good option for more energy-draining devices.

“If you have things that maybe get left on – maybe you have kids at home that turn things on (without turning them off),” he said, “it doesn’t matter how long they last because they only get one use out of them.”

Making The Case For Rechargeable Batteries

So what would Lowe reach for to power his kids’ Christmas presents?

“Rechargeable batteries are a really good option,” he said.

Make no mistake, rechargeable batteries are an investment. A 16-pack can run you $50 or more and then you’ll need to buy a charger.

“More expensive but if you consider each use they are getting in a high-drain thing or something like a remote control where it is transmitting … they are going to last almost as long as an alkaline battery,” Lower explained. “And you can use it 500 to 1,000 times. You end up saving money in the long run – quite a bit.”

Rechargeable batteries often mean higher upfront costs but experts say they will pay themselves off. (KSL-TV)

Just don’t use rechargeable batteries in devices that sit around unused a lot – like flashlights. They don’t keep a charge for very long. They should also not be used in a device like a smoke alarm.

Two Common Questions About Batteries

Is it OK to pop a mix of different brands of batteries into a device?

“It will work but you’ll run into problems,” warned Lowe. “They drain at different levels and if one battery gets drained all the way down [while] the other batteries are providing some power, that battery is draining so far that it can actually leak. It emits some gases that will start the leak processes.”

What about storing unused batteries in the refrigerator?

“The best temperature range to store the batteries at is room temperature – about 70 degrees (Fahrenheit) is what all the manufacturers across the board generally say,” Lowe explained. “Moisture that’s in the fridge is the number one enemy of batteries. It starts to break down the outer shell – so it’ll cause rust in there and shorten the life big time and cause leakage.”


Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

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