Batteries are an essential piece of the camcorder technology puzzle. Without important developments in delivering portable electric power in a small package, we’d never have the small, portable camcorders we’ve come to take for granted today.
For the most part, camcorder batteries are very simple to use and maintain. All you have to know how to do is charge them and how to put them on the camcorder properly, and chances are you’ll never have to worry about them. Yet underlying this deceptive simplicity are a few particulars about battery technology you should familiarize yourself with, at least so you’ll have the knowledge necessary to make informed purchase decisions when it’s time to buy spare batteries for your camcorder. And if you currently only own one battery, that time is probably right now.
In this article, we’ll be taking a look at four major types of camcorder battery technology: lead-acid, nickel-cadmium, nickel-metal hydride and lithium-ion. We’ll also make some suggestions about how to get the most mileage out of each type. Armed with this knowledge, you’ll be able to make your camcorder batteries last a few years longer.
Occupying the lowest rung on the technology ladder, lead-acid camcorder batteries are very similar to the type of battery that you use to start your car every morning. Lead-acid camcorder batteries are reliable and inexpensive, yet they suffer from a number of drawbacks, not the least of which is size and weight. Often, inexpensive batteries advertised as “memory-free” (see below) are of this type.
The voltage of a lead-acid battery falls off gradually as it discharges. This means a lead-acid battery should still have plenty of recording time left after the camcorder gives a low battery warning.
Always store lead-acid batteries fully charged. When you get home from a shoot, top off the charge and then be sure to remove them from the camcorder or charger. This will ensure that their charge won’t trickle away as they sit connected to the equipment. Lead-acid camcorder batteries can cease functioning entirely if left alone in an uncharged state or if discharged too far. Keep them dry, keep them out of direct sunlight and don’t drop them on a hard surface or subject them to any other kind of treatment that might break the case. As you can tell from the ominous name “lead-acid,” the contents are dangerous and poisonous. Always recycle old lead-acid batteries properly: their contents are extremely harmful to the environment. Recycling is free and convenient, so there is no excuse not to do so. See the Sidebar at the end of this article.
Nickel-cadmium batteries, commonly called NiCd (or Ni-Cd or NiCad®), were the most common type of camcorder battery a decade ago. Still found in a wide range of electronic devices, NiCds are light and have a long life with a steady discharge pattern. This means that, unlike their lead-acid cousins, NiCds deliver about the same level of voltage throughout their entire discharge cycle, then abruptly drop when they are low. So when your camcorder tells you the battery is low, if it’s a NiCd, you’d better wrap up your taping in a hurry.
Unlike lead-acid batteries, it’s not a good idea to promptly recharge NiCds after every usage. In fact, the opposite is true: NiCds should be fully discharged before recharging, in order to avoid the dreaded memory effect that plagues this type of battery. Technically speaking, these batteries do not have a memory chip, but they do exhibit an annoying behavior that seems like they remember the partial discharge, recharge pattern. Then, even though the battery is only partially discharged, the voltage drops, even though a charge remains. Special battery chargers (sometimes called battery conditioners) can automatically drain the power before charging it back up and are a good idea for users of NiCd batteries. Repeated discharging and charging may even rehabilitate a battery that suffers from this effect.
As with any battery, keep your NiCd batteries dry, cool and safe. The contents of NiCds are not as dangerous as lead-acid batteries, but they are highly poisonous and very bad for the environment, so be sure not to just throw them in the garbage when you’re done with them.
Nickel-Metal Hydride Batteries
Nickel-Metal Hydride batteries, usually shortened to NiMH, were developed in direct response to the environmentally unfriendly aspects of NiCds. More specifically, manufacturers wanted to develop a NiCd without the poisonous cadmium, and Nickel-Metal Hydride batteries were the result. As a bonus, fully charged NiMH batteries offer 10-25% greater capacity than NiCds. Unfortunately, they are also prone to the same memory effect that NiCds suffer from. You’ll find NiMHs in tons of consumer electronics products now days and you can even find rechargeable NiMHs in standard sizes such as AA and AAA for just about any device that needs batteries.
Like NiCds, NiMH batteries should not be charged immediately after every use. It’s better to allow them to fully discharge instead of constantly topping them off after brief usage. Keep them cool, dry and safe from shock, and even though they don’t contain cadmium, it’s still a good idea to recycle them.
Lithium-Ion batteries (sometimes rendered Li-Ion) are the pinnacle of camcorder battery technology. They offer quick charge times, long life, steady discharge characteristics, low weight and small size. A Lithium-Ion battery offers about 40% more charge capacity than a NiCd battery of similar size and weight and can be fully charged in less than half the time. Lithium-Ion batteries do not suffer from the memory effect. As you might have guessed, Lithium-Ion batteries are also the most expensive type of camcorder battery available on the market today.
Unlike the other technologies we have been talking about, you can (and should) keep your Lithium-Ions fully charged: go ahead and top off a battery that is 90% charged back up to 100%. Otherwise, care and handling is the same as with the other batteries (say it with me): Keep Lithium-Ions cool, dry and safe from shock. Be sure to recycle them when they’re ready to be discarded.
A Few More Tips
- Mind the weather. Very hot or cold conditions can affect a battery’s performance and in some cases can even cause permanent damage. If you have an outdoor shoot in the Mojave desert in August or in Minnesota in February, be sure to keep the batteries climate-controlled as long as possible. Keep them in the car with the heater or cooler running, for example, until you need them, and return them to these conditions as quickly as possible when you’re done shooting.
- Bag ‘em. Many professionals store their charged batteries in plastic baggies. This keeps them dry and clean and also provides a way to tell which batteries are charged and which are not.
- Mark charged batteries. So now you’ve got four identical spare batteries for your camcorder; how can you tell which one is charged when you grab the camera for a shoot? Having some method, such as a piece of colored tape, to tell which ones are charged and which are not could prove very useful.
- Don’t overcharge your batteries. Especially with older technologies, follow the instructions and avoid overcharging your batteries. Leaving NiCds on the charger for a week is not a great idea from a safety standpoint, but can also affect battery performance.
Eventually, all batteries reach the end of their lifespan and, alas, new batteries must take their place. However, if you take good care of them, you can prolong the life span of your batteries by a year or more. And given the sometimes high cost of replacement batteries, that’s good news, indeed.
Joe McCleskey is an instructional media specialist.
Sidebar One: Battery Terminology
Battery Two or more electrochemical cells arranged in a series or parallel configuration to provide a given voltage or capacity. In common usage, the term “battery” also refers to single-cell units.
Battery Conditioner A type of charger that’s designed to discharge a battery completely, then slowly charge it back to full capacity in order to eliminate the memory effect associated with some NiCd and NiMH batteries.
Capacity The total amount of time a battery will discharge at a given rate of wattage or amperage.
Charge The conversion of electrical energy to chemical energy within a battery.
Memory Effect An annoying phenomenon that occurs when you partially discharge certain types of batteries repeatedly. This causes the camcorder to shut down before the battery is fully discharged.
Sidebar Two: Recycle
We know you’d love to recycle your old batteries instead of dumping those toxic metals into the ground, if only it was easy and convenient. Fortunately, the rechargeable power industry funds a program to do just that. In fact, from Best Buy to RadioShack to Wal-Mart, many stores that sell rechargeable batteries also recycle them. So the next time you are out buying rechargeable batteries, take your old ones in with you for an exchange. For more information and store locations near you (just enter your Zip code), please visit the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation’s Web site: www.rbrc.org.