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Rechargeable battery upgrades powered by consumer demand

New models promise to hold their juice longer and don't have to be plugged in for hours before the first use.

December 25, 2006|Emily Fredrix | The Associated Press

Batteries that can be recharged rather than tossed when the juice runs out are supposed to be more convenient for consumers. But for Wren Wright, they lose their power too quickly and unpredictably, sometimes leaving the shutterbug with no power for his digital camera.

Now, major battery makers are recharging their offerings with new models that promise to hold their power longer and don't have to be plugged in for hours before the first use.

Wright, who's been trying out Rayovac's new batteries, is impressed. In the month since he snapped them into his camera, he hasn't had to recharge them once.

"It's nice being able to just pop them in there," said Wright, an Athens, Ga., home remodeler who has been using his camera frequently.

Battery makers see big potential in rechargeables, a small but steadily growing part of the $3.5-billion-a-year battery industry. They're also improving the technology to address consumer complaints.

Madison, Wis.-based Rayovac Corp., the nation's third-biggest battery maker, is broadly launching its revamped rechargeables in a few weeks. The batteries, which are fully powered out of the box, are now available only at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. locations with a suggested retail price of $8.99 for a four-pack of AA or AAA batteries. Chargers cost $9.99 to $19.99.

The time spent recharging is a major complaint, said Sean Martin, a division vice president at Rayovac, a unit of Atlanta-based Spectrum Brands Inc.

"It's the inconvenience of 'I have to charge them before I can use them and then every time I go back to use them they discharge their power,' " Martin said.

The new Rayovac batteries, called Hybrids, not only ship fully charged but also can hold that power for about nine months when they're not used.

They're made of the same elements as standard nickel-metal hydride rechargeables, but the nickel-metal alloy is treated with a chemical process that enables the batteries to hold their juice longer, the company said.

Hybrids will completely replace Rayovac's other rechargeables after the first of the year.

Electronics giant Sanyo Electric Co. has a similar nickel-metal hydride rechargeable called the Eneloop for sale at Circuit City Stores Inc., Ritz Camera Centers Inc. and other chains, said David Isola, a Sanyo senior product manager.

He said the company had sold 10 million Eneloop batteries worldwide in the 10 months since they went on sale. The batteries, which are fully charged out of the box, can hold their power for as long as two years when they're not being used, Sanyo said.

Both No. 1 Duracell and Energizer, the No. 2 battery seller, also have shortened the time it takes to charge their products to as little as 15 minutes with a $25 charger.

"There is a lot of behind-the-scenes science to have the most efficient charge rate and complete this in the most efficient time period," said Tony Mazzola, product technical support manager for Energizer. "People like to get things done quickly and not necessarily wait overnight."

Duracell also has a new nickel-metal hydride charger with a lighted display that shows the progress for each battery. The Power Gauge Charger also allows people to charge gadgets via a built-in USB port.

Rechargeables currently make up less than 5% of all battery sales. Still, they're considered among the fastest-growing segments. All the major brands figure that rechargeable sales are growing at least 20% a year.

As sales of more high-drain gadgets such as digital cameras increase, so will rechargeable sales, battery makers say. Duracell said it expected more than 80% of households to have digital cameras by 2008, up from about 50% today.

But rechargeable batteries aren't the best choice for all devices, said Edgar Dworsky, a former Massachusetts assistant attorney general and founder of the consumer education website Consumerworld.org.

Traditional alkaline batteries, for instance, tend to keep their power longer when not in use. It makes sense, he said, to use them in flashlights stashed away for blackouts. Rechargeables, on the other hand, are a good choice for frequently used gadgets like cameras, he said.

However, the initial cost of rechargeable batteries -- sometimes more than $30 for batteries and chargers -- puts off some consumers. For example, Beth Theve of Ohio figures she spends about $25 a month on batteries for Game Boys, electric toothbrushes, digital cameras and remote controls. She knows she'd eventually save money with rechargeable batteries but is reluctant to make the investment.

"I've got three kids and I'm a stay-at-home mom, so whatever is cheapest is what I go with," Theve said.

Companies are marketing lithium-ion batteries as ideal for people who may not want to spend as much for rechargeables but want batteries that last longer than standard alkaline ones.

Consumers are putting more thought into their battery decisions as dozens of gadgets in their homes need them for power, said Russ Reynolds, chief executive of Batteries Plus, a chain of 270 stores based in Hartland, Wis.

"When you start rattling off everything that takes a battery -- from a garage door opener to security systems to fire alarms -- it adds up pretty quick," he said.

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