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Beware of Aftermarket Batteries

Why aftermarket and counterfeit laptop batteries can be dangerous to your health - and life-threatening

One reason we don’t talk about lithium ion batteries and the risks associated with them is the fear that the airlines will ban them, and we’ll be stuck looking at ever-closer seatbacks on our flights.

But we learned last year that batteries literally can go up in flames if they aren’t built properly, and that Sony, like so many companies before it, seemed more interested initially in denying the problem existed than actually fixing it. This year, LG appears to be having some troubles and channeling Sony’s “no news here” approach to dealing with the problem. This danger also recently spread to toys.

However, being seriously burned by a battery (as I have been) is not at all a good thing. And while lithium ion can be made to be safe and generally is, the oversight for this technology isn’t what it should be. There is no way right now for a buyer to know or to test whether they have a life-threatening product. That’s because the kind of battery safety testing needed is destructive testing, much like the Department of Motor Vehicles and the auto insurance industry do to determine the safety of cars. Hardware OEMs do this type of testing, and the battery industry is working aggressively to eliminate the problem. But aside from the folks that build systems, there is no agency that I know of that is protecting you against what could be a serious and life-threatening risk.

Why batteries worry me
I recently learned that aftermarket batteries are not being tested by third parties to ensure that they don’t have these catastrophic flammability problems. In fact, it’s been discovered that some counterfeit batteries apparently contain cells that were known to fail last year and have been recalled by PC manufacturers. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, because aftermarket vendors – for printer cartridges, memory, or any such part – often buy from the bargain bins so they can offer aggressive prices yet still get good margins.

With printer ink that could result in a clogged printer, you’ll get an out-of-warranty repair; for memory failures, you’ll see blue screen crashes (particularly with Vista) that are often almost impossible to diagnose; but with batteries that ignite or blow up, you could lose your house or car, or cause a major emergency on an airplane. This obviously isn’t the only issue with aftermarket parts – the auto industry has been struggling with similar life-threatening risks for some time. Still, make sure your supplier is selling you parts that have come from OEMs who do destructive testing on batteries, and know they will be held accountable if that battery catches fire.

I believe in saving money, but only when you know of and can accept the related risks, if any, associated with the savings. I don’t buy non-branded memory or parts from untrusted sources because I know that can drive up my support costs and downtime. I don’t by third-party printer ink because the savings isn’t worth the aggravation of a bad print job or broken printer. I don’t buy a no-name hard drive because my data is my life. And I surely wouldn’t buy a third-party laptop battery – it could cost me my house or car. You may choose differently in your purchases, but make sure you understand just what the risks are.

In any case, if you or your employees are using aftermarket batteries, there are some things you can do to make them safer: Remove the battery from the laptop once it’s charged and while the laptop is being used for extended periods on power (and while using airplane power on a plane); don’t leave it near anything that is itself flammable (particularly while charging); and try not to store a lot of these batteries in one place to avoid one setting off a bunch of others. And don’t put them in checked baggage, as the TSA will likely have an issue with that.

But the best bet is to only buy batteries from someone that you know is doing destructive testing on what they sell and is selling the real stuff, not some counterfeit battery. Right now, the only folks I know for sure are safe are the OEMs.

— Rob Enderle is President and Founder of Enderle Group . Special to Dark Reading.

Editors' Choice
Elizabeth Montalbano, Contributor, Dark Reading