Richard L. Hess
A discussion of batteries

In the early 1990s, I wrote an article for Outdoor Photographer Magazine, quoting the late Galen Rowell from a previous article in the same publication, "If you live by the battery, you might die by the battery." Sadly, Rowell died too young in an airplane crash on final approach to the Bishop Airport in California.

The prompt to re-do this discussion is that a very generous relative gave me an LED flashlight that runs of four LR44 button cells. While designers do everything to make products attractive--and indeed this one is both to me and my generous relative--I cannot get over the stupidity of sacrificing function and cost of feeding for style.

What ever happened to form follows function?

44-style button cells are generally expensive and while not uncommon, offer a very low power density in Wh/$ (watt-hours per dollar). It is especially the case that most high-end equipment (the Nikon MF-23 Multi-Control Back for the F4 comes to mind from my collection) absolutely has to have the silver oxide (SR-44) version to operate properly and I actually stock those and get many years of life from these in my Hewlett-Packard calculators as well. However, at $1 per cell (when bought from low-cost, high-volume battery distributors such as or and much more when bought at the local Radio Shack or The Source (the new name for what used to be the Radio Shack franchise in Canada).

If a device uses replaceable batteries, my preferred choices for most applications are:

  • AA
  • AAA
  • Lithium 123
  • Lithium AA
  • Silver SR-44

However, these must be used within reason. For example, the now discontinued HP-10 calculators make sense using the 44-series batteries. I think I've changed batteries in my HP-15C about a half dozen times in the 20+ years I've owned it. My HP-16C and 12C have had their batteries changed much less frequently. While on this subject, the N cells used by the HP-28S are an annoyance and one of the things I don't like about that calcultor (though there are many things I do like about it).

I am a believer in small, long-lasting flashlights. In both earthquake country (where I leved from 1983-2004) and now in the allegedly cold northland (where I now live, although we had a very green Christmas just now) for most applications, the only batteries that make sense for flashlights are lithium 123 cells which can be purchased at reasonable prices from the above-mentioned dealers or

In some of my favourite lights, the two 123 cells can be replaced by a Pila 168S rechargeable lithium-ion battery and still function very well. Make sure, however, that the light will provide full output with this options. This is discussed at

I don't like C and D cells as much for flashlights or any application because of their cost and bulk. While they do deliver a fair amount of power density, by the time you use them in an emergency you find that they are almost self-discharged or you've thrown away perfectly good batteries replacing them before they leak due to age. For some applications, you can get battery size adapters that permit the use of an AA cell in place of a C cell and a C cell in place of a D cell. However, of course, you won't get as long a run time. I use an AA-to-D set of adapters in our warning strobe lights in the vehicles so that I can use an AA lithium cell instead of an alkaline D cell to better survive the temperature extremes of the glove compartment as well as to retain capacity at low temperatures.

Some things just demand C and D cells, but if they are only used for emergencies (be it for a TV, radio, or fluorescent lantern), you will find that you're replacing otherwise good cells as they are at the end of their shelf life.

When I was doing a lot of travel, I got to the point where I actually purchased a small travel radio partially because it operated on AAA cells so all I had to carry were AAA cells and lithium 123 cells, although the Walkman demanded AA cells and the camera demanded lithium AA cells, so I ended up carrying those as well. But my lightweight travel kit (headlamp, laser pointer, and radio) all run on AAAs.

For rechargeable batteries, I prefer lithium ion above all others. I'm not sure of the difference between nickel cadmium and nickel-matal hydride in cold weather performance, but I have had good luck with ni-cads in that application, charging several sets overnight. We do have the option, now, of using primary lithium AAs to replace rechargeable ones in cold weather, and that would be my first choice. Again, buy from the high-volume distributors where the lithium AAs are $1-2 each, as opposed to about $5 each at the local Source store.

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©2001 Richard L. Hess All rights reserved.