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Over time, rechargeable batteries can save you a fortune over the standard disposable units, but there are four main types available, and it is important to buy the right ones, and therefore the right charger, for the application you will be using them for.

Nickel Cadmium, or NiCad, rechargeable batteries are the cheapest and are fine for most toys or small electrical items, like cordless phones or remote controls. But they have a voltage of only 1.2V, which means that they cannot be used in devices which require a higher, and often standard, 1.5V voltage. On the plus side, NiCad voltage stays constant for the life of the charge, and is good for high current applications like power tools and remote control cars. You must fully discharge a NiCad battery before recharging it, as the battery only releases charge down to the point that it was last recharged, so if you recharge your battery when it is only down to 40% of its capacity, it will eventually not discharge to lower than that 50% charge. The chemicals in NiCad batteries can be very harmful to the environment, and must be disposed of in dedicated recycling facilities.

Nickel Metal Hydride, or NiMH, batteries are an improvement on NiCad, as they are less problematic when recharged before they'll fully run out, although it's still a good idea to use all their power up before putting them back in the charger, as this will increase their lifetime considerably. Their charge will also last about 30% longer than the same-sized NiCad, they can be recharged faster and have a longer overall lifespan before they need to be replaced.

Lithium Ion (Li-ion) batteries are the type that you normally find in your mobile phone or laptop computer, and will last 40% longer for both talk times and standby than NiMH. You can recharge them whenever you want without fear of damage, they have an even longer working life and tend to be smaller and lighter than the other two types. Its not often that you find these in the standard AA, AAA, D-cell configurations, however, as they tend to come complete with a particular gadget and have a dedicated charger system for the machine in question. The latest upgrade to these are the Lithium Polymer, or Li-Poly batteries, which are even smaller than Li-ion, are very light and thin, and can last 100% longer than Li-ion.

The capacity of rechargeable batteries is referred to in milli-Ampere hours (mAH). This figure represents the amount of current the battery will give multiplied by the number of hours that it will give it for. So the larger the mAH number, the quicker the batteries will charge and the longer the battery power will last for. To give you a rough idea of what to look for, a 1200mAh battery would be just about sufficient for something with no moving parts, like an mp3 player or whatever, whereas something like a digital SLR camera would need batteries in the range of 2000mAh or above.

When it comes to buying the charger itself, there are many affordable set-ups around these days, many of which come complete with a set of AA batteries to start you off - but check that these are both the type (NiCad, NiMH, etc) and capacity (mAH) you need, as explained above. Also, don't be tempted by the cheapest modes that do not have an automatic cut-off to prevent overcharging, because if you leave your batteries in one of these and forget to take them out, your batteries will be ruined, and could even potentially be a fire hazard. Then check out how quickly a charger will charge a set of batteries and whether it can only handle AA battery sizes, as some do, or will accept AAA and other sizes as well, as you never know what size the appliance you buy six months from now may take.

Author R. Germain
date added Thu 06 08 2009

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