Readers of this blog know that I’m not a fan of planned obsolescence. I hate products engineered to fail. But I also recognize that on rare occasions, technology does actually improve.
I actually love it when new technology makes our lives better. The productivity gains technology has helped us to achieve in the last 100 years is astounding. It has made the modern consumer lifestyle supremely luxurious…but at a high cost.
I don’t jump on the early-adopter bandwagon because of those high costs. Generally, I stick with the older technology, until the new tech price comes down. My favorite price is free, or nearly free.
How do I get technology for free? I usually just wait.
The rapid pace of technology advancement leaves a lot of waste in its path. What’s considered “old” today was once the modern hot gadget of a few years back, that commanded premium prices.
Given enough time, new technology is given away at bargain basement prices.
Sure, I’ve been called a few names because of this philosophy, (mostly along the lines of “old fashioned”), but naysayers can’t deny the outstanding value I receive for my money.
I love old stuff too. If a product makes it into my hands after many years of service, I know it’s rock solid and reliable. There are bits of technology that don’t stand up to the test of time though.
One of the worst offenders is rechargable batteries.
Batteries, Drills, And Other Things
Over the years there have been many different forms of rechargeable batteries. In the 1980’s you had Ni-Cd (Nickel Cadmium) batteries work their way into consumer products. In the 1990’s you had NiMH (Nickel-metal hydride) batteries. By the mid-1990’s we had the first Lithium-Ion cells.
Unfortunately rechargeable batteries just don’t last that long. Most have a service life limited to a few hundred charge and recharge cycles.
Product manufacturers love this because it means they can keep selling over-priced batteries for years after a product hits the market. It’s a fantastic profit model for companies, and one they’ve been exploiting for decades.
It also makes the used market for battery-powered devices amazingly cheap. Rather than face steep prices to replace an aged battery, most people will ditch the old device in favor of new technology…which usually doesn’t cost much more than a replacement battery.
The profit margins on replacement batteries must be astounding.
About a year ago, I was in need of a cordless drill. My father, (let’s call him Grandpa Tako) recently upgraded all his cordless tools to the latest (and greatest) lithium-ion technology. One of his old Makita cordless drills migrated into my tentacles.
This drill was actually one of the toughest tools in his arsenal. I remember this drill from when I was a kid! It’s stood the test of time. The drill has been beat-up, rained on, and dropped more than its fair share of times. Heck, there’s even an epoxy seam in the handle, holding it together.
Despite the abuse and age, the drill still works great!
Unfortunately the batteries haven’t held up over the years. It uses the old Ni-Cd batteries, which were once popular in cordless tools.
These batteries will still recharge, but the remaining battery capacity has significantly diminished over the years. The self-discharge rate on those aging Ni-Cd batteries is terrible too — within a few weeks of sitting on the shelf they’ll need recharging again.
A replacement Ni-Cd battery for the drill sells for $43 on Amazon. When the cost of a new lithium-ion based drill only costs $109, I can see why most people would simply upgrade rather than pay the price for replacement batteries.
The tool ended up relatively unused in my garage for a few months because of the battery issues. Then, I got a bright idea…
Watching DIY videos on youtube is a fantastic way to educate yourself. You can learn how to do practically anything watching videos on youtube. Sure, the devil is always in the details, but those videos are a great place to get started!
One night while watching youtube, I ran into this video about breaking down old laptop batteries and re-using the lithium cells:
The idea of using those free lithium cells must have had some power, because immediately the lightbulb above my head came on!
I could “fix” my “old drill” problems by replacing the Ni-Cd cells with modern lithium-ion cells. I could do it at nearly no cost. But first we were going to have to find some old batteries packs that contained 18650 cells!
Finding Electronic Waste
Despite my optimism about making this idea work, I figured the hard part was going to be finding useful lithium-ion cells.
I figured the recycle bins would be pretty picked over, so I enlisted Mrs. Tako’s help. She would check the recycle bins at her workplace, and I would check the ones around town that I knew about. After saying our goodbyes in the morning, we went about our respective days.
That evening, we combined our spoils, and found a potential supply of possible 18650 lithium cells to work with:
Yep, that’s only one day of looking. Turns out dead (or dying) batteries is a very common problem with lithium-ion technology.
Would any of them be usable?
I started the process of breaking down the recycled battery packs to see if I could find any worth using.
Turns out, breaking down the battery packs was the hardest part of the whole project. Most modern battery packs are not made to be opened, they’re sealed shut. Very sealed shut.
I also needed to be careful about opening these battery packs — They contain lithium-ion cells after all!
Due to the high energy densities and battery chemistry, an accidental short circuit could cause a fire. I had to be very careful taking them apart so I didn’t cause an unintentional house warming party.
After sorting out dead cells (and charging up the living ones), I was able to come up with a selection of working lithium-ion cells.
Yep, just a few! That’s actually only about half of the battery packs dissected. I still have half of them unopened!
Turns out, most battery packs thrown in the recycle bin only have a handful of bad cells. Sure, I’ve seen several that were complete trash, but I’d estimate 80% have harvestable cells that can be charged to at least 70% of their rated capacity.
Not too bad for “free”, and good enough for my project!
Removing Old Cells
Next, I needed to figure out how to get the lithium-ion cells into the Makita battery pack. Time for a little hacksaw action! I gently sawed apart the old pack to disassemble it.
Once I cut through the protective plastic housing, it was really quite easy to remove the ageing NiCd cells.
Putting It All Together
Obviously the old Ni-Cd cells and the new(er) Lithium cells wouldn’t be exactly the same size and shape. Lithium cells are significantly more powerful and take less space than Ni-Cd cells. I would need to devised a way to fill the gaps inside the battery housing.
I also wanted a fast way to swap out dead cells quickly. I intended to treat the new lithium cells like AA batteries. When the old ones needed charging, I’d simply pop out the old cells and replace them with freshly charged ones.
My solution was dirt simple — cardboard padding, a couple magnets, and a “dummy cell” used to fill the gaps in the battery housing. The “dummy cell” was made from a bolt in my junk drawer. The remaining space on the end of the battery pack was filled with a wood plug that’s just a friction fit.
I only needed 3 cells to build the upgrade, and yet it supplies twice the amp-hours as the original NiCd battery. This means the new battery will last nearly twice as long!
The whole setup fits very snugly, and holds up to some pretty serious abuse. I actually dropped the drill off a table, and the lithium battery pack still works fine!
Initially I wondered if heat was going to be a problem with this setup. Maybe I needed something more serious than cardboard. After rigorous testing, it turns out my fears were unwarranted. The cells do not have a large enough internal resistance to produce significant heat when discharging. They only get slightly warm to the touch.
Even if I end-up ruining cells (or they die quickly), there is a very large supply of dead battery packs to replace them.
I now have a nearly endless supply of lithium-ion cells for my cordless tools (and other projects), at the very low cost of free.
I’m no longer tied to one manufacturer of batteries that sets prices to whatever they want. I can assemble my own!
All it took was a little bit of work. Work that I actually found fun.
As the blog-trolls will probably tell me — Yes, I have enough money I could solve this problem the easy way. I could just go buy myself a new drill. Frankly, I could go buy a dozen new drills and it wouldn’t make a significant difference to my net worth.
That’s not the point!
Buying my way out of a problem isn’t how I do things. Instead, I learn things. I build new skills. I found a solution to my problem that hardly cost any money. Sure, it’s a little different — but that’s how I do things.
We built our net worth with average salaries by doing things differently, just like this. By building instead of consuming. By finding creative solutions to problems instead of using money to buy solutions.
THAT is the point!
You may not have an aging drill that needs new batteries, but eventually you’ll be presented with a problem in life that YOU need to solve. Think of this example when you encounter the problem. What are you going to do?
Is there a way you can solve your problem without spending money? Can you find a solution that costs significantly less than the most common alternatives?