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Non-replaceable batteries in solar lamps: planned obsolescence?

In Europe, the question of the planned obsolescence in electronic products is being increasingly discussed. The term "planned obsolescence" describes the deliberate reduction of the service life of a device in order to force the customers to a new purchase at the earliest possible. The focus is increasingly on the batteries. And some of the experiences should also apply to solar lanterns.

New purchase instead of battery replacement
Batteries are essential for most electronic products, whether smartphone, tablet, MP3 player or an electric toothbrush. Indeed, they are being increasingly fitted, glued and soldered into the device. A simple replacement at the end of the product life is not possible. Some manufacturers do not even offer a replacement, but request directly to purchase a new device.
The fixed installation of the battery is usually justified by safety aspects, especially in the modern lithium-polymer batteries. However, many consumer advocates assume that the manufacturers are using the fixed installed batteries mainly because the battery last on average between one and three years depending on use and treatment. If a battery is not replaceable, the customer must throw away the device and buy a new one.
Here the statement from a seller of a German electronics store to a customer: “Of course the batteries are built-in in all electrical appliances to an amount of approx. 150 euros; otherwise it does not pay off anymore. You can send the device and then the battery will be replaced, but this will be more expensive than a new one.”
The example from Apple shows that things can be different: Apple had refused to enable a battery replacement for the first iPods (MP3 players). The customer should rather buy a new device. However, the U.S. government stepped in and forced the concern to offer a battery replacement program.

Solar lamps with fixed battery damage the potential industry and customers
Also, some of the solar lamps on the market today do not have replaceable batteries, including devices that have obtained the certificate of "Lighting Africa".
Solar products are mainly valued for their long-life cycle and hereupon tested for certificates: the solar panel operates at least 20 years, the LED should hold 50,000 hours, and from the housing some stability is expected. By so much durability, it can not be that a single component leads to product replacement after a few years. Why do we need then panels for 20 years or LEDs with 50.000 hours lifetime?
A non-replaceable battery for solar lamps carries two dangers:

  • It easily discredits the industry, when neither the longevity of the products, nor the reliable disposal of pollutants (battery) are dully taken in charge. A fatal reputation for an industry that competes against diesel generators and kerosene lamps using its “ecological” attribute.
  • In addition, it is annoying for off-grid customers because they are constantly compelled to buy a new product. And this by companies that actually arise with the pretence ofacting as"social business" - or at least to act in the interest of the people at the BOP.


To outsmart manufacturers 

Here, the advice of a European consumer protector: "Consumers are however not helpless at the mercy of these 'product strategies' from performance-oriented companies. Basically everyone decides at purchase, if he approves such strategy, and eventually chooses an alternative product that offers a replaceable battery."
That sounds good - for developed countries. For here there is brand and product diversity. But many of the people in off-grid regions can still only dream of getting an alternative to the devices that imposes them a complete new purchase after a few years.

What to do?

  1. The issue of a replaceable battery or a manufacturer’s replacement concept comfortable for the customer must be an integral part in tenders and in all solar projects.
  2. Product certificates, such as the certificate of Lighting Africa, must take the battery replacement or a functioning replacement program of the manufacturer as a criterion. In a replacement program, the question how the batteries are disposed of must also be answered.

The author is the President of GOGLA (Global Off-Grid Lighting Association), Chairman of SunTransfer and Director of Stiftung Solarenergie 


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Comments

Comment by Kevin Gauna on June 5, 2013

I agree that the issue of replaceable batteries is a worthy design goal for these products, with one comment/caveat. There are always real world design implications with decisions like this. To be replaceable, a battery will need to physically fit into a product housing with battery contacts - these are typically spring contacts that must contact +/- battery terminals with some insertion force. The contact material, plating, and battery holder are then an additional design requirement. For products trying to balance cost, durability, and performance issues it is non-trivial to have a user accessible battery compartment that can serve as an additional site for corrosion (a considerable problem with battery contacts exposed to atmospheric moisture).

A battery pack with spot welded contacts, sealed in shrink wrap, can protect the battery contacts and significantly simplify the assembly (and possibly increase the reliability of the device while the battery remains functional). A user replaceable battery pack then becomes an appealing solution, but now you have the additional market requirements of battery pack availability and wire plug (harness) compatibility. And you still have customers accessing the inside of the device and the resulting housing ingress (and water intrusion) design issues. A company could certainly standardize their own product line, I wonder if there are ready examples of this starting to happen.

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Comment by Hans Mutzbauer on June 3, 2013

I think, it depends on the business model and the philosophy of a company.

Purely commercial companies must not be "un-social" and vice versa. Every company has to make its decissions and to go its way.

Finally, the customers will decide.

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Comment by
Evan Mills on June 3, 2013

I don't personally frame this as an issue of "social" businesses.  As you point out, this problem is rampant among purely corporate enterprises. I would argue that "social" businesses are even more likely to think about sustainability than "non-social" ones (whatever that means).   That said, I don't think making that particular distinction is going to help better understand or solve the problem.

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Comment by Harald Schützeichel on June 3, 2013

Thanks, Evan and Hans, to agree with my comments and to bring this idea forward!

T
oday lot of "social businesses" in solar sector still don't think about the sustainability of the products and service: no maintenance, no service, no products with replaceable components.

Good for business, even good to get many social awards - but not good at all for customers in off-grid areas or for the environment. 

But how can we change this unsustainable "social" attitude?
One option could be to change the rules for quality standards. Because even Lighting Africa doesn't request replaceable or reparable products in order to pass their quality standard.

Since GOGLA is preparing a new seal, made and involved by industry, I hope this condition for sustainability can be part of this.

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Comment by
Evan Mills on May 30, 2013

One consequence of non-replaceable batteries is that any process for evaluating carbon credits should never assume a lamp life longer than battery life, thus penalizing this design strategy.  This is what we've recommended to the CDM.  The current version of their requirements states that batteries must be replaceable, although does not address all the nuances flagged by Hans.

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Comment by Hans Mutzbauer on May 30, 2013

Sometimes I do agree 100% with you :-)
From my side, I would like to add a few items:

  • Not only the batteries must be easily replaceable, the complete system must be repairable with a few simple tools
  • Spare parts (and a spare-parts list) must be available at a reasonable price level
  • No special (exotic) screws and jointings, no only-use-once connection
  • After sales training has to be provided to the sales staff
  • Customers must be informed about their right to warranty

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