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Is it Better to Completely Drain a Battery Before You Recharge it?

Elizabeth Technology June 9, 2022

A piece of old-fashioned advice for old-fashioned rechargeable hardware was to completely drain the battery before recharging it, to ‘stretch’ it, the way you’d stretch socks to fit on bigger feet.

Where Did the Myth Come From?

While you’re not necessarily stretching the battery by waiting till it’s drained to recharge it, you are saving its capacity. If you charged your Nickel-Cadmium battery rechargeable phone before it was completely drained, it would lose capacity. Manufacturers were doing the best they could with what they had, and the next generation of battery, the Nickel-Metal-Hydride battery, didn’t have the effect as strongly (although it still had it) but the shelf life of the phone while not in use wasn’t great, so users continued to fully drain their devices before each recharge. To make matters worse, it’s possible to overcharge these batteries too, which also reduces capacity. When overcharged, the battery begins to heat up, and water inside the battery that’s normally carrying electrolytes begins to degrade, meaning it can’t do that job as efficiently. So yes – in these early phones, you had to completely drain it, monitor it while it was charging, and then completely drain it again if you wanted it to last as long as it did when it was new.

This overcharging is part of the reason small electronics batteries (like AA, AAA, 9-volt, etc.) have warnings on them telling you that they’re not rechargeable. While in a purely chemical sense, they could be recharged, the danger of overcharging the battery, having that battery behave unpredictably, and then exploding or leaking battery acid when you’re not expecting it to is simply not worth the risk. And the chemicals inside a battery are nasty – sulfuric acid is one of the critical ingredients. (Seriously. Don’t recharge non-rechargeable batteries!)

And then we got to Lithium Ion batteries. Lithium Ion batteries dominate the market because they hold a lot of charge, they don’t have the memory problem (meaning they won’t lose capacity if you charge them at the wrong time), and they’re lighter and flatter than the other kinds of batteries are at the same capacity. That being said, older devices may still lose their charge faster, not only because the battery is older, but also because it was designed in a time before manufacturers knew how long-lived Lithium Ion was going to be. We’d gone from the infamous brick phone to handheld, lightweight Nokias within a generation. Of course they were designed like they’d only last 5 years, because that’s historically been true!

Be Careful Charging!

Speaking of charging, faulty chargers can do more harm than good. A man discovered that Amazon was not vetting USB-C sellers effectively when he plugged one into his Apple computer and watched it short out the USB port. The phone itself was fine because it’s designed with this problem in mind (and the computer itself wasn’t damaged outside of the now-defunct port) but the USB port was simply designed to put out all the power it could. Normally cords restrict this flow, because little desk trinkets like fans don’t have those same guards. USB ports, however, are programmed to put out as much power as the cord will allow, which is how you get some cords that can quick charge and others that can’t. Old brick- and flip-phone cables also lacked anything telling them to stop when full.

Electric flow needs some sort of resistance. If it doesn’t have any, the flow of electrons across metal or wiring can generate heat and eventually catch fire. This is why you don’t plug two 9-volts into each other even though the bits at the top fit. It will create a lot of heat, and in a worst-case situation, could even catch fire!   

Reasons to Recycle your Phone


1.Lithium batteries are not biodegradable.


In general, modern materials don’t really degrade much. When was the last time something you owned rusted away completely? And if it did – did it really? The spot below the cheap, neglected grill in my friend’s back yard has no grass in it. The rust is still there to interfere with that grass’s growth, even though it’s technically degraded. That grass may eventually come back if the rain ever washes enough of the contaminated dirt away, but until then, the ground is inhospitable. Now picture that with metal that’s not designed to spoil, and chemicals that are much harsher. Batteries are by far one of the most concerning items to trash. They tend to corrode and release acid if not disposed of properly, and the bigger the battery, the bigger the concern for acid to leach into whatever it’s laying on top of. You don’t want something you threw away to make a mini-superfund site, surely?


2. They also don’t behave well when the internals are exposed to air.

You cannot just dump a phone in the trash when you’re buying a new one. Besides the environmental effects (which can be anywhere from acid leaching to heavy metal poisoning, depending on battery type) there’s also a real danger of starting an unquenchable fire in a garbage truck. If it’s one of the fancy ones that can compact garbage as it picks it up, the battery being punctured can set off a fire inside the bin. If you’re unlucky, and others have thrown out paper trash or flammables, you’ve got a serious problem on your hands. Recycle the phone! If not the phone, then at least the battery!


3. The phone contains rare earth metals.


These are metals that are common in the Earth’s crust, but very difficult to actually mine out and purify economically. After a point, mining them might make phones too expensive for the average consumer – so it’s important to harvest what parts are harvestable! Besides that, the phone itself isn’t going to bio-degrade because it’s completely inorganic. Rather than let all those precious minerals and non-degrading materials go to waste, recycle!

4. The hard drive may not be wiped the way you hope it is.


It’s very possible to recover deleted documents off of a hard drive months after ‘wiping’. Wiping a traditional hard drive completely is difficult, and solid states only make it harder. The hard drive still has a phantom copy of the old doc until it’s written over with something else, or grazed with a magnet. Doing this thoroughly is difficult, which is why you should recycle through a reputable hardware recycler. This is especially important for things like email apps, which frequently don’t ask users to log in after the first time they’re used on the phone!

5. Having a secondary market is essential for the health of the industry.


If the number of workable phones is low, people are forced to buy the new model because it’s all they can find. This is why planned obsolescence is so insidious. They’re deliberately cutting down the market for their users so they can sell more new phones at a high price. If this was a perfectly efficient world where consumers had perfect information, this would lead to the company dying, because nobody wants to pay 700$ for something that breaks in three years. But it’s not – it’s a world where people drop an extra $200 on a phone for its camera. It’s a world where the phone carrier forces you to upgrade as part of their contract. It’s a world where branding is the fashion. It is not perfectly efficient, and as long as the manufacturers recognize this, they will make attempts to money-grub.

Keep those second-hand phones in the market and force manufacturers to keep making phones at least as well as their old products. This is still recycling! It’s keeping the phone from its final death in a landfill, and extending it’s life for as long as possible.


6. Broken Phones Still have Valuable Parts


If the phone’s so broken that it’s not possible to re-sell it, consider recycling it anyway – lithium batteries have many uses, and as mentioned before, those rare earth metals aren’t getting any less rare. Recycling the phone by sending it somewhere to get it broken down is also valid recycling. If you can squeeze just a little bit more use out of a device by dropping it off or passing it on – why wouldn’t you?

Besides, the facility will know how to handle that battery!