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Battery in the Refrigerator (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

I was walking through the hallways when a colleague motioned to me. In a very conspiratorial whisper she said "I need your help." Then added quickly "do you know what bizarre thing my husband does?" I looked away, not wishing to know, but she continued. "He stores, in the refrigerator, batteries!"

Now, I listened carefully, because one of the most alarming things to me about marriage was to find batteries taking over the refrigerator: D batteries guarding the luncheon meat, C cells surrounding the milk, and double AAs scattered throughout conducting, apparently, some kind of reconnaissance. My colleague asked me "Can you as an engineer shed any light on the need for putting batteries in the refrigerator?"

So, what does science say about batteries in the refrigerator?

First, why would it even seem sensible to do this? It's because a battery generates a current by a chemical reaction. When the chemicals exhaust themselves, the battery dies. This reaction is only supposed to take place when the battery's being used but - and here is the inroad for the refrigerator/battery enthusiast spouse - the chemical reaction does go on even when the batteries not being used. Over time the reaction will corrode the battery, covering the end with a brown film. So, how do you stop this reaction? The answer: Lower the temperature.

So, this means batteries stored in the refrigerator will, in theory, last longer. So far, all seems to be in favor of the refrigerator/battery enthusiasts spouse. But, the key question is, how much longer will they last?

Consumers Report magazine took exactly 432 double A, C and D batteries. They stored some in the refrigerator, and some at room temperatures. At the end of five years they found that indeed the refrigerated batteries had more charge, but not by much. The room temperature batteries still had 96 percent of the charge of the refrigerated ones. So, is this enough to merit filling a refrigerator with batteries?

I suppose rational spouses could disagree, but to me it seems the answer is "no." Particularly when you consider the inconvenience of having to wait for the battery to warm up. Also, as the batteries come up to room temperature water condenses on the them, which could electronic equipment.

Should you present your refrigerator/battery enthusiast spouse with these cold, hard scientific facts? No, I suggest you instead follow the advice of a poet. Ogden Nash once wrote: "To keep your marriage brimming, with love in the wedding cup, whenever you're wrong, admit it; whenever you're right, shut up." So, even though science is on our side, we will forever have batteries in our refrigerators. I'd suggest that as non-refrigerator battery storing spouses, we, instead, form a support group.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises