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03/11/2021 - 04/11/2021

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Zen and the art of jimmying out the backup battery

I was rudely awakened in the small hours of this morning by the persistent 'peep' of a smoke alarm. Not one of those terrifying 'get out of the house, NOW' moments I'm happy to report, with an alarm shrilly sounding its warning and alerting me to fire. No, this was a single 'peep' at random intervals of between 30 seconds and three minutes. It's one of those things where you just feel that if you could only get back off to sleep, you could probably ease your way through the rest of the night, but then another 'peep' jars you awake again, and you then proceed to count down 30 seconds to see if it will happen again.

Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn't, which actually is worse because having missed a 30 second 'peep', the temptation is to believe that the problem has gone away. You roll over and try to get to sleep, and have almost succeeded when the offending little blighter pops out another cheerful 'peep'; much more cheerful, I should add, than anything has a right to be at 2:30 in the morning.

Of course the problem was a failing battery in one of my smoke alarms, but the question was which one. Around the house I have three smoke alarms and three carbon monoxide alarms, all mains powered but with battery back-up. I got out of bed and stood in my pyjamas, cold, under the alarm on my landing and waited. This was going to be a process of elimination. Nothing for over a minute, at which point I realised I was desperate for the toilet. Inevitably the 'peep' came whilst I was indisposed, so I had to start my under-alarm vigil all over again.

Four alarms in, I found the rogue peeper, got onto a chair, and tried to remember how to access its battery. I'm not going to bang on about poor design at this point, but in what universe did it seem a good idea that access to the battery compartment should only be made possible by jamming a screwdriver into the side of the unit and pulling hard? And yes, that's the instruction on the side, not just a last resort after 15 minutes of sheer frustration. I didn't have a replacement battery, so I tore out the dud one - just a back-up battery after all - and reinstalled the alarm body. School boy error. It turns out the back-up battery is backed up by a secondary back-up battery, and will continue to peep at you until you replace the PP9. Sticking it under a cushion on the sofa downstairs gave me the respite I needed until I could get down to my local DIY store and source a new battery.

I mention all this not simply to moan, but to highlight the issue of failing batteries, which surely impact on everyone's peace of mind at some time or another. Certainly it was most odd that the first story I read when I stumbled, sleep deprived, in to the office later that day concerned the Second Life Battery Project, which aims to do something useful with all the batteries that are likely to come streaming through from electric vehicles when they are no longer up the job of powering eco transport solutions. Apparently, while batteries used in EVs are no longer up to that specific job after ten years or so, they still have significant capacity left for alternative uses.

Finding secondary uses for EV batteries reduces their up-front cost and provides benefits to consumers and utilities. In Europe, for example, a project is bringing Bosch, BMW Group and Vattenfall together to drive an energy project in Hamburg, providing an energy storage system which can help to keep the power grid stable.

Meanwhile, my little PP9 has gone into my man-drawer and will shortly be making the trip to my local supermarket which has a battery recycling bin. I don't know where it goes after that, but it would nice to think that my sleepless night was not endured for nothing.

Mark Simms, 20 February 2015

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