Traveling With Batteries

Decoding the fundamentals behind the power inside your devices and how to safely take them on the road and into the sky
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As of late, there has been a large crackdown on transporting batteries in carry-on or checked baggage via domestic or international travel, as well as in shipped packages using FedEx, UPS or your favorite carrier. The DOT, the TSA and Homeland Security, as well as international organizations, govern all methods of transport of any battery, and in addition to these domestic and international laws, many companies take the aforementioned restrictions and raise them to an even higher level. If not properly protected or stored, batteries have the potential to generate a tremendous amount of heat and potentially can catch fire.

Why do the rules differ for carry-on versus checked bags when you’re on a flight? How many different batteries (including lithium) are there? How do I know which batteries I have, and will I have problems transporting them? We’ll address these questions to help you avoid problems flying with, checking or shipping your batteries.

Believe it or not, the rules of transporting batteries are fairly lenient if you understand why such rules are implemented. It’s all about the type, size, content and capacity of the batteries that determine how many you can carry and where you can store them for travel or transport. (We’ll discuss how to calculate these factors later in the article.)

For the most part, this is a discussion about lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries, as they’re now the most common “portable power devices” used in laptops and cameras, as well as the power packs for our portable strobe heads. A couple of characteristics that make the Li-ion battery so attractive is that it’s extremely lightweight and packs a powerful punch while quick to recharge compared to its lead (Pb) predecessors.

When purchasing batteries to use in your equipment, don’t skimp on third-party knockoffs just to save a few dollars. Camera equipment manufacturers go through painstaking research and testing to make sure their products work optimally within their families. Be cautious of third-party vendors, as potential damage may come to your equipment, and should something go wrong, there goes the warranty.

Figure 1

To start, there are four basic categories of battery:

1 Dry-cell alkaline batteries:
typical AA, AAA, C, D, 9-volt, button-sized cells, etc.;

2 Dry-cell rechargeable batteries: nickel metal hydride (NiMH) and nickel cadmium (NiCad), also in various sizes;

3 Lithium-metal batteries:
Non-rechargeable lithium, also known as primary lithium;

4 Lithium-ion batteries: Rechargeable lithium, lithium polymer (LiPo) also known as secondary lithium.

Note the distinction between lithium-metal and lithium-ion; they’re two entirely different types of batteries, and calculating their size and content may mean the difference between taking or leaving your batteries behind during travel.

Lithium Metal Vs. Lithium Ion
Lithium-metal batteries are those that are non-rechargeable and come in various sizes, which include AA, AAA, 123, CR123A, CR1, CR2, CRV3, CR22, 2CR5, etc., as well as the flat, round lithium button batteries. These are also referred to as primary lithium batteries, and while powerful and longer-lasting compared to their dry-celled brothers, they tend to be more expensive, as they’re non-rechargeable and must be disposed of properly.

Lithium-ion batteries are rechargeable, with sizes ranging from AA and AAA, to cell phone, PDA, still/video camera, tablet, standard laptop computer and power tool batteries. Also known as secondary lithium batteries, they include a category of lithium-polymer batteries, as well.

Figure 2

What Size Is My Battery?
Contrary to popular belief, the physical size doesn’t determine the categorical size of the battery. Both lithium-metal and lithium-ion batteries fall into small, medium and large sizes, and all are determined by their content. The airlines and shipping companies are concerned with the categorical size (content) and not necessarily the physical size of the batteries they’re transporting. As such, it’s possible that your camcorder battery is considered to be a medium-sized battery despite the small physical size. Table 1 shows the specifications associated with the categorical sizes of batteries.

Lithium-metal batteries are measured by the amount of lithium alloy, or metal content (how many grams of Li exist within), and lithium-ion batteries are measured by the equivalent lithium content (ELC). In order to determine a categorical size, one needs specific information that should be printed on, affixed to or associated with the battery in question. If there’s no information given (as mandated by law) relative to the Li-ion battery, caveat emptor and the opinion is to stay away.

Somewhere on your battery there should be printed information regarding its specs, normally given in volts (V), watt-hours (Wh), amp-hours (Ah) or milliamp-hours (mAh). To determine the categorical size of your Li-ion battery in Li content, ELC or watt-hours of the battery, simply plug in the manufacturer’s numbers using one of the three equations below. Note that watt-hours generally are the easiest to calculate.

To find watt-hours (Wh) from amp-hours (Ah):
Wh = Ah x Volts
To find watt-hours (Wh) from milliamp-hours (mAh):
Wh = (mAh / 1,000) x Volts
To find ELC (equivalent lithium content):
ELC (g) = rated capacity (Ah) x 0.3

Referring to Figure 1, let’s determine the categorical size of the battery. It has 12.8 volts and a 12 Ah capacity. In this instance, there’s a need to convert amp-hours to watt-hours. Using the Wh = Ah x Volts equation, one can enter the manufacturer’s numbers so that Wh = 12Ah x 12.8v.

The Wh is 153.6, and according to Table 1, a battery that’s between 100 and 300 Wh is a medium battery.

Referring to Figure 2, if the manufacturer supplied the mAh and V, use the equation: Wh = (mAh / 1,000) x Volts to determine the equivalent watt-hours: Wh = (3400/1,000) x 7.2.

Based on the equation, Wh = 24.48, thus anything up to 100 Wh is a small-sized battery.

If necessary, use the equation ELC (g) = rated capacity (Ah) x 0.3 to determine content and ELC.

In Table 1, you’ll see there are cells and batteries, and by definition:

A battery is two or more cells electrically connected together by permanent means, including case, terminals and markings.

Note: “Battery packs,” “modules” or “battery assemblies” are treated as batteries.
A cell is a single encased electrochemical unit. It has one positive and one negative electrode that exhibit a voltage differential across its two terminals.

Note: Many cells can be termed a “battery” or “single-cell battery” in common conversation, but a single cell must use the requirements related to “cells” only. Examples of a “cell” would be a CR123 primary lithium cell used for cameras and flashlights.1
1 Source: “IATA Lithium Battery Guidance Document: Transport of Lithium Metal and Lithium Ion Batteries,” IATA, 2014, Web.

TSA And Airline Requirements
Airlines within the U.S. allow passengers to carry on and check batteries with exceptions, and these exceptions are within reason. Quoting directly from the FAA, as of February, 2015, what can accompany you:

Carry-On Baggage:
1 Lithium-ion batteries (aka rechargeable lithium, lithium polymer, LiPo, secondary lithium). Passengers may carry all consumer-sized lithium-ion batteries (up to 100 watt-hours per battery). This size covers AA, AAA, cell phone, PDA, camera, camcorder, handheld game, tablet, portable drill and standard laptop computer batteries. External chargers are also considered to be a battery. Passengers can also bring two larger lithium-ion batteries (100 to 160 watt-hours per battery) in their carry-on.

2 Lithium-metal batteries (aka non-rechargeable lithium, primary lithium). These batteries are often used with cameras and other small personal electronics. Consumer-sized batteries (up to 2 grams of lithium per battery) may be carried. This includes all the typical non-rechargeable lithium batteries used in cameras (AA, AAA, 123, CR123A, CR1, CR2, CRV3, CR22, 2CR5, etc.), as well as the flat, round lithium button cells.

Checked Baggage:
Except for spare (uninstalled) lithium-metal and lithium-ion batteries, all the batteries allowed in carry-on baggage are also allowed in checked baggage. The batteries must be protected from damage and short circuit or installed in a device. Battery-powered devices—particularly those with moving parts or those that could heat up—must be protected from accidental activation. Spare lithium-metal and lithium-ion/polymer batteries are prohibited in checked baggage—this includes external chargers.
This means that as long as the battery is physically seated in the device, there should be no problems transporting batteries. The whole reason (and the aforementioned exception) is the majority of persons traveling don’t properly protect the battery from having a short circuit.

When metal objects such as keys, coins, tools or other batteries come in contact with both terminals of a battery, it can create a “circuit” or path for electricity to flow through. Electrical current flowing through this unprotected short circuit can cause extreme heat and spark, and even start a fire. To prevent short circuits, keep spare batteries in their original packaging, a battery case, or a separate pouch or pocket. Make sure loose batteries can’t move around. Placing tape over the terminals of unpackaged batteries also helps to insulate them from short circuit.

There’s no limit on the number of most consumer-sized batteries or battery-powered devices that a passenger can carry for personal use, yet the larger lithium-ion batteries are limited to two batteries per passenger.

Whether traveling with or shipping your batteries, photo equipment or whatever, carriers are governed by the rules set by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which are based on the rules set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The ICAO is the UN body that has jurisdiction over international aviation rules.

Within the U.S. and its territories, in accordance with the previous organizations, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation (PHMSA) develops regulations for transport of dangerous goods by all modes within the U.S.

Two of the more frequently used carriers in the U.S. are Federal Express (FedEx) and United Parcel Service (UPS). Both have links on their websites to information for regulations and instructions regarding transporting lithium-metal and lithium-ion batteries. They’re virtually identical in their rules/regulations, but explain those rules in two entirely different manners.

These carriers are very specific regarding the categorical size and the lithium content of the batteries, which, in turn, will determine if the batteries will be shipped via ground or air, or by special cargo conforming to the U.S. DOT Hazardous Materials Regulations. The Hazardous Materials Information Center can be reached at (800) 467-4922.

In general, use common sense when packing for travel. Be aware that lithium batteries can pack a tremendous punch of power and can short out if not properly stored or packaged. Know the capacity and specifications of your battery and which rules govern its transport. It may be a good idea to keep an electronic copy of the rules and regulations as mandated by law; if there are any questions at the airport, you’ll have some backup to allow you to carry on or check your baggage.