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The Science of Trail Camera Batteries

The Science of Trail Camera Batteries

Whether you're a one cam warrior, or you have so many trail cameras you forget where they're all at; getting the most out of your batteries and potentially saving money is a topic most of us are at least some what interested in. By our estimates, trail camera users alone go through over 50 million batteries every year!!! Lay them all out side by side and that's enough AA batteries to fill every square inch of ground cover on a 100 acre farm. That's a lot of batteries, especially when you consider that most ultimately end up in a garbage can.

We all know batteries cost $$$ (and we're all about getting the most out of that), but before you exchange that pack of energizer lithiums for some store brand specials we want to help you understand what options are currently available, and the pros and cons of each. So let's get to it!

Your Options 

95% of all trail cameras manufactured this year utilize AA batteries, so for the purpose of this article that's what we'll focus on. There are 3 main types of AA batteries that will work with most trail cameras. They are as follows:

 Standard Alkaline

This is the most common AA battery on the market and trail camera users go through a lot of them! Alkaline cells create energy from the chemical reaction of Zinc (Zn) and Manganese Oxide (MnO2). Because of their wide spread availability, most cameras were designed to operate on alkaline batteries. They have a standard 1.5V output, typically used in series to create a 6, or 12v operating voltage and typical capacity is 1,000-1,500 mA of discharge. Let's take a look at some of the ups and downs of alkaline batteries:

ADVANTAGES

Availability - These batteries are easy to find. Every gas station and Walmart in America has them, which is great when you're in a pinch. 

Price - As far as up front cost goes, alkaline is the winner by far. It's pretty easy to find non-name brand batteries for $.50-.60 a piece. Will they be the cheapest in the long run? A lot of times no... But being able to spread that cost out over several months is attractive in some situations.

DISADVANTAGES

Cold Weather - Alkaline batteries contain a water based electrode. As temperatures reach freezing, chemical reactions inside an alkaline battery start slowing down. This heavily effects battery capacity, and gets worse as temperatures drop further. Obviously, this is a big problem for trail cameras running in the winter throughout much of the Northern half of the united states and Canada. 

Voltage Loss - Most cameras that run off of alkaline batteries operate at 6, or 12V. This is what they're designed for and what the manufacturer's specifications are based on. The problem is that as alkaline batteries begin to drain, they lose voltage at a pretty consistent rate.  Think of a flashlight. When you first pop in a new set of batteries, the light is nice and bright, but over time, as the batteries begin to ware, the light grows dim until it stops running. The same happens in your camera. As your battery wears down, flash range, detection distance, trigger speed, and recovery time can be compromised because of the slow loss of voltage. Most cameras will stop operating normally when your batteries drop to 1.2 of individual output. 

Short Life Span - While alkaline technology has come a long way, with most manufacturers offering  a premium option (energizer max, ect), they're still fairly short lived compared to their lithium or rechargeable counterparts. All cameras drain their batteries at different rates, and every setup is different, but a set of alkaline AAs will typically last for 7,000-9,000 pics at the most. In a feeder/foodplot setup, you can eat that many pics up in a few weeks. 

 

 NiMH Rechargeable 

 If you're a serious penny saver, it's hard to overlook rechargeable batteries. Like all technology, rechargeable AA cell batteries have really advanced over the past ten years. Gone are the days of rapid self discharge and "memory" effect from continuous recharging. Nickel Metal Hydride (currently the AA leading solution) are a pretty efficient and energy dense battery that can be quite handy in certain situations. They have a lower 1.2V output, but hold a typical capacity around 2,000 mAh. Heres a look at the pros and cons:

ADVANTAGES

Energy Density - NiMH batteries hold roughly twice the capacity of standard alkaline batteries, which is handy considering they have a consistent voltage output across the discharge cycle. Although they have a higher self discharge rate, you can typically expect more photos on a set of batteries. 

Cost Savings - Obviously, the biggest advantage to rechargeable batteries is just that - you can reuse them! This is a huge savings on cost, especially considering that a quality set of NiMH batteries can be charged over 1,000 times before they start wearing out. It only takes about 3 charges to make them worth the extra upfront cost! Not to mention, less batteries hitting the garbage can!

Cold Weather Performance - Unlike alkaline batteries, NiMH use a metal based electrode which means that you'll get much improved performance when the temps drop under 32F! That's a huge plus for most trail camera users in the Northern half of the US and Canada. These batteries will continue to perform down to the negative single digits.

DISADVANTAGES

Universal Compatibility - Unfortunately, because NiMHs operate at a 20% lower voltage than alkaline batteries, they are not compatible with all trail cameras on the market. Some, like our Exodus Lift, will work to an extent but don't perform optimally at the lower voltage. This is one of the main reasons NiMH have not become more popular among all trail cam users. 

Added Responsibility - If you run a lot of cameras, keeping track of batteries and which ones are charged/not charged can become a chore pretty fast. Running 10 cameras turns into about 160 batteries that you have to manage/keep track of. That's a lot of extra work that keeps some folks away, but if you're good at organization that might not be a concern. 

High Self Discharge - Although NiMH batteries do have an increased overall capacity compared to alkalines, they also have a fairly high self discharge rate which hurts there performance in low drain uses like trail cameras. From the moment you insert a fresh set, they will typically completely discharge in about 90 days whether you're taking many pics or not. That typically isn't an issue if you're taking a lot of images quickly and are used to using your batteries up quickly, but if you leave your cams out for long periods at a time, that can be a problem.

 

Lithium

Although more expensive on the up front cost, the discharge cycle and performance of lithium batteries are not something to be overlooked. With a typical 3,000 mAh capacity (3X that of alkaline batteries) and 1.7V output, these batteries are high performers in a trail camera application. Lets breakdown the ups and downs to this option:

 

ADVANTAGES

Longest Life Span - Lithium batteries have the highest capacity of any AA cell on the market. Pound for pound, they're 3 times that of Alkaline batteries, and 50% more than NiMH Rechargeable. That's huge, and adds justification to the added upfront cost. 

Consistent Voltage Output - If you've spent anytime around cordless power tools, you know that your lithium ion battery tools run hard until there's nothing left and then they stop - unlike their old NiCd predecessors back in the early 2000's which would start out running strong and slowly ware down until they were all but useless. The same logic goes for Lithium vs Alkaline AA batteries. Lithium run at full 1.7V output until they are used up, and then they are done. This is a big advantage for trail cameras.

What's even more big about this bullet point is the fact that a lot of cameras will stop performing with alkaline batteries while there is still some juice left. Typically somewhere between 20 and 40%. That means that you're often getting a lot more than 3X battery life out of your lithiums compared to alkaline, and it's without a loss of performance. This is an important note to make. 

Cold Weather Work Horse - Lithium batteries are all but completely unaffected by the cold. In fact, they'll keep performing long after your trail cameras turn into a block of ice, rated for performance down to -40F. Brrr.

DISADVANTAGES 

Upfront Cost - This is really the only downside to lithium AA batteries. They cost about 2-3 times as much as alkaline when bought in small quantities. You can get them for $1.30-1.40 a piece on sites like Amazon if you're willing to buy 50+ at a time, but typically they're closer to $2 a piece. When most folks see this it's a deal breaker - but when you test alkaline and lithium batteries side by side, we've found that you actually save money and get a better performance in the long run from lithium cells. 

 

Summary

It's true, batteries are a big part of trail cameras, they add up fast and we use a lot of them! For the Exodus team, Energizer Ultimate Lithium batteries are what power all of our personal trail cams. There just isn't a better option right now that offers such a great all around performance regardless of the camera or situation. At a high traffic area, it's not uncommon for us to get 20,000+ images from a set of lithiums as opposed to 7,000 from a set of alkaline - and with the cold we've had in Ohio lately, even less than that.

If you find that NiMH work well in your cams, that may also be a good option for you, and your wallet! Although they can be a task to manage, there is an obvious advantage in their long life cycle and recharge ability. If you test them out, make sure to keep an eye on your night time photos to ensure they're coming in as usual and your flash range isn't suffering from the lower voltage. If all that is good, this is a solid option! 

When in a pinch, alkaline certainly still work. Sometimes they're the only thing we can find when in a hurry. When we get in that situation, we try to change ours out before they get too low in their discharge cycle so we don't end up missing that pic of a lifetime!

As always, if you have any questions or want more information about batteries or cameras - don't hesitate to contact me at mkline@exodusoutdoorgear.com. I'm curious, what kind of batteries are you using in your trail cameras? Leave an answer in the comments below.