The concept of “planned obsolescence” is nowhere more visible than in the battery backup (or UPS – Uninterrupted Power Supply) market. With the insane prices the manufacturers charge for batteries, it’s easy to compare it to the video game console industry: the companies must barely break even (or maybe even lose money) on the hardware… but what goes inside makes all the money. But that’s not the case. The large UPS companies like 600 lb gorilla American Power Conversion (more commonly known as APC), make plenty of money on the units, and then make even more money on the “consumable” battery packs — as you’ll see from their overall marketing approach.
Your UPS Unit is Dead? Probably Not
Let’s take the UPS unit that is probably sitting under your desk right now. When it stops working, regardless of whether or not you get an error message, there’s a 90% chance that fresh batteries will fix the problem. Getting a battery warning light is, of course, an obvious indicator. But I had an APC Back-UPS XS 1500 LCD fritz on me recently, shutting down in the middle of the day without any warning. It just sat there beeping and flashing “F01” on the LCD screen. A quick web search revealed that meant the unit was overloaded… which came as a surprise since I’ve been running the exact same load on this unit since I bought it 5 years ago. I knew what would happen if I called APC’s tech support number (as I’d done it many time before), but I figured I’d do it again, just for fun. 🙂
- That specific error code means the unit is shot and that replacement batteries won’t fix it? Check!
- Current unit is past its two year warranty? Check!
- You’ll let me trade in (they call it “trade-ups”) this unit by sending it back to you for a small discount on a newer model at retail price, even though I could just purchase that newer unit outright for less at a local store? Check!
- I decline politely, hang up the phone, and curse you under my breath? Check!
So rather than junk a UPS unit that I really liked, let’s assume I’m willing to roll the dice and try replacing the batteries anyway. The next step would be a trip to APC’s replacement battery look-up tool… although that’s not what it’s called. They call it their UPS Upgrade Selector. That’s right – they’re assuming you’re going to upgrade the unit rather than replace the batteries. In fact, the text at the top of that page says:
APC provides upgrade options and battery replacement solutions for both In-Warranty and Out-of-Warranty UPS products. Please enter your existing product information below to view recommended options.
Again: the upgrade option is pitched before battery replacement, even though 9 times out of 10, a replacement battery is all you need.
A Little Homework Goes A Long Way
The model for my UPS is BX1500LCD. Just for fun, go ahead and type that in the Upgrade Selector page to see the results. Again, a hard pitch showing my two options, with the words “Recommended Solution” in bold in the “Special Notes” section under the trade-in option, along with a comparison matrix showing why trading in is clearly the way to go. Buried deep in the pitch, however, is a link to the replacement battery: an RBC109. So let’s click the link to the RBC109 page.
A replacement RBC109 battery pack costs $79.99. But the picture on APC’s own site reveals a few interesting details that may not be obvious at first glance. Here’s the photo direct from their site:
The most obvious detail is that the RBC109 is actually two identical batteries, with a short cable linking the positive terminal on one to the negative terminal on the other (called being wired “in series”). Just as it does when you put multiple batteries in any device with positive connected to negative (like when you stack batteries in a flashlight), the voltage increases to the sum of each battery’s voltage (two 6V batteries in series would be 12V), so chaining batteries like this can support a larger load. But exactly what type of load? What’s the voltage of this battery pack? What’s the amp-hours rating? Good luck finding out from APC. If you look really hard, you can see listed under “Volt-Amp-Hour Capacity” a number 9. Voltage is nowhere. But you’ll get plenty of data on the net weight, height, depth, operating temperature, etc. You’ll also see that even though the “expected battery life” is 3-5 years, they only warranty their batteries for one year. 🙂
As with all multi-battery packs, the APC RBC109 is made up of batteries they sell individually. In this case, the RBC2.
Look familiar? It should. The RBC2 page shows a retail price of $44.99 (so at least you were getting a bit of a deal on the two-pack), but it doesn’t show any voltage or amp-hours on the page. So once again, it’s a mystery battery!
Uncovering the Cover Up
Which brings us back to the second detail I noticed in the RBC109 battery. Scroll back up and take another look. See the APC label? It’s covering up the printing on the side of the battery (the APC marketing department got a little smarter and PhotoShopped it out on the RBC2 image). What’s the label covering up? The label’s covering up the fact that there is a cover up! APC doesn’t make their own batteries. True truth is that there’s only a handful of factories in the world (all of them in Taiwan) that make these rechargeable sealed lead-acid batteries, which power a wide variety of devices, including powered wheelchairs and scooters, alarm systems, and battery backup units. There is very little (if any) difference in quality among these large manufacturers, meaning all you need to care about is the voltage, amp-hours rating, and physical dimensions of the battery, and you’re good to go… at a much cheaper price than buying the mystery batteries straight from APC.
Going back to my Back-UPS XS 1500 LCD, we’ve already established that it takes an RBC109, which is actually just two RBC2s, which is actually just a 12 volt 9 amp-hours battery. If you search on eBay for “1290 battery” you’ll get plenty of options. Click here to give it a try.
It really doesn’t matter which seller you use, provided they have a good reputation (I look for “Top Rated Plus” sellers). To replace an RBC2, it’s also possible to purchase a 1280 battery, which is the same dimension and voltage, but with a slightly lower 8 amp-hours rating. But for most battery backup applications, they’ll still work fine, although you’ll lose a few minutes of runtime. In my case, that’s not a big deal, since my UPS batteries only need to work for a matter of seconds until the generator kicks in and takes over. You can purchase two 1280 batteries for $33 (with free shipping). That’s $12 cheaper than buying only one of the exact same batteries from APC… with the shiny sticker. That’s a pretty expensive sticker!
The More The Merrier
Larger battery backup units are no different. I have some rack-mounted APC Smart-UPS units that call for an APC RBC24 — at a whopping $349.99! Here’s what $349.99 worth of batteries looks like:
Yep – you guessed it. It’s four RBC2 batteries tucked neatly in a metal frame with a fancy yellow connector. But if your UPS needs an RBC24, where are you going to get a metal frame and fancy connector? You already have one — it’s inside your UPS! So when it came time to replace the batteries in my Smart-UPS 1400 RM 2U, I bought four 1280 batteries on eBay for $60, removed the old battery tray from my UPS, took out the old batteries (I recommend using your smart phone’s camera to take photos of how all the batteries connect together as you take them apart), put in the replacements, and fired it up — saving $289.99.
I have five APC S20BLK A/V battery backup units at my house. I love them – they’re battery backup units that are designed for audio-visual components, with built-in network adapters to communicate and broadcast their status. I picked them up from a computer recycling company for cheap, but most of them needed replacement batteries. This time, APC calls for an RBC63. But when I checked their RBC63 page, I got nervous. Here’s what that battery pack looks like:
And when the price on their website is only listed as “Contact Sales,” you know you’re not going to like the answer. I was able to find an APC branded replacement online for $308.94 with tax and shipping.
But after removing a battery pack from one of my S20BLK units and opening it with a screwdriver, I saw that it’s simply four RBC2 batteries tucked inside and wired together. Another $60 on eBay, and I had a brand new battery pack, saving almost $250.
But Wait! There’s MORE!
In homage to the great infomercials of the past, I’m leaving the biggest money saver until the end. And here it is: if you have a UPS that takes multiple batteries, chances are than when the battery pack fails, not all of the batteries are bad, and you don’t have to replace all of them! When the batteries are wired in series (as we’ve established they are in UPS units), it only takes one truly “dead” battery (meaning it can’t pass any current along) to make the entire array unable to provide power.
So whenever I remove multiple old batteries from a UPS, the first thing I do is shake them individually. If they rattle, they’re dead. Go ahead and
toss recycle them (in fact, some battery stores will pay you for your dead RBC-style batteries). If they pass the shake test, I connect them to one of my CTEK 12 volt battery chargers (any car charger will do – car batteries are also 12 volts). If my charger doesn’t light up, it means the battery’s posts aren’t connected internally, and so the battery is dead. If the charger’s lights rapidly switch between “fully charged” and “charging,” then something’s wonky inside the battery, and it’s dead. But if it charges, and stays charged, put it in the “good” pile.
In fact, I was able to salvage two good 1280 batteries while replacing a dead array on a UPS unit last week, and then put those two in the Back-UPS XS 1500 unit that the APC tech support rep had informed me was “dead” because of the F01 error message it was flashing. My “reclaimed” batteries did the trick, and it’s now once again powering the desktop on which I’m typing this article!
So the bottom line of this blog post is: don’t throw away your money like you throw away old batteries. With a little web searching and some eBay shopping, you can buy the exact same batteries the big boys are selling (like APC, TrippLite, and all the others), made by the exact same skillful Chinese hands, in the exact same dimly-lit Taiwanese factories, for way less money.
Questions, comments, or stories of how you able to replace your UPS batteries on the cheap? Leave them below!