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Your Gadget’s Battery Is Swelling Up. Should You Panic?

Rafe Needleman
Editorial Director, Yahoo Tech
Yahoo Tech

I was at my mother’s house, doing some good-son maintenance on her MacBook, when I noticed that the battery door was a little popped out from the case and the lid wasn’t fully closed. So I picked up the machine for a closer look. And I nearly jumped out of my skin.

The battery in her MacBook had swollen. So much that it popped the battery door off under the computer and pressed up against the trackpad at the top, making it inoperable. It even warped the aluminum casing right below the keyboard. It was so swollen it had molded itself into the computer innards and I couldn’t pry it out.

“Need a screwdriver?” my mother asked, when she saw what I was doing. “No!” I yelled. I didn’t want to risk puncturing the battery. 

Because unfortunately (for me), I know a little about the chemistry of modern laptop batteries: how much energy they store, how reactive the chemicals are and what can happen when one is damaged. I was envisioning an unquenchable fire. Or a hazmat situation in the house I grew up in.

Then I calmed down and did some research. The reality of a swollen MacBook battery doesn’t merit quite the panic attack I nearly worked myself up to. But it’s still a serious issue that needs to be dealt with. And it’s not uncommon, according to Internet searches and Facebook replies to a post I put up when this happened.

My mother’s MacBook is a 2008 model, the last 13-inch MacBook made with a removable battery. It’s an old machine, but it runs well. It’s still current enough to use every day.

Batteries are considered “consumables”
The problem is, while a well-built computer regularly updated with current software can run satisfactorily for years, lithium-ion batteries have a limited life. Once they’re manufactured, they start to age. Some sources say they’re good for only two to three years, even if they’re not used. Apple says its current laptop batteries are good for five years for 1,000 recharge cycles (and Apple counts it based on full capacity; in other words, discharging a battery from full to halfway and then recharging is half a cycle. Doing that twice is considered one cycle). 

On a MacBook, go to About This Mac from the Apple menu, then click More Info, then System Report, then Power. This MacBook has a healthy battery.

But there’s a bit more to it than just use and age. As Apple techs told me when I took my mother’s swollen computer in to the Genius Bar, even not using a battery the wrong way can hasten its demise. 

That’s what my mother did. She had the MacBook on a shelf, closed, and plugged into the charger all the time. She had an external keyboard, mouse and monitor that she found more comfortable. So the battery was constantly powered up. It never discharged. It just sat there in the hot little MacBook, out of her sight. Swelling.

Eventually, we think, it got a bit hot, and some of the chemicals in the battery reacted and released some gas. The battery casing did its job: It expanded to contain the reaction, warping the machine in the process.

As I said, it’s not uncommon. “That’s what they’re supposed to do,” a nice tech at the Apple Genius bar told me. I was incredulous. With all the sensors in a MacBook, you’d think you’d get a warning first. “Didn’t you get a pop-up alert?” my Genius asked. 

And, you know, maybe there was one. Maybe my mother ignored it. Maybe it didn’t stay on the screen long enough. The point is, this is what happens to some old MacBook batteries. It shouldn’t. But it does.

And what if you ignore the issue? Can you have a battery meltdown, as I feared?

My tech, again, shed some light. He told me that if a MacBook battery bursts or leaks while in the service shop, they have to “evacuate and send everybody to the emergency room.”

Ack!

But, he said, he’s never seen that happen. The batteries swell. They warp computers. But they rarely leak or burst. Stories of gadget batteries failing catastrophically are extremely rare, so rare that it’s still a news novelty when it happens. 

The more likely danger from a swelling battery is that it will damage your computer by warping it or, worse, crack a circuit board and really wreck things. Another friend had her trackpad crack when her computer’s battery swelled.

What to do
So if you see any strange lumps on your laptop or your phone, or any seams expanding, or pieces not fitting, don’t wait. Especially if it’s a device with a non-removable battery — like a current MacBook, iPhone, iPod, or iPad. Take your gadget and its malignant battery to get serviced. Do it before it really does hurt something. (Apple’s official response to this topic is simply, “Any customer who has an issue with their Mac should contact AppleCare for support.”)

By the way, my mom’s computer is fine. The techs extracted the battery, There’s a small bulge in the wrist rest, but the trackpad works again, and the lid now closes as it should. We replaced the bad battery with a new one, which cost $99.

About that price. First, it’s $30 less than the retail price for MacBook battery, because when you get a part from service you can get one with a 30-day warranty instead of the retail part’s one-year warranty. Since the battery chemistry is good for two years at least, paying extra for a warranty that will expire before then anyway is a waste of money. But you might not have to pay at all. Reports on social networks are that some users get replacements for free. It seems to depend on the person you’re talking to at your Apple store and how well you communicate with them.  

If you have a 15” MacBook and still have its original battery, you should still qualify for a free replacement based on a 2006 recall.

In my mother’s case, her new, $99 battery should be good for another two or three years, assuming she takes care of it. Read this story to see how.

The author of this story, Rafe Needleman, can be reached at rafeneedleman@yahoo.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @rafe​.

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