If you're responsible for battery purchasing at your facility, you must address a number of issues before you even think about making a decision. How can you maximize the life cycle of your batteries without threatening serviceability? How do climatic and installation variations affect batteries' life expectancy? Is there a single resource for all this information or a way to store your company's historic data? To help answer these questions, it's important to take a closer look at how these problems get started in the first place.

How We Got Here

The 1990s will always be remembered for its exponential growth and mass-market acceptance of handheld wireless devices. As cellular telephone demand grew, so did the need to supply ubiquitous, uninterrupted service on a nationwide basis. Wireless carriers responded by rapidly building out their networks through internal expansion, expanded coverage within existing footprints, entry into new markets, and acquisitions. This phase of network expansion created thousands of disparately located equipment facilities.

Companies that service or manage these remote transmission facilities are forced to maintain battery backup power supplies in each of these installations. The wireless industry is finding that the logistics associated with VRLA battery life-cycle management, including procurement, warehousing and inventory, testing, forecasting, and disposal can be imposing and costly. In fact, the dollar value of this line item has been increasing at a significant rate, now representing multi-million dollar annual purchase commitments for most carriers. Adding insult to injury, these batteries are often replaced on an emergency-call cost basis because of the lack of information on projected life expectancy coupled with the lack of administration of an organized methodology for replacement.

According to industry estimates, there are more than 200,000 remote transmission facilities nationwide, with virtually all of these installations housing VRLA battery backup power systems. The problem for facilities owners and managers is that these batteries die. So the question they must ask themselves is not will these batteries fail, but when. VRLA batteries found in a typical remote configuration have a two- to eight-year life expectancy. Actual performance varies based upon a number of criteria, including climatic environment, load, as well as the number of times discharged.

But replacing these batteries is just the start. There are a slew of battery manufacturers and suppliers in the market. Many products have equivalents, less expensive or equal alternatives. Typically, purchasing agents are only provided with BTS equipment values and must cross-reference the corresponding battery configuration and manufacturer. Forecasting needs across a network is difficult to gauge due to lack of proper field information, so arbitrary budgets are created that substantially vary from actual needs.

Proper disposal of these spent batteries compounds the challenge. Each battery must be disposed of in accordance with EPA standards, which means they must be sent to an EPA-approved smelting facility — where owners are required to maintain disposal documentation.

Purchasing and Procurement

There is a wide assortment of equipment configurations in the field, requiring carriers to stock and procure inventory from multiple vendors. In some cases, carriers are buying batteries from more than 50 different vendors nationwide. This lack of centralized purchasing inhibits the carrier's ability to gain economy-of-scale purchasing power and reduces forecasting capabilities. This results in excess or insufficient inventory levels. Replacing field-deployed units often requires a stream of documentation, from field technicians to regional offices to corporate offices. This document trail of paperwork is increasingly costly and can contribute to latency in response to field requests.

Many companies are reviewing their vendor base and relationships and seeking alternative methods like e-commerce and B2B hubs to minimize their vendor base and drastically reduce paperwork costs. Many carriers have mandated moving toward these solutions whenever they're economically feasible. Industry estimates are that it costs companies $200 to initiate, process and settle a single purchase order. Can you or your company benefit from looking at the software and on-line resources and offerings that are available?

Warehousing

For purchasing agents, determining how much to buy and when to buy it become critical considerations, as batteries are perishable. Battery inventories lose money every month they sit unused, both from inventory carrying cost and life-cycle standpoints. Batteries that sit warehoused and unused beyond six months from manufacture date are recommended to be properly re-charged prior to field deployment.

Decreasing warehousing and inventory carrying costs and increasing life-cycle utilization dramatically increases return on investment (ROI) on a per product basis. Buying in bulk quantity and warehousing at a centralized location may end up costing your company more than you think when shipping costs are factored in. Due to the weight of VRLA batteries, the shipping cost per unit sometimes approaches 15% of the purchase price. You should consider all of your direct and indirect costs when determining where you buy your batteries, as hidden costs like these can eat into your profits.

Testing and Forecasting

Typically, VRLA batteries are not part of a standardized testing procedure. This is due to a number of factors, not the least of which is the inability to gather and manipulate this test data. Having a technician test these units and then store test data at the location increases manpower costs and does little for forecasting anticipated failure or assisting in predicting replacement needs. Implementing a standardized testing and maintenance schedule and tracking batteries from life-cycle initiation through its spent phase enables carriers to increase utilization, decrease non-scheduled outages, and improve ROI.

Disposal

The last thing anyone needs is a call from a local, state, or federal environmental department informing them that those 12 batteries that were replaced in a remote area were just found in a dumpster behind a building, and have been tracked back to them.

All VRLA batteries must be disposed of in an EPA-compliant fashion. But, what are the regulations? Do all contractors carry the right insurance coverage? What is the most cost-effective method to manage this process?

So if you want to maximize your battery's efficiency as well as extend its life, it's important to address all of the considerations discussed above. In the end, the extra time and effort will be worth it.

Steven Dworkin is cofounder of Batterycorp.com in Newton, Mass. You can reach him at sdworkin@batterycorp.com.