In addition to whatever else was on videographers’ New Year’s resolution lists, the U.S. Department of Transportation laid an extra one on them Jan. 1: They were no longer going to be able to pack loose lithium ion batteries in their checked luggage for airline travel.
New regulations for both lithium metal and lithium ion batteries were actually issued back in August, effective at the end of the year. But they caught television crews and the rest of the traveling public by surprise as the calendar turned over.
The long and short of the new rules, as far as lithium-ion batteries to power camcorders and portable lights are concerned, is this:
Not surprisingly, it’s not as simple as that. There are limits to the lithium equivalent content of individual cells in the battery pack, and other packaging requirements. But the established battery makers individually have your back on these concerns, and the only restrictions a videographer should have to worry about in terms of lithium-ion battery-packs are the three rules above.
- A lithium-ion battery pack attached to the equipment it is to power, such as a camcorder or light, can be shipped in checked luggage or carried onto an airliner;
- All spare lithium-ion battery packs must be shipped in carry-on luggage;
- There are watt-hour size limitations to the individual battery packs that can be carried aboard airliners.
There are, however, separate regulations that cover lithium-metal batteries, and lithium primary batteries are banned from carriage aboard passenger airliners altogether. None of the other battery types popular for powering camcorders and portable lights, such as nickel cadmium or nickel metal hydride batteries, are affected by the new regulations. Both of those may be carried in checked baggage.
Complicating the regulations, the battery pack capacity is not actually stated in watt-hours, but in lithium equivalent content. However, a lithium-ion battery pack’s lithium equivalent content translates directly into the watt-hour figure that the television news and production industry is familiar with.
Two spare lithium-ion battery packs per passenger, each with lithium equivalent content of up to 25 grams (300 Wh), can be carried onboard. Additionally, an unlimited number of lithium-ion battery packs per passenger, each with eight grams or less of lithium equivalent content (100 Wh), may be brought onto the plane. (Obviously the airline itself is going to have something to say about the total dimensions and weight of what’s carried onboard.)
KNOCK YOURSELF OUT
These regulations did not come as a surprise to broadcast industry battery vendors. “The actual regulations were set in place [last summer],” said Tony Iwamoto, marketing and sales manager of IDX in Torrance, Calif. “But I think it only caught the public’s eye on the first of the year when the Transportation Department put out a big release on it.”
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Videographers TV Technology spoke with said they were surprised by the new regulations, or were unfamiliar with them altogether.
“I’ve been explaining it on the phone this past week to a number of people in your industry who have called,” said DOT spokesman Joe Delcambre. He said that calculating battery-pack capacity in lithium equivalent content units seems to have thrown the public off. “They say ‘my battery is rated at 65 Wh,’ and I tell them that’s great, it’s below our restricted limit, so carry as many of them as you want.”
The restriction on battery-packs above 300 Wh should not be a concern to the TV industry. A polling of battery-pack vendors found the largest such lithium-ion battery-pack to be a 200 Wh model.
Battery suppliers for professional videographers have had transportation of their battery packs top-of-mind for many years. “[O]ur job is to make sure [videographers can travel with their batteries] with as little hassle and inconvenience as possible,” said Bob Ott, vice president of optical and professional products at Sony Electronics.
“All current Sony batteries for our professional camcorders are compliant with U.S. federal travel regulations in terms of lithium, and have been for years. And, of course, we will always keep these types of regulations in mind for any battery technologies we develop in the future.”
Sony and its competitors will continue to find that satisfying those lithium-ion battery air transport regulations is a moving target, and not necessarily steered by U.S. officials.
The regulations for carriage of lithium-ion batteries “have been very dynamic and fluid, and have been under scrutiny and change,” said Anton/Bauer President Alex DeSorbo. He said the United States has actually been behind the rest of the world, and the new regulations are an attempt to harmonize U.S. regulations with international regulations under the International Air Transport (IATA) and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) which have been in place for several years.
So what’s the advantage of having lithium-ion battery packs in the cabin instead of the cargo hold? Jim Crawford, president of Frezzi Energy Systems in Hawthorne, N.J., said it has to do with how relatively long it takes for a lithium-ion battery to actually catch fire. It will smoke first, and in the cabin that will likely be detected earlier than if the problem occurred in the cargo hold. Plus, in the cabin there are people who can take care of the problem.
“The crew knows what to do,” said Crawford. “They take it and isolate it, and cool it down.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
There are some things a videographer can do to make carrying lithium-ion battery-packs safer. Suggestions from battery vendors include placing a strip of electrical tape over the battery pack connection point (even though all battery makers recess those contacts), and placing each battery-pack in an individual polyethylene bag. And look for quite a few new battery-carriers from the equipment bag people at The NAB Show in April.
Looks count too. “I think it’s a question of inspiring confidence in the check-in staff,” said David Hardy, quality and technical director for PAG. “If they see batteries in the carry-on luggage, certainly they’re going to want to know, if they’re on the restricted battery list, are they separated. And I think there’s no substitute for having the batteries clearly in a safe condition to carry on the plane.”
While lithium-ion battery-packs are generally clearly marked as such, the watt-hour capacity of them is not always on the label. However, on those packs the voltage and amp-hours are listed, however faintly, and multiplying those two values together yields the watt-hour capacity.
It might also be helpful to print and carry the specification page for each specific model of battery being transported. And if challenged for the actual lithium equivalent content of a battery pack, you might want to print the DOT’s own page at http://safetravel.dot.gov/whats_new_batteries.html, which lists watt-hour equivalents for both the 8 gram and 25 gram limits.
That said, George Kerchner, executive director of the Portable Rechargeable Battery Association, has some reassuring news. “I’ve talked to TSA about this, and TSA has absolutely no intent to start confiscating batteries. They’re not the battery police. They recognize this is a rather confusing rule, and they’re not going to be confiscating batteries.”
Kerchner and others did point out that the Jan. 1 regulations are not the last word on the subject. “I think starting in November 2009, all lithium and lithium ion batteries, regardless of their sizes, are going to be subject to more testing requirements,” he said. This is where one vendor’s product may measure up, and another might be banned from passenger airline carriage.
“I think if they’re buying from major manufacturers,” he said, “where the lithium-ion battery cells themselves are made by major manufacturers like Sanyo or Sony, they’re going to be OK because they’re fully compliant with regulations. If you’re buying from small [third-world] manufacturers who aren’t as smart on these regulations, you may have a problem.”
One good thing should come in new regulations in 2009: Kerchner said the lithium equivalent content capacity limits will be changed to watt-hour denominations.