Remote problems? Might just be the battery

A customer came to us with this problem recently:

When I press the down button on the remote, it keeps going down, down, down and doesn’t stop until I push another button. Help!

It turns out the solution was easy. Even though the remote gave no indication it needed new batteries, changing the batteries fixed the problem. But why?

It could have just needed a “reboot”

Face it, it’s 2019. Everything is a complex computer now. Your microwave has more computing power than the fanciest computer at the defense department in 1980 (probably, I don’t know, it sounds good.) Sometimes computers get confused and sometimes they need a reboot. Taking the batteries out and putting them back in might have solved the problem by itself.

In this case, that didn’t do it, but if you’re having weird problems with anything, even something like a remote, cutting the power completely for a little while just might be the answer.

Battery management doesn’t always make sense

AT&T’s Genie Remote has built-in battery management. It’s supposed to flash the light at the top when the batteries need replacing. It isn’t perfect, though. Nothing in life is. It’s possible that the batteries were giving just enough voltage to fool that battery management system but not enough to make the remote work well. Right there, in that “uncanny valley,” weird things can happen with electronic components.

Remember that computers work on binary. Something is there, or it isn’t. But electricity isn’t really like that. Electricity is analog. You can have more or less of it if you want. And when a digital device meets analog electricity, funny things can happen. It’s actually pretty surprising that funny things don’t happen more often.

In this customer’s case it’s hard to know where things went really kaflooey, but new batteries certainly fixed the issue.

How often do batteries last in remotes anyway?

That’s totally dependent on usage. The remote itself uses almost no electricity until someone presses it. Then, it uses a tiny bit for each button press. I have one remote which I have stubbornly refused to replace the batteries in. It’s about 7 years old and every so often I open it up to make sure the batteries haven’t swollen or leaked. I only use this remote about once a month, sometimes less. It’s for a device I usually control with an app. The remote still works, though. At some point the batteries will fail. It’s just hard to know when.

Battery technology has actually improved in the last decade, although not as much as it really should. The AA cells you put in your devices generally last longer in storage, and provide power more consistently. They do this with better materials and better manufacturing. Today it’s very common for a battery to last 5-7 years in storage, where a decade ago that was very rare.

The big enemy of batteries is still heat, though. A battery will last longer in a cool environment than a warm one. Heat makes batteries swell and pop, too, and it’s the number one reason that fast-charging batteries is so hard.