It’s a common problem with ageing Macbooks. In fact, every single Macbook I’ve ever owned has had this problem, some more than once.
It starts out with what seems like a bit of a bulge under the front of your Macbook. Soon the trackpad starts to have problems. Sometimes it seems like you can only press it when you apply pressure at the correct angles. Soon that bulge gets bigger and you can’t press the trackpad at all.
I figured out some time ago that it was the battery because I first noticed it in a 2007 model 15” Macbook Pro that had a user-replaceable battery. After about 18 months the battery cover kept popping open. A closer look at it revealed it was bulging in the middle. The battery wasn’t lasting very long anymore either so I replaced it. In 2010 I got one of the early unibody 15″ Macbook Pros. Lo and behold about 2 years later I started to notice similar symptoms under the trackpad. This time the battery was not user-replaceable
In 2013 I got a 13” Macbook Pro. It hasn’t yet exhibited the same symptoms, but at work, I’ve encountered a 2012 model 15” Macbook Pro that has, on a magnificent scale.
I wish I’d taken a photo before completely removing the case, but you couldn’t miss this battery expansion. The touchpad was completely pushed out from underneath and the front of the case had popped 3 of the 4 screws.
So what’s going on with my MacBook Batteries?
Why are these batteries expanding so much?
I’ve done some research on it and from what I can tell it is normal behaviour of lithium-ion batteries. As they age a number of factors can contribute to the expansion of gases inside the battery. According to Professor Don Sadoway, Professor of Materials Chemistry at MIT as quoted on TekRevue, overcharging, such as in the event of a failed charge controller, is a pretty common cause. Lithium metal builds up on the anode faster than it can dissipate when overcharging occurs and the cathode becomes an unstable oxidising agent.
Fortunately, the people that came up with these batteries developed safeguards to contain these gases. The gas can’t escape, so the battery expands to keep it inside. It seems there are a few factors that can cause this to happen faster. The first being heat, which unfortunately tends to exist inside a computer and is also a byproduct of the gas production inside the battery.
It seems it can also be caused by age, manufacturing defects, not properly cycling the battery over time (e.g. leaving it permanently plugged into the power), or even the wrong power adaptor.
For me personally, I feel that given it has happened with 2 out of the 3 MaBbook’s I have owned it must be a lot more connected with age and the simple failure of some component, whether the battery itself, the overcharge protection or something else. I’d be inclined to say that perhaps part of the reason it hasn’t happened on my current 13” MacBook Pro yet is in part because it has actually not had as much use as my previous laptops since I have had work laptops provided during that time which got a lot more use. I’ve noticed though that my old work laptop started exhibiting mild symptoms at around 2 years old, though they did not change through to 2.5 years when it was replaced. These symptoms were the trackpad becoming difficult to press unless you had it at the right angle and a very slight bulge under the front.
It seems Apple has some battery expectations
That aside, according to a Yahoo Tech article on the topic in 2014, Apple at the time indicated MacBook batteries were good for around 1000 cycles. This piece of information is no longer on Apple’s website, but I look at my 2013 (actually a late-2012 model) purchased MacBook Pro battery health information and I see it has done 992 cycles, so it is coming up to that 1000 mark. It also started telling me a couple of weeks ago that it’s time to service my battery. It seems Apple might know something still about that 1000 cycle point that they are trying to avoid by encouraging replacement. My battery still seems to function fine and lasts a good hour or 2 depending on what I’m doing. It is something to note though as the cycles continue to increase.
My wife’s MacBook Air which was bought late 2012 started telling her a few months ago that it was time to service her battery and it rapidly dropped in its ability to hold a charge for long. It only lasts for about 30 minutes now. A look at her battery health indicates that at 1091 cycles it’s now done 100 more cycles than my Macbook Pro. A foreshadowing of things to come for my MacBook Pro when it reaches 1000 cycles perhaps?
A quick look at the cycle count on my newer work MacBook Pro (a late 2015 model bought in June 2016) shows it has done 51 cycles in 3 months. At that rate, it will hit 1000 cycles in 19-20 months. That’s about the right timeframe for when my previous batteries have either kicked the bucket or started to show signs of expansion.
Now, that aside, my wife’s Macbook Air is not showing any signs of expansion at this point, though I will admit we are guilty of using whatever charger is available, and between her Air, my 13” Pro and my work 15” Pro there are 3 chargers of different sizes that float around. So in spite of often using a higher capacity charger with her laptop, and it reaching that 1000 cycle point it has not failed yet. That doesn’t mean it won’t though, and I think Apple recommending it be replaced is a good indicator that it could at any time.
What do I do with my swollen MacBook battery?
So, the next question is what do I do with the enormously engorged Macbook battery in this work laptop? The battery itself tells me not to throw it in the bin, and I think this is pretty common sense anyway. Something that looks like it is ready to explode shouldn’t be going in the bin, and something that could release lithium gas also shouldn’t go in the bin.
In the case of my previous laptops that had fat batteries, the first one went in for a SuperDrive transplant and they dealt with the battery at the same time. The second one got caught in an accident and was replaced due to a separate issue by insurance, so the repairer dealt with it.
So they were all someone else’s problem.
From what I’ve been reading it sounds like I can take it to an Apple store and they will take care of it. Frankly, the laptop could probably go anyway – as you can see I actually removed the hard drive from it already anyway just in case. I would be interested to find out what Apple would charge for it, though, and if they would even offer to replace the battery or just tell me it’s too old.
Otherwise, it seems there are recycling points that know what to do with these batteries. According to cleanup.org.au there is no unified battery recycling approach in Australia. However, there are some places that can deal with them. It seems that Battery World is actually one of the only nationally operated recycling points for all kinds of batteries (though Aldi does offer recycling of battery types that they sell – eg AA, AAA, C, D etc). All of a sudden I feel like I should be buying my batteries from Battery World if they are willing to recycle these difficult to deal with ones.
In order to find the closest battery recycling location, Planet Ark’s Recycling Near You website does have a recycling search engine that will help you to find nearby battery recyclers. According to this search engine, it looks like a number of council libraries actually offer battery recycling of rechargeable batteries which is great. For example: http://recyclingnearyou.com.au/business/12868 though it appears they send them on to MRI (Aust) Pty Ltd for the actual recycling.
So for me, it looks like my closest options are my local library or a little further away is a Battery World store. So that is perfect. They are both convenient so that makes it much easier to deal with this problem battery. Now I just have to find a suitable screwdriver for it since Apple have used a funny 3 pointed screw for one of them. All the normal Phillips head screws have actually already broken off their mount points anyway.
What if I bought the extra AppleCare protection?
Well, then you are in luck. If like me, all your batteries tend to expand massively within 2 years, then you are well within the 3 years that AppleCare covers you for. So you should be able to take your laptop into your local Apple store or authorised repairer and have them remove the old battery and stick in a new one for you at no cost. Then they get to deal with recycling your old battery. Problem solved. Of course, even outside of AppleCare warranties, you can take it in and they will be able to replace it for you. It’s just a question of the cost. Back when Macbook batteries were user serviceable they cost around $80-$100 each. Add inflation and some labour costs to that and Apple’s website lists it at anywhere from $189 for older and smaller models up to a whopping $289 for the current (2015) model Macbook and Macbook Pro’s with retina display.
Not cheap, but if your Macbook is running perfectly fine otherwise it is still cheaper than a completely new laptop.
Preventing Battery Swelling
Now I know what is happening, so how can I prevent it from happening or at least delay it in the future? How To Geek has some good tips here that I’m going to start using.
- Keep the battery cool for the most part – in other words, keep it within regular laptop operating temperatures. Don’t store it in the sun or use it plugged in for long periods of time in the sun.
- Use the right capacity Apple charger or quality third-party manufacturer charger.
- Don’t leave the laptop constantly plugged in when it doesn’t need to be.
- Replace old batteries that are not holding their charge anymore.
In The End
I ended up needing to go into Sydney for something else, so I was able to bring the Macbook into the Hornsby Apple store for an Apple Genius to look at. I didn’t even have to ask him if they could take care of it for me. He took one look at it and told me he needed to remove it and put it in their battery safe ASAP and that he needed to take it out the back where there were fewer people. About 15 minutes later he returned with the laptop, batteryless.
My helpful technician then went through the process of looking up the serial number to see whether the battery could be replaced, whether it was still under any sort of Apple Care or warranty, and what the cost would be. He let me know that this is now the oldest model still being supported, which means that when the next laptop release is brought out the batteries for this model will no longer be available. He gave me a quote of $189 AUD for the battery and installation. So it’s about the price I expected, however, there was no charge to remove the old one. I got him to plug it in and confirm it would run without the battery, which it did, so I decided to leave it batteryless.
I was a little surprised, the tech did suggest to me that if I don’t replace it by the time it reaches end-of-life but I decide I want to later, that I would probably be able to find a non-genuine battery online that is compatible with it and install it myself. I appreciate him mentioning it though as it hadn’t actually occurred to me that someone might be selling non-genuine Apple batteries.
Nevertheless, at this point, I have no plans to replace it. It is good to know for future reference though that Apple will remove the misbehaving batteries for you at one of their stores.