What's All the Fuss About Lithium Batteries?

The positives and negatives of shipping lithium batteries in the 21st century.

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Lithium batteries are intertwined with so many of our electronics, anywhere from cell phones to battle bots to our circuit boards. How can you not purchase these? Over the last couple of months, you may have noticed a delay with our order processing if you purchased any number of our lithium batteries. But...why?

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These little puppies are what's causing all the trouble.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is responsible for creating laws for anything that goes up in the air. Groups like TSA and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) are branches that have more specialized rules: TSA oversees transportation for people and businesses and IATA deals with lots of international trade including the handling of dangerous goods. The Department of Transportation (DOT) has similar rules and provides us with all of the guidelines for shipping using a ground service. Lithium ion and lithium metal just so happen to be on the long list of items labeled as a dangerous good, which means putting these in a box for shipping requires a bit more special handling.

The rules and specifications are long and incredibly dry to read, so hopefully this can be made as fun as possible. The first thing we have to look at when there is a battery is how is it packaged, and then what the watt hour rating is. Packing is broken down to the following groups: Battery Only, Packed With Equipment, and Packed In Equipment. Once we know that information, we follow a complex-looking chart from IATA to see what category it falls into. The one below is for lithium ion.

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Yay flowchart!

You will notice in each of the boxes at the bottom they have a PI, or packing instruction, along with a Section. This directs you the big IATA regulation book for even more specifications on how many can ship and what documentation and stickers are needed.

Here is what the process looks like from inside SparkFun: We receive your order and it is flagged for review putting the order into the famous "Exception" status. Each order is reviewed by a human in Customer Service to see what types of batteries have been ordered, where it is shipping and what method is being used for delivery. Not all lithium ion batteries can ship in the same package if it is shipping via an air method (2 day, overnight, international, etc.). Additionally, some shipping carriers have limited the destinations to where lithium metal batteries can ship internationally. Once all of those things have been taken into consideration, we put together the documentation that needs to go on the outside of the package, including the stickers that indicate there is a lithium battery in the box.

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Sticky situations always call for stickers.

To be able to sell these batteries to you we have gone through process changes, as well as Hazardous Materials training. It has taken a lot of work to go through all of our items that are batteries by themselves, batteries packed with a kit, or battery installed in an item to figure out what is required for it to ship. While this has been a very manual process for us, we are working on automating how the order is reviewed. This means that in the future, orders with batteries will have a lot less delay before they're shipped out.

If you are one of the many customers who have placed an order with us containing a battery, thank you for hanging in there with us while we iron out all of the wrinkles. We know it has been a difficult process but we will be turning those battery frowns upside down soon. :)


Comments 25 comments

  • Volta had no idea what trouble he would be causing. ;)

  • I've had to deal with those regulations for shipping chemicals and equipment. Lest anyone think it's just looking things up in a table, the rules are not always clear. Sometimes the rules read like some horribly written nested if-then-else statements; you're down three to four levels and trying to keep things straight. Other times, what you're shipping does not cleanly fall into any category; in that situation, you literally have to just pick a designation, follow the rules for it, and hope someone somewhere doesn't come after you.

  • Great article, I always wondered what all the hulla-baloo was around these things.

  • Thanks... I learned something new today

  • I ordered a RTC that was to include a coin cell, I did see that it could not be shipped next day so I didn't select next day shipping. My suggestion is this: Make the coin cell a separate item, if we want to wait 4+ days for our order to clear then fine. But if not, we could just not order the battery and get our parts in a timely manner.

  • I get all the regulations and the delay no problem. I just don't get ordering something that doesn't qualify for 2nd day air but still being able to pay for 2nd day air. Just send everything else in the order air and the batteries ground. If you live somewhere that a UPS truck can't reach, sorry but you aren't a normal human being and deserve to be unhappy anyway.

  • Yay, more gov regulations that favor over-seas companies (who do not comply with the rules and have little to lose) instead of domestic companies like SparkFun (who follow the rules and have everything to lose). At least TSA makes me feel safe </sarcasm>.

    • Yay, gov regulations that make some attempt to balance the desires of commerce vs. my desire to not Die In A Fire (on a plane!)

  • Before I start, I want to say Sparkfun is a great company, has fantastic people and a great resource for products and information. But I just can't figure out why if the shipping of Li batteries is, for example, the US, the package is labeled the same way every time, is shipped UPS ground, etc. then why does a special process needed? If its international, then a special process is needed probably. When the steps are the same, the restrictions are placed in the ordering process, what else does the extra step do? Keep someone employed? Do you not trust the shipping people?

    • It is more complicated that that. Not only can you need different labels for 1x 400mAh battery, 10x400mAh batteries, and 1 Edison block (with build in 400mAh battery), but you also can have different requirements if you then add 1 6Ah battery to the mix, or try to ship any combination of the above. Then there are the coin cell batteries which are a different type of battery, have their own requirements and restrictions when combining with the others. The orders with just 1 battery are the easy ones, but that's often not the case.

      • It seems to me that keeping such a decision tree straight is something far better done by a computer than by a human. I'll grant that it's a non-trivial bit of programming (said by someone with 30+ years programming professionally), but the computer is much less likely to miss having 10x Edison blocks (with built in 400mAh battery) in an order with 5 coin cells and 20 AA cells or whatever, as well as knowing the difference between shipping to Paris, TX and Paris, France. And once the program is "up and running" AND has been thoroughly checked out, it can get the delay down to seconds (or milliseconds). (And yes, it's going to take a LOT of maintenance to keep up with the moving targets of regulations.)

        • CaseyD-SFE replied to goldcoasttech's comment, and addressed mine, while I was typing mine. Sorry for the redundancy.

          • No problem! The decision tree gets a bit more complex when there's more than one battery product SKU, so in the future, after most of the orders are automated, orders like those will still have to be reviewed. We absolutely have a plan to automate it all, it's just taking some time. :)

      • So why is Sparkfun the only supplier who is spending 2+ days on every package? (Every order has been min 2 days for me.) Other suppliers have come up with processes that only deal with the exceptions (more that 1 battery, etc) rather than every order.

        • Hello! You do bring up good questions, so thank you! Right now our system doesn't have the "brain" to be able to process these orders automatically. This is currently in process and coming closer to being finished, but in the mean time humans have to look at each order and determine what is needed. It's a slower process and I do know that it can be inconvenient at this moment, but we will have the ability soon to automate around 50% of the orders that come in that have batteries.

        • I recently ordered a LiPo battery from a UK supplier as part of a tiny UPS system for a Raspberry Pi. It took them 2 months and 2 separate shipments (after the first one was intercepted somewhere along the way) to get it right.... It's not just Sparkfun...

        • It's can also be a question of "Which companies are doing the right thing?". There may be some companies who have yet to realize that they are not in compliance.

          • Correct, and once your company grows to a certain size, more people pay attention to what you do and how you do it. It doesn't take many battery mistakes (whether caused by a person or a computer) to get your shipping account shut down. I think you're hosed after 3 errors in six months or something - and a mistake could be to put a LiPo sticker on box with a Li Ion battery in it, for example.

            With tens of thousands of packages being sent out from here in that time frame, we have to be pretty darn anal about batteries.

            • Being 'anal' doesn't make it right. All I was saying is to examine the process. I live in the medical equipment world, that's anal to the nth degree and for most of the time its for the 1 in a billion chance. If we want to be anal, don't drive a car, don't fly, we can watch Fox News and live in a world of fear, rather than a world of processes that make sense and are, in fact, safer. Examining 100 packages a day will miss many more faults than selectively finding the high risk ones. (BTW, its my career to look at processes and optimize them. People have the best of intentions but end up destroying businesses (not Sparkfun though, its too good) In the medical world we call them the anti-business group). Big companies ship daily such as Mouser, Newark, Digi....due to selective review, not just the easy to blame Chinese ones.

              • All I was saying is to examine the process.

                Which is what the post is about us doing. :) There's development work going on (parts of which are already in use) that greatly streamlines this, but until we're 100% sure everything works as intended (software and new manual processes), we're just being careful not to let any battery mistakes through.

          • Or ignore compliance. For example, Chinese companies are horrible about LiPo. I know my Logitech wireless mouse just came from Amazon with zero labeling about LiPo... just like my cell phones.

            • Actually Lipos that are installed in products have a much easier time. It's very possible that those didn't need any markings. But unlike Amazon most of our Lipos are not installed in a product.

  • If your shipment does not meet ICAO, you could always use DOT rules and mark it for ground only. I haven't done this in a while, however I always remembered the disparity between the two.

    • We do use DOT regulations for domestic shipments within the 48 states. Shipping batteries on a truck doesn't have as many restrictions. :)

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