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