Making sense of the EU’s fight for user-replaceable smartphone batteries

Making sense of the EU's fight for user-replaceable smartphone batteries

If you’ve been online the past week, you’ve probably seen a headline or two about the European Union’s vote in favor of easy-to-replace batteries in smartphones by around 2027. in favor of an agreement to revise the rules on batteries in the bloc.

The good news is that those headlines are basically accurate; the EU is pursuing regulation to require smartphones to have easier-to-replace batteries, which benefits the environment and end-users. But this being the European Union, there is much more behind the scenes. And it’s these details that could have a significant impact on how and when manufacturers actually need to comply.

Competing legislation

For starters, according to Cristina Ganapini, coordinator of Right to Repair Europe, the widely cited 2027 deadline to offer smartphones with more easily replaceable batteries isn’t all. That’s because there is another piece of legislation currently being drafted through the EU legislative process called Ecodesign for smartphones and tablets. It contains similar rules to make it easier to replace smartphone batteries and is expected to come into force in early June or July 2025. So, before 2027, some smartphone manufacturers may have already sold devices with user-replaceable batteries in the EU for more than a year.

Battery replacement in Nokia G22 HMDs, the kind of repair process the EU wants to bring to all smartphones.
Photo by Owen Grove / The Verge

According to a draft ecodesign regulation on the EU’s website, batteries should be replaceable without any tools, a tool or set of tools supplied with the product or a spare part or basic tools. It also says that replacement parts should be available for up to seven years after a phone is released, and perhaps most importantly, the replacement process can be done by a layman. The legislation is currently under consideration by the European Parliament and the Council, and Ganapini expects it to become law in September this year, with smartphone battery replicability requirements taking effect a year and a half later.

Despite the overlap between the two pieces of legislation, the battery regulation voted by the European Parliament this month is still relevant. That’s because the battery regulation is stricter than the ecodesign regulation in one key way: it doesn’t offer a loophole that would allow smartphone makers to avoid having to make their batteries easy to replace if they can make them long-lasting instead. . Specifically, to qualify they will need to maintain 83% of their capacity after 500 cycles and 80% after 1000 cycles. Such devices should also be dust-tight and protected from immersion in water up to one meter deep for a minimum of 30 minutes, according to the capabilities of eco-design rules often achieved with glue.

We would have preferred to see longevity requirements alongside repairability requirements rather than leave the trade-off up to manufacturers, says iFixit repair policy engineer Thomas Opsomer. That said, 83% capacity after 500 cycles and 80% capacity after 1000 cycles is quite an ambitious requirement; that would likely translate into at least five years of use.

A portable battery should be considered end-user removable when it can be removed with the use of commercially available tools

It’s not clear exactly how many smartphone battery makers can meet the requirements for this longevity loophole. For example, an Apple support page notes that a typical battery typically retains up to 80 percent of its original capacity after 500 full charge cycles. But other manufacturers may already deliver such long-lasting batteries. Fairphone spokeswoman Anna Jopp told me that the (fully replaceable) battery in her Fairphone 4 already meets these longevity requirements, while Oppo recently boasted that some of its batteries retain 80% of their charge after well 1,600 recharge cycles.

In addition to not offering the longevity loophole, Opsomer also points out that battery regulation covers it All portable battery products; it is much broader in scope than the ecodesign regulation focused on phones and tablets.

What makes a battery removable anyway?

So what exactly does it mean that a smartphone battery is easy to replace? Much of the EU definition boils down to what tools are needed for the procedure. While removable is reminiscent of the feature phone era or one of Fairphones devices that only require a fingernail to open, the definition used in the battery regulation voted on this month doesn’t go that far. Instead of requiring toolless removal, the battery regulation instead places limits on the types of tools that will be needed to replace a battery. Here is the relevant section:

A portable battery should be considered end-user removable when it can be removed with the use of commercially available tools and without requiring the use of specialized tools, unless provided free of charge, or proprietary tools, heat energy, or solvents to disassemble it.

Rather than requiring entirely tool-less battery replacement, the regulation’s wording focuses on preventing end users from having to use proprietary tools or complicated processes. So the EU’s goal is not to turn every phone into a Fairphone 4, with its battery that you can take out in a couple of seconds with your bare hands, and more like the recent Nokia G22 HMD, whose battery replacement guide iFixit it still requires the use of a basic tool or two. In other words, the G22’s battery can be replaced using commercially available tools that don’t seem very specialized and don’t require proprietary tools, solvents, or heat energy such as heat guns or an iFixit iOpener, which are designed to dissolve the glue some manufacturers use. to hold components together. Simple, right?

A Google Pixel smartphone, along with the kinds of tools needed to fix it.
Image: iFixit

Not so fast, says iFixits Opsomer. Stresses that while EU law defines only basic tools, specific tools for product groups, other commercially available tools and proprietary tools, it no define specialized tools. This current specification could easily give rise to a situation where to replace a battery, a user would have to purchase a tool that is indeed specialized but not officially defined as such, Opsomer says, the cost of which could easily exceed the cost of the replacement battery.

So iFixit is pushing for lawmakers to count a device as user-serviceable under the battery regulation if it can be repaired using basic tools. Included in this category are common screwdriver styles like flathead, Phillips, and Torx, though Opsomer admits it will likely include some more niche tools like iFixit opening picks.

Another potential point of contention is how user-replaceable batteries can coexist with waterproofing. The Battery Regulation provides an exemption for devices specifically designed to be used, for the majority of the device’s active service, in an environment that is regularly subject to water splashing, jetting or immersion in water. Opponents of such rules often cite waterproofing as a feature that could be affected if a device is designed to be easily opened.

A great success for the right to reparation

In a statement, Opsomer said the EU exemption was based on unsubstantiated safety claims and cited diving torches as an example of a device that could offer both a user-replaceable battery and waterproof construction. In a YouTube video, repair technician Louis Rossmann mentions the Samsung Galaxy S5 (IP67, so it can be submerged in relatively shallow water for up to 30 minutes) and the Sonim XP10 (IP68, which can be submerged in deeper water for up to 30 minutes). times) such as phones with good water resistance that also offer removable batteries, although other recent serviceable phones such as the Fairphone 4 (IP54 offering splash-proof protection) and Nokia G22 (IP52 splash-proof ‘dripping water) are faring less well.

A good start

Specs concerns aside, the result of this month’s vote on the new battery regulation was widely welcomed by right-to-repair activists. Right to repair Europe’s Ganapini called it a big success for the right to repair, while Fairphones legal adviser Ana-Mariya Madzhurova said the regulation would further empower consumers by ensuring that batteries across all sectors are more durable, sustainable and repairable.

The EU’s user-replaceable battery rules still have a long way to go, despite this month’s successful vote. The regulation on batteries will have to be formally approved by the Council of the EU, while the ecodesign rules are still under consideration by the European Parliament. While approval of both sets of rules seems likely given their current progress, there are ongoing behind-the-scenes discussions between different groups contending for looser or stricter interpretations of the written rules.

But, in the years to come, it appears smartphone buyers in Europe will have much more time keeping their devices up and out of landfill after their batteries degrade naturally over time. And, unless manufacturers want to produce devices with user-replaceable batteries sold only in Europe, it looks like the rest of the world will benefit as well.

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