The European Union (EU) has passed legislation that could usher in a new era of repairable devices, with a particular focus on easy battery replacement. However, the interpretation of what constitutes “readily removable” is still a matter of debate, writes ArsTechnica.
Recently, the European Parliament voted for new battery handling rules, which may be implemented as early as 2027. The legislation, which covers batteries of all sizes, includes measures to reduce the carbon footprint of electric vehicles and industrial batteries, tougher waste and recycling targets, and a special clause in Article 11 on “Removability and replaceability of portable batteries”.
This clause states that portable batteries built into appliances must be “easily removable and replaceable” by the end user or independent operators. This applies when the life of the batteries is shorter than the life of the appliance or when the life of the appliance is coming to an end. The term “replaceable” is defined as the ability to replace the battery with a similar one without affecting the operation or performance of the appliance after removing the original battery.
The term “appliance” is used in a broader context than one might think, encompassing laptops, printers, and mobile phones. The regulations state that portable batteries must be designed in such a way that consumers can easily remove and replace them themselves.
However, the legislation also states that end-users are responsible for properly disposing of batteries that are “readily removable by the end user without the use of professional tools.” It remains unclear whether this tool-free requirement applies only to battery disposal, or whether it also extends to the definition of “replaceable”.
There are also potential gaps in legislation. For example, manufacturers are required to make batteries available as spare parts for five years after the last model is sold at a “reasonable and non-discriminatory price”. However, what constitutes a “reasonable” price is not clearly defined.
In addition, some manufacturers are already trying to make an exception for batteries used in “wet conditions”, which could potentially exclude appliances such as electric toothbrushes, headphones and smartwatches from the legislation. The advocacy group Repair.EU and other watchdogs will need to monitor and report on these issues to ensure compliance.
The question of whether a smartphone battery is “readily removable” opens a Pandora’s box of further questions about what exactly “readily” and “removable” mean. The interpretation of these terms covers a wide spectrum.
It starts on one end, with the Fairphone devices, the latest of which has a battery you can remove with a thumbnail by prying off the back cover and simply pulling out. On the other end is any number of obscure-brand phones, typically running Android, with no repair manuals available (whether first-party or user-made), no replacement batteries offered anywhere, and no visible points of entry.
In the middle is where the vast majority of phones are situated. Almost all smartphones require significant heat to soften the adhesive that holds either their front display or rear cover onto their frame. Once softened, you must typically pry and slice at the adhesive while taking care not to nick any cables or fragile camera components inside. Samsung, notably, presumes that damage is so likely during repair that it sells the screen and battery as a single unit, then it has you transfer your phone’s guts into that new shell.
If you have experience with this type of repair and a reliable manual, it won’t be too difficult. However, for the inexperienced, the process can be nerve-wracking and carries the risk of injury due to excessive force. Even if you do manage to gain access to the battery, most are held in place with a strong adhesive, which usually requires a careful application of solvent.
If you managed to successfully replace the smartphone battery, you inevitably broke the factory glue and sealing, which significantly affects the waterproofness of the device. Can this infringement be considered “affecting the functioning or the performance of that appliance” under EU regulations? Also, if you replace the iPhone battery without using branded batteries and firmware without Apple support, you will lose battery health readout and receive service alerts. Does it affect the operation of the appliance, its performance?
Assuming that getting strong solvents on a delicate screen or glass back panel doesn’t meet the definition of “readily removable”, we can also agree that it does meet the requirement of not having to use “professional tools”. But what exactly is a “professional tool”?
Here again, is a fairly wide range. Are an iFixit heating tube, guitar pick, and spudger professional tools? Apple’s Self Service Repair program, which has you rent a suitcase with custom tools and use specialized software to register parts, might seem to hit the mark of “professional tools.”
It turns out that the wording is ambiguous, but the consequences are huge. Repair regulations in Europe may significantly affect the US as well. The European market is large enough that most device manufacturers are unlikely to create two designs for their main products, one to meet EU requirements and the other to meet US requirements.
Apple, in response to another EU rule mandating USB-C charging until 2024, is reportedly already testing a USB-C iPhone for release this year.
If the EU really wants to achieve much more efficient use of batteries over the next few years, lawmakers will need to do some more work on timing. In addition, they should decide whether manufacturers should simply make repairs easier by using less glue, or if the industry should go back 15 years, when the vast majority of phones had a removable cover and the battery could be replaced in literally seconds.