By Herb Weisbaum
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/14/2006 9:42:55 AM ET 2006-03-14T14:42:55

With gas prices still relatively high, more and more people are considering hybrid cars. But some readers are wondering how long the batteries in a hybrid vehicle will last.

I know that hybrid cars get more miles per gallon and pollute less. But these vehicles all have an expensive battery pack that powers them when the gasoline engine isn’t on. How long are these batteries going to last?
Bill H., Princeton, N.J.

The battery pack in a hybrid vehicle contains hundreds of cells. Unlike the lead-acid battery under the hood of a conventional gas-powered vehicle, these cells contain a chemical mixture called nickel metal hydride (NiMH).

These NiMH batteries generally come with a standard warranty of 8 years or 80,000 miles. In California, if a new hybrid qualifies as an Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emission Vehicle, the state requires the warranty on that battery pack to be 10 years or 150,000 miles.

“The number of failures has been really, really low,” says American Honda’s Juan Avilla. “We expect them to last the life of the vehicle.”

Toyota tells me that some of the original Prius models now have battery packs that have gone more than 300,000 miles.

BusinessWeek magazine reports that when the U.S. Department of Energy investigated hybrid batteries, it stopped its tests “when the capacity remained almost like new — after 160,000 miles.”

What will it cost to replace the batteries if they fail after the warranty expires? No one seems to know since that hasn’t been an issue yet. Manufacturers say they are trying to find a way to  replace the defective cells without removing the entire battery pack. If they're successful, that would dramatically reduce the cost.

And will there be a pollution problem when the batteries come to the end of their useful life? Sooner or later — because they are defective, worn out, or the vehicle is in an accident — the battery pack in a hybrid vehicle will need to be removed or replaced.

Automakers say the batteries will be treated as hazardous waste, similar to any other car battery. That means they will be sent to a recycling plant for proper disposal. The chemicals in the cells will be neutralized and any materials that can be reused will be sorted out. Toyota has established a “bounty” program that pays dealers to send any NiMH batteries they remove to a recycler.

Looking down the road, work is already underway on the next-generation battery for hybrids. The goal is to find a technology that delivers plenty of power, lasts for the life of the vehicle, and is less expensive to make.

Debit, credit cards
Thanks to everyone who e-mailed last week about credit and debit cards. I never realized my first column would generate so many questions. I will answer one this week and hope to answer many more — specifically about service fees — next week.

I have several credit cards due to college expenses. Should I continue to pay more than the minimum on the smaller balance cards?  Or should I pay the minimum on the smaller balances and put the most money toward the highest balance, which just so happens to have the worst interest rate? I graduated a few years ago and I really need to get a handle on this.
Kimberly A., Jacksonville, Fla.

Credit card debt can quickly get out of hand, so I’m glad to see you want to get things under control. According to a recent report from the College Board, the average student graduates with about $2,700 worth of credit card debt.

In general, the smart way to pay down what you owe is to make the minimum payments on the cards with the lowest interest rates and pay as much as you can afford on the cards with the higher rates.

Sit down with copies of your latest statements and see what the rates really are on those various accounts. You may be paying a higher rate than when you first got the card. This can happen if you missed a payment or were late on a payment on any of your credit cards.

Gerri Detweiler, author of The Ultimate Credit Handbook, suggests contacting the banks that issued your cards to see if you can negotiate a lower rate. “You’ll need to be persistent and keep asking,” she notes, but if you can get them to drop the rate even slightly, that’s money in your pocket. Remember, as you pay down your balances “you will free up available credit and your credit score should go up,” Detweiler notes.

Finally, don’t add to your credit card debt as you try to work it down. Go on a cash-only basis. If you don’t have the money to pay for it, don’t buy it.

Organic produce is high on my shopping list, but it sure is expensive. Is it okay to buy regular fruits and vegetables and use a produce wash? Will that fight some of the pesticide residue?
Kelly S., Bellevue, Wash.

You’re right. Organic produce can put a real dent in your shopping budget. Washing and peeling (when practical) can reduce your exposure to any pesticide residue present on the surface of non-organic produce. With leafy vegetables, such as lettuce and cabbage, removing the outer leaves can also help.

Washing fresh produce — whether organic or not — is a smart thing to do, because pesticide residue isn’t the only potential food safety problem. All fruits and vegetables, no matter how they’re grown, can be dirty or contaminated with harmful bacteria.

As you noted, there are produce washes you can buy at the store. “Most of those washes are made up of diluted vinegar or baking soda with a hefty price tag,” says Urvashi Rangan, a senior scientist with Consumer Reports.

But here’s the tricky part. “With many fruits, especially soft ones like peaches or berries,” Rangan tells me “washing can only get you so far, since the pesticide is actually on the inside part of the fruit as well.”

So what can you do to reduce your possible exposure to pesticides without breaking the bank? In its February issue, Consumer Reports suggests buying the organic versions of the fruits and vegetables that are most likely to contain the highest amount of pesticide residue.

Here is the magazine’s “buy organic as often as possible” list: apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach and strawberries. For more information, check out the full Consumer Reports article "When It Pays to Buy Organic."

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