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Written by Keven Passmore
In a recent avalanche fatality in California corrosion in the battery terminals of a beacon is listed as a factor in the inability of the rescuer to perform a beacon search. An intermittent short (disconnection) between the battery and the terminals within the compartment can be created by a small amount of corrosion build-up. It does not take much. By “intermittent” we mean sometimes it connects and works (like in the parking lot when you turn it on) and sometimes it doesn’t (when an accident just occurred).
This can be avoided! How? Regularly inspect your beacon battery terminal for signs of corrosion. It looks like white powder. If your partner’s beacon is more than one year old, demand that they check their beacon too. This isn’t likely to be an issue on brand new beacons, but after a year and a battery change or two, you should be inspecting. The good news is that corrosion buildup is preventable, avoidable and treatable. If you know it is there, corrosion can be cleaned out and batteries replaced.
How to remove corrosion
Various online recommendations suggest vinegar and cue-tip. In the past I have used baking soda with a little bit of H2O on a small piece green Scotch-Brite or toilet paper (it’s a good idea to wear protective gloves for either procedure). I have also retired an old beacon because of this issue and my hair is a little less grey for it.
How to prevent corrosion
The issue is caused by moisture in the beacon and/or moisture damage to the batteries before putting them into a beacon. Change your batteries when the beacon is warm and dry. My personal theory is that opening the beacon to change the batteries when there is a big temperature difference is a BAD IDEA (i.e. the beacon is freezing cold and you walk inside a warm building to change the batteries). Before you open your beacon, allow it to warm up to/above room temperature. Do not leave it frozen in the car in your backpack all night, then at the trailhead with the car all hot and humid swap the batteries — this will encourage condensation.
I know that in the past I have put batteries into beacons in the field outside while it is snowing. This is certainly a bad idea, and maybe how I messed up one beacon.
My personal habit now: I remove the batteries in June when the season is over, inspect, and leave the beacon open for a day to give it a chance to dry out, then leave the batteries out and close it up till next winter. I put fresh new batteries in the next year. I inspect the battery terminals each time I open it. If I was out more, I might also check it mid season.
Kevin is a long time Colorado backcountry & XC skier who is avoiding avalanche terrain until conditions significantly improve — hopefully in March.