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Real-Time Clock/Nonvolatile RAM (CMOS RAM) Batteries

Power Supply Reference: Consumption, Savings, And More

Most PCs have a special type of chip in them that combines a real-time clock (RTC) with at least 64 bytes (including 14 bytes of clock data) of nonvolatile RAM (NVRAM) memory. This chip is officially called the RTC/NVRAM chip, but it is often referred to as the CMOS or CMOS RAM chip because the type of chip used is produced using a CMOS Complementary Metal-Oxide Semiconductor (CMOS) process. CMOS design chips are known for low power consumption. This special RTC/NVRAM chip is designed to run off a battery for several years.

The original chip of this type was the Motorola MC146818, which was used in the IBM AT dating from August 1984. Although the chips used today have different manufacturers and part numbers, they all are designed to be compatible with this original Motorola part. Most modern motherboards have the RTC/NVRAM integrated in the motherboard chipset South Bridge or I/O Controller Hub (ICH) component, meaning no separate chip is required.

The clock enables software to read the date and time and preserves the date and time data even when the system is powered off or unplugged. The NVRAM portion of the chip has another function: It is designed to store the basic system configuration, including the amount of memory installed, types of disk drives installed, PnP device configuration, power-on passwords, and other information. Although some chips have been used that store up to 4KB or more of NVRAM, most motherboard chipsets with integrated RTC/NVRAM incorporate 256 bytes of NVRAM, of which the clock uses 14bytes. The system reads this information every time you power it on.

Modern CMOS Batteries

Motherboard NVRAM (CMOS RAM) batteries come in many forms. Most are of a lithium design because they last 2–5 years or more. I have seen systems with conventional alkaline batteries mounted in a holder; these are much less desirable because they fail more frequently and do not last as long. Also, they are prone to leak, and if a battery leaks on the motherboard, the motherboard can be severely damaged. By far, the most commonly used battery for motherboards today is the coin cell, mounted in a holder that is part of the motherboard. Two main types of coin cells are used, differing in their chemistry. Most use a manganese dioxide (Mn02) cathode, designated by a CR prefix in the part number; others use a carbon monoflouride (CF) cathode, designated by a BR prefix in the part number. The CR types are more plentiful (and thus easier to get) and offer slightly higher capacity. The BR types are useful for higher-temperature operation (above 60°C or 140°F).

Because the CR series is cheaper and easier to obtain, it is generally what you will find in a PC. The other digits in the battery part number indicate the physical size of the battery. For example, the most common type of lithium coin cell used in PCs is the CR2032, which is 20 mm in diameter (about the size of a quarter) and 3.2 mm thick and uses a manganese dioxide cathode. These are readily available at electronics supply stores, camera shops, and even drugstores. The following figure shows a cutaway view of a CR2032 lithium coin cell battery.

Cutaway view of a CR2032 lithium coin cell.Cutaway view of a CR2032 lithium coin cell.

The table below lists the specifications of the common 20 mm diameter lithium coin cell batteries you might find in a PC.

Common 20 mm Lithium Coin Cell Specifications
Voltage (V)Capacity (mAh) Diameter (mm) Height (mm)
BR = Carbon monoflouride (CF) cathode         CR = Manganese dioxide (Mn02) cathode

Estimated battery life can be calculated by dividing the battery capacity by the average current required. For example, a typical CR2032 battery is rated 220 mAh (milliamp hours), and the RTC/NVRAM circuit in most current motherboard chipsets draws 5 µA (microamps) with the power off. Battery life can therefore be calculated as follows:

220 000 µAh ÷ 5 µA = 44 000 hours = 5 years

If a thinner (and lower-capacity) battery such as the CR2025 is used, battery life will be shorter:

165 000 µAh ÷ 5 µA = 33 000 hours = 3.7 years

Battery life starts when the system is first assembled, which can be several months or more before you purchase the system, even if it is new. Also, the battery might be partially discharged before it is installed in the system; higher temperatures both in storage and in the system can contribute to shorter battery life. All these reasons and more can cause battery life to be less than what might be indicated by calculation.

As the battery drains, output voltage drops somewhat. Lower battery voltage can impair the accuracy of the RTC. Most lithium coin cell batteries are rated at 3 V; however, actual readings on a new battery are usually higher. If your system clock seems inaccurate (it runs slow, for example), check the voltage on the CMOS battery. The highest accuracy is obtained if the battery voltage is maintained at 3.0 V or higher. Lithium batteries normally maintain a fairly steady voltage until they are nearly fully discharged, whereupon the voltage quickly drops. If you check the battery voltage and find it is below 3.0 V, consider replacing the battery, even if it is before the intended replacement time.

Obsolete or Unique CMOS Batteries

Although most modern systems use 3.0 V coin cells, older systems have used a variety of battery types and voltages over the years. For example, some older systems have used 3.6 V, 4.5 V, and 6 V types as well. If you are replacing the battery in an older machine, be sure your replacement is the same voltage as the one you removed from the system. Some motherboards can use batteries of several voltages, and you use a jumper or switch to select the various settings. If you suspect your motherboard has this capability, consult the documentation for instructions on changing the settings. Of course, the easiest thing to do is to replace the existing battery with another of the same type.

Some systems over the years have used a special type of chip that actually has the battery embedded within it. These are made by several companies, including Dallas Semiconductor and Benchmarq. These chips are notable for their long lives. Under normal conditions, the integral battery lasts for 10 years—which is, of course, longer than the useful life of the system. If your system uses one of the Dallas or Benchmarq modules, the battery and chip must be replaced as a unit because they are integrated. Most of the time, these chip/battery combinations are installed in a socket on the motherboard just in case a problem requires an early replacement. You can get new modules directly from the manufacturers for $18 or less, which is much more expensive than the coin-type lithium battery found in most modern systems. In fact, due to their expense and the fact that most motherboard chipset manufacturers have integrated the RTC/NVRAM functionality into the motherboard chipset, few if any modern PCs use these chip/battery modules.

Some systems do not use a battery. Hewlett-Packard, for example, includes a special capacitor in some of its systems that is automatically recharged anytime the system is plugged in. The system does not have to be running for the capacitor to charge; it only has to be plugged in. If the system is unplugged, the capacitor powers the RTC/NVRAM chip for up to a week or more. If the system remains unplugged for longer than that, the NVRAM information is lost. In that case, these systems can reload the NVRAM from a backup kept in a special flash ROM chip contained on the motherboard. The only pieces of information that are actually missing when you repower the system are the date and time, which you have to re-enter. By using the capacitor combined with an NVRAM backup in flash ROM, these systems have a reliable solution that lasts indefinitely.

Many older systems use a separate battery that plugs in via a cable or that can even be directly soldered into the motherboard (mostly older, obsolete systems). For those older systems with the battery soldered in, a spare battery connector usually exists on the motherboard where you can insert a conventional plug-in battery if the original ever fails.

CMOS Battery Troubleshooting

Symptoms that indicate that the battery is about to fail include having to reset the clock on your PC every time you shut down the system (especially after moving it) and problems during the system’s POST, such as drive-detection difficulties. If you experience problems such as these, you should make note of your system’s CMOS settings and replace the battery as soon as possible.

Caution: When you replace a PC battery, be sure you get the polarity correct; otherwise, you will damage the RTC/NVRAM (CMOS) chip, which is normally integrated into the motherboard chipset. Because the chip is soldered onto most motherboards, this can be an expensive mistake! The coin cell battery holder on the motherboard is normally designed so that the positive of the battery should be facing up. Older motherboards may use a plug-in battery, the connections for which are normally keyed.

When you replace a battery, in most cases the existing data stored in the NVRAM is lost. Sometimes, however, the data remains intact for several minutes (I have observed NVRAM retain information with no power for an hour or more), so if you make the battery swap quickly, the information in the NVRAM might be retained. Just to be sure, I recommend that you record all the system configuration settings stored in the NVRAM by your system Setup program. In most cases, you should run the BIOS Setup program and copy or print out all the screens showing the various settings. Some Setup programs offer the capability to save the NVRAM data to a file for later restoration if necessary.

Tip: If your system BIOS is password-protected and you forget the password, one possible way to bypass the block is to remove the battery for a few minutes and then replace it. This resets the BIOS to its default settings, removing the password protection.

After replacing a battery, power up the system and use the Setup program to check the date and time setting and any other data that was stored in the NVRAM.

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  • 1 Hide
    de5_Roy , January 11, 2012 4:07 AM
    very informative!
  • 0 Hide
    palladin9479 , January 11, 2012 4:47 AM
    Holy cow. Thanks for that Asus PSU link. I now know what's causing my system instability.

    AMD Phenom II x4 980BE OC'd
    4 x 4GB DDR3-1600 memory
    2x NVidia GTX-580 SLI'd
    4x SATA HDD's
    7x FANs (Water cooled system)

    Comes to 1150W recommended. I have a Corsair HX-1000 1000W PSU.
  • 0 Hide
    sincreator , January 11, 2012 4:57 AM
    Still running a Thermaltake 750w toughpower here. Been 5/6 years now. Man this PSU has seen some upgrades. lol. I'll probally buy another toughpower/Corsair sometime in the near future.(If this one ever dies. lol)
  • -4 Hide
    Dacatak , January 11, 2012 5:41 AM
    Still using the same Enermax Liberty 500W from 2006 for my new Sandy Bridge upgrade with GTX 560Ti.
    The only reason you'd need more than 500W is if you need to power more than one GPU.

    Of course, as stated in the article, not all 500W PSUs are equal. The Enermax Liberty was among the best 500W PSUs in its day, and its quality is still exceptional even by today's standards.
    It has dual 12V rails with 22A on each with a combined output of 32A total. Most of the dual-rail 500W PSUs sold nowadays max out at 18A per rail.

    The Enermax was definitely ahead of its time, and in general, PSUs sold directly by their manufacturer (OEMs such as Enermax, FSP, Kingwin, Seasonic) tend to be of superior quality than those sold by third-party rebranders (Antec, OCZ, Thermaltake, Corsair, etc.).
  • 7 Hide
    cumi2k4 , January 11, 2012 8:22 AM
    Was wondering about power cycling and thermal shock... The article said that thermal shock from powering on & off can cause deterioration in a system. You suggest S3 (Suspend to Ram), but does this also cause thermal shock to the system when resuming from sleep mode?
  • 2 Hide
    lordvj , January 11, 2012 11:59 AM
    ^ this. was wondering the same thing
  • 2 Hide
    jaquith , January 11, 2012 2:37 PM
    Great article and thanks, it'll 'hopefully' make my job easier in the Forum and stop the silly arguments I have recommending PSU's. I really wish folks would stop skimping on their PSU's on nice systems.

    Another important point that folks have a tendency to forget is 'electrolytic capacitor aging' which over time takes their once 650W and after a year or so reduces it to 520W~500W aka Capacitor Aging.

    Great PSU Sizer ->
    100% CPU Utilization (TDP)
    100% System Load
    30%~35% for Capacitor Aging
  • 0 Hide
    zak_mckraken , January 11, 2012 2:40 PM
    @cumi2k4 and lordvj : We can only assume it does cause a thermal shock, since only the RAM retains power in S3 mode. The other unpowered components thus cool down during stand by mode, like a regular shutdown.

    Very informative article by the way!
  • 1 Hide
    TeraMedia , January 11, 2012 2:40 PM

    Yeah, me too! I had significantly underbudgeted power for fans (9), ODD/HDDs (8) and USB devices (3), and was going nuts trying to figure out why the system was unstable at times. I thought I had a bad MoBo, or HDDs, or GPU, or ??!?!@#$? Now I know.
  • 1 Hide
    xenol , January 11, 2012 3:04 PM
    I'm kind of suspect about the ASUS power supply link. It tells me for my old system, I should get a 600W power supply but I ran a 500W on it for years without problem.
  • 0 Hide
    Onus , January 11, 2012 3:35 PM
    The statement about third party rebranders depends on who the OEM is. If Seasonic or Delta makes it (e.g. most Antec units), it is going to be a good PSU. Many Corsair and XFX are made by Seasonic too. Channel Well, Sirtec, and some others have some units that aren't so great.

    I found the article of some interest (and will revisit the sleep settings on my own system), but some of it was also years out of date. That's probably hard to avoid on a writing project of this magnitude.
  • 5 Hide
    chaz_music , January 11, 2012 3:38 PM
    Good collection of interesting PSU topics. I especially liked the ACPI information. I have several comments and suggestions to change in the article though. I work in the PSU industry and can shed some light on a few issues.

    On efficiency, most people leave out the fact that we tend to use air conditioning here in the USA a good part of the year. Here in the mid Atlantic, we tend to use A/C for about ~ 7 months annually. This adds a thermal penalty to any heat that you dump into the office/home air during those months. With most A/C systems, the cost to remove 1W of heat is an additional 0.5W of A/C power (50% overhead). Taking the above numbers and some rounding, I use an overhead rating of 30% total for any heat dumped into my home / office. So take your power loss numbers and multiply by 1.30 to get the total cost impact to your wallet. This also should be done for using CFL and LED lighting. They are not allowed to use A/C cost in their advertising, so the public does not get to see the true possible savings.

    There are several types of UPS systems that you should write about. The one you outlined is called a double conversion unit, which is always processing the power to give a clean regulated sine wave output. These are the least efficient and most expensive though. Double conversion is always taking the AC input, making DC, and using a PWM inverter to make regulated AC again for the output. Double conversion efficiencies are typically around 88-90% efficient, so this can impact you total system efficiency and operational costs. A cheaper UPS is the standby type, which allows the raw utility power to go straight to the load with some light duty surge clamping in between. When the input power voltage goes out of bounds, there is a switch over that is usually around 4-8msec which is faster than the PSU hold up time of 20msec. Since normal operation is straight pass through, the usual efficiency is close to 100% (minus the UPS internal power needs and charging). Note though that some UPS systems are crap and can use upwards to 100W just being plugged in.

    I did not follow your discussion on the alarm buzzer indicating overcharge, which should never happen in any UPS. Most modern UPS system implement a battery test to make sure that the battery capacity and internal resistance is able to hold up the load. If the battery fails, they set off the buzzer. In almost all UPS systems, a buzzer alarm is critical - something is wrong. Some UPS systems also monitor the ground feed continuity and will alarm if the input feed ground starts to float making the UPS and the load unsafe to touch.

    The UPS output waveforms are not all sine wave. Often the double conversion types are sine wave, adding to their cost. The standby UPS systems are usually step wave which is also called quasi-sine which is marketing term for step wave (to confuse the buyer). Most PC loads and monitors work fine with step wave (and are even more efficient on step wave!), although some PFC PSUs have problems. Magnetic loads can have real heartburn with step wave (motors, transformers) due to high losses and non-sinusoid voltage waveform effects.

    Ferroresonant transformers are good voltage regulators, but the way they work is very lossy. A good ferro will only run around 90% efficiency. If your load is attached to a ferro, you are adding another power loss in your system. In my opinion, you are better off spend a few more dollars and getting a UPS (which there are ferro types still out there also).

    There is no mention of oversizing your PSU also. Many HTPC and SOHO/home server needs are on 24/7 so power usage and efficiency are paramount to the cost of use / ownership. If you install an oversized PSU, you are taking a efficiency hit (for most brands) that increases your energy usage. The 80 Plus standards do not test below 20% load, so the efficiency of most PSU designs drop off quickly below 20% load. I have seen several that are below 50% with 10% loading. A good analogy on oversizing that I have used before is thinking about car engines. You cannot get a V8 car engine to run as efficiently as a 4 cylinder due to the physics (more friction/mass, etc.). That same effect occurs in a PSU. Larger magnetics, power devices, and other overhead lowers the efficiency at low power. proper sizing can save a good bit of money. Just don't get it too small, especially thinking about system start up (HDD spin up, fans, CPU local PSUs ramping up, etc.).

    You comment on thermal shock is great, but there are many other factors to consider in reliability. Spinning down any HDD and fan loads reduces bearing wear for those mechanical parts. But keeping the main motherboard PCB powered and some operation continuing also helps with reliability. The minor amount of heat that is generated helps keep the PCB dry (PCB material is hydroscopic!), which one major part of the high voltage area in a PSU failing after a long storage (like right after purchase) causing a DOA. And as others pointed out in the comments, allowing the system to go into a sleep state will also cause a cool down thermal shock. The biggest problem with thermal shock is that it break solder joints and helps break bond wires/connections in ICs. It also speeds up electrolytic cap leaking and shortens the life. Does anyone remember the motherboard cap failure from a few years ago?

    The absolute largest cause of computer failures is caused by ESD damage. The data from companies that keep statistics on this unanimously show this as a fact, but the PC enthusiast industry does not work to educate the end users of this well at all. In the electronics industry as a whole, ESD accounts for nearly 55-60% of all failures! This includes component suppliers, etc. So if you want a great topic for a future article, tackle ESD. It is real and it is very costly when ignored. Ever had a PC part that was DOA, i.e., that just "did not work at all" when powered up the first time and would not work at all? Good chance it was ESD.

    Thanks for the article.
  • 3 Hide
    george21546 , January 11, 2012 3:52 PM
    Buy a power meter kill-o-watt comes to mind. Cost 15-20 and will tell you amps, watts, power factor and cycles per second. Best of all it will measure watts over time so you can check how much your system is using in each of it's states. I like to oversize power supplies by 25% unless upgrades are planned.
  • 0 Hide
    chris maple , January 11, 2012 6:48 PM
    The low ends of the ranges shown are too high. Discrete video cards are available that use less than 10 watts, same for hard drives. Motherboards rarely exceed 25 watts.
    My system has an Intel Core I7-870, discrete video card, 2x2G RAM, 2 1Tbyte hard drives, an SSD and a DVD burner. It usually runs at 70 watts and has never exceeded 200 watts driven hard.
  • 0 Hide
    ethaniel , January 11, 2012 8:49 PM
    I thought it was only -5% tolerance for the -/+12v rail. Good data.
  • 0 Hide
    BlackHawk91 , January 11, 2012 10:22 PM
    Would enabling the S3 sleep mode interfere with OC settings and/or performance?
  • 0 Hide
    hardcore_gamer , January 12, 2012 12:12 PM
    palladin9479Holy cow. Thanks for that Asus PSU link. I now know what's causing my system instability.AMD Phenom II x4 980BE OC'd4 x 4GB DDR3-1600 memory2x NVidia GTX-580 SLI'd4x SATA ......

    You have a serious bottleneck there bro ;) . Time to upgrade the CPU.
  • 0 Hide
    g-unit1111 , January 12, 2012 10:50 PM
    palladin9479Holy cow. Thanks for that Asus PSU link. I now know what's causing my system instability.AMD Phenom II x4 980BE OC'd4 x 4GB DDR3-1600 memory2x NVidia GTX-580 SLI'd4x SATA HDD's1x SATA DVDRW7x FANs (Water cooled system)Comes to 1150W recommended. I have a Corsair HX-1000 1000W PSU.

    Yeah... that floored me as well, mine is 900 minimum.

    1 x AMD Phenom II X6 1055T OC'd
    2 x Geforce GTX 550TI
    4 x 4GB DDR3
    1 x SSD
    2 x HD
    2 x DVD-RW
    5 x CPU fans (double heat sink)

    I know now what's causing most of my heat issues is that I'm running an underpowered PSU (Corsair 750). I will definitely make this my next upgrade.

    And that thing about putting systems to sleep, I'll do that more often.
  • 0 Hide
    palladin9479 , January 12, 2012 11:57 PM
    Remember that ASUS link is calculating the approximate maximum power draw possible on your system. Basically with everything going full blast which doesn't happen too often.

    PSU's in general start to get stressed once their over 80% of their rated output. Prolonged stress can cause components to wear out much earlier then before. This is why a PSU may be fine for awhile but then start to have random issues six months or more after installation. I just didn't think I was burning that much juice, but now it seems I am.
  • 0 Hide
    A Bad Day , January 13, 2012 2:51 AM
    Just a question, is it worth watercooling a PSU? I know it would boost efficiency and allow it to put out higher watt than specified, but is it worth it?
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