Battery life (and its synonym battery lifetime) has two meanings for rechargeable batteries but only one for non-chargeables. For rechargeables, it can mean either the length of time a device can run on a fully charged battery or the number of charge/discharge cycles possible before the cells fail to operate satisfactorily. For a non-rechargeable these two lives are equal since the cells last for only one cycle by definition. (The term shelf life is used to describe how long a battery will retain its performance between manufacture and use.) Available capacity of all batteries drops with decreasing temperature. In contrast to most of today's batteries, the Zamboni pile, invented in 1812, offers a very long service life without refurbishment or recharge, although it supplies current only in the nanoamp range. The Oxford Electric Bellhas been ringing almost continuously since 1840 on its original pair of batteries, thought to be Zamboni piles.
Disposable batteries typically lose 8 to 20 percent of their original charge per year when stored at room temperature (20–30 °C). This is known as the "self-discharge" rate, and is due to non-current-producing "side" chemical reactions that occur within the cell even when no load is applied. The rate of side reactions is reduced for batteries are stored at lower temperatures, although some can be damaged by freezing.
Old rechargeable batteries self-discharge more rapidly than disposable alkaline batteries, especially nickel-based batteries; a freshly charged nickel cadmium (NiCd) battery loses 10% of its charge in the first 24 hours, and thereafter discharges at a rate of about 10% a month. However, newer low self-discharge nickel metal hydride (NiMH) batteries and modern lithium designs display a lower self-discharge rate (but still higher than for primary batteries).