Saturday, May 24, 2014

Fill 'er up!

It took a while, almost four months and over 3400 miles, but it finally happened... the low fuel light came on in the Volt. Just prior to the warning, the dash indicated that I still had 37 miles of gas range left, so for the most part I've been ignoring the warning the last couple of weeks. I've only needed maybe two to seven miles of non-EV driving every time I drove home from work on a full charge, so I figured I'd use up as much of the old gas as possible before filling up, and perhaps wait for gas prices to start dropping.

I could have gone another couple of weeks, but I ended up stopping at a local Shell station last week to use the opportunity to get my eleven-year-old kid to pump gas for me. It's about time he starts earning his keep around here. He's expensive... when we go to Carl's Jr or Jack-in-the-Box after his weeknight baseball games, the boy orders something that has at least two beef patties, multiple strips of bacon, and a couple of slices of cheese, usually about five bucks or more, and I order two tacos for 99 cents. Oh, and he has to have fries too, and that's another buck. 

"Ya know, for less than six bucks, Jolt will take me all the way to work and back. That's like 80 miles. So, after you eat that burger and fries, are you gonna carry me 80 miles so we can give Jolt a rest?" I asked, as we wait at the drive-thru window for his exquisite cuisine to be meticulously prepared.

"Nope," he responded, staring out the windshield at nothing in particular.

"Okay, how about one-way, just to work? It's downhill."

"Uh, no..." he replied, still staring straight ahead.

Jolt, from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
"Fine." I conceded. He smirked as he turned his eyes toward me. He's starting to get the hang of my warped sense of humor. It was more fun when he took such requests seriously, but I guess we all have to grow up sometime. He's still into Marvel superheroes and Transformers, which is why our Volt is named "Ghost of Jolt", or just "Jolt". He really wanted us to get a blue one, a replica of the Volt-based Autobot in "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen". However he knew that my obsession with white cars was unbreakable, so he didn't argue. Despite getting the wrong color, Jolt is still his favorite vehicle in the family fleet.

So I figured he wouldn't mind pumping gas for Jolt. In fact, he was pretty excited about it. We were on the way back from school after dropping off his science project, titled "At Which Angle Does a NERF Gun Shoot the Farthest?" (45 degrees, in case you're wondering). The Shell station was halfway between school and home, which presented a perfect opportunity to train the boy. But there were problems. The gas door wouldn't open, despite repeated attempts at punching the button and the dash indicating that Jolt was ready for refueling.

"Are you sure it goes here?" asked my beloved son, pointing at the Jolt's right rear quarter. He did something back there and then yelled, "Okay I got it!". By now a couple of folks were staring with curiosity. I nonchalantly got out of the car and walked over to the pump, where I slid my credit card and had him select "V-Power" and grab the nozzle. He stuck it in Jolt's filler and pulled the trigger, but the pump clicked off immediately. "Let go of the trigger and pull it again," I advised him. He did this a number of times, but the pump would just click. Click, click, click... like a six-shooter fresh out of bullets. "Let me try," I said, and he moved aside.

I shoved the nozzle farther into the filler, fighting against the vapor recovery sleeve all the way. Although not visible, I'm thinking that they used a spring from a coilover shock made for offroad vehicles to guarantee that this damn sleeve seats against the filler so tight that not one single molecule of noxious vapor escapes into the atmosphere. I pull the trigger a few times, the pump still clicks off.

"Are you sure it goes here?" he asked, again.

I sighed. "Yes," I replied, but I don't think he believed me.

By now, the same people that were staring looked more curious and actually seemed a tad bit concerned. Others started to notice our battle with the nozzle. I was afraid that a crowd would soon form and someone with an iPhone would post the whole ordeal and go viral. Some were probably wondering if we'd all be blown to smithereens in a few seconds as this clueless idiot with an electric car pumps 91-octane into a charge port that's expecting 240 volts. I actually doubted myself for a moment when my son questioned my judgement. Fortunately after finding the perfect angle, I got the pump to actually do some pumping. I let my son take over, but he didn't have the strength to fight the vapor recovery sleeve for very long. So I had to finish the job as he watched the display and asked him tell me when we were close to eight gallons. I didn't trust the pump to stop automatically when the tank was full since we were constantly fighting it and it was still clicking off every so often, even at the right angle and at a slower flow. At just short of eight gallons we declared victory, so my son capped the filler and shut the gas door as I hung the nozzle back on the pump.

"Well that was fun, wasn't it?" I asked.

"Yeah," he responded, chuckling as he smirked. "Thanks, Dad. I love you."

"I love you too, boy."

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Heat Is On...

"Wow, even your car was bitching that it was hot today," she said as she peered over my shoulder at a picture I took of the Focus Electric's dashboard. I chuckled. My wife can't stand this kind of weather, and neither does the Focus Electric, nor any other electric vehicle for that matter. 

It didn't feel that hot, really. Even after a brisk five minute walk in direct sunlight to my fully charged Focus Electric, there wasn't a drop of sweat on my forehead. And yes, I was fully clothed, in a black short-sleeved polo and blue jeans. I guess it was a dry heat. So I was really surprised that the temp readout in the FFE was reporting that we were in 101-degree heat.

I was in a meeting at Cal State Northridge while my beloved Focus Electric was sucking up some free juice out of a Chargepoint EVSE on campus. After two hours, during a meeting break, I took the car off of the charger so others could also enjoy some of that free juice, and pulled into an empty parking spot that's been absorbing the heat all morning. After one more hour, we left campus fully charged in that 101-degree heat, and made a stop at a nearby gas station for a quick three-dollar car wash.

The warning message came up the instant I powered off at the gas station. Just for kicks, I cleared the message, powered back up, then shut down again. Same warning message reappeared. "Good," I muttered to myself. At least the behavior was consistent rather than sporadic, which in my mind proved that the car's complaint was legit. So I kept the car turned on while the foam and pulsating sprays of water washed off layers of tree pollen and road dust, instead of shutting down like I usually do. Keeping the car powered up, I postulated, would let the battery's thermal management system work on removing any heat that was soaked up by the battery while parked unplugged on hot asphalt for that last hour. After the quick wash, we headed to work, which was a good 15 degrees cooler than CSUN, so the warning message did not reappear for the rest of the day.

UPDATE: Turns out the warning message seems to be tied to the ambient temperature and not the battery temperature, so in hindsight I'm pretty sure I had nothing to worry about. See this post by michael on (thanks michael!). Equipped with an OBD scanner, he observed that in one case the battery temperature was in the low-80F range when the warning message popped up.

The user manuals for each of our electrics - a Focus Electric, a Volt, and a RAV4 EV - have something to say about parking in the hot sun - which is to plug in, if you can, while parked outdoors in hot weather. But none give any hint at what we should do if the opportunity to plug in just wasn't there.

Last summer I figured out a mitigation approach for parking outside on hot days that works quite well on the Focus - that is to keep the battery at less than full charge - at something like 80% or so - and remote start the car before the battery pack gets too warm. I first realized this might be an issue when, in the late evening following a hot 105-degree summer day, I noticed that the Focus Electric, while sitting on our driveway, was sending me email hourly since about 3pm telling me to plug it in. But instead of plugging in, I remotely started the car, then let it time out and shut down. That stopped the hourly email warnings; the theory is that the thermal management system (TMS) would kick in and bring the battery temp down to a level that was low enough to prevent the rest of the day's heat from elevating the battery temperature up to an alarming level. On subsequent 100+ degree days that summer, I kept the state of battery's state of charge at 50% to 80%  and remotely started the Focus Electric at  about 1pm-3pm, which ran the TMS for about ten minutes. I received no email alerts from the car on those days, so the scheme apparently worked.

The best practice, of course, is to keep the EV plugged in while parked in the driveway on days like this, but sometimes I forget to do that, and now I have a backup plan. Which did come in handy yesterday, since my Volt was sitting in the driveway, fully charged. So at about 3:00pm I jumped onto to remotely start the Volt an let it run for ten minutes, just for good measure. Probably really didn't need to do so, since the ambient was only 93F at home, not at 101F, and the Volt has a lot more buffer built into its battery management system than the Focus Electric - it only uses about 10.8kWh of the 16kWh battery's capacity (~65%), where the FFE seems to use a larger percentage - about 19.8 kWh of its 23kWh capacity (~85%), with most of that buffer allocated to prevent full discharge. Unfortunately the Volt doesn't seem to have the same warning capabilities as the FFE, so I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to know when the Volt thinks it's too hot outside. Fortunately, a member of wrote up a great article on this subject - quite impressive, with graphs and real data - which leads me to believe that the remote start scheme will work just fine for the Volt.

As for the RAV4 EV - I wasn't worried about that one this time, since my wife was out and about throughout the day, so its TMS was engaged a fair amount. And the RAV4 EV's "full" charge utilizes only 80% of its battery capacity, much less than the purported 90% of the Focus Electric's capacity utilization. I did remotely start it earlier in the week though, when the temps first started approaching 100F, just to be on the safe side.

So, long story short (yeah, too late like usual), it's best to keep your EV plugged in while parked in the hot sun, just like the manual says. If you can't do that, my advice is to try to keep the state of charge (SOC) under 80% (50% is optimum), and remotely start your EV and let it run for about ten minutes, before the battery temp is heat-soaked to an alarming level, which should be something less than 86F (read this article if you want to know why 86F and less than a 100% SOC is important). Finally, if you park in a spot that's been soaking up solar rays all morning, your battery's temperature could possibly reach an alarming level faster than if your EV was parked there all night and shading the ground below it all day, depending on how well the bottom of battery (or batteries, in the FFE's case) is insulated.

There are, of course, other religious beliefs that various early adopters follow to keep their batteries healthy well beyond the 8-year or 10-year / 100,000 mile warranty and to prevent degradation that's not covered as a warranty defect by the manufacturer. On one end, some folks do nothing because they believe that the TMS (if equipped) and battery management system are good enough, or they simply don't give a damn because they have a 36-month lease and in the end it's not their problem. On the other end, there are those that advise others, typically know-it-all evangelists that have yet to purchase or lease an EV, that will tell folks to move to another state or just forget about driving an EV in Southern California, Arizona, or any other arid climate. I say ignore the extremists, for there is a happy medium.