Getting Older

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It’s funny how much we dream about growing up as kids, only to then wish we would stop aging as adults. Toys R Us used to tell us that we shouldn’t want to grow up, and the stuck for a little while, but not for long. There are just too many benefits to being an adult! I like to think of cars in the same way. They get older, and show their age, sometimes well and sometimes not. I still remember my ’81 Honda Civic. I’d probably still be driving it I could, probably would have turned it into an electric car!

There’s no need for any electric car conversions anymore, thankfully. I like to refer to them as EVs (electric vehicles). I’ve been driving them for several years now and I’m never going back to gas, at least for my personal car. As amazing as they are, EVs do have potential issues as with any car. The main and most important one is the battery pack, which operates like a gas tank.

Maintenance and refueling is much cheaper in EVs, but if you end up having to replace the battery it can cost several thousands of dollars. Thankfully there are warranties that cover the batteries in case they fail or have unintended problems. But after several years of use, eventually the batteries will need to be replaced and that is going to cost something.

The photo up above is taken from my used 2013 Nissan LEAF, showing my mileage and my battery range. In the photo, my car has 76% charge. This is also expressed on the bars on the right of the photo, the long rectangular bars that hug the range estimator at 52 miles. What’s important for this discussion are the bars on the right of those, what we LEAFers “capacity bars.”

These bars in the Nissan LEAF tell the owner how the battery is aging. The LEAF, as with most EVs, have two batteries. A traditional 12volt battery powers most of the electronics in the car while the traction battery handles the action motion. The traction battery is actually made up of many small batteries similar to AA batteries. As the packs are used and recharged, the life of the traction battery is affected. On my car, you can see from the picture that I have lost one bar. I should have 12 bars total, instead of the 11 I currently have.

This means that I have less range than when the car was brand new. I’d guess at a full charge I have somewhere around 70 miles, down from 84 when the car was new. That’s a significant drop in miles, though should I lose another capacity bar, the range will not drop as much. That’s because the first bar represents much more of the capacity then the other bars.

If you have a new EV or bought a used one recently, here’s a few things you should know:

  • Never leave the battery at 100% for more than 3 hours or so as the battery will degrade faster if it sits at a full charge. Instead, charge to 80% or leave the car at a low-ish charge if you aren’t going to use it for a while.
  • Heat is bad for the battery. Try not to charge the car in extreme temperatures. For the LEAF, don’t charge if the battery temperature indicator is 7 bars.
  • Try to charge before the car gets into a low power state. To be safe, try not to get an EV lower than 20% charge regularly.

Automakers have different ways to deal with heat. For example, Ford uses liquid cooling for their Ford Focus EV. Nissan decided to not use any kind of cooling technology in order to save money. Instead, the automaker has relied on developing heat-resistant batteries.

The current LEAF battery pack is supposed to be very good in hot climates thanks to the chemistry they use. That’s good news for people who live in those areas. However, heating up the battery isn’t great, which is more likely to happen with rapid charging or by leaving the car outside during a hot day for a long time.

The other day, I noticed something surprising, my mom’s LEAF lost a capacity bar! It was surprising to me since she only has about 15k miles on the car and it’s a 2016 model. I think the culprit is bullet point one, leaving the car topped up at 100% for too long.

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When the original 2011 Nissan LEAF became available, Nissan told customers how to charge the car. The basic advice was to only charge to 100% when needed and stick to charge to 80% most of the time. This was believed to help keep the battery healthy and make it last longer. In my car, I can set it to only charge to 80% or to 100% if I want to. However, this feature was eliminated in the 2014 model year in order to boost the EPA estimated range of the car. (A few other small features were removed in the 2013 model year, sadly).

Now most customers are told not to worry about charging to 100% regularly. While the newer batteries in the LEAF can probably be charged to 100% frequently, they shouldn’t stay at that percentage for many hours. It’s a good thing Mom’s LEAF is a leased car, so she probably wont be keeping it at the end of the lease.

Even if you have an EV that doesn’t have an easy option to stop charging, it’s obvious that you can still unplug the car before it reaches a full charge. That might be a pain in the but, but some automakers allow you to stop charging by the push of a button on a smart phone app. And most EVs that I know of have no easy way to tell you how healthy the traction battery is, unlike the LEAF.

Overall, I’m happy with the direction Nissan has gone with EVs. I think it would be great if the automaker put the 80% charge option back into the cars, but it won’t stop me from sticking with Nissan, at least until I can afford a Tesla (though I’ll probably end up with both).

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