Adventures & Misadventures of an EV in the Country (Part 3)

May 20, 2015

Blogger Joe Lado encounters range anxiety.

Welcome back to my adventure of owning a battery electric car in the country. In the last blog I left you with my surprise that the Leaf didn't take as long as I thought it would have using a regular household outlet. The Leaf charged to 83 miles on the range estimator overnight. I had hoped to take the Leaf to houses on my town's local garage sale event publicized in the local newspaper and set to start the day after I brought home the EV, but, when I plugged the Leaf into the regular outlet the charge time indicator on the Leaf said that it would take 24 hours to fully charge. I didn't expect to be able to use the EV to go to all of the garage sales I wanted to the following day, however, the next morning there seemed to be plenty of range for garage sale shopping, some 83 miles range, so, we ended up using the Leaf.

Garage sale shopping is almost ideal driving for an EV with regenerative brakes, short trips with lots of stoping and starting. We shopped the better part of the day trying to hit as many garages as possible. I got two car jack stands that were nearly new for 8 bucks, a nearly new plainer/joiner for $20 at the Knights of Columbus, a hand cranked hole maker for ice fishing for $3 and a fire extinguisher that fit in a bag filled with goods, the bag being $5. Garage sales are a great way to get good gear that people haven't used for little money. Oh, and my wife picked up a bunch of stuff too. This idea of a communal day for garage and yard sales is really a good one and fun. After being out all day going house to house we still had 40+ miles or range left on the car when we got home. First thing I did was plug-in.

The following day it was more of the same only the Leaf was fully charged at 93 miles range when we set out in the morning. Not as much in the way of tools and power tools the following day, however, my wife managed to find some things. We shopped going house to house until about 3 pm and then went home. I plugged in as soon as we got home.

This plugging in as soon as I get home is a habit I picked up from owning the 50 mile range EV. It is a habit easily established that works well for all electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids. One of the advantages of owning a plug-in vehicle is that “fueling” is done at home. Since, charging takes time on a regular outlet and most people want to have the most range available to them, keeping their vehicle plugged in is the best way to achieve that goal. It also relieves you of the stress of having to remember later on whether you have plugged in your vehicle or not. If you are in a place where electricity costs more during peak hours, most electric cars and some charging stations have charge timers, so you can charge when rates are lower. The Nissan, Leaf has this feature. I experimented with my converted Fiero using a Christmas light timer that worked quite well. So, for me, whenever my vehicle is home it is on the charger.

At this point I have had my Nissan, Leaf for several weeks and it is settling into our life quite easily. Since I am an experienced plug-in vehicle owner, the process of adjusting to an EV this time seems to be going much faster. I have already established that I don't need to think about range when going to our small country town, which is walking distance away. There I can drive from place to place, store to store and know with confidence that I will always have enough juice to get me home. Next we ventured to a town that was 15 miles away. My wife had established with her father that nearly every Sunday, they would go to a particular restaurant for Sunday brunch. We have sort of established the same routine as well. I knew we wouldn't have a problem doing this, but I did want to see how much range on the indicator the trip would eat up. The trip ate very little in terms of mileage. We went there and back with some 46 miles left on the range indicator. We then took a trip to a town 20 miles away with big box stores and made it home easily. Little by little, these relatively nearby towns become inventoried in my EV brain as places we can go to without any real need for planning. The Leaf has the range to get there, drive around and comeback home with no problem.

Of course, to enhance the experiment and test the boundaries of my EV's usefulness I needed to test further. I am a regular customer of a particular grocery store chain. There are certain foods that I almost need that I can only get by going to that store. There was one of these stores in a town that was approximately 40 miles away. To get those foods on a regular basis meant that I needed to go to that town on a regular basis. This meant that the specialty grocery store town, in order for it to become part of the inventory of places I could go with my EV, needed to be tested as a destination. On a windy Wednesday we headed towards that town. The journey there would have a large portion of the driving done on a freeway. First thing that was bad luck was that the trip to the town would be westward. The wind that day was blowing particular hard and constant from the west. The weather was also cooler than normal for this time of year. Cooler temperatures typically lower battery range. Even though the range indication was 90 miles when we left home driving into the wind dropped the estimator's range quickly. When we got on the freeway all the cars and trucks were moving at 70 plus miles an hour. Just to avoid getting hit from behind I had to travel at least 65 miles an hour. Trying to maintain that speed while heading into the wind made the miles drop fast on the estimator. I moved into the slow lane to try to slow down, but of course some jerk hangs on my back bumper. When I looked in the rear view mirror the driver was gesticulating wildly as if angry that I was driving in the slow lane at the posted maximum speed limit. I just couldn't find a way to slow down.

When we got to the town we stopped to eat lunch and the range indicator said 37 miles. I was genuinely worried whether we were going to make it back home without having to finding a charging station along the way. I got out my smartphone, turned on my charging station finder app and found that there was one charging station at a Chevy dealer between where we were and home. Hopefully the dealer wouldn't prevent us from charging a Nissan, Leaf there. There was also an outlet at a convenience store gas station that was available for public charging on our way home. My wife and I also inventoried relatives that lived along the way. We were experiencing real range anxiety, but felt we did have options to get back home, even if it might take us a while to get there. With that we went grocery shopping.

On our way back home, when we pulled onto the interstate I noticed that the cars and trucks weren't traveling at the break neck speeds we had experienced getting to the store. This made it easier for me to slow down and travel in the slow lane. Second, the wind was still blowing, but we were traveling from west to east and so the wind was pushing us. There must have been a slight incline beyond the river crossing when going to the store probably eating up range, now on our way back we at least started the trip home going down hill. We also had the good fortune of having slower moving 18 wheelers traveling with us in the slow lane that helped break up the wind in front of us. The range indicator began to show more miles. My wife was the first to notice it and announced the climbing miles with surprise and laughter. We went from 37 and topped out at 42 before it started going down again. I was using all of my hypermiling techniques and they seemed to be helping.

I don't know if drafting helps in highway driving that much, but the way I see it, it has to. Drafting is a driving technique that race car drivers use to lower fuel consumption and increase the speed of their vehicles around a track. The technique is to get close in behind another vehicle so that the first vehicle pushes the air in front of it out of the way and the second vehicle doesn't have to spend the energy caused by the wind resistance to move through it. The first vehicle gets the benefit of not being pulled back by the air being sucked in behind it. It in essence makes the two vehicles act as one. The movement of the vehicles traveling together as one reduces the strain on the engines dramatically, allowing both vehicles to go faster and use far less fuel since the demands on the engines are shared between the two vehicles. Drafting on a highway is not safe and no one should do this on a public highway. However, my Leaf is a very small car and big 18 wheel trucks populate our highways very frequently. I have found that driving behind 18 wheelers at a safe distance tends to add range, especially trucks with large flat front bumpers that are relatively low to the ground.

By the time the range indicator reached 42 miles we were at the big box town that was 20 miles away from home. We got off the big highway and were using smaller roads with slower speeds after that. The range indicator went down very slowly from there on allowing us to arrive home with nearly 20 miles on the indicator. Crazy. I plugged in, unloaded the groceries, went inside my home and sat down to think about what had just happened.

Given the number of miles I was left with when I got home I wondered whether to place the specialty grocery store town inside of the inventory of places we could go without thinking. My conclusion was that I have to do a little bit of road thinking and preparation before going to that town, however, it was doable. Preparation for going there would be, first, to always have a full charge before going, second, go the speed limit and don't care what petrol crazed drivers are doing, third, use hypermiling techniques of coasting down hills and feathering the accelerator peddle to use as little electricity as possible, fourth, don't use the climate controls unless it is unbearably hot or cold and fifth, use safe distance drafting techniques behind large trucks and other large vehicles to increase range. I figured that going to the specialty grocery store town must have been much more uphill than down and the freakish combination of high winds and speeding traffic, plus the cooler than normal weather fooled the indicator into showing a much lower range. I am going to have to make this trip several times before really knowing whether it is a place easily attainable with my EV, but I plan to make the trip again and again until I know for sure. Stay tuned as the adventure continues.

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