Battery Life

“So how much for a new battery?” That’s a question I get surprisingly often. No one asks me how much a new gas tank for my gas car would cost. Both store energy until the car’s engine needs it. I think the question comes from the fact that everyone has replaced batteries before. Batteries in toys, cell phones, laptops, etc. are replaced regularly. So, people tend to expect to have to replace the batteries in electric vehicles (EVs). Even worse, the lithium-ion batteries like those in the ever popular cell phones, laptops, tablets and EVs like our Leaf can be quite costly.

The batteries in an EV last longer than those in less expensive consumer products because of the systems put in place to protect them. The battery in our Leaf is expected to last 10-12 years. Nissan guarantees it against defectives for eight years. I’m happy to get ten years of life from a car so those figures work for me. I’m planning to replace the battery in our Leaf as often as I plan to replace the gas tank in our Camry – never.

So is that it? Not quite.

The amount of charge which a lithium-ion battery can hold gradually drops over years of use. Yup, they are not perfect. That means that the range of our Leaf will also gradually drop each year. “How fast is gradually?” you might well ask. It depends.

Nissan has a second warranty on the battery which provides some protection against this drop in capacity. They will replace the battery if it drops below 65.5% of its original capacity before five years of use (before eight years for the 2016 Leaf). That may not sound great. Even worse is that some Leaf owners have already experienced this level of battery degradation, especially those in very warm climates. That said, I doubt that many Canadian owners of a new Leaf, especially those in cooler climes like the Maritimes, will have to worry about this.

The batteries of all EVs will fade over time but the actual amount will be far less for our Leaf than that implied by Nissan’s warranty. Here’s why:

Canada is colder. Heat is the number one enemy of battery life. Most of the early Leaf battery failures and capacity losses happened in hot places like Arizona. Most of the time the temperature an EV battery has to endure in Canada is pretty benign except during summer heat waves. We do experience a temporary drop in range during our frigid winter days but, as a bonus, that winter chill also helps preserve the long-term capacity of the battery.

Few fill-ups. Keeping a battery fully charged or close to fully charged for an extended period can speed up battery capacity loss. We avoid this by normally waiting until night-time to charge and even then only charging the Leaf up to only 60-70%. That’s plenty of power for a day’s running around.

Driving style. Lee and I are pretty laid back drivers, for the most part. Slow starts, gradual stops and safe highway speeds. All of these reduce stress on the battery, and on the driver too!

The battery in our Leaf is currently at 94% after 18 months. Only a 6% loss makes me feel pretty optimistic since battery capacity loss typically starts fast then slows. Of course, eventually the capacity will drop so much that the Leaf won’t be able to comfortably make the trip from New Maryland to Saint John. That will be sad but the majority of our driving which is around town will remain unaffected. As mentioned above, we currently only charge the battery to 60-70%. Even a battery with only 60-70% of its capacity left will be quite fine for us. Based on our current experience, I’m expecting it will remain above 80% after 10 years of use in Fredericton. I’ll update you on the progress of our battery’s health/capacity as time goes on.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the current generation of the Leaf (2011-2016) relies on air cooling of the battery. Other EV manufacturers (Tesla, GM, Kia, etc), which started producing cars after the Leaf came out, use more effective methods based on liquid cooling. I anticipate that the next generation Leaf, which is expected in 2018, will also use liquid cooling for its battery. All of these EVs should do a much better job of retaining of battery capacity.

Finally, I know that we’ll have replaced our gas car with a 300+ km range EV long before we can’t get to Saint John in the Leaf. Remember my prediction for an affordable long range EV by June 2018? I’m still banking on it.

 

 

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In the driver’s seat

What’s it like driving the electric Leaf?

In a previous post I talked about why we like driving the Leaf.  But what if you got to jump into the driver’s seat of an electric car? Would you be able to drive it? Would it be as confusing as a fighter jet?

There are a few things which would be unfamiliar but you’d get the hang of them in no time.  Here’s a primer so you can be confident on your first drive. My pictures and examples are, of course, based on the Leaf but once you understand these you’ll be able to quickly figure them out on other EVs.

Charging

If you’re going to drive then first you need to fuel up.  In the EV world that means charging.  Here is the charger on the wall of our garage.

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You can kinda see towards the bottom of the picture how it’s plugged into a 50 amp NEMA 14-50 outlet (e.g. like a stove outlet) which we had an electrician install.  The charger has no buttons or controls but has a few lights to indicate whether it has power, is in use or has a basic problem (it never has).  We also have a portable 110 volt trickle charger which came with the Leaf. Just like the wall mounted charger it has no controls, it just needs to be plugged in.

Both chargers use the standard J1772 plug (pictured) to connect to the car. Most North American EVs use the same plug.  Very easy to use, push it into the car’s charging port until it clicks;  to remove press and hold the release button with your thumb and pull.

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Here is the charging outlet in the nose of the Leaf.

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The cover pops open just like the fuel tank cover on your gas car.  There are actually two outlets under the cover.  The orange covered one on the right is for the J1772 plug.  This gets used 99% of the time. The outlet on the left is for a CHADeMO plug which is used for fast charging (80% charge in less than 30 minutes).  There are only two CHADeMO fast chargers in Atlantic Canada at this point so we rarely get to use this outlet.

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All of the charging connections are “smart”.  The charging power is not turned on until the car tells the charger that it’s ready to charge.  The car actually has a conversation with the charger after the plug is plugged in and before the charger sends power down the cord to the car.  The car tells the charger whether it wants to charge and, if so, how much power to send. When the plug is removed from the car the conversation gets cut off so the charger automatically turns off the power.  Very safe!

The Dashboard

The dashboard has lots of information but no matter what I’m driving I primarily want to know two pieces of information: how fast I’m going and how much fuel I have left.  The speed is displayed in digits in the center of the top area, currently showing 0 k/h.  (Sorry for the fuzzy picture.  The display is actually very sharp and clear.)

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The amount of charge remaining is displayed on the right side in blue horizontal bars. When I snapped this picture eight of the twelve blue bars were lit so the battery is about two thirds full.

Of course, as a seasoned driver you may want to know a bit more about what’s going on. Here are some of the more interesting tidbits which are displayed in the above photo.

  • Battery Temperature.  A gas car shows you the temperature of the motor.  The Leaf display shows you the temperature of the battery in horizontal blue bars at the left side. The battery heats up when it is used and when it is charged.  If used heavily or charged quickly it can heat up a lot.  The car is smart enough to prevent heat from causing damage but it’s best to keep your battery in a moderate heat range (3-6 bars) if you can.
  • Power Indicator.  The power indicator is a series of circles running from left to right: four green then one white then nine blue.  The quicker you accelerate the more blue circles become highlighted. The faster you slow down using regenerative braking the more green circles get highlighted. So it’s a visual reminder of how much charge you’re burning through by stomping the accelerator and how much charge you’re restoring when you slow down.  It can be handy when you’re trying to drive conservatively to increase your mileage.
  • Charge Level.  In addition to the charge indicator on the right side the driver can also see the percent charge left on the battery. Basically the lower the charge the more interested you are in exactly how much is left.  The center of the display currently shows the battery is at 65% (although it’s hard to read due to picture quality).
  • Range Projection.  In a short range car it’s nice to know how many more kilometers you can drive before you run out of charge. The car uses the mileage of your last five trips and the amount of charge remaining to display an estimate of the remaining range on the right side next to the charge indicator bars.  It’s currently at 86 km.  It can be useful but best to take this number with a grain of salt.  Some Leaf drivers call this the Guess-o-meter.

 

The Controls

Steering wheel, accelerator pedal, brake pedal, etc., the basics are all what you’d expect with one minor exception:  the stick shift. All of the other stick shifts I’ve used stayed in the spot where I moved them.

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This one moves back to the same upright position every time you use it.  It initially feels a little weird so check out the shifting before you start driving.  It feels natural to us now but I’m still not sure why Nissan chose this design.

Regenerative Braking

Once you’re on the road, the smooth, quiet acceleration will take no getting used to at all. It’s immediate, consistent and predictable. The one thing which did take some practice to use well was regenerative braking.

When you remove your foot from the accelerator pedal of a gas car with an automatic transmission, the car slows down because you’re feeding less gas into the engine.  When you do this in an EV, it slows down because it’s using the forward motion to charge the battery a bit.  So a gas car uses less gas when slowing down but the Leaf actually recovers energy and puts it back into the battery!

So what does this have to do with driving the Leaf? So far we’re in “Drive” and it’s just feels like slowing down in a gas car. There is another gear in the Leaf called “B”. Not sure B stands for (Best? Bad-ass?) but it works just like Drive except when you release the accelerator pedal the you slow down much more quickly than in Drive.

After using “B” for awhile, we discovered that we were doing much of our braking without using the brake pedal. It’s a little hard to describe but having to move you foot to the brake pedal so much less is similar to the relief you get from using cruise control on a long highway drive: doesn’t seem like much on paper but I don’t want to drive a car without cruise control either.

Clear as mud? Well, experience it by test driving an EV or ask a friend to let you try out theirs. It’s a great feature.  In addition to making the Leaf even more fun to drive, it extends the range of the Leaf and extends the life of the brake pads for several years! I hope you try it.

Experience it

So now you know what you need to know to drive an electric car. Piece of cake. Get out and try one. As I’ve said before, once you go electric you’ll never go back!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leaving Gas Behind

So what would it take to go totally electric? We have our EV, our Leaf, but we still have our gas Camry for those longer road trips. Going “totally electric” means no longing owning, leasing or needing to rent a gas car.

Most of our driving is around town for which the Leaf is great.  For us to sell the Camry we’d need to be able to drive to Halifax, PEI, and Kitchener-Waterloo with the same or better convenience, cost and speed that the Camry provides.  Yes, we’d want to go other places too but chances are if those are doable then so is any other place we’d want to drive.

The Car

To do the job an electric car must have a range of at 300-400 km.  That would allow us to drive for 3-4 hours at the speed limit on any major highway.  For us that’s plenty since we tend to want to stop for stretch/coffee/washroom breaks that often.  The car also needs to able to recharge quickly, 15-30 minutes tops.  Our current stops take about 10-20 minutes so I’m allowing a little leeway here.

What electric car could do this?  Nothing in my price range today but it’s coming.

Recently, GM took the wraps off the production ready version of their new electric car, the GM Bolt. This fully electric car has a 320 km range, is expected to ship in early 2017 and is slated to sell for US$37,000 before incentives.  The Bolt uses a fast charge connector called CCS which has a top charge rate of 40-60 kilowatts (kW).  That’s pretty fast but you’d probably still need to charge for an hour to do another 3 hours of highway driving.

The next generation Nissan Leaf is expected to be ready in late 2017. It will have at least the range of the Bolt and use the CHAdeMO fast charge connector which has a top charge rate of 60 kW.  Assuming the Leaf still sells for it’s current price of about Cdn$35,000 it will compete well with the Bolt but, just like the Bolt, is unlikely to have a fast enough charge rate to get us back on the highway after 1/2 hour.

Tesla Motors is a new (12 year old) car manufacturer which only makes electric cars. Their current flagship is the US$85,000+ Model S which has proven very popular with the luxury car crowd.  It has a range of over 400 km and using a Tesla supercharger (120 kW) can be recharged enough in 30 minutes to go another 270 km.  Not bad but but way too expensive for us.

The car in which I’m most interested is the one coming next from Tesla: the Model 3. Tesla’s “affordable car” is expected to have a price tag of US$35,000, a range of 300-400 km and access to Tesla’s supercharger network.  The Tesla supercharger network is a big advantage since it can charge at twice the top speed of the other chargers. Tesla is planning a big unveiling of the Model 3 this March so I’m expecting to learn more details then.  The Model 3 is expected to start shipping in early 2018.

The Chargers

Most public chargers in North America are Level 2 chargers (see explanation of charger levels in an earlier post).  They are “destination” chargers because at just 6-20 kW they are intended to be used only at the end of your trip.  They are almost everywhere but just way too slow when you’re in the middle of a highway trip.

There are about 70 Level 3 chargers in Canada.  These chargers have the CHAdeMO connector used by our Leaf and a few also provide the CCS connector to be used by the GM Bolt.  About 35 are in Quebec, a couple in Nova Scotia and four more near Toronto. At 40-60 kW these are much faster than the Level 2 chargers.  Unfortunately there are some large stretches of highway between Montreal – Toronto and Fredericton – Quebec City with none installed and none announced.

The Tesla supercharger, at 120 kW, is the only charger currently able to meet our need for speed.  Not only are they super fast but because of Tesla’s planning they are also strategically located.  Tesla has already installed over 500 supercharger stations each of which has at least six superchargers.  Those already installed in eastern Canada are placed such that you supercharge from Quebec City to Toronto to Detroit.  Tesla also announced plans to install stations at Quebec City, Rivière-du-Loup and Woodstock by the end of 2016.  That means by the time the Model 3 comes along we’ll be able to supercharge all the way from Fredericton to Kitchener-Waterloo.

So the supercharger network will soon take care of the longest drive we’re likely to take. What about the Maritimes?  Most trips we’re likely to make in the Maritimes are not going to take six hours of driving.  We tend to visit Halifax (4.5 hour drive) and PEI (3.5 hours).  A 15-30 minute stop at one of the existing Level 2 or Level 3 chargers, both of which a Model 3 can also use, would be sufficient to get all of the way. That said, supercharger stations at some of the more central locations such as Moncton and Truro would be nice. Hey, while we’re wishing let’s put one at Port Hastings too so we can more easily visit Cape Breton too.

The Cost

As I mentioned in a previous post (“Are we Saving Money Yet?”) there are many aspects to the cost and cost savings of an electric car other than the fuel.  That said, I find it difficult to picture spending more than Cdn$40,000 on a car, any car, which is just for personal transport.  The one factor that could change that limit would be government incentives.  Many countries and some Canadian provinces already offer incentives to encourage the grow of a technology which can fight climate change.  Given that the federal government now recognizes climate change there is some hope they may follow suit soon.

Level 3 charging is commonly priced at $10 per hour and prorated for a partial hour. Use of Tesla superchargers is free to owners of one of Tesla’s luxury cars such as the Model S.  It is widely expected that supercharging will come at a price for the Model 3 owners but Tesla has yet to announce it.  I’m expecting that Tesla will price supercharging similarly to Level 3 charging.   That means at highway stops we’ll pay for power at double the household electricity rate.  A premium to household electricity rate for sure but still way cheaper than gas.

The When

Crystal ball time.  I’m predicting by June 2018 the car, the charging infrastructure, and the costs will all align such that we can move completely off gas.  Any wagers?

 

Next post:  In the driver’s seat

Finding a Charge

We do most of our Leaf charging at home.  There’s no need to use any other charger when we’re just driving around town.  When we drive further afield I make sure I know the location of the chargers on our route.  There are a lot of public chargers in Canada but not near as many chargers as there are gas stations.  I wish!  If fact, if there was a fast charger at each gas station tomorrow then our (gas) Camry would be on Kijiji the day after.  But for now I need to carefully plan where and when we’ll charge while travelling.  So how do we find chargers?

Plugshare

www.plugshare.com contains a detailed map of electric vehicle (EV) chargers.  Both the website and the smartphone app are pretty awesome – you can find public chargers almost anywhere in the world. It’s “open sourced” which means that everyone contributes to keeping it up to date, kind of like www.wikipedia.org.  I’ve only added one charger to the Plugshare map myself but there are over a hundred chargers in the Maritimes and the number keeps growing.

In addition to helping you find chargers, Plugshare also tells you all about each charger:  level (see charger levels/types in my last post), availability, cost, special details for using it, how many chargers are at that location, and which are currently working.  Each time a Plugshare user stops at a public charger they post an update on plugshare: when they started charging, how long they’ll be there, and, at the end, whether they had any problems.  This is strictly voluntary but many EV drivers are very supportive of this process.  It means that when the tables are turned then they’ll be able to find a charger because of others doing the same thing.

EV charging service providers also have their own online services to help you find, use and, in some cases, pay for their chargers.  I registered with one such vendor, VERnetwork (www.reseauver.com), which has a handful of chargers in the Maritimes including two chargers in downtown Saint John.  Useful but the best place to start is Plugshare.

Power is Everywhere

Plugshare is great but don’t forget that every regular household electrical outlet can be a place to charge.  Our Leaf, just like every EV, has a cable which allows it to charge from a regular outlet.  Of course, if the up side is that these outlets are everywhere then the downside is that charging from one is very slow.  That said, here are some examples of when we used them to charge and were quite happy to do so.

Halifax Trip

When we drove the Leaf to Halifax last summer I knew from Plugshare that there were level 2 chargers all along the way but very few in Halifax-Dartmouth.  Instead we plugged into the outside outlets at the homes of family and friends while we were visiting.  Yes, we asked first!  I also ensured that the hotel we booked had an outside outlet we could use.  Hotels are increasingly keen to be seen as supporting clean tech such as electric cars.  They were very happy to make an outlet available from which we charged each night. In the end we drove around in Halifax-Dartmouth for three days and only charged from regular outlets with the exception of a couple of hours of level 2 charging at the library.

Return Trip from Saint John

Last week we went to Saint John for an overnight stay.  The one way trip to Saint John is near the outer limit of the Leaf’s single charge range but it’s normally quite straightforward.  I’ve done it several times but never in winter.  The temperature was hovering around 0C so I knew that there would be less power in the battery than in the summer.  No problem.  We’d just take it easy – driving slower extends range.

On the way to Saint John it was tight but we made it fine on one charge.  The return trip was a different matter.  As we crested Petersville Hill at the midpoint of the trip a twigging doubt flowered into the full realization that we didn’t have enough power in the battery to make it all of the way home.

We kept going and pondered the possibilities.  There are no public chargers between Saint John and New Maryland so that was not going to happen.  Go as far as we can and call CAA for a tow? Nope. We pulled into a gas station / restaurant, plugged into an outside outlet and went inside to have a leisurely lunch.  After about an hour we unplugged and drove the rest of the way home.  There is power everywhere!  If that station had had a level 2 charger we would have been gone in 15 minutes. Level 3 charger?  3 minutes.

Afterwards, at home, I realized that I had not allowed for the effect of parking the Leaf outside during a cold -10C night.  The Leaf normally overnights in our garage. The next time we stay in Saint John I’ll park the Leaf in a more sheltered spot like the underground parking at Market Square. Problem solved!

Growing into the Future

Plugshare is great.  I rely on it heavily when planning out of town trips in the Leaf.  Still, the best laid plans can fall through so it’s good to know the ubiquitous 110 volt outlet can be used in a pinch.

That said, it’s not hard to picture the demise of Plugshare when public chargers become as common as or more common than gas stations.  Ikea, St Hubert, Marriott hotels, Best Western hotels, Amsterdam Inn, and MacDonald’s are just a few examples of the companies which are installing EV chargers to attract customers. We even have a local Irving gas station which has two EV chargers installed.

Over the next couple of years the next generation of electric cars will appear with their 300+ km range and, I expect, the growth in public chargers will accelerate.  It will be interesting to see how people’s perspective on the act of going somewhere just to get fuel for their car changes when there’s “fuel” everywhere you park.

Next – Countdown to no-gas or When to sell the (gas) Camry?

 

 

Looking ahead

Many people will not buy an electric car if it means they also need a gas car for long trips. So far in this blog I have focused on what we have experienced in our own electric car – a 2014 Leaf. For this post I’m going to take a brief detour to describe the changes coming in the next couple of years which will allow almost everyone to replace their gas car with an electric one.

State of the Art

The current state of the art in street legal pure electric cars is the Tesla Model S.  A buyer can choose from various package levels to have a 460 km range and up to 500 horsepower.  Like any electric car you can charge it at home but when you’re on a road trip a Tesla supercharger will give the Model S a 240 km charge in just 30 minutes.  The Model S only recently started production (in 2012) but already outperforms gas car premium brands which have been building and tweaking their cars for decades.  The only problem with the Model S, for me anyway, is the price:  $100,000 – $150,000. Yikes!

Better Batteries for Affordable Range

The most expensive component of an electric car is the traction battery.  Car manufacturers and their partners are investing billions to improve battery technology.  The objective is to drive the cost down while improving capacity and charging speed so that electric cars can compete with gas cars on price and range. Improvements in alternative battery technologies, such as sodium-ion, are being announced on an increasingly frequent basis.  Those improvements are good but in the short term the most significant impact will be made based on economies of scale.

For example, Tesla, the manufacturer of the world’s best electric car, is currently building a huge $5 billion factory in Nevada to reduce the cost of batteries simply by increasing the volume of production. The plant is expected to start battery production in late 2016.  Tesla plans to start producing a new less expensive model, the “Model 3”, by the end of 2017.  The Model 3 is an electric car with a 320+ km range and affordable $35,000 US price tag.  Expect to see at least two other models, the new Chevrolet Bolt and the 2017/8 Nissan Leaf, compete with that range and price point.

“Affordable?” you say.  That’s still $35,000 US!  True, and the exchange rate between Canadian and US dollars kind of sucks for us right now.  Hopefully that won’t last.  On the positive side, some provinces already have attractive incentives for buying an electric car (e.g. $8,500 rebate in Ontario). Incentive programs are likely to spread to other provinces now that the federal government is finally committed to help address climate change.

More Chargers

To be able to tackle a long trip in an electric car you need to have a long range battery but you also need to be able to find fast chargers along your route. Not just chargers but a fast chargers. Chargers come in different flavours:

  • Normal / Regular / Level 2  (3 – 20 kw) Most public chargers are this type. Takes over 3 hours to fully charge the Leaf when it’s close to empty.
  • Trickle (1.2 kw)  A typical household 110 volt outlet.  Takes over 15 hours to fully charge the Leaf battery from almost empty.
  • Fast / Level 3  (32 kw)  About 50 in Canada so far.  Takes less than 30 minutes to charge the Leaf from almost empty to 80%.
  • Super (120 kw)  Tesla’s premium charging system.  About 15 in Canada so far.  A 30 minute super charge gives a Tesla Model S sedan enough power to go 270 km.

Having access to fast charging or super charging along the way will obviously make a big difference on lengthy trips. For example, when we drive the Camry from Fredericton to Halifax we often make a 15 minute coffee & gas stop in Sackville NB.  In 2018 we’ll be able to do the same trip in the same time using any of the electric cars mentioned above as long as there is a fast/super charger in Sackville NB.

We need a lot more fast chargers to support long distance trips in Canada.  The good news is that governments at all levels have finally recognized the need for this infrastructure so the pace of charger deployment should start to pick up.  Ontario has recently announced $20 million for new charging stations.  Quebec and BC lead the way with the most fast chargers in Canada thanks to supportive provincial policies.  In fact, in Quebec the St Hubert restaurant chain alone has already installed chargers at over 60 restaurants – 10 of which are fast chargers!  You can see how many public chargers are currently installed by visiting plugshare.com.

All together

Lots of other improvements are coming but I believe those in battery technology and the deployment of fast chargers will be the most significant in getting more electric cars on the road.

Next post – Finding Chargers

The Leaf Driving Experience

“Once you go electric you never go back”. That’s a phrase I’d often read and heard from electric vehicle (EV) drivers before we bought the Leaf. I’d not really gave it much thought. My reason for buying electric was to drive a clean energy car. Plus my techie self thought it would just be cool. Lee was not so easy to convince but to her credit she gave me the benefit of the doubt.

Any doubt had long since vanished. That was confirmed shortly after getting the Leaf when I heard “you’re not taking THE car this afternoon are you?” I replied that I was about to take the Leaf but the Camry was gassed up and ready to go. I got a dirty look. For most of our married life we’ve had “his and hers” cars. Now we have the Leaf and the other car. Unless we have to travel farther than Saint John the Camry rarely leaves the driveway. Read on for the reasons why.

Quiet

One of the reasons I like buying Camrys is they are such a quiet ride. Well, the quietest car in the yard is the Camry no longer. The first time we gave friends a drive in the Leaf they exclaimed as we took off that it was so quiet it was like being in a spaceship. Surreal. There is no idling sound, no exhaust, and no revving up sound as you accelerate. Just the sound of wind and tires.

Performance

The Leaf’s 107 horsepower engine takes about 10 seconds to push it up to 100 km/h and has a top speed of 140 km/h. So, although quite capable, it’s not a powerful beast. When driving it around town, however, we quickly realized the Leaf was more peppy than you’d expect from such a small engine. The reason? Electric engines don’t have to rev up to build up to maximum power – they deliver it all from the instant you press the accelerator. The result is a very responsive car in city driving.

Some Details for the Gear-heads

Gas engines only produce decent power within from a narrow rpm range. That’s why they need to have multi-speed transmissions. Electrical engines only need single gear transmissions.  They deliver lots of power throughout all rpm’s including maximum torque starting at 0 rpm. Here’s a comparison:

                   HP    Torque
2014 Leaf         107     210 
2015 Ford Focus   160     146 
2015 VW Jetta     115     125
2015 Camry        178     170 

 

For the performance fans here is a comparison of Tesla’s electric sedan and some premium gas cars. No, none of these cars are in our future…

                          HP    Torque
2015 Tesla Model S P90D  762     731 
2015 Porsche 911 Turbo S 552     553 
2015 Ferrari 488         661     561

No Fumes

One day, after owning the Leaf for a few months, I had to park the Camry in the garage.  That’s usually the Leaf’s spot but I had to park the Camry there for some reason that night.  After backing into the garage I hopped out of the Camry and just about gagged.  Oh yeah, exhaust fumes.  They’re kind of disgusting when you’re not used to them.  Guess they can be kind of lethal too so we’re happy to keep the Camry with its fumes outside.

Winter Driving

Even when parked in a garage a car can still get plenty cold during a winter night.  We set the timer in the Leaf’s temperature control system to heat the passenger cabin before it’s time to go.  Heating the car is pretty efficient since just the car’s heat pump is used.  Yup, that’s one of those things which people are buying to save money when heating their house.  To pre-heat a gas car you’d need to run the engine.  That’s expensive if the car is outside and downright dangerous if the car is in a garage.

As a nice little add-on to the above feature, the Leaf is Internet connected so we can also activate the heat/cooling via an app on our phone from within the house, within the mall, etc.

Warm is good but what about safety?  The Leaf is heavier than a typical car of its size because of the weight of the main battery.  Thanks to that extra weight our winter tires keep a super grip on the road in snow.  Last winter Lee always felt confident while driving in the Leaf.  Another benefit from the increased weight is that the Leaf is less susceptible to cross winds which can be especially nasty in the winter season.

Charging

How far can you go on a charge?  How long does it take to charge?  Those are the two top questions we get asked.  In a typical day we rarely think about either one.  I set the car’s charging system to charge the battery during off-peak times at night, around 4 am.  (We don’t have time-sensitive electrical rates in New Brunswick but charging during off-peak times reduces NB Power’s use of fossil fuels.)  The next day it takes a few seconds to unplug the car then we just drive.  The car usually doesn’t need to be plugged in again until night time.  It’s so fast to plug/unplug it that we’ll often just plug it in whenever we get home.  Oh, in case you’re wondering, the car has a fail-safe so you can’t drive away while you’re still plugged in!

We like to make use of the chargers in downtown Fredericton because they provide free power and, in some cases, free parking.  You can’t park at a public charger unless you’re charging so we don’t fully charge the battery at home.  When we park at a public charger we notify other EV drivers so they can message us if they have a more pressing need for a charge.  More about how we do that in a future post.

Highway Driving

At highway speeds the level of road noise rather than engine sound becomes the dominant factor for interior noise which makes the Leaf comparable to the Camry. Still quiet but no longer a “spaceship”.  Performance-wise it’s what you’d expect from a 107 horsepower engine – adequate but nothing to write home about.

The real issue on the highway is how many times you have to stop to recharge before getting to your destination.  A round trip to Oromocto (44 km round trip) is easy – none.  A trip to Saint John (105 km one-way) means driving economically but still no stops.  A trip to Moncton (200 km one-way) means driving economically and stopping for a 2 1/2 hour charge in Sussex.  That’s why we still have the Camry.

All Together

The Leaf is a peppy, quiet, fume-free, and comfortable ride.  The fact that it’s emissions free was the main reason for buying the car but now that’s just a great bonus.  When we purchased the Leaf last year I figured that in a few years we’d be replacing it with another electric car and the Camry with another gas car.  Based on our experience, and electric cars about to come onto the market, that’s no longer the plan.   Now I expect that the current Camry will be our last gas car.  It will get replaced with one of the long range electrics coming to market in 2018.

Yup, we went electric and we’re not going back.

Next Post – Looking ahead

Saving Money Yet?

“How much do we save?” is one of the top questions I hear when people discover our Leaf is fully electric.  Here is a summary of the savings and costs of driving our Leaf.  I have excluded any costs which would be the same on a gas car, e.g. winter tires.
 
 
Up Front Costs

We spent about $10,000 more on the Leaf than we would have on an equivalent gas car. Admittedly, that’s a very subjective estimate but it seemed to work based on the cost of the cars we have bought and were considering buying. We need to save $10,000 just to break even. Living in another province or in the United States would have made that number a lot lower. For example, in Ontario the provincial rebate cheque would have reduced that number to $1,500!
 

Gas Savings

The largest savings comes from the efficiency of using electrical power versus burning gas.  We pay $0.11 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in New Brunswick and the Leaf gets between 5 – 7 kms per kWh.  The price of gas during year one varied a lot but was often $1.10-$1.30 per litre. The Camry burns 7.5 – 9.5 L per 100 km. The frequent changes in gas prices made calculating what-we-would-have-spent-on-gas tricky so when I was unsure I tried to be conservative so as to not over state savings. In year one we drove 15,000 kms and saved about $1,000. That’s the difference between the cost of the electricity and the cost of the gas that we would have used in the Camry.

If you’re fascinated by tortuous detail then keep reading to learn about some of the calculations behind that total.  If you feel your eyes about to glaze over then jump down to “Other Savings”.

Detailed Calculations for Fuel Savings

First, a little background on electric car mileage calculation.  The electricity rate in New Brunswick is $0.11 per kilowatt-hour (kWh). When the daily highs are around 15-30 C our Leaf’s computer reports mileage of about 7 km per kWh. Also, no matter the temperature, the charging process loses 7-10% of the power it consumes so we need to allow for that in the calculations.

Leaf versus Camry fuelling costs during mild weather:

  • Leaf
    • 7 km/kWh = 14.3 kWh / 100 km
    • Allow for power lost in charging: 14.3 + 10% = 15.7 kWh / 100 kms
    • The cost of travelling 100 km is $0.11 x 15.7 = $1.73
  • Camry
    • 7.5 L per 100 km
    • At $1.00 per litre the cost of travelling 100 km is $7.50.

So, when the weather is mild, the Leaf saves us about $5.77 every 100 km.  Nice!

When the cold temperatures moved in the results changed but not as much as you might think.  In the winter the Camry is much harder on gas while the engine is warming up to its normal operating temperature.  On the plus side, once it’s warmed up, a gas engine has lots of spare heat for keeping us toasty warm inside.

In the Leaf, the electrical engine has no warm up period.  It’s efficient from the start.  On the down side the engine is so efficient it does not produce much surplus heat. To warm up the passengers the Leaf’s battery must power a combination of heat pump, electric heater and/or electric seats (front and back).  In February the Leaf mileage dropped to 4.3 km/kWh or $2.81 per 100 km. The Camry mileage dropped to about 8.5 L/100 km or $8.5 per 100 km.

So even in the coldest time of the year the differences in fueling was still almost the same, about $5.69 / 100 km.

 
Other Savings

Replacing gas with electricity has definitely provided the lion’s share of our savings. There are a few other savings worth mentioning though.

  • Our Camry, like any other car we’ve owned, requires two oil changes a year.  The Leaf engine has no oil to change.  Annual savings:  $50 x 2 = $100.
  • Insurance companies seem to like electric cars since they provide a discount.  Annual savings: 5% discount on the Leaf coverage.
  • NB Power has two parking spaces with chargers reserved for electric cars in the middle of downtown Fredericton.  When we shop downtown we park there to benefit from free charging and free parking.  Hourly savings: $2.50 ($1.75 for parking plus $0.75 for the charge).

The above savings add up to about $150 annually which brings our total savings for the first year to $1,150.  Not great but I expect the annual savings in future years to be more.

 
Future Savings 

For year two and after I expect our annual savings to increase to up to $1,950. That’s for two reasons.

First, we continue to drive the Leaf more and the Camry less.  That’s due, in part, to the continued increase in the number of public chargers.  For example, two new chargers were installed in downtown Saint John in May 2015.  That means we can drive to Saint John (~105 kms) and charge while we’re there instead taking of the Camry.  I expect that by the end of year two we’ll have driven 9,000 kms more than in year one which will increase our annual savings by about $600.  We’re already off to a big start since the Leaf racked up 4,500 kms in the last six weeks of the federal election.

Second, we spent $800 during the last four years on brakes for the Camry.  The Leaf uses regenerative braking which greatly reduces the wear on its disc brake pads.  I expect to still be using the same brake pads, in good condition, at the end of four years.  Annual expected savings is $200.  I won’t start counting those savings until the brakes pads are checked at the end of year two.  That said, our experience to date and the anecdotal evidence from other Leaf drivers supports my expectation.

What is regenerative braking?

Regenerative braking slows the car while charging the battery.  The brake pads are only used during hard braking or the last portion of a complete stop. As a driver you don’t have to know how this work – it just happens automatically.

Regenerative braking is awesome!  My favourite  example is going down the Fredericton “hill” – an 80 meter drop across two kms.  Unless we have to stop we don’t need to touch the brake pedal going down the hill.  When we reach the bottom of the hill the Leaf has more charge that it did at the start!

One last thing in the savings category – car maintenance. The electric car powertrain is very simple: an electric motor with less than a dozen moving parts, a single speed transmission and no exhaust system.  By comparison a typical gas engine has over two hundred moving parts and is connected to a sophisticated multi-speed transmission and an exhaust.  Over time that should result in much lower service costs.  That’s the hope and expectation – I’ll let you know after the three year bumper-to-bumper warranty expires.

 
Future Costs

It’s not all peaches and cream.  There are a couple of potentially large down-the-road costs which I had to consider before buying the Leaf:  battery life and resale value.

First, the battery.  The use of lithium-ion batteries as a power source is arguably the most advanced part of electric cars – replacement cost for just the Leaf battery runs around $5,000 – $6,000.  As battery technology improves the cost will likely drop over time but that’s still a daunting number.  So how long will the battery in the Leaf last?  The lack of a large history of data on batteries for electrical cars makes it hard to be definitive. Nissan is confident enough to cover the Leaf’s battery for eight years.  Most literature I’ve read places the expected life at 10+ years.  These batteries also last longer when they have only a limited exposure to 30+ C weather and aggressive driving. For our Leaf in Fredericton I’m expecting to easily exceed the ten year mark.

Second, resale value.  Electric car technology is rapidly improving.  That means our new Leaf is going to seem pretty dated in a few years, especially when the 300+ km range cars start shipping in 2017.  Not only that but there are purchase incentives being offered in other provinces and in the United States. Those two things will have a dramatic effect on reducing the resale value of our Leaf, especially in the first few years.  This is not a big deal for us since we tend to keep cars until they are ten years old.  By that time, any difference in resale value will likely be based more on how well the car was maintained than it’s original purchase price.

 
So Are We Saving Money?

We love driving the Leaf but it would be hard to justify our purchase solely on the basis of saving money.  Using today’s fuel costs we are not expecting to drive enough for the savings to offset the up front and depreciation costs.  Sure, if gas prices jump again and continue to outpace electricity rates then we could end up coming out ahead.  For now, I expect the people that are likely to come out financially ahead are those who purchase using incentive programs or buy used cars.

If we’re years away from just breaking even then why do we love our Leaf?

 

Next Post – The Leaf driving experience.

Bought our Leaf

Over two years ago I came to the realization that although I’d known climate change was upon us I wasn’t doing much about it.  Sure, we had installed heat pumps and increased the insulation in our home to reduce power usage but what else to do?  At that time I discovered electrically powered vehicles (EV’s).  What a great and cool way to reduce our carbon footprint!  Over a year of research ensued during which I learned about the rapidly developing EV technology, the industry players, the growing global support and the EV’s which were available for purchased in Canada.

Over a year ago, on August 29, 2014.  Lee and I bought our 2014 Nissan Leaf.   In the months that followed we have learned a lot about owning and driving an electric car.  As Canadians and, especially,  Atlantic Canadians I suspect our experience is still fairly novel if not unique.  I decided to blog about it with the hope that some will find this helpful when considering the purchased of an electric car.

The Car

The Nissan Leaf is totally electric – no gas tank, no exhaust pipe, etc.  It is a mid-size hatchback which comfortably seats five.  The Leaf comes in three versions S, SV, and SL.  We bought the top end SL so we got some luxuries (17″ alloy wheels, navigation system, heated seats, back up camera, leather seats, etc) plus a cool 360 degree camera system.  Well, okay, you may feel some of these are “standard” but they were luxuries to us since our 2010 Camry V6 has none of them except the alloy wheels.

The Cost

$41,000 including 13% HST.  That’s with a $3,500 discount.  The model “S” would have been much cheaper at about $33,000-36,000 including HST but none of the 2014 model “S” were available that late in the model year.  All 2014 Leaf models had the same engine, drive train, and battery pack.

New Brunswick has no electric car incentives.  If we had been living in Ontario we would have gotten a $8,500 cheque from the government reducing our out-of-pocket cost to $32,500! ($41,000 – $8,500 = $32,500)  If we had been living in California we would qualified for a $2,500 rebate cheque plus a $7,500 tax credit.  Sigh!

Charging and Range

The two topics which I get asked most about are  (1) how long to charge and (2) how far on one charge.

For the first question I used to just say 2-3 hours.  Then I realized that people were picturing going to some equivalent of a gas station for 2-3 hours.  Oops!  Although we do plug into public chargers when it’s convenient, most of our charging is down at home in the garage while we’re sleeping.  So we actually spend less time “refuelling” our electric car than most people spend at gas stations.  There are public chargers in downtown Fredericton which are all free to use.  So when downtown we plug in and charge for free while we’re doing our shopping or whatever.

My answer for range is “optimally 140 km”.  Optimally mean flat dry road, 65 km/hr, slow starts/stops and 20 C.  Results vary depending on speeds, driving style, and temperature.  For example, during a cold (-20 C) winter day that range drops by about 30%.   For most of our driving the Leaf’s range works just fine.  We rarely drive more than 50 km in a day.  For trips which are longer than the range of a single charge we use the Camry.  That said, we have used public (free) chargers to make two longer trips, one to Charlottetown and one to Halifax,  Both trips were quite leisurely with multiple 2+ hours charging stops.

Next Post – Are we saving money yet?