How I Got a Bigger Battery for My Nissan LEAF…for Free

Unlike the lithium-ion batteries in Teslas and some other electric vehicles, Nissan chose a cheaper, easier to manufacture battery for the LEAF that does not have a thermal management system. These batteries worked okay in cooler climates, but they often degraded quickly in hot climates such as Texas.

Anticipating this problem to some extent, Nissan conveniently added a battery degradation meter on the dashboard. It shows how much of the original capacity the battery still retains. LEAF owners watch that bar very carefully. As the battery loses capacity, the 12 bars gradually disappear. Once the meter gets down to 8 bars, if you’re still within the time and mileage specified in the warranty, Nissan promises to repair or replace the battery at no charge. For my 2016 LEAF SL with the 30 kWh battery, the warranty was good for 8 years or 100,000 miles.

I lost my fourth bar after 42,682 miles and less than four years, all spent in the Dallas-Fort Worth area where summer highs top 100 degrees several days each year. On Day 1, I had maybe 107 miles of range when fully charged. By the end, the real-world range had dropped to 65-75 miles, a drop of 30-40 percent. I lost a bar about every 10,000 miles. For comparison, after about 36,000 miles, my Tesla Model 3 has lost maybe 4-5 percent of its original range, thanks to the thermal management system.

LEAF Instrument Panel

The meter on the far right shows battery degradation (8 bars out of 12). The larger meter to its left shows the current state of charge (full) and estimated range (80).

Excited to get a new battery but a little worried about whether the Nissan dealer would cooperate or turn this into a giant hassle, I took the car to Don Davis Nissan in Arlington. They kept it for a few days to run some diagnostics. I was disappointed but not surprised to find that neither of the two service advisors actually knew much about the LEAF or understood the battery degradation issue. Even the “certified LEAF technician” didn’t understand the degradation meter. I quietly hoped that this particular tech would NOT be the one who installed my new battery.

Finally they realized that yes, there are indeed only eight capacity bars left and I did qualify for a new battery. Then Nissan corporate approved it and ordered it for the dealer. Woohoo! It arrived at Don Davis a few days later, much earlier than expected. They took a day to install and charge it. So I got a brand-new battery for free. But that’s not the best part.

Nissan no longer replaces the 30 kWh battery with the same 30 kWh battery for these warranty claims. Instead, they install a 40 kWh battery. So I got an even bigger battery for free. Officially it’s 10 kWh bigger, but range increase is even higher than I’d expected. Right now my effective range seems to be 155-165 miles! Compared to the old and busted battery, the new one has more than doubled our effective range.


New battery shows all 12 bars and greatly improved range

In my one-year update on the LEAF back in 2017, I came down pretty hard on Nissan about the battery degradation issue. The LEAF was a good car with a big flaw, at least for drivers in hot climates. Yet despite my frustrations and fears, I must praise and thank Nissan corporate for not only honoring the warranty, but actually giving me a better replacement battery than they had promised. Going from 75 miles of range to over 150 is a game changer and makes the car much more usable. Thank you, Nissan.

Finally, for my LeafSpy friends, here are some of my stats by the end of the old 30 kWh battery with 8 bars and for the new 40 kWh battery with 12 bars:

Data Point 30 kWh (8 bars) 40 kWh (12 bars)
AHr 51.79 838.86
SOH 65.16% 99.71%
V 378.30 402.66
Hx 32.72% 280.00%
QC 6 6
L1/L2 1111 1117

Coronacation 2020

My older son Brenden says I need to blog more, so…

As you probably know, COVID-19 has decimated the airline industry, among all the other havoc it’s wrought. Compared to last year, the TSA is screening about 95 percent fewer passengers each day, sometimes under 100,000 people nationwide. Southwest is hemorrhaging cash. Instead of our normal 4000-ish daily flights, we’re operating around 1000 and have parked a couple hundred aircraft. Even with the drastically reduced scheduled, our flights are still mostly empty. Currently the dispatch department is paying everyone their full salary but only staffing about half the desks to aid in social distancing.

Needless to say, this isn’t sustainable.

Fortunately, the changes at work have limited the spread. We’ve only had one confirmed case in our office, and it happened in March. However, it’s still strange and sad to see our headquarters look like a ghost town as the non-operational employees work from home and only half the operational ones are there. I dispatched an Oakland to Honolulu flight last week that had two passengers. That works out to two flight attendants for each passenger.

To preserve cash during this jaw-dropping downturn in travel, Southwest is offering its employees the chance to stay home for a month at a time with full benefits and a fraction of their salary. They’re calling it Emergency Time Off (ETO). After doing the math and discussing it with Jenny, I volunteered for May. As of April 26, I am on coronacation™ for six weeks. I return to work June 8.

Yes, this is going to sting, but we’ll be okay. I’m grateful to still have a job. Over 26 million people have lost theirs over the last few weeks.

Southwest in Crisis Mode

I started at Southwest in June 2001, fresh out of college as a rookie technical writer in the IT department. A few months later, another event shocked the industry and evaporated demand for air travel: September 11. All commercial flights were grounded for two days. Nobody knew whether people would want to fly again after that. Millions of people canceled their flight reservations. At any other airline, I would have been laid off immediately. But Southwest doesn’t believe in layoffs. Our leaders let me and every other employee keep our jobs, even though they knew the risk. By taking care of their people, they won my loyalty for life. And over time, people starting flying again.

This year, Southwest is facing the biggest challenge in our history. My coronacation is a little way for me to give back to the company that saved my career and has been so good to my family over the last 18+ years.

Life Before and After COVID-19

So…now what?

My pre-rona life was a lot more hectic. I worked a lot of overtime trying to chip away at the mortgage, save up for travel, pay down one car or save up for the next one, fund house projects, and save for the boys’ college. When I wasn’t at work, I drove the boys to and from the pool, watched their meets, stayed in shape by running and cycling, helped out around the house, and tried to get enough sleep. It was a nice life but very busy. When I had a day off that didn’t involve a meet or a family event, I felt a little guilty and disappointed that I wasn’t working overtime to get ahead. I’m supposed to be productive, dangit!

Enter COVID-19.

Only half of the scheduled dispatchers actually come in to work so we can have an empty desk in between each of us. Open shifts are covered not by overtime, but by the on-call people, so overtime is all but gone until this passes. I only worked 8 shifts in April. I was on-call for several other shifts but only got activated once.

The virus has impacted each person in their own way. It forced me to slow down, to breathe, to relax, to reevaluate my life and how I spend my time and what my priorities are.

Despite the stay-at-home order and various nagging questions, this has actually been nice. Our kids have a weekday routine – breakfast, workout, school, lunch, clean something, free time / family time, dinner. The boys no longer have swim/dive practice in the evening, so we can relax and hang out instead of driving back and forth to the pool three times each evening. I run or ride three times a week but don’t have to squeeze them after work or on a rare day off. I sleep more and am less irritable as a result. Jenny and I go on walks and talk and catch Pokemon. We taught the boys how to play spades and got smoked by them in Super Smash Bros. I introduced them to a couple of my favorite movies. We might do a Lord of the Rings movie marathon like Jenny and I did before the boys came along. I cleaned out and reorganized the garage and linen closet, knocked out the huge pile of filing I’d put off for far too long, and diagnosed and replaced a bad circuit breaker that was turning off our fridge. I’ve FaceTimed with my mom and my 93-year-old grandfather. I finished a fascinating book called A Woman of No Importance, which is about an American woman with one leg that served as an amazingly effective spy in France during World War II. My next goal is to finally finish reading the novel version of Les Miserables (too many words, Victor Hugo!!!), the basis of my favorite musical. I also hope to dust off my guitar and see if my fingers still work.

The other day I ate lunch alone on the porch – no electronics reminding me that society is collapsing, no one to talk to, just me and a gorgeous spring day. The sun was out. A healthy breeze rustled the trees, shimmering in various shades of green and full of life. A pair of beautiful red-shouldered hawks swooped in and perched on our fence. That brief half-hour of quiet reminded me that life is indeed going on, even with the deadly virus, and that I get to choose what to focus on.

This feels a bit like retirement, except that my kids are still young and my body still works. So although it won’t be much fun financially, I am grateful for the opportunity to help Southwest and to spend so much time relaxing and enjoying life with my family as we try to stay healthy and sane.

On the bright side, it’s easier to save money when you aren’t supposed to do anything. We had booked and largely paid for a summer camp for the boys and a trip to San Francisco for us in early June. COVID-19 has canceled both of them, which (sadly) freed up some funds. Their swim and dive clubs are on hiatus, which saves cash. We’re deferring expenses, canceling extra mortgage payments, eating out much less, reducing our contributions to the boys’ college funds, and burning some of our savings that we can use to get through May.

I’m also well aware that we’re in an extraordinarily privileged position just to have the option to help my employer survive by taking a month off.

The boys are taking it pretty well. Jonathan, our social butterfly, really misses people. Jenny and I are trying to accommodate him by spending time with him each day – cards, chess, video games, bike rides, trampoline time, art projects. Brenden, our introvert, doesn’t feel as lonely but laments that he hasn’t been inside another building besides our house in over a month. Both miss being in the pool. In a pleasant surprise, they’re spending more time playing with each other. Sometimes it’s Minecraft or Super Smash Bros. Sometimes they just hang out on the trampoline, talking and batting a ball around. They’re having little trouble with online learning except for occasionally overlooking an assignment, which Jenny and I try to catch.

Jenny is a little stir-crazy. She’s reading a lot (thank you, Kindle Unlimited!), working on some art, and trying to keep the boys on track. She hits the grocery store every 7-10 days, trying to make each visit count. She and her family send each other short video updates via the Marco Polo app to stay in touch. Since her hospital has banned in-person classes, she and her partner are converting most of her classes to online format via Zoom. Her first one was the full-day childbirth class earlier this month, and it actually worked fairly well.

So in a nutshell, we’re doing okay.

Questions That Make Me Squirm

Although this time isn’t all bad by any means, some dark and uncomfortable questions bubble up throughout the day. Questions like:

  • The big one that few want to consider: what if we never find a way to become immune? What if there is no protective immunity after one gets the disease? Despite our hopes and assumptions, so far there’s little evidence of it in people who have recovered. What if herd immunity isn’t possible? What if we never develop a vaccine? Some viruses still don’t have a vaccine despite years of effort, including norovirus, RSV, MERS, the Epstein-Barr virus, and HIV. Flu has one, but since the virus mutates so much, we have to keep getting flu vaccines annually, and each year’s formula never works 100 percent effectively.
  • How and when will the economy recover from this? How many jobs will never return, particularly in small business, brick-and-mortar retail, restaurants, bars, clubs, live sporting events, concerts, and other sectors that bring together large groups of people?
  • Will people ever want to fly again at the same level they did before? What would make them feel safe enough and confident enough to get back on an airplane? Will Southwest need to shrink permanently? If so, how many of my friends, including people I’ve trained, will lose their jobs? That will be the last resort, but Southwest can’t go on like this forever. For many of us, dispatching for Southwest is our dream job, and I want every one of our new folks to stay if possible.
  • Will it ever be safe to hug my grandparents again?

Reasons to Hope

Despite these worries about things I can’t control, all is not lost. People have come together to fight this disease like I’ve never seen. Healthy people are choosing to stay home, keeping their distance, and wearing masks to protect others. Essential employees put their lives at risk every day to treat the sick, keep the lights on, fly vital supplies and workers to the people that need them, and keep food in everyone’s bellies. We’re learning about who we are, what’s important, and where we are vulnerable. And a lot of really smart people are working hard to end this crisis with the least possible damage. We are a strong species. We learn, adapt, and persevere. And we’re not giving up.

Stay safe, everyone. And wash your hands.

Meet Ygritte, My Tesla Model 3

I’m not a traditional car guy. I don’t fix up old cars, change my own oil, or know all the stats for the newest Dodge Hellcat. But I am an electric vehicle (EV) guy. And in Nov 2018 I finally bought the car that I’d wanted for years but bailed on: a Tesla Model 3. After driving it for nine months, it’s time to tell the Internets about this amazing vehicle.

Simply put, this is the best car I’ve ever owned or even driven, and I love it.

Ordering a Tesla

Tesla offers car buying for the Amazon era. I went to Tesla.com, logged into my account, chose my options, and gave them a credit card number for a deposit. That’s all it takes to order one. No annoying salespeople. No even more annoying finance and insurance person. No haggling over the price or interest rate. You just order it like you’re ordering a new iPhone. When my car was ready, Tesla notified me, and I wired them the money and signed some papers at home. Then I picked it up at the service center in Dallas by Love Field. It was a touch more complicated than this, but it was easy enough that I never want to buy a car from a traditional car dealer again. This is how car buying should work – EASY.

Yes, they do offer financing and take trade-ins like a normal dealership if needed.

The Car

My Model 3 is named Ygritte (ee-grit) after the feisty redheaded wildling woman who convinces Jon Snow to forsake his vows in Game of Thrones. You can actually name your car through the touchscreen, so I did.

She is a 2018 long-range dual motor Model 3 with red paint, dark gray interior, 18″ wheels with aero covers, premium interior, and no autopilot (more on that later). The two electric motors (front and rear) produce around 350hp combined, producing a 0-60 time of 4.4 seconds. The Performance version can hit 3.2 seconds, but The Boss nixed that idea – something about having teenage drivers in the house soon.

Anyway, instead of a traditional transmission with gears, the electric motors produce smooth acceleration at any speed with no shifting. You step on the accelerator, and the motors spin faster. Electric vehicles drive very smoothly in general, but the 75 kWh battery and dual motors give this one a lot more power than my Nissan LEAF. Although I seldom take full advantage of the power, I love knowing it’s there in case I get into a tight spot. The handling is confident and sporty with a low center of gravity, and the dual motors provide all wheel drive for additional confidence. She is a BLAST to drive.

Interior

The interior tends to shock people who aren’t familiar with it. Tesla ditched the traditional instrument panel in favor of a radically minimalist design that features a giant tablet mounted in the center of the dashboard. The tablet shows your speed in the upper left, still comfortably within sight, along with the battery life and a situation display that shows nearby vehicles and people. The rest of the screen shows a high-res navigation display (map or satellite) and/or your audio choices, which include HD radio, Bluetooth streaming from your phone, or (my favorite) Slacker commercial-free streaming audio via the car’s LTE connection. Slacker seems to be free for at least the first year and offers dozens and dozens of channels. I thought SiriusXM offered a huge variety of stations until I experienced Slacker. I can switch among 2000s hip-hop, Renaissance choral music, 90s hard rock, movie scores, and a Kacey Musgraves station with a few taps on the screen. The audio system is the best sounding car audio I’ve ever heard, with 14 speakers, 1 subwoofer, amazing clarity, and perfect balance.

The rest of the interior maintains the minimalist vibe while remaining quite comfortable, with nice touches like LED lighting for the rear seats that allow the boys to read in the dark, an all-glass roof, soft synthetic leather that feels real, and USB outlets for the front and back seats to charge electronics.

Integrated Touchscreen with GPS Navigation and Satellite Maps

Streaming Audio from Slacker – so many stations with no DJs or commercials

HD Backup Camera

Fun Stuff

Romance Mode – On-demand fire, romantic music, and the front heaters turn on to set the mood…although regardless of what you might be planning, the car gets really hot really quick.

Fart Mode (officially Emissions Testing Mode) – fun for the whole family! You can surprise unknowing guests by blasting one from their nearest speaker and then calling them out. BRENDEN!!!!!

ATARI Games – Yes, when the car is parked, you can play a variety of ATARI games on the touchscreen, including Missile Command and Centepede.

Frunk – Without a big gas engine under the hood, Tesla added a small storage compartment in the front trunk, or frunk.

Range and Charging

Like with the LEAF, I nearly always charge at home with my JuiceBox Pro charging station, preferably during the day so I can use the solar panels to provide much of the power. Unlike the LEAF, I have about 300 miles of range instead of 75-90, enabling us to use the Tesla on road trips to Houston and San Antonio with no problem. Some days I don’t even bother charging after work because I don’t need to; the car still has plenty of range left. The range is probably the most significant improvement over the LEAF, which is a great car except for its battery.

The EPA rates the long-range Model 3 at the equivalent of 126 mpg. Lifetime, I’m averaging about 260 wH/mile or 3.8 miles/kWh. As I explained in more detail in my first post about our Nissan LEAF, the cost of electricity for an EV is roughly 25-40% of the cost of gas to travel the same distance. EVs use more electricity in winter due to heater use and reduced battery efficiency.

Road trips in the Model 3 are very possible because of Tesla’s nationwide network of Superchargers, extremely high-speed charging stations sprinkled along major highways and metropolitan areas. Whereas at home I can add around 37 miles of range per hour of charge, a Supercharger can charge at 250-400 miles per hour depending on the conditions. On our recent road trip to Galveston, we started off full and drove from Grand Prairie to Huntsville, reducing our range below 50%. There we plugged into the Supercharger and ate lunch at a great Mexican restaurant nearby. By the time we’d finished lunch, the car was full again. Road trips do take more planning in an EV versus a gas-powered vehicle, but they are possible in a Tesla. As EV adoption increases over the next few years, we should see more and more charging stations. Tesla’s website includes a map of their Superchargers. I’m still waiting for them to add one in Wichita Falls, where some of my family lives.

People like to ask what it costs to charge, which is hard to answer because you hardly ever charge from nearly empty to full. If you did for some reason, and your electricity costs 10 cents per kWh, filling the 75 kWh battery at home would cost about $7.50, maybe $8.00 when you factor in the power lost to the charging station itself. If you charge in public at a Supercharger or a slower Level 2 charger, the cost might be higher or lower. Collin Street Bakery outside Waco, TX, offers free Supercharging plus a free cup of coffee or tea while you charge. Other Superchargers might charge me $7-9 to add 200-250 miles. Some businesses, including Southwest, offer free Level 2 charging for their employees so they can charge at lower speed while at work.

Autopilot

Tesla’s self-driving features have created much confusion for a variety of reasons. First of all, Teslas are not yet capable of fully driving themselves yet. Full Self Driving (in Tesla parlance) hasn’t been released, and the regulators have not approved it. But that capability is coming. They keep refining the software and adding capabilities to the self-driving and other features, and they push those updates to the car via wifi.

What Teslas do offer, if you’re willing to pay extra, is a wealth of advanced driver-assistance technology that will help enable full self-driving in the future. I did not buy those features. However, they did give me a one-month trial. Autopilot is actually a decent name IF you use it in the aviation sense – a computer that automates mundane tasks while you (the driver/pilot) stay alert and monitor it, ready to take over at any moment.

Here are a few thoughts:

  • Autosteer – It really does keep you centered in your lane, which reduces the stress and fatigue of driving, particularly on long trips. It will also change lanes for you if the lane is clear and you command a lane change. HOWEVER, it still has some bugs to work out. Once it took a corner too tightly for me and scraped my right front wheel, which I really did not appreciate. It also got confused by highway onramps and temporarily veered to the center of the combined lane instead of hugging the lane marker on the left. Note: this feature is now included on all new Model 3s.
  • Traffic Aware Cruise Control (TACC) and Autobrake – TACC worked really well. It lets you set a desired speed but temporarily adjusts as needed if the car in front of you slows down. Once it moves, the car returns to your preferred speed. If the car in front of you stops, your car stops as well. Very cool and less stressful than traditional driving once you get used to it. I never got a chance to experience the emergency braking. Note: These features are now included on all new Model 3s.
  • Autopark – Couldn’t get it to work, but in theory it will parallel park or back into a space for you.
  • Navigate on Autopilot – When you enter a destination into the nav system and engage autopilot, the car uses Autosteer and TACC plus automatic lane change to drive for you from highway onramp to highway offramp. Handling of stop signs and stoplights is coming later this year, moving Tesla one step closer to full autonomy.

I might pay for some or all of the autopilot features in the future. They intrigue me but aren’t currently worth the money to me, especially while Tesla is still working out the bugs and improving the software. Someday I’d love to read a book or nap while my car drives me to work.

Downsides of Tesla

No company is perfect. Tesla, as you might have heard, has a history of overpromising, particularly with regard to timelines. Model 3 production didn’t ramp up quite as soon as Musk predicted, but they eventually reached their goal of rolling out thousands per week. I wish them luck as they continue to expand production of these amazing vehicles.

A bigger problem for them right now is their insufficient service centers and parts. They simply haven’t ramped up their service capabilities as quickly as their production, leading to long waits for repairs. Call it growing pains. For instance, back in January I made an appointment with them to investigate a minor squeaking sound in the rear of the car. I dropped it off on a Wednesday, I think. They gave me a rental car and told me they were so backed up that they might not even get to look at it until Monday or Tuesday of the next week. So 1) they took nearly a week to fix a simple problem, and 2) they wasted a lot of money buying me a rental for several days instead of simply having me bring in my car when they were ready to work on it. I’ve read numerous reports of slow service and long waits for parts, especially when a vehicle gets wrecked and needs a new body panel. On the bright side, every Tesla employee I’ve ever dealt with has been extremely nice and polite.

Summary

I don’t want to say Tesla is the future of the automobile, as the Fords and Volkswagens and Hondas of the world have something to say on that matter. But Tesla is changing the industry. Other automakers investing billions in EV development, including Volkswagen, Kia/Hyundai, Porsche, and Toyota. Every Tesla owner I know loves their car. Tesla has announced a smaller and cheaper electric SUV called the Model Y scheduled for production in 2020, an electric pickup that will be named soon, and an electric semi. Good things are happening, and I’m grateful to be involved.

One Year with a Nissan LEAF: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As you might have read back in January, I bought a Nissan LEAF one year ago today. You can read all the details here about the process, how the car works, and what I like about it. Since electric vehicles are still a novelty, and I love talking about green technology, here is an update.

The Good

My LEAF is still a blast to drive. Compared to my Honda Fit, it’s a hotrod. If I floor it to merge with traffic, it will MOVE. The Bose sound system rocks, the best car audio system I’ve ever owned. The heated steering wheel has permanently spoiled me.

More importantly, I’ve driven a full year and over 15,000 miles in a purely electric vehicle, keeping nearly 10,000 lbs of CO2 plus some poisonous gasses like carbon monoxide out of the air. I’ve saved about 450 gallons of gas compared to my fuel-efficient Fit. Adding in the cost of the electricity I used, my LEAF saved me about $600 in fuel costs.

The Bad

Unfortunately, the LEAF also comes with some downsides that I hadn’t fully anticipated. First, to save either money or weight, Nissan chose not to provide a spare tire. They did the same for our Nissan Rogue with the third row, but they mitigated the risk by including run-flat tires. For the LEAF, instead of run-flat tires, they provide a cheesy tire repair kit with some sealant and a pump. Ehhhhh, okay.

One February night, I was driving to work and heard a loud bang on Loop 12. My tire warning light came on, and the car started to shimmy. My left front tire had gone flat. I pulled off the road, broke open the tire repair kit, and tried to fix it. After 10-15 minutes of waiting, it became clear that for whatever reason, this kit wasn’t going to air up the tire as advertised. It added a bit of air, but not enough to fully inflate it. Still over 5 miles from work and determined to get there as soon as possible, I drove very slowly the rest of the way, hoping it would make it. Smoke began to waft up from the tire in the last mile. By the time I arrived, the tire had melted.

Nissan Roadside Assistance towed me to the closest Nissan dealer the next morning after my shift. Miraculously, I hadn’t destroyed the wheel. I decided to replace all four nearly new tires with Bridgestone run-flats, similar to the ones on our Rogue. The service people thought I was a little crazy for replacing tires with only 2000 miles on them, but since Nissan hadn’t chosen to give me a spare, the run-flats were the only option for me, at a cost of nearly $800.

If that had been the only problem with my LEAF, it could be excused. However, my battery had a surprise for me, as well.

The Ugly

There are two types of pure electric vehicles (EVs). One type has an active cooling system for the battery. Teslas and the new Chevy Bolt are good examples. Heat is the enemy of a lithium-ion battery like this, and the cooling system does a good job keeping the battery healthy and preserving its capacity. I’ve heard that some higher-mileage Teslas lost only 5-10 percent of their capacity after 100,000 miles.

The other type does NOT have an active cooling system. The LEAF is the most prominent example. Many LEAF owners, particularly in warm climates like Arizona, Texas, and Florida, report unusually rapid battery degradation. I’d heard a bit about this phenomenon, but understood that the more recent LEAFS had a new type of battery (the “lizard battery”) that handles heat much better.

Apparently, I was wrong.

I won’t bore you with the details (write me through my contact page if you’re an EV junkie and want all my LeafSpy stats), but after just over 15,000 miles, I’ve already lost 15-20 percent of my capacity. I’m losing over 1 percent of my range for every 1,000 miles that I drive. Brand new, my range was around 105-110 miles with a full charge. Now it’s 85-90 miles after only one year. At this rate, by the time I reach 40,000 miles, my range will be down to 60-65 miles. With a 50+ mile commute, that will feel a little tight.

Fortunately, Nissan offers a generous warranty against battery capacity loss. They will repair or (more typically) replace my 30 kWh battery if I lose 4 capacity bars within 8 years or 100,000 miles. At my current rate, they’ll owe me a new battery sometime in 2019 after 35,000-40,000 miles. Numerous other LEAF owners, especially ones with the larger 30 kWh battery like mine, are experiencing rapid battery degradation, some much worse than mine. So there seems to be a fundamental flaw with the LEAF’s engineering, but at least Nissan seems to be good about honoring the warranty.

At this point, I haven’t decided what to do. The battery decay disappoints me greatly. I really, really wanted to love this car. With a stable battery and better range, I would. But I’m already considering how and when to replace my LEAF and kicking myself for not holding out for my reserved Tesla Model 3. Right now I’m leaning toward trading my LEAF in for a Chevy Bolt sometime in late 2018 or 2019.

If you’re considering an EV, please don’t be discouraged. The concept works. However, I urge you to consider ONLY those EVs that have an active cooling system for the battery.

My New Year’s Resolution: To Quit Putting Gasoline in My Car

leaf
My 2016 Nissan LEAF SL at a charging station

“There are two doors. Behind Door Number One is a completely sealed room, with a regular, gasoline-fueled car. Behind Door Number Two is an identical, completely sealed room, with an electric car. Both engines are running full blast.

I want you to pick a door to open, and enter the room and shut the door behind you. You have to stay in the room you choose for one hour. You cannot turn off the engine. You do not get a gas mask.

I’m guessing you chose the Door Number Two, with the electric car, right? Door number one is a fatal choice – who would ever want to breathe those fumes?

This is the choice the world is making right now.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger, from his awesome Facebook post on climate change

It finally happened, and a bit sooner than planned. I traded in my gasmobile for an electric vehicle, or EV as they say.

It’s a 2016 Nissan LEAF, and I love it.

How I Got Here

The idea of an electric vehicle intrigued my treehuggerness for years, but the affordable EVs didn’t have enough range for my taste, and the ones that did (Teslas) were way out of my price range. When we built our new home, I justified my much longer commute by swearing to get an EV fairly soon thereafter to reduce the associated emissions. I even had the builder install a dedicated 50 amp circuit and 14-50 outlet so the house would be ready when the car arrived. All that remained was the right car.

The Nissan LEAF had been around for a while, but with only a 24 kWh battery that provided around 80 miles of range, which would gradually decrease over time like all lithium-ion batteries. Actual driving conditions, including the outside temperature, highway vs. city driving, and interior climate control, could reduce the range further. For a 50-mile roundtrip commute, I wanted a bigger battery. For 2016, Nissan added an option for a 30 kWh battery that boosted the range to around 107 miles. That sounded doable, but by then I’d been distracted by a new entrant: the Tesla Model 3.

Announced in March 2016, it promised 200+ mile range, sex appeal, great performance, a purchase process free of haggling and finance managers and annoying salespeople, and the fascinating possibility of fully autonomous driving. I plunked down a reservation deposit before it was even unveiled and hoped the Wizard could deliver on his promises despite Tesla’s track record of taking a couple years longer than planned to deliver a new model.

Time passed. We paid off Jenny’s new Nissan Rogue, which we love. We started saving toward the Tesla. Then around Christmastime, I learned something that perhaps I should have anticipated – Nissan was offering huge year-end discounts on the 2016 LEAF. With the 200-mile Chevy Bolt about to hit the market and the Model 3 coming in about a year, LEAF sales had dropped, and the dealers needed to move some off the lot. I started thinking about how I’d want to configure my Model 3 – autopilot, all-wheel drive, leather, premium sound – and how much more all those extras would cost compared to a new LEAF. Also, the LEAF was available right now with acceptable range, while my Tesla Model 3 might be available in…a year? Eighteen months? Even longer? If it took long enough, Tesla might have sold enough of the Model S and Model X to start expiring the $7500 tax credit, further increasing the price of the Model 3. Hmm…get a really nice car for a great price and quit burning gasoline now, or pay $15-20k more in 12-24 months to achieve the same basic goal? I was sold.

Buying My LEAF

Actually buying the LEAF from Nissan of McKinney required the same annoying process I’ve used to buy other cars, but I got through it. I chose a red 2016 Nissan LEAF SL with the 30 kWh battery and lots of other goodies. I negotiated the deal via email as usual, traded in my faithful 2007 Honda Fit after 163,000 miles, told the usual cheesy finance managers that no, I really am NOT going to buy their cheesy extended warranty and prepaid maintenance, and finally drove off. On top of the dealer discounts, I also qualify for the $7500 tax credit for the 2016 tax year, which brought the effective cost into the range I normally like to pay for a car. Now, let’s move on to the fun stuff!

Charging and Range

Obviously, the fuel source is the biggest difference between an EV and an ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicle. It was a weird feeling to drive away from the dealer knowing that every gas station was irrelevant, and that I had about 110 miles of range before I needed to recharge. I’m still adjusting to that after two weeks. There are mobile apps that show you where nearby charging stations are. They aren’t nearly as ubiquitous as gas stations, but there are more than you probably realize if you don’t drive an EV. Most of them are part of a charging network such as Chargepoint, Blink, or EVGo. Some are free, while others cost a bit. Southwest Airlines generously provides free charging at my office, so I drove to work that night and started my first charge. You get access cards that you can swipe at the charging stations, but often you can start the charge with the mobile app as well. Most charging stations you’ll see are dubbed Level 2 and can add about 20 miles of range per hour of charging. That’s the type I installed a few days later in my garage. There are also Level 3 charging stations at some commercial locations. They can take my LEAF from empty to 80 percent in about 30 minutes. These chargers use so much power at once (something like 125 amps – SWEET HOLY MOLY) that they aren’t really practical for home use, but they are a great way to lure EV customers to a business. Some DFW-area Cracker Barrels have Level 3 chargers, which is genius. You plug in, go inside for lunch, and come out to a nearly charged EV.

stations

DFW-area charging stations

My charging station is a JuiceBox Pro 40. Although very industrial-looking, it’s super simple and works great. Most of the time I charge at home with my JuiceBox. Yes, I could charge for free at work, but at home I can use my solar panels and renewable West Texas wind energy that I buy from Green Mountain Energy to further reduce my carbon impact. The JuiceBox lets me delay the start time until the sun comes up so I’m using more solar power to charge my car. If I need to, I can always charge at work or find a charging station.

The car estimates your remaining range based on your recent driving conditions. Fully charged, it might say I have 120 miles, but it seems that’s only accurate for city driving. High speeds, cold temperatures (the battery doesn’t like to be too cold), running the heat or air conditioning, aggressive acceleration, and climbing hills all reduce the range.

Charging and range force an EV driver to think a bit differently and plan their trips more carefully. An ICE driver can fill up almost anywhere in 5 minutes, but we can only charge in certain places, and charging can take quite a while. For commuting and short trips, an EV can be fantastic. Longer trips are possible if you plan your charging stops and allow enough time. Over the next few years, we’ll see more Level 2 and Level 3 charging stations that will make EVs more practical for longer trips and less populated areas.

To really test the limits, this week I tried two round trips to work on a single charge. After the first, I had 55 percent of the battery left and about 65 miles of estimated range for a 50-mile trip. No problem! But during trip 2, I fought a strong headwind on the highway and saw my range estimate drop to about 19 miles when I had at least 10 miles left to go. That’s when the squirming began. A few miles from home, it replaced my estimated remaining range with dashes, warned me, and offered to show me the nearest public charging station. With about a mile to go, the battery’s remaining capacity showed only dashes, and I found myself wondering how much the LEAF weighed and whether I could push it home. Finally, I parked in my garage, pleased that I’d made two full roundtrips but swearing never to test my range that far again.

Driving an EV

My LEAF is fun to drive. It has a Normal mode that feels quite peppy plus an Eco mode that limits your acceleration to conserve power. The battery is big and heavy and sit under the floor, so the car’s center of gravity is low and provides good stability. To further conserve power, you can also use Brake mode to use resistance from the electric motor to slow the car down when you take your foot off the acceleration. It’s a weird feeling a first, like you suddenly rolled into some mud. Brake mode quickly became a game to me as I tried to figure out the perfect spot to let off the gas – too soon, and I have to accelerate a bit to get to the intersection, too late, and I still have to use the pedal brakes. Speaking of brakes, the LEAF has normal brakes that also regenerate electricity. So between these features and the greatly increased drag at high speeds, I get much better range in city driving versus highway.

Besides the fuel source, perhaps the biggest difference from an ICE vehicle is how eerily quiet an EV is. The motor is nearly silent. You sometimes hear a faint, high-pitched whirring sound, but that’s it. Supposedly there’s a speaker under the good that produces some fake engine noise at low speeds to warn oblivious pedestrians. In reverse gear, it beeps like a construction vehicle for the same reason. Otherwise you probably wouldn’t hear it coming, just like an electric golf cart. When I start the car, I only know it’s on from the interior lights, fan, and music. They could have added fake Ferrari engine noise just for fun, but I guess someone nixed that. The near silence of the motor makes the interior extremely quiet, so my music is much easier to hear.

Other Fun Toys

As a data nerd, I love all the data that the LEAF throws my way. On top of the estimated range, it gives me the battery’s current charge percentage, my average and current energy economy measured in miles/kWh, and a power use bar that’s sorta like a tachometer. It’s in the neutral position when the car is stopped. It moves to the right with white dots when you’re using the throttle and to the left with green dots when you’re regenerating electricity through the pedal brake or slowing down in Brake mode. So it quickly trains you to drive more efficiently. Also, its navigation system includes charging stations in case you don’t have an app for that. If you need to charge away from home, you can find a station in the nav system and then get visual and spoken directions to it.

Another of my favorite features is the LEAF mobile app and a free 3G cellular connection. At any time I can check on the car through the app to get the current charge level or to preheat or precool for me. On a few cold nights at work this week, I set the heater to come on at 5:55am so it would be warm by the time I reached the car a little after 6:00am. I’ve enjoyed the heated steering wheel more than I had expected. The app also gives me additional stats about my driving, such as distance driven and kWh consumed per day, CO2 savings, and comparisons to other LEAF drivers regarding my driving habits.

Cost to Charge

What does it cost to charge? That’s a more complex question than it might seem. At home, where I pay 10.8c/kWh, completely filling my empty 30kWh battery costs about $3.25 and gets me about 100 miles of range. However, I’ll hardly ever completely drain the battery, so a typical charge costs less, and it could be free depending on where I charge. But we’re all used to thinking about the cost of a gallon of gas and miles per gallon, right? So let’s do some math and clarify things a bit, looking at my 50-mile roundtrip commute to work.

Depending on how I drive, I generally average around 4 miles per kWh of electricity. It would be higher but over half my miles are on the highway, which is less efficient. So for my commute, I’ll use around 13 kWh of electricity. If I charge at home, that’s about $1.40 worth of electricity. My Honda Fit got great mileage, maybe 33 mpg. So I’d use 1.5 gallons of gas for the same commute. At $2.00/gallon, that’s $3.00 worth of gas. So the fuel cost per mile for me is less than half what I was paying, even for an efficient ICE vehicle like the Fit.

Obviously, the relative cost varies with the cost of electricity and gasoline and the efficiency of the vehicles. The numbers would look even better with a more typical situation. Let’s say you shop around for electricity via PowerToChoose.org and are paying a more reasonable 8c/kWh, and your daily ICE vehicle gets 25 mpg. Your electric cost would be about $1.00 versus $4.00 for your gasmobile.

Maintenance

Since there’s no ICE, the maintenance is much simpler for an EV. I still have the usual tires, brake fluid, wipers, etc. Surprisingly, there is a coolant system for the battery, and its fluid needs to be changed after 125,000 miles or so. But there isn’t any engine oil, transmission fluid, spark plugs, or other maintenance related to an engine. The battery should last for several years and will slowly lose capacity over time. However, from what I’ve read, this isn’t a huge issue so far. By the time I need to replace the battery, probably several years from now, I expect the replacement battery to be much cheaper and have much higher capacity than the batteries available right now.

Wrapup

I’m really pleased I made the switch to the LEAF from the Model 3. No, I didn’t get Ludicrous Mode to go 0-60 in 2.5 seconds, and I can’t read a book while my car drives me to work. However, I love knowing that I’ve already stopped polluting the air with my long commute from suburbia. It’s a blast to drive, has a fantastic sound system, is very comfortable, and doesn’t make me visit a nasty gas station every 4-5 days.

Finally, if you’re interested in getting an electric car but understandably don’t want to buy new, there are some fantastic deals on preowned LEAFs in the $10-15k range. Most will have the 24 kWh battery, but they might make a great commuter car for you. The preowned ones don’t qualify for the federal tax credit, but it’s already baked into the low price of the car.

Six-Month Update on Our Solar Panels

We installed our solar panels in March 2016, and they’ve done great! After six months of usage, I put together some numbers in case you’re interested in how they’ve performed. If you missed my initial solar panel post, you can read it here. This is a 7.0 kW, 28-panel system facing half east and half west.

Six-Month Summary
Here is a summary of our data from April through September, the half of the year when we get the most sun and use the most electricity due to the air conditioner.

Total Avg/Month
Solar Production 5343 kWh 891 kWh
Total Usage 7612 kWh 1269 kWh
Energy Sold Back to Power Company 2797 kWh 466 kWh
Energy Produced and Used 2546 kWh 424 kWh
Total Financial Benefit (at 10.8c/kWh) $577 $96.17

Monthly Data
The panels produced more than we used this spring, so we actually built up a nice credit with Green Mountain Energy for the first couple of months. Then as the temperatures rose and we started using the a/c, the panels couldn’t produce enough to keep up, so we started using up our credit and finally had to start paying for power again. Here are the details month by month:

Month Power Generated Power Used Effective Electric Bill Savings
April 800 kWh 489 kWh $-33.59 $86.40
May 837 kWh 812 kWh $-2.70 $90.40
June 994 kWh 1503 kWh $54.97 $107.35
July 1080 kWh 1623 kWh $58.64 $116.64
August 863 kWh 1768 kWh $97.94 $93.20
September 769 kWh 1417 kWh $69.98 $72.58

Estimated vs. Actual Production
Before installing our system, I used the Department of Energy’s PV Watts calculator to estimate our production. It was pretty accurate. So far we’re actually producing slightly more than expected, an average of 3.8 percent more during this period.

Time Period Estimated Production (kWh) Actual Production (kWh) Difference
April 815 800 (1.8%)
May 898 837 (6.8%)
June 927 994 7.2%
July 942 1080 14.6%
August 860 863 0.3%
September 705 769 9.1%
SIX-MONTH TOTAL 5147 5343 3.8%

Conclusion
We are very happy with how well the system is performing. It’s actually doing so well that we hope to add a pergola in our backyard and top it with additional solar panels to generate even more power. From October through March, we’ll largely stop using the air conditioner, so our monthly usage should drop to around 500-550 kWh. At the same time, we’ll obviously be getting less sun, so the savings from the panels won’t be quite as dramatic. I’ll try to post a full-year update in April 2017.

As always, if you would like any more information, just ask through my contact page.