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

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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.

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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.

“I’m Gonna Turn This Thing Around 360 Degrees!!”

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I think I’m about done with these winter ice storms.

Sunday night, I was driving to work after yet another Dallas ice storm (was this number 3 or 4 of the season?). My airline keeps flying whether the Dallas streets are dry or braking action nil, so I refuse to call in chicken to work when the roads are bad. If our Chicago ramp agents can throw bags during a blizzard, I can find a way to make it to work. After my spin-out in December, I decided to drive our gas-guzzling minivan since it carries significantly more heft than our little Honda Fit. You know, just in case anything happens.

Although the street in front of our house was mostly dry, and I’d already criticized Brenden’s school district on Facebook for canceling school AGAIN due to the ice, I quickly found that most of the streets were indeed slick. Maybe I should delete that Facebook comment, I thought. I was in the center lane, driving slowly and carefully. dreading the moment I’d felt three months ago when I could lose traction and begin to slide. But so far, so good. An Accord was ahead of me in the right lane, also driving slowly and carefully.

As we came around a curve, the Accord began to slide as I drew closer. It hit the right curb and bounced off. As I was passing it, the Accord began sliding back to the left. On the ice, I was afraid to make any sudden evasive maneuvers, so I just hoped I could move ahead before it crossed my path.

The Accord hit me on the right rear wheel, sending me spinning clockwise on the ice. I heard a crunching sound and felt a bump when it hit. A similar impact on dry streets probably would have been more dramatic, but the ice allowed my van to start moving more easily, so the damage wasn’t as bad. I know I did one 360-degree spin, maybe two. It happened so fast that I can be sure. I wish I’d had a GoPro recording on my dashboard. After a few seconds, the left rear tire hit a curb, bringing the van to a halt.

Well, this is a bit inconvenient, I thought.

I was wearing my seatbelt as always, and I wasn’t hurt, but I knew the van could be. I pulled over onto a side street and hoped the other driver would do the same. She did. I stepped out to see the damage.

The left rear tire was hissing flat, the rim banged up from hitting the curb. The right rear tire was shredded, which meant I wasn’t going anywhere in this vehicle. The rear fender had popped off on the right side and was hanging off. The right side panel was also dented near the wheel well. Overall, it wasn’t good news, but it could have been much, much worse.

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The other driver, a young woman, stayed put, but her boyfriend (?), a young man, climbed out of the passenger seat. We exchanged information and assured each other we were OK. He apologized. Their Accord was drivable but looked worse than my minivan, the front end banged up badly.

I got their insurance card and the driver’s license, taking pics of both with my phone. The insurance card was expired. He seemed surprised at first but assured me that he had renewed it and just hadn’t replaced the card. I suppose I wasn’t thinking clearly because I didn’t remember to record their license plate, photograph their car, or confirm the make/model/color. I didn’t even use my iWrecked app since I was in a hurry to get this resolved so I could get to work. We decided not to call and wait for the police since no one was hurt and both cars were drivable. With ice all over the area, I figured the cops were busy with more serious accidents.

Once we both were satisfied, I cautiously drove the van across the street to a small parking lot outside a self-service car wash. Driving with both rear tires flat felt odd, like I was driving through sand or pulling a trailer. Then I started calling work and Jenny to figure out what to do. I was only a mile or so from home, and Jenny piled the boys into the Fit and drove out to get me. Then I drove her home and set out for work, arriving 30 minutes late and hoping the whole time that I would make it there without wrecking our other car.

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Low. Ri. Der. Drives a little slower.

We’ve been dealing with our insurance company (MetLife), renting a car from Enterprise during the week, and talking to the repair shop (Craig’s Collision). So far Enterprise has been great, giving me a sweet Nissan Maxima and billing it to MetLife since I had rental coverage. On the other hand, MetLife and Craig’s both seem stuck in molasses, taking their sweet time to get anything done. I initiate most of the phone calls. I had to call MetLife back Tuesday afternoon just to get them to come tow the van away from the car wash parking lot before someone else had it towed for me. The shop got the car late Tuesday afternoon but didn’t give us an estimate until Saturday morning. So we’ve spent all this week in limbo, wondering whether the damage would be enough to total a 2005 minivan with 90,000 miles.

We looked into both new and used cars just in case we had to buy something fast. Since we’d been considering a replacement for the minivan within the next couple years, we were excited about having a legitimate excuse to move ahead a bit early. However, we haven’t had a car payment in over six years, and financially it would be better to postpone that streak for another year until after we move.

MetLife has determined that the other driver was 100 percent at fault, which I agree with. However, the other insurance company hasn’t made a decision. From my little contact with them, they don’t seem to be the brightest bulbs in the box. The body shop says the repairs will cost $3615, which apparently is too little to total the minivan. I have mixed feelings about that. They estimate the repairs will be done in 1 1/2 to 2 weeks.

Come on, spring!

Blog Soup 9/26/2013

Hi! Things are a bit crazy in my house these days. I’m temporarily awake and free to blog, so here is an update on us.

  1. Except for me, my entire family is now in school full-time. Jenny has class all day Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday and also goes in sometimes on Thursday or Friday. Brenden is in kindergarten five days a week from 7:45-2:45. Jonathan is in preschool five days a week as well. I’m still trying to convince the boys that I really have spent many, many years in school and don’t need to go anymore.
  2. Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays are a bit tough for me. I get off work at 6:00, come home to help get the boys ready, take them to school, and crawl into bed around 8:15-8:30am. Then I get up at 2:00pm and pick them up. Plus Monday nights the boys have swim lessons at 5:45 and 6:45 in Southlake. So I’m usually pretty tired the first half of the week, not to mention the rest of the family.
  3. Jenny is probably studying more than she has in her entire school career. The material isn’t difficult for her, but the volume is staggering – tons of reading, video modules, and skills training. Despite the workload, she is keeping up and doing great. Starting in two weeks, she’ll be at Baylor Grapevine once a week working with real patients on a limited basis.
  4. I am embarrassed that Ted Cruz represents my state in the US Senate. If you’re not sure why, this editorial should help.
  5. The polls don’t show it since we haven’t played any tough opponents yet, but my Baylor Bears are one of the best teams in college football this year. They have a real shot at the Big 12 championship and a BCS bowl. Yes, it does feel a bit insane to write such things, but our defense is finally catching up to our ridiculous offense, and that should scare every team we’ll face this season. In our three games so far, our defense has scored more touchdowns (4) than it has allowed (3). We have tickets for the Oklahoma game Nov 7, our first real test of the season.
  6. I really want a media room / man cave with a nice projector, comfy seats, a wet bar, and soundproofed walls. You know, something like this. Since our current living room is open to the upstairs hallway where the bedrooms are and directly under our bedroom, my subwoofer doesn’t get much use when I have some downtime to watch movies or play games. Someday!
  7. Brenden is selling chocolate for his school’s PTA. I loathe cheesy fundraisers like this and would happily write the organization a big check rather than guilt-trip my family and friends and neighbors into buying overpriced junk they don’t want. I actually planned to refuse to participate. However, I forgot one crucial element: the fundraiser people give the kids incentives to sell. Brenden came home with his box of candy bars determined to sell two boxes so he could get get to play in the Game Truck (r) when it comes to his school. So guess what? I’m selling chocolate on his behalf. 🙂 To their credit, the chocolate company has improved its recipe, and the chocolate is now quite good.
  8. I did not sign up for the international desk at work next year. The international flights are interesting and the workload is light, but since you need a special qualification to work the desk, it’s difficult to trade an international shift away if needed. Since Jenny will have EARLY morning clinicals two days a week next year, I need to keep my trading flexibility. I might try it again in 2015 if I think we can make it work.
  9. Once we have the cash, I’d like to replace the Grand Caravan with a Mazda5 and the Fit with a Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt. However, right now we’re saving up for other things, so we’ll try to squeeze a few more years from our current vehicles.
  10. The boys now have passports! I’m not sure when we’ll use them yet, but they are ready. We might do an awesome cruise after Jenny finishes school in May 2015. Once the Wright Amendment restrictions are loosened in October 2014, flying to cruise ports from Dallas on SWA will become much easier.

First Family Vacation to Galveston

On Sunday, we hopped on the company plane, flew to Houston, and drove to Galveston for our first ever family vacation. It was an exhausting trip, but we survived, and the boys had a great time!

Photos from Our Trip

First Flights for Jonathan

We intentionally picked a short, wide-open flight for Jonathan’s first. That way if it didn’t go well, we wouldn’t bother as many people, and it would be over quicker. DAL-HOU is nearly as short as we could get, about 40-45 minutes in the air. After much debate over whether to bring their carseats onboard or to check them, we chose to check them. The boys had their own seats and sat very nicely after getting buckled in. I sat with Brenden on the way down and Jonathan on the way back, letting them watch part of a movie on my new iPad with kid-sized headphones. Jenny had their bag with a portable DVD player, paper, stickers, and other goodies to keep them entertained. Jonathan was a bit nervous at first, especially during takeoff, but didn’t seem bothered by the pressure in his ears. Later he said his favorite part was flying through the clouds. Brenden handled it like a veteran flyer.

Rental Car / Test Drive

We’d rented a standard mid-size car at Hobby. I was pleasantly surprised when they offered a Mazda5 SUV-minivan-crossover thing at no extra charge. We’ve been thinking about replacing our Grand Caravan with a Mazda5 in a couple of years, so this gave us the chance to test-drive it. As expected, it’s a cross between my Honda Fit and a minivan – sliding side doors, slightly longer and more spacious with an extra row of seats or storage in back, good gas mileage, and very comfortable. My only real complaint was the stereo, which needed more bass. I need to be able to crank Baby Got Back with feeling, and the Mazda5 just wasn’t up for it. That’s probably fixable, though. Brenden liked the vehicle so much that he wanted to take it home.

Ferry and Beach

We rode the free ferry across the bay. It was the boys’ first trip on a ferry, and a friend had told Jenny it was a great way to see dolphins. And the friend was right. The bay is teeming with dolphins. We probably saw a few dozen. Each sighting was brief, so watching for them required a level of patience that the boys didn’t quite have yet. But they did see a few and got really excited.

Then we played on the beach for a while, their first trip to the beach. Lots of firsts on this trip! We went to Stewart Beach, a family-friendly public beach across Seawall Blvd. from our hotel. The beach was free, but parking was $8. I’ll be honest. I’ve been to some amazing beaches (Ambergris Caye in Belize, Orient Beach in St. Martin, Panama City Beach in Florida, several in Hawaii, etc.), but this wasn’t one of them. Some of the other beaches in Galveston are probably nicer, like the ones I remember from childhood trips to the island. However, this year at Stewart Beach, the water was muddy, the sand was dirty, and the beach workers’ only concern seemed to be managing the rental chairs and umbrellas. But it was cheap, close to the hotel, and had sand, sea, and freshwater showers. More importantly, the boys had a blast digging in the sand, playing in the water, chasing seagulls, and just running around carefree. Brenden played Godzilla with any sandcastle that we built and immediately demolished it. None survived long enough to get a picture.

Rainforest Cafe

Grapevine Mills Mall features a Rainforest Cafe that I’ve seen numerous times but never patronized. Since we were on vacation with the boys, we gave it a try and were pleasantly surprised. Yes, it’s a bit expensive, but the food was MUCH better than I’d heard. My macadamia-encrusted tilapia tasted fantastic, as did Jenny’s bacon-wrapped shrimp. The theming is Disney-level, with animatronic elephants, gorillas, and anacondas plus simulated thunderstorms and authentic-looking rainforest trees. Our server was obviously comfortable with children and provided excellent service. After a bit of debate, we chose to try the Volcano, a ridiculously huge and amazing dessert that probably contains as many calories as I burned in Hotter’N Hell on Saturday. We ate all of it but one piece of chocolate cake.

On the drive to Rainforest, I was shocked to discover that a longtime Galveston landmark had been torn down. The Flagship Hotel, formerly one of the only hotels in the world to be built on a pier, had been demolished and replaced with a small, questionably named amusement park called Pleasure Pier. Apparently, the hotel took major damage from Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Hotel

We stayed at the Best Western Plus on the east end of the island. It’s nothing fancy, just clean and cheap with decent free breakfast and a beach across the street. They let us check in early, which was very helpful. The toughest thing about the hotel was sleeping with the boys. This time we wore them out during the day, put them in separate beds while we got ready and checking our mail/Facebook/Twitter/etc., and waited for them to fall asleep. Once they did, Jenny moved Brenden into bed with Jonathan. It worked great until about 4:30am. One of them woke up and woke the other one up, and after that they were done. Jenny and Brenden swapped places. Finally, after some talking and tossing and turning, everyone went back to sleep.

Overall, it was a great trip. We learned some valuable lessons that we hope to apply for the Disney trip in January. Unfortunately, Jenny and I started off exhausted after Hotter’N Hell on Saturday morning and insufficient sleep the night before, so we weren’t in the best of moods until we got home Monday and napped for a while. The boys were tired as well after playing all day Sunday without a nap and then lack of sleep Sunday night. But instead of being grumpy like I was, they simply chose not to obey and seemed to have a flawless ability to push our buttons at the worst possible time. So the trip stressed Jenny and me out significantly, but the boys had a wonderful time, which is the most important thing. They already want to go back.

Scammers

I am tired of getting ripped off.

Over the last six months, several people have tried to defraud or steal from me.

Credit Card Fraud

I got my first credit card at age 18. Despite running as many purchases as possible through my cards, including countless online transactions, I never had someone compromise my credit card until last year. I guess I was due. On two different occasions, someone somehow got my credit card number and started running up charges. In November, someone spent maybe $200 at a Speedway gas station in Illinois. (Using a stolen credit card number to buy gas? Really? Why not something fun like an Apple store?) Then in December, someone in Tokyo ran up several charges totaling several hundred dollars at a gas station (gas again – what gives?) plus some other businesses I couldn’t figure out.

I caught the charges quickly thanks to Mint.com. I use its iPhone app to check my credit card balances at least once a day, enabling me to know my balance and see what charges appear. Each time I found something fraudulent, I called Chase, and they took care of it. The first incident was extremely easy. The Tokyo incident took at least three phone calls and was much more frustrating, but I think everything is wrapped up now.

Any informed borrower is simply less vulnerable to fraud and abuse. — Alan Greenspan

I have no idea how the thieves got my numbers. I only enter my credit card numbers at reputable, secure sites. I don’t fall for phishing emails. Apparently, thieves sometimes use cameras or special equipment to snag numbers at gas station pumps, so maybe that’s what happened. I doubt I’ll ever know. But I’m thankful that Chase dismissed the charges instead of making me eat them.

Texting Fraud

One October day while I was sleeping after work, I was rudely awoken by a strange text. It looked like spam and said something like, “You have been signed up for LongLifeLoveTips for only $9.99/month. Text STOP to cancel.” Half-awake, I was afraid to respond to a spam text, thinking my response would only confirm that the spammer had found a legitimate mobile phone number. I ignore spam emails for the same reason, so I figured it worked the same way.

Then I got my AT&T bill and saw that my friends at LongLifeLoveTips really had charged me $9.99.

Foolishly, I ignored that charge as well and hoped they would just go away. I was wrong. Then I got another text from them in November saying that my subscription had been renewed for another $9.99. I was especially upset because I hadn’t gotten a single Long Life Love Tip. (Is that a fortune? Sex advice? Health tips? Lottery numbers? Digits for someone who wants a date?) This time I texted back with STOP and got a reply saying my “subscription” would be canceled.

Finally, I got it through my thick skull that I needed to overcome my reluctance to complain to customer service people and actually contact AT&T. Naturally, I took the easy road and emailed them through their website. (I also figured out who was behind the scam and sent them a strongly worded email. I’m sure they repented immediately.)

Emailing AT&T actually worked. They responded within a day and put a credit on my bill the next month for both charges.

Auto Shop Fraud

Recently my car told me it was time to change the oil. Instead of standard service intervals, my Honda Fit (and many other Honda models) has a Maintenance Minder system that monitors the condition of my oil and keeps track of its remaining useful life. Once it gets down to 15 percent, I get a warning light. Cool, eh? It usually works out to around 7500 miles.

Rather fail with honor than succeed by fraud. — Sophocles

I went to the local City Garage, which has treated us well in the past with no upselling pressure. This time the manager was there instead of the guy we normally talk to. She tells me my oil is very dirty and a quart low and recommends an engine oil flush. Never mind that I just checked the oil a week or so ago and its level was fine. I’ve never found the oil below full in 5.5 years of ownership. The color was brown when I checked it, but I would hardly call it “very dirty”. But the flush sounded like a good idea since I was approaching 70,000 miles and had never done it before. (turns out that was a foolish decision that did nothing but add $20 to my bill)

It got better after that. She asked (accusingly?) whether I’d gotten my oil changed somewhere else since I came in last. My windshield sticker said I was a few thousand miles overdue. I said no, I followed the manufacturer’s recommendations and the Maintenance Minder. She explained that the Maintenance Minder was set up for standard conditions rather than severe conditions, and that around here I should use the severe maintenance schedule due to my short trips and our “extreme heat and cold”. Yes, she actually referred to extreme cold in Dallas, where we haven’t dropped below 25 all winter and probably wouldn’t. We argued about it briefly, with me explaining that my driving pattern matched the normal schedule. She obviously wasn’t convinced but wisely decided not to press the matter too much.

The kicker was the air filter. The technician working my car brought my air filter in, and the manager said it looked dirty and recommended changing it. The filter is 5 months old. I replaced it in August 2011, according to the record I checked when I got home. I told her I thought I had changed it pretty recently. At that point she looked closer at it and then explained to the technician that she could still see through the filter, so it was okay.

Wow.

So we’re now in the market for yet another oil change shop. I could avoid getting ripped off by doing it myself, but I just don’t enjoy working on cars. Maybe I’ll try Christian Brothers and see if they live up to their name. Do you recommend anyone?

Online Defensive Driving

Partly because I’m a nerd and mostly because I like to save money, I am taking a defensive driving course online through DefensiveDriving.com. So far it’s not too bad! It uses streaming video and does a good job of mixing up the content to keep it interesting. The course only takes 6 hours, and that includes mandatory 12-minute breaks. For $25 and a few hours of my time, I can save up to 10 percent on my auto insurance for the next three years. Plus I’ll be a better driver, at least in theory. I’ve actually learned a few things, and most of the other info is simply a good reminder.