Category Archives: Minimalist-Eco Road Trip

Eco-trip—It’s a Wrap

Electric vehicle travel will get easier---a brand new charger in Danbury, CT, one of several on our route that became operational in the weeks since I first planned our stops.

Electric vehicle travel will get easier—a brand new charger in Danbury, CT, one of several on our route that became operational in the weeks since I first planned our stops.

Well, we got home the other day, after something like 2,700 all-electric miles with the Leaf. We stopped to charge about 54 times (including charging at night during our stops), and it got to be quite easy on the way back, partly because we retraced our trip and knew where the chargers were. It was also easier because several new fast-chargers came online along our route just in the weeks since I first planned the trip, like the one in Danbury, CT, in the photo above. Our longest leg turned out to be on the way home, an 84-mile section around NYC in rush-hour traffic (we skipped a charger that was in a slightly bad neighborhood). We got to Jim Harte Nissan in Mt. Kisco, NY, with about 12 miles left, which was also the lowest we had the batteries on the whole trip. And, it was fun, we’ll do something like this again. It was also cheap, nearly all of the chargers are free (though I suppose I pay my lease payment to Nissan every month, in return for using the chargers at the dealerships). Just a few final thoughts to close out the Eco-trip subject–

— I quit following big trucks. I could get better range by doing so, but it became obvious after a while that it was clearly a more dangerous way to drive. (See the note that I added to my post from last week.)

— As mentioned above, there are more chargers coming on-line all the time. It will soon be pretty easy to travel like this, especially in parts of the country where there is more infrastructure for EVs.

Our last charge, and it was at an alternate location--there were quite a few fast-chergers that were down on our return trip.

Our last charge on the way home, in Rutland, VT. This was an alternate location—there were quite a few fast-chergers that were down on our return trip..

— I’ve said this before, but have a backup plan. Quite a few of the fast-chargers on the way back were off-line for one reason or another, and we had to adjust our plans (at least three of the Nissan chargers had overheating errors; I think they have a design glitch that they need to work on). This is also a reminder that all of this infrastructure is new; my guess is that these systems will get more reliable over time as they get the bugs worked out.

— And, last but not least, just as we got into Vermont on the way back we stopped in Brattleboro, and happened to meet Bill Rich, one of the participants in the Kick Gas movie about crossing the country with EV’s. He was charging his Zero motorcycle, having just completed a trip to Mexico and back. I’ve posted it before, but once again, here’s a link to the Kick Gas movie trailer. (We tried to figure out where the whole movie is online now, but didn’t have much luck. It’s out there somewhere…)

So, if I had to sum up the whole experience—driving long-distance in an EV is a more sustainable way to travel, and we enjoyed it, but it takes longer than zooming along non-stop in a gas car. But, with more and more charging infrastructure, it should get quite a bit easier. We’ll be doing it more—after this trip, I don’t think we’ll have many qualms about taking off to much closer places like Boston. And I think I’m going to aim for creating much less trash here at home, maybe next time we’ll up the difficulty a bit and do the eco-trip trash-free. I’ll practice that part here at the house first…

 

 

Eco-Trip Day Four—How to Travel Fast and Far in an EV

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Another EV-day…

(Note, 25 July 2015— In this post I discuss following a large vehicle to increase efficiency, and I need to add a great big caveat— even if you are a few lengths back, it is clearly more dangerous to drive like this. In one case on our return trip a tractor-trailer changed lanes abruptly as his lane ended, which left me with no lane in heavy traffic at highway speeds. In another case a truck ran a red light on a limited-access highway, and I ran it too because I couldn’t see ahead of me well enough. So, unless it’s an emergency where you need the range, I’d avoid following someone for mile after mile, it just isn’t safe. Charge enough before you leave that you don’t have to do it.)

Well, we’ve now traveled 1,211.7 all-electric miles. We’re almost there, so this will be my last daily eco-trip post, unless something dramatic happens in the next few hours. Yesterday went smoothly, despite hitting one charger last night in Indianapolis that kept setting an error. But, I had a backup plan, and some backup juice in the car. In fact, that’s been an important lesson on the trip—have a backup plan, and be conservative with your “chunks”. The sweet spot seems to be the fifty or so miles between 30% charge and 90%– keep that bottom part for backup, and don’t take the time to charge that top 10%, because it takes longer, and just do repeated 50 or 60 miles chunks in the middle.

So, back to the title of this post, yesterday I figured out how to deal with these places where the interstate is the only good option, and the speed limits are 70mph. This is what threw me off the other night—going 70 uses quite a bit more battery power, and really lowers your range. BUT, it’s not safe to be poking along in traffic that’s moving 75mph or faster. But I’ve got this problem figured out—I would pick a great big semi-truck that’s not going quite as fast as the others, and get a few car-lengths behind it. Get this—with a truck breaking the wind, I was able to average right at 100 miles per charge (though I wasn’t using the whole charge in one go), which, for the Leaf, is a mile per percent of battery charge. Pretty amazing to be whizzing along at 65mph and be getting the same range I would normally get driving carefully at 50mph.

Travelling a few car lengths behind something big and slower...

Travelling a few car lengths behind something big and slower. I was actually closer than the photo makes it look, but not tailgating-close… I followed this prison bus for a good long while.

At first I was trying to catch up to slower trucks ahead, but then realized that it’s better to just get on the highway and drive slightly slower than most of the traffic, and wait for a big semi with a box trailer to go by, preferably one that was catching up with me slowly. Then I would speed up a bit and get three or so car lengths behind it. Then, if the truck I was following passed another, slower, truck, then I didn’t pass, but would get behind the slower one. Anyway, definitely the ticket for making some time while not burning through the battery charge, and for dealing with super-fast traffic.

So, it’s been fun. We’ll be doing it all in reverse in a few weeks, but I don’t expect it to be too much different from this trip, so I won’t be doing a daily post. It’s been cheap, too, most of the chargers are free. I enjoy the pace, and I think the rest of the family does too—just when I get tired of driving, it’s about time to get out and walk or do something. Then, about the time I get tired of hanging out, it’s time to drive again. That, combined with seeing backroads and places that I normally would bypass, has made it interesting. I’ll be travelling like this again, and I suspect it will get easier and easier as more fast-chargers get installed.

 

It all fits! Camping and travel gear for four people, plus the car chargers.

It all fits in the back! Camping and travel gear for four people, plus the car chargers.

 

Charging in Columbus, Ohio. These Signet chargers are by far the least reliable of all the chargers, in my opinion. Fortunately, this one was working.

Charging in the rain in Columbus, Ohio. These Signet chargers are by far the least reliable of all the fast-chargers, in my opinion. Fortunately, this one was working.

 

Eco-Trip Day 3— More Than One Way to Skin a Cat

Campground level-2 in action...

Campground level-2 in action, with rigged-up adapter.

Well, day three was eventful. I knew from my planning that there were a few places along our route where there weren’t any good backups in case we had trouble with a charger. One of those places was Altoona, PA, and when we got there this morning, the charger wouldn’t read my credit card and wouldn’t turn on. Hmmmm. Nothing on Plugshare within 50 miles, and we had 29 on the meter. Short version of this story—after a bit of rigmarole, we realized that there was a Nissan dealership just two blocks down with three level-2 chargers, it just wasn’t on Plugshare. But, it took several hours at level-2 to get back on the road, so we were running a bit behind. (I added it to Plugshare while we were waiting, so the next person might have an easier time).

Most of the rest of the day went well, until the very last leg. I realized about 20 miles in that due to a slight mileage miscalculation, that we either weren’t going to make it, or would be cutting it very, very close. Not a situation I wanted to get myself into, and I couldn’t slow down to gain some miles because we were on I-70 and it had a 70 mph speed limit. (It would be dangerous to go noticeably slower than all the other vehicles going 70+). So we pulled the plug (ha, no pun intended) on that plan, and stopped at a closer state park in Ohio. Very nice place, so it all worked out. My new 220v adapter worked well, but for some reason the level-2 charger kept tripping the breaker, so I switched back to the level-1 cord. The car will still get to 100% by morning, so that will be fine.

But, now we’re off schedule a bit, and in the middle of another one of those charger gaps. We’ll have to find someplace to charge between here and Columbus, but there are a few campgrounds between here and there, and a Nissan dealership, so we should be able to figure it out.

And, oddly, just like yesterday, the most frustrating part of the whole day was dealing with my new smart phone. I just got it a few days before we left, and I don’t find all of its features intuitive, which is a bit maddening when I need to use it to solve a problem. In fact, the other electronic gizmos were also causing problems again today, because we went to sleep last night without plugging them in, so halfway through today we had devices that weren’t charged up. Anyway, I think we’ve gone about 800 miles now, and should be getting close to my friend’s house in Illinois by tomorrow night.

So, off to bed, right after I plug all those devices in.

Eco-Road Trip Day 2—Heating Up

Ten bars on the temperature guage---working those batteries...

Up to the red on the temperature gauge—working those batteries by the end of the day…

Aaah, writing from the tent in a campground outside of Lewistown, PA. Day two is behind us, many stops and another 300 miles down the road. The Leaf is just outside, charging up with the Level-1 cord. I’m writing on my laptop via a wi-fi hotspot on my smart phone, which is related to the only frustrating aspect of the whole day—trying to get a Greenlots charger to turn on at noon with a combination of the smart-phone hot-spot, the phone, and the Greenlots app loaded onto an Apple I-pod (I eventually called and they turned it on remotely). A bit of excitement before that—we were going to skirt around the top of NYC, but missed an exit and ended up in the Bronx. Fortunately, the car had a nearly-full battery, and we managed, with some luck, to find the George Washington Bridge in the rush-hour traffic and get across to the chargers in New Jersey. On the good side, the kids got a nice view of the skyline from the bridge.

The main news of the day, though, is that we got up to the limit with regard to how hot we could get the batteries. If I had to generalize, I think that one full fill-up with a fast-charger bumps the temperature gauge up one bar. So, we started with six bars this morning, and the batteries got warmer all day, each time we charged. By 3 or 4 this afternoon, after charging in Lancaster, the temperature gauge was at the very top of its normal range; ten bars. So, in Harrisburg we parked it for an hour and went and ate supper, and it cooled off to nine bars, which let us charge one more time to do the last leg to the campground. I could charge into the red zone if I had to, but it would be hard on the battery pack, so I’ll avoid that. Not too big of a deal overall, but I think Nissan might need to add some active cooling to the Leaf battery system as fast-chargers become more common. Not too many people are travelling with their Leafs right now, but that will change.

Last charge of the day, after a cool-down.

Last charge of the day, after a one-hour cool-down.

While stopped today I made up some adapters to use at the campgrounds, but I didn’t need one of them tonight, this “30-amp” site does indeed have the “TT” 110v plug, but it also has a regular 110v outlet, so I was able to plug in without an adapter. I’ll try it out in the morning, though, just to see if it works, and when I get a chance I’ll try out the 220v one.

Finishing up the 220v adapter. Note the NEMA 14-50 plug, and the NEMA 6-50 receptacle, which our Level-2 charger will plug into.

Finishing up the 220v adapter. Note the NEMA 14-50 plug, and the NEMA 6-50 receptacle, which our Level-2 charger will plug into.

So, off to bed; we’ll see what tomorrow brings.

 

Eco-Trip Day One

A "throttled" charger. Even throttled fast-chargers are fast, though...

A “throttled” charger. Even throttled fast-chargers are fast, though…

We’re off! Day one is behind us, and it went super-well. The Leaf is impressive as always—quiet, quick, smooth, and enjoyable to drive. We drove from home to Danbury, Connecticut (we’re having to come several hundred miles south before we head west; that’s the line that let’s us hit the most fast-chargers). Not a long day, we probably went 250 miles, and charged five times, four of those at fast-chargers. And, I must be getting better at this, because it seemed easy, no “range-anxiety” at all, except for a brief few minutes where we thought we might have to do a long detour in the middle of the longest leg. But, even then we had a backup charger we could go to. And, like the trip the other week to Albany, I’m still learning some things. A very quick rundown—

— Tonight we’re at a hotel, but the remaining nights we’ll be camping, and charging, at campgrounds. So last night I looked up what the most common 220v plug was for RVs, and, drum roll– there seems to be only one common one, and it’s not the same as the plug on our Level-2 charger. In short, chargers come with NEMA 6-50 plugs, and RV’s use NEMA 14-50 plugs. So, brought a few tools, and we stopped by a Home Depot today and picked up what I need to make some short adapter cables. I’ll make two during the stops tomorrow, one for the Level-2 charger, and another for the Level-1 charge cord, because I also figured out that when campgrounds say “30 and 50-amp hookups”, the 30-amp part is 110v, using a NEMA TT-30 “travel trailer” plug. More on that tomorrow..

— The car batteries do heat up after many hours of driving and fast-charging. Outside temps were moderate today, between 60 and 75, and we started the day with 5 bars on the temperature gauge. It bumped up steadily all day, and by the time we got here it was at 8 bars. It doesn’t hit the red zone until after 10 bars, so I don’t think it will be a show-stopper. In general, though, high temps are a bit harder on the batteries. I will continue to observe…

A good lunch at the Brattleboro Co-op, a block from the chargers.

A good lunch at the Brattleboro Co-op, a block from the chargers. (Ignore the wadded up napkin!)

— The GPS is a life-saver. I don’t use it to tell me every turn to make, but I do keep the current map up. It’s well-thought-out, and gives the current speed limit of the road you’re on, and at the bottom  the name of the highway or street, both of which are very helpful. The display has grids on it, so you can tell quickly about how far away a location is (if the setting is on 1 mile per grid, and a town is three grids away on the map…). Anyway, good job Nissan. I missed a turn in a tiny town today, and realized the error within a minute or so.

— Not all chargers are created equal. Some of the fast-chargers are throttled to 50 or 60 amps, which is quite a bit less than the 107 amps or more that the car can take from a full-power DC fast-charger. All fast-chargers are pretty darn fast, though, compared to all the alternatives.

— Plugshare.com is by far the best site for charger information, in my (continuing) opinion.

Anyway, as in our trip the other week, it was a fun day. If I had to generalize—drive for an hour, walk around somewhere for 30 minutes, repeat. Really relaxing, though I can’t quite put my finger on why. A quick post here, excuse any typos, more tomorrow.

 

The Shakedown Cruise

trip7 cropped brighter

Off on a road trip…

We needed to go to Albany, New York, this weekend, and decided to take one of the Leafs, as a trial run for this summer’s planned trip across country. Albany isn’t super far, but we had to charge several times each way to get there, and probably drove 350 miles over the course of the weekend. Call it a shakedown cruise. Some pics and some short lessons-learned—

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Topping up at the fast-charger at Green Mountain Power, on the way through Rutland.

Mini-golf, next door to the Davidson Brewery (and charger) in Queensbury, NY.

Mini-golf, next door to the Davidson Brewery (and charger) in Queensbury, NY. We visited their tasting room; good beer.

Hmmm, not a good putt...

Hmmm, now that one wasn’t a good putt…

We charged twice to get to Albany, and then stayed at a Hampton Inn with a charger in the parking lot. There was a ten-dollar fee to charge, but we charged at another station near where we ate supper, so in the end we didn’t use the hotel chargers. In fact, all the charging was free for the whole trip.

Solar-powered charging at Green Mountain College, in Poultney, VT.

Solar-powered charging at Green Mountain College, in Poultney, VT.

On the way home we charged at the Kohl’s chargers in Saratoga Springs, NY, (and walked to Target from there), and then took small roads over to Poultney, VT, to charge at Green Mountain College. We ate lunch at the nearby Main Street Eatery while we waited. Good food, especially the ruben sandwich!

More PV at Green Mountain College, with sheep grazing underneath. They're in there, but they don't show up well in the photo.

More PV at Green Mountain College, with sheep grazing underneath. They’re in there, but they don’t show up well in the photo.

In the end, it was a really enjoyable trip, and I learned a few lessons about long(er) distance EV travel—

— It isn’t too conservative (in a Leaf) to plan to charge at chargers that are 40 or 45 miles apart. If I charge to 80%, where the battery starts taking a charge slower, and then drive 45 miles, then I might be down to around 30% when pulling in to the next station. When travelling to chargers you’ve never visited, or navigating in strange towns, it’s not a bad idea to have this buffer (especially, as Mr. X puts it, when your alternative is a tow truck). In general, your total time charging is about the same whether you charge a lot in one spot, or less at two spots, so there isn’t much downside to charging more often. Speaking of…

— When planning a longer trip, have a backup plan in case a charger is out of order, in use, or blocked. On this trip we didn’t have any trouble using the chargers we’d planned on, but we had enough charge throughout to get to an alternate one, and I had a map of where they were. As I’ve mentioned before, plugshare.com is a great resource, especially if you have internet access or a smart phone while on the road.

— Don’t be too proud to use GPS. I don’t normally use the Leaf’s GPS, because it seems to dull my sense of navigating without it, but using it beats spending time and miles backtracking or searching. I used it off and on to get to Poultney, and it saved us two wrong turns on some confusing back roads. With an EV, you don’t have as much of a range buffer, so it pays to have maps, and to pay attention, and to otherwise avoid getting off-track.

— The batteries do heat up as you use them all day, but I’m not sure yet if it will be a problem this summer when we’re planning to go more miles per day. We shall see…

So, I’ll be with students on a trip to Spain for the next two weeks, but we plan on starting the eco-Leaf trip shortly after I get back, near the end of the month. My wife wants to up the ante and try to do the trip without creating any garbage or using plastic disposables, but that might be too high of a bar to tackle all at once, while on the road. In our carbon-powered world of disposables and consumption, it isn’t always easy to buck the status quo, and takes a bit of practice. But, it wasn’t hard on this weekend trip—it was a lot of fun.

Planning the Minimalist-Eco-Leaf Road Trip

ev trip map for blog

A portion of the potential route, where back-roads will be involved to link fast chargers. The leg from Harrisburg to State College, PA, is just long enough (almost 90 miles) that a stop at a Level-2 charger midway might be required. In this case we’ll have to use the charger we’re bringing with us, because the “Level-2” spots in this case are 220-volt outlets at RV parks, some of which aren’t marked on the Plugshare site.

I mentioned the other week how there are dramatically more DC fast chargers in the US than there were a year ago, and how I could drive an EV, hypothetically, all the way to the Midwest using mostly fast chargers. Well, it might be time to put my money where my mouth is—I’m thinking about taking a long-distance Leaf ride, from here in Vermont to the far side of Illinois, to see friends and relatives. I might be crazy.

Then, to add to that craziness, the family wants to go along, less one kid who will be away for the summer. That’s still four people in the Leaf, however. We’ve done road trips like this before, with and without kids, and we usually tent camp along the way. But, let’s just contrast this potential operation with, say, a similar family outing to Maine three years ago. In that case, we had a full-size pickup truck, which was pulling a largish pop-up camper, and two dogs, and the camper and the back of the truck were packed with firewood and bikes and dog food and lawn chairs and a carpet and coolers and all manner of other items. This time—we only have the back of the Leaf. Now, the Leaf isn’t tiny, but in terms of taking it on a family camping trip, it’s going to require some minimalism.

So, here’s the tentative minimalism camping plan—we’re going to pack almost as if we’re backpacking. I’m thinking, a much smaller tent (the “sleeps-eight” tent is on its last legs, anyway), food that doesn’t need cooked or refrigerated (which saves us the stove and dishes and dishsoap and cutting boards and coolers and ice and stops to buy ice, etc.), and for each of us—a duffel-bag with a few sets of clothes and toiletries, one sleeping bag, one folding camp stool, one headlamp, and some books to read. Then some charging equipment—a heavy-duty extension cord, the Level-1 charge cord that comes with the car, and our Level-2 charger that is portable and has a 220v plug. That’s it. Should fit nicely in the back, and still leave room to see out the rearview mirror.

But, the great big question is how and where to charge the car for a trip like this. Just two years ago, when there were virtually no public fast chargers, it was quite challenging, as witnessed by the film “Kick Gas”, where a group of EV enthusiasts spent 44 days going across the US in a variety of electric vehicles, including a Leaf. It’s a great film; here’s the trailer—

Fast chargers, however, will make it easier, as they will charge a Leaf in about 45 minutes, or even less if the battery is only partially empty. So I logged onto plugshare.com, and started to map out a route to Illinois that links fast chargers together, so we could hop from charger to charger. Now, to back up a bit—a Nissan Leaf will go, in the summer when it’s warm, about 100 miles between charges if you keep your speed down a bit. So in the perfect world we’d have fast chargers nicely spaced out up and down the interstates, at 60 or 70-mile intervals (it takes slightly longer to charge the top 10% or so of the battery, so it would be most efficient, in terms of time, to charge to 80 or 85 percent each time, and then drive 60 or 70 miles and then charge again, which would also leave a bit of a range buffer). Needless to say, we’re not there yet. My optimistic prediction of hopping between fast chargers was a tiny bit premature; closer perusal revealed that not all the fast chargers that first pop up on the Plugshare maps will work. Some of them are Tesla Superchargers, so I turned the icons for them off (Telsa owners can use other types of fast chargers with an adapter, but non-Tesla EV’s can’t use a Supercharger).

Tesla supercharger station. A great deal---if you have a Tesla.

Tesla supercharger station. A great deal—if you have a Tesla.

Some other fast chargers have DC-Combo plugs, which also won’t work with a Leaf, so I turned those icons off, too. Then, some of the ones that remained and are Leaf-compatible (stations with CHAdeMO plugs, which is actually the most common setup) appear to be planned but not finished, or not turned on yet, or broken, or for some other reason not fully functional. This still left quite a few, though, and it appears that I can get to Illinois by taking a big curvy loop, from here south and east into Massachusetts and Connecticut, then across the top of New York City and down toward Trenton, New Jersey, and then due west from there, across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. But, the best charging locations aren’t exactly in a perfect line, so the route is going to end up with some zigs and zags in it.

So, a great big loop with zigs and zags, and… a few gaps. In a few cases these are just gaps where the fast chargers aren’t close enough together, where we’ll have to juice up a bit at a Level-2 station in the middle somewhere. But, some gaps don’t have any public stations at all, so for those I found a secret weapon, the…  Good Sam’s RV website, with its Google map interface. This is because if no chargers are available, a backup plan (and I got this idea from the Kick Gas movie) is to stop at, or spend the night at, a campground; they nearly all have 220-volt hookups for RVs, where we can plug in the Level-2 charger (or worst case, spent the night while charging with 110-volt charge cord).

good sam snip for blog

A Good Sam’s Club map with an overlay of RV parks—a good backup for areas with no public chargers.

One of those fast-charger-gaps is between Columbus, OH, and Indianapolis, IN. Part of that can be solved by looping down to Cincinnati and then back up, but no matter how you slice it, there is a 100-mile gap to get to Indianapolis from the east, a gap where there aren’t any chargers at all. Here’s where that campground in the image, on I-74 north of Adams, Indiana, might save the day. I’ll call them; maybe we’ll spend the night. It’s called “Hidden Paradise Campground,” and appears to be on a river with wooded banks; it might not be a bad spot to pause.

So, I initially considered going all the way to Texas to see the rest of the relatives by toodling along in this fashion (informal definition of “toodle along” that I found on the internet—“to go somewhere in a rather relaxed, happy-go-lucky way. No stress, no pressure, no rush, just enjoying the journey”) (I’ve always heard this phrase used like this, but I’m still not sure it’s a real word), but it’s a bit of a charger-desert west and south of Indianapolis, so it would be pretty slow going. Even the Leaf-portion where the fast chargers are won’t be speedy, there will be a certain minimalism to the average travel day that will be required—walking around a new place, reading a book in the shade, hanging out with the kids, having an ice-cream cone, enjoying the now. I’m looking forward to it. If we do decide to continue on, it might be on a train, which is another travel mode with a low carbon-footprint. Either way, this is the year to do the adventure-trip—a year ago it wouldn’t have been quite possible, and a year from now there might be enough fast chargers, all in a line and 60 miles apart, that such a trip becomes something rather ordinary.

But this trip, this summer, might be a fun challenge. I’ll keep you posted.

The new grey Leaf, the replacement for the black one when the two-year lease was up. It's being charged with solar here at the house, and ready for a road trip.

The new grey 2015 Leaf, the replacement for the black one when its two-year lease was up. It’s being charged with solar here at the house, and it’s ready for a road trip.

Supercharger image: Steve Jurvetson, “Tesla Supercharging in Gilroy”, Flickr Creative Commons.