Saturday, January 7, 2012

Thank you, Progress Energy

A few days ago, Progress Energy installed a free 240v charger in my garage. The deal was that in return for the free charger, they get to monitor my usage, to get a better idea of EV charging patterns.

To be honest, I don't think it will change the pattern of my charging that much. I have the Volt set to only charge during off-peak hours, so the major difference is that it will charge faster.

This does mean that I'll be able to get almost a full recharge during the 1-4pm winter off-peak afternoon window, so that might come in handy if I do a lot of driving in the morning and then need to go out in the afternoon. And a few years down the road, when my wife gets a new car (which we'd like to be an EREV minivan-class vehicle), it will make charging two cars easier (especially since such a vehicle will have a bigger battery than the Volt).

The one quibble I have with the new charger is that the charging plug doesn't have as good "plug feel" as the Volt's standard 120v charger. The Volt plug has a really positive "click" feel when you insert and remove it; this one always leaves me wondering a bit if I've got it fully seated. Also, the position of the unlatch button (on top of the plug) isn't as convenient.

But you can't beat the price!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Losing my gasoline virginity

There comes a time in every Volt's life when it takes that irrevocable step and takes up the filthy habit of smoking... er, using gasoline. And after over 1000 miles of tooling around town on pure electric power, the Ampeater set out on an epic journey from North Carolina to Cape Kennedy.

At least this sacrifice was for a good cause. I was able to get a ticket to ride on a Zero-G Experimental Flight, and the Volt was just the right size to fit all of the equipment I had built to take high-speed videos of water globe interactions in microgravity.

Goodbye, Infinite Miles Per Gallon! Sob!

On the bright side, the Volt was an extremely comfortable long-distance touring car, and quite frankly, the only time I even heard the gas engine in operation was when I did some really hard acceleration on an I-95 onramp; it kicked up to max RPM. Cruising at 70mph I got about 37MPG on gasoline.

A welcome surprise was that the Holiday Inn in Titusville, FL was extremely EV-friendly. Not only did they have no problem with me plugging in the Ampeater, but the manager showed me the best place to do so. He also noted that they are thinking of putting 120VAC outlets on many of the light poles in the parking lot, not just for EV's like the Volt, but also so that boaters can recharge their batteries.

Seems to me he's got a good idea there, and that if a chain like Holiday Inn made it a policy to have some simple outlets installed (one pole could handle 8 cars!) in all of their locations, that would be an amenity that would attract business. I remember a few years back that when driving I would always stay at a Holiday Inn Express when possible, because I knew that they would have free WiFi. If I knew they would all have free recharging, it would be similarly attractive.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Charging into Confusion

Like many Volt owners, I buy my electricity on a Time-of-Use basis as opposed to a flat rate. This means that as long as I charge during off-peak hours, I only pay $0.05/KwH, and a full charge on the Volt is just 60 cents.

The key to making this work is telling the Volt what times are peak and what are off-peak, and to their credit, the Volt engineers have made this pretty easy. You can set individual schedules for each day of the week, specify peak, mid-peak, and off-peak hours, and even input different schedules for Summer and Winter.

On October 1st, Progress Energy Winter hours began. During winter weekdays, in addition to the evening off-peak hours, there is also a 3 hour period in the afternoon (1-4pm) that is off-peak.

And thus my confusion began -- for I noticed that even after driving the car in the morning, it would wait until the evening to charge the car, and not take advantage of the afternoon off-peak period to top off the battery.

The Volt has 3 charging settings; Immediate (Feed me now!), Delayed Departure Time (Fill me up by a certain time), and Delayed Rate and Departure Time (Fill me up by a certain time, but try to do it during the cheap rate periods). I was using the third choice, obviously. I inquired on the GM-Volt forums, and it was suggested I change my departure time to just after the evening cheap rates started, in the hopes that this would force the car to take advantage of the afternoon off-peak.

I did this and the Volt immediately updated and said it would start during the afternoon off-peak. But it said it would end just after evening off-peak started, and so it appeared as if it would be charging right through the early evening peak period -- which was exactly what I didn't want it to do.

So I changed the time of departure back to the morning, and here is where it got doubly confusing, because the Volt still appeared to be saying it would charge through the evening peak period.

At this point, I really had to do some testing. So I unplugged the Volt until the evening to avoid any issues, and then waited a few days until I had to do some morning driving. While doing so, I watched the charge scheduling display, and as soon as I started driving, it started indicating that it would charge during the afternoon off-peak.

As I drove further, the estimated charge end time crept closer and closer to the end of afternoon off-peak, and when it finally reached the limit, it immediately jumped to the start of evening off-peak.

Aha! This meant that the Volt was only charging during off-peak, which was what I wanted and expected in the first place. And indeed, I monitored the car when I got it home and it did exactly that; it broke up the charging into two segments.

The end result of all this testing is that there are some issues that the Volt engineers ought to think about:

* There may be a bug in the way the Volt figures out when to charge immediately after a Summer/Winter change in schedule. It appears (though I am not 100% sure on this) that you need to make a change (as I did with departure time) to get things to "stick".

* There really ought to be a 4th charging option, "Charge whenever needed, during off-peak only". This would be particularly useful to those of us on Time-of-Use/Demand plans, where we really, really don't want to add extra load during peak hours (since we get hit for an extra peak demand charge).

* There is a driver confusion issue in the charge scheduling display, because it only shows charge start and end time, but does not show any periods where charging has been suspended. Part of the issue here is that the display is trying to show too much information; it shows start and stop times for both 120v and 240v, but 99.44% of the time, the driver knows what his next charge rate is going to be (and it's almost always the same as the last one).

So this display should be restructured, defaulting to show only one voltage (the last one used), with a button to select the other one. And the space freed up could be used to display a table showing start time, stop time, and estimated range for each planned charging segment.

* Special Bonus Suggestion: The Volt should automatically wait an extra 5 minutes before starting to charge during off-peak, and stop charging 5 minutes before peak rates start again. The point of this is to avoid accidentally starting during peak because of slight differences in the clocks of the power company and the Volt, and thus getting hit with a demand charge. Right now, I have my off-peak schedule set to start 15 minutes late and end 15 minutes early to avoid this issue.

At the very least, the manual should mention this issue and suggest programming in a buffer period.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Tight Fitting Pockets

The Volt has two nice-looking pockets on the back of the front seats. Unfortunately, nice-looking does not equate to useful.

The problem is that the pockets are so tight that you can barely fit anything in them. While they are the perfect size to stow an iPad, the fit is snug that I'd be concerned that any flexing of the seat would damage the tablet. And it takes two hands to worm and iPad back out of the pocket.

This latter is a concern because a major use I'd have for the pockets would be to reach over from the driver's seat and slot my iPad into the pocket on the passenger-side seat when I want to get it out of sight (such as when I pop into a store). As things stand, I can't do that.

The pockets would be much more useful if they had a fanfold that let them expand a bit, as well as some velcro (maybe on a top flap) to keep them tight when needed.

The optional stowage bag (recommended!) that goes between the two rear seats is big enough to hold an iPad if you put it in on an angle, but it's out of reach from the driver's seat. Pity.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Volt Cover Charge

Time for a little nitpick.

About half the time, when I remove the charging plug, I forget to close the cover. Then I get in the Volt and drive away, and get at least half a mile before I notice the little message on the driver's console that tells me it's open. And then I have to pull over and close it.

IMHO when the cover is open and you power up the Volt, that warning message (and probably others) should be significantly more prominent. Best of all would be a spoken audio alert.

I humbly suggest giving Volt owners several choices for audio chastisement. For example:

Hal 9000: You need to close the charge bay doors, Dave.

Bender: Hey meatbag, guess which moron forgot to do something? That's right, it's you! And don't expect me to tell you what it was, either!

The Terminator: You'll be back... after you close the charge door.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

I hate my full tank of gas

When you buy a new car, it's common for the dealer to fill it up with gas, and this is what happened when I bought my Volt.

But when you think about it, this was a mistake. If you're driving a Volt around town in electric mode, all you need in the tank is a gallon or two to either get you home or get you to a gas station if you run out of juice. Any extra is just dead weight you're lugging around, reducing your efficiency.

A quick calculation shows that that extra gasoline probably reduces the range of the car by about 1%. That's a whole 2500 feet of range I'm missing out on! And because I'm serious about not using gas, I'll be lugging the damn stuff around forever!

Bitch, moan, bitch, moan!

But seriously, Chevy dealers should offer to deliver the Volt with a couple of gallons of gas + a gift card for the difference, and explain why. It's just another way to emphasize the difference between the Volt and regular cars.

PS: My wife points out that another way for me to get more range out of the car is to go on a stricter diet, but I think that's going a bit overboard, don't you?