25 September 2010

Pictures from our 1000 mile trip

It has been a couple months since we moved out of the support area around New York city, and had to give back the electric Mini E. But before we left, we took a drive to North Carolina from New Jersey in the electric. That post is here. Now that we are settled in after the move, here are some pictures for the big trip in the Mini E:

This was our first charging stop at Ken's house, charging at 50 amps with Ken's Mini E in the background. (Ken has since returned his Mini E as well, but he still has home made electric Metro I bet.)

The next stop is one of our favorites, Bar Harbor Marina and RV park in Abingdon, Maryland. They are friendly, the fee was $10 (shows as a dump station visit on the receipt), the place is pleasant and shady, and best of all their electric service is well maintained. We had charged at 50 amps at this particular parking spot last winter for three hours with no trouble. This time it was summer and perhaps because it was warmer, the breaker did trip after an hour of charging. No problem, we pulled into an adjacent spot where we completed charging without further interruption. And, the maintenance guy came over to work on the outlet and breaker box as soon as he heard we had trouble. His question about the Mini E was unique, he wanted to know if it could be towed behind an RV and charge the Mini E battery by Regenerative braking while it was being towed. (I wonder what Mini would say to that...)

Our next stop was just as friendly, same $10 fee, at much larger RV park near Washington DC. But we had much more trouble with keeping the breakers on at 50 amps. Ken told me he had charged here also, but perhaps it was in cooler weather. In any case, after plugging in and starting to charge at 50 amps, we heard a sound you might describe as "Snap, crackle and pop" coming from the breaker box for 10 seconds or so. Something was heating up and perhaps boiling off moisture. We noticed this at many campgrounds. It was early in the season, perhaps there was a lot of condensation in the boxes from winter. But the car did not charge for more than twenty minutes before the breaker tripped, and the breaker felt quite warm. This is caused either by wires that are not tight, corrosion on contacts, very old breakers that have tripped many times, or under sized wire. In the picture above, you can see that we tried an adjacent outlet without moving the car, an unexpected benefit of the very long six gauge cable that I added to the Clipper Creek box. In the end we moved to an adjacent camp site that was more in the shade, where we found an outlet that did not trip. This was a frustrating stop, but I did not complain. We did not know at this point that we would have this problem at many more campgrounds.

There were many good stops, some where they asked us what we thought we should pay, and we never had a single breaker trip. We even stopped at one place where they did not want to take more than $2 to charge the car. The stop in Amelia's Court House, Virginia, was just plain delightful. At other stops they insisted on full price like an overnight RV stay (usually around $35) even though we expected to leave in 3 hours, but there was no breaker that would stay on for more than 15 minutes. So much for high price meaning high quality.

One very friendly KOA where we stayed overnight was an interesting situation. They had mostly the older hookups, which are only 120 volts. Usually there are two of the common household outlets (NEMA 5-20) and one Travel Trailer connection, a 30 amp 120 volt outlet. We had called ahead and asked if we could use one of their few 50 amp 240 volt sites for a couple hours and then rent a cabin to stay over night. With the charging problems at our previous stops that day, we arrived later than expected and the 50 amp sites were all taken. (I could have put down a deposit but I would have had to pay the full over night rate for an RV.) We rented a cabin and I did what I had hoped not to do, I plugged into the TT-30 outlet and charged the car at 30 amps, 120 volts overnight. That is fast enough to reach 100% by morning, but the Clipper Creek equipment (shown above) is not set up for 120 volts at 30 amp, so I had to use a direct connection. I have since figured out how to adapt the large Clipper Creek box to 120 volt input, by using an international 240 to 120 volt travel transformer to keep the brains happy but wiring the relay for 120 volt operation. Too late now, I don't have the car to test it anymore! But that night I charged without the safety equipment, shame on me. I have heard of someone charging through the small yellow Clipper Creek box (shown below) at 30 amps, which is literally risking a fire especially in warmer weather.

Instead, I wired the heavy orange cable from the large Clipper Creek box directly to a TT-30 plug and connected to the Mini E without the safety box that keeps the car plug de-energized when it is disconnected. Fortunately no children were up and about by the time we plugged in. It turned out fine, but I won't do that again.

By the way, a county park just west of Washington DC had the newest electrical connections we saw. In the photo above, the NEMA 14-50 is on the left and the TT-30 is on the right. We had very good luck charging here. The fee was more than the usual $10 but less an over night RV stay. At this point we were happy to pay, since we were on the return trip and our previous stop had such bad wiring that we gave up with less than 50% charge after paying $35 for a so called 50 amp outlet that would not even deliver 30 amps without tripping the breaker.

While talking to many campground owners, several of them clearly were thinking this might be the Next Big Thing, and talked about adding charging spots specifically for electric cars. Others, as I have noted above, were completely clueless. I hope someone creates an internet site for rating campgrounds in terms of being friendly to electric cars, having good power that can sustain 50 amps without interruptions, etc.

We miss the Mini E, and none of the soon-to-be-available electric car options get close to that built-in 50 amp charging ability which makes cross country travel possible, if leisurely. It is fun to see that Li-ion Motors, near us here in North Carolina, won part of the X prize. They offer a converted Mini on their web site. I have no idea what the charge time is, they have not answered my email yet. But my daily commute is down from 120 + miles to about 20, so I can bicycle a couple times a week. Maybe I will survive without an electric car for now. Sniff.

This is a little off topic, but in Southern New Jersey the power company PSE & G has been putting up solar power panels on telephone poles. There are hundreds of them it seems. Above you can see one of them right in front of Ken's house, where we charged up many times. These panels use a micro inverter. We have looked into adding solar panels on our house, but we have lots of trees around and traditional solar panels do not like any shade on any panel in an array. A small amount of shade can cause a huge drop in power output because of the way the cells are wired in series. Now that micro inverters are competitive, the partial shade problem is significantly reduced. The only remaining problem is that micro inverters are not yet compatible with battery backup systems. And I for one do not like the idea of spending tens of thousands of dollars on a solar power array that stops producing if the grid goes down. Which is what they do without battery backup. It is a safety requirement, technically called Island Protection mode.

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