Destination Charging

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A few months ago I planned and took my first road trip in my Model S. It was a somewhat stressful and exciting experience and my key takeaway was that I needed a better plan for destination charging. I’m happy to report that my improved plan worked and the return from the trip was a lot less stressful on my second visit.

Proper destination charging takes some advance planning.

Capabilities

10-30As EV owners we’re learning terms like NEMA 14-50, know where to look up plug types, and are generally getting more and more comfortable with adapters and other approaches to get our juice fix. But our relatives, friends and other unsuspecting victims usually know little about any of this. This means its difficult to get the kind of information you need before your first visit. If the math doesn’t work you may need to go through that painful conversation, but otherwise i’d just plan on doing a careful survey on your first visit like I did to make the second visit even better.

On my last visit to NJ I found ready access to a 110V 15A plugs that add about three miles of rated range per hour and used those to charge for that visit. While I visited I scouted around for more power. Likely sources are dryers, welding areas, machine shops, RV hookups, etc. The most likely source you’ll run into are dryer plugs and there are a few different outlet types even for dryers.

Digging around behind their dryer I found a disgusting but promising plug. I found a good source online to help me identify the plug type as a NEMA 10-30. That was the good news.

Finding a high power outlet was the good news. The bad news was that I couldn’t use it.

The bad news is that I didn’t have any kind of adapter to use with that plug and the laundry room location was definitely more than 18 feet from anywhere I could park my Model S.

Official Adapters

My first reaction was to head on over to the official Tesla Motors accessories site and look for an adapter. Tesla has most adapters for the common plugs you’ll run into and they are an easy solution for basic adapter needs. Sure enough, they have the one for the outlet I found for $45 + shipping.

The problem with this solution though is that the adapter would go on the end of my UMC and would not reach my car. The UMC cable is 20 feet long, but with the tail on the end you have to assume you get about 18 feet of real distance. I needed about 40 feet.

Tesla’s official statement is to avoid using extension cords when charging.

Tesla’s official statement is to avoid using extension cords when charging, but the reality is that many owners have resorted to using extension cords for difficult locations. This was one of of those difficult locations and I needed a solution Tesla doesn’t offer.

I needed a solution Tesla doesn’t offer.

Unofficial Adapters

14-50 to 10-30My next approach was to look for a site offering more options. I ran into EVSEadapters which specializes in adapters for people with EVs. They have a dedicated section for the Model S with many different options.

I went with a NEMA 14-50R to 10-30P adapter for $55 which converts the 10-30 outlet into a 14-50 outlet (see caution below). You can order these with a short stub of a cable or up to a 10 foot extension on them. Unfortunately 10 feet still wasn’t going to do it for me so I just got the shortest (cheapest) version.

The EVSEadapter folks put a very important reminder on the adapter that your max charge rate should be no more than 24A on this adapter. The reason for this is that outlets are rated at their max amperage but for continual draw (like a long charging session) you should only charge at 80% of that maximum. So a 10-30 outlet would not be designed or configured to sustain more than 80% x 30A = 24A of sustained draw.

Be very careful to set your amperage to the proper amount for the outlet you’re plugging into.

You’re probably thinking that you never had to worry about this before with your Model S UMC, why do you have to worry about it now? The reason is that this adapter confuses the UMC into thinking its got a NEMA 14-50 outlet and it will try to draw 80% of 50A or 40A from that poor outlet which can be dangerous. So you need to be very careful and dial down the amperage to the correct level for the outlet you’re using.

So now I had a small pig tail on the end of my 18 foot UMC, I still haven’t solved my distance problem. Why did I do this?

Extension Cords

If you want to extend high power over longer distances you need a beefy cord built for that purpose. The RV folks have been tackling this problem for years plugging their RVs into NEMA 14-50’s in tight spots around the country. The other reason to go with extending the NEMA 14-50 format is that Tesla gives you a NEMA 14-50 adapter when you buy the Model S so the combination works well to get a NEMA 14-50 extension cord so you can extend native 14-50 or anything adapted to NEMA 14-50 (like I did above).

Enter the Camco 55195 50 AMP 30′ Extension Cord with PowerGrip Handle. This super heavy duty (6 gauge) cord extends a NEMA 14-50 connection by 30′. It comes with a nice handle for carrying it and a strap to hold it together. You need all that because it weighs 24 pounds. This is one heavy duty cable! It costs about $100.

You want a really good quality cable to handle the kind of power you’re going to run through it without heating up which is at least wasteful but also potentially dangerous.

Solution

With the adapter and the extension cable I was able to make it to the driveway with length to spare. After getting things set up, before plugging in I dialed down the amps to 24. Then I plugged in and watched the charging start. I checked a few times early on in my charge at the outlet and at each connection point to make sure no heat was building up and the charging was going well.

The result? On this visit I charged at 18 miles/hour versus the last visit’s charge rate of 3 miles/hour. I was charging 6x faster than before.

I charged 6x faster on this visit.

With the improved charge rate I work up daily with my car “full” just like it is when i’m at home and had no worries running errors or using my car all weekend. Getting back to the Supercharger grid was simple with the oodles of range i’d stored up.

These improvements cost me a total of about $155 or essentially the cost of 2 tanks of gas I would have had to pay for if I had done this trip in my old SUV…

Good destination charging makes for happy EV owners.

Destination Charging

E-Book Review: “Owning Model S”

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Owning Model S e-book“Owning Model S” came out a while ago and got good reviews. Despite the temptation, I held off buying the book and waited for an electronic or e-book version. This post is going to focus on the e-book format and my own impressions from this impressive work of love for the Model S.

The Book

Before I comment on the e-book format and its benefits and limitations I have to remark on the book itself. I’m pretty well read on the Model S from the online forums and on various blogs, but what surprised me most was that there was still a ton of new information for me about the Model S and Tesla in this book. Not only is the book rich with content including descriptions, diagrams, charts and pictures but it is really well structured.

The Tesla and Tesla Motors Club forums are great for an interactive discussion but they can drive you crazy if you’re just trying to grab a fact or learn about a certain aspect of your car or the ownership experience. This book reads really well front to back but it is also a great reference book where you can jump around to the information you’re looking for and get what you want easily.

As an e-book it may seem expensive at $16.95, but this is not Nora Roberts book #165. “Owning Model S” is best considered as a textbook. Considerable time and research has gone into creating the book and that shows on every page and the value is definitely there.

For a more through review on the contents of the book be sure to read Teslarati’s original review of the book.

e-Book benefits

Ebook BenefitsAs an e-book you get to carry “Owning Model S” with you and on multiple devices if you want. I “installed” (more on that later) the book on a desktop computer, a laptop computer, my iPhone 5 (and later 6) and my iPad mini. The e-book can be read on many popular devices. This kind of access is great to have and I can easily carry the book around with me. This lets me read it on that long flight to the UK, during my quick Supercharge stop or use it for a quick fact on the go.

While paper books have table of contents and indices, they don’t have search. With the e-book you can search for what you’re looking for and jump right to the information you need. Much like a physical book you can highlight sections of the book and mark key pages, but unlike physical books you can get a list of highlighted text and bookmarks and easily jump back to them. Like a physical book you can magnify sections — you just don’t need any extra equipment to do so. The images in the book are high quality and you can pinch zoom into them for more detail when needed.

I made the move to all e-books years ago for many of the reasons above and I think the e-book format is the only way to go.

e-Book challenge

No Copy option

No Copy option

In the world we live in authors like Nick Howe have to be concerned about people copying his work and distributing it freely. That means Nick needed to protect his work with Digital Rights Management (DRM) of some sort and figure out a way to distribute the book. I’ve never published an e-book but I know it’s possible to get published on the Amazon Kindle store as independent authors like Annie Bourne did with her first book “The First Secret of Edwin Hoff.” Given that, it’s hard to understand the unfortunate choice for DRM and distribution that was chosen for this book. Amazon provides readers for all platforms so the choice would not have restricted use.

For “Owning Model S” they went with an Adobe DRM format that requires a special e-book reader you’re not likely to have used before. The process for getting the reader involves getting an account with Adobe (many people won’t have accounts with Adobe before this), downloading the reader (not by Adobe if on a mobile device), then opening the email that contained the encrypted book you got after purchasing and then sending the book to the special reader application on your device. You have to do this process on each device you want to use. If that sounds confusing, it is. And its a pain. Once you get the process down (they do have helpful instructions) and get it installed things work fine.

While this approach does work on most platforms (all desktops, most smartphones), it doesn’t seem support the Amazon Kindle which is surprising given the wide adoption of that reader. Also, you won’t be reading this e-book on your Model S’s 17″ screen.

Other things missing that you may be used to in other e-book readers are the ability to synchronize your read position across devices and the ability to select and copy text. Other than taking a screen shot like the ones above you can’t use quotes or snippets from the book. That is a little too restrictive for my taste. One more thing oddly missing is URLs aren’t clickable, and since you can’t copy the URL text either they’re nearly impossible to use since you’d have to flip back and forth from the reader to your browser and try to remember things.

I’d love to see Nick also put the book on the Amazon store to open up more devices and potential readers. I’m not sure my parents could install this e-book without my help but they’re able buy books easily on the Kindle store. The Model S is an amazing feat of technology, but you don’t have to be a geek to drive it. You shouldn’t have to be to read about it either.

Summary

While the installation of the book was a pain and the features were more limited than other e-book formats, the “Owning Model S” e-book is a fantastic addition to my digital library, even if it is on a digital island by itself. It’s easy to forgive the limitations imposed by DRM and distribution choices once you immerse yourself in the rich contents of the book itself. I believe every potential or current Model S owner should purchase a copy of “Owning Model S” in the format of their choice.

You can buy either edition of “Owning Model S” at the Evannex web site.

How to decode your Model S VIN

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VINWith the Model X just around the corner and the announcement of the Model 3 and a D model or option coming we need to keep everything straight with all these models. A Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is like a fingerprint for your car and uniquely identifies the car and some of the some key features. Let’s break down the Model S VIN and look at what kinds of VINs we may see in the near future.

Finding your VIN

A modern VIN is 17 characters of mixed letters and numbers. Law requires prominent placement of the VIN and you can often find it on any car on the lower-left corner of the dashboard, in front of the steering wheel. It can be easily read from outside the car by looking through the windshield. Because of the accessibility, your VIN is not a secret. Many people treat the VIN as confidential information but anyone in a parking lot can find your VIN and copy it so it is clearly not a secret.

Your VIN is not a secret.

Other than the physical locations where your VIN is shown, on the Model S your VIN is readily accessible from inside the Model S by pressing the Tesla logo at the top of the 17″ display. My VIN is 5YJSA1H16EFP36801.

You need your VIN when getting a loan to buy the car and for your insurance company before you take delivery. But the VIN can also reveal details about your car.

Decoding your VIN

VIN’s have a standard format and can be decoded as follows using NHTSA information:

VIN DecodeSince they use codes in the VIN to keep things short you’ll need to look up a few values to decipher them. CarFax is a good reference for these. The first digit in the VIN indicates the vehicle’s country of origin, or final point of assembly. 5 is one of the codes for USA. The second character, Y, is for Tesla Motors as the Manufacturer. The third character, type, is J and is meant to distinguish the vehicle type but there are few additional details on this code available.

In the details section, things get more interesting and we need to break it down further:

VIN DetailsTesla-Model-S-P85DThe S is for the Model S. Tesla has used R for the Roadster and we should expect to see codes of X, 3, and possibly D there in the future. We’ll have to wait a bit until we see if Elon’s hint is about a new Model D or a new D option for the Model S (2 drive units). The picture floating on the internet implies its an option on the Model S.

The next character, A, is the body type and represents a 5 door hatchback with left hand drive. On right hand drive Model S’s this is a B. While there are aftermarket Model S convertibles, those are not manufactured that way so they’ll have a body type of A or B. Tesla used E for the 2 door, right hand drive Roadster.

The restraint system has had a few different variations but a 1 represents Manual Type 2 USA Seat Belts, Dual Front Airbags, Front/Rear Side Airbags, Knee Airbags etc.

The battery type, H, is for the 85kWh battery, and S is for the 60kWh battery. The final digit indicates the number of drive units (motors). This will be 2 for the Model X and if current guesses are right probably 2 for the Model D or D option. Both of these digits will indicate significant and interesting changes in the models to come.

The check digit is just a way for agencies to verify the VIN is valid by a simple mathematical algorithm. The year is a code with E representing 2014, F for 2015 etc.

The assembly plant is F which stands for Fremont, CA and there appear to be other plant codes they’ve used in the past. As Tesla starts assembly in other countries we’ll expect to see new codes here.

The first character of the production number indicates the stage of production with a few interesting codes:

VIN Release CodesMine is a P for production level. The final 5 digits are a unique serial number. People often abbreviate their VIN with just the production number, so P36801 for this example.

VIN information for Tesla is incomplete and evolving as they expand their products and markets. While just simple digits in a code, each one represents exciting changes for Tesla.

Do you have a VIN that doesn’t match the patterns/description above? If so, let me know in the comments with the details of your car.

Winter Wheels

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Winter WheelsIn addition to some range anxiety when I bought my Model S I also have some RWD (rear wheel drive) anxiety for the winter months. I’ve been driving large gas-guzzling SUVs for the last 15 years partly due to family needs, but also for concerns about the New England winters ever since I moved north. By all reports the Model S does very well in winter weather, but for regions with real winters most owners recommend better tires so I recently set out to get myself a set of winter wheels.

Most owners recommend a dedicated set of winter tires in regions that have harsh winters.

Background

There are all types of car owners out there. Some people do a lot of their own maintenance, but i’m the type that bought a car from a dealer and then had the dealer do anything that was needed for the life of the car and that worked well for me. My 2007 Acura has only been serviced at Acura for it’s 200,000 miles. Whenever I needed new tires they let me know and I just went with their suggested tire. My Acura did great in the winters and I averaged 53,000 miles per set of tires over 7 years. I could have probably gotten better tires for less if I had tried, but it would have taken more work and my results were already good.

With Tesla and the Model S most owners have to play a more active role in tire maintenance.

With Tesla things are a bit different. They don’t have a lot of service centers and they don’t really want to be involved in routine small maintenance items like tire rotations. So from the beginning I had to find someone else to rotate my tires and ended up going back to my old Acura dealer. Until I started looking into some winter wheels I didn’t have a “tire guy” or much knowledge about tires/wheels etc beyond the very basics. That was about to change.

Research

I started off my research in my default location – the TMC forums. These forums are a wealth of information and have many active and knowledgeable owners. They do take time and patience to get through but the investment is worth it. It turned out I wasn’t the only new owner starting to think about the winter in September and I found some good threads to get me up to speed.

My first question was “Why not buy the Tesla winter wheel package?” That package is $4,000 from Tesla. The answer was that the tires included (currently the Pirelli 240 Sottozero) are not in the top 5 winter tires and seem to be better suited for cold places that have a small amount of snow/ice/slush versus just colder weather. You can get better tires and save about $1,000 shopping elsewhere.

The Tesla Winter Wheel package is overpriced and you get a lower quality tire — you can do better with a little work.

The next question I had was if all I needed to do was buy some tires or if I had to get the wheels etc. like the Tesla package. The answer is that while it’s possible to re-use your factory wheels and exchange the factory tires for winter tires most people don’t recommend this. It’s a lot more wear and tear on the wheels and tires, it’s more work (cost), and can lead to scuffs and scratches if not done perfectly each time.

Properly done, you get a second set of wheels to go with your winter tires.

This research left me with a shopping list:

  1. Winter tires
  2. Winter wheels
  3. Tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) sensors
  4. Center caps
  5. “Tire guy” to mount/balance/assemble all the above.

Tires

Nokian TiresMore research on the forums and the internet led me to two top tires for my Model S:

  • Michelin X-Ice Xi3
  • Nokian Hakkapeliitta R2

Both appeared to me to have similar ratings/reviews and i’d never head of Nokian as a brand before so I first tried to get the Michelins. I looked online at places like TireRack and called around to a few tire places and I found that the Michelins were really hard to get this season so I expanded my search to the Nokians. TireRack didn’t have them so I went to the Nokian website and looked up local dealers. I recognized a name for a tire shop (Crother’s tire) my wife uses for her horse trailer and gave them a call.

Turns out the local tire shop loves the Nokians. Evidently the Nokians were the first ever winter tire and this shop had been selling them for years. They even went to a conference the day before I called them and were super-impressed with the technology of the tires. The Nokians were very available with only a couple days notice and the dealer told me to call back once I had all the other parts and he’d order the tires.

The price quoted as $278/tire including mount/balance etc. This wasn’t the cheapest price i’d heard of for these tires this season and you may be able to do better but I knew the place and it was local and I wasn’t going to shop around more.

Wheels

TST WheelsIn Tesla’s winter wheel package they offer the standard 19″ wheels and the (ugly) aero wheels as part of the package. They don’t list any 19″ wheels on their site but I imagine you could order either the standard 19″ wheels or the cyclone 19″ wheels from parts if needed. When configuring the Model S, the cyclone option adds $2,500 so if you go with the Tesla wheels you’ll likely end up with the 19″ standard wheels as the only reasonably priced option.

After some research I decided to go with some aftermarket wheels and I liked what I saw and heard about the TSportsline wheels. They have turbine-look wheels designed for the Model S for $1,600 for a set of 4. After consulting with the wife I went with the grey TSTs which go nicely with my “dolphin” grey Model S.

Tire Pressure Monitoring Sensors (TPMS)

TPMS SensorsIf you’re getting a second set of wheels you need a second set of TPMS sensors. These go inside the wheel and provide the valve stem etc. The important point here is to make sure you get TPMS that are compatible with the Model S. You can buy them from Tesla for about $500 for a set or you can buy them online at places like TireRack. I got a set of 4 from TireRack for $388.

Make sure you get TPMS that are compatible with the Model S

When you switch wheels there’s a small procedure you have to go through to calibrate the system for the new sensors.

Center Caps

Center CapsBy this point you’ve got most of what you need, but what’s missing is a Tesla logo. If you bought wheels that match the color of your summer wheels you can move the center caps from from your summer wheels to your winter wheels. Or, if you’re lazy or got a different color like I did, you can contact your local Tesla Service Center and purchase a set of center caps in the color you want. A set of 4 grey center caps cost me $68.

Assembly

TST BoxesAfter all my parts arrived I ordered the wheels from the dealer and then delivered the rest of the parts to the tire dealer for mounting, balancing, etc. The wheels in the boxes from TST fit into the back of the Model S fine and the other bits were small.

My tire dealer was skeptical when I came to pick up the wheels in my Model S but the wheels fit fine with plenty of room. Make sure you have some padding to stop the new wheels from getting scratched and to protect your interior.

Don’t forget to take an old sheet or blanket and some cardboard when you pick up your wheels.

Transporting Wheels

Also, make sure you stack your off-season tires in a clean, dry location away from various pests. I have plenty of space in my barns but my tires are in my garage to avoid large rodents having an expensive snack!

Finished Product

My total cost with taxes/shipping for all of this was $3,398 and I really like the looks of the finished product. The tire is a top rated winter tire and i’m looking forward to putting them to the test here in New England. Generally you want to run your winter tires when the temperature is consistently low and in my area the rule of thumb is to have the winters on November to April. I’ll provide an update on how my Model S does in the snow this winter, but meanwhile i’m enjoying the fantastic fall foliage cruising the back roads in my Model S.

 

Winter Wheels

Solar Struggles – Design Dilemmas

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Last time we went through my first adjustment to the original plan when we had to factor my Tesla into the needed power generation. It turns out that was the easy part as we got into the next stage of the design with Solar City.

Design dilemmas

Barn DesignI don’t claim to understand all the engineering that goes into planning for a solar installation but to the homeowner there are 3 things that really matter:

  1. How many panels will be installed and what will the configuration be? (aesthetics)
  2. Where will the inverters/ground/wall items be installed? (aesthetics & function)
  3. What will annual production be and what will I be charged for it? (value)

For each of these areas Solar City made mistakes. We were very clear when we started the process that we didn’t want partial roof coverage of the panels – i.e. right half of a single roof surface. This is our house and we want it to look good. They made this mistake multiple times as we had to adjust things and changing this each time was a month-long process.

In the end getting the layout right came down to me having to provide specific advice despite having no experience in this area and insufficient information to do that with. The communications path between the sales people you get to speak to and the mysterious engineering team back at headquarters is terrible.

Customer design input with Solar City is pretty flawed

On the farm side, they placed the inverters in front of doorways in the designs. When I pointed this out (note that they visited my property 3 times and took tons of pictures), they didn’t seem concerned and just said the installer would put them in a better location. So much for engineering design. It’s not clear what the point of the design was if they don’t end up following it.

Inverters were placed in front of doors in the design.

Design complete?

After multiple rounds with Solar City to get the designs where we wanted them to be we thought the hard part was done. It turns out that the hard part had yet to start – our power company wasn’t involved yet…

More on power company struggles in the next part of this series.

Third Party Randomizer for USB Music

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A while ago I wrote about the Model S’s USB music player and lamented the missing shuffle functionality. An enterprising owner posted a comment on the article pointing me at a music randomizer application he created to solve this problem and I finally got a chance to check it out.

Application

Randomizer InitialThe Randomizer application by Andy Keller is available as a free download over on GitHub. He’s made both the application and it’s source code available for anyone interested. I believe only an OSX version is available so you PC folks are out of luck.

The application is really easy to use. It’s not currently a signed application, so if you’re ok with that security model and have permissions to do so, right click and open the app and authorize it to run anyway.

I tested “Music Randomizer Beta 0.4.”

First Attempt

When you run the app the first screen prompts you for an output folder. This wording is a bit misleading as its really asking for what folder currently has music that you want to randomize. It will do that re-organization in place destroying the original format.

Randomizer does the randomization process in place changing the source layout so keep a second unaltered copy around somewhere.

You can pick a number of random folders for it to create (minimum is 5) or just keep the default of 10.

Randomizer SelectedClicking “Randomize Music” starts the process. My first attempt was a surprise as I didn’t understand what it was about to do. I picked an new output folder (that was the language in the first prompt) on the USB stick but then the next thing that shows is “Choose a music folder to randomize.” I figured this the second part of the equation and chose the source to be the USB stick with the music as I had laid it out before. When I started the randomization it got through a few hundred songs then just stopped. I looked at the USB stick and the original music was gone and only the random music files were there. This behavior wasn’t obvious.

You pick a single folder and then it gets randomized. Ignore the misleading prompt text — there is no source and output, to the app there is just one folder that will be both.

Randomization

Once I figured out the prompting process I started over. What happens is it creates the selected number of random folders with names like “Randomizer 01″ then it takes all the songs it finds outside of these Randomizer folders and randomly distributes them among the folders prefixing each with a number before the filename, like “[3] 05 Good Problem.mp3″. The “[3]” part is what was added and means it was the 3rd song added to that folder.

The intent is that you choose one of these random folders and press play and you get random song order (random from your original selection, same order every time you play this folder). Pick a different folder for a different set of songs.

Results

Randomizer ResultsI really appreciate the attempt to solve the problem and the application runs and is free. However, I think the algorithm it uses is not a great solution.

I know USB sticks can be limited in space, but I think the source data should never be modified. So there should be a Source and a Target and the source should never be changed. If you need to randomize data on a USB stick and there isn’t space on the stick for 2 copies of the songs then just copy off the USB stick to a local drive folder and use that as the source and the target as the USB stick.

I also think that the source structure (folders of music) should also be preserved with the only change being the filename prefixes randomly applied to each file in the source folder as its copied to the target. You should end up with the same folder names, same number of files, just ordered differently.

So if I start with 3 top level folders:

  1. 5 Star Country
  2. Best Country
  3. Gospel

I should end up with the same 3 top level folders on the target but the contents are randomly organized by adding a number prefix. I don’t want 5/10/50 folders with random names mixing songs from the 3 genres/folders I had originally.

The randomization algorithm is awkward.

In the current version of the application I end up with folder names that aren’t useful, a mix of genres, more folders (playlists) than I want, etc.

I haven’t set out to solve this myself mostly because in the end it can’t truly simulate a shuffle no matter what you do. Each time you play the folder it will start at the same song and proceed in order. Sure you won’t likely hear the same song twice in a row and if you don’t leave the playlist/area and come back you’ll keep progressing. But if you have to start over on a playlist it will always be in the same order. If it had the algorithm I propose above it would be a decent interim solution, but for now i’d wait for a new version with a better algorithm.

I’d wait for a new version with a better randomization algorithm.

Its great to see owners taking initiative and trying to solve some shortcomings in the Model S interface. What we need is a little more access to allow third party applications and a few simple APIs for them to be able to provide functions like Shuffle etc.

 

Solar Struggles – National Grid-Lock

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In the last of this series I covered some of the challenges we faced with Solar City during the design of our system. Things got even more complex when our local power company, National Grid, got involved.

National Grid-lock

Poor Panel LayoutThe next phase was one of National Grid throwing up one road block after another and Solar City trying to counter the moves. It was clear what the problem was – we would be shifting more than $170,000 of revenue from National Grid to Solar City with me getting a slight savings in return. Despite mandates to be “More Green” etc., the energy companies clearly have no interest in assisting customers to go solar.

Energy companies clearly have no interest in assisting customers to go solar.

The first issue they threw up was that they wouldn’t allow “net metering” (where you can feed back generated solar power) for two different meters at the same address. Solar City stepped up on this one and offered to join my two meters and upgrade my panel (from 400A to 600A) to support that. Accounting issues aside, I agreed to the proposed change and after another site visit and some engineering planning they had plans for it to work.

National Grid’s next move was to report that the transformer for my area was only capable of handling 23kW of generated power. My system design was for 56kW. This was the most serious setback. We needed to cut my generation down to 23kW or less. This meant dropping the farm completely and scaling the house from 35kW to 23kW.

Then at 23kW the design once more had layout issues that called for all of the front of my house to have panels and then only the right half (from the back) of one of the 3 surfaces of the rear of my house and that would have looked odd. So we scaled it back to just the front of the house with a 18kW total system.

Side note: In my area a 1kW system generates about 1,000 kWh of electricity per year. So a 18kW system will generate about 18,000 kWh. This isn’t exact and will vary based on where you live, roof angles and all sorts of other things.

I asked what would happen if someone else that lives near me wanted to go solar and was told that the maximum that could be connected for feedback is 23kW. I’ll consume 18kW of that so anyone else that lives near me will be severely limited. Evidently transformers cover about 8-12 houses in my area.

Sorry neighbors, I got in line for solar first!

Next Steps

With the huge sale back from 56kW to 18kW, a 68% drop in planned production, I’ll now only be covering 32% of my power needs with solar. This is despite the fact that I have more than ample qualified roof surface to generate 100% of my needs.

For the house alone I’ll be covering 49% of my power needs. With this large drop in planned generation I re-ran the numbers to check on the value of going solar and found out that I will still save $56,000 over the next 20 years. Not as much as the original savings of $105,000 but still worth doing.

My next surprise was a friendly note from Solar City on September 1st letting me know that my installation was scheduled for December 8th and 9th (due to system size which makes me really wonder considering that this system is tiny next to the originally planned one). That’s 3 months away and in the winter months in New England. They also said that inspections etc. would take 4-6 weeks so the “go live” date would be sometime in January 2015. That puts the project at about 10 months start to finish assuming all goes well from here and it will be going live during some of the least productive months of the year.

From the start Solar City has made a number of mistakes from miss-sizing the system, to not knowing the requirements/restrictions of the local power company, to not following owner requests for layout and to not understanding power generation limits imposed by the power company. Many of these are likely do to slower adoption in my area of the country and struggling to keep up with rapid growth and the ongoing battle with the power companies, but they could have done a lot better in setting and managing expectations appropriately.

My experience with Solar City has led me to conclude that they’re not ready for widespread adoption outside of key markets and have a lot of work and learning to do before they will be ready for that next stage of growth.

I expect/hope that my next update will be post installation sometime between now and the end of the year. Stay tuned.

Calendar App

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With the 6.0 update of the Model S firmware comes a new app — Calendar. While controversial, Tesla lists the Calendar app as “beta” or pre-release functionality. As thousands of Model S owners receive this new functionality this style (like Gmail in beta for years) is a bit questionable but we’ll focus on the app features and leave the positioning for someone else to question further.

Functionality

Calendar AppThe calendar app is a new top level application that appears with version 6.0 of the Tesla firmware. Whether you use the app or not it appears you’re going to get this icon on your 17″ display.

This app shows up to 2 days worth of upcoming appointments and lets you quickly navigate to the locations of those appointments.

For this app to work you must have the following in place:

  • Version 2.0 or higher of the Model S app on your smartphone
  • You must provide access to your smartphone calendars to the Model S app
  • The smartphone and your car must have good internet connectivity.

The way this works is the Model S app on your phone gets access to your native calendars then sends them to Tesla’s servers which then sends them down to your car.

While this is an interesting way to make connections where existing technologies are limited today, it does call into question some of the security aspects of such an approach. Is my calendar information open to Tesla employees? How do they protect this private data?

Beware the privacy of your data. Tesla makes no statements about this for this new functionality.

This data is sent periodically and is not instant although they say that launching the Model S app will trigger a refresh. When you have the app visible you can see which phone it’s getting calendar data from (the currently active phone) and there’s a little clock icon which brings up some additional information:

Last Cal Sync TimeOther than the tips to make the app work, the useful part is the last time the calendar was synchronized (updated) which is the top right (12:21 pm in this example). Depending on your smartphone you will need to go through a couple prompts the first time to allow the Model S app access to your calendar data.

Under settings, the app has just a single setting for when to automatically show the calendar:

Calendar App SettingsWhen displayed, the calendar will show all upcoming appointments. If there are none left in the day it will only show the next day’s appointments (not the next 2 days). Other than scrolling the list, the only thing you can do with the entries is to press on them. Pressing on an entry causes it to feed the calendar entry location to the navigation app. If it’s an address or resolves to a single result it will start navigating to the destination immediately, otherwise you’ll get the standard navigation search results.

There’s something else in the release notes for the calendar app that I have yet to experience:

“When you have an event on your Calendar that will take place within the next hour and has a uniquely specified location, the Model S navigation system will notify you if there is a better route due to traffic, even if you’re not using navigation.”

I’ll be watching for this functionality over the coming weeks.

Compatibility

I started testing the calendar app with an iPhone 5 running iOS 8 and was unable to make it work. I followed all the steps Tesla provided and after more than 6 hours time to sync I still had no calendar entries shown in the app in my Model S. Later, reading online, I saw that you may have to un-pair/re-pair your phone with your car to get it to take effect. I got an iPhone 6 the next day and essentially paired a new phone to the car and all of a sudden things started working.

Tip: You may need to re-pair your bluetooth phone with the Model S to get the calendar to start working initially.

Once the calendar entries started appearing I was able to see both iCloud calendar entries and my Google Apps calendar entries in the car.

In looking at the entries I noticed that in the calendar app on the car I saw both my calendar entries and those of my co-founder. I have his calendar subscribed on my phone so I can find him in a pinch but I usually have the calendar turned off in the iPhone Calendar app. The Model S does not honor the on/off setting on the iPhone so if you have subscribed but disabled calendars you’ll see all of them. This was a pain since I didn’t want to see his entries in my car all the time (or even yet be told how to get to them through traffic) but I still wanted to be able to check his calendar on the go on my iPhone. I ended up removing his calendar from my iPhone (by changing the poorly documented Google Sync Settings) and using the Google app on the iPhone to access his calendar in the more native way on the rare times I need it. It’s as clean an approach, but it’s a passable workaround. I’d like to see Tesla provide an option to hide/unhide selected calendars or honor the smartphone’s setting.

Tip: All subscribed calendars will appear on the Model S, even if hidden on your smartphone.

Summary

While somehow a “beta” app, the app behaves well once the initial sync is complete. It’s unclear what will happen when you have the Model S app running one more than one device (I have an iPad and an iPhone, both with the Model S app on it) and if they will cause confusion. I’d also like to see some statements around privacy (perhaps thats why its beta?) and some options to turn on/off various calendars. But overall I think its a great addition to the car and it seems to work well given a few days of playing with it.

I don’t really know what drove Tesla to add this app with the complexities involved rather than solving some things higher up the owners priority lists like USB shuffling. It is a great technology demonstration that much is possible with this bridge from the Model S app on the smartphone to the car, but I worry that they’re not focussed enough on what the owners are asking for which would take much less work in many cases and would probably make them even more grateful for the software updates.

Keyless Driving

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I was excited the other day when the 6.0 update finally arrived for my Model S. This was the third software update i’ve received in less than 5 months of ownership. While many of us owners are impatient for updates we have to keep in mind what it was like on our prior cars — I didn’t get a software update in 7 years of Acura ownership!

I’m going to be working my way through some of the new functionality in detail, and I figured i’d start with something that has gotten quite a bit of press, yet is missing from the 6.0 release notes — Keyless Driving.

Functionality

Keyless startKeyless driving is a feature where you can start and drive your Model S without your key FOB. All you need is your smart phone and connectivity to the internet for both your phone and the car.

Tip: Update to the latest Model S app 2.0 before attempting keyless driving.

Before we start make sure you have the latest version of the Model S app for your smartphone — it should be 2.0 or later. Hop on over to your appropriate app store for a free update if you’re not on the latest version. Several new features in the Model S app only become visible when your car is on the 6.0 release.

The process is pretty simple, bring up the app and select controls. There’s a new “Start” button in the top right corner. Press that to begin the process.

You’ll be prompted for your TeslaMotors.com password.

Keyless confirmThis part is annoying for a number of reasons:

  • You’re already in the app and connected to/controlling the car so you must have had the password at some point.
  • You should have a very long and difficult password which makes typing it on a phone a pain.
  • On iPhones, they haven’t done the work to integrate into Touch ID which would take some of the pain out of all this. Hopefully Tesla will get with the program and integrate to Touch ID in the future. It is possible to do this on iOS since apps like 1Password already have that support.
  • Alternatively they should at least consider a PIN option to save the password and make this easier (ala Dropbox).

Keyless EnabledOnce you get past this prompt you have 2 minutes to get in your car, put your foot on the brake and shift into drive. If you don’t do that within the time period it reverts back to acting as if the FOB is not present. Note that once you enable keyless driving from the app, you cannot cancel it. You have to wait out the 2 minutes.

Keyless driving can’t be cancelled once enabled.

The app and the car both have helpful indications indicating keyless driving is enabled. Another important point to note is that enabling keyless driving does not unlock the car and without the car unlocked you can’t get in and put your foot on the brake, etc.

Tip: Don’t forget to unlock the car too when using keyless driving to save time when you get to the car and the doors won’t open.

If you enable keyless driving and then change your mind, just make sure your doors are locked and you’ll be pretty safe. I say pretty safe because if someone smashes the window when keyless driving is enabled they can steal your car.

Warning: If keyless driving is enabled your car can be stolen even if locked.

To prove this I rolled down the drivers window, locked the car, walked away and enabled keyless driving. I then went back to the car (without my FOB) and climbed in through the window without unlocking the car and put the car in drive and was able to drive away. I think Tesla should allow keyless driving to be cancelled once initiated as long as the car hasn’t yet started. This is an oversight.

Keyless Enabled Dash

Another thing that may not be obvious at first is that after you drive somewhere with keyless driving and you walk away from the car the car locks immediately on exit if you have auto-lock enabled. The reason is that the keyless driving function cancels once you put the car back in park and the FOB is not present so the doors lock immediately. If you left your phone in the car you’re now stuck without your phone or a car.

Tip: With auto-lock your car will re-lock itself very quickly when you put it in park after keyless driving. Make sure you have your phone with you!

Keyless driving meets the real world

Keyless failureToday my plan was to go FOB-less the entire day and experience keyless driving in the real world.

My first trip was to Dunkin Donuts (of course) and everything worked as described above. It was a round trip through the drive through so no restart was necessary and it went off without a hitch. It was liberating not to have to carry the key around with me and I was starting to imagine life without a FOB.

The next trip was supposed to be to Church. But the app wouldn’t connect to TeslaMotors.com. I tried several times from both my iPad and iPhone over a period of 10 minutes and couldn’t get it to connect. I had somewhere to be so I ran and grabbed my FOB and was off. This was a keyless driving failure.

One thing to check is that your power management features are set correctly on your car — I had all these in the “most responsive” configuration (only sleep at night, always connected which are both new 6.0 features too) and it was responsive when it worked but didn’t help with the failure case.

Tip: Make sure your car’s power management is set for best responsiveness.

This experience pointed out a few things:

  • Your smartphone must have internet connectivity for this to work
  • Your car has to have internet (3G) connectivity for this to work
  • The Tesla servers have to be working (not overloaded, etc) for it to work.

Thats a lot of points of failure with all of them mostly out of your direct control. What if that mall you’re heading to has terrible coverage? What if the Tesla servers are taking a denial of service (DoS) attack at the time you need to start your car? Without the FOB you’re out of luck in these cases.

My next planned trip was to a place further away from home. I had nobody to pick me up if things went wrong and I didn’t want to call Tesla on a Sunday complaining that I couldn’t get home due to this new feature. I was disturbed enough by the previous failure that I went on my way with the FOB comfortably in my pocket.

The Tesla FOB is a lot smaller than my old Acura key and it doesn’t need the Internet to work. While I lost some precious pocket space thanks to my new iPhone 6, I think the FOB is enough progress for me for now.

Software Update 5.12

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Update Out optionWhen I took delivery of my Model S in April I was on version 5.9 (1.51.94) of the Model S. firmware. About a month later when my car was in for minor service they updated me to a newer version of 5.9. Then on June 10, 2014 I got my first over the air software update to an even later version of 5.9 (1.51.109) and I wrote about the update experience.

Each of these releases had the exact same release notes in them. Any changes from one build of 5.9 to the next were known only to Tesla. I figured all the changes were minor and these were just small tweaks they were making to version 5.9 as it rolled out.

Then at the end of August I got an over-the-air software update to version 5.12 (build 1.64.38). I was disappointed to see the release notes had still not been updated. Evidently Tesla doesn’t find it important to let the owners know what things are getting fixed or adjusted in each release they provide.

Tesla only tells you about the major things in software releases.

This leaves the owners to discuss the differences and what they see/don’t see between the various versions. There are all sorts of rumors and it’s really hard to figure out what actually changed versus what people just didn’t notice before.

Sunroof ControlsI’ve noticed two things between 5.9 and 5.12:

    • The sunroof “comfort” setting/stop is now at 75% versus the 80% it was in 5.9. Evidently Tesla decided it was more comfortable at 75% open. I wonder when they will figure its most comfortable at “closed”? Why don’t they just let me set the comfort setting?
    • You can now reset your Slacker ID/login back to the factory supplied one in the case you’ve put in your own or lost it for some reason. There’s a reset option under the media preferences.

From reading reports about 5.11 and 5.12 there may be a few other differences:

    • The home link buttons may now be larger to make them easier to press.
    • There may now be an icon when the passenger airbag is disabled (a passenger that isn’t heavy enough is occupying the seat).
    • There are some reports of troubles connecting with the Tesla App with 5.12. You may need to disable energy saving mode if you experience it but also contact ownership and report the issue.
    • Turning on climate control via app may now be remembering recirculate setting.
    • Traditional Chinese characters and Japanese characters from the media player may now be able to be displayed
    • Have you noticed anything else?

Its great to see improvements going to the Model S rolling out through software updates. No other car in the world gets incremental improvements like this. I only wish that Tesla was more forthcoming with the changes in each release. Some creative owners are attempting to create firmware change logs over at Tesla Motors Club but the reports are spotty and incomplete so far.

I understand reporting these changes may be a problem with many available versions builds for each version but I’m sure the people at Tesla could come up with a creative way of communicating these changes without revealing secrets or causing widespread panic in the owners that don’t yet have that particular version.

Tesla, we’d like to hear about all the improvements/changes you’re making to our cars!

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