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Living with the Leaf, Part 3: Fuel bills and range anxiety

When ice collected inside the charge port, the connected EVSE did not delivering the expected charge. A hairdryer soon came to the rescue.

Michael Bettencourt

2012 Nissan Leaf owner's log

Electricity used January 1-Feb. 29, 2012: 636.205 kWh

Distance travelled: 1,716 km

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Total cost of electricity for January and February: $73.36

Average cost per 100 km: $4.28 ($0.04275/km)

Observed maximum January-February range: 80 km

Calculated maximum range January-February: 110 km

We're almost through our second full month with the Nissan Leaf, and it's good news all round: we've received our first electric fuel bill from Toronto Hydro, plus the provincial $8,500 rebate.

Time to start saving some money, finally, thanks to our EV's super low fuel and maintenance costs. And not a moment too soon, as our final outlay following all taxes, options and fees was just over 40 large, not counting interest on the financed portion.

This is after the rebate, which took five and a half weeks to arrive. Nissan folks had estimated a week or so, while the Ontario Ministry of Transportation suggested three. We'd still have preferred it if our dealer had deducted the rebate at the point of sale, as it would have been had we financed or leased through Nissan, but the paperwork is relatively painless to fill out and submit.

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If the post-rebate $40,650 Leaf price sounds high, it's worth noting that almost every automotive review story in any publication lists MSRP prices that don't include taxes and freight. Although we here at Globe Drive try to include freight in our as-tested prices whenever we can, often those figures often aren't provided. As for taxes, they vary by province, so in this case, the combination of 13 per cent HST on the car plus the $1,895 freight worked to basically wipe out the provincial $8,500 rebate.

Along with our EV's separate fuel bill, we also receive a special electricity use report for December and January. It tells us that we used $22.62 of electricity in January to power our Leaf over 998 km. That works out at about two cents per kilometre, or roughly 87 per cent less than what we were paying per month in gas last year for my wife's daily commute to work, in a similarly sized and relatively fuel efficient four-cylinder Pontiac Vibe.

Through to the fourth week of February, the Leaf's Carwings telematics system tells us that we're "burning" electricity at a rate of 3.6 km/kWh, and used 156.4 kWh to travel 585.4 km. The exact price of this juice will depend on whether it was consumed at peak, mid-peak or off-peak hours.

Our electricity report shows that for our first full month with it, just over three-quarters of our charging was done at off-peak hours – overnight and on weekends – with about an even split of mid- and peak-time charging.

For the first couple of weeks, we didn't use the charge timer, as we were comforted by the knowledge that if the Leaf was plugged in, it was charging. With the Green Goddess arriving home most days around 6 pm after her 25 km round-trip commute, that meant an hour of peak charging per day at a dirt-cheap-next-to-gas 10.8 cents per kWh, but well above the 9.2 cent/kWh mid-peak price, and both notably higher than the 6.7 cent off-peak rate. Most overnight charges are so far costing us about 54 cents.

That's a massive cost saving, even in comparison to the most fuel-efficient hybrid or diesel-powered car. And every time fuel prices rise, so do your savings.

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It's caused us to take more interest in when we're paying the most for electricity too – mostly for cost reasons, but also environmental ones. Off-peak electricity in Ontario is much cleaner than peak power, with only a small percentage of night-time power coming from coal-fired plants, by far the most carbon intensive way to generate electricity.

And now the range question. After a full night's charge on our 240 volt EVSE, the prominent range estimator suggests 145 to 160 km is possible, which instantly turns into about 110 to 140 km of driving once we turn on the climate control and drive to the end of the block.

Our maximum observed winter range over January and February has been only 80 kilometres, using the heater pretty much constantly. This is exactly half of Leaf's commonly espoused 160 km range.

This was shocking to me when I first observed it – and worth considering if you're contemplating a Leaf and have a daily commute of 70 km or more. But there are a couple of important points and qualifiers to that surprisingly low range number to keep in mind.

We rarely drive more than 42 km a day, so we haven't found total range an issue at all. Therefore, we rarely hold back on using the heat or highway driving, both of which are serious range punishers. The heated seats and heated steering wheel, which draw minimal but still some juice, have been on pretty much since we picked up the Leaf.

We also rarely use the Eco mode, as it makes the Leaf painfully slow – though it works well as a brake-free "downshift" for extra regenerative braking, and is an ideal winter mode on snow or ice.

The reduced power nicely reduces wheelspin, plus the regen braking helpfully slows the car on slippery downhills, or when the fuel efficiency-focused tires scramble for ABS-assisted grip while coming to a snowy stop.

We have never run out of juice, nor have we reached the dreaded "turtle" mode yet, when top speed is capped to 40 km to save power for the remaining kilometre or less of "fumes" you have left.

When the dash's distance-to-empty figure reaches 20 km, a large warning shows up in the message centre about the low battery charge level, a yellow fuel light comes on, and you get a voice warning to get to a recharger soon after.

This is the cue for the dreaded range anxiety. It's not a comfortable position to be in. Once you have 10 km left, the warnings become even more prominent.

One cold evening, we cut it close after driving 80 km – upon our return our Leaf told us there were six kilometres left of range, which would have put the total available at 86 km. Temperatures varied between -10 and -15 C that day, with some highway driving. We had the car well loaded with three or four people for many of those kilometres as well, and weight is another enemy of range.

There's a story behind how we unintentionally let it run so low. After running some errands before going through an automatic car wash at the local gas station, I plugged in at home for a few hours, knowing that I'd need some more juice for a party later that evening with the family back downtown.

What I hadn't realized was that ice had collected inside the charge port, and the connected EVSE was not delivering the expected charge. I perhaps could or should have noticed, as the charging light throbs when the plug is connected but the charge is not flowing, such as when the charge timer is set to start the power flow at off-peak hours.

But we only realized this just as we were all heading out to the party, gifts in hand. The gasoline press car I happened to have that week was a not-so-family-friendly two-door Scion iQ, which is bigger than a Smart car, but barely. So we hopped in the Leaf, put it in Eco mode, and used the heat judiciously there and back to nurse it safely home.

Once plugged in again in our garage, we immediately saw that it still wasn't accepting a charge. We tried the 110 volt connector for the first time, in case it was an issue with our EVSE or its cord, and even plugged into a regular outlet, but that didn't work. So we left it plugged into the EVSE, as we consulted the owner's manual, keeping an eye on its charge status from inside using the Leaf's handy iPhone app.

We hoped our unheated but attached garage would be warm enough to combat the -15 C temperatures outside, but when that didn't work after an hour and a half, we contemplated calling roadside assistance.

Before then, we turned to social media for help: specifically, the Canada Nissan Leaf owner's group on Facebook.

After a first request for ideas at 10:20 pm on a Saturday night, the recommendations started flowing in three minutes later. Just after 11 pm, we received our answer. A fellow owner recommended taking a blow dryer to the front of the charge port to melt any ice that had formed inside. After two minutes of feeling silly for blowing hot air up our Leaf's nose, it worked like a charm. The tip is reportedly listed in the owner's manual, though we didn't find it.

Moral of the story? Gas stations and electric cars really don't get along. Plus the extra $2 one has to pay if you don't buy gas with your wash is especially galling. Our Leaf is now washed nearby at an independent automatic wash-only place.

And we're now firm believers in the power of social media; we even signed up for a new Twitter handle, @LEAFamily.

Other early Leaf buyers in Canada have been actively reporting their ranges online, and their experience suggests a realistic winter range closer to 90 to 110 km, again dependent on climate control use, elevation changes and highway use.

A range chart put together by the first private Canadian Leaf owner, Ricardo Borba, a scientifically-trained sort and meticulous record-keeper, suggests overall range is reduced by about 20 km for every 10 degree reduction from the Leaf's optimal temperature of 20 C. That's based on his records of 148 mostly urban trips in and around Ottawa with widely varying heater use, where he calculated rule of thumb real-world range estimates of 120 km at 0 degrees, or 100 km at -10.

These range estimates seem a touch optimistic if you regularly pump the heat and want to stay out of the low-fuel warning zones, which you do to avoid the dreaded range anxiety. So figure another 20 km reduction or so in winter to maintain a comfort cushion.

Using no heat, Borba's blog details how he also reached an observed 125 km even at temperatures around -12, by driving around his neighbourhood for three hours warmed only by the seat and wheel heaters, keeping to 40 and 70 km/h speed limits. Using HVAC heat would chop down that range total, but the figures also lend some credence to his rule of thumb estimates.

From our everyday perspective, where we rarely push 70 km of driving between charges, range has become much less of a concern now than when brand new. Sure, like power in sports cars, more range is always better with EVs. But we're enjoying our heat, our Leaf, and especially our minimal fuel bills.

Correction: An earlier online version of this story misidentified the figures for the cost of fuelling the Leaf in January and February. This has been amended.

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