All posts by Surya

From the Ardennes to Wales and Back – Part 2

[Part 1 is here]

Day 2

After breaking up the tent we went to Chieveley to top up as we where planning to go off of the electric highway for some sightseeing and the extra juice could come in handy. When we arrived there we found the charger we had used the day before opened up with 2 technicians working on it. Apparently the DC side needed fixing. They were very friendly and even came in to the cafeteria to inform us they had finished and we could start charging. They stayed just to make sure we could actually use the charger, but they had done a good job, everything worked fine.

The Chieveley charger undergoing repairs (Image: Surya)
The Chieveley charger undergoing repairs (Image: Surya)

Then we went on to the Membury charger to find the same technical guys fixing the charger there. Apparently a snake had found it a good idea to sleep in the 300v system, frying itself. Since we didn’t really need the extra charge we didn’t wait for them to finish up and went on our way.

Charging at Membury services (Image: Surya)
Charging at Membury services (Image: Surya)

We went to the Leigh Delamere charger for an uneventful session.

We then headed south to Bath as I make a yearly stop there to use their skate park. Unfortunately the former skate part is now a construction yard. I guess they are upgrading it. Too bad, because their ramps were top notch. We did find a very nice vegan restaurant though.

Now we had to start making sure we made it to our destination in time. There wasn’t any time pressure yet, but we wanted to make sure it stayed that way. We went on to Bristol as there are many charging opportunities there. We first tried the IKEA one, but found it to be switched off, so we headed further north. I decided to not make any detours and head straight for the Michaelwood charger on the M5 as I knew that even if the fast charger was broken we could use one of the 22kW units they have there. When we got there we found a Model S using the fast charger, so we did indeed start charging on the slower unit and went inside. When we went outside again shortly after we noticed the Tesla had left, so we switched chargers.

Using the rapid charger at Michaelwood (Image: Surya)
Using the rapid charger at Michaelwood (Image: Surya)

Next we went on to the charger in Brookthorpe. Last year that one wasn’t online yet, but now that it was, that came in very handy. We found that the facilities there were very different from the usual ones. The entire building is hidden under a roof covered in grass and inside it doesn’t have the usual junk food restaurants and the big chain stores. The choices are much more diverse and seem to be healthier. I hope we’ll see more of these kinds of service stations in the future.

Topping up at Brookthorpe (Image: Surya)
Topping up at Brookthorpe (Image: Surya)

We made it to the camp site in Ross-on-Wye well on time, with plenty of time to set up the tent and grab a bite before we went out to visit some friends and play board games.

Settled down for the night at Ross-on-Wye (Image: Surya)
Settled down for the night at Ross-on-Wye (Image: Surya)

Part 3 to follow.

From the Ardennes to Wales and Back

Just like in 2014 we made a trip to the UK again in our Renault ZOE. In the previous year we basically went from home to the south of Wales and back. This year we decided it had been too long since we had visited the Lake District. A quick look at the Ecotricity map made it clear that shouldn’t be too much of a problem. We had 10 days to make it there and back, so plenty of time.

Day 1

We set out from home in the Flemish Ardennes early in the morning to catch the ferry around noon. Just like last year we made a stop in De Panne just before the border with France. It is a 22kW unit, so charging took about 45 minutes, but that was planned. There are very few fast chargers in Belgium, the vast majority of them are 22kW AC units – which is one of the reasons I chose the ZOE over other models.

Charging at De Panne (Image: Surya)
Charging at De Panne (Image: Surya)

From De Panne we went to the ferry terminal using secondary roads to save some energy as the total driving distance to the first Ecotricity charger is about 120km. But we had also planned for this and arrived on schedule.

At the border check I accidentally drove past the French booth right on to the UK one, so an officer came out and quickly remarked “Is that an electric car?” after which he said everything was fine and let us go on to the next check. He didn’t say much else which made it funny.

Just like last year we where the only EV in the queue for the ferry, I hope that changes in the future.

First charge in the UK (Image: Surya)
First charge in the UK, at Medway (Image: Surya)

After the ferry trip we went on to the Medway charger on the M2. We made it with enough juice left, but it surely would be more comfortable if Ecotricity would install one near Dover or Folkstone. The charger was free and working perfectly. I did find a red Nissan Leaf charging on the other side.

Next we went to the Clacket Lane charger. We had plenty of juice left, but I know there probably would be some chargers down on the next couple of stops, so topping up seemed like a good idea.

Clacket Lane Services (Image: Surya)
Clacket Lane Services (Image: Surya)

We went on our way as soon as we reached 99%. We made a stop at the Cobham charger even though I expected it to be offline. We arrived there to find a other ZOE who had just found out the charger was indeed not working. They where also heading westbound, but they did not have enough juice to make it to the Chieveley charger (according to my info the charger in Reading would also be offline) so they went back to go and charge in Clacket Lane as I confirmed that one was indeed working. I hope they made it.

I decided to try the Reading one anyway and found it had just been fixed, which was good because if the Chieveley one was unexpectedly down, I could run into problems.

Reading charger working fine (Image: Surya)
Reading charger working fine (Image: Surya)

Next we went to Chieveley and found the charger was indeed working fine. We went for some groceries, set up the tent in a nice campsite in Newbury and went for some Indian food. We opted not to get a pitch with a hookup as the charger was working fine and paying extra didn’t make much sense.

ZOE filled up at Chieveley (Image: Surya)
ZOE filled up at Chieveley (Image: Surya)

At the supermarket we found another ZOE in the parking lot. On my first day I saw 2 Leafs, 2 ZOEs, 2 Tesla Model S, and 1 BMW i3.

Part 2 is here.

An open letter to Renault

My ZOE charging at 43kW on an international trip (Image: Surya)
My ZOE fast charging at 43kW on an international trip (Image: Surya)

Ever since I received my ZOE earlier this year, I have been very happy with it. It has done everything I have expected from it. So far I have been a happy customer.

Some of the issues I had with the car have also been dealt with since then: the dashboard has been updated to a darker colour and customers now get the option to buy the battery with the car. Renault has also restated their intention to offer battery upgrades with longer ranges in the future. All of this had strengthened me in my opinion that I had made the right choice in buying the ZOE.

This week Renault released information on future changes to the product line which includes a smaller, more efficient motor with built in inverter and up to 8% longer range. That is fantastic news of course. The news also had a small bit of detail in it which doesn’t sit right with me: the new, more efficient inverter is now better suited for charging at 3kW, but only goes up to 22kW, not 43kW. This increases the minimum charging time from 30 minutes to 60 minutes.

Renault argues that the 43kW feature isn’t often used. And that is no doubt true. I have used that function a number of times, but 95% of the time, I don’t use it. But when I do use it, I am more than happy it is there. I’ll go even further: I wouldn’t buy a ZOE that can’t charge at least at 43kW. When I make my yearly trip to the UK, I’ll be doing multiple fast charges a day. If those took twice as long, not only would I be unhappy, the other EV drivers waiting in line for me to finish would be unhappy as well. But it would make international travel with the car impractical.

Renault probably argues that that is not what the car was designed for. And it probably isn’t, but my experience tells me that it is perfectly suited for that. It certainly didn’t bother me and in fact I bought the car with that in mind.

But I already own a ZOE. Why would I then complain? My fast charge capability won’t go away, will it? No, it won’t. But I will be impacted.

Renault has given a strong signal to the industry it won’t support the 43kW AC standard in the future. If they don’t support it, why would the people who install the infrastructure support it? After all, the amount of cars with 43kW capabilities is still low, and if Renault does indeed execute this change to the car, the amount will stay low in the future.

The surplus cost for 43kW against 22kW might be low, but the cost is there and I can certainly imagine some companies unwilling to invest further in this standard. And that will have an impact on me when I use my beloved car.

So therefore my plea to Renault:

Please don’t leave your existing customers with capabilities they can’t use. Keep on supporting this great technology you pioneered and which was one of my main reasons for choosing the ZOE.

The changes Renault has made since I bought my car confirmed that I was right, but if Renault now stops supporting their own standard, I will see no other option than to distrust the company in the future, and in that case I can’t see me buying an EV from them in the future.

I’m certain I’m not the only person with this opinion, so please Renault, respect your customers and support your own technology today and in the future.

A concerned customer

My 600km trip from Belgium to Germany

Each year I go to Essen, Germany for a big board game convention. Since I bring home a sizable amount of games, we have opted not to use the train. Hauling back is simply easier with a car.

This year is the first time we don’t have an ICE available to make that trip, so we again faced the choice: go by train or use the ZOE. A quick look at the charger map made the decision easy: there’s plenty of AC chargers along the way, most of them 22kW or more.

The trip would take me from the South of Flanders in Belgium through the South of the Netherlands in to the Ruhr region of Germany. A 300km trip, one way.

We already have a The New Motion charging pass which we occasionally use in Belgium, but it also works on a lot of chargers in The Netherlands. After all, The New Motion is a Dutch company. So I felt confident I would be fine with just the one card.

I also had a look at Germany. The last charger I would use in The Netherlands was in Venlo, 65km from my destination. Going from there to Essen and back was certainly possible without recharging, but not at highway speeds. I quickly found out there where 2 AC quick chargers in Duisburg, only 15km from Essen that sould work with my New Motion card.

I also knew an RWE charger at the end of the street my hotel is in, so charging there would be more convenient. I contacted RWE and they told me I could use their chargers using the PlugSurfing service. I went on to the PlugSurfing website to register, and found they had two options: use the app or get a pass for almost €10. They where so nice as to tell me that not all chargers would work with the app yet, so the pass was a safer option. Since I probably wouldn’t have 3G connectivity and the app wasn’t compatible with my older smartphone, I got the pass, which arrived just in time for the trip.

We left from my home and drove to Turnhout, some 126km away. We drove mostly 90km/h on the motorway, and we arrived with about 20km of range left. Since the Turnhout charger is – like most AC chargers in Belgium – only 22kW, we had plenty of time to grab a bite.

We then drove on to Venlo, 101km further, also at 90km/h for most of the time. We had slightly more range left, but this was the last charger on our route that wasn’t in Germany, so I felt it was the last one we could count on. A nice surprise was that this charger was 43kW, even though the website had indicated it was 22kW. But there was also a secondary 22kW charger available. I did notice that even though it is rated at 43kW, it did take slightly longer to charge than it ever did on my trip the the UK, using Ecotricity chargers.

When the battery was at 99%, we went on our way to Essen. We arrived there with about 80km of range left, enough to get back to Venlo if nothing unexpected happened. But I decided to charge in Germany if possible just to make the trip back more comfortable.

After 6 days at the convention it was time to head back. Before breakfast and packing, I went to the RWE charger with my car. Upon arriving there the charger was ICEd, but my cord was long enough to reach it from a nearby spot. But the charger didn’t have an RFID reader, meaning that it could only be activated with the app, the opposite of what the PlugSurfing site had warned for. On the Duisburg then.

When we arrived in Duisburg we found the charger very easily. A plug-in Volvo was charging on one side with a Schuko plug, but the other side was free and both sides could be activated independently. You can’t plug in unless you unlock the port with your RFID card, so I swiped my The New Motion card, which was the one that was supposed to work. It took very long to authenticate before being rejected. I tried again, but the rejection was clearly cached in the charger, as it was immediately rejected again. I tried the PlugSurfing pass just in case it would work, but I got an error message which I didn’t understand.

I didn’t feel like placing an expensive international phone call to get the thing to work, so we went on to Venlo to charge there. We arrived there with 20km of range left. The rest of the journey went as planned.

I’m glad this happened in a situation where I didn’t really need the charge, but if I ever make a longer trip through Germany, I’ll make sure to do more research and be better prepared because this can hardly be called a success.

Travelling Internationally with the ZOE – Part 5

Myddelton House Gardens (Image: Surya)
Myddelton House Gardens (Image: Surya)

[Part 4]

The next day, after visiting some nice English gardens and a garden centre, we made our way to the charger near Thurrock Town Centre. A Leaf had just started charging, so we had to wait a bit before charging. The owner of the Leaf had the car for a week or maybe two. He loved the car but he had had a lot of trouble charging it and was thinking of returning it. We talked about our experiences and the change in mindset an EV requires and by the time his car was full (about 45 minutes) he was convinced to keep the car and do some more research. It was clear his dealer (who hadn’t sold an EV before) hadn’t informed him properly and the fact that he had no cable with Type 2 connector certainly didn’t help with the charging situation. I hope he is happy with the car now.

Waltham Abbey (Image; Surya)
Waltham Abbey (Image; Surya)

Next, disaster struck! Well, that’s a bit dramatic maybe, but it wasn’t fun…
As the Leaf unplugged, we noticed an error on the charger ‘Circuit Breaker’ error. Oh no, we had just waited 45 minutes only to find out the charger wouldn’t work for our car! I called Ecotricity but as I expected they couldn’t fix it remotely. As the nearby IKEA charger was also down, we had little choice but to be on our way to the M2 charger where the whole journey started. That charger was 40km away and we had 55km of range left. On top of that it was boiling hot and the M25 was completely stuck. We weren’t in a rush, but we did want to conserve energy to make sure we would make it to the charger. Since we where moving so slowly, we decided to open the windows and turn off the air conditioning. This was the only time we did that, all of the other trips had it on auto (in Eco mode). As soon as we got off the M25 and started moving a bit faster, we closed the windows again and turned on the air conditioning when needed. We kept a close eye on the remaining distance and range. It was clear that we could make it if nothing else went wrong. We drove a huge part of the route cruising at 80km/h behind a lorry. The lower speed and lower wind resistance did wonders for conserving range.

We arrived at the charger with the low battery warning flashing and the GPS constantly asking us to add a charger to the route. In the end we had 16km of range (11% charge) left. Not a lot, but at no moment did we have range anxiety. The remaining charge was always predicted to be between 20km and 15km so we knew we would make it if we drove smart.

A much needed charge (Image: Surya)
A much needed charge (Image: Surya)

The following charge was the last quick charge on the Ecotricity network we would do. Charging from 11% to 99% took 35 minutes (not the predicted 50), which is much faster than the 0% to 80% in 30 minutes advertised by Renault if you ask me. Supposedly the speed of charge drops after 80%, but as Trevor has pointed out in previous posts, the drop isn’t dramatic. In fact, the speed appears to be very high up until 95% after which there is a notable drop off. Having now witnessed the charging of a Leaf a couple of times I can testify that the drop in charge speed with a Leaf is very noticeable indeed and becomes very slow towards the end. On the other hand the Ecotricity chargers do show state of charge and current charge speed with the Leaf, neither of which are visible for the ZOE, except on the dashboard.

Last fast charge at Medway (Image: Surya)
Last fast charge at Medway (Image: Surya)

Arriving at the campsite near Dover we found they also had RV Mennekes plugs connected to 20A fuses. Charging here would not be a problem. We set up the tent and plugged in the car. During the night it started pouring rain. This was the first rain of the trip, so I’m glad it was dry for the rest of the trip, but the charging cable was connected to the adapter cable in open air. I always put the connection on top of a plastic box so it wouldn’t touch the ground in case the ground would get wet, but having so much rain fall on top of it, I crossed my fingers it would be OK. In the end it proved not to be a problem. The battery was full and we only had about 70km to go till the charger in De Panne. There we charged at 22kW again until the car was full and drove to Ghent to do some more board gaming with friends before going home. To be sure the way home was comfortable we added a charging session in Ghent at 22kW as well.

With a charging network like the one Ecotricity has, travelling longer distances with a lower range EV proved not to be a big challenge. The ‘Circuit breaker’ errors certainly were a bit annoying but nothing we couldn’t handle. The granny cable in combination with the RV adapter allowed us to comfortably go further from the Electric Highway than would otherwise be possible, so if you’re going camping, I cannot recommend this setup enough, even though that cable comes at a price.

Little Satmar campsite, Folkestone (Image: Surya)
Little Satmar campsite, Folkestone (Image: Surya)

Talking to other EV owners and people passing by being curious was a lot of fun. It’s amazing how many people have no idea what current EVs are capable of, but we always got very positive comments from everyone and some people said they would look into getting an EV. We also had a couple of Leaf owners comment on how nice the ZOE looks. Apart from Trevor’s ZOE, we didn’t spot any other ones though.

Next time we hope to make our way back to the Lake District, I’m sure that by then that won’t be a problem either.

As Nikki from Transport Evolved showed, doing a similar trip on the mainland might prove to be more of a challenge. The amount of different networks and modes of operation will certainly not make it as easy as ordering a free Ecotricity card and rolling off the ferry. So if you want to do it the other way around, do your research, and don’t do as I did: rely on a single network. The situation in the UK is not perfect, but it is improving all the time and it certainly is far superior to what Belgium has to offer in terms of charging infrastructure.

Some stats
Total distance: 1510.2km
Charging sessions: 3 in Belgium (22kW), 18 in the UK (1 @ 22kW, 4 @ slooooooooow speed)
Total energy used: 217kWh
Money spent on charging in the UK: £0
Money spent on charging in Belgium: unknown. The website of the operator still shows 0 sessions and hasn’t billed me. So for now: €0

Later this year I will make my annual trip to Germany in October. This will have me use chargers in Belgium, the Netherlands and of course Germany. Maybe I’ll skip the German one as I should be able to make it from the last Dutch charger to Essen and back. We’ll see but if I have anything of interest, I’ll do another write up then.