Tesla Winter Road Trip in 2019

Woohoo!  Road Trip!
Note: I'm focusing mostly on Tesla issues in this post, but the general information holds for other battery electrics (BEVs) as well.

Our day 1 route from Muskegon to Effingham, IL
Thanksgiving is one of the biggest travel holidays of the year, and this year my family contributed to the mayhem on the highways in order to see our daughter and good friends in Kansas City.

We headed out from West Michigan as soon as school was out on Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving and joined the throngs of other car travelers.

As the original owner of a 2015 Tesla with a nominal range of 250 miles and free lifetime Supercharging thanks to the promotion for early adopters of that vintage, our Model S is our logical choice for a road trip vehicle.  Well that, and we no longer own a gas car.

Congestion at the Supercharger

Our first stop out of Muskegon is the St. Joseph, MI Supercharger where we typically enjoy the nearby Panera for its yummy pastries, soups, salads and decent coffee.  Normally, we pull right in to a Supercharger stall and head in for a pit stop and some snacks.  

Congestion at the St. Joe's Supercharger
This time, we encountered the scene on the left with 7 of the 8 stalls occupied and one stall inoperative.  With the strong sales of Tesla Model 3s, these were the bulk of what we saw charging when we arrived.  According to the loosely organized queue, we were number 4 to charge with 3 more Teslas arriving shortly after us.    

You would think in 2019, the Supercharger network would have been filled in to keep up with Tesla sales.  To be fair, this was during the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, so this stack-up is likely not a regular occurrence.

Another thing you might encounter is a notification that a Supercharger is in a high-usage condition and your charge will be limited to 80%.  When making a trip that takes you from Supercharger to Supercharger, you should really only be charging until the trip computer says "You have enough charge to continue your trip" and not extra.  Following Tesla's charging recommendation is the most time-efficient way to charge anyway since you get higher charging rates at lower state of charge (SOC).  Topping up to a higher SOC will not buy you an equivalent time savings at the next Supercharger.

High-usage alert at Supercharger
Also, Tesla really is building out its Supercharger network.  I learned that the Michigan City, IN Supercharger is under active construction and should be available soon.  That would help unload some of the traffic at St. Joe's.  Also, it will likely be built with the latest V3 technology allowing faster charging for those newer Teslas that are able to take advantage of that higher power.  You can always check https://www.supercharge.info for the latest Supercharger activity as well as the official site https://www.tesla.com/findus.

Lesson learned:  be sure to pack your patience when traveling on big travel holidays.

Cold Weather Takes its Toll on Range

With 150-ish miles of range between the 20-80% battery state of charge (SOC), in summer we're used to about 20-30 minute stops at Tesla Superchargers between 100-150 mile or 2-hour stretches of driving.  

Tesla cold weather efficiency example
Winter temperatures in the Upper Midwest take a toll on range for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost, batteries work on chemical energy.  Chemical reactions slow down with temperature, so the batteries just aren't as efficient when they're cold.  Of course heater use and the resistance from slush and snow add to energy use.  Most surprisingly, the additional resistance for denser air is significant enough to add to an overall range loss of 20-30%, possibly more during polar vortex type single-digit Fahrenheit temperatures.

In the picture of my Tesla screen above, I had just completed a short errand with a cold battery, the outside temperature showing 31°F.  The Model S has a battery heater that kicks on when you start with a cold battery which leads to high consumption.  It was 414 Wh/mile in this case, which is way above the warm weather efficiency around 300 Wh/mile.  That 414 translates to about 2.4 miles/kWh, so if this rate is maintained, my 85 kWh battery at 100% state of charge would yield around 200 miles rather than the rated 252 or 20% less range than summer use

The other thing to note about the screen is the braking regeneration limitation.  It's shown as a dotted line circled in green.  That means when you take your foot from the accelerator, you don't get the full regeneration power available and thus makes more use of the friction brakes when needed.  That further contributes to range loss. 

Both the battery heater use and regen limitation should get better once the car is fully warmed up such as on an extended road trip.  The associated efficiency should get a bit better, but it will still be less than warm weather use.

My recent Episode 8 of the "Plug-In West Michigan" podcast explores this issue in greater detail.

So What Can You Do?

Ultimately what the winter range loss means is that you will need more time to charge since you'll need more energy to get from Point A to Point B.  Allow more charge time in your travel plans.  For those with a Tesla, it means that Supercharger stops are now typically an additional 10-15 minutes longer than summer stops.  It also means you may not be able to skip some Supercharger stops that you were able to skip in the summer.  We had charged the battery to nearly 100% at home which, during the summer, would mean we could skip St. Joseph, MI and drive directly to Country Club Hills, IL (near Chicago).  On this trip, we needed 15 minutes in St. Joe's to make it comfortably to Country Club Hills.  

Be sure to preheat your car before you leave.  This helps avoid a significant energy drain at the beginning of the trip as the car tries to warm both the battery and the cabin.  The Tesla Model S and X have battery heaters whereas the Model 3 does not.  

Pick Hotels with EV Charging...and Have a Backup Plan


Level 2 Charging at the Best Western Effingham
Our plan for day 1 of our trip was home to Effingham, IL which lies about halfway along the route to Kansas City.  Based on PlugShare and past experience, we like to stay at the Best Western Delta Inn which has a Level 2 EVSE charging station (PlugShare link).  Since there's only one EVSE and there's always the change it's being used by another EV or ICEd (blocked by an Internal Combustion Engine) it's always a good idea to ensure success and have a backup plan.  

The maximize chance of availability, we called the Best Western to ask whether they could put a traffic cone in the parking spot associated with the EVSE.  Sure enough, the staff was happy to help and we found the space reserved for us when we arrive.  

Just in case, Effingham also has a Tesla Supercharger across the highway from the Best Western, so that was our Plan B.  Fortunately, we didn't need to use that.  While Superchargers are convenient, it's even more convenient to just plug in overnight and wake up to a charged EV.

My strategy for finding hotels along my route is a bit of a manual iterative process:

  1. Find an area where I want to stay within, say, a 50 mile radius.  Usually, I prefer chain hotels like Hampton Inns, Fairfields, or Holiday Inn Express.  I also prefer to stay outside of metro areas since the prices tend to be lower.
  2. I then look on PlugShare to see if any of the hotels in the area have Level 2 chargers, making sure to look at the rating and recent comments.  If so, I book it.  
  3. If there are no hotels with Level 2 chargers, I look for other Level 2 chargers in the area on PlugShare.  If there are some at nearby businesses, I see if it's walking distance to the hotel.  Also, if it's nearby, I might be willing to drop a folding bike into my trunk to get there or take an Uber.
  4. If I'm struggling to find an appropriate site, I also check the apps or web pages from charging networks like ChargePoint, EVGo, Electrify America, Blink, SemaConnect or whatever is prevalent in your area.  Sometimes EVSEs are added and nobody has discovered them and added them on PlugShare.
  5. As a backup plan, I look for Superchargers or DC Quick Chargers with CHAdeMO nearby in case the hotel Level 2 charger is broken, being used, or blocked. 
  6. If all else fails, I'll look for an external 110V outlet where my cord won't create a trip hazard, ask for permission from the hotel, then at least get 1.6 KW or about 30 miles of range overnight.

Lesson learned:  Have a charging backup plan.  Check PlugShare for options and recent check-ins and ratings.  Make use of trickle charging if available.

Equip Yourself for Success

In an ideal future world of EVs:
  • DC Quick Chargers are at every exit and every town, just like gas stations are today,
  • Every DC Quick Charge network will have plenty of high-speed charging ports, 
  • Hotels will have multiple Level 2 outlets properly labeled to keep ICE vehicles out, 
  • Your destination city has abundant public charging and 
  • Your friends' house at your destination will have their own J1772 or Tesla wall charger or at least a NEMA 14-50 outlet for you to charge your car.  Life will be good and you don't need to plan any more than you do with a gas vehicle today.
The 2019 reality is still quite different.  The Supercharger network is quite reliable and fast, keeping in mind that you may have to wait as shown above.  However, you still need to plan your charging along your route.

In the meantime, you may find:

  • Broken Level 2 EVSEs
  • Level 2 EVSEs blocked by ICE vehicles
  • Off-network EVSEs that you can't activate with your app
  • Your friends only have a standard 110V outlet and you can't get a full charge overnight

Adapters are Your Friend

On my road trips with the Tesla, I've had the opportunity to use the following:
The array of cords and adapters I carry on road trips
  • Tesla CHAdeMO adapter - I just used this on my Thanksgiving 2019 trip since there's a DCQC near my friends' house.  Note these aren't cheap, but can also be rented from QuickChargePower.com
  • J-Long - This is a J-1772 extension cord.  If you can't get your car close enough to a J-plug due to the spot being blocked, you can reach from adjacent parking spots.  I've had to use this at hotels that have an EVSE but no signage on the parking space and the space was blocked.  This same concept is also available from other sources like EVSEAdapters.com.
  • NEMA 14-50 extension cords and NEMA 14-30 to 14-50 adapters - I once charged at a friend's house where the laundry with a NEMA 14-30 outlet was close to the driveway, but not close enough for my Tesla cord.  Using a NEMA 14-30 (angled neutral pin) to 14-50 (straight blade neutral pin) adapter and extension cord, I was able to get a Level 2 charge overnight.  Note that in order to avoid tripping the breaker and by NEC code, you should only load up a circuit to 80% of its rated capacity.  For example, I dialed down my Tesla's amps on the charging screen to 24 A in the above example.  You can find these cords and adapters at places like the above links.  Note that home improvement stores also carry NEMA 14-50 extension cords and some adapters for RVs.  Here's an example at Menard's.  Car chargers do not need the neutral pin, so if you only plan to use the cord for EV charging, you can remove the neutral plug which effectively turns the cord into an adapter for NEMA 14-30.  Please heed the warming on turning down the amps to a safe level.
  • Tesla CHAdeMO Adapter
  • Standard 110V extension cord - Yes, you can plug your trickle charger into an extension cord as long as it's rated for the power your trickle charge EVSE delivers.  Example, 1,600 Watts divided by 110V mean 15 amps will be flowing.  Use an extension cord with the appropriate wire gauge to allow that much power to flow.  Note that this will often use all the power available on that circuit.  So if you're plugging into an outlet that has, for example, a garage freezer on it as happened to me this past weekend, the combined load of my car and the freezer kicking on popped the breaker.  You don't want an angry host with their venison or blueberries melted when the circuit breaker pops and is sitting all night.
Also don't forget:
  • Get memberships in charging networks - You don't want to be fumbling with your phone or calling customer service in the pouring rain while trying to get a charge.  Register online with charging networks and, if necessary, put a few $ of balance on the account.  
  • Download the app - Get the apps for the charging networks.  In addition to being able to see which stations are active, you can often activate the station directly with the app.
  • Charging network cards - Sometimes networked stations have gone off-lease and won't activate with the app.  ChargePoint has several stations my area that fit this category.  I recommend getting the RFID card for that network even if it costs a few $ ($4.95 for ChargePoint) the last time I checked.

Final Thoughts

Tesla Superchargers
When selecting your next EV and you find yourself balking over the additional cost of the larger battery option, consider whether you will be doing road trips and, in particular winter road trips.  Larger batteries obviously mean more range, but they also mean that the critical 20-80% state of charge envelope that road trips typically fall in (10-90% if you push it) means that you'll only have 60-80% of your car's battery for actual travel stretches.  Above 80% SOC, charging speed significantly tapers off so large battery EVs also charge faster.  I can't imagine how much longer my recent road trip would have been with a 60 kWh battery.  My advice:  Buy the largest battery size EV you can afford.
Where are the north Michigan chargers?

Road Trips: Advantage Tesla

If you'll be doing lots of road tripping with your EV, at this point in time Tesla still has the Supercharger advantage.  Yes, the Electrify America (EA) and EVGo networks are growing, but one look at my home state of Michigan on the 2019 EA map tells me Tesla's network will get me where I need to go more reliably.  

If All Else Fails:  Rent a Gas Car

Yes, EVs are better in so many ways from smooth quiet response, efficiency, cost of fuel to environmental performance.  But sometimes, it's just not worth being the early adopter if it means your traveling companions are going to be miserable.  Since we've sold our last gas vehicle, we have rented a gas minivan several times to ensure passenger comfort, gas and go speed and room to carry all the cargo we needed. 

Yeah, it stinks (literally) to have lackluster acceleration, annoying shifting on hills and, of course, the joy of visiting ga$ $tation$.  But use the right tool for the right job. 

Resources:

If you are in the market for a Tesla Model S, Model X, or Model 3, Tesla has reestablished its referral program.  Feel free to use my referral code to get 5,000 miles of free Supercharging (at the time of this publishing) for your Tesla:  http://ts.la/karl5062

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