Charging the Chevy Volt

This is the second blog post describing my experiences with a Chevy Volt that GM loaned to me for three days in August. I’m going to spend a lot of time describing the charging of the Chevrolet Volt because that’s what I had to spend most of my time doing: figuring out how I was going to charge the vehicle. It seemed silly to test drive an electric car and drive it in gasoline mode all of the time. I needed to charge it. (For Part 1, see “Driving the Chevy Volt.”)

My first charging attempt was to use the included 110v Level 1 charging cord. This seemed like a simple alternative. One of my condo parking spaces has a convenient 110v outlet nearby so I plugged in the outlet end of the cord. The charging module in the cord has three red/green LED banks to tell you that state of the charging cord, as you can see in this image:

The top two LED banks indicate the state of the 110v electrical outlet and the state of the charging cord. If both glow green (as shown in the image), you’re good to go. When I plugged the cord in, both of these LED banks glowed red briefly, and then switched to a welcome green. So far, so good.

The bottom LED bank indicates the selected charging rate. If all four green LEDs are on, you’ve selected the highest charging rate for the 110v cord. If only the left two LEDs are lit, you’ve selected the lower charging rate. The rate selector is the orange pushbutton below the four LEDs. In the image above, you can see that the highest charging rate is selected.

I plugged the charging cable into the Chevy Volt and an amber light lit up on the top of the Volt’s dashboard. It soon changed to green and the car horn honked briefly. That was according to plan. Then, after a few seconds, the light changed back to amber and then again back to green. The car honked again. That wasn’t in the plan.

I left the car for an hour and had dinner. When I came back, there was no light on the dashboard and the top two LED banks on the charging cord had changed to an angry flashing red. Uh oh, it seemed that something was wrong. I pulled the charging cord’s plug from the 110v socket and the ground-fault interrupter popped. Clearly, something was wrong.

I reset the ground-fault interrupter and tried again. Again the 110v charging failed and the angry red blinking LEDs returned.

Some research on the Internet told me that others had seen this same problem and that the fault was with the wiring, the outlet, the ground-fault interrupter, or the charging cord. Not much help. Whichever one it was, I didn’t have an alternate electrical socket to try near my parking space so I gave up on this approach. I was pretty sure a 50-foot extension cord wasn’t going to help matters any.

Time to try one of the public charging stations. That was my only other charging option during the 3-day trial period.

At 7:30 pm, I drove the car over to the first of three public charging stations located directly on the street in front of San Jose’s ultramodern City Hall on Santa Clara Avenue. These charging stations are only a few months old. I saw them go in. GM had lent me a ChargePoint card, which has an integral RFID tag in it, to pay for electricity during the trial period. I held the tag next to the charging station and the station unlocked the charging cord, which I then plugged into the car’s charging port. The car started to charge.

Much better!

Note that the Chevy Volt’s battery-charging port is on the driver’s side, which is not great for street charging. When you’re in a gasoline station, the fuel-filler port can be on either side and you only need to know which side of the pump to park on. As it turns out, the charging port’s location is more problematic when it comes to public charging stations. With the charging port on the driver’s side, you will need to pay attention to oncoming traffic when connecting and disconnecting the charging cord.

By the way, the Chevy Volt’s fuel-filler port is on the passenger side, on the rear fender, far away from the electrical charging port. That’s probably a very good idea and may well explain the charging port’s location.

While I was at city hall setting up the charging session, someone tried to panhandle money from me. It’s that kind of a downtown location. Getting panhandled wasn’t fun, it usually isn’t, but I’ve been panhandled while fueling my Saturn VUE at a downtown San Jose gasoline station and this experience wasn’t all that different. Gasoline stations are public too. Nevertheless, I was flustered enough to leave the car switched on but locked as I walked the block back to my condo.

I returned in just two hours because I really didn’t want to leave a $45,000 loaner car charging in that unprotected and very public location for much longer. It was getting late. The car’s lights were still on, just as I had left them. The car was fully powered up but locked. After two hours of charging, there were now 12 miles of charge on the battery—about a third full. I drove the car back to my condo for the night after this partial success.

Just to be fair, I tried the 110v charging cord again. Maybe I’d get a better result now that the battery was partially charged. If so, I could top off the battery overnight. Nice try, but no. Same result. Angry red flashing LEDs. I pulled the charging cord from the car and accidentally set off the car alarm. Must remember to unlock the car before detaching the charging cord.

The next day, my second with the Chevy Volt, I drove to work and then back home in the evening. I’d used some battery charge to take a colleague to lunch in the Volt, so halfway home the car switched to gasoline power. Seamlessly. This time, I had a plan. I drove straight into the city-owned parking garage at 4th and San Fernando Streets and looked for the ChargePoint stations. They were just inside, past the parking gate. You have to pay for parking while charging your car. I parked, waved the ChargePoint card at the charger, and hooked up the car. It started to charge so I walked home in less than five minutes.

Fortunately, that parking garage has a restaurant named “Flames” on the ground floor and the restaurant validates parking so my wife and I decided to have dinner there. That knocked my 5-hour parking fee down from $14 to $3, which is OK for a one-time battery charge but I would definitely not make a habit of charging my car this way. I can’t afford to eat dinner at Flames every night. Dollars or calories.

Later, I walked back to the city garage. After five hours, the Chevy Volt’s battery was full—the battery gauge showed 35 miles of range. I pulled out the charging cord and promptly set off the car alarm again. Oh, well. I unlocked the car and drove home for the evening.

On my third day with the Chevy Volt, I drove the car to work confident that I’d have enough battery power to drive both ways using only electricity. A full charge would take me back and forth to work two days straight assuming I didn’t run many any errands during the day. Consequently, I didn’t charge the car again before they took it away on Friday afternoon.

As you can see, I spent a lot of time worrying about charging the Chevrolet Volt—almost as much time as driving it. That’s unfortunate, because it really is a fun car to drive. However, my experience with charging the Chevy Volt underscores how the logistics of driving an electric car are not at all the same as for a gasoline-powered car. In the early days of gasoline-powered automobiles, gasoline wasn’t that easy to find. However, the infrastructure for gasoline-powered cars has now been in place for many decades and it works well for most of us. You don’t need anything special at home to support a gasoline-powered car, you just need a place to park the car and you need to remember to fill it up. A gasoline fill-up takes five or ten minutes these days using “pay at the pump” and self-service refueling.

The same is not true of an electric vehicle. You will need support infrastructure at home to charge the battery. You’re better off if you also have support infrastructure at or near your place of business. There’s just more thinking involved with an electric car, for now. You need to be thinking about where your next charge is coming from. This is not so true for a range-extended vehicle like the Chevy Volt, but in my experience over three days, it is still true.

Perhaps in a few decades, things will be different. We’ll have batteries with more capacity that charge faster. We’ll have far more public charging stations. Homes will come with charging infrastructure built in. Businesses will supply charging stations to employees. Condominiums will figure out how to provide residents with charging infrastructure. However that’s the future, not now. Not quite yet.

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2 Responses to Charging the Chevy Volt

  1. Hi Steve
    Nice article! As Silicon Valley Volt owner I can second your experiences charing the car. I bought one after I saw the teardown at DAC. The technology of this extrended range EV is truly spectacular. My employer graciously provides free charging, which makes electric driving very attractive.

    My Volt charges at about 4 miles per hour on 110V, or at 10 miles per hour on 220V (L2 at work or at home). For comparison, it takes 5 minuts to fill a tank of gas, which is an effective charge rate of 6 times the speed of sound. At such slow rates its not worth the trouble charging and EV at a mall while running errants. Only for longer charges it makes sense (at work or at home).

    The Volt takes about 4.5 hours for a full charge (L2), which gets me about 38 miles and costs $2.50 in electricity from expensive PG&E (at 20c/kWh). If I would drive on gas (which the Volt can), the same 38 miles takes roughly 1 gallon ($4).

    An interesting observation is that public charging stations are a poor value proposition. The stations you visited in San Jose cost $1/hour and some even more. So a full charge would cost well over $4, which makes driving electric more expensive as driving on gasoline. So at current gas prices, you are losing money by driving electric if you use public chargers.

    So money saving is not the biggest incentive to drive electric. I did the math on the ‘green’ credential of the car. The environmental impact varies, but if you are a California PG&E customer, the CO2 emissions are about 4x less than driving a similar compact car over the same distance. That is significant.

    Patrick Groeneveld
    Saratoga, CA

  2. sleibson321 says:

    Thanks for the detailed data, Patrick. I’ve got a wrap up of the Tesla story coming up next month with my friend’s charging experiences and costs.

    –Steve

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