Vancouver: A Winter Leaf Odyssey
In between all the big EV stories, here’s another little personal tale. The headline might sound outsized, but there’s a reason as you’ll see.
I had already set my sights on Vancouver, 140 miles to the north, as a great Leaf destination. Then Orna suggested repeating a very memorable 2003/4 winter-holiday trip to Vancouver when we still had two rather young kids. Now they are burly/lanky teenagers, and their baby brother is 9. I knew getting to Vancouver with our 2014 Leaf is possible in nearly any weather, thanks to two strategically-located QC stops along the way.
The trick was, what to do once there? I mean, what to do with the Leaf charging-wise. Our lodging constraints already look like a complex Venn diagram, with almost zero intersection. In a hotel we need at least the following:
- A suite, because the 5 of us don’t fit in a standard hotel room anymore.
- Suite must be affordable, b/c we aren’t rich and wanted to stay 5 nights.
- We like to have a real breakfast, and with 3 growing boys if we don’t get a hotel with complimentary breakfast, we’re gonna waste a lot of time and $$ every morning getting them fed.
- Likewise, a swimming pool in the hotel is a must, surely if staying more than one night.
- Did I already say “affordable”?
- Location that’s not completely trashy.
And now… add to the list our latest pet, call it “Arhoo” (its license plate starts with ARH00). Arhoo needs a place to charge, preferably right in the hotel – overnight trickle should suffice.
This combination has steered us towards midrange chain hotels in the suburbs, in particular a Holiday Inn Express which is nominally in Richmond, but really even further southeast, in between agricultural fields and the Fraser River. They were very friendly, and could also do charging; they said they have a single 120V outlet on a lamppost in the parking lot, and will reserve the spot for the duration of our visit. After settling the details, the receptionist told me her sister has a Volt so she knew all about charging; still she was very surprised to learn about the existence of EVs without a backup gas engine.
We chose Christmas Day for our trip up. A positive side effect of being in a minority religion: occasionally you can save time or money by traveling on the majority’s holiday.
In the summer, Arhoo can do the trip to Vancouver with a single QC stop: Sehome Village in Bellingham, 82 miles drive from our home. Indeed, in July we took a somewhat longer 84-mile route, and still arrived at Sehome QC with ~15% left. The weather on Christmas day was partly cloudy and low 40s, very reasonable for the season. I already knew that our 2014’s climate control is rather efficient and barely shaves 5% off the range, plus we’d probably not need to operate it the whole time. So I was cautiously optimistic about getting to Sehome in one fell swoop. We set out north at a range-friendly speed (55-58 MPH), which isn’t a big deal anyway because the first 30-40 miles have a 60 MPH speed limit.
Initially things looked promising, but as we reached the halfway mark… the battery also hovered around 50%. Too close for comfort. So we’d have to stop first at Burlington QC, ~58 miles from home. There was one black Leaf there; a lady with a brand-new 2015, on her first ever Leaf road trip (to Blaine just south of the border). She was wrapping up as we rolled in. The outlet mall was completely deserted.
As we started QCing, an elderly gentleman in a 2011 rolled in. He was a real Leaf veteran, having used the car for super-long commutes in the past. Sorry, I forget the details now. I should make me a Leaf diary to keep in the car, just for those QC-stop conversations. They are fascinating. Now he was back from Christmas church service, to his new home on Whidbey Island to the west. There are good reasons why Burlington is known as the busiest QC stop in the state!
Since we needed to charge again at Bellingham anyway, and he was waiting, I stopped short of 60% and bade him farewell. Now it was time for Orna, who hates being on “speed discipline”, to drive the segment, which she promptly zoomed at ~70 MPH, despite the hills and some rain that started coming down.
Sehome Village QC in Bellingham was wide open for use. Of all highway QC stops we’ve visited, this is far and away the best. It’s 10 meters away from a Starbuck’s, the only business open (and very busy) on Christmas Day. Funny enough, right next to the Leaf was a doppleganger of the beat-up Santa Fe we left at home, complete with a year’s worth of dust and mud.
It was smooth sailing to the border, which is always a bit further away from Bellingham than one remembers. The line wasn’t long, although the Canadian border agent was the grumpiest most hostile one we’ve ever encountered. Cruising towards Richmond, the Sun came out and we were treated to a beautiful Northwest winter sunset.
Once at the hotel, we discovered there were actually multiple lamp posts with 110v outlets, and one was coned-off on our behalf. We started to trickle immediately, because on the way we spoke with Orna’s cousin who lives in Vancouver. They were leaving town the next day, so it was either see them that evening or not at all. 1-2 hours later, having freshened up a bit, we left towards town – a good >10 miles away. While arranging a trickle-charge at the cousin’s home, I was treated to the familiar old lame jokes about EVs and charging from the cousin-in-law. They had just bought a Ford Cmax hybrid, without the plug-in option, precisely (as he put it) because he didn’t care for the hassle of charging. Of course, gas is a good 1.5 times more expensive in Canada so one would save nicely by plugging in; but our hosts are not exactly financially concerned. Anyway, apart from the EV chatter (they also mentioned that irritating, misguided PNAS article that just came out, and misrepresented in the media as “EVs aren’t green”), it was a nice evening 🙂
We got back to the hotel with somewhere around 15-20% charge, so the 3 hours of trickle at Orna’s cousin were rather useful. Overall we clocked 154.5 miles that day, our longest day to date with the 2014 (we once got close to 190 miles in our 2012), and a new winter Leaf record for us. The main trip from Seattle to hotel took ~4 hours, which is actually pretty normal for Seattle-Vancouver including border-wait time.
I won’t tire you with all the details of the intervening 5 days. The hotel trickle worked like a charm, it was just like being at home. Overall, despite reasonable L2 infrastructure (which we hardly used), Vancouver was disappointingly EV-empty. The attitudes we’ve heard at the cousin’s home are apparently representative. The only EV we saw outside of charging spots, was a fleet MiEV on the very last day. And we didn’t see a whole lot of them in charging spots either (a couple of Leafs, a couple of Model S, and one Smart ED). This, despite the fact BC gives $5k CDN incentive per BEV purchase, and gas as I said is more expensive. In short, the cultural shift has not taken place there. Yet.
Let’s get to the Odyssey part. The hotel is located right next to the largest movie multiplex I’ve even seen. There was no way we’d stay there so long without going in – so we decided to make quick work of it and go to the movies the next night after arriving. The kids went to some animation flic, and we – per our teenagers’ recommendations – to “Interstellar”, which I immediately recognized as a homage to “2001, A Space Odyssey”, as well influenced by several Asimov novels. I thought the Earth scenes sucked, but the outer-galaxy story and scenes were very well done, and resonated with me. There was something in the sense of years lost far away from home, and inability to really connect back to an imagined idyllic past, that reminded me strongly of our own Israeli expat experience. And there was also something very Leaf-like in the way they hopped from planet to planet, looking for tricks to squeeze a few more bits of energy…
Finally, it was our own turn to hop back, not without a twist in the plot. Instead of heading straight home, we wanted first to drive back north into town and do some Indian and Mideast grocery shopping in Vancouver’s “Little Punjab” district. My calculations said we should have plenty of range to reach Bellingham without charging again. It was another clear, subfreezing day.
As we finished our farewell-Vancouver Indian buffet lunch, we looked online to see the border-crossing situation. Alas: over an hour’s wait in both crossings near the main coastal highway (BC-99/US I-5). Despite our gambit to return midweek, the notorious slowness of US border and customs has kicked in.
The third crossing, about 10 miles inland between Langley and Lynden, only had 20 minutes wait. The overall detour getting to Bellingham would add less than that. My calculations said we can make it with some buffer to spare. As we got to the car, I could swear we’d lost some 3% just while parking! It was below freezing and the car was in the shade, can that be the reason? Or perhaps we’d forgotten the lights on, or I hadn’t noticed our true SOC? A small warning light had lit in the back of my mind, but I still forged ahead with the plan.
We snaked our way through the mid-afternoon traffic of Vancouver’s eastern suburbs, finally hitting Canada’s Highway 1. Cruising there at my usual “speed-discipline” 55 MPH, I couldn’t fail to notice we were losing charge faster than expected. Now that we were well out of town, the temperature fell to mid-20s.
We got off the highway with <40%. Fortunately, the remaining road to the border was classic Leaf fare: an almost-deserted narrow country lane. Enjoying yet another glorious Northwest late afternoon sun, and glimpses of Mount Baker becoming bigger and bigger up ahead, we finally hit the border with 32%.
In a nice symmetry, the US border agent was the nicest we’ve encountered in any US entry (and we’ve done a lot of those). He was also all over our Leaf, asking where we plan to charge and offering locations. He wasn’t aware of Quick-Charging, but I didn’t want to bother him with lectures and we drove on. As usual, even on this shortcut road, Bellingham proved to be further from the border than perceived. We hit its northern outskirts at well below 20%.
To encounter… traffic jams: peak afternoon rush hour. We crawled from stoplight to stoplight, having to use climate control the entire time. Orna was looking up closer alternatives to Sehome on Plugshare, and I was frantically re-calculating our chances.
After some 20 minutes, we emerged from the traffic jam and onto I-5 for the final 3-4 miles, with 13% remaining. We were going to make it. And indeed, when gliding into Sehome’s QC spot (again, no wait), the SOC showed 6%, the lowest we’ve ever been with any Leaf, but still with a few miles to spare. (Interestingly, once hooked up, the Aerovironment charger said 7%; rounding differences perhaps?)
Ok, another well-deserved latte at Starbucks (most of which I promptly spilled; post-traumatic anyone?). I went to check on the Leaf, and another Leaf shows up, driven by none other than Jeff Orr.
That holiday break, Jeff became an instant Leaf hero, setting out from his Silicon Valley home on a journey to Vancouver BC: an Odyssey that puts ours to shame. Many people did that trek in the summer; Jeff might be the first one to attempt it in winter. For those not familiar, this journey involves a 205-mile stretch in Northern California with no ChaDeMo quick chargers. Having followed Jeff’s posts on Seattle’s Leaf Facebook group, I knew he’d crossed that chasm, then binged on QCs the next day for some 450 miles, all the way to northern Washington. And now by a nice coincidence, we both wrapped up our Vancouver stay at the same time!
So, we had a good chat. Jeff told me how he slept in the car near Mt. Shasta, while the Leaf was trickle-charging because this was the only charging he could find there at this time of year. And other stories. Meanwhile Orna reminded me that our (modest) REI dividend is about to expire, and there was an REI right there. So having reached the 80+%, I switched with Jeff, our Leaf connecting to the L2 and his to the QC, and we went shopping…
I emerged from REI, a new pair of rain boots in hand, to see yet another Leaf waiting to charge, with yet another Leaf hero in it! Nicole lives near Maple Valley, 30-plus miles up the Mt. Baker highway, and was apparently the first Leaf buyer in the county. Since 2011 she’s commuted to town and back on a daily basis, saving >$3k/year (now with cheap gas, maybe closer to $2k/year…) Her Leaf, 37k miles wiser, now lost 1 bar and requires a QC boost, for sure in winter, in order to get back home. But she’s extremely happy with it. She’s not connected to any online forums or brag sheets. She just lives the EV life as thoroughly as anyone.
We left Sehome with 100% SOC and Orna at the wheel. Not particularly fond of Burlington she suggested we aim to hit Magic Nissan of Everett some 60-plus miles away, but after a few minutes we both gave up the idea. Instead, we stopped again at Burlington. The main question was: given the temperature in the mid-20s, would any kind of driving suffice to get us home in one stretch?
We left Burlington at 93% and reached home at 9% , maintaining speeds of 53-62 MPH. The ride was fairly smooth, except one point roughly midway when we seemed to lose ~5% in the blink of an eye! Likely a temporary nonlinearity in the SOC meter: a few miles later we went ~ 5 miles without losing charge. The temporary drop did bring about a few white-knuckle minutes though… we ended the day with 153 miles, just slightly less than on the “up” drive. Including the middle days, the entire trip was 466 miles.
Leaf-wise, the raw temperature impact on range took us a bit by surprise. Sure, I’ve heard about it, but that’s different from seeing your range magically disappear without really using the power for e.g., climate control or high-speed driving. With the 2012, the huge impact of climate control had masked the net temperature effect.
With a 2014 after deducting the effect of climate control, it seems that at 40 degrees you lose 10-15% of your range compared to ideal conditions, and at 25-30 degrees, a further 10+% (according to Carwings, the ‘up’ day had 4.1 miles/kWh efficiency, and the ‘down’ day only 3.7, despite driving more slowly on average). In particular, in mid-20s temperature and observing speed-discipline, one’s highway range with an SV/SL 2013+ Leaf is only 70-75 miles (assuming, of course, that climate control must work the entire time). Far better than the less than 50 miles a 2011/2 can do under these conditions, but still tight.
Perhaps our combined weight had also shaved a few miles off our range. We weigh the equivalent of nearly 4.5 adults, and had 2 large suitcases, one medium one, and an assortment of winter clothes and backpacks, probably just about maxing out the Leaf’s official 860-pound cargo capacity. Of course, to the Leaf’s advantage it could house all these and still allow us to ride in reasonable comfort.
One thing’s for sure: this is not for everyone. Heck, if everyone with a Leaf did it, we’d still be waiting to charge at Burlington! However, once you hit your destination, a hotel is indeed a home away from home: if you have overnight charging, things are perfectly normal.
As always it was a pleasure to meet other EV drivers at those QC stops. The camaraderie and solidarity is part of the advantages of being an early adopter. And last but not least: we never paid for charging the entire trip (we have the Nissan No Charge to Charge thingie for the QCs). We saved at least $100 vs. a midsize ICE car doing the same trip.
I’d do it again tomorrow… if only we had the time.