Friday, August 7, 2009

MINI-E #250 suffers a setback


Well, I promised myself when I started the blog that I would "tell it like it is."  Even though I am a strong supporter of Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) and I don't want to scare people away from them, if there are problems with the car or the program, I said I would be honest and report them, just as I will the positive things that zero emission vehicles bring. So, today there was a setback. I had my wall charger inspected and it failed inspection because it does not have Underwriters Laboratory (UL) listing. That means that the unit has not been thoroughly inspected for safety, as all electronic devices sold or used in the United States must be. You may wonder why, after 2 months of driving the car, have I just now had the unit inspected. Shouldn't I have had the device installed and inspected before I ever took delivery of the car? The answer is yes, of course I should have, but unfortunately that's not how it went down. I'm going to have to go back to the beginning to tell you how things unfolded to this point in order to properly explain why I have the car and no way to charge it for daily use.

About a year ago, I was researching the upcoming plug in hybrid Chevy Volt, alternative fuel vehicles as well as BEVs that would be available in the near future and I stumbled upon the MINI-E trial lease application. MINI was looking for 450 people to participate in a field trial of a 100% battery-powered electric vehicle. They were to make 500 of them with the remaining 50 going to non-profits and municipalities for use over the same 1 year period. The idea was that we would drive these cars for the year, and provide feedback to MINI about our experience as well as test out the hardware of the vehicle for a future electric car to be made by MINI or BMW (BMW owns MINI). I filled out the application and forgot about it. Since I knew a lot of people would apply and there were only 100 committed to New Jersey residents (100 to NJ, 100 to NY and 250 to CA residents) my chances of being selected were slim. When I got the call in January I was pleasantly surprised that I was one of the 100 people out of thousands who were selected to be a participant. All I had to do was get approved financially and have my house inspected to make sure I had enough power supply to have the 32 amp, 220v charger installed; which I did with power to spare. I really didn't hear much from MINI until around April when I started getting emails about how the program was about to begin and that the California participants would be getting their cars first because there weren't enough wall chargers to go around and at the time only about 150 were made and they needed over 500 in all. Then a few weeks later another email came telling me that they would not have the wall chargers ready for a couple of months (probably in July) but that they wanted us to take the cars anyway and would give us a portable 110v 12amp "emergency" charger to temporarily charge the car until the wall chargers were ready. They stressed that all the cars HAD to be on the road and registered by June 26th and that they would waive the first month's lease payment of $850.00 for our inconvenience, since the 110v charger would take 24-30 hours to charge the car from empty to 100%. That meant I could only use the car every other day since my daily commute is 60 to 100 miles depending on the day. If I came home at night with a depleted battery, it would only have charged 25 - 30% charge by the morning and since the car gets roughly 100 - 120 miles on a full charge, I could barely make it to Montclair, where I work, and then even if I made it, I'd be stuck there. So, a few weeks of driving every other day, the electrical contractor hired to do the installation, O'Sullivan Electric, called me to schedule the wall box. I was thrilled that I would finally be able to charge every night and use it every day like I expected I would. However, when they came to install the wall charger, they didn't have the cable that plugs from the charger into the car. I was told that they were still waiting for it and they would come back in a few weeks to complete the installation once they had the cables. As it turned out, about two weeks later I got the call and they came and completed the install. They called my township construction department and scheduled the inspection for today, August 7th, and asked that I be home in the morning to show the inspector the unit. The township electric inspector came and he immediately told me that he couldn't pass the charger. He went on to tell me that this is the third one he has inspected and failed and that the problem is that the unit has not been properly tested by the UL and I cannot continue to use it. He was very professional and explained that he has attempted to contact the manufacturer and get proof that is has been inspected and approved as a complete unit, not separate components, but he has been unable to get the documentation that is necessary and until he does he will have to continue to fail the units that he inspects. Since I have been charging the car with the wall charger for the past three weeks, I was originally tempted to continue to use it against the advice of the inspector, therefore I could continue to use the car everyday. But after some thought, that just doesn't make any sense. I'm not going to take that chance that the unit fails and starts a fire in my home, especially since I charge overnight when I'm sleeping! Until the inspector comes back and passes the unit or MINI sends me a new unit that then passes inspection, I'll be using the wimpy 110v, 12amp charger and using the car every other day. I'm not mad, a little disappointed maybe that these issues weren't worked out before they gave us the cars. I knew there would be hurdles, this is a completely new program for MINI with different challenges than they face with their regular internal combustion engine vehicles. This problem really has nothing to do with the car itself, which is working fine (after a small problem a couple of weeks ago that required a new sensor) and really is a blast do drive. I'm sure by now MINI knows about the chargers failing inspection and hopefully working on solution for us soon.

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