Will Winter Storms Spell Disaster for Your Electric Car?

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winter driving  -  by flickr user Hey Paul

winter driving - by flickr user Hey Paul

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Is it really all doom and gloom for electric car owners when winter weather comes, and will electric car owners be stranded in the snow as many columnists have suggested? That's the suggestion we've seen time and time again over the weekend as another band of heavy winter storms is poised to hit already frozen states from Illinois and Oklahoma through to the eastern seaboard. 

We've already proven that the 2011 Tesla Roadster Sport 2.5 can cope with moderately cold weather without range loss, but what about other cars and colder temperatures?

Fist, we should point out that very low extremes of temperature will drastically affect every car, including electric vehicles. For an electric car a lot of this energy is lost due to a lack of thermally managed battery packs, unheated overnight storage, how the car is used during the day, and the use of cabin heaters. 

2010 Tesla Roadster Sport 2.5 Cold Weather Testing

2010 Tesla Roadster Sport 2.5 Cold Weather Testing

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Liquid Thermal Battery Management

Liquid thermal battery management can keep electric car battery packs at optimal operating temperature to ensure optimal range regardless of the weather by heating or cooling the battery pack as required. 

But not every electric car uses liquid thermal battery management, something Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk has been very keen to point out in the past when mocking rivals’ electric cars

Why did Musk rant? Nissan and Mitsubishi, unlike Tesla, Coda, Ford and Chevrolet, does not use liquid heating or cooling in their respective 2011 LEAF and 2012 i electric cars.  Without heating to keep the battery packs warm in very cold weather the internal resistance of the packs will increase, reducing the amount of high-current power that can be withdrawn from them and ultimately, limiting range.

Bear in mind, however, that a car with a liquid heating  system for the battery will use that system to keep the battery pack warm when the car isn’t being driven. Leaving the car outside and unplugged will affect your range, as energy from the battery pack is used to keep itself warm. 

To avoid adverse mileage in cold weather in an electric car with thermal management of the battery pack, ensure it is plugged in whenever it is not in use. 

Car Storage

In general, the coldest weather tends to happen at night. For most electric car owners, that translates to the time when their electric cars are charging in a garage, parking lot or other covered area. 

Being in a garage helps keep the battery and car at a warmer temperature, meaning that in the morning the batteries are generally warmer than they would be if the car had been stored outside. 

Since the battery will generally stay warm while the car is being used due to the heat generated as the chemical energy storage of the battery is turned into electrical energy, the battery pack should remain reasonably warm and responsive as long as the car is being used. 

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Comments (5)
  1. Absolutely the most useful article I've read so far about electric cars. I wonder if the Nissan or i-MiEV have the heated seat/wheel option or if it can be added? I wonder if the Myers Motors DUO will have it?

  2. Regarding keeping warm in an electric car whilst preserving battery power, I would comment as follows:
    1. Horse and buggy operators did not have cabin heat. In fact they didn't even have protection from chilling winds. So just dress warmly since your dino-powered car may leave you stranded with a frozen gas line or other emergency occurrence.
    2. There are such things as gas and diesel fueled heaters designed to keep truckers warm.
    3. and finally- I ride my electric trike in the winter and am quite comfortable protected from the wind by my fairing and parka. I do, however, keep the trike in the garage so the batteries are relatively warm.

  3. Charging the MINI E in the extremes of winter cold is not entirely straight forward. It's a prototype, a 'science experiment' as we describe it so, one thing that BMW have learnt from the experiment is to add battery heaters in their next EV. The MINI E doesn't heat the pack & as a result, despite a 50A charger the battery only charges at a few amps when it's at -20*C. This extends the charging cycle somwhat.
    Driving the car heats the battery so, on the flip side, if you plug in as soon as you get home, the battery is warm & charging takes place ok; you just have to learn that as we did, the hard way!
    Here's a good point of reference on the power consumed by the heater. A couple of weeks ago, at -11*C I had to sit in the car for a couple of hours waiting for a pick-up. I left the heater on... I know, wuss... the battery drained from 64% to 62% in two hours. That's not a lot really; 1% per hour in VERY rough terms but enough to indicate that, if I get stuck in the snow again, as I did in the 90's and have to spend the night, I'd prefer to be stuck in an electric where I can leave the heat on all night without risk of being poisoned by an exhaust outlet blocked by newly fallen snow.

  4. I'll also point out that packs do not need liquid heating to keep them warm. Many conversion use an insulated pack enclosure and resistance heating elements to warm the pack when plugged in if necessary. Tesla has to use liquid heating, and more importantly cooling, to keep their LiCo chemistry happy. Other chemistries are not as sensitive to temperature.

  5. Great article, Nikki. A couple of additions:
    1. When the power goes out, gas pumps don't work either.
    2. The Tesla Roadster has an inefficient resistive heater for the cabin. Heater and fan draw 3kW. The battery pack is 53kWh, so including idle draw the car can sit for around 13 hours with the heater going full blast (it would have to be really cold to leave it at full blast!). A lot of idling gas cars would run out of gas before then.
    3. I don't have firm numbers for the Leaf, but: its battery is less than half the size of the Roadster's, but its cabin heater is a heat pump, which is at least twice as efficient--so I would imagine it would fare similarly.

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