Polite Reminder: As It Gets Colder, Your Plug-in’s Range May Drop

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2012 Nissan Leaf winter test

2012 Nissan Leaf winter test

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The nights are getting longer, children are starting to get ready for Halloween, and in certain states, you’ll have already had the first fall frost. 

If you’re approaching your first winter of plug-in car ownership, however, you might be in for a shock as the mercury starts to drop. 

Like you, your plug-in car won’t want to travel as far per charge when it’s cold. 

It isn’t a case of premature battery degradation, either. 

Lithium-ion battery packs, like humans, have a pretty narrow band of tolerance to temperature.  Like their drivers, plug-in car battery packs prefer to stay at room temperature for maximum efficiency. 

The colder the batteries get, the less effective power they can deliver.

In order to help keep the batteries warm during really cold spells, many cars--like the 2012 Tesla Model S and 2013 Chevrolet Volt--use liquid battery conditioning, circulating warm fluid throughout the battery pack to keep it at peak operating temperature. 

Whilst charging, electricity to power the battery pack heater comes from the charging station the car is connected to. 

The Tesla Model S in winter testing.

The Tesla Model S in winter testing.

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When in use, or parked up without being plugged into a charging station, electricity from the battery pack is used to keep itself warm.

Other cars, like the 2012 Nissan Leaf, use a battery heater mat, which turns on at low temperatures to prevent the battery pack from getting too cold. Similar to the liquid heating system, it also uses energy from the battery pack when not plugged into a charging station. 

More energy used to keep the battery pack warm means less energy is available to move the car along, reducing range. 

In reality however, it isn’t the battery pack warming which reduces your range: it’s keeping YOU warm. 

In cars like the 2012 Nissan Leaf, running the heater on a cold day--even if you’ve pre-warmed the cabin using electricity from a charging station--can reduce your car’s range by as much as 20 miles. 

It’s a problem that automakers are already working hard to solve, with many next-generation cars expected to use more energy-efficient heat pumps to keep occupants warm instead of old-fashioned resistive heaters.

To help you and your plug-in car survive the colder temperatures that fall and then winter bring, here are some simple tips to follow.

winter driving - by flickr user Hey Paul

winter driving - by flickr user Hey Paul

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  • Don’t plan trips that push the range of your car. Instead, plan to stop and top-off the battery pack at a charging station. Not only does you car get a drink, but you can treat yourself to a warm beverage too. 
  • Park in a garage whenever possible when temperatures are low. For most, this means keeping your car garaged overnight, where it will be saved from the lowest of temperatures. 
  • Plug-in to a charging station if your car has a battery heater installed. That way, the car will use power from the mains electricity--not its battery pack-- to keep warm. 
  • Use heated seats and heated steering wheels rather than cabin heaters to keep you warm. Not only are they more efficient, but they heat you up more quickly than a cabin heater. 
  • Wear an extra layer. If you can stay warm without using the heater in your car, you’ll find range isn’t far off summer figures. At least, that’s what we found out on a frigid freeway trip last winter.

Are you approaching your second winter of plug-in ownership? How do you keep yourself and your car warm in the winter months? 

Share your tips in the Comments below.


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Comments (7)
  1. Try to park under the sun instead of shade might help some unless it is extremely cold and windy day...

    oh, the snowy pics looks like one of those snowy drives on US-50 toward Lake Tahoe...

  2. Last winter when the Lithium Ion battery core temperature got down to -1C there was no electron flow happening with my Enginer system or Toyota NhMi battery. So two battery warmers were 'sandwhiched' in between them and turned on during nighttime charging. The extra electrical cost was minimal. A DIY 'thermal blanket" of foam boards were placed around the Enginer system to help retain the heat during the working day (no charging options). Even if the outside temps were -26C at the end of the workday, the Lithium Ion batteries would be around +14C.
    It's getting colder now here in Edmonton Alberta so the 'thermal blanket' when in last night.

  3. the 2012's battery heater is only used in extreme cold to keep the batteries from freezing. its 300 watts are not enough to warm the battery to anywhere near room temperature.

    another thing to mention is ways to keep yourself warm. I have a 2011 so dont even have the luxury of seat heaters, but those can be purchased aftermarket. also small 12 volt heaters help and one Pacific Northwestern has a heated jacket he uses which is something I am very interested in getting. the heated seat option works great for the driver but does not address passengers, so heated jackets for all is up for consideration on my Xmas list

  4. Last winter it never got cold we stayed in the lower to mid 80s rather then our usual lower 70s.

  5. Although I haven't tried it, one idea I had for a large area heater that could live on the floor of may garage and keep the battery comfortable by convection on cold nights, is a waterbed heater. They are typically 12 in by 24 in, and can be about 300W. You don't need to get the battery to 60F, you just need to keep it from getting below freezing.

  6. This will be my second winter with the Leaf. Simply preset what you want (I use the defrost/floor selection and select a temp), turn on the steering wheel and seat heaters and set the time you want it all to start on your phone or computer. The car will be ready, warm, defrosted and you will be able to go many miles on warm seats without having to reheat the interior.

  7. I have a dilema. What if I drive my 2013 Volt to O'Hare Airport here in Chicago and the car sits in the employee parking lot for 4-5 days while I'm on a trip? The drive from my house will deplete the battery and I will drive home on gas. That leaves a "depleted" battery with no energy to keep it warm while I'm gone.

    How much power is needed under these temps for it to keep itself warm? I'm guessing the smart thing to do would be to drive it there in Hold mode and burn the gas and save the battery and then use up whats left of the battery on my way home.

    Maybe the new management at AA will be accomodating and supply an outlet for us to plug into. (and just like for you passengers, they'll charge us employees and arm and a leg)

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