Electric Cars In Winter: Six Steps To Maximize Driving Range

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2012 Nissan Leaf winter test

2012 Nissan Leaf winter test

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We get asked a lot whether winter weather makes electric cars impractical. Short answer: No.

We even rounded up some of the best electric-cars-in-winter stories last month.

But it's a fact of physics that a plug-in electric car will have a longer range in temperate Southern California than in the icy steppes of the Northeast, upper Midwest, and much of Canada.

We've done our own cold-weather test of the 2012 Nissan Leaf, for instance. We found that without using the heater, 80 miles of range was still possible--if not very pleasant.

But switch on those accessories, especially seat heaters or cabin heat, and you'd be wiser to stop every 50 miles or so to re-charge.

With that in mind, we've boiled it all down to six top tips for keeping your electric car's range as high as possible when the temperature drops as low as you can imagine.

(1) Keep the car plugged in!

Electric cars use some electricity to keep their battery packs heated or cooled to the ideal temperature range.

Even if the pack is fully recharged, the battery will be warmer in winter if your car stays plugged in until you leave. That means more range.

(2) Pre-condition the cabin before you leave

Most electric cars also let you "pre-condition" the cabin, which is to say, heat it up using grid power rather than battery energy. Many let you do this via smartphone app from the comfort of your nicely heated home.

This is another reason to keep the car plugged in. Using grid power to heat the cabin leaves you with a fully charged battery, for maximum range.

(3) Use seat heaters rather than cabin heat

Most electric cars use resistance heaters to warm the cabin air. And they use a LOT of energy from your pack. Especially if you've preheated the cabin while the car was still plugged in, just switch on the seat heaters if your car has them.

If your back and your backside are warm, you feel warm even if the cabin around you is colder. (Dress warmly!) And a steering-wheel heater does the same for your hands, if you have one.

(4) Store the car inside

If you possibly can, store the car inside a garage--especially if you have one attached to your house.

Depending on their insulation, garages often stay a few degrees warmer than the outside temperature, especially if house heat leeches into the garage space. And it will also protect your car from biting winds even colder than the ambient temperature.

2012 Nissan Leaf winter test

2012 Nissan Leaf winter test

Enlarge Photo

(5) Make sure your tires are properly inflated.

Tire pressure falls slightly as weather turns colder, which creates more road friction--especially on tires designed for low rolling resistance. Once the thermometer has dropped, recheck all the readings and inflate tires to their recommended pressures. [hat tip: Jim Adcock]

(6) Allow a little extra time for recharging

If your car's charging system is using some electric current from the grid to keep the battery warm, that can mean there's less electricity for recharging. You won't want to be caught short with a not-quite-fully-charged battery.

Check your recharging times when the temperatures drop, to get a feeling for whether the average recharge takes an hour or two more. Then just allow for that time in your schedule--start your overnight charge at 11:30 pm rather than 1 am, perhaps.

So, have we missed any other tips for keeping your plug-in electric car's range as high as possible during the colder months?

If so, leave us your tips in the Comments section below.


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Comments (34)
  1. The tip about tire pressure is particularly important. In my case, at -20C, I've seen them dropping to 31.5 psi on all tires compared to the regular 36 psi they had before a recent cold spell.

    One thing I would add: as much as possible, prefer charging early in the morning instead of late at night. Ending the charge closer to departure time will result in better range/performance as the batteries are still warm.

  2. I find driving the Leaf in winter with recirculate & AC on uses less energy. The heater only has to top up the cabin air instead of warming up fresh cold air. The AC takes the moisture out of the to stop the windows steaming up.

    An added bonus in that you don't suck in the nasty foul smelling diesel fumes from the car in front during nose to tail rush hour.

  3. It makes a big difference but I never got that to work with temperatures below 0C. Windows always get fogged up... even with A/C on.

  4. Right. My windows fog a lot more on recirc.

  5. A suggestion might be to invest in a 12v plug in dehumidifier? The fogging arises from expelled breath so if you have recirculation on, Aircon isn't going to do a great deal for moisture removal.
    ebay have small portable 12v dehumidifiers for less than $50 - might be worth it if it saves range and charging cost..?! (one I saw was rated at 50w). Link follows. I would be interested to know if this is viable - I don't have an electric car but hope to in the next 18 months..!


  6. I use my heated seats to keep warm on cool winter days and rarely use the heater. In fact I've yet to use my heater this winter season. Mornings and evenings have been the only time I've needed my heated seats this season.

  7. I don't use the heater in the morning, one steps from a warm house into a warm car and have sunshine to help a little as well.

    Driving home at night is a different proposition. The car is cold, its dark, the walk across the parking lot at work can be very chilling. I typically use my heat on the way home.

  8. My only (small) quibble is with "biting winds even colder than the ambient temperature". A quick experiment with any thermometer will quickly show that ambient outside temperatures and biting wind temperatures are exactly the same. You are probably thinking of wind chill, which is the temperature sensed by exposed skin. My personal solution to the winter range problem is to stay the heck out of the Northeast, Upper Midwest and Canada. Living there adversely affected my body's range - see previous comment on wind chill.

  9. Those are "great" tips. Try to park in sunny spot also helps as well.

    To play "devil's advocates for a sec", you are asking people to make a "life style" change to drive BEVs... :)

  10. @Xiaolong - your comment " try to park in a sunny spot" is right on. Mine is in California.

  11. Xiaolong Li says: "you are asking people to make a "life style" change to drive BEVs... :) "
    For BEVs, Yes. For EREVs, No.

  12. That is why I kept saying that EREV is the realistic bridge to get us to the future of BEVs and electric infrastructure...

  13. A note to the wise. Once the "charging indicator lights" have gone off, it's unwise to keep the Leaf plugged in 24/7. Something about the computer draining the regular storage battery in the Leaf if plugged in without charging. I learned my lesson the hard way, left my car plugged in 24/7 and came back to a dead Leaf. Had to recharge the lead acid storage battery.

  14. You're referring to extended storage. This doesn't apply to overnight charging. (Would you want to get up in the middle of the night to unplug the car?)

  15. On my Tesla S P85, I have found that if I reduce the amperage on the charge (on the energy touch screen) I awake to a warm car and a warm battery ready to give me full output.

  16. I assume that the result of the lower amperage charge is that the charge finishes closer to when you drive the car? In theory, the higher rate charge would warm the battery more, but you'd have to start the charge closer to your departure time since it's faster...

  17. I have a 2012 LEAF and have found the pre-conditioning an unusable feature. It is preset (and unchangable) to recirc and results in completely pre-fogged windows.

  18. We use it regularly with great results. The one time I did have fogged windows I put the side windows down briefly and ran the windshield defrost for a few moments and all was well. The heat lost from letting the cool air in was less significant than the grid energy put into heating the heater coolant loop and all of the interior metal and plastic.

  19. I do agree with you though that Nissan should have done better to prevent the fogging from happening!

  20. Hi Jeff, moisture will build up in the car and the pre-conditioning does fog up the windows. If you do the pre-heat and then let the moisture out you'll remove a lot of the built up moisture and won't have to use de-fogging as much while driving.

  21. An even better way to stay warm in an electric car is to use a motorcycling electric vest, with a thermostat. Someone on the i MiEV forum used his 75W heated jacket (i.e. with sleeves) and it is designed to keep you warm on a motorcycle down to 32F - so it was way too hot inside his car.

    So, with a thermostat on an electric vest, you could stay toasty warm using just 20-30W.

    EV's need to solve the defroster issue - direct electric heating on the glass like Ford had in the 80's would be the way to go. This defrosts/defogs in a few seconds like the rear defroster, but without the visible lines.

    Aero drag is worse in the winter - the air is denser. Smooth flat wheel covers can improve range by 5-10%.


  22. 5-10% from wheel covers? That seems improbable...

  23. They don't happen to make electric leg warmers do they? I find that I can easily keep my body and hands warm with the seat and steering wheel heaters, but that leaves my lower legs sitting in the cold.

  24. I found just putting on a pair of 'snow' or 'ski' pants is all I need to keep my legs warm when I'm going for the 'long run' and decide to keep the heat turned down.

  25. When your torso is warm, then the rest of your body will be warm.

    Wheels an wheel openings contribute 20-30% of the overall aero drag. Remember that the wheels are spinning, so openings in the wheel "churn" the air which adds a lot of turbulence. The top part of the wheel is moving forward at twice the speed of the car; so yes, smooth and flat wheels can make a large difference in aero drag, and aero drag is 50% of the total load on the drivetrain at about 30MPH and it goes up as the speed increases.

  26. Aero Drag - I also experimented with electrically folding my wing mirrors on long motorway trips but could not get a definitive improvement (with a petrol car).

  27. suspect that all cars no matter how they are powered have shorter ranges when its cold. since all are basiclaly using a chemical reaction to drive them. and that means temperature impacts all f them.

  28. Sure, but typical gas cars carry about more than 20x times the chemical energy that a Leaf carries. Sure, the Leaf is about 2x to 3x more efficient than a typical ICE car, but that is still a huge difference.

  29. Does anyone here find it at all riduculas that we are in the 21st century talking about 2012 model year cars and needing to bundle up and wear ski clothing to make their use just one step above being on horseback? ( out of the rain and a little faster)
    Don't get me wrong. I like my 2012 leaf but quite franklly I am very disapointed with the range of this car. Also I think it is just bogas that you have to bundle-up to use it in the winter. My feet freeze in this car.

  30. Agreed, no easy way to keep your feet warm on long runs when the temps are in the teens. I don't have the benefit of the heated seats in my 2011, so I have installed a 12v electric blanket I sit on. It keeps my rump and back warm.

    Thankfully cold weather is short lived in TN.

  31. When it's a chilly 22deg C, I close the windows and drive down into the city where it's more like 27 deg. Its hard to even think of these temperatures! Greetings from Jamaica,

  32. Certainly, you must be careful with suggestion number 1. There needs to be limits on how long to leave the car plugged, and whether the car has active thermal management of the battery.

    Do not leave the Nissan LEAF plugged in for more than 3 or 4 days. There is a high likelihood that your 12 volt battery will be drained (2011-2012 model years.. unknown reaction for 2013 model). For storage of the LEAF over 4 days, leave the main traction battery at about 50% (5 or 6 "fuel" bars) and the LEAF unplugged. In addition, you should leave the 12 volt battery on a tender, and/or disconnect the 12 volt battery altogether.

    Virtually all other current electric cars should be left plugged as much as possible.

  33. I keep the heater lowest setting, keeps windows defrosted. Liberal use of seat heaters. Stay off highways. Living in Oregon helps, not to cold or hot.

  34. After two winters of EV driving, it seems essential to me for EVs to carry a second source of energy better suited for heating. Resistance heating with electricity is as inexcusable as moving vehicles with heat engines. A Scandinavian electric city bus is heated with a biogas burner. Quite a number of "parking heaters" are available to burn gasoline or diesel and keep a vehicle warm when the engine isn't running, and some enterprising DIYers have installed them in EVs. Another possibility is LP gas, which burns cleanly and is readily obtained in the USA. An EV outfitted with proper auxiliary heat will have its range only slightly reduced by even extreme cold weather. Isn't it time we had a REAL cold weather package?

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