Towing a camper with an electric SUV may be the ultimate test of any fast-charger network. And, for one couple at least, Tesla has passed.
“We were like pioneers in a Conestoga wagon,” says Fred Hooper, a Pennsylvanian veterinarian who, with his wife Jenny, just returned from a 7,700 mile, 45-day trip around the southeastern U.S. in a Tesla Model X 100D towing a camping trailer.
Along the way, they planned to stop at every Tesla Supercharger available and took cards for a couple of backup networks (ChargePoint and Blink) just in case.
The Tesla Model X is rated to tow 5,000 pounds and even has a Trailer Mode that will automatically level the suspension and turn off rear proximity sensors (mostly) when towing a trailer.
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That means the couple’s 3,800 pound 2017 R-Pod 180 shouldn’t be much of a challenge. But what no one tells you about towing a camper is that it takes vastly more energy (in juice or gas) than just driving around. Jenny reports that the trailer cut the range of their Model X by 45 to 60 percent depending on hills and wind, with Fred driving at 55 to 60 mph. Sometimes Fred said he even slowed down to 50 mph to make a stretch into a campsite at night on what was left of a charge in the battery.
With the Model X 100D’s rated range of 295 miles, that meant they had to find a charger every 200 miles, if not sooner, or about every four hours of driving. Sometimes Supercharger spacing reduced that to 150 miles. Fred laughed that it was good to have sailing experience to anticipate how weather and winds, as well as elevation changes would affect range. They used a Tesla Range Optimizer app to help maximize their distance between charges.
Overall, the efficiency meter on the Model X showed between 600 and 1,200 watt-hours per mile along the trip, depending on the conditions.
The trip mostly went off without a hitch (pardon, just the one), but it was not without its challenges: Getting a brake controller hooked up that could stop the R-Pod rig proved challenging, Fred said, because Tesla’s wire coloring is reversed from most brake controllers. And Fred added a couple of extra chain links dangling from the Tesla’s hitch to attach the safety chains, because the loops designed for them are hard to reach when you're hitching and unhitching almost every day.
2018 Tesla Model X towing R-Pod 180 and charging at Supercharger in Carlisle, Pennsylvania
The dashboard display also constantly showed, alternately, a truck or a motorcycle tailgating them as they motored along the Interstates.
They stuck to Interstates on their trip to stay within reach of Tesla Superchargers, while many campers prefer back roads where a slower pace is more welcome and the scenery more varied. The Hoopers said they didn’t mind.
Tesla’s Supercharger network proved accommodating on their journey around the country—mostly. On one stretch from Tallahassee to Pensacola, they had to stop at a Blink charger to make it to the campground. "It was so slow we only used it once to get a few extra miles to make it to the Supercharger station," Fred says.
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A few times, they had to unhitch the trailer—an often tedious and involved process—to get the Model X close enough to reach Superchargers. In Savannah, Georgia, for example, the Supercharger station was located in the airport parking garage—with insufficient clearance for the R-Pod—so Fred had to leave the R-Pod (and Jenny) behind in an oversized-vehicle lot and drive the Tesla around to the parking garage. Outside of Silver Spring, Maryland, the Superchargers were so crowded that pulling across multiple spaces would have been rude, so they unhitched and left the R-Pod in its own space across the parking lot, then plugged in the Tesla and walked to breakfast at Starbucks. When they got back, mall security had left a note that the R-Pod would be towed if left overnight.
“I didn’t realize I would need to have a sign" for the R-Pod, Jenny says: "‘I’m not abandoned, just resting while my Tesla charges up. Please don’t tow me. It’s hard enough to keep up with that thing!'”
Most of the endless attention the Hoopers drew was positive and encouraging, but employees at the Supercharger host sites often were unprepared for a Tesla towing a trailer. One Sheetz employee in Pennsylvania came to shoo them away from the Superchargers until he realized they were driving a Tesla.
Usually, banks of Superchargers were lined up next to other parking spaces, so while they blocked multiple spaces pulling across to charge, they only blocked two Superchargers (plus several non-charging spaces) in addition to the one they were using.
Fred calculated Supercharger charges at $289 for the trip, or $17 a day, not counting the extra money they paid for campsites with 50-amp hookups. Their Model X came with 400 kilowatt-hours of free Supercharging, most of which they also used on this trip.
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To find enough charging spots, they would leave their campground every morning before breakfast and drive for a couple of hours, then get breakfast while charging; drive a couple more hours for lunch and charge again, and aim to hit a campground by 4 pm to allow enough time to charge overnight. They stayed in campgrounds every night they weren’t staying with friends or family, and called ahead for reservations in the afternoon before arrival, once they had a sense of how far they could make it.
At campgrounds, they would pay extra for a camp site with 50-amp hookups to plug in the Tesla. Those sites, meant for RVs and trailers a lot bigger than the R-Pod, also had 30-amp plugs that they could use to power the trailer.
Only once did a camp host even ask how much it would cost to charge up the Model X. Using estimates from home, Fred gave him an extra $5 for the overnight charge. The Model X took 8 to 10 hours to charge on the 50-amp campground plugs.
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Failing to plug in overnight once proved problematic the following morning in Virginia. After a weary day driving, they skipped unhitching or plugging in, and looked for a Supercharger in the morning. With the Tesla's battery still cold in the morning, though, it took an extra 20 minutes for the battery to warm up before the car started charging at full speed. Of all the problems one could have when camping with an electric car, a 20 minute delay seems pretty minor.
Overall, Jenny said accommodating charging stops added extra days to their trip—perhaps an extra 50 percent to their travel time compared to the gas-powered vehicle they towed with before. “We had to just accept going a little slower and not driving as far in a day.” She said it worked fine for them, but says they have the luxury of a (mostly) retired lifestyle to accommodate it. “We couldn’t have done it if we still had to get back for work deadlines. And I don’t know what I would have done with kids during all that time charging,” she said.
Fred said he did it "just to show what can be done."