Why I Bought a Used Chevy Volt

For the last few years, I’ve been closely (Evy would say “obsessively”) following the electric vehicle (EV) market, waiting for the “perfect” car. I wanted something compact yet spacious enough to haul my bike or golf clubs. It had to have good range, preferably enough so I could use it with only a single recharge when visiting my folks on Cape Cod. It should be comfortable. It couldn’t cost a fortune. Easy, right?

VW e-Golf had been my daily driver for the last couple years

I had been driving a Volkswagen e-Golf for the last couple years. A friend wasn’t using hers, so I took over her lease. I liked the e-Golf a lot, and would have bought it IF it had more range. But this was one of the early models with under 100 miles of range under the best of conditions, so it was unsuitable for road trips. That was fine, as 99% of the time, I’m only driving locally and could use Evy’s car for road trips.

The Kia Niro EV seemed to be my “perfect” car

But the time had come for me to get my own car. The Kia Niro EV looks like the perfect car for me. It is exactly the right size, has a range of about 250 miles. Supports fast charging for road trips. It looks sharp. Has a ton of cargo space and is priced competitively. BUT, it wasn’t yet on the market, and I wasn’t willing to wait for it to come to Pennsylvania. Scratch that off my list, darn it!

The Hyundai Kona EV was my backup…

The Hyundai Kona Electric, the sibling of the Kia Niro was my second choice. It’s smaller than the Niro but still has ample cargo capacity. Since it shares the drive-train with the Niro, it’s peppy and has even more range (since it’s smaller). It’s similarly priced (mid $30’s before $7500 tax incentive). But again, it isn’t available widely yet. Plus, dealers have been marking it up well above MSRP, and I refuse to support price gouging. So back to the drawing board.

Tesla’s Model Y AWD is my “aspirational” car but it won’t be available for a long time

Then Tesla announced the Model Y, their compact SUV. The Model Y checks all the boxes for me except it’s a little larger than I wanted. It’s also more expensive. But it looks like a great vehicle. It has a range of up to 300 miles. Since it will use the Tesla supercharger network, there are plenty of charging stations along the i95 corridor, so I could drive anywhere around here conveniently. A big plus is it’s available in an AWD version, which is a big plus for Evy, who is a Subaru AWD die-hard. Even better, Tesla’s (poorly named) auto-pilot feature and top safety ratings make it desirable for longer trips. Finally, Tesla has a big head start on all the other car manufacturers so their cars are several generations ahead. Unfortunately, the Model Y won’t be on the market for a couple of years (at least!) Darn you Tesla for teasing me so!

Because I really wanted to get a car ASAP, I starting looking at used vehicles. I knew I didn’t want another first generation EV because their ranges were too short. A used Tesla was too expensive. What to do? What to do?

The Chevy Volt – an EV disguised as a Hybrid

After doing a lot of research, and checking used car prices, I decided that the Chevy Volt was the vehicle for me. Here’s why:

  • It runs ~50 miles on batteries alone, making it perfect for local travel.- As a hybrid, it has unlimited range (just like a regular hybrid) and gets good gas mileage (42 mpg) making it suitable for road trips.
  • It’s compact without being tiny.
  • You can buy used 2nd generation (2016-) with low mileage for around $20,000
  • It has decent cargo space with the rear seats folded down.
  • It’s comfortable as long as you don’t sit in the rear seats!

As luck would have it, a local Chevy dealer had a spotless Volt with modest miles on the odometer. They were selling it for a good price so I grabbed it.

I should note that Chevy recently announced that they were discontinuing the Volt, so I think dealers are moving them off their lots. Who wants a discontinued car? Me!

Why is the Chevy Volt Much Better than a Conventional Hybrid?

The first thing people ask is: “why not get a plug-in Prius or other plug-in hybrid? The answer is, basically, they suck as electric cars. Every other plug-in hybrid uses it’s gasoline engine at the same time as the electric motors in order to generate a useful amount of power. They were designed as conventional hybrids where the gas engine always runs. When they converted them to plug-in hybrids, which are just hybrids with larger batteries and a mode that turns off the gas engine, they neglected to give them powerful enough electric motors. These things are downright pokey in electric only range!

The Chevy Volt is what’s called a “serial hybrid.” Instead of using the gas engine to power the wheels directly, it’s used only to generate electricity to charge the batteries. The batteries, in turn, power the electric motors. The generator (gas engine) can also feed electricity directly to the motors. The electric motor is the primary drive and has to be powerful enough to do the job of accelerating up to highway speeds and pass safely. The Volt does this admirably. And, while it’s no Tesla, it leaves all the plug-in hybrids in the dust.

Here’s how the Chevy Volt’s drivetrain works

The downside is that it still has a gas engine, so the system lacks the utter simplicity of a completely electric car. But for $20,000, it’s a great vehicle. It’s been on the market for a number of years, so Chevy dealers know how to service it. And, as the battery capacity diminishes over time (they all do), it will still be useful because the battery is much larger than a conventional hybrid.

Is the Chevy Volt perfect? No, but no car is. The rear seats are definitely “child sized.” They have decent legroom but the headroom is pathetic. Evy whacked her head on the roof as she entered the rear seat. Ouch!
The cargo space with the rear seats up is enough for groceries, but not big enough for my golf clubs, so mostly I drive with the seats folded down, figuring no passenger would want to sit back there anyway!
Acceleration, while good (~8 seconds), is not blistering. But I’m not a motor-head, so that doesn’t bother me. It’s at least as good as other cars I’ve driven. But acceleration fanatics will find it lacking.
Hybrid gas mileage could be better. Modern hybrids are getting more than 50mph, so the Volt’s 41mpg seems low. I won’t know the “real” mileage until I take a road trip since I drive it 100% on electricity now (infinite MPG!!!) I’ll report back after my first trip.

Overall, the Chevy Volt is a great “gateway” vehicle. It runs very nicely in electric mode, but you have none of the “range anxiety” you have with other electric cars. You just drive it normally and burn no fuel. Until you drain the batteries and the gas engine kicks in. This type of every-day normalcy makes it ideal for those who are looking at having a very eco-friendly vehicle without worrying about “will I get there?” And at their current used-car prices, they’re a “best buy” that I’d recommend for anybody looking to test the electric car waters.

(UPDATED 2018): Why I can no longer recommend Fujitsu mini-split heat pumps

This article has been updated as of January 2018.

Readers, please note that the original article referred to the original line of inverter mini-splits manufactured by Fujitsu. Over the years, many of you have echoed these comments regarding premature system failure and inadequate manufacturer’s support leading to extremely expensive repairs and replacements.

Subsequently, Fujitsu has gone through at least two generation updates to this line of products. They have also updated their warranty policies, indicating a greater confidence in their products.

I have also been told by several installers that the new Fujitsu units are considered tops in the field.

Given these changes, I change my rating of Fujitsu to “Neutral.” I cannot personally recommend them because I have no first hand experience with them recently. However, I do not wish for people to be discouraged from installing their new units.

If you have first hand experience with the new line of Fujitsu mini-split heat pumps, please contribute to the discussion.

Thank you!

(original posting from 2014 follows)

Sadly, I can no longer recommend Fujitsu due to their unacceptable support and warranty policies.

Poor product durability eliminates all cost savings gained from efficiency

A home’s heating system is a capital expenditure. That is, it’s considered a long term investment in your home. Typically, you figure that it will last 15-20 years with some cost for maintenance. And generally, that’s conservative. How many of you still have heating systems in your homes from the 1970’s or 80’s? In general, these systems are very durable. Unfortunately, with the Fujitsu mini-split heat pump, this has not been the case. Continue reading

Initial impressions of the CREE 60w Warm White LED Bulb

Having received the just released CREE 60w warm white LED bulb, I wanted to get you my impressions ASAP since many of you are already asking about this ground-breaking bulb.

The vital stats:

  • Manufacturer: CREE
  • Cost: 6-pack, $74.82 at Homedepot.com = $12.47 each.
  • Brightness: 60w equivalent – 800 lm
  • Consumption: 9.5 Watts
  • Efficiency: 84.2 lm/W
  • Life: 25,000 hours
  • Usage: Indoor/outdoor
  • Dimmable!
  • Assembled in the USA
  • Lead free / Mercury free

For comparison, an incandescent bulb has:

  • Cost: 4-pack, $6.00 on Amazon (Philips name-brand bulb). Sylvania are close to $0.50/bulb.
  • Brightness: 860 lm
  • Consumption: 60 Watts
  • Efficiency: 14.3 lm/W
  • Life: rated 1,000 hours

Operational costs?

Based on simple lifetime cost, the LED lasts 25x as long as the rated life of the incandescent and is roughly 25x the cost of the inexpensive Sylvania bulbs, so by that measure, these are the “same cost.” However, that doesn’t figure in inconvenience of having to replace the incandescent 25 times, going to the store, or paying for the electricity! It doesn’t take a physicist to see that the CREE LED bulb is the big winner.

For the 25,000 life of the bulb, the CREE saves 1262 kWh or electricity. That’s a LOT of energy savings! How much? That’s about a month of your home’s entire electric usage. Compare that with your electric bill and you’ll immediately estimate your cost savings. For me, this electricity costs about $200. 

Subjective comparison

The bulb feels different from any other bulb. It must have some sort of rubberized coating on the translucent housing. It almost sticks to your hands. In fact, I felt the urge to wash my hands after touching it. Very strange. The positive thing about this is that you’re not going to drop this bulb., unlike normal glass, which is slippery.

I immediately replace the bulb in my desk lamp, which is an old CFL. That works fine once it warms up, but it always seems to be a dim yellow for the first 10 minutes, by which point, I’m about to leave the room. Note however that I strongly recommend that you use this in fixtures with good reflectors on the back surfaces. Otherwise, you’ll waste a lot of light that doesn’t reflect off the back of the fixture. I learned this the hard way in my downlights (recessed light fixtures). Standard incandescent flood lights have internal mirrored surfaces to project the light forward. These LED lights are omni-directional, so you’ll waste a lot of their light output if they’re used in fixtures without good reflectors.

The CREE, being an LED light, is essentially instant-on to full brightness – very nice.

As for the color, it does appear to be a “warm white.” If you don’t tell someone that it’s an LED, they probably wouldn’t know, which is exactly the effect they’re looking for. In fact, combined with the shape of the bulb, I’m guessing that the only way one would know that this isn’t a regular bulb is when you dim it. Incandescent bulbs grow very warm at lower dimmer settings, whereas LEDs maintain their color temperature throughout the range or brightness.

The next replacement was in one of the downlights in my bathroom. These are particularly important because you want to maintain a neutral skin-tone. Nobody wants to look in the mirror and see a strange skin tone! In this case, the yellowish cast is definitely noticeable compared to the incandescent. I’m not sure why this is, but it’s quite obvious.

I then replaced the LED in my closet, which was a bright blue (my wife says it looks like s dentist’s office or something). The change in color was very apparent – definitely yellowy. I’m not sure it I like it or not. It’s definitely “warmer” but perhaps not as natural. I need to try some of the whiter versions of the CREE bulb which is supposed to be off-white. Here’s a comparison photo:

Which is which?

Which is which?

The container is very white while the counter tiles are almond. The photo was taken using the camera with manual white balance that is tuned for incandescent bulbs, so it will make the incandescent image look as white as can be. If you used a spectrophotometer, you’d get a more accurate image. However, it’s not how you’d perceive the colors.

Looking at the color spectrum, I found what would be expected, the light from the LED bulb consists of three distinct peaks – red, green and blue, whereas the incandescent is a smooth spectrum. In theory, you should be able to come up with a close color match using the three primaries, but contrary to popular opinion, you will not be able to perfectly match the color produced by a continuous spectrum source.

Perceptually, these images are a fairly close match to what I was seeing. Pretty good colors but not exactly what I’m used to. Your mileage may vary!

Here’s a striking comparison between the LED and the CFL using my desk lamp. Again, I kept the white balance on the camera set to “incandescent”, meaning a pure white would match an incandescent (which really isn’t white, but it’s what we perceive as white in our ordinary indoor experience).

Using the same camera settings, the LED is much closer to an incandescent

Using the same camera settings, the LED is much closer to an incandescent

Keep in mind that perception changes our reality. The CFL doesn’t really look that yellow, because our brain tries to color balance things. However, the camera is good at showing things without this bias. The main take-home message is that the LED bulb is a vastly better match for what we normally think of as household lighting.

As you try out different bulbs, let us know what you think. The CREE, at only around $10 has broken new ground for quality and efficiency.  It’s well worth a try.

The Energy Geek Video 3: Ultra Efficient Heat Pump Review

I bumped this back up to top of the list since it’s one of the most popular posts I’ve ever done. I also just had the misfortune of losing ALL THREE indoor units during a recent storm and power surge that killed appliances all around my development. Argh! However, they’re up and running again, good as new.

I love these heat pumps! There’s one in the bedroom, one in the basement “party room” and one in the large, living room that’s full of windows – a space that has been uncomfortable for years.

After installing these systems, I don’t know how we dealt without them before. The summer comfort is waaay better than ever. And in our basement room, I turned off the main heating system and used the Fujitsu exclusively all winter.

Keep in mind that this is one special little unit. There are many mini-split systems on the market that look like this, but most of them are barely half as efficient as this one. They’re just not in the same league.

Continue reading

Energy Geek Video – New CREE CR6 LED Downlight Replacement

The CREE CR6 is the latest in a line of energy efficient LED lights made by CREE. This light addresses some of the issues of the earlier lights, allowing dimming down to 5% and having a compact, light-weight package at about half the cost of earlier models.

It draws only 10.5 Watts yet produces as much light as a 65W incandescent bulb, so it’s definitely an energy saver. That’s a 55 lumen/Watt rating, putting it in the same ballpark as a normal CFL spiral bulb. But the fair comparison is with dimmable fluorescent downlights. Those range from 40 to 50 lm/W, so on average, you get 10%-25% more light from the CREE than you would the equivalent fluorescent.

Continue reading

Pharox Dimmable LED Bulb

Pharox 300 Dimmable LED

Just got a Pharox 300 dimmable LED bulb after my nephew (thanks Jason!) reported success with his. Guess what? It actually works as advertised! The thing dims right along with a conventional incandescent bulb – finally!

This is a standard Edison bulb, so you can use it in just about any fixture. The light is bright white and it stays that way as it dims. I know we’re all used to the dull yellow-orange light from an incandescent as it dims, so seeing a dim white might at first be a little disconcerting but over time, I suspect people will get used to it.

The Pharox is surprisingly bright for a bulb that only uses 6 watts. Remember that the output of LEDs is somewhat directional, so you’ll get the most light if you use this in a desk lamp that points towards your work surface or put it in a light fixture above you that’s pointing down. In this application, it works really well.

The dimmability is really impressive. I’ll have to do a video showing how it dims along with a conventional bulb. I’ve never seen an efficient bulb work this well. Every other one that I’ve used cuts out after it dims just a little bit but this one actually provides useful dimming. Very cool!

I’ve ordered another four to try in more fixtures around the house. At under $30, they may seem expensive (ok, they ARE expensive) but they’re a steal compared to other high quality LED bulbs. And for the energy savings, you’ll pay it back in a year if you put some in the kid’s rooms!

I’ll do more reports about it when I get some longer term tests. But for now, it’s definitely worth a try!

Other Pharox Resources

Pharox website

Inhabit.com review

KK Cool Tools review

LED Insider – review of an older version of the bulb

1 Green Product – News and reviews. One of the longer reviews of the Pharox

The Energy Geek Video 2: LED Recessed Light Retrofit

A lot of people ask me about recessed lights, so I put together this video so you could see some of the pros and cons of the best LED light I’ve ever seen.

The CREE LR6, LED based recessed light retrofit is the current one to beat. It’s simply amazing. It turns on instantly, it supplies high quality light and it’s built like a tank. Watch the video for the full scoop!

*Update: 3/13/2011*

After reading some other reviews, I decided to purchase several CREE CR6 retrofits. You can get them on the Home Depot website for $50 and they’re supposed to be dimmable down to 5% as opposed to 20% for the CR6. So there’s some hope for a good dimmable retrofit bulb.

I’ll do another video comparing the two once I’ve had a chance to play with the CR6.

CREE also has a number of other new lights that I wasn’t aware of. The new LR6 puts out 50% more light for the same amount of watts for a luminous efficacy of 80 lm/W

Other posts and sites covering the Cree LR6

Consumer Reports – preview of the CREE CR6

CREE 6″ downlights page – The official CREE page on all their downlight products. Dimmable to 20%

CREE CR6 page – The official CREE page on the CR6 “low cost” LED light. Dimmable to 5%.

CREE LR6 page – The official CREE page on the LR6. Dimmable to 20%

Dave Hultin blog post – The CREE LR6 – A Beautiful Light!

Dave Hultin blog post – The CREE LR6 – It Really is That Good!

GreenTex Builders – Commercial builder’s perspective on the CREE LR6

House+Earth – LED Lighting – CREE LR6 & CR6 Can Lights

Inside Solid-State Lighting – CREE LR6 Downlight Replacement

Ranch Remodel – A real homeowner’s blog about remodeling their ranch with CREE LR6 lights

 

Mini-review: Bosch Ariston 4-Gallon Point-of-use Water Heater

Does it take a long time for hot water to get to your sink? Do you think that it’s wasteful to run the water for a minute or two just to be able to wash your hands? Have you thought about installing a recirculation system for instant hot water? If so, this unit might be for you.

I had all these issues in my kitchen because the kitchen water run is quite a distance from my main water heater. So we just got used to washing our hands in cold water. And if we had to rinse some dishes and some needed hot water, we would turn the hot water on full and wait…and wait…and wait until some hot water came out the faucet. I knew there had to be a better way.

For years I’d researched water recirculation units and found one, the Chillipepper, which people seemed to really like. However, I have granite counters and no convenient place to drill a hole for the power switch. I also have other fixtures on the kitchen water line and I didn’t want my wife to have to remember to push a button and wait for hot water. Finally, because I have long pipe runs from my water heater, this still wouldn’t solve the problem of wasted energy because gallons of hot water would be left in the pipes.

After doing some calculations and determining that any solution using the main water heater would waste several times as much hot water as a point-of-use unit, I broke down and bought one of these mini-water heaters.

Our house has a utility closet in the basement that is directly under the kitchen, so I mounted the unit in there. Plumbing was easy for me, but I’ve done a lot of plumbing work. Most people would need to hire a plumber to install the unit. But because of its size, installation is a snap.

Some people will plumb the cold water intake to the heater from the hot water feed to this part of the house. There’s some logic in this, in that if you need lots of hot water, this heater can provide quick water for hand washing but if you need more water, it flows into the tank and provides you with a much greater supply than this little heater can provide. However this still leads to a lot of wasted energy because you’re leaving all that hot water in the long pipes every time you use a little water to wash your hands.

Instead, I chose to connect it to the cold water supply. My logic was that the kitchen sink really should not be used for long washing sessions. rinse a stubborn dish or wash your hands and that’s it. I also had an ulterior motive – if there was only a few gallons of hot water available, it would force my family to use less hot water. Additionally, our washing machine is on this water circuit, and I prefer washing in cold water but my mother-in-law, who likes to come over and do our laundry (don’t ask!) is old-school, and insists on setting the washer to ‘hot.’ Now she gets the satisfaction of thinking she’s washing in hot, but I know the water heater can only supply a few gallons of hot, so it ends up providing the first few gallons of hot water for the primary rinse, but after that, it can’t keep up with the demand. I consider this a bonus energy saving!

The unit uses normal 110v house current, so you just plug it in a nearby outlet. However, I would recommend a dedicated circuit or one that doesn’t have other heavy loads on it because electric water heaters pull a lot of juice. If the water heater turns on at the same time as you’re toasting some bread, you’ll blow a circuit breaker. So make sure you plug it in an outlet on a circuit that is lightly used.

As far as heaters go, this is an attractive unit. As you can see in the picture, it has a white plastic case. Nothing special, but not just an ugly metal box like most. But really, it goes in a utility closet, so they could have painted it any color they wanted and I wouldn’t have cared!

Does it Work?

The main question is: does it work? The answer is “yes,” up to a point. We can now wash our hands and run the dishwasher (which has it’s own super-water heater built-in). As noted above, it also provides hot water for our front-loader washing machine, but because of its limited capacity (four gallons in this case) it won’t provide a lot of hot water. You can wash for a minute or two before the water runs luke-warm then cold. This can be a plus or a minus depending on your needs. I know some people would find this objectionable. But that’s just the way these things work. They enforce water conservation and force you to change the way you use hot water. If you don’t like this, then a small point-of-use water heater is not for you!

Energy Savings

Like all good geeks, I measured the actual electricity use of the water heater. Because it just plugs in an electrical outlet, I plugged it into my kill-a-watt meter, and make daily measurements to see how much energy it is actually using. I’ve been very pleased with the results so far.

Under normal usage – rinsing a few dishes and regular hand washing in the kitchen sink, it consumes 1.5 to 2.0 kWh of electricity per day. This is about 1/3 the electricity that would be required if I used the main electric water heater and just “lost” the heat in the pipes every time I used the sink. On laundry days, this consumption increase by about 2-3 kWh (about 20 gallons of hot water). So we’d still be better off always washing in cold water, but some habits die hard….

Conservatively, I project that for my family, with it’s modest hot water needs, this unit is saving me about 4 kWh per day (about 25 gallons of hot water). That may not sound like much, but over the course of a year, that’s 9,000 gallons of hot water and about 1,400 kWh of electricity. For most people, that’s a full month of electricity saved every year. In my area, that’s a saving of $232! I’ve checked on Amazon.com, and this water heater cost $169 when I wrote this article, so it pretty much pays for itself in the first year if you install it yourself. If you hire a plumber, it may take a couple years to pay off. And, I haven’t included the ecological and financial cost of the water you’re saving.

Addendum – this is not an “on-demand” water heater

To avoid confusion, I should add that this is not an on-demand water heater. On-demand water heaters use much more powerful heating elements to heat water on-the-fly. They provide an infinite supply of hot water because they heat water as needed. The Ariston water heater is just a miniature storage tank water heater. So it’s the same as a conventional water heater, but tiny.

Support my continued work. Buy it here on Amazon.com

Note on my Amazon store

Like any informed consumer, it probably raises red flags when you see someone reviewing an item then potentially profiting from it. I couldn’t agree with you more. For years, I refused to profit from any of the products I’d recommend to my clients for fear of conflict of interest. But then my wife convinced me otherwise. She said “you’re recommending these products because you buy them and believe in them, not because somebody is paying you to do it. How does it compromise your principles by gathering the products you recommend into one convenient place?” How could I argue with that logic?

So now, whenever I find a cool product, most of which I’ve purchased for my own use, I look it up on Amazon. I check the reviews and make sure that the actual seller seems legit and then add it to my “store.”  I don’t really have a real store. It’s just a convenient way of pulling together the products I’ve found and like.