Jumping weird cars….

by admin on May 28, 2012

Jump-starting a PHEV Prius with a BEV electric motorcycle

We recently purchased a used 2004 Prius. It was supposed to be the new, reliable, fuel-efficient family car. It is new to us, and the fuel economy has been amazing, but reliable can be changed by just leaving a dome light on overnight…..

A few mornings ago, my wife was leaving for some errand, but came back into the house, clearly upset. “The car won’t start!”  “Did you unplug it?”, I asked, knowing that the car will NOT power up if it is plugged in – that’s a safety feature that keeps you from driving off with the extension cord. “Yes!” she said. (“Of course I checked it, YOU MORON” was simply implied.)

Yep, we had spent more money on this car than any other we ever had and it just plain wouldn’t start.

I told her that I’d look at it, and hobbled outside. (Not long ago, I broke my ankle and am still in a cast and crutches!) She’s busy being a full-time mom with our 19-month old, and I take care of the bills, the cars, and the lawn – broken ankle or not.

Upon inspecting the car – sure enough, she was right. It just didn’t start. But that’s not all it didn’t do. It also didn’t beep with the keys in it and the door open or have any other sign of life. It was just plain dead. With a sigh, I did the poor-man’s volt test – I flicked on the map light. Slowly, the electric bulb began to burn a dim orange glow. Yep – dead battery.

It’s pretty amazing that with all the new fangled technology in a Prius – High Voltage Nickel Battery Pack, Navigation System, Keyless Entry – it  can all be brought to its knees by the weak link in the chain – a humble 12V lead-acid battery. Seems like popping the hood is about the only thing you CAN do with a dead battery. (I should have thought to try opening the trunk. I don’t think that can be opened with a dead battery either. I remember helping show off some hybrids at an Auto Show once which was indoors. All cars were required to have their batteries disconnected. The hatchback hybrids all had pieces of tape over the rear latch, and a little sign saying “please don’t close me!”)

After consulting the owners manual, I located the dedicated jump-starting point under the fuse-box cover. With my trusty Harbor Freight multimeter, I checked the voltage. 4.4V. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that 4.4V is dead dead dead on a 12V battery. It was time for a jump. I figured that the car wouldn’t even need much juice. It’s not really a jump-start even. More of a “jump-power-on”! I just needed the car to turn on. At that point, it could start recharging the 12V battery from the HV battery pack.

Ever use one of those portable jump-starter packs? It’s a hand-carried battery in an enclosed unit with jumper cable leads coming off of it. Some of them even have 12V cigarette lighter plugs off them. The fancy ones even have USB ports or a built-in air compressor. And they are all fantastic – until you loose the charger! At that point, it’s pretty much useless. I hoped that the 11.5V in my old booster pack was enough to power up the Prius. Nope, it wasn’t. After hobbling to the garage to get the booster pack and rig it up to the Prius, my only reward was to hear a few relays click on and off having exactly NOT enough juice for a real power-up.

My driveway currently has one too many cars in it. We bought the Prius with the idea that we would sell the old clunker Pontiac Sunfire. But right before that happened, I broke my ankle. So we decided to hang onto the Sunfire a little longer, as it has an automatic transmission, and I would still be able to drive it, but I wouldn’t be able to drive my manual transmission pickup truck. Ever play one of those games that’s a square with sliding tiles in it, with one missing, so you can only slide one tile at a time? That was my driveway.

Nothing was within jumper-cable range of the Prius. The truck was next to the Prius (but with a manual transmission and the battery on the wrong side.) I couldn’t move the Sunfire up next to the Prius because the truck was in the way. I couldn’t move the Prius backwards to the Sunfire because you can’t even shift to neutral with the dead battery (not that I want to be pushing a Prius with a broken ankle either!) The electric car was parked in by the truck, and the motor controller was out of it anyways, because I’m building a new case for it!

Sigh. Curse my foot. Curse whoever drove the Prius last and managed to kill the battery! Wait a minute. That was me! What the heck? Did I leave the lights on or what? Grrr..

On a completely different topic, one thing I have been trying to do with electric vehicles is to use them to the advantages that electrics have over gas cars. For example, you can pre-heat an electric car in your garage in the winter (with the door closed) without having to run an engine and create carbon monoxide. It’s easy to set up on a timer, so you can hop in to a nice heated car when you are ready to go!

Another neat trick is that I have my electric motorcycle set up to be able to power my garage, or even my house, in case of a blackout. After all, what is an EV, if not just a bunch of batteries on wheels!? And that’s what I needed right now – batteries that I could wheel over to the Prius. I certainly couldn’t carry a lead-acid battery, but rolling one over would be great. OK, how about 4? The electric motorcycle runs on four Optima YellowTop batteries, each rated at nearly 900 cranking amps. I was fairly confident that that would be MORE than enough to power on a Prius.

At least I can put enough weight on my foot to lift a motorcycle off its kick-stand. I rolled the cycle over to the Prius, and got out my good jumper cables. A quick hook-up and I punched the Prius power-on button. It turned right on……   Along with every error and trouble light on the dashboard.   Oh my. I was fairly confident that this was the typical “scare the driver into taking the car straight to the dealership” technique of auto design. I let the car run for a few minutes, then powered it off and back on, and then cleared an error code with my ScanGuage.

My trip odometers were wiped out, but radio station pre-sets were still there. I drove the car to the gas station as a test run, and to top off the tank, so that I would again have accurate fuel economy information to track. I got half a tank. That was 4.3 gallons.  The strange thing about this was that I looked over to the next pump. A guy there was filling a gas can for his lawn mower – a five-gallon gas can. Hmmmm. My car took less gas that his mower!

Once back home, the car was running exactly the was it was supposed to, there were no errors or trouble lights, and I was again getting 100+ MPG.

Seems like I’m becoming the “go to guy” for jump-starting cars. A couple years ago, I bought myself some good jumper cables. They cost extra, but it’s amazing how many more amps you can put through the thicker cables. I was at the Energy Fair showing off my electric car, and a friend of mine had his bio-diesel car on display. We were among the last to leave. He had tried jump-starting his car with somebody else’s cables, but the high-compression diesel engine really takes some power to get going. With my thicker cables and dedicated, high capacity batteries, his Mercedes fired right up.

Another time, my friend Eric and I were showing off our cars at an Eco-Car Show. He had his modified Honda Insight there, and the dome light was on all day. We were literally the last two people to leave. “I sure hope you have some jumper-cables with you.” Eric asked tentatively.  Did I ever. I don’t think there has ever been a car with a better starter-motor-to-engine-size-ratio than a Honda Insight. The hybrid motor basically also acts as the starter, and the engine is as small as a Geo Metro’s. I’ve never seen a car jump-start so fast!

To further humiliate Eric (after all, his Hybrid just got saved my my E.V.) but I also forced him to record a YouTube video, praising my car over his!

Oh well. I’m just glad to know that even with my broken ankle, I still have the mad skills and am macho enough to keep my wife happy by keeping her car running!

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