By Sean O’Callaghan
In this Series, Sean will tell us the 8-year story of his Nissan Leaf, from the purchase till the replacement of its battery.
… Continued from part 4
I knew it could be done because I had it first-hand that the cars share the chassis. As they came onto the market they were very quickly torn into by the community and it was only a few months before I had a full spec in terms of mass and connector wirings. It was almost a plug-in affair but for a very small number of very significant flies in the ointment. The most significant was that my old trick of swapping out the LBC wasn’t going to work this time – the 24kWh LBC loses its mind if it sees more than ~65Ah of capacity (the 40Kwh pack is 100Ah). At the same time the 40kWh LBC is fundamentally incompatible with the Gen1 VCM – they simply don’t talk the same language. This meant there were two options. I could come up with some hardware to translate the comms between the old VCM and the new LBC, or I could hack the perspective of the old LBC so that it didn’t lose its mind. Both approaches had their issues and whilst the latter was easier to achieve, the former promised far better prospects where proper integration was concerned. After a couple of weeks I had a good idea of how I was going to approach the task using the original LBC again – I needed to build a little bit of electrickery to make it stick, but I was satisfied that it would work. The community maintains an excel file which contains a decomposition of the Leaf canbus messages. Where they are, how often they appear and what they mean (where known). This is a tremendously powerful resource and would be key to my getting a couple of the finer details working.
Between spending most of my evenings working on finishing various bits around the house, and then the arrival of our second little boy (Conall) in September 2018, we still weren’t doing a lot of mileage and weren’t really thinking about the car all that much. It was just doing what it did – working, flawlessly, thoughtlessly. In fact by July of 2019 we’d done barely 20,000km over that 14 months.
I was doing a good bit of work abroad at this time however, and of course this provided the perfect opportunity for things to go wrong at home, and on this one particular occasion, it was the Leaf.
Whilst working in Spain for the week, I got a call from my wife to tell me that the handbrake on the car was stuck on and wouldn’t release. I provided instructions relating to the manual release and she duly tried that, then got my brother-in-law across the road to give it a go when she had no success. He fared no better and so the car sat, blocking the driveway (but thankfully inside the gate), until I returned. On inspection sure enough, the handbrake was bound tight. Many in Leaf circles will be familiar with failure of the electric handbrake so this wasn’t so much a surprise as simply a pain in the neck. I ended up releasing it using the cable adjustment under the boot and got the car back to a drivable state. We continued to use it without the handbrake for a couple of weeks while I gathered some information on our options. The word coming back was that the unit wasn’t serviceable, wasn’t sold in parts form, and so would require full replacement at the princely sum of ~€700.
I wasn’t happy with that price, but that wasn’t what annoyed me. What annoyed me was that this was, ostensibly, a very simple piece of kit and should be serviceable. So I took it out of the car altogether and began dissecting it – and it transpires that it is indeed a very simple piece of kit. In fact it’s so simple that there really should only be a couple of likely failure modes in it – the motor which drives it, and the limit switches which relate to the motor. In my case though, a bit of testing proved that these were all just fine. What had failed was a shim on one of the gears – and it hadn’t fallen apart or broken up, it had swollen and bound the gear tight to the shaft that it was supposed to rotate on. This was a plastic gear of course and it was resisting every attempt I made to shift it without breaking it.
Things got to the point that I was pretty sure it was going to break so I recorded its exact specs to see about getting a replacement before going to town on it.
Replacement was going to involve a custom cut gear, which wasn’t cheap, but was still under €200 so I figured that’ll do. Time to get heavy on this thing – time to call in ‘the auld boy’.
My dad grew up working on farm machinery and is without doubt one of the very best ‘get it working right now!’ people you will ever meet. This is not a man to waits for parts or doesn’t have the right tool – he’ll either find or make something that will do the job, or come up with some way around the problem. In this case it transpired that all we needed was a 1” chisel and a cloth to wrap around the teeth of the offending gear. Given these two things he was able to twist the seized gear by hand and simultaneously lever it off its shaft with the chisel. It came off perfectly intact!
The fix then was to bore the offending shim out from its supposed 6mm ID to 6.5mm, and then simply pop the gear back on the shaft. That was more than two years ago now and it’s been working perfectly again since.
Around August I was sifting through the forums and resources relating to ongoing community battery swap efforts and stumbled on a guy in the Netherlands who was already well advanced in going about something a little bit different. Emile Nijssen, and his colleagues at Muxsan (muxsan.com) in Delft, were developing range extender batteries for the Leaf which reside in the boot, but have full integration with the vehicle canbus (this may sound familiar to some on here :P). To achieve this, they had come up with a piece of hardware which would intercept the comms coming either direction on the battery bus; condition them to reflect what the other side expected to see; and pass them on, along with whatever adjustments were required. This got me tremendously excited.
This was the solution to taking this chassis way beyond the 500,000km mark!
I wasn’t the only one watching their progress though. They’d done a lot of work with Emile’s own car and he was maintaining a video blog on Youtube (PowerElectronicsBlog) regarding the effort. In any case they were inundated with queries and whilst they were still taking them, they’d taken down their contact info from the website. They hadn’t entirely closed the door though, and some well-judged search strings in conjunction with a bit of forum hopping soon yielded a contact point, so that by September 2019 we were talking. Emile confirmed several of my suspicions regarding the limitations of retaining the original LBC and advised that a main battery ‘translator’ was on their to-do list, but it was going to take a little longer to get to it. Having seen what they’d been doing to that point, I was perfectly confident that they would and from that point my focus shifted to finding myself a 40kWh pack.
By this time though, those packs had only been in circulation for just over 12 months; and with Irish sales volumes low (albeit growing), I wasn’t expecting to be able to get one domestically. Watching the forums, they did turn up but they were very expensive. Then towards the middle of September, Muxsan announced that they’d gotten battery swap working! It wasn’t “done” yet, as there were all sorts of niggles to be sorted out, but they’d gotten a 40kWh pack in and talking to a 24kWh car. Needless to say I was straight on to them to find out how soon I could get a DIY kit, and to ask how they were faring for the new packs. They were managing to pick them up but not easily, and they already had a queue of 12 cars lined up for them on merely the promise of this getting done; so trying to source through them was going to take a long time. Nevertheless, I put myself on the list and carried on my search.
September wasn’t finished surprising me though – walking between TCD building on Pearse St. one day I strolled past DHL and sitting outside it, one of their new delivery vans – A Nissan ENV-200. At the very next corner then a long wheelbase van that I didn’t recognise, branded up in AnPost zero emissions livery, turned out to be an LDV EV80. I’d never even heard of them and had to do some reading up to find out about them at all, but they were indeed a battery electric commercial. I hadn’t heard a whisper about this commercial adoption, but it was great to see.
In November I went to a classic cars show at the hotel just up the road from me (I might be an EV convert, but I was still a petrol head my entire life to that point). I wasn’t going so much to see the cars themselves though – I was going to see which of the ones I liked had the space needed for a battery conversion. This will upset a lot of people but I would love to do the job on an old E-Type or a XKR, either of those or something far older – like an early Ford Anglia. And so I spent the afternoon, wandering around with the boys in their buggies, looking at all these marvelous old cars and lamenting the ancient and ineffective technology being used to propel them.
Just a few days later, to my amazement, I found my pack! It was even in the closest breakers too me; the same breakers that I got my 24kWh pack from. They had an advert up on Donedeal for a 181 they were breaking. The ad had been up for almost 2 months by the time I’d noticed it and rang, so I’d been fully expecting the pack to be long gone – but it was still there! So I sorted a trailer and picked it up the next day. The guys at Muxsan were flat out, and although development of the ‘Man in the Middle’ (MITM) kit was progressing, it was still some weeks away from being anything they were happy to supply to the DIY market – so I still had a bit of a wait ahead of me.
By January they’d become unresponsive to email so I decided to take them up on an open invitation Emile had made in one of the blog videos to come visit them. That got a response alright, and we set a date for the 6th of March for me to fly over, shadow Emile on a conversion for the day, collect my MITM kit, and fly home. It was quite a lucky thing too as Europe began locking down the very next week! I’ve a forum post written about the hardware and the day at Muxsan in the openinverter forum here for any who want the deeper dive into things – but the bottom line is that on the 14th of March 2020,
with 293,000km on the clock, I gave my Leaf a 40kWh upgrade.
While it was on the ramp we also did the suspension struts at all corners, and those new lower control arms I had put in had seen their bushings fail so I replaced those too (just the bushings this time, not the arms).
On account of fitting the new pack just before the lockdown, it was quite a while before we finally broke the 300,000km mark, and since then we’ve only done about 3000km more, but the car has been transformed by the upgrade. The suspension was well worth doing as the factory structs were fairly tired, but the flexibility afforded by doubling the range has been immense. Dublin and back without any need to even think about charging; Mullingar roundtrip and then over to Trim? No problem. Down to Tipperary town to check on the Mother-in-Law? 2 Fast charges – and they are FAST!! Way quicker than the old pack. It’s also very gratifying to have my three lost bars back too (even if they don’t really count for much anymore). The car does take a lot longer to achieve a full charge at home, but it doesn’t matter because anything more than half is still more usable energy than we had in the original pack! Its been incredible, and at this point the most likely thing to take this car out of service will be a shift to a 7-seater in few years as the boys get older.
As for the recovered pack – it’s still in very good shape. It was changed as a matter of opportunity not necessity. I’ve another VX-1 in the garage for refit with a little less than half of it, and the remainder are looking likely to head towards camper van leisure battery duty, and finally doing something with a motorcycle conversion that I started wayyy too many years ago now.
Looking at the running costs of the car since we cleared the finance then, the numbers are still good but not as good as they would be if we were still doing the same sort of mileage. We’ve only done 80,000km in the last 3 years. This amounts to, generously, about €200 in electricity in that time where it would have been about €5,264 in petrol (4.7L/100km @ €1.4/L). Car tax another €600 extra in the period. Now between buying and fitting the bigger battery, that means the ledger is about square although, again, there is value coming back from the old pack which isn’t accounted for; and I’ve not factored in any of the maintenance which would have been required on the Civic over the distance. So right now the car is still sitting at about €8,000 behind what it would have cost to keep the Civic excluding maintenance. If I factor in my 16kWh domestic solar battery, that puts the Leaf well ahead, but even if I don’t, with a trajectory now clear to 500,000km, there’s no way it doesn’t catch up even just on its own merits.
I said it to Nissan 8 years ago and I’ll say it again now – I’d like to put 1,000,000km on this chassis. I don’t know if I’ll get there, but that’s the goal. Given our presiding circumstances I don’t know if the car is going to see more or less use going forward. It’s seen us though an extraordinary amount of ‘life’ over the last 8 years and it’s only in writing this that I’ve really reflected on just how much. Looking forward from here, who knows where we’re going; as the two boys grow our transport needs will change, but there’s an awful lot changing in the whole realm of moving people around right now.
I do know this much though, this car was a great purchase back in 2012, it’s an even better car today – and I wouldn’t change it.