Saturday, November 26, 2016

LED brake + turn light upgrade for my 2017 Chevy Volt

When a friend of mine bought a used Prius several years ago, he told me that the first upgrade he did was to replace the incandescent brake lights with LEDs.  His reasoning was that LEDs light up a lot faster than filament lamps providing an earlier warning to someone behind that he is braking.

I was surprised to find that my new 2017 Chevy Volt still had old-style incandescent lamps, so I decided an upgrade was in order.  But first some geekery!

I wanted to quantify exactly how much quicker LEDs light up than incandescent lamps so I set up a bench test to compare the two.  

I connected each style of lamp to a 12 V battery with a switch and then used my oscilloscope to look at the switched power (yellow) and the amount of light as measured using a photocell (blue trace).  What I learned was that incandescent taillights take 80-100 ms to reach full brightness whereas LEDs come on almost instantaneously (50 ┬Ás = 0.05mS).  If you are traveling at 60MPH (88ft/sec.), 80mS is equal to about 7 feet.  Clearly this could be a life-saving difference at speed on a freeway.

brake and turn lamps original vs LED
My go-to source for all things LED is because they have excellent selection tools to help you find exactly the lamp you need for your vehicle or any other application.  I quickly found the LEDs I was looking for and decided to also get some turn indicator lamps as well.  So for less than $40 I was able to replace all four lamps in the rear of the vehicle.

The 2017 Chevy Volt manual clearly shows (on p.261) how to access the lamps by removing two Torx screws and one Philips screw.  Then you have to pull the tail lamp assembly forcefully back until it snaps free.  

Each lamp is accessed by twisting counterclockwise to pull the socket out.  The lamps simply pull out of the socket and the new ones push in, although the new lamps required a lot of force to get into the socket.

Here is the new LED in the socket ready to be inserted in the assembly.  Unfortunately, the new lamp was very slightly larger than the old one and would not go in the hole in the housing.  So I used my Dremel tool to open up the hole very slightly and it went in just fine.

After I had installed both lamps on one side It was easy to see the difference and how quickly the lamp switches on and off in the turn signals. unfortunately, the turn signal started to hyper flash.  This is a condition where the vehicle responds to the lower power draw of the LED light and starts to blink very quickly.  The solution is to install a Load Resistor Kit from to trick the vehicle into thinking there is a higher load on the circuit. 

Hopefully I'm never in a situation where I am braking hard on a freeway with someone following closely behind, but I feel that this simple upgrade is a nice performance and safety improvement for the vehicle.

If you are considering a similar upgrade, be advised that all third taillights utilize LEDs, so they illuminate almost immediately compared to the two other brake lights, so you do have the advantage of at least one LED brake light in place in recent model vehicles.  I just like the enhanced response time and visibility.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Why I live as sustainably as I can

Since 2001, I have been doing my best to live as sustainably as I can.  There are several reasons for my commitment.


I'm an engineer dammit!  I enjoy the challenge of using technology to reduce my carbon footprint.  This includes increasing the efficiency of my home and workshop, installing renewable energy systems such as solar power, water heating and building heating and driving a state-of-the-art electric vehicle.  And as a geeky engineer, I choose to monitor and share data from all of the energy efficiency and renewable energy systems that I have installed on  my website. Here are some links to various pages on my site with live data feeds
Solar electric power system - live performance

Solar domestic water heater - live temperatures

Solar building heating system for my workshop - live temperatures

Heat recovery ventilation system - live temperatures

And much more on my Living Sustainably page

I also designed and manufacture a line of products designed to improve the performance of solar thermal heating systems.


I'm also an artist and cultural creative.  As such I tend to see outside the box and live a life unconstrained by convention.  As an avid reader of science fiction, I tend to view the world through the lens of an imaginary alien anthropologist and this perspective informs many of my opinions and decisions.  An alien visiting planet Earth for the first time would be truly appalled at the massive scale of devastation we are wreaking on our ecosystem.


Last, but by no means least, I am deeply concerned about the impact of climate change.  I hope that by modeling a sustainable lifestyle that I am demonstrating a viable low carbon footprint existence for humanity.  I look at young people today and have great concern for their future and all generations to come.  I have heard that Native Americans always made decisions with a view to the following seven generations, and that is the way that I choose to operate as well.

Wake-up time.

It is clear to me that the earth has already crossed the tipping point and climate change is accelerating so rapidly that the impacts are already being felt all over the world.  All we can do it this point is to try to slow things down.  It is only going to get worse and all the international climate accords are too little and too late.  Anyone who chooses to pay attention will see climate related news almost every day:
increased severe weather events
shrinking Arctic ice cover
Climate change in general
epic droughts
raging wildfires
frequent coastal flooding due to ocean level rise
plant and animal species extinctions
coral reefs dying

The thing that most surprises me is how few people are truly acting to avert this disaster in a daily conscious way.  I am both saddened and angered by the failures of the family of humankind.  It appalls me that there are people who "don't believe in climate change", this is like saying that you don't believe the sky is blue.  It is not a matter of opinion, the facts are plain and clear.  We are all in this together regardless of nation, race, ideology, religion or identity.  This is the greatest crisis ever to face humanity and we all need to wake the heck up and contribute.  It is not enough to do the token gestures of recycling and composting etc.  It is time to reach deep into our hearts and wallets and make commitments to reduce our carbon footprints at every opportunity.  Almost every time you make a purchase, you are voting for or against a sustainable future for humanity.

For myself, I have found the whole process of implementing renewable energy and technology to be rewarding.  For example,I actually look forward to getting my electric bill which usually shows an energy surplus for 6 or 7 months of the year for which I am later credited.  I am also enjoying driving my 2017 Chevy Volt electric vehicle which is powered largely from free solar energy.  It is an amazing and fun vehicle to own and operate and I use less than 60 gallons of gas per YEAR to drive in "range extended" mode at over 40 miles per gallon. 

Every single astronaut who has had the opportunity to look down at our little blue marble is profoundly impacted by the experience.  They all describe it as a spiritual transformation in which they see the whole world as one without boundaries.  They talk about being overwhelmed by a feeling of love as if the whole planet were their own child.  Click here or on the image above to see a live video feed from the International Space Station and just sit with it for a while. We live on the surface of a beautiful and unique planet.  Humanity cannot survive without a viable ecosytem, but the planet will continue with or without us.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Upgrading from 2012 to 2017 Chevy Volt

I have been wildly enthusiastic about the Chevy Volt since before it went into production and acquired my 2012 model as soon as I could afford to.  I have been completely thrilled with the car and believe that it is the ideal electric vehicle since it cleverly addresses the "range anxiety" issue with its internal gas powered "range extender" generator that allows you to keep driving at 43mpg once the electric battery has been used up.

My dealer (GoodwinsChevrolet) here in Brunswick, Maine made me an offer I could not refuse which was to trade in my old Volt for a very affordable three-year lease on the all new redesigned 2017 model (base price US$33,170).  They graciously allowed me to park both vehicles side-by-side so I could do a detailed comparison review.  GM have redesigned the vehicle from the ground up, and while there is a strong family resemblance, there are fundamental differences that make for significant improvements in performance, functionality and styling.  Personally, I find the new exterior style lines to be much improved.  The GEN 1 design ran from 2012 through 2016.

Sadly GM have discontinued production of the Volt as of March 2019.

The 2012 was really fun to drive and the new model is even more fun with it's crazy fast acceleration and ground hugging performance.  It is also very comfortable on long trips.

Driving Experience

Overall, the GEN 2 vehicle is 250 pounds lighter which translates into a more nimble feel which dramatically increases the 0 to 30 acceleration feel.  The 0 to 30MPH acceleration time has been reduced from 3.1 to 2.6 seconds while 0 to 60 mph performance has improved from 9 to 8.3 seconds.  From a performance standpoint, the low-end acceleration is quite thrilling, the vehicle burns rubber from a standing start if you floor it even in "normal" mode.  This was not even possible in the GEN 1 design.   But more useful is that the EPA rated range has been extended from a maximum of 37 to 53 miles, and I am hearing that  people are getting a range up in the mid-60s with careful driving.  Using MAX climate control in cold weather, I'm seeing a range in the mid 40'sFor someone like me who does mostly local driving to towns up to 15 miles away, this means I will be using gas much less.  In previous years I have used  between 40 and 60 gallons per year - mostly for longer trips.
The Gen 2 is noticeably quieter, road and tire noise is much lower due to quieter tires and an improved transmission that is 15% more efficient.  It also makes a lot less funny little mechanical pump noises because the hydraulic brakes pressurize on demand rather than at randomized intervals and the climate control and charging coolant systems seem to be quieter too.  

One does not notice it as a driver, but they have added an electronically generated "Pedestrian Safety Signal" that activates only under 20 mph to warn nearby pedestrians that the vehicle is running.  It is a peculiar sound that is hard to describe - it's kind of a hissing sound - and it is just noticeable enough to be audible without being annoying.  They have removed the "annunciator" button on the left stalk - when pressed the horn would emit a "bip-bip-bip" sound and I rather liked that feature because it was a pleasant way to advise neighbors that I was sneaking up on them on my quiet country road.

regen on-demand paddle
Something I am just beginning to get use to is the new Regen on Demandpaddle on the left side of the steering wheel.  While I normally drive in "L" mode to optimize regeneration while slowing ("D" mode completely disables regenerative braking via the accelerator pedal), this paddle adds a whole another layer.  (To be clear for the uninitiated "L" mode is NOT a gear, it simply engages the regenerative braking function). Basically you learn to use it as if it were a brake pedal and the vehicle slows much more dramatically when you pull the paddle towards the steering wheel.  It's difficult to convey the difference in experience, but suffice it to say I am using the paddle in place of braking when coming to a stop as often as possible to gain the regenerated energy and increase driving range.   Incidentally the paddle does engage the brake lights.

This feature is a mixed blessing because it means that the rear disc brakes are almost never used.  I had to replace the rear brake discs on my 2012 Volt after only 40,000 miles because they had rusted to the point where they would not pass inspection.  The dealer's service tech explained that I should get the vehicle up to 50 mph or so on a quiet road, drop it in neutral and brake very hard at least once a week to make sure the disc brakes operate forcefully enough to clean out any rust build up.  I also ride the brake when driving very slowly down my road for the first 100ft and I can hear the brakes getting quieter as I do this as the rust buildup cleans off.

Tech details

charging data from my old and new vehicle
In order to charge the larger battery in less time the vehicle is drawing an additional 500 W from my 240 V JuiceBox EV charging station.  A full charge takes a nominal 4.5 hours to top up the 18.4 kWh battery (upgraded from 16 kWh).  Charging from 120 V is expected to take 13 hours at 12 Amps.
The new battery has 15% more power while weighing 30lb less due to battery chemistry improvements, an 8% decrease in weight.  Battery technology keeps improving, and the new battery cells are 20% more efficient allowing GM to reduce the number of cells in the battery by 96.

It seems that another way they are getting more power out of the battery is by using more of its capacity.  Based on readings taken from my DashDAQ-XL performance monitor I learned that the GEN 1 utilized from 22% to 87% state of charge, while the GEN 2 uses from 14% to 90% state of charge.  So the new Volt is using 11% more capacity from the battery.

I have also noticed that the GEN 2 draws power from the charging station in frequent brief bursts, presumably to maintain the battery within a safe operating temperature range.  The chart above shows two days of energy from my charging station while temperatures varied from just below freezing  to the mid-40s Fahrenheit.  Those brief spikes represent periods of less than 10 minutes with an energy draw ranging from a few hundred Watts to about 2300 W.

The old 1.4 L gas engine (originally from one of their other models) has been replaced with a new 1.5 L engine.  This allows it to generate 75 kW, a 33% increase over the old 50 kW generator making the engine much more efficient.  This is why the "range extender" mode has increased from an EPA rated 37 mpg to 42 mpg or so.  The new engine can also use regular gas rather than premium which is a nice bonus.  In practice I used to get a nominal 40 mpg in the GEN 1 on long trips, and I'm seeing closer to 43 mpg in the 2017 model.  The engine seems to surge to high RPMs of 4000RPM more often in the Gen2 which is slightly annoying and very noticeable when leaving a stop in city traffic.

The transmission in the Volt is a very complicated affair incorporating planetary gears and clutches to connect the two electric motors (known as the MGA and MGB) and the gas engine to the drive train.  Click here if you really want to know moreIt has been completely redesigned to be 12% more efficient and also noticeably quieterIn my 2012, I used to notice a slight whirring sound at slow speeds with the window open, and that is no longer as noticeable.

The stock low rolling resistance Goodyear tires from the GEN 1 have been replaced with slightly less efficient Michelin tires with a net reduction in road noise and no noticeable trade-off in performance.  The recommended tire pressure is 36 lb, but I'm inflating them to 38 lb to try and improve efficiency slightly.  My stock 2012 tires wore out after about 30,000 miles which was very disappointing.  I upgraded to Continental low rolling resistance tires that are rated for 70,000 miles, but as they aged in they seemed to become louder and louder to the point where it was almost like I was driving with heavy snow tires.  In a vehicle this quiet you really notice road noise.


The funky rubber air dam is scaled down and tucked underneath  in the new model and the front grill looks a lot more attractive.

The rear spoiler is much better integrated into the visual aesthetic.  The original spoiler felt like a cheap plastic add-on and road grime would build up underneath of it.  I also think the taillight design is much more attractive.

The headlight design is a little more attractive.  But the significant improvement is in the quality and brightness of the headlights. 

The GEN 1 used a single relatively dim halogen light with a beam that was not wide enough to light the sides of the road.  Driving on rural blacktops at night was not a good experience.  A mechanical shutter blocked the light for the low-beam.  The 2017 model uses very bright white LEDs with a much wider light pattern and the high-beam adds in a bright (warmer toned) halogen.  Overall, the headlights are a vast improvement.

The backup light in the GEN 1 was a single light down in the bumper for European compliance.  There are now two normally placed backup lights in the GEN 2.  

Surprisingly, all of the rear lights including turn and taillights are still incandescent, I would have expected LEDs by now.  I like the swooping curves in the new model though.

The charge port no longer requires that you unlock it by pressing a button on the armrest, you just press it in to click release like a standard gas tank.  This requires a small behavior change because with the GEN 1 Volt one got use to automatically turning the power off and then pressing the button to open the charge port when coming home to connect it to your home charger.  Now you just turn off the vehicle then step outside and click open the port and connect the charge plug.

I like the chrome detailing on the door handles and note that the mechanical key slot has been moved to the bottom surface where it is not visible, and the key must be inserted vertically into the concealed slot in the absence of a functioning remote. 

The key can be completely removed from the keyfob in the new design - The GEN 1 keyfob key flipped out like a switchblade.

I had replaced the original factory wire antenna with a Stubby Antenna because it stuck up too high when I used my Rhino Racks to carry my canoe.  The new shark fin style antenna is a nice design refinement and also stays low enough to stay below the roof rack.


The most noticeable difference in the 2017 model is the interior.  Everything has changed  on the dashboard.

GM engineers wisely decided to remove the "sexy" center console with touch activated buttons and went with a more contemporary styled user interface with separate manual climate controls and a touchscreen above.  It was far too easy to accidentally bump one of those pretty touch buttons on the old white center console.

power outlet and 2 USB inputs for media
plus a 3.5 mm audio input jack
Some of the  the features I have come to enjoy already include the Wi-Fi hotspot, and voice command for the entertainment system.  For instance I can press a button on the screen to enable voice-recognition and then simply say: "play Adele 25" and it will begin playing the first song on the album.  I have plugged in a thumb drive with all of my favorite music to one of the two USB jacks in a small lighted cubby in front of the shifter.  There is a slot to the right of the shifter for a phone or music player, I leave my phone there whenever I'm driving both to charge it and for Android Auto navigation.  The Android system puts live Google maps on the center console screen.  It also allows hands free phone and texting by voice.

A major improvement is the re-positioning of the POWER and MODE buttons.  More than one driver has inadvertently turned off their vehicle while driving because they intended to change modes (normal, sport, mountain) but hit the POWER button accidentally in the Gen 1.  I had a terrifying experience at night doing just that at high speed on a two-lane blacktop.  Now the power button is logically located near where an ignition key would be in a conventional vehicle, while the MODE button is down near the shifter where it should be.

The shifter location and layout now make a lot more sense with the parking brake located at the left, hazard lights at lower left, and MODE and TRACTION control buttons at the bottom.  I never understood  the strange placement of these controls in the GEN 1 design.

The new armrest controls slope towards the driver, making them more accessible.  And the gas filler release button is now placed in a much more visible location.  In the Gen 1 it was hidden from view.

Above the mirror, the OnStar controls have been moved forward and simplified.  The large black button in the center of the GEN 1 image on the left was the traction control button.  A very odd place for it, and it makes perfect sense that they would move it down next to the shifter.
The new keyfob is slightly sexier and the same remote control features have been retained.  If you press the lock button briefly and then press and hold the power button for 3+ seconds, you can power up the vehicle for 10 minutes and it will utilize the last temperature setting of the climate control system to heat or cool the vehicle as needed.  The substantial difference in the GEN 2 model is that the heater is much more effective.  On recent days when temperatures dropped below 0°F, I was able to preheat the vehicle for 10 minutes and get into a comfortably warm car with a cabin temperature around 70°F.  The GEN 1 heating system was lame by comparison.

The rear seats now include a center seat with a fold-down armrest. rather than two separate seats.  It functions more like a bench seat with a 60/40 split fold-down.  While the center seat would not be comfortable for anyone other than a child, I'm sure it adds some value to those with children.

The rear cargo area is much the same, except for the gap between the seats which was convenient for loading 8 foot lengths of lumber for me.  Yes, you can fit 8 foot 2X4s inside the vehicle by sliding them all the way into the front passenger foot well.

With the rear seats folded down  one notices the absence of the window in the rear hatch reducing visibility even more.

Due to the reduced visibility, GM have wisely incorporated a rear camera in the base model.  Previously this option was only available as an upgrade, but without the rear window it is now essential.  And notice that it shows guidelines indicating where the vehicle will be as you backup - they interactively curve as you turn the steering wheel.  I'm sure that children, dogs, and toys will be much safer now.  The camera is located just above the rear license plate.  In rainy weather I make a point of wiping off the lens before getting in the vehicle as it gets covered in road grime.

The GEN 1 charge cord was originally stored under the rear hatch, but I never left it there because it was too inaccessible.  The new cord storage location is more readily accessible, but there is nothing to wrap the cord around, so it is a loose 20 foot cable which becomes awkward to handle in snow and bad weather.  I think I prefer the original charge cord, but in both vehicles I just leave the cord out in the rear rather than bothering to stow it.

Everything under the hood has changed completely.  The large orange high voltage wires to the electric motor are tucked inside somewhere, and I hear that the new four-cylinder gas generator engine is smaller and lighter.  But it's all black box stuff.  There be magic!

Overall I am thoroughly impressed.  It seems that GM were paying attention to all of the observations, pet peeves, and complaints about the original design.  They totally got it right this time!

Too bad they stopped making this amazing vehicle in March 2019.