Thursday, June 5, 2014

Digits crossed

I drive a Honda Insight, which is a hybrid. I bought it used in 2003, and she's still going strong. The Honda Insight, unlike the Prius, has an electric boost that helps the combustion engine when it needs it, and after the car is warmed up, any time another car would idle, the Insight goes silent and is all on batteries (such as at a stop light). The Prius, on the other hand is all electric until about 20 or 25 mph (32 or 40 km/hr) when the combustion engine then goes on and takes over. When i bought my car in 2003, i was told then that the replacement batteries for the hybrid part of things cost about $7000. That was just for the batteries, not labour.

At the time, the warranty was for 8 years or 80,000 miles, whichever occurred first.

I moved in 2009, and my batteries were starting to fade. Just before that, Honda extended the warranty to 10 years or 100,000 miles, whichever came first, no matter in which US state you lived or in which state you bought the car. My car was a 2001 model, so i was on the 10-year bubble. They honoured the new, improved warranty limits, and the hybrid batteries were replaced for free. They did say they were not providing a warranty for the replacement batteries. I was okay with that, and understood why they wouldn't want to. Even though battery prices had fallen since my 2003 conversation because now there were more hybrids on the road, it was still an expense i didn't have to shoulder, and one that i'm sure Honda didn't wish to repeat.

In February of this year, my IMA and engine light went on. That usually means the hybrid battery pack is failing. Took it to the dealer, and they confirmed that that was true, using their diagnostic computer testing. I had looked online just before i took the car for the test to see that one person had changed his little starter battery to have the hybrid battery system work again, although his success was short-lived. In several weeks, the IMA and engine lights came back on.

I related this to the guys at the dealership. They shook their heads sadly, nope the starter battery looked just fine, the cells must be going in the hybrid battery pack. I wasn't surprised that my free replacements wouldn't go as long as nearly 10 years, but i expected they'd last at least 5 instead of not quite 4.

The dealership mechanic said that i could choose to drive my car without replacing the hybrid battery pack. It would work like any other regular combustion engine. Period. To replace the hybrid battery for parts and labor was $5600. They understood that i'd want some time to think about it.

Now i know cars are just machines, but i've grown attached to this one, and it really is my dream car, so emotionally, i wasn't at all happy to hear this news. SFB had agreed to pick me up at the dealership if i needed to leave my car there (they don't have courtesy cars, and the dealership is close to 40 miles/64 km away). I called to let him know he wouldn't need to pick me up and related my sad news. He said that fifty-six hundred bucks would buy a lot of gas/petrol, so try a few tankfuls and see how it went.

That sounded like good advice, so i did. My winter mileage is usually lower than summer mileage, and in-town driving, which is what i do 99% of the time these days, is lower than highway mileage. So, my usual winter mileage, which had been about 52 mpg (21 km/litre) fell to 43-44 mpg (17 km/L). The car is paid for, and i'd be hard pressed to find another car at no cost to me that would give me that kind of mileage. The warmer weather is arriving, and my mileage has increased to just under 49 mpg (19 km/L).

Not having the electric assist means my car drives like my old VW Beetle, where if i have to go uphill, i need to zoom up a bit so i can keep a somewhat respectable speed on the incline. Having to merge from the on-ramp to a traffic lane on the turnpike is a little scary, because i just don't have a lot of oomph when there's only the 3-cylinder engine. Again, i zoom as much as i can to build up speed and merge.

Over the weekend, i loaded my kayak into the car to go down to the boat. I tie down the hatch, so the open door light stays on, and it's a 10 or 12 minute ride to the shipyard. On the way there, my battery light came on, which was worrying, and the brake light came on, too. Nope, i was NOT driving with the parking brake on. I checked and double checked.

Once i got to the shipyard and turned off the motor, the car would not restart. I decided to kayak out to the boat, do the few things i had planned on and rather than go sailing after those few things, i'd come back and see if i could restart the car. If not, i had my AAA card* at the ready.

After a couple hours doing stuff on the boat, i returned to my car. She started right up. A gift, and i knew i'd need my mechanic to take a look. It was most likely the starter battery, but it might also be the alternator.

He looked, saw it was just the battery, and replaced it. I picked up the car yesterday, and on my way home, for the first time since that sad day in late February, the hybrid battery pack started recharging. I knew because i've got a battery gauge that shows when it's charging (green lines) and how fully it's charged (orange lines). When i got to a stop sign, the engine cut out. Just as it always had when the hybrid part was working. Traffic was clear, so i put the car in first, the engine started right up, and away i went. Going up an incline, i felt the electric boost help me up the hill.

So, i'm cautiously optimistic. Being mechanically retarded as i am, and not having the diagnostic machines like the dealership, i didn't argue about changing out the starter battery. But i can also hope that the starter battery was perhaps starting to go in February, enough so that the hybrid battery pack was shut down, and that the new battery can handle whatever extra work it needs to do to "talk" to the hybrid battery pack and see that it's topped up. It could be a situation like that one i read about on-line where this will only last a few weeks. Or--and here's where my mechancial ineptness allows me to hope--this could mean i've got a few more years left to the hybrid battery pack.

Time will tell. Either way, spending $138 for a new starter battery so my car won't leave me stranded and perhaps has reawakened the hybrid part of things is a far cry from spending $5600.

*AAA-American Automobile Association, a group drivers can join in the US for an annual fee. Before the Internet and global positioning systems (GPS) widely available for cars, AAA was a wonderful resource for all sorts of maps, and they'd help with route planning. They also offer roadside assistance. A jump, a tow, if you are stranded someplace.


  1. Digits crossed indeed. For someone who professes mechanical inability, you do know how to line up your battery packs!

    1. Joanne, I am a mechanical retard, but that doesn't mean i cannot be taught. It just means that i can be taught only in teeny-tiny steps, and that it takes me longer to understand it.I have no idea of the starter battery is responsible for "talking" to the hybrid side of things, all i know is that when the battery was replaced, the hybrid system was back on-line. I can't explain it mechanically, but in my simpleton way, the discussion has recommenced.