The Tesla Powerwall fails: life as an early adopter

On May 3rd we started using a Tesla Motors Powerwall at home.  The thing is basically a giant battery, used in our case to supply electricity when grid power fails.  We live in a remote location and power comes via fragile above-ground lines, so electricity goes offline fairly often.

At least once during the past few weeks since the Powerwall’s installation we’ve experienced brief electrical outages (circa 20 minutes). The Powerwall behaved brilliantly, stepping into the breach at once, sending reserve power to key household functions (water pump, water heater, fridge, business electronics).  Grid power resumed before we could really drain the battery.

But today the Powerwall failed, and failed hard.  As of this writing it’s still dead, and perhaps dangerous.

Around 3:15 pm the power went out.  We can’t tell the reason, as the weather seemed benign, and the utility, Green Mountain Power, wasn’t sharing that information.  Their outage map showed a fairly quiescent Vermont, except for a couple of outages, like mine.

Green Mountain Power outage map 2016 May 29

Our town is too small to be labeled. We’re the little blue dot in the center west, between Vergennes and Middlebury.

We’re pretty used to these things happening here on the mountaintop, so I checked on the Powerwall.  The machine was quiet and dark, weirdly:

Powerwall offline

The information display is on top, in the center of that grey panel.  It should be blue and festooned with alphanumeric characters. To its right are three LEDs in a column, all also dark.

We consulted the owner’s manual, which recommended turning the breaker off, waiting a minute, then turning it back on.  We did that.  The LEDs came back, then went off again.

So I commenced a useless (so far, after hours) attempt to get help online.

Tesla Motors’ Powerwall help page offered documents, which didn’t apply (except for a copy of the manual we already had).  They did not offer email contacts or a chat service.  They did publish a phone number, which led to an automated message happily informing me of sales, not support.  So I went to Twitter.  There wasn’t a Powerwall account, but only a Tesla Motors handle.  I Tweeted there; as of this writing there has not been any response.

I tried Green Mountain Power, our electrical utility.   Neither email not chat support was available.  I knew their Twitter account from previous experience, so tweeted at them several times.  They have not responded so far.  Their phone numbers at first only allowed us to report outages, and coughed up promises of upcoming power restoration.  After an hour I was able to reach one person, who told me to wait until Tuesday (yes, it’s a holiday weekend) for support.  And that I should also try the company who installed the device.

So over to Peck Electric.  Their contact page listed phone numbers and email addresses.  Good enough.  The main phone number took me to a directory, none of which options related to the Powerwall.  Their operator didn’t answer, but allowed me to leave a cranky email.  Next I tried the “emergency” phone number…. which was the same as the main one.  I found the company’s president’s directory listing, and attempted to complain.  Not only was he not answering the phone, but his number wasn’t set up for voice mail.  So I turned to email and fired off an exasperated complain and plea for help.

Meanwhile, while all three institutions were busily not helping us, other things were happening.  My wife noticed a giant black knob on the inverter, which was turned to “off”, if you craned your head in an unnatural direction and poured lumens into a tiny, dark notch on the knob.  Ceredwyn turned it to “on”, and power flowed!  …for five minutes, upon which the thing shut down again.

Over on Twitter, while Tesla and Green Mountain Power were maintaining a stony silence, my friend Phil Long weighed in to help.  Phil’s a scientist, worked at MIT for years, and is both thoughtful and generous.  He hunted for information, brainstormed ideas, and asked good questions.

Phil Long helps on Twitter

Not to mention providing moral support.

As the minutes went by (imagine me with oh-hold Muzak-playing phone crammed between head and shoulder, typing on laptop in the darkness of afternoon rain) the Powerwall stayed silent.

Until it came to life, blinking.  Several appliances whirred on right away.

Then the Powerwall went dead again.  The appliances faded to silence.

After some minutes, the process repeated.   Several times.  It was as if the Powerfall was flickering in slow motion. I don’t think I’ve ever typed the phrase “a flickering Powerwall” before today.

Around 4 pm the grid power came back up.  Lights turned on all over the house, fans spun, motors hummed… and the Powerwall booted back up.  Which is precisely useless.  It’s a battery that only works when the power’s on.

Powerwall information screen, powered on

Here’s the information screen all powered up. The green LED is for “Power production.”

That’s where things stand now.  Neither Tesla nor Peck have gotten back to me via phone, email, or Twitter.   The happy green LED in the previous photo has gone off, succeeded by an angry red one next to the grim legend “Fault.”

Some further thoughts on the experience:

  • We were able to remain online because of our blessed, old-fashioned UPS units.  They were draining, of course, and had maybe 30 minutes to go when the grid went back online.
  • Yes, this is a Sunday, and a holiday weekend.  One might expect slower service.  On the other hand, one might also expect some better mechanisms for handling issues which have the temerity to occur on their own schedule.
  • Powerwall documentation was seriously deficient.  I’d like to help improve it, if possible.
  • There is no Powerwall community for peer support.  There should be one.
  • I don’t know if the machine kept a log of the outage.  Or, if it did, what happens to that record.
  • Earlier in this post I used the phrase “perhaps dangerous”.  That’s because of the device’s slow-motion flickering, which we can’t figure out.  As I write this the red light of “fault” is still on.  There’s no description of what that means in the user’s manual, so all we can do is assume it means “a bad thing” and wait for someone, somewhere, to contact us.

What are your thoughts, suggestions, questions?

Life on the bleeding edge of new technologies….

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26 Responses to The Tesla Powerwall fails: life as an early adopter

  1. longpd says:

    Bryan: good to read the power is back on from Green Mtn Power. Sad to read that the PowerWall is more wall than power unless it has externally provided AC inverted to DC when grid is operating. As you noted, kinda defeats the purpose.

    The entire sequence looks more like it points to the SolarEdge as the PowerWall itself is just a big battery. Getting into it and out of it requires the SolarEdge inverter switching unit to do its thing properly. For my money, that’s where the fault lies first, though I’m happy to be proven otherwise.

    You called for jumpstarting a PowerWall user community. That’s a great idea. Right now it appears so small as to be non-existent. But it’s got to start some time. Another place to reach out to might be our Aussie friends who have a much larger pilot program of PowerWall and SolarEdge installations. This will be a little tricky because they will use more commonly a 3-phase installation (what in the US would be classified as an industrial installation) just because they tend to be more conservative and in my mind more careful about power installation designs. But I think I saw something in the Australian version of The Conversation so I’ll look there.

    Glad you’re back and running. Nice to have redundant options that work.

    Cheers mate.

    • Excellent analysis.

      SolarEdge: I’m not sure who’s the best source to address this, the Green Mountain Power utility, or Tesla, or the folks who installed it.

      Powerwall user community: It would be good to kick this off before the numbers grow.

      Thank you for the Aussie link.

      • Ammy Woodbury says:

        “If the issue persists, contact the Tesla Energy Authorized Reseller who originally sold the Powerwall.”

  2. Ken says:

    Now that power is back on, if you disconnect mains power, does the powerwall supply power to your critical loads again?

  3. Jim Parker says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience because we are considering a Powerwall.

    • Ken says:

      Same here… I got the solaredge storedge inverter, just need to wait for the powerwall ( if Tesla ever contacts me)

  4. Zack Lukjan says:

    Now you’ve gone and done it, Bryan. Green mountain is gonna blame you for crashing the power grid. Techno fear

  5. psproefrock says:

    Does the Powerwall (or your larger household configuration) have something that will keep it from backfeeding the power lines when the utility power is out? (This is a safety measure to prevent fried line-workers, which utility companies tend not to be very fond of.)

    From what I know of on-site generation systems, they often use the utility frequency to control the frequency from the inverter, and will cut out without that signal (with the similarly frustrating experience of having solar panels in place, but not having any power supplied because the inverter doesn’t know what to do).

    The Fault LED does hint at there being something larger involved, so I may be completely off-base. I’m sorry I don’t have anything more than halk-baked ideas for you at this point, but I am interested to find out more once you learn what’s going on.

  6. Ray says:

    Well this is very troubling…especially since I am planning on getting version 2 when it is released.

    Sounds like the wiring is not correct and/or the powerwall did not charge to capacity before the blackout, thus only giving you a short amount of electricity.

    Maybe the daily cycling could have impacted it? I’m not informed well on the logistics of it all but it could be a possibility that it’s made to be fully charged by evening/night hours so that you can have power/lights in case of blackouts at night time, and then cycle out the electricity in the middle of the day. What time did your outage occur the first time it worked properly? It could have been fully juiced when it happened vs on the discharge during your unfortunate blackout.

    The flickering could be from a current regulator that only outputs electricity when it reaches a certain amperage. so if it’s fluctuating, it will shut off, and back on again when it crosses the threshold. kind of like when you have a practically dead flashlight. after a minute of rest you turn it back on and it’s bright for a second and dies. give it another minute and it’s semi bright and then dies. somehow by it resting it gathers enough juice to be effective for a second but that’s about it until it completely runs out.

    Just throwing out ideas, I could be completely wrong =p

  7. Giuseppe says:

    Good replies in return of this difficulty with firm
    arguments and telling the whole thing concerning that.

  8. Joe says:

    This may be a useful resource because it shows a wiring diagram

  9. Pingback: Powerwall progress | Bryan Alexander

  10. slaven says:

    are there any new developments, follow up story?

  11. GJ says:

    Have you noticed the typical range of Vdc vaule showing on your powerwall when it works? Is it higher than 420.3 you had in the pic?

  12. Victor Santana says:

    Hi . I have the same inverter with solar panels and a Tesla Powerwall. Recently the battery did not respond due to a firmware upgrade failure. During the last 5 days the company that installed the system has been diligently working with SolarEdge technicians via remote assistance to correct the problem. Now the battery is reponding but with a 21 second delay which they are trying to fix. At least the SolarEdge monitoring app gives me information about how the system is working, how much charge the battery has and how much solar energy the panels are generating. If the problem persist then Tesla technicians will be contacted.

  13. Tom says:

    Our Local Council in England is about to install an array of 4 Tesla Powerwall 2 battery systems in a disused brick-built room under our kitchen and lounge. We are part of a block of 20 maisonettes. They planned first to install these in purpose-made plant rooms outside the building. We think they are mad! They have not considered the innovative and potentially highly dangerous nature of these untried, almost experimental semi-industrial projects. There appears to have been no due diligence on their part to ensure our safety and peace of mind or that of the other 50 or more tenants of the low-rise block of maisonettes. Nor did the Council advise us of the change of location of the installations.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Yikes. Not a good time for British councils to stint on safety measures.

      That said, ours has been fine.

  14. Pingback: Tesla Powerwall 2 Reviews -- Hype and Hogwash or Holy Wow?

  15. Andy says:

    Thanks for posting, Bryan. We are now in the queue to get a Powerwall through GMP as well. Any updates as to the reliability of the thing or online forums?

    much appreciated,

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