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.
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:
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.
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.
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….