Pack Man

Sometimes you just sort of fall into something. That’s what has happened with me and the reconditioning of Honda Insight/Civic hybrid traction battery packs. What began as mere curiosity, and then a necessity, is turning into a useful service. I am currently reconditioning a third Honda battery pack with two others now back at work in their vehicles. The gain in miles per gallon, the lowering of carbon emissions, the boost in torque, and improved driver satisfaction has been significant. And my personal gain in knowledge about these cars has been pretty significant too.

I used to just see the early Honda and Toyota hybrids as cars that were too  impractical and expensive for serious consideration. With the added weight, cost, and complexity of the battery packs and associated electronics, how could they be expected to compete in the market. How reliable could all of that extra hardware and software be? With batteries that slowly wear down and eventually fail, leaving their owners in the lurch, who could trust them. Did the advertised mileage improvement pan out in the real world and did it pay in the long run?

Well, after buying our first hybrid back in 2002 “as is” from a scrapyard and getting it to work again, we gained a bit more confidence in the concept of hybrids. Eight years of pretty much trouble-free driving certainly helped. And the problems that cropped up and caused us to sell it weren’t due to the hybrid system at all, just regular “car-type stuff” that happens when the temperature hits -20F. The next owner got a good deal too!

But I was resistant to think seriously about Honda hybrids since they didn’t run in the much more highly efficient (80+% versus 25-35%) full electric mode, as the Toyota sometimes did. It turns out that my technical snobbery was ill-founded. The true comparison was in overall fuel consumption, not short-term consumption. That’s what keep the carbon emissions, and other noxious output, to a minimum.

The 2001 Prius averaged 43 mpg year-round. An 1100 pound lighter Geo/Chevy Metro averaged about the same, without the complex and expensive hybrid system, but they were no longer built after 2001, and those that remained were quite rusty. The older series (2000-2006) Honda Insight weighs the same as the Metro, even with the hybrid system’s added bulk. It can only hold about 400 pounds of passenger and cargo (with OEM springs) but their aluminum chassis and aluminum/plastic bodies mean that they can’t possibly rust, leaving many still in circulation. How they ever made a profit on these at $20k is beyond me. The new series of Honda Insight has a steel frame and body – much cheaper to build, but it’ll become a rust-mobile and doesn’t get nearly the mpg’s. The old Insight’s fuel consumption can be amazingly low (60-70 mpg TANK AVERAGE, not the usually advertised and often inflated “highway” figure). But the problem of eventual battery failure seemed problematic, even though they can start and run with their common, on-board, automotive back-up systems.

Bob removing a battery pack

Finding a local Insight with a failed pack turned out to be pretty easy. Many folks sell them because they start to have battery issues and Honda dealerships charge $500 just for a pack recharge. Reading web forums about how to recondition their battery packs certainly made them more palatable in terms of financial risk, especially when a new or “factory reconditioned” replacement pack can cost between $1200 and $3500, depending on the cells used and their warranty. You may have already read the PDF I posted previously about the on-car reconditioning process on our 2001 Insight.

There is a fair market for “Grid Chargers” that allow owners to maintain the peak condition of their packs, delivering a high-voltage, low-power trickle charge between uses, but they require some mechanical and electrical ability to install, something many simply don’t have or are unwilling to attempt.

The process of reconditioning takes three progressive steps:

A) Installing external charge ports for high-voltage DC power to the battery pack and a 12-volt supply for the battery cooling fan.

B) Charging the pack while it’s in the vehicle (once/month routine is best), and perhaps also discharging it to progressively lower voltages in three steps if the IMA light comes on repeatedly.

C) Removing the pack to diagnose low capacity battery “sticks” (6-cell series strings within the pack) and possibly replacing them, then repeating step B.

So providing a reconditioning service isn’t something that can simply be done online, but requires actual hands-on help and some expertise. Anything that keeps these cars on the road instead seeing them replaced by gas-guzzling replacements is worth the effort.

Pack removed and being tested


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