Ecotality’s Aftermath

By · October 11, 2013

Blink Station Fire

The dust has not yet settled on CarCharging Group’s successful bid for assets owned by Ecotality, the now bankrupt electric car infrastructure company. The bid raises numerous questions about how the new owners of the Blink Network will now maintain its newly acquired equipment and services. The uncertainty is underscored by the fact that, just five weeks ago, my home Blink charger caught on fire.

That’s right. In early September—as Ecotality was likely preparing its filing for bankruptcy—the Blink charger at my house experienced an overheating event that resulted in a very small and quick blaze inside the unit’s housing.

I am only now getting to the bottom of what happened. Based on an analysis from an electrician who has installed more than 400 home chargers, and a qualified electric engineer with vast experience in the electric car industry, my unit had a faulty terminal block with a loose wire.

Why did it take me so long to get this information? For nearly three weeks, during which I repeatedly called to complain that my Blink station wasn't working, Ecotality promised to send a service technician to my house. After these delays, and then the announcement of the bankruptcy—I took matters into my own hands by reaching out to experts to provide a diagnosis, which came back as a manufacturing defect.

Containment

For more than two years, I had used the Blink charger to refuel my 2011 Nissan LEAF, which has a 3.3-kW charger. Therefore, this problem is not related to overheating connector issue reported with higher power chargers used on the Honda Fit EV and Toyota RAV4 EV.

The silver lining in this dark cloud is that the overheating, and resulting fire, was contained in a small section inside the equipment’s housing. In other words, there may have been a faulty terminal block that caused the problem, but the overall smart design of the unit—such as the metal backing that separates the components from the wall where it is mounted—contained any damage to a space of a few inches.

There were only two known cases of what I experienced, according to an Ecotality official who preferred to remain anonymous. The inside source said the problem was therefore confirmed in only .02% of the 9,000 units made. (To be clear, this problem did not occur in 99.98% of installed Blink Home Chargers.) "I would term that extremely rare, and well within any manufacturer's tolerance for error," said the anonymous source. The root cause of the problem was described as "over-torqued screws that have stripped and lead to loose wires."

There is no evidence of a similar problem with the recently introduced Blink HQ. And again, the incident with my Blink unit is, as far as I know, not related to any previously reported issues. From all indications so far, the risk of this happening to others is minimal, and urgent concerns about damage to cars and property are not warranted.

What's Next?

After I sent a photo of the charging station burnout to company executives, Ecotality quickly sent a technical representative to examine my station—and brought a new one, a Blink HQ, to replace the damaged equipment. So, for all intents and purposes, the problem has been addressed and corrected.

Of course, no EV equipment should overheat the way my Blink station did. But at this stage, frankly, I’m thinking more about the hotter issues facing CarCharging Group, the new biggest provider of electric car charging services. For example, what’s the true condition of the nearly 13,000 Level 2 chargers installed by Ecotality, mostly via the D.O.E.-sponsored EV Project? What will happen to the data collected so far? And, how diligent will CarCharging Group be in promptly addressing any problems, with home or public equipment?

And most of all: With 90 percent or more of EV charging taking place at home, how will CarCharging Group make enough money to sustain its business, support its products, and become a true asset to the electric car movement?

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