Is a high-end barbecue worth the investment?

4 Aug
At $1400, the Napoleon Prestige 500 propane grill should be an investment for the long term.

At $1400, the Napoleon Prestige 500 propane grill should be an investment for the long term.

By Geoff Meeker

August 4, 2014 – I’ve written about barbecues several times in recent years, the last time in November 2013 when I expressed disappointment with the Nexgrill portable. It functioned okay but required constant watching due to flareups caused by the scant distance between cooking grid and burner.

I have owned a number of grills priced from $120 to $500 and they all developed problems within a year or so. I got to wondering: does it really matter how much we spend on a barbecue? Will an expensive unit last appreciably longer than a cheap one in our harsh climate?

I decided it was time to find out. Five weeks ago, I took the beef by the horns and purchased a new Napoleon Prestige 500 propane grill ($1400 at Venture Vacuum).

Yes, that’s a lot of change. But I was sold first and foremost by the warranty, which is really quite impressive. The stainless steel body components have a lifetime warranty (the nearest competitor offers 25 years) and the stainless steel tube burners have a 10-year warranty, plus an additional five in which the parts can be purchased for half price. According to Napoleon, their warranties meet or beat those of the competition.

I have seen two barbecue drums actually disintegrate and most have required a new burner every year, so this warranty offers substantial peace of mind.

Also, the barbecue has an infrared side burner, something I have written about previously but never seen in action.

As well, it didn’t hurt that the company offered a free accessories promotion at time of purchase, including a pizza stone and cutter, cast iron charcoal pan and smoker, a wooden cutting board with stainless steel bowls, and a three-piece set of utensils. On top of that, the rotisserie and motor are included as standard equipment.

Finally, the product is made in Barrie, Ontario and it’s nice to support a Canadian manufacturer.

So, what is this infrared side burner all about? In a nutshell, the propane is fired through a ceramic plate with small holes that concentrate the flame, making for a much hotter fire while consuming less fuel. Infrared is used mainly to sear steaks and other cuts of meat before moving them to the main burner, creating that restaurant-style taste on the outside while sealing the juices inside.

The infrared side burner does a stellar job searing steaks, but it does involve a learning curve. (Geoff Meeker photo)

The infrared side burner does a stellar job searing steaks, but it does involve a learning curve. (Geoff Meeker photo)

The side burner can also be used for boiling and frying, an important detail as winter approaches and we ponder the possibility of another Dark NL (whether caused by storms, fires, neglected equipment or errant crows). I do intend to use the barbecue year-round (I purchased a fitted cover for $40) and in the event of a blackout it will do nicely as an outdoor kitchen.

I have used the infrared burner several times to sear steak but there is definitely a learning curve attached to this. Most came out fine but at least one steak was so badly burned on the outside that it was ruined. There are three factors to consider when using infrared – cooking time, the changeable height of the grill, and the level of gas used on the adjustable controller. I know that the feature works and the results can be spectacular – I just need to fine-tune the process.

There is also a rear rotisserie burner that puts out a lot of heat – so much that you need to use it with care. I almost ruined two whole chickens by setting the rear burner on high and leaving it for five minutes. When I lifted the lid, the birds had been severely tanned. I salvaged supper by turning the burner way down and cooking more slowly but, again, there’s that learning curve.

The ignition system for the four main burners is impressive indeed. I’ve never seen anything like it. Most self-lighting burners send out that clicking little spark when you turn the gas on. Not this baby. It has a small pre-burner that shoots a small flame across the main burner, lighting it reliably every time – even in wind. How long it lasts is another question, but it’s something I’ll be watching closely.

Speaking of wind, this is the first barbecue I’ve seen that is impervious to it. It has a back wall so that heat doesn’t get sucked out through the hinge area. It is vented, of course, but baffled so nicely that air can get in and smoke can escape without winds putting out the fire or sucking out the heat. In a breezy place like Newfoundland, this is a small miracle.

My first impressions of the barbecue are quite favourable. However, I have not had an opportunity to use all the features, let alone use them properly. I have still to try the charcoal insert and smoker tray, and haven’t barbecued a whole turkey yet. And I intend to purchase some optional accessories that further enhance the grilling process.

I will provide an update once I’ve come to know the Napoleon better, and will keep a close eye on its performance – and perseverance – through our brutal winters.

More issues with appliances, warranties

21 Jul

By Geoff Meeker

July 21, 2014 – After my recent columns about shoddy appliances, the feedback kept coming in. There’s been so much that I could easily compose another column or two but today I will focus on a startling admission from Sears, about how appliances just don’t last the way they should, plus a new issue with extended warranties.

After reading my column, Phil Kirby wrote about his own experience with Sears Kenmore appliances.

“I bought a fridge, stove, dishwasher and microwave from Sears about five years ago,” Kirby wrote. “The dishwasher had some minor problems, the microwave is okay but the fridge and stove are definitely poor quality. I contacted Sears about the problem – the response is included at the end my email.”

Kirby went into detail about the minor and major issues that plagued his appliances – it has a telling ring of familiarity to it – but most telling is the response he received from ‘Kristine’ at Sears Home Services who wrote:

“I am sorry to hear that you are experiencing repair issues with your appliances.  As a consumer myself I can understand how these issues would become very frustrating for you… However the appliances that are manufactured now only have a life expectancy of about 10 years as these products are not made like they used to be. This is just not with Kenmore, all manufacturers only provide a 10 year life expectancy on major appliances. And this is why Sears does recommend to our customers to purchase extended warranties to cover these unexpected repair costs… I sincerely apologize but at this point Sears will not be covering any repair costs or be providing you with replacement appliances as again neither item is covered under warranty. Thank you and Merry Christmas to you and your Family.”

In case there was any doubt about deteriorating appliance quality, you now have it directly from a manufacturer’s mouth, from a brand that once was regarded as solid and reliable. And if they freely admit to 10 years being the maximum life, what is the actual number? Based on feedback I’ve received, more like five to seven years – or less.

And what about those extended warranties? I say, tread carefully here as well. I have no regrets about the extra coverage I purchased on my Whirlpool washer and dryer combo – without it, my laundry room would be cluttered right now with an expensive piece of trash – but not all extended warranties are the same.

More than ever, you have to read the fine print and ask some pointed questions. Last week, an acquaintance of mine vented on Facebook about the extended warranty he purchased on his Sears appliance.

“Three years ago I bought a dishwasher from Sears,” Shane Kelly said. “I like Kenmore appliances and they have always held up well, so I refused the maintenance agreement at the point of sale. A few weeks later I was contacted and offered the agreement again and was told if I did not have any service calls I would get a refund for the full amount. I figured, well, that’s pretty reasonable… so I said yes… Three years go by, no service calls and I call Sears looking for my refund. I am told it is not a refund, but store credit. Fine, I figure I’ll buy some tools. Except I’m told I have to apply it to a purchase that is at least twice the value of my credit in one transaction. And the credit cannot be used to purchase electronics, Sears home services, Sears travel, anything on or purchases through the Sears catalog. I protest and am told it is all in my contract. Yes, the fine print is there if you read the whole thing looking for said information, but that is not how it was sold to me at all! So I have to spend another $140 to get the worth of my $140 coupon. Oh, one more thing: it expires 90 days from the end of the maintenance agreement, which means seven weeks from today.”

Kelly is correct to be ticked off about that. The description of a “full refund” at point of sale bears absolutely no resemblance to the fine print they throw in your face at redemption time. It may be legal, but it is deceptive and unethical. (Incidentally, a quick Internet search reveals that Shane Kelly is not alone in his frustration over this particular warranty.)

It is time for governments to take a good hard look at how such products are sold and to develop legislation that requires a concise description of the key details up front.

More than anything, we consumers need to keep voicing our anger about the junk to which manufacturers are willing to affix their once-respectable names.


Closing in on perfect theatre popcorn

7 Jul
It's easy to make perfect popcorn at home - plus it costs less and is much better for you. (Geoff Meeker photo)

It’s easy to make perfect popcorn at home – plus it costs less and is much better for you. (Geoff Meeker photo)

By Geoff Meeker

July 7, 2014 – Almost two years ago to the day, I told you about the West Bend Stir Crazy Theater Popper, a cute looking device that purportedly makes popcorn as good as what you get at the movies.

In that column, I attempted to come up with the perfect recipe for theatre-style popcorn and, in so doing, offered a most grievous error. When I said that the cheaper, generic, no-name popcorn varieties were every bit as good as the expensive name brands, I was mistaken. There was not a kernel of truth in it.

My claim was based on a decades-old belief that may once have been true but certainly isn’t now. You see, after that review I continued my quest to develop the perfect popcorn recipe, experimenting with different oils, popcorn brands, salts and cooking methods.

Which brings me to my other mistake: I gave a tentative, qualified endorsement in 2012 to the West Bend popper. I’d like to downgrade that to a total rejection.

Yes, the machine works as described. It pops an okay bit of corn, if you follow directions. But there are three major downsides: the machine is too big for convenient storage, the batches of popcorn are far too small and it is too difficult to clean.

The West Bend theater-style popcorn popper is a sweet-looking appliance, but ultimately is not recommended for serious popcorn connoisseurs. (Geoff Meeker photo)

The West Bend theater-style popcorn popper is a sweet-looking appliance, but ultimately is not recommended for serious popcorn connoisseurs. (Geoff Meeker photo)

The Theater Popper is a gimmick, really, and cannot replace a good old five-quart saucepan for batch size, easy stowing and quick clean-up. I came to this realization fairly quickly, as my popcorn recipe evolved to the point that the West Bend device – which pops one small serving at a time – couldn’t keep up with household demand.

Around the same time, it became apparent that not all brands of popcorn were the same. We tried the cheaper generic brands, as well as the Nativa organic brand sold through Shoppers Drug Mart, but were disappointed every time. They generally tasted okay but did not pop consistently and – most importantly – were tough and difficult to chew.

If you are serious about your popcorn, the Orville Redenbacher brand is really your only option. They are always tender, with a light crunch that quickly gives way to a soft, absolutely delicious munch.

Which brings me to the ultimate purpose of this column: to share the stovetop popcorn recipe that I have developed over the last two years, through painstaking trial and error.

Before starting, you will need to pick up some coconut oil (unrefined) and a tub of Flavacol. Neither of these are truly essential, but they do add a special something that elevates the flavor – and sends you back to the kitchen for a second batch while the family pauses the movie.

While coconut oil is widely available, Flavacol is not. The secret ingredient that makes popcorn taste so “moreish” at the theatre and video store, Flavacol is only available at B&B Sales on Kenmount Road Extension. Expect to pay about $18 for a 2-lb. container – enough to last for years, even under heavy use.

I use a five-litre saucepan but you can use a smaller pot if you like – just use slightly less ingredients. And always make sure you have the lid ready to go. Do not start looking around for the lid after the popcorn has started popping. And do not ask why I know this.

Put two tablespoons of coconut oil and one tablespoon of canola oil in the pot and place over medium-high heat. Add one teaspoon of Flavacol and swirl it around in the oil to dissolve as much as possible. (You can use regular salt and get excellent results. However, it’s grainier, doesn’t dissolve as easily and doesn’t taste as good as Flavacol.)

Place three kernels of popcorn in the oil. When they pop, the oil is ready. Add enough popcorn to cover the bottom of the pan. That’s it – just one layer deep. Not two or three layers, trust me. And do not ask how I know this.

Place the lid on the pot and when corn starts popping, shake the pot back and forth vigorously enough to keep the popcorn moving (this prevents scorching). Keep the lid on but allow steam to escape. When popping slows to less than one pop per second, pour the popcorn into bowl(s) and enjoy. There should be no need to add additional salt.

I don’t add melted butter because the oil and Flavacol provide more than enough flavor and butter can make it soggy.

If you try this recipe – or improve upon it – and have a comment, please offer a comment below.

More war stories from the home appliance front

9 Jun


Barbara Hillier’s Whirlpool Duet washer – shown here on its way to the dump – is identical to the model our columnist discussed in his previous column. (Photo submitted by reader)

Barbara Hillier’s Whirlpool Duet washer – shown here on its way to the dump – is identical to the model our columnist discussed in his previous column. (Photo submitted by reader)I received a deluge of responses supporting my observation that modern appliances are not built to last. More to the point, they seem designed to break down soon after the warranty expires, forcing consumers to purchase new appliances. In short, they win and we lose.

June 9, 2014 – In my last column I outlined problems with my Whirlpool Duet front-loading washer, and invited readers to share their stories via email.

I will summarize a few of those responses, but there isn’t space to publish them all. I was startled with how many had an experience roughly similar to mine.

Barbara Hillier’s husband, Dave, was in the process of trucking their six-year-old Whirlpool to the dump when she read my column. She said the repairman advised her to scrap the washer as it was too expensive to fix.

“It gave up the ghost last week because of the same problem you encountered (a failed bearing in the drum),” Barbara said. “The only nice feature of the front-loader is the look of it. They’re really expensive, but the quality isn’t there. I have gone back to the top loader, which the sales person said many people are doing, but it definitely isn’t a Whirlpool.”

Heather Roche purchased the Whirlpool Cabrio front-loader in June 2013.

“Right away it was making a funny noise so I called Whirlpool and was told that the noise was normal and to continue using it,” Roche said. “After another week or so I noticed the clothes were coming out with stains on them that looked like they were ground right into the material.”

When Heather called Whirlpool she was told that such staining was normal and that the stains would come out in the dryer.

“I told her that I don’t put my clothes in the dryer on fine days, that I put them out on the clothesline and she didn’t know what I was talking about.” (A quick Internet search shows Heather’s problem is not unique, nor is it normal, and the staining is permanent.)

Heather said she called Leon’s, the retailer, who said that once a product is sold there is nothing they can do about it, adding that they had received several calls about the same problem. “It was still under warranty but they wouldn’t send a technician because everything I was saying was because I didn’t know how to use the washer properly.”

Soon after, Heather visited a relative and noticed a funny sound coming from their laundry room. “I asked what kind of washer it was and sure enough it was a Whirlpool and they had the very same problem with the stains on the clothes. I called Whirlpool again and registered another complaint and they said I was using too much detergent. They were going to take the problem to one of their meetings. It is not a year old yet and it is still the same. I have to wash some of the clothes twice.”

Allan Russell of Wabush purchased a Whirlpool washer and dryer from Fitz’s Country Wide about two-and-a-half years ago.

“Exactly one year plus one month later, the timer went on the dryer,” Allan said. “I called the dealer and was told my warranty had run out a month ago.”

Allan saved some money by purchasing the part and installing it himself but, needless to say, he was not impressed by such a major breakdown after 13 months of use.

Most complaints I received involved Whirlpool, perhaps because that brand was the subject of my column, but consumers also had roughly similar issues with late-model GE Profile, Kenmore, Samsung, and more.

Gerry Dalton’s Maytag Performance Series front load washer and dryer suffered a “catastrophic failure” after just three years of use.

“We contacted a repairman and were told the drum needed replacing at a cost of around $500 as there was a bearing failure. He said these front-loading machines are well known for this. Unfortunately we did not opt for the extra warranty as normally any household appliance we have ever owned lasted at least 10 years, some well over 20 years.”

What happened next is instructive. Dalton’s wife contacted the manufacturer and “after some heated discussions and threats to go public the company decided to replace the drum at no charge as long as we pay the installation fee which was around $160.”

Some may dismiss these stories as anecdotal; isolated incidents that don’t prove anything. Well, the astonishing experience of a Topsail resident, who asked not to be identified, does prove something.

“We have lived in our home for 15 years now and we purchased all brand new appliances when we moved there. We are now on our third dishwasher, third front loading washer, second stand up freezer, second wall oven and second cook-top. That’s seven additional new appliances purchased in that 15-year period. The only remaining originals are the refrigerator and the clothes dryer. The reason for the replacement each time? The repair guy says “the parts and labour will cost more than the machine is worth.” He charges us $100 dollars for the visit and tells me to buy a new appliance. I don’t even call them anymore. Keep pushing, maybe somebody will take notice. Incidentally, I visited my aunt’s home in Corner Brook last year and she still has all of her original appliances from the 1950s. They look dated but work fine. They certainly don’t make them like they used to.”

These stories are the tip of the iceberg and there are too many to keep publishing here (though I do want to continue hearing from you). In fact, my experience with short-lived appliances motivated me in 2012 to launch a blog to draw attention to this issue. You can find it at


Geoff Meeker is a communications consultant with a soft spot for technology. He also writes a blog about the local media scene, which is hosted at Reach him at geoffmeeker(at)

Respect for front-load washer goes down the drain

26 May
After just two years of use, this Whirlpool front-loading washer suffered a catastrophic failure. That’s not good enough, Geoff says. (Geoff Meeker photo)

After just two years of use, this Whirlpool front-loading washer suffered a catastrophic failure. That’s not good enough, Geoff says. (Geoff Meeker photo)

By Geoff Meeker

May 26, 2014 – I first reviewed my Whirlpool Duet washer and dryer combo back in January of 2012, when it was brand new. I was impressed with how both units saved energy, cleaned larger loads and operated so quietly.

There was a learning curve along the way – we used too much detergent at first, and sometimes the laundry loads were too small – but the machine settled in quite nicely and worked wonderfully.

Until recently, that is. For me, that washer’s credibility has gone right down the drain.

A few months back, the normally quiet washer started making more noise. One of the ways it saves energy is through a superfast drain cycle that spins the drum at a mind-numbing 1200 rotations per minute (rpm). That’s 20 rotations in a second. The centrifugal force drains almost all moisture from the clothes, requiring much less dryer time (where the savings really kick in).

However, the washer suddenly started making loud bumping sounds when it tried to enter the spin cycle, so we shut it down and called the service people.

The appliance comes with a one-year manufacturer’s warranty but the salesperson at Smith’s Furniture – bless his heart – strongly recommended that we get the five year extended warranty, pointing out that the machine, with its fast-spinning motor and more fragile electronics, was more prone to breakdowns than other appliances.

Here’s how things went down. I contacted the warranty company, Phoenix AMD, on April 14. It took a few days for the claim to be approved and the service technician showed up on April 19.

The news was not good. The bearing that enables that 1200 rpm spin was gone. We would need a new drum assembly and related equipment. The repair was serious enough that they raised the possibility of replacing it with a new machine – something we were fine with – but a day later they decided to order the parts and perform repairs.

Whatever. Just get it done. The clothes were already piling up.

It’s difficult to make a long story short, because that story was so nerve-wracking and irritating, characterized by back orders, apparent lost shipments, calls to the local repair company, Phoenix AMD and even Whirlpool. Oh, and a lot of waiting, punctuated with numerous trips to the laundromat to keep ourselves in clothes.

It wasn’t until May 20 that the parts arrived and we were able to schedule the technician’s visit. The next day, a full five weeks after making contact with the warranty company, I watched as the repairman started up the washer, stood back and watched it spin. It ran smooth, quiet and with barely a trace of vibration, even at 1200 rpm.

So, putting aside the five-week wait for repairs, I should be happy, right?

Not at all. The machine works fine, at long last. But I was lucky to have purchased the extended warranty – this appliance would have been too expensive to fix without it. I’d be left with a shiny new piece of junk in the basement.

What’s going on, when a washer barely two years old breaks down with problems as serious as this? In April of 2012, I wrote a column about this subject, angered when my newish refrigerator broke and was not repairable. When I asked Facebook friends if they’d had similar experiences, I received a groundswell of responses.

The upshot? We used to expect a 20 to 30 year lifespan from our appliances, but manufacturers have quietly reduced that to five to seven years – sometimes a little more or less. The sad fact is, they just don’t make them like they used to.

I asked the service technician if this was a common problem with Whirlpool. He said it wasn’t limited to one manufacturer – all front-loading washers are having problems – but it’s unusual to see a failure after just two years.

A search online for ‘Whirlpool reviews’ yielded loads of dirty laundry, much of it on the Duet combo (yes, these posts need to be taken with a grain of salt, but a theme did emerge). The problem boils down to this: the front-load washers are a great idea but the technology is not robust enough to endure the rigours of its own high performance.

I sent a message to Whirlpool Canada’s public relations people, explaining my experience and asking how common this situation is. I received a fairly generic reply just before press time that emphasized the company’s commitment to quality and service, but did not address my question specifically.

Have you had an experience with a new appliance that suffered a major failure too soon in its life cycle? If so, please send a message to geoffmeeker(at) I’m going to keep following this one.



Be aware – and wary – of SLAPP lawsuits

12 May
Mandy Woodland is a lawyer in St. John's, Newfoundland.

Mandy Woodland is a lawyer in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

May 12, 2014 – Do you occasionally post product reviews to Amazon and other sites? If so, choose your words with care – you just might get slapped with a lawsuit for your opinion.

It’s known as the Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, or SLAPP for short, and it really is designed to slap down and intimidate those who express controversial opinions.

There have been a number of apparent SLAPP actions in Canada, the most recent being a $7 million lawsuit launched in September 2013 by Resolute Forest Products against Greenpeace, for its criticism of that company’s forestry operations in Canada. The suit, Greenpeace said at the time, is “a typical bullying tactic meant to gag critics and divert attention from important issues.”

That suit was launched in Ontario, despite the fact that Resolute is headquartered and most active in Quebec. The reason? Greenpeace suggests it’s because Quebec amended its legislation in 2009 to allow courts to summarily throw out SLAPP actions. Ontario currently plans to introduce similar legislation of its own, through Bill 83. A majority of states in the U.S. have enacted similar statutes.

In 2011, a Quebec court tossed out a SLAPP suit, brought by Barrick Gold against three authors who had written a book about the company’s mining practices in Africa. In rejecting the suit, the judge said “Barrick seems to be trying to intimidate authors” and that its conduct was “apparently abusive.” So the anti-SLAPP legislation is working in that province.

The ability of a court to review and reject a legal action at its discretion is critical to keeping SLAPP suits to a minimum. Otherwise, an individual, business or organization could be put through the expense and anxiety of fighting a lawsuit against a larger, richer opponent. Even if the suit is frivolous most defendants can’t afford the fight, and many are forced to retract their comments to make it go away.

So here’s where the plot thickens and SLAPP tactics descend to the consumer level.

In the U.S., the tech company Mediabridge threatened a person with a lawsuit for writing a critical review of that company’s wireless router. Here’s an excerpt from the letter the individual received from Mediabridge’s lawyer:

“I am writing to you in connection with your illegal campaign to damage, discredit, defame and libel Mediabridge and/or engage in other tortious, wrongful and/or illegal conduct directed against Mediabridge. Mediabridge learned that you made and posted on blatantly false, defamatory, libelous and slanderous statements about Mediabridge…”

I don’t know about you, but receiving a letter like that would ruin my week. Standing behind my review would suddenly seem quixotic in the face of such legal action. You can see why most would take their remarks down – as this guy did – rather than get drawn into a legal battle. And that seems to be the intent of SLAPP action: not so much to win, but to intimidate the other party into full retreat. As such, it is a none-too-subtle assault on freedom of speech. (Update: Mediabridge has since been booted off Amazon, so its attempt to silence the reviewer has backfired bigtime.)

Mandy Woodland is a lawyer and the proprietor of Mandy Woodland Law in St. John’s. In an interview, she said that anti-SLAPP legislation like that introduced in Quebec is the best solution and it seems inevitable that other provinces will grant their courts similar protections.

“It’s pretty well understood that these suits are very detrimental to the general public and generally not used in a legitimate or reasonable way,” she said, adding that the suits had their beginnings largely for legitimate reasons.

“Initially, many people were posting anonymously to be malicious. It wasn’t truthful, it wasn’t factual and people were hiding behind anonymity… for a lot of different reasons that are not reasonable.”

That’s understatement, to be sure. I have seen comments posted by anonymous trolls that were so over-the-top, they actually deserved to be sued. Woodland agreed that this malicious intent is common, “and more so on the Internet where people can very much appear to be anonymous.”

The point of anti-SLAPP legislation is to protect people who are expressing honestly-held, legitimate points of view, whether anonymously or not. And there are steps you can take to avoid such a suit when posting comments online.

“State the facts, tell the truth and, if you have an opinion, make it clear that it is your opinion,” Woodland said. “And don’t make malicious statements. People sometimes think that if they say, ‘in my opinion, someone is taking bribes,’ well that is not going to protect you from a suit if you have no facts to back that up.”

You can state the facts, and offer fair comment on those facts.

“It’s okay to say negative things. It’s okay to say I had really bad service and here’s what happened, or the food was bad because of so-and-so, or the service I received from this company was poor, or they damaged my suitcase, or whatever – those kind of things are legitimate if they are based on fact… As long as you express a legitimate opinion and can say ‘here’s why I have that opinion’ without going over the top with it, then you should be prevented from having a decision against you in one of those suits.”

Bottom line: keep stating your point of view but explain why you feel that way, and don’t say anything malicious. Anonymity will not protect you against a lawsuit if that suit is warranted.

Electric cars are now within your reach

28 Apr
ConsumerTech #169 photo low res

John Gordon of Green Rock E.V.S. sells used, late-model electric cars at a price that is more affordable than new models. (Geoff Meeker photo)

April 28, 2014 – That’s correct – you really can afford to buy an electric car. There is a dealer in town who can put you behind the wheel of an almost new electric car for just $25,000.

That’s still a lot of change, but it’s substantially less than what electric cars cost new. And with the money you save on fuel, they start paying for themselves immediately.

The owner of Green Rock E.V.S. (Electrical Vehicle Solutions), John Gordon is a reseller of electric cars. He keeps his eye on auction sites, classified ads and so on, looking for good buys on ‘like new’ electric vehicles across North America. He services a small but growing demand for ‘green’ vehicles, from his home-based business in St. John’s.

Electric cars can be expensive, perhaps a little out of range for many of us. However, by purchasing used newer vehicles, Gordon takes advantage of depreciation and passes on those savings to customers.

I first reached out to John several weeks ago after seeing his company’s Facebook page, which raised a whole bunch of questions. Are the cars really cheaper to operate? Would they work in our climate? How about all those hills? How far can they go on a single charge? We agreed that I should take a couple of cars for a test drive, though it was hard to pin down a time that worked for both of us.

Last week, John called out of the blue and said, ‘let’s go right now!’ Spontaneity always works for me and soon John was at my gallery door on Duckworth Street, in a 2012 Nissan Leaf SL. He drove at first, heading for the top of Signal Hill where I would hop in the driver’s seat. At the base of the hill, he pointed to the fuel indicator, which showed 47 km of power remaining on the battery.

On the way, I was full of comments and questions, first about the car itself.

How many moving parts does it have? Not many. The AC motor connects straight to the drive shaft, with no transmission.

What sort of fluids does it take? No gas or oil, just a bit of brake fluid.

How often does it need service? Just a check-up once per year. Because there are so few moving parts, there is less to break down or require service.

Finally, the big question: what does it cost to run, in terms of electricity? The answer – and you’d better sit down for this one – is just $384 per year.

Yes, per year. We all know people who spend more than that in a month for gasoline. Later that day, I challenged John on this, asking if the energy cost was based on manufacturer spec’s (and U.S. utility rates) or personal experience.

“Electricity rates in Newfoundland are $0.12 per KWH,” he said. “The Leaf has a 24 KWH battery, with 150 km range per charge. So 12 cents x 24 = $2.88 to fill the Leaf for 150 km, which breaks down to $0.0192 per km. So if we used 20,000 km per year the energy cost would be $384.”

We arrived at the top of Signal Hill, with Cabot Tower cloaked in fog, and I jumped behind the wheel. When I pressed ‘start’ there was a pinging sound – like an incoming email alert – and the car was powered on. But then… silence. Not a sound. You don’t really notice this until you’re in the driver’s seat. In the distance, I could hear the foghorn. Suddenly, I was infatuated with this car.

I touched the accelerator and the car took off – peppy, but quiet – and drove down Signal Hill. Because of all the batteries on board, the car weighs about as much as a small truck, but it handles nicely and has a great suspension (it glided smoothly over all those potholes). Drive and handling is comparable to that of a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry.

The car had 34 km left on the battery when I started down the hill (it uses more going uphill). But get this: at the bottom, there were 41.

Which brings us to one of the car’s more interesting features: regenerative braking. You are consuming power as you accelerate but when you coast along the wheels are generating power and sending it back to the battery. Going downhill generates more power and braking even more again. The power that you burn going up the hill is partially refunded on the way down.

Infatuated? Don’t be talking. Now I was in love.

The Chevrolet Volt is electric with supplementation from a gas generator. (Geoff Meeker photo)

The Chevrolet Volt is electric with supplementation from a gas generator. (Geoff Meeker photo)

Next, I took the Chevrolet Volt for a drive. This car is electric with gasoline back-up. Its battery stores about a 50 km charge, sufficient daily driving for many, and a gas-powered generator that tops up the battery when it runs low. The generator runs at peak efficiency – no slowing down, speeding up or idling – so it’s not too costly to operate. Gordon said it costs about $40 to fill, which is a small tank, and can last for weeks, depending on how much you drive in a day.

The Volt is a nicer, sportier car, but it’s also pricier, at $29,500 (they are about $40,000 new).

Purchasing the Leaf incurs the one-time cost of about $1200 to install a 240-volt line from the fuse panel to the driveway or garage. The Volt doesn’t need this because its smaller battery can charge adequately from a 120-volt line. It’s the better choice if you take frequent extended trips out the highway.

Whatever your preconceived notions of an electric car may be, if they are negative I can guarantee that driving one will change your mind. Gordon’s used models put the cars within reach for more of us, and the fuel savings are incredible.

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