John Goreham's picture

Fix in sight regarding Tesla Model S charging fire recall

Fully two months after the official recall related to charging fires, Tesla owners alerted fix is near, but there is some confusion to clear up.

On January 13th an official recall notice related to the Tesla Model S' charging system and charging cable components was issued by NHTSA’s Chief of the Recall Division, Jennifer Timian. Recall notice 14V006000 relates to the electronics of the Tesla Model S charging system and also to the adapter that one of the cables, known as the UMC, which stands for Universal Mobile Connector. The electronic part was to be resolved by an over-the-air software update. That is apparently now completed on most cars. However, now fully two months after the recall notice, Tesla owners are just starting to receive letters from Tesla – by snail-mail – that promise new adapters for the UMCs.

This issue is real. Although many owners have been lucky and have had no trouble with their charging systems, many others have had their adapters melt. Many owners have had more than just melted adapters. Some have had the wiring in the home suffer thermal damage. As was covered in detail here, one home had a fire. The letters coming now (not all Tesla owners have yet received theirs as of this morning) promise new, gray adapters, which Tesla promises will arrive within 2 weeks. It seems like the fix has been two weeks away now for quite a while. Owners are also not clear on how many UMC adapters they will get. Apparently, some owners have purchased more than one.

To be clear, our feeling at Torque News is that home wiring is directly related to this issue. It seems that some homes, even if wired by an electrician, simply don’t have robust enough wiring to handle the current that the Tesla Model S uses when charging. The resulting heat from resistance can cause problems. More than one Tesla owner on a popular Facebook club we belong to has reported that they have had multiple connector issues related to melting. Tesla has modified the adapters three times according to these owners and this new change is just the latest. There is an ongoing debate by owners now about what they should do with their old adapters (return them, keep them, or discard them).

The confusion over this issue would be considered normal for most automakers. However, Tesla is typically outstanding at communicating with its fans and owners over all issues. This is a very important issue and the company could clearly be doing a better job. Tesla management spoke out loudly against calling this issue a recall, pointing out the word may not be applicable. We wrote a story supporting that view. However, with the confusion surrounding this issue, plus the time it has taken to be resolved, has us thinking the recall process may have been the right path.

Please note that the photos shown are from actual owners. Also, to be perfectly clear, the melted parts shown are blamed by the owner on poor wiring done by his electrician, not on the Model S itself.

Related Stories:
Tesla owner's garage fire highlights EV charging safety and cost
Exclusive: No permit for electrical work where Tesla charging fire occurred
New Photos: 2013 Tesla Model S recalled for fire risk by NHTSA

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Just as an addition to the story above. Apparently "A few weeks" means 12 weeks. This is from the Tesla website dated January 10th: "Although we do not believe the improved adapter is required to address the issue, we are taking this step as part of our commitment to full customer satisfaction. We will provide this upgraded adapter to existing and new customers free of charge starting in a few weeks."
According to NHTSA, although the report was initially received in January 13, 2014, the recall began on March 14, 2014. If an owner read the snail mail recall notice there shouldn't be "... debate by owners now about what they should do with their old adapters (return them, keep them, or discard them)." The notice states: "Once you have received your new adapter, please discontinue use of your old adapter and return it to Tesla by reusing the package in which your new adapter arrives and the postage prepaid mailing label that will be provided with your new adapter." Perhaps before you write similar articles, you might reach out to an owner to read the notice. I think it might be required by NHTSA to send a notice via snail mail.
Good points Charlotte. One owner who did read it wondered about a connector Tesla gave him at a recent service visit. In his words "Not sure why they replaced my 14-50 plug 2 weeks ago. I checked the new one and it does not have the grey area." He makes a good point. Why replace a connector that works fine with one that is to be disposed of in just a few days? Regardless of when the recall began, Tesla promised a fix "Ina few weeks" in the middle of January.
Personally I've never used this particular Tesla adapter. My guess would be that it is only a small minority of Telsa owners that do. Most plug their Tesla into a High Power Wall Adapter in their home overnight. I'm guessing it is only a small minority that plug their Tesla into a defectively installed 220v dryer outlet. Just about the only adapter that I ever use is the one that allows me to plug into J1772 EV outlets which is very common in public locations. There is no need for this replacement cable at all unless one charges their Tesla from a 220v shop outlet or dryer outlet in their garage. Even if they do, there is still no need for this replacement cable unless an incompetent electrician defectively installed that 220v outlet. The replacement cable from Tesla just compensates for the danger created by the defective installation by an incompetent electrician of a 220v outlet in your home.
When I wrote a recent article about charging and showed the High Power Wall adapter multiple Tesla owners write me and said that most owners do not use the HPWA. They pointed out the very high cost to add the feature to the car, and the cost of the HPWA itself. In another article I pointed out that the HPWA was expensive and owners wrote that most of them just use the UMC (and one sent photos). Do you have some kind of source saying that most users don't use the UMC? It seems to be a pretty widely discussed topic. I don't disagree with your part about the electrician at all. I've taken that view in most of the reporting on this issue. Of course, you don't know if the electrician was incompetent until problems start. The woman whose vehicle and car were burned told the fire department she used "A licensed electrician." Thanks for taking time to comment.
You may be right about most owners not using the HPWA. I wish Tesla published stats on that. When the base model of the car is $70,000 (and that is on the stripped down low end), I figured most buyers wouldn't hesitate to buy the High Power Wall Connector for $1,500. Though, you do have to add installation costs to that. Of all the potential options one can add to the Tesla, it just seemed to me this add-on was the most sensible. It never occurred to me that many Tesla owners would not purchase this item. I don't have any 220 volt outlets in my garage. Even my washer / dryer just plug into 110 volt outlets. I'm not sure if there are any 220 volt outlets in my home. My A/C and stove run on 220, but they are hard wired with no outlets. I just figured most houses in the U.S. are like mine and thus few Tesla buyers would have the convenience of just plugging into an available 220 outlet in the garage. Also, the articles that I have read said that if a 220 volt outlet is wired properly that it should easily be able to handle the charging load of the Tesla and should not overheat. It sounds like for most 220 uses, the outlet can be wired subpar but still handle the draw of most 220 devices. If wired properly, the circuit should be able to handle the charging load of the Tesla. All Tesla is doing is distributing a new cable that can shut down if the circuit was not installed properly and can not handle the charge load of the Tesla.
In reading through the types of comments, and especially since the fire in Irvine, I get the feeling that Tesla and their supporters are looking at any excuse to point the blame for the charging fires elsewhere. 240VAC shop/dryer outlets are everywhere, to suggest incompetent installation in so many instances strains credibility. Have our nation's licensed electricians suddenly forgotten how to correctly install a wall outlet? Is there a similar uptick in dryer fires? I think we would have read about it by now. The photos of the UMC failures point to a condition of thermal failure due to over amperage. Not enough to trip the breaker but enough to start a fire. This has nothing to do with the competence of the installing electrician and everything to do with the Tesla charging system design. This should have been handle by a normal NHTSA recall. That it wasn't is indeed troubling.
Bill, you are definitely right in a way. However, I have found that very few of the electricians that have installed the dedicated, added line from the main panel, and 100 amp (or 2 50 amp) breakers, plus new connector on the wall then had the work inspected as required by local code. I find that very worrisome and unprofessional. I think your point is very good though, and if the new connectors melt too...
John, I don't mean to be pedantic but frankly adding such an outlet is pretty basic and 99.99% of home owners, myself included, would not go to the bother of pulling a permit for such a trivial job. Inspect or no inspection the photos you've posted (thank you) do not show damage from an installation flaw. If this were to be the case the circuit breaker(s) would have tripped from the excess current. What we are seeing is very consistent with thermal damage to a component not properly designed to handle the amp draw. Again, in searching current literature I can find no reference to similar failures from like loads. This appears to be a Tesla and only a Tesla problem.
No argument here that the equipment looks like it cannot handle the draw. I realize that the actual understanding of the wiring and install might not be too complex, but imagine talking to an insurance company after a fire from a 100 amp circuit. "No I did it myself. No, it was not inspected. Yes, I know my town requires a permit be pulled and the inspector visit, inspect, and sign the permit..." 100 amps and 240 volts is spooky to me. I think some people take the install too lightly. That said, I agree that the equipment is not working right. I appreciate your comments very much. Thanks
John, I've spent too many years putting in infrastructure. Glossing over the details, concerns and complexities, not to mention costs, of EVSE installation is a hot button issue for me. These are not trivial issues and a black eye now can have repercussions later on. Even if it's painful in the short term we need to understand any issues that may be occurring and not obfuscate potential areas of concern.. I don't believe the problems are severe and I think they are easily fixed. Reduced amps during charging, upgraded UMC and smart charging with thermal management are all potential areas of interest. I'm confident Tesla will come up with a great solution, but I'd rather have the discussion in a public forum so all can learn. Thank you for publishing this and for your obvious concern. It's refreshing B
From the picture provided there is only one bad connection. It is not possible to tell if the problem is in the socket or plug because the prong is in direct contact with the electrode in the socket. If I saw this plug in my garage I would replace both the plug and socket.
Mike, For sure that's what I'd do as well.