I’m a frequent visitor to the Tesla and TMC forums and every once in a while a story catches me and I get sucked into the depth of the story. A couple months ago it was Bonnie’s progress on the delivery of her signature series #2 Model X (congrats again Bonnie!), but recently it was a story about a guy attempting to repair a salvaged Model S.
The thread was fascinating to follow as it developed and then I noticed he lived in the same state as me. It’s rare to get any real news for Tesla happening here in New England! I reached out to him and he was gracious enough to let me visit, ask him a ton of questions and take some pictures. Below are some of the questions I asked and what I learned through the process. I hope you enjoy the story as much as I have.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background.
Rich, known as Btr_ftw on TMC forums, works in the Information Technology space in Boston, MA by day. By night, in the little spare time he has, he takes vehicles apart and puts them back together again in better shape than they started in. Rich has bought and restored salvaged vehicles before and even had a couple extra engines sitting around in his garage when I visited.
Do you have an engineering, electrical, computer, or mechanic background?
In the Information Technology space, Rich is comfortable around computers and electronics. His prior salvage and repair experience gave him some of skills he needs to take on this daunting task.
Do you own a model S?
Rich does own a Model S, the salvaged one he is restoring! Otherwise this is his first Tesla.
Have you driven a Model S?
He’s driven loaner Model S’s at times but does not have ready access to them most of the time.
How did you get to know about Tesla Motors and their cars?
Rich said he heard about a new electric car company from a friend and that the company was making roadsters but was going to make a sedan model next. He thought that was cool, but what really caught his attention was when he got to see the cars and really appreciated their looks. Later a friend let him drive the Model S and he got to experience the speed and car and loved it. The price has a tough pill to swallow and with a daily commute of only 2 miles to the local train station it was also hard to justify. But he still wanted to own one.
Buying a salvaged Model S
What led up to you to buying a salvage Tesla Model S?
Rich was looking for his next project and having heard about the Model S and Tesla and how fast and cool the cars were he thought it would be a great project to take on.
What was the process like to buy the salvage car?
Rich had experience in buying salvaged vehicles before. He shopped online, got to see just 7 fairly poor pictures of the car and made his decision. The car was reported as a total loss from having been in a flood but that is about the extent of the information provided — you take quite a bit of risk when buying salvaged cars.
Can you say what salvaged Model S’s like this go for?
This Model S is a 2012 S85 which is pretty well loaded with air suspension and premium sound. Its black with a tan interior and obeche matte wood trim. Including delivery to his home it cost about $14,000.
Was it difficult to bring it home?
Getting the car delivered to his house was pretty easy, but getting it into his garage was a real bear. The Model S is a very heavy car. Thanks to the flood damage the emergency brakes were locked on so none of the wheels would turn. Imagine a 5,000 pound car with its wheels locked and you’re all alone with the car outside your garage and you need to get it inside. Next imagine there’s a decent 1/2″ lip into the garage. Most people would have called for help or given up here, but Rich got creative instead.
One by one, Rich jacked up each wheel and put a wheel dolly under each wheel. But even with all 4 wheels on dollies, the heavy car wouldn’t budge. Next he took a truck he had rebuilt and positioned it behind the Model S with a big foam pad between them and slowly pushed the Model S carefully into his garage. It was a tight fit and a delicate maneuver but he was successful.
Repairing the Model S
Were you concerned about not being able to repair it?
Rich has taken on projects like this before and thinks he has a good chance of repairing the Model S, but he also knows that the Model S parts are very expensive. Above the water line the parts are in great shape and could be sold if it comes down to that. He figures worst case he could sell the working parts and easily recoup his investment.
In Massachusetts you have the right to the service manuals for the Model S, did you get access to them? Have they been helpful?
Rich did access the service manuals. The only requirement is that you live in the state of Massachusetts. You have to confirm that and then pay for the access. Payment also includes an address verification check to ensure you do have a mailing address in MA.
Service manual access is time limited. You can get access for a day for $95, but for a years’ worth of access it will set you back about $3,500. Rich has used a few days worth of access and has taken copious notes for the tricker parts, but mostly he’s learning as he goes by experience and with help from fellow TMC members.
How much information did you have about the car before buying it and right after you purchased it?
Just 7 pictures and a brief summary that indicated it had flood damage. They left out some really useful information that would have been helpful — like the fact that it was saltwater! Saltwater and electronics do not get along well together.
Do you have any help or contacts at Tesla?
Rich is on his own for this project and is looking forward to the day when he can drive his Model S to a local Tesla Service Center and talk about the salvage process and show it off.
People following your story are concerned for your safety. What kind of safety precautions are you taking?
Early on Rich confirmed that the main battery pack had shut itself down and disconnected power. He’s since isolated the power cables to ensure things remain that way. Rich is in no hurry to rush through the project and is methodically approaching the problem step by step.
How did you figure out where to start?
A lot of the early time was spent pulling out and throwing away things that were obviously beyond repair. The seats were destroyed by the water and had mold on them. The seat rails were corroded and the seats wouldn’t move on them (requiring a creative solution with a drill), the carpet was destroyed, etc.
After that it was a quick check on the 17″ screen to see if it still worked (it did!) and then on to taking most of the rest of the inside of the car out.
Now Rich is working on major components one by one.
Did you already have the tools you needed or did you have to buy some, if so what kinds of tools did you need?
Rich had many of the tools he needed from prior salvage jobs. He did say that a few tools, like his car jacks, weren’t up to the Model S challenge and had to be upgraded.
What are the most important things you’ve found out so far?
Rich was super excited when the 17″ screen came on (albeit with dozens of warnings) and that he could get the browser working over the car’s 3G connection. A working 17″ screen and main control unit (MCU) is worth quite a bit of money by itself and it was quite a relief to see it working.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far?
Getting the car into the garage was certainly a big one. The car’s weight is a continual thing he has to work with given the tools and environment he has to work in. The amount of electronics and the need to carefully handle the high power in the car are also continual considerations.
Was there anything that was completely unexpected that you’ve found?
Flood damage was expected, the fact that it was saltwater was completely unexpected and added a huge bump to the whole process. With saltwater there’s a lot more damage done to the electronics and many parts cannot be easily repaired. What was originally a big remove-dry-and-replace project is now a remove-get replacement-replace project.
A lot of the process turned into finding out which pieces were damaged by saltwater. The charger, once removed, didn’t look too bad on the outside but on opening it the electronics inside were obviously beyond repair.
What are the the things you’ve been the most excited/happy about through this process?
The Model S is well designed and put together. While its a big project, there are surprisingly few parts that Rich has to deal keep track of which makes the job a bit less formidable.
What are the big projects coming up for this salvage process?
Dropping the battery pack and inspecting it is a major task Rich looks to take on soon. He has a strategy in mind for how he’s going to do that and is looking forward to the work. Rich doesn’t hold a lot of hope for the viability of the huge battery pack after full saltwater immersion though.
Another big piece of the project is finding a second salvage Model S with the inverse kind of damage — from mid-door up it can be destroyed but from mid-door down including the battery pack he needs it to be in one piece. Then he’ll take the top half of his first car and add the bottom half of the other to get to a working car.
If you figure a second car costs about the same as the first, he’d be looking at a total cost of $28,000 for working Model S. But there will be a lot of redundant parts so he should be able to offset some of that cost by selling the extra parts. He figures the total cost to own a working Model S (excluding the cost of all his labor) is about $20,000 which is certainly a good deal!
The Salvage Project
How much support are you getting from the Tesla community?
TMC has a real mix of people. Some people repeatedly tell him he lost/wasted his money etc. Others cheer him on and are interested in his progress. Still others are jumping in with concrete advice and helping him however they can. Sorting the noise from the good advice is work for him, but the help Rich gets is worth dealing with the noise.
Where do you go keep up on Tesla news, opinions, etc? Are there podcasts, news sites, twitter streams, etc you follow?
Not being a Model S owner (well, except for this salvage), Rich really doesn’t follow much in the way of Tesla news. The main area he gets most of his information from other than his own salvage thread is a lengthy thread on hacking the Model S MCU and getting things running on a bench.
I understand this is a spare-time project, how much time have you put into this so far?
While it is a huge project and has a ton of traffic on the TMC forum, Rich has only spent about 20 hours on this project so far putting in a couple hours a night a few nights a week for the last few weeks.
How much time do you think you’ll spend on the project?
Rich has no set timeline for the project but is enjoying the experience and the learning. It’s still early for him to estimate on how long the whole project will take and some will depend on parts availability.
Is the goal to get the Model S running again or to understand how the car is built/works?
Rich was very clear that his goal is to end up the proud owner and driver of a salvaged Model S. The project is done when he’s driving that Model S.
What will you do next after this project with the knowledge/experience you’ve gained?
Rich is already getting good interest from the Tesla community and recently from local owners with out-of-warranty Model S’s that need some help. While not interested in leaving his current career, Rich sees a growing opportunity in this area as Model S’s age and Teslas service centers remain under overwhelmed.
How can people best follow along your project?
Rich doesn’t have a lot of time to do his own blog and finds the TMC thread an easy place to post updates and get ideas. With this post I’ve barely touched on the overall project and if you’re interested i’d encourage you to go follow along and cheer him on.
Repairing a salvage car of any type is a daunting task. To do that on Electric Vehicle even more so. And then to do it with one of limited production and limited public knowledge of the inner workings is yet another level of difficulty.
Rich has a great attitude and obviously loves doing what he’s doing. He’s enjoying the work and is learning the whole way. Rich and I spoke for a couple hours and its amazing how much he knows and remembers about the car. He could point out each individual system and tell me what it did and how including how all the parts of the system routed through the car.
One simple example of his knowledge and appreciation for the Model S is the air compressor for the air suspension. He said most manufacturers put them in the trunk and bolt them to the frame. Then when you activate the air suspension you can feel the compressor vibrate in the car. He was impressed that Tesla mounted theirs on rubber gaskets in the front to avoid the noise and vibration. Then he showed me where the height sensor was for the air suspension for the rear wheels and how he was thinking about tuning the minimum height someday as he likes a low ride!
I’m really going to enjoy following along as Rich continues to repair his Model S and will be rooting for him to driving his Model S one day here in New England.
I took a bunch of pictures during my time with Rich and the raw ones in all their gory detail can be found over on flickr if you’re interested.