When my old power meter gave up the ghost, Garmin’s Vector 3 pedals seemed to be the perfect replacement. Little did I know they would be kept working with electrical tape and baby oil. This is a cautionary tale about technology and how to keep from losing all your customers.
Last fall, my Stages power meter crank gave up the ghost. It became impossible to calibrate and started giving me impossibly high or low numbers. It was a couple of years old and one year past end of warranty so all Stages would do for me is give me a deal on a new one. But it was the second Stages crank that had failed on me (the first was replaced under warranty).
So I looked for other solutions. Garmin’s Vector 3 pedals seemed the perfect choice: no special cleats required, gone were the weird ear lobe attachments on earlier versions. And easier to move from bike to bike.
My local bike store ordered them for me and in March I took them with me on a family vaycay where I snuck in a few rides. They performed flawlessly and were a total no-brainer to configure.
Back in Canada, I got them put on my road bike and off we went. They were better in every way than the crank they replaced. They calibrated faster and gave me more accurate power readings and detail on my pedalling technique.
Some time in early May, the batteries died. I’d been warned that the LR/SR44 batteries they use (chosen no doubt for their form factor) don’t last as long as the more commonly used CR2032s. But I replaced them and thought nothing of it.
The only annoyance was fairly frequent warnings that the power meter battery was low. I took to carrying around a replacement set in my jersey’s valuables pocket just in case that day was the day. Strangely Garmin decided not to make ‘Power meter battery level’ a data field. Instead you have to be around when your head unit throws up the warning message. Otherwise you might be in for a surprise.
Despite the warnings, the batteries didn’t die.
Things didn’t really go south until about 100km into the Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour. This is a big event for me, and it’s the sort of day where I really want everything to work well and really need power numbers so that I don’t flame out or fall off my pace. But the power meter started dropping out.
I reckoned this was because the batteries were low. I thought this strange because my first set had lasted twice as long. Maybe, I reckoned, I’m doing more riding than in March and April. I had brought a spare set and reckoned I’d swap them when I got to Kingston.
Right power sensor missing
I replaced the batteries and, because my head unit was powered-up and nearby, immediately heard warning beeps and saw “Right power sensor missing” messages. I didn’t think much of it because, having just taken the power away from the right sensor, it seemed normal that the unit would lose touch with it.
But the next day the pedals started misbehaving almost immediately. “Right sensor missing” messages popped up frequently. And power readings that were around 48 per cent of what I was actually doing. Again about 100km in, the power meter started cutting out entirely. It would come back after increasingly long absences often announcing its return by recording a power spike that would make André Greipel blush.
I recalibrated it. I deleted and re-added it to my head unit’s sensor list. No effect. “That’s it, I thought. I’m never buying batteries from The Source again.” What else could it be but bad batteries?
When I got home I found out. The whole darned mechanism is kept running with electrical tape. A tiny piece of electrical tape that insulates the batteries from the metal bit that completes the circuit. And if the tape peels away, or gets creased, exposing the connection point, the battery short circuits the whole unit and away it goes.
But wait there’s more. The nickel coating on the two batteries, comes off in a fine black powder when the batteries rub together, like say, when they’re rattling along hundreds of kilometres of rough road. Vibration. On a bike. Who would have imagined. And that black powder? An insulator that breaks the circuit if there’s enough of it. Fretting they call it.
Garmin prescribes baby oil for ‘fretting’
The solution? A drop of baby oil between the two cells. Yes. You read that right.
Despite the fact that they took an early prototype product, put it in shiny packaging, published the marketing material and shipped it around the world as ‘fit for public consumption’, they’ve been fairly candid and open about the Vector 3’s “still to do” aspects. They are contacting all owners of the pedals and offering to give them new battery doors.
And when I contacted Garmin support, they very quickly put a new set of battery doors on order for me. They haven’t arrived yet. They suggested it’ll be weeks. But meanwhile I have instructions on how to keep using the pedals until they get here.
I rode once yesterday without incident. I rode again today without cleaning, oiling and fixing the tape today and started getting dropout-spike cycles again. Such precious flowers these pedals.