Surprise Maintenance Costs — 2017 Honda Clarity Long-Term Road Test

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell: Surprise Maintenance Costs

by Carlos Lago, Senior Writer, and Rex Tokeshi-Torres, Vehicle Testing Technician

We expected the lease period of our long-term 2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell to come with some surprises. It delivered a good one last month. After getting our car back from the dealer for routine maintenance, we received a bill for $365.

We were just shy of one year into our lease in February when the Clarity’s maintenance minder said it was time for the A1 service, which the owner’s manual translated into a tire rotation and something called an ion exchange filter replacement. We rotated the tires ourselves because we have a jack, a torque wrench, spare time, and little respect for authority. But that "ion exchange filter" bit sounded important, so we started calling dealers.

There are six Clarity-authorized service centers in the greater Los Angeles area, and none that we called stocked the right parts. One dealer estimated two to three weeks before it could get us in, but a service adviser at Norm Reeves Honda in Cerritos said there was a shipment inbound. We set up an appointment and dropped off the car a week later.

We picked up the car shortly afterward and received a bill for $364.93. Labor accounted for $75; the rest was parts. That surprised us, along with another Clarity owner who happened to be picking up his car for the same thing. This customer asked why the maintenance costs weren’t covered under the lease and if he could put the $15,000 fuel card that comes with each Clarity Fuel Cell toward service. (You can’t.) He also said his previous Honda, a hybrid, wasn’t this expensive to maintain.

The price comes from two unique parts that are specific to one of the Clarity’s two cooling systems. One of these systems uses the usual water and antifreeze mixture, but the one responsible for cooling the fuel cell uses special hardware — that ion exchange filter — and a substance called insulating fluid.

Insulating fluid works like coolant, but it’s different in that it must not conduct electricity, which is a goal of the ion exchange filter. Honda expressly forbids using antifreeze or water in place of the insulating fluid; doing so will destroy the fuel cell.

Like an oil filter, the ion exchange filter degrades over time and needs to be replaced at a set interval. Unlike an oil filter, the Clarity’s ion exchange filter currently costs about $100 (part number 3H450-5WM-A01) and, if unopened, has a shelf life of three years.

A little bit of insulating fluid gets consumed through normal operation, so you need to top it off around the time you change the ion exchange filter. Honda sells two types of this fluid for different purposes. For topping off, there’s a 20 percent prediluted fluid that comes in 32-ounce bottles (part number OL999-9015) that cost around $100 each.

A full refill of the system takes two 2.5-gallon jugs of 50 percent prediluted fluid (part number OL999-9014) that cost $884 each. That price may be shocking, but it’s only required after 12 years or in rare circumstances, such as a fuel cell replacement, so most customers will never encounter it.

Honda bases Clarity service intervals off hours of operation, like with a boat or a plane. The Clarity needs the A1 service after 460 hours, which averages between 8,000 and 12,000 miles for most customers. Do-it-yourself Clarity Fuel Cell owners might think to buy a few jugs to have at the ready, as you would with coolant or diesel exhaust fluid. The problem is an unopened bottle of insulating fluid has a one-year shelf life, and like brake fluid or wine, it must be used once it’s exposed to air. You throw away whatever you don’t need.

Honda told us it is actively looking at ways to reduce the cost of this time-consuming and expensive experience, including decreasing the size and price of the bottle of insulating fluid, lowering the labor rate, and ensuring that Clarity-authorized service centers have these parts in inventory.

The automaker also plans to reach out to all Clarity Fuel Cell owners in the coming weeks to see their A1 service bills. Honda reps say they’ll also update us when the company determines new maintenance costs. Look for that update here when it happens.

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