So, You Want An Electric Car?

By Bill Moore

Posted: 10 Dec 2010

An EV World reader emailed me earlier this week and asked me what is going to become a more frequently asked question: "What do I need to know before I hire someone to install a home charger? "

Starting this weekend with the first delivery of a Nissan LEAF to a customer in Northern California, we can expect to have upwards of 20,000 families asking that question in 2011 as they start to take delivery of the first 10,000 Chevrolet Volt electric hybrids and a comparable number of all-electric LEAFs, for starters. By 2012, we'll start seeing some really exciting numbers from both GM and Nissan, as well as other entrants like Fisker, Think, and Coda, along with Toyota. By 2013, the numbers will be reaching in the hundreds of thousands… at least we hope they do. (I am keeping my fingers crossed).

There are going to be LOTS of folks asking this same question; and the answer starts with a very basic question in return: Where do you plan to charge the vehicle?

For a fair share of these people, the answer is going to be "in my garage." That's where I charge our Plug In Conversions Corporation converted Toyota Prius. Or it might be that like my parents, many of the new EV drivers will have just a driveway along side the house. But for those who live in multi-family dwelling complexes or in older neighborhoods built before the post WWII explosion in automobile sales where even driveways are a rarity and street parking is the only option, the situation becomes far more challenging.

This was illustrated to me last Spring when I spent a couple nights with a friend in Silver Springs, MD, a suburb of Washington DC. He owns one of the first Hymotion converted plug-in Priuses; like mine, a Steve Woodruff restored Prius that was damaged in a collision before Auto-Be-Yours worked its magic. The problem is, my friend has only on-street parking available and it's pretty random: he parks wherever there's an open spot. Now he could do like the lady in Santa Monica that I met. She lived across the Street from Paul and Zan Scott, and drove a GEM neighborhood electric vehicle, which she charged by trailing a long extension cord from the house across the lawn, the sidewalk and verge. I met her early in the morning, still in her morning robe, as she unplugged the car and coiled up the cord. Obviously, this isn't the ideal situation for either.

And they are not alone. Senator Carl Levin is battling the Capitol Architect to get electric car charging stations installed on Capitol Hill. Like my friend in Silver Springs, the Senator also can't charge his car at home, so he wants to be able to charge it at work. I'll wager there are a lot of others like these three, who are hoping to be able to charge somewhere other than home, which is probably why one of the newest employee perks in Silicon Valley is having EV chargers at the workplace. The current list of firms offering this benefit includes Netflix, chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices, SAP and the law firm of Fenwick & West.

So, the first question is, where do you hope to charge the vehicle?

Let's assume you're one of the lucky ones with a suburban home and attached garage, like my wife and me. The next question is, do you have electric power in the garage -- or carport or uncovered driveway? If so, what's available? Probably the standard -- assuming you're in America, of course -- 110-120V 12/15 AMP service, which was installed mainly for powering the odd light or hand tool. In my garage I have three standard dual plug receptacles: one mounted at the back of the garage on the wall, two mounted on the ceiling: one of those for running the electronic garage door opener. Why the second ceiling mounted plug, I haven't a clue. It's completely out of the way and hard to get to. I plug a radio into when I am woodworking in the garage.

Okay, so you have determined you have some power available. The next question is, is it enough? By that I mean not only is there enough current but also is there anything else sharing the circuit? Are you running an old refrigerator for keeping the beer cold out in the garage or do you have power tools plugged into it?

Now we're starting to get into the realm where you need to be thinking about calling in an electrician, but before you do that -- and it could be expensive -- you need to figure out which kind of electric car you're planning to own or lease. If you have your heart set on the all-electric Nissan LEAF or Coda Sedan, then you aren't going to be happy with the standard 110V, 12/15 AMP service. It'll take hours and hours to recharge the battery, literally a day; assuming a rough recharging rate of 1 kilowatt hour per hour of charge time. So, if you drive the car 20 miles in a day and use, say, 5-7 kWh of energy in the battery, it'll take you about 7-8 hours to recharge it. That's doable, of course. We do that every night using 110. But if you drive the car 40 miles in a day, now you're talking 10-12 kWh or more of energy and a comparable amount of time for recharging overnight: 10-12 hours.

The situation is similar with the Chevy Volt. It's possible to recharge the car using 110V, but the car will be out of service for half the day, which may not be all that big an issue, especially if charging at work is available; after all most cars sit for 23 hours anyway, either at home or at the workplace.

The lesson here is, the bigger the battery pack, the more current you want to feed it. While we're perfectly happy with our 110V 15AMP charging system for our plug-in Prius with its 6.1kWh NiMH battery pack, Volt and LEAF owners are really going to enjoy their cars more if they have 220-240V 30AMP service available. But here's where things can start to get expensive.

Take my house for example. Remember that wall mounted 110 receptacle at the back of the garage? Well, just on the other side of that wall is the laundry room and about twelve inches away is a 220V 30 AMP outlet for powering our electric clothes drier. So, theoretically, we could install what is called a Level II charger with the ability to recharge a LEAF or a Volt in half the time it takes using 110V. Of course, for my European readers, your standard voltage is 230, which means you're pretty much there already. Your problem is, many of you don't have even driveways, much less attached garages.

The problem with that handy 220V clothes drier outlet is, of course, the drier. We can't run both the charger and the drier at the same time, or at least we shouldn't. (As an aside, that outlet has charged four record setting EVs: the first EV1 to drive from California to Detroit, the first EV to circle the globe, the first Tesla Roadster to drive from New York to California, and the winner of the first North American TTXGP and current holder of the world's land speed record for an electric motorcycles.)

If we had to charge using current from that circuit, we'd just make sure we didn't try to dry clothes and charge the car at the same time.

Of course, we live in a state with very low utilities rates that are nearly half what the national average is. If we lived, instead, in California or other states with higher rates, we'd probably want to make sure we took advantage of off peak power rates and that could mean installing a separate meter, one devoted to just the power flowing into the car. Under that scenario, now we are talking potentially serious $$$. In my house, the present meter is on the opposite end of the house from the garage, which means an electrician would have to run 50-60 feet of conduit around the outside of the house to get to the garage, which wouldn't be that big a deal in our case, but could be in yours.

This is why companies like Nissan and GM are working with local electricians in their selected rollout markets. These professionals will come and inspect your house first to see if its feasible to install a home charging unit -- one they have already chosen -- at your premises. In the case of many of the early adopters who'll be receiving vehicles in the coming year, much, if not all, of the cost of installation will be funded by federal grant monies. What isn't funded can, for the moment at least, taken as a tax credit for up to $2000.

There are, as you can tell, numerous variables in acquiring and operating an electric car. My wife and I were lucky. We had the garage, we had the outlet on an uncrowded circuit, and we had a relatively small battery pack that, at the most, takes maybe 4 hours to recharge, which we do every night, while we sleep. Judy just left for work, unplugging LIVN GRN, before she got in the car. Overnight the battery used 4.2 kWh of electricity at a cost of just 28¢. On that, she'll be able to drive to and from work today using almost no gasoline.

Trust me, based on our year's worth of experience with an EV, the hassle will be worth it, my friends for many reasons beyond just the economics.

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