Costs associated with charging electric cars at home

JIM MOTAVALLI Updated: October 14, 2010 at 12:00 am • Published: October 14, 2010

NEW YORK - So you're thinking of buying or leasing an electric car, and you're taking a hard look at the garage, filled with many years of accumulated junk and sporting a single 110-volt socket on the wall.

It doesn't look all that ready to recharge an electric car, does it? In fact, it probably isn't, and it's a good idea to know what kind of upgrades and regular expenses will be necessary to make room for the newest member of the family.

If your new car is powered by batteries alone, you're probably going to want a dedicated 220-volt charger in your garage or carport (or on an outside wall if you lack those). These units can fully recharge an average battery car in four to six hours.

Buying the charger and having it installed will average $2,000 (Nissan says $2,200), but there are many important variables that could raise the price quite a bit from there. Richard Lowenthal, chief executive of the charging company Coulomb Technologies, said that in extreme cases major wiring upgrades and installation of new panels could cost as much as $10,000.

Yes, it is possible to charge your electric vehicle from that existing 110-volt plug without any modifications, but that's going to mean very long charging times. Charging a Nissan Leaf battery car, for instance, would take 16 to 20 hours that way. General Motors thinks a majority of "range extender" Chevrolet Volt owners will choose eight-hour charges from house current, but the Volt's 16-kilowatt-hour battery pack is much smaller than those in pure electrics like the Leaf.

In much of the world, 220 volts is house current, but in the U.S. it's most often seen only in homes with electric clothes dryers or ranges. Dryers use their own plugs, but Tesla Motors, maker of the $109,000 Roadster and the coming Model S sedan, offers a $1,500 adapter kit that allows owners to plug into the dryer outlet, and other possible 220 sources like a motel air-conditioner or an RV.

Another variable is the electric service itself — many houses built in the 1990s and later have 200-amp service (or even 400), but older homes may need a costly upgrade to service electric vehicles. If you have updated electric wiring and an existing 220-volt line, the job is much easier, but you'll still need to bring the high-voltage line to your car, and that's when government agencies get involved.

The first step is obtaining a municipal permit to install your charger, and that means a visit from a local inspector. You'll need to budget some time for this, because it's an unfamiliar procedure in many towns and cities, and some people have waited weeks for the appropriate paperwork.

For Lowenthal of Coulomb, who drives a Mini E from BMW, the process, including permits, site visits and inspections, took a month. The actual installation must be handled by a licensed electrician, and (as anyone who has worked with contractors is well aware) more delays could hinder that part of the process. Nissan, among others, is working with municipal offices in cities where it will be introducing the Leaf to speed the process.

Experts say that 80 percent of electric vehicle charging will be done at home, so it's not likely that you'll want to skip this step. The good news is that homeowners are eligible for a federal tax credit covering 50 percent of the installation up to $2,000 (but only through Dec. 31 unless the credit is renewed). And, even better, if you are lucky enough to live in the coverage area of two separate federally supported programs, The EV Project (in conjunction with the ECOtality charging company) and ChargePoint America (a partnership with Coulomb), the charger and its installation could even be free.

For ChargePoint America, the program is open to residents of Los Angeles; New York; Washington, D.C; Austin, Texas, Orlando, Fla.; Sacramento and the San Jose/San Francisco Bay Area in California; Bellevue and Redmond in Washington State; and southern Michigan. You will probably need a garage or carport to apply successfully.

The EV Project subsidies are available in 16 cities in six states: Arizona, California, Tennessee, Texas, Oregon and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia.

Once the charger is installed, the daily procedure will become routine. Commuters will return home, pull up to the charger and plug in, though the car won't necessarily begin taking on electricity immediately.

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Recognizing that peak load times will occur during the day, many carmakers are equipping their electric vehicles with timers (which can be set from inside the car or from a mobile device) that will allow charging to start automatically late at night, when many utilities will be offering lower rates.

According to Allan Drury, a spokesman for Con Edison in New York, a six- to eight-hour charge at 208 volts would roughly double the peak load for the average single-family home. But, he said, this "should not be a problem" for a home with 200-amp service "given that there's a dedicated 208-volt line for the charging."

In the morning, electric vehicles add a new benefit: Because the cars are plugged into the grid, they can be set to preheat or precool the interior for instant driver comfort.

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What you'll pay to charge your electric vehicle at home will vary according to local rates (which average about 12 cents a kilowatt hour in the U.S.). Most consumers, although they will pay more to buy or lease the vehicle than a standard one, will see a considerable reduction in day-to-day expenses compared with fueling a gasoline car.

Nissan predicts an average of 2.6 cents a mile for the Leaf compared with 12 cents a mile for a gas car getting 25 miles per gallon at $3 a gallon. But there are other variables involved, including potential battery pack replacement and the time you put in charging versus quick gas station fill-ups.

ChargePoint and the EV Project support public chargers as well as home units. Although there are few public charging stations installed today, their numbers are expected to grow rapidly — along downtown sidewalks, at shopping malls, convenience stores and mass-merchant stores. Many employers will offer electric vehicle charging, too.

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Many public chargers today are offering their electricity free, but in some cases that's just because they don't yet know how much to charge or how to bill customers. Some companies are already setting up such billing systems, and they're likely to charge a premium on top of home charging rates.

A new player in the field, the Car Charging Group, has said it will bill customers 50 cents a kilowatt hour. Higher rates may mean that consumers will use public charging only for emergencies and as a convenience when they're running low.

There are still few electric vehicles on the road — many, like the Leaf and Chevrolet Volt, are being introduced at the end of the year, and others early next year — so it's still too early to predict how people will interact with their electric cars. But early adopters will soon discover what they like and what they don't, and that will shape the charging experience in the future.

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