Charging Your Electric Car

You might be thinking of buying one of those new-fangled electric cars, and may be wondering how they're charged. That depends on which car you buy. The three main electric cars (electric vehicles or "EVs") currently available for middle income families are the Toyota Prius, Chevy Volt, and Nissan Leaf.

Toyota Prius. Let's say you buy a Toyota Prius. The Prius is a "hybrid." A hybrid isn't fully electric. It runs on electricity generated by a battery until the battery is depleted. Then, it turns to burning gasoline. In the case of the Prius, a 2010 model drives about 12 miles on a fully charged battery. But the Prius is continuously recharging the battery with a mechanism triggered by stepping on the brakes.

On the downside, the Prius currently doesn't come with a "plug in" option. That means you can't plug it into an electric outlet to charge its battery. However, Toyota is partnering with the EV company, Tesla, to develop a plug-in model that will be available in 2012.

Chevy Volt. The Chevy Volt, which started deliveries in the U.S. in December 2010, is also a hybrid. Unlike the Prius, the battery is not charged when you brake, but by plugging into the electric grid. It has a range of around 35 miles before it must start burning gasoline.

Nissan Leaf. The Nissan Leaf is currently the only all-electric EV available for middle income families. It can't burn gasoline, but runs only on its battery. It has a range of about 100 miles before you need to start looking for an electric outlet.

HOW DO YOU CHARGE A PLUG-IN ELECTRIC CAR?

Level 1 Charging. Both the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf come with a charging cord, called a "Level 1 Charger," as standard equipment. It looks like an extension cord. You can charge your car by plugging the Level 1 Charger into an electrical outlet in your garage or carport.

The advantage of Level 1 charging is that it's simple and inexpensive to set up. Hire an electrician to install an outlet in your garage or carport. It will need to be on a dedicated circuit, meaning that no other appliances, like a washer, for example, are on the same circuit. The outlet will need to be the safety version usual in garages and outdoors (a GFI). Also, your electrician will need to check whether your electrical panel should be upgraded in size to handle the increased power demand.

Once the outlet is installed, the EV driver pulls out the Level 1 charging cord that comes with the car, starts charging, and lets the car sit... for a long time. A Chevy Volt battery takes 10 hours from empty to full; a Nissan Leaf takes 20 hours.

Even though Level 1 charging is slow, drivers who have short commutes may be satisfied with it because, if they work it right, they won't start at empty. They'll have charge left in their batteries and will simply top off at night.

Here's how it can work. The 100-mile range of the Nissan Leaf is a lot more than the 33 miles the average American drives daily. If you drive the average 33 miles, you will use only one-third of the battery in a day. If you religiously plug in when arriving home, you will be able to top off at night and leave with a full charge in the morning.

For hybrids, like the Chevy Volt, the issue of leaving home fully charged is less pressing. At about 35 miles, when the battery hits empty, it turns to burning gas. This isn't good for gas usage, but on the other hand, the driver may suffer less from "range anxiety."

Level 2 Charging. While you may be able to make Level 1 charging work for you, you also have the option of faster charging by installing a special Level 2 Charger in your garage or carport. A Level 2 charger takes a Chevy Volt battery from completely empty to completely full in four hours; eight hours for the Nissan Leaf. So, even if you totally drain your battery, with a Level 2 Charger, you'll be able to fill it by morning.

A Level 2 charger requires 240 volts, which is more powerful than house current. A Level 2 Charger is housed in a container about 18 inches around and hangs on the garage wall, sticking out about a foot. When you recharge with a Level 2 charger, it looks very much like filling your tank with gas. You stretch a "hose" over to the recharging socket built into the EV.

A Level 2 Charger is usually purchased when you buy your electric car. If you wish, Nissan or Chevy can arrange the purchase and installation. Nissan has partnered with AeroVironment to supply and install chargers. Chevy Volt has partnered with SPX. When a Leaf, for example, is purchased, the Nissan dealer arranges for an AeroVironment electrical contractor to look over the new owner's garage, provide a bid, and do the installation.

The car buyer is free to look for a lower bid from an independent electrical contractor; however, warranties and follow-up repairs on the charger may not be as advantageous.

Consumer Reports estimates that purchase and installation of a Level 2 Charger costs about $2,000. However, the price can vary quite a bit, depending on the distance of the charger from your electrical panel and on whether you need an upgrade of your panel size to accommodate the additional power demands of the charger.

THE FUTURE OF CHARGING YOUR ELECTRIC CAR

Level 3 chargers that can fully charge a Nissan Leaf in 15-30 minutes are currently available in Japan. However, they cost about $45,000 installed. When they come to the U.S., they will most likely be installed for electric trucks, company fleets, or for private cars at shopping malls and at gas stations, where EVs will zip in and out to top off their batteries.

An even faster system is currently being installed in Israel. A Palo Alto company called "Better Place" is building a network of "carwashes." Only, when you drive your EV in, instead of getting a wash job, your spent battery is pulled out and within a couple of minutes, is replaced with a fully charged battery.

The pressure to be fully charged when leaving home will ease as chargers are increasingly installed in public places in the U.S. In my hometown, Los Angeles, Level 2 Chargers are already available in train stations, the main airport (LAX), the L.A. Convention Center, and other public places. One can easily find the network of existing public chargers on-line. In addition, malls will begin installing Level 2 or Level 3 Chargers as an inducement for shoppers and workplaces as an employment benefit.

In time, you'll be able to recharge your battery while you shop or work. While we're not there yet, we already have some workable charging options. You can buy a hybrid, like a Prius or Chevy Volt, top off your battery daily with the Level 1 Charger that comes free with your car, or for those with longer commutes or who want more convenience and back up, install a Level 2 Charger.

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Kim Hopkins has been a Los Angeles electrician since 1979. His company, The Electric Connection at http://www.theelectricconnection.com/, is one of the foremost electrical contracting companies in the L.A. area. One of the specialties of The Electric Connection is installing chargers for electric cars. For a $25 off coupon on your first electrical job as well as other coupons, go to http://www.theelectricconnection.com/coupon.php.


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