Thinking of an electric car? Get your garage ready

TOM KRISHER
Associated Press

With gas prices rising and instability in the Middle East, the thought of an electric car in the garage might be getting more appealing.

Before you jump for the new technology, though, make sure your garage is ready to be a refueling station.

Depending on which car you buy and how old your home is, it could cost a couple thousand dollars to prep the garage so you can charge a car quickly enough to take off for work in the morning with a full battery.

Then again, it could cost nothing at all.

Start with the age of the home. Older houses may not have enough juice to handle an electric car. Fifty years ago, who would have thought we’d be plugging in cars at night?

So the garage may have to be rewired. According to experts, you need at least a 12-amp circuit to charge a car in a reasonable amount of time. You also need a circuit in the garage with little or nothing else on it. Anything else drawing power from the same circuit can slow the charging.

Even if you have a dedicated circuit in the garage, it still may not work for you. Most garages have standard 120-volt outlets. But a dedicated 240-volt outlet, similar to the kind that powers an electric dryer, can cut the charging time in half. That’s important depending on the electric car you buy.

Two mass-market electric cars, the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf, have different power systems and different charging needs. The Leaf is all electric and can go up to 100 miles on a single charge. But it needs more juice than the Volt to refill the batteries. It takes eight hours to recharge a Leaf even with a 240-volt circuit, double that at 120 volts.

The Volt can only go about 40 miles on battery power, but it has a small gas motor on board that can keep the car going when the battery runs out. With its smaller battery pack, it can be recharged in 10 hours even on 120 volts, five hours or less at 240.

GM estimates that recharging the Volt will add no more than about $1.50 per day to your electric bill, based on the national average electricity cost of 11 cents per kilowatt hour.

AeroVironment, the company that makes charging stations for Nissan, recommends outfitting your garage with a special 240-volt station. The basic station begins charging when you plug the car in; a smart station can start charging later in the evening when the load on the power company grid is lower.

Either way, you’ll need an electrician who knows about car charging to figure out your needs and hook the 240-volt station to a dedicated 40-amp circuit, said Kristen Helsel, vice president of electric vehicle solutions for AeroVironment.

“This is no different than installing an appliance or something else,” she said. “We need to take the power from your breaker box and run it to where you want the charging station installed.”

Charging stations also are available from other manufacturers. Helsel said it will cost about $2,000 to buy the dock and standard installation services by an electrician when done through AeroVironment and a Nissan dealership.

The Volt, however, may not need anything. If you have a dedicated circuit in your garage, General Motors, which makes the car, recommends charging the car first on 120 volts before spending the cash on a 240-volt charging station.

“Most cars are parked more than 10 hours,” said Britta Gross, GM’s director of electrical infrastructure. “If I were a consumer, I would always try 120 first, and if you’re not satisfied, then you can consider the 240-volt upgrade.”

The Volt has a setting that lets the owner pick the time by which the car has to be recharged fully, and the car can wait to start charging. The Leaf has a timer so the owner can set on and off times for charging based on the day of the week.

The Volt charger from GM costs $495, and about $1,500 to install, although it could be more depending on how much work is needed at the house, Gross said.

And whether you need a special charging station depends on how far you drive. If you go only 20 miles a day, a 120-volt outlet will work for either car because the battery doesn’t have to be fully charged every night.

Gross said she’s working to change building codes so that all garages have 240-volt outlets to charge cars, but she conceded that will take years. Many auto industry analysts say it will be years before electric cars are in a lot of garages because cars powered by internal combustion engines will continue to get more efficient.

A 120-volt outlet wouldn’t work for James Brazell, 84, of Asheville, N.C., one of the first people in the country to buy a Volt. He didn’t want to use any gasoline, yet he makes several short trips per day, and on some days, when he attends class at the University of North Carolina Asheville, he will drive 51 miles, more than the Volt’s electric range.

At first, he used the standard outlet in the garage of his home at a retirement community, but he ended up using a half-gallon of gasoline in four days. Then the charger he ordered from GM arrived at a cost of $530 including shipping. An electrician in his community installed it for an estimated $300, although he hasn’t received the final bill.

Now he plugs the car in after short trips. “Pretty much I top it up every time I bring it into the garage,” he said.

Before the charging station, the 120-volt outlet didn’t charge his car much between trips, he said.

Even though he’s a retired oil company executive, Brazell knows that the country will need to change the way it gets around because oil is a finite resource. And he likes driving by gas stations.

“It makes me feel good, especially when gasoline went up 30 cents a gallon the day I got the car back here.”

19 Comments

  1. jake38

    Whats the total calorie energy expenditure to mine the raw materials, process them and manufacture an electric car? Is it less than a standard gasoline car or more? Anyone out there have any guesses?

    #1
  2. lil ol me

    Jake, I would say that they’re probably similar, since what is added for an electric (batteries mostly, some copper for wiring and the motors) is offset to some degree by the heavy machining on an internal combustion engine, transmission etc. as well as the fluids like oil, coolant, tranny fluids. Both have AC using ‘safe’ flourocarbons.

    The vast bulk of the cars are identical: cloth, upholstery, sheet metal, plastic bumpers, electronics, etc. I don’t think the differences are as large as some would like to believe.

    #2
  3. TXSFRED

    I can see it now. Since we can’t survive a wind storm without TWO WEEK power outages due to a sorry power grid no one has even attempted to repair- ANd that cannot survive a 25 degree day without brown outs, I can’t wait for the firs evening you all have these stupid little cars.. an the ones of you that have not been scooped up in the grills of the Mexican 18 wheelers all get home about 6 pm and PLUG IN. 6 O’clock EYE WITNESS clock news .bzzzzz!
    ( silence )

    #3
  4. Zeke

    Anyone know where do we find figures on how much it will cost to charge the vehicle? I know that may depend on my electricity providers rates but want to know how much my electric bill is going to go up.

    #4
  5. sharky

    Wow TXSFRED, you are clearly a very intelligent, educated and thoughtful individual, so there is probably no need to point out that EVs aren’t spaceships, EV drivers aren’t space aliens and many also own dinofuel powered vehicles as well. And I love the Mexican 18-wheeler quip! That was so original and funny. Its almost as if you can see right through to the hearts of EV drivers and found that they are all very fond of being invaded by the 3rd world. I can only gather that your brain must somehow operate on an AM radio frequency. You lucky guy you!

    #5
  6. sharky

    @Zeke: multiply the KW capacity of the battery pack by ~ $0.12 per KW. These vehicles cost roughly one-third the current price of regular gasoline to fuel.

    #6
  7. Mark from Louisiana

    It will be a while before we have to worry about the grid. Until they drop the price by 50% they will never sell in large numbers. Between low sales numbers on a vehicle with huge development costs and the $30 Billion dollars GM owes the union pension fund, GM could go broke again soon.

    Peruse Chevrolet’s February sales release, and you’ll notice one number that’s blatantly missing: how many Chevy Volts were sold. The number – a very modest 281 – is available in the company’s detailed data (PDF), but it apparently isn’t something that GM wants to highlight. Keeping the number quiet is understandable, since it’s lower than the 321 that Chevy sold in January.

    Nissan doesn’t have anything to brag about here, either (and it avoided any mention of the Leaf sales in its press release). Why? Well, back in January, the company sold 87 Leafs. In February? Just 67. Where does that leave us? Well, here’s the big scorecard for all U.S. sales of these vehicles thus far:

    Volt: 928
    Leaf: 173

    #7
  8. joe

    They want $1,500 to install a freaking power outlet, no different from the $5 piece of craps installed in everyone’s wall.

    I need to start my own electric company to get in on this racket. That’s more insane than actually buying these cars.

    #8
  9. David Gower

    There is a lot of different charging information put out by various sources. I have heard that 14 hours is needed for Leafs with 120 volt charging and approx 4 to 6 hours for 220 volt charging. I think these times assume a fully discharged car battery. In addition to the potential charger capacity/installation problems pointed out in the article no one has pointed out that the size of the service to the home may have to be upgraded. This may not be substantial in some homes but prohibitive in others. Older underground electric was not put in conduit many times so it is not as simple as pulling more cable in a conduit. Over head service should not be too much to upgrade. Generally the service to the home coordinates the supply capacity of cable to the load center. So the load center may also need to be replaced but that would be a worst case scenario I think. The Volt and Leaf both have high capacity DC electric ports for public chargers. I have heard that 30 minute charges are possible with these. I have suggested (without success) that these DC ports could be used to pass a partial charge from a home based battery bank. The size of the battery bank could be varied to suit the car owners circumstances. There are possible consequential benefits to this strategy. The total full charge time in conjunction with 120 or 220 volt systems would be greatly enhanced. Once you have a battery bank it could be used for a UPS system or emergency standby power. The battery bank could acquire its charge over more hours with 120 volt or 220 when the electric vehicle was not present. It could also acquire the charge by solar panels. If you had another gasoline vehicle to use you could sacrifice or use your electric vehicles battery to supplement the home based battery bank extending the capacity of standby power. For some people and many businesses this might be advantageous for IT or other electronics. It might not be as practical as a true standby generator but could enhance it and avoid re-booting until the standby generator was up to speed. It may also be cost advantageous to use this stategy with solar-to-battery bank-to electric vehicle where cost to run standard service is high. This might be in remote locations, difficult to access locations, locations where there may be legal ownership barriers such as apartment and condo complexes, public parking lots and garages, etc. With a long running standby generator fueled by natural gas one could even charge the electric vehicle during times of long term electrical outages such as after a hurricane or tornado or some other natural disaster.

    #9
  10. rose

    What is the point? Electricity comes from fossil fuels anyways. It ain’t cheap either…

    #10
  11. David Gower

    Mark from Louisiana – Those Leaf numbers don’t look right to me. I think they had in excess of 5000 paid reservations. There may be a (large) number of Leafs out there that were not sold but are being used as demos. I think I heard that a shipment of 600 Leafs left Japan a day or two before the earthquake. With gasoline this high it will be interesting to see what happens over time. Electric vehicles may never have a large market share but I think 10% to 35% would be possible. If we could get natural gas going for larger capacity heavy trucks we really could make some progress with cutting out imported oil. Who knows, drill-baby-drill and we could be independent from the Middle East crazys!

    #11
  12. These things are a joke. To go 500 miles it would take 40 hours re-charging on a 110 volt charge every 100 miles and only then if everything was perfect. Perhaps some day but right now to buy one of these a person has to be either brain dead or so wealthy that they cannot figure out what to do with their money so they decide to give it away to the auto industry for another toy.

    #12
  13. idjit

    rose, I’ve heard information, (which I consider ridiculous), that a Volt can be charged for about $1.00 from a dead start. I don’t claim to be a physicist or an electrical engineer, so I can’t outright call this a lie. But from what I know about the cost of running a 5 ton, i.e 5 horsepower air conditioner for 1 hour, I would have to call b. S. on that claim. The cost of replacing the battery pack, the cost of the initial purchase, & the cost of maintaining & fueling the electric car puts it out of MY price range. Technology WILL advance the cars potential, but I don’t think it will EVER be competitive with the old internal combustion engine. And I don’t think getting the power to run them, from coal fired electrical generating plants is any cleaner.

    I await sharky calling me an idiot. I won’t bother to respond.

    #13
  14. theallknowningone

    Love all the negative comments about these cars and the buyers. Mouth breathers are the best. So dumb it’s funny. Keep fillin’ up your bubba truck and lining the pocks of Exxon, Shell, Saudi Arabia, etc….

    #14
  15. Bob

    The comment about the car being a joke because it takes 40 hours to recharge 500 miles is actually the joke. This may be a tough concept to get, but we have two cars. When I need to go 500 miles, I’ll take the gas powered car. When I need to go 50 miles round trip to work, I’ll take the EV. And the EV will charge overnight while I sleep so I can back and drive another 50 plus the next day. Long distance equals gas, commutes and regular daily driving equals EV. If this is too difficult to understand, the EV is probably not for you anyway.

    And to answer the question about cost, I pay 8.9 cents a kilowatt. The maximum charge is 24 kilowatts, assuming the battery is fully empty. That’s $2.14 for 100 miles. I think that compares pretty favorably to the cost for most gas cars which is about $15 for 100 miles, if not more.

    And this worry about the grid is another red herring. These cars will charge overnight when demand is low. It’s simply not an issue. Your AC unit takes way more juice during the day this these cars will at night.

    Next?

    #15
  16. idjit

    Well, I guess I prefer breathing through my mouth to breathing through a hash pipe. Reality is just too much for some people to handle. So they listen to the likes of Al Gore & Teddy Kennedy, two of THE most prolific wasters of energy & enemies of the environment mankind has ever seen. Then they take another hit & feel GOOOOD about themselves. yeah for them

    #16
  17. Theallknowningone

    Idiot: you’re
    the type that needs a bong hit the worst.

    Bob: excellent response. Don’t expect the mouth breathers to care about facts.

    #17
  18. idjit

    Bob, I salute you for being able to afford two cars, one an EV. But do you see most folks being able to do that? And unless I’m wrong, MANY people will need to be using EVs to make any difference to the amount of energy we consume. With the tiny number of electrics being sold, more money will have to come from SOMEWHERE to develop the technology, making EVs affordable for the masses. Bridge seems to be the popular word for the energy source that will allow us time to develop alternative energies. Natural gas is my candidate. I’m not in the industry, so this is not based on personal gain. But natural gas is cheap, plentiful, relatively clean, & the technology exists NOW. EVs seem to have it over hydrogen for the future, but who knows when a completely unknown will pop up. I read an interesting article the other day, in which a scientist said ANYTHING is possible. His opinion of scientists who say “this is written in stone” is very low. NOTHING is written in stone . New discoveries will be made, current technologies improved upon, & in twenty-five years we may not recognize how blind we were.

    #18
  19. sharky

    @idjit: I don’t generally call people idiots unless they are really putting it out there like some of these hostile knuckle-dragging killbillies. Yee Haw!! After all, many of the people posting on this subject are simply ignorant, yet come across without obvious animosity. You are borderline. I would suggest that rather than addressing dubious claims that you’ve “heard”, which I would assume is something that someone in the agitation/entertainment business probably alleged in the first place, that you find the source of these claims and do the research yourself before commenting. As an engineer and someone who isn’t afraid of science or Al Gore, I can tell you that this technology is a very good hedge for the near future of small transportation (certainly better than NG or petrol/diesel) and for the longterm as the technology/infrastructure progresses.

    #19