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Charge It Up

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Sunday, October 16, is National Plug In Day. Read on to find out how to charge up an electric vehicle and how to install your own EV charging station.

By Debbie Van Der Hyde

Exciting, economical, and emission free: That’s the new world of electric vehicles!

Depending on where you live, you probably are seeing more electric cars on the roads, including the Nissan LEAF, Tesla Roadster, and the Chevy Volt. Other models, such as the Ford Focus, Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid, and Mitsubishi “i” are coming soon.

Plug In America, the Sierra Club, and the Electric Auto Association have teamed up to organize National Plug In Day to raise awareness about the numerous benefits of electric vehicles (EV) this Sunday, October 16.

Since electricity is produced domestically, EVs have the potential to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. “Who doesn’t want energy independence, cleaner air, less maintenance, and lower operating costs?” asks Chad Schwitters, vice president of Plug In America.

Even with all of the benefits, Schwitters acknowledges that most people have a lot of questions about electric vehicles. Here are the answers to the two most important questions:

How do you charge up an EV?

Various approaches exist, depending on the type of EV purchased and your charging needs, such as the distance you want to drive per day and how quickly you want to recharge the car. The charging rate depends on the make and model of the car and size of the battery pack.

Beyond the home, two main options exist:

  • Public charging infrastructure. When EV owners are driving and need a charge, they can use freestanding charging stations installed in parking lots and near retail and grocery stores, coffee shops, restaurants, theaters, universities, city halls, and civic centers—and even a few forward-thinking gas stations. The EV Project is expected to install more than 14,000 Level 2 chargers in major markets by the end of 2011, with charging infrastructure planned across the nation by the end of 2013.

  • On the go. EV drivers can purchase a portable charging unit, which looks like a thick extension cord with a small electronics box and a set of pigtails for various 110-volt and 240-volt outlets. In some cases, car manufacturers supply this portable unit with the purchase of an electric vehicle.

For charging at home, some EV owners can get by using a standard, three-prong 110-volt household outlet, known as Level 1 charging, but it may take up to 20 hours to fully recharge a car. Most people will opt for a Level 2 charger, a 240-volt charger that averages six hours to recharge a vehicle. A Level 2 charger is typically a permanent installation with a special circuit and a higher-powered outlet made specifically for electric vehicles.

What is the process to install a home charging station?

Here are six main steps that homeowners can take to get an EV charging station installed:

  1. Talk to the EV automaker and dealership. Check the auto manufacturer’s Web site, call customer service, and talk to your dealer representative about programs in your area for free or reduced-cost charging stations. Funds still may be available from the federal government’s EV Project, which provides $230 million to help support public and private charging infrastructure in California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Texas, Tennessee, and Washington, DC.
    In some cases, your auto dealership can walk you through the charging installation process. The automaker may have partnered with an electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) manufacturer that can handle project management, determine your home’s electrical set up, and give you a list of recommended electricians.
    This was the route followed by Bruce Mkristo, a Nissan LEAF owner who also works at a Nissan dealership. “I wanted to understand the process my customers were also going through,” Mkristo says. “After I was approved, an electrician called me to set up the assessment … making it very easy for me.”
    Utility providers also can be a resource to customers who are buying an electric vehicle. To help start the process, your utility provider probably will want to know your vehicle make and model, preferred charging voltage, and information about your home’s electrical panel size (both existing and proposed).
  1. Think about charging needs. Depending on the make and model, your electric vehicle will have a range of approximately 35 miles to 250 miles. Think about how you will use the EV and whether you will need to charge frequently during the day or once overnight. Be sure to ask the automaker about charging limitations on the car so that you purchase a charging station that will charge at the correct rate of kilowatts per hour—usually 3.3kW, 6.6 kW, or 9.6 kW.
  1. Get an assessment from an electrician. Ask a certified electrician to look at your electrical panel to determinethe capacity to supply power to the charger, the speed of charger your existing system will allow, and the best location for installation. Typical spots include the interior wall of a garage, but sometimes you have to get creative. For example, Michael Foster, a Seattle-area EV owner, did not have a garage or carport, so he had his charger mounted on a wooden panel near his back porch to keep it out of the rain. The electrician also can verify whether you have space for a dedicated circuit for the charger or if you will need to upgrade the panel.
  1. Shop for charging stations. Compare the UL-listed residential charging stations available from EVSE manufacturers, such as ECOtality, AeroVironment, Clipper Creek, or Coulomb Technologies. Costs for a Level 2 charging station range from $750 to $2,000, including safety features and the new standard J1772 connector to plug into the vehicle.
  1. Obtain bids and electrical permit. Work through the EVSE manufacturer or directly with the electrician to get a bid outlining all costs for the equipment, materials, and labor. You also will need to obtain the proper electrical permits as well as meet any other requirements for your urban or suburban jurisdiction.
  1. Schedule the installation. On average, the actual installation of the charging station should take an electrician three to four hours. Contact your power utility once the charging station installation is complete for tracking purposes and to make sure they can provide you with relevant customer service.

Additional options for EVSE installation

Solar power: Some homeowners are taking the extra environmental step and installing solar in tandem with EV charging stations. SolarCity, a leading, full-service solar provider with headquarters in San Mateo, California, has installed more than 2,500 EV charging stations to date, primarily in California and along the Eastern seaboard as well as the cities of Portland and Denver.

“Many of our existing solar customers want to own an electric vehicle,” says Ben Tarbell, SolarCity vice president of products. “Others understand their electricity bills will go up from owning an electric car and want the convenience and cost savings possible from installing leased photovoltaic (PV) panels and EVSE at the same time,” Tarbell says. He adds that the solar and EVSE installations can be done separately.

(Note: According to SolarCity, installed solar systems and EVSE are grid connected, so the solar panels are not directly charging the electric cars. Instead, each system ties into a homeowner’s main service panel through a breaker that is connected to the grid. PV systems are connected through an inverter that converts the DC electricity to AC to be used in a wall socket. An EVSE takes in AC electricity, and the car converts it to charge the battery.)

Do it yourself: Installing a charging station as a DIY project is an option for people who have significant electrical skills and want to purchase the components separately. Jeff U’Ren, who lives in California, did this after leasing his Chevy Volt in early 2011. (He describes the Volt as a plug-in battery electric vehicle with a secondary gas generator to sustain electrical power.)

“My dealer gave me the contact information, and I ordered a SPX Voltec 220-volt Level 2 charger,” U’Ren says. He followed the proper safety practices and installed the charger in his garage according to the National Electrical Manufacturer’s Association and city electrical codes. Remember that most municipalities require permits to install an EVSE in homes or businesses.

Debbie Van Der Hyde is an experienced freelance writer with a strong interest in sustainability, clean energy and the green economy.

© 2011 SCGH, LLC.

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