The why and how behind EV’s
Tesla shattered expectations when it unveiled the Tesla Model 3, receiving over 300,000 reservations for a car that’s over a year away from supposedly starting production. I was initially among those that reserved my spot in line prior to the unveil, but I already have an electric vehicle (EV).
My first EV purchase wasn’t an easy decision, however. I anguished over it for a year after spending at least a week in every pure EV and plug-in electric hybrid on the market. Ultimately, it made sense for me to replace my wife’s gasoline car with a 2015 Nissan Leaf.
How do EVs work?
EVs work like a normal car, but an electric motor and battery pack drive the wheels instead of an internal combustion engine (ICE) that relies on burning gasoline (petrol for our friends on the other side of the Atlantic). You drive it like a normal car: hop in, turn it on with the push-button start, shift it into drive and be on your way.
The most noticeable differences are the lack of engine noises and the tire-screeching, instant torque that makes it feel faster than it is. Regenerative (or "regen") braking helps capture kinetic energy that would generally be lost from braking and charges the battery a little, which results in a different feeling when you let off the accelerator pedal.
Some cars have extremely aggressive regen braking, like the BMW i3, which feels like the brakes are being applied as soon as you take your foot off the accelerator pedal. But, it’s not as noticeable in cars like the Chevrolet Bolt, Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus Electric, Volkswagen e-Golf and Kia Soul EV.
Generally, those cars have an aggressive regen mode on the shifter you can engage to slow the EV down quicker without applying the brakes. Regen braking isn’t a substitute for applying the brake pedal, however.
I’m not going to hound you about the environmental benefits of EVs, because it’s not why I bought one. Instead, it was the maintenance intervals, or lack thereof. The Leaf replaced my wife’s 2011 Volkswagen (VW) Routan, which was a thirsty minivan that consumed $150 to $300 in gas a month when fuel was around $4 a gallon.
The car required synthetic oil changes twice a year, not to mention other fluid replacements, frequent brake jobs and preventative maintenance once it had higher miles on it. What I found appealing about an EV was the minimal amount of maintenance required.
For the first 60,000 miles of ownership, the only maintenance that is needed is new tires and a cabin filter. Nissan recommends getting the brake fluid examined every year for extreme use cases too, but a $125 fluid change may not be necessary every time.
At almost two years of ownership and about 11,000 miles, I haven’t had the brake fluid serviced yet.
Gas is much cheaper now than when I bought an EV, but I still don’t have to pay for fuel or oil changes. I also live in Washington state, where electricity is extremely cheap and mostly generated from hydroelectric dams.
What about hybrids?
I have nothing against hybrids and quite enjoy driving plug-in hybrid electrics (PHEV) like the BMW X5 eDrive40e, Volvo XC90 T8 and Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid. Hell, I wish more companies would have plug-in electric powertrains.
But, at the end of the day, there’s still a internal combustion motor filled with fluids that requires care.
Hybrids like the Toyota Prius can get up to 52 miles per gallon (mpg), but it still relies on petrol. However, if you’re constantly driving long distances, it makes more sense to have a hybrid than an EV.
PHEVs are a good in-between compromise that gives you the best of both worlds, if you need it. The Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid gets 27 miles of pure EV range and an economical hybrid powertrain, which is one of my favorite PHEVs, but only available in California at the moment.
There’s also the Chevrolet Volt, which gets up to 50 miles of electric range in a smaller compact car package.
Sure, there’s very little maintenance on modern economy cars, but it’s one less thing to worry about with an EV. Just plug it in at night, be on your way the next day and put on a new set of tires every now and then.
Potential lifestyle changes
Living with an EV requires some lifestyle change. When I bought the Leaf, I lived in a rural area that was about 20 miles away from Tacoma, my hometown and the nearest major city. We moved to a suburb last March and the ownership experience is completely different.
Out in the rural area, we couldn’t just hop in the car and drive anywhere we wanted on a whim. The range of the Leaf wasn’t enough for us to drive to Seattle (45 miles one way) or Olympia (40 miles one way) and back on a single charge. Making trips with multiple destinations, like Seattle and then Bellevue (100 miles roundtrip), required charging along the way, too.
Every trip over 40 miles one way required planning ahead of time, since we’d have to stop and charge to make it home. The planning can get annoying, too, especially since you have to check the status of the chargers every time (more on that below).
Ultimately, moving to a suburb of Tacoma changed the EV experience drastically. Being between Seattle and Olympia (30 miles one way), we can drive down to the Hands-on Children Museum of Olympia and back without charging, where it was required to make it home before.
The grocery store, shopping areas and the freeways are only 5 to 10 minutes away, so most of the trips can be made with less than 50% of the battery charged. There’s also more public charging stations along the way, instead of having to go 5-10 miles out of our way to use a public charger.
With an EV, the most important thing I must reiterate is to always plan ahead for longer trips. Bring snacks for yourself and the kids, a blanket if it’s cold and always keep your phone charged (more on that later too). It took us a month to get the hang of it, but once we did, it wasn’t that big of a deal anymore.
Charging at home
EV’s require electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) to charge, which is typically referred to as a charging station. There’s three levels of EV charging stations: 1, 2 and 3.
Each level provides different voltage that affects how quickly the car charges. However, the charging rate is determined by the car itself, because the actual charger is in the car and the charging station only serves as a fancy power cable.
Charging at home relies on a SAE J1772 plug (simply referred to as SAE), which is used by every EV you can purchase today.
Since the charging equipment is inside the car, the charging rates vary by car and sometimes trim level. The base Nissan Leaf S used to come standard with a 3.3 kWh charger with the option of a 6.6 kWh that charges about twice as fast.
Most EVs include a Level 1 (L1) charger that plugs into a standard 110V wall outlet. Theoretically, if you live in the city and don’t completely drain your battery everyday, it’s tolerable.
I’ve tried charging with the included 110V charger on my first Nissan Leaf press car when I lived in a rural area and was too impatient for it. The Leaf with the former 24kWh battery and 6.6 kWh charger took about 20 hours to completely charge, which wasn’t ideal if you’re impatient, like me, and tend to drive to places on a whim.
There is one caveat with the 110V charger: your home may not be able to provide the 12-amps it can drain. Typical home outlets are wired to a 15-amp breaker altogether. If you exceed the amperage of the breaker, it’ll trip and shut off power.
I’ve had this happen with a Chevrolet Volt and the outlets in my garage, in my old house that was built in 2010. Of course, I didn’t notice it until I went out to the garage the next morning and found the car not charging and my garage lights out.
With a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), this wouldn’t be that big of a deal because you can start it up and use the gas motor. It’s more of an issue if you required every ounce of power to make it to work and back.
Stepping up to a level 2 (L2) 240V makes the biggest difference in charging an EV. I have a Bosch Power Max EL-51254 EVSE that provides up to 30 amps and a 25-foot cord so I can charge EVs and PHEVs I’m testing, or my wife’s Leaf.
Charging time is reduced significantly with an L2 EVSE, because it can deliver over twice the voltage and amperage. The charging time on my Leaf is reduced to 4 to 5 hours for a complete charge from empty with an L2.
It made the biggest difference for me, because even if I forgot to plug the car in the night before, I could still sneak in a charge early the next day. However, charging times vary depending on the onboard charger inside the EV, as the 6.6 kWh charger may be optional.
Quick charging and going the distance
Quick charging is great to have if you plan on exceeding an EV’s range. It can charge a car with a depleted battery to 80% capacity in under 30-minutes on a mainstream EV and under 40 minutes on a Tesla Model S 90.
Although not as fast as stopping in for a gas fill up, quick charging makes road trips in an EV a possibility, albeit with greater patience.
There’s three different quick charging connectors that aren’t interchangeable and depends on the make of the EV. The competing standards include CHAdeMO, SAE Combo and Tesla Supercharger.
Citroen, Honda, Kia, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Peugeot, Subaru and Toyota support CHAdeMO; while BMW, Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen use the SAE Combo plug. Both plugs are completely different.
CHAdeMO is a separate, larger connector that sits alongside the L2 SAE whereas the SAE Combo plug is the same one used for L2 charging, but with an extra connector cluster below.
Tesla Superchargers use a proprietary connector that isn’t compatible with any other EV, unfortunately. However, you can charge a Supercharger-compatible Tesla using CHAdeMO with an adapter.
The CHAdeMO adapter is sold directly from Tesla for $450, though I’m not sure why you would want it in the US. Tesla’s network of Superchargers is vast compared to the amount of available CHAdeMOs, not to mention free for owners. Europe is a different story, as there are more CHAdeMO stations than Superchargers.
Quick charging is not standard on all EVs either, it’s optional on the base Nissan Leaf S and Volkswagen e-Golf, so make sure to double check before you buy an EV. Earlier buyers of the Tesla Model S with the 60 kWh can add Supercharging for $2,500, but 40 kWh owners are not as fortunate.
Charging in public
Charging infrastructure varies greatly depending on where you live. The west coast has an excellent infrastructure that makes it possible to drive from California to Canada with patience and a mainstream EV, like the Nissan Leaf or Kia Soul EV.
Not all states are equal when it comes to charging infrastructure, so you should definitely check out the public charging stations before purchasing an EV. Each state may have different charging network operators too, but ChargePoint, AeroVironment, Blink and NRG EVgo are some of the national ones.
But, verifying the existence of the charging stations is only half the battle, because public charging can be a nightmare. There’s various charging networks, each with its own payment card, cost structure or subscription service because there isn’t a universal EV payment card.
EZ-Charge attempts to incorporate multiple charging networks into a single card, which provides buyers of the Nissan Leaf (No Charge to Charge) or Kia Soul EV (ChargeUp) with free public charging, but it’s only valid for two years with a new vehicle purchase.
However, even EZ-Charge doesn’t cover all networks either, so you still have to carry multiple cards. You can charge without a physical card with some networks, but that requires a smartphone with the accompanying app and login information or an old fashion phone call to activate the charger, after you provide your credit card information over the phone.
Charging in public can also get costly if you rely on L3 quick chargers frequently. Some L3′s charge $7 to $10 for a quick charge, which charges the car up to 80% under 30 minutes. On my Nissan Leaf, that yields about 60 miles of range. Fortunately, I’m still within the 2 years of free charging with Nissan’s No Charge to Charge program, otherwise it’s not very cost effective with how cheap gasoline is in the US.
L2 charges are cheaper and sometimes free, but it takes patience to charge up an EV.
Public chargers are as reliable as a Rover made by British Leyland: they can go down at any moment. You could successfully charge one day and it could stop working the next.
It’s important to always check the status on charging stations if you desperately need a charge to get to your destination. Fortunately, the quick chargers are internet-connected and let you know whether one is down.
However, it doesn’t hurt to double check via the PlugShare app to verify the status or any comments other users left during their check-in. I can’t urge you enough to always have a backup plan just in case the charger you rely on is unavailable or breaks.
Public charging etiquette
A lot of EV charging stations are placed at the best parking spots in a shopping center – the front, so there is a temptation by drivers to grab the spot even if they don’t need to charge or even driving a gasoline vehicle.
You’ll hear terms thrown around such as "ICEing" or "ICEhole", in reference to a vehicle with an internal combustion engine occupying a spot for EVs. When it’s an EV occupying a charging slot without charging, the term I see lately is "jackhole".
As tempting as it is to take up an EV spot when you don’t need a charge, it’s generally frowned upon to park in an EV spot if you don’t genuinely need to charge.
Proper EV charging etiquette is to park like you normally would unless you require a charge to get to your next destination. It’s tempting to plug in a PHEV as well, but those have gasoline motors and will not leave you stranded like an EV can.
This applies to the quick chargers too, except one minor difference. If you’re using the quick charger, only charge up to about 80% capacity. Because the charging rate slows down after that point, there’s little benefit to reach 100% every time.
You’re just occupying the quick charger and charging at the same rate as an L2 charger would. Moving to an L2 or leaving after 80% frees up the spot for for other users that just want a quick top up to get home.
Ignore the estimated range
If this is your first EV, you will have range anxiety on longer trips. It’s OK, this is normal. I had range anxiety when I first started driving EVs. Every EV has a mileage range display that estimates how far you can travel with the given battery capacity.
The Nissan Leaf is particularly liberal with the mileage guess-o-meter, because it’s not very accurate unless you only drive 25 mph. Kia’s guess-o-meter in the Soul EV is more conservative and not too far off what your real range is, but I found the best practice is to focus on the battery percentage.
Treat an EV like your phone and start looking for places to charge when you’re down to 25%, unless you’re close to home. Don’t wait until the warning messages to pop up to frantically search for a charging station.
If you’re worried about being stranded in an EV, there tends to be a lot of warning before the car simply shuts off. I’ve had to call a tow truck once, due to my own stubbornness and stupidity.
I had plenty of chances to stop at a quick charger for about 10 minutes to give it enough energy to make it home. Instead, I was stubborn and figured I could make it home without charging.
I was almost successful too, but ended up running out of energy about 2 miles away from my house and had to wait two hours in freezing temperatures for a tow truck to come late at night.
Here’s the thing, however. It was purely my fault. My Nissan Leaf provided plenty of warning with angry flashing lights to find a charging station. When I kept going, eventually it sent the car into a reduced power mode and I continued to ignore it and pushed it to see how far I could get.
This was no different than ignoring the low gas light on a gasoline car. So, if you see low energy warning lights, find a charging station while you still can – don’t just ignore it.
You can still go on a road trip with an EV, it just requires more patience, depending on the car. Sure it’s easier with a Tesla Model S and its 250 miles of range, but it’s still a possibility with a mainstream EV.
However, be prepared to stop very frequently. I drove down to Portland, Oregon from Graham, Washington in a Kia Soul EV to test the roadtripping capabilities of an EV once.
With an EV that supports L3 quick charging, I had to stop every 40 miles for a 15-20 minute stop to top up the battery. The car had plenty of range between the charges, but the charging stations were placed every 40 miles and I didn’t want to risk it, so I stopped at every quick charger to top off.
The trip took about 5 hours, whereas my typical drive to Portland takes less than 2.5 hours in a gasoline car. So, road trips are possible, but I wouldn’t recommend them if you’re time-constrained.
After owning a Nissan Leaf for nearly two years, my wife and I still love having an EV. We’ve had 11,000 trouble- and gasoline-free miles. I’ve only had to take it into the dealership once for a tire rotation and recall, and that’s it.
I did reserve a Tesla Model 3 before the official unveil, but have since cancelled the reservation. While 200-plus miles of range would be extremely nice to have for longer trips, I wouldn’t need it for most of my driving around the city.
Since moving into a suburb, the EV only gets plugged in once or twice a week, so spending $45,000 on a new EV wouldn’t be a smart financial decision on my part.
As much as I like having an EV and no gas bill, it’s not for everyone. But, if it can work out for your commute and driving needs, it’s worth considering. However, I do wish I leased the car instead of buying it, because the new 100-plus mile EVs are very compelling, and I’m upside down on the car loan.
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