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What to Consider Before Buying an Electric Car

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If you’ve been paying any attention to the headlines recently, you might think that now is a better time than ever to ditch gas-powered cars in favor of all-electric. But many people who want to buy an electric car often make the mistake of putting the solar-powered cart before the horse. So what should you know before you take the plunge?

Electric Cars Have a Shorter Range

Let’s start with the most obvious and important consideration: electric vehicles (EVs) still can’t travel as far as gas cars…but they’re getting there.

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Thanks in part to Tesla, there have been some significant leaps in battery technology over the past few years. Even with so much progress though, they’re still struggling to meet the expectations of the average driver.

To rattle off some numbers (pulled from the manufacturers themselves), we’ll start with the three most popular models making the rounds today: the Tesla Model S sedan, the Nissan Leaf, and the Chevy Spark. According to the manufacturer’s specs, these cars are designed to reach a maximum range of 208 – 270 miles, 84 – 107 miles, and 82 miles on a single charge, respectively.

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Now that’s all well and good, but when you consider that a stock fuel-powered 2016 Honda Accord can drive nearly 640 miles on a single tank, it’s obvious that electric cars still have a way to go before they’re breaking any distance-related records. Take a look at these charts from Green Then Solar to compare some of the other models.

Worse still, these numbers can vary depending on your driving style, as well as where you plan on going. Straight stretches of flat highway or windy roads up a mountain will return vastly different ranges, sometimes even undercutting the minimum range rated by the automaker itself. Like their gas-guzzling counterparts, EVs lose a significant chunk of their efficiency during spats of cold weather. But while fuel-powered cars may lose 12 to 15 percent of their efficiency in temperatures at or below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, battery-only EVs can lose a staggering 57% of their range in similar conditions. Batteries don’t operate as effectively in cold temperatures, simply due to the physics of how the lithium ion cells are able to transfer energy to the engine and the rest of the car.

Range extenders do exist for the most dedicated EV drivers out there, in the form of towable gas generators that can jump a backup battery in case of emergencies. When fully charged, these batteries provide around another 15-30 additional miles of range, giving anyone who’s stranded a chance to make it somewhere safe on regular fuel until they can find a way to plug back in.

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Another class of car called “plug-in hybrid electric vehicles” have an internal generator built in to achieve something similar. They do everything they can on a battery first, and only tap their gas power once the battery is completely depleted.

This is different from standard hybrids, like the original Prius. Standard hybrids use the gas engine to charge the electric battery at high speeds, and flip to electric once the car slows to anything under 25mph. Plug-in hybrids, on the other hand, rely on the battery to handle everything from locking the doors to driving the wheels as long as it still has power to give. If (and only if) the reserve is drained out to dangerous levels, a combustion engine will kick in to recharge the onboard battery, a process which can add an extra 400 miles of range to models like the Chevy Volt.

This makes plug-in hybrids a great halfway point between gas and electric, one that might solve the dreaded “range anxiety” problem while the technology continues to improve. Plenty of manufacturers offer plug-in hybrid models, including Chevy, Ford, BMW, Mercedes, Honda, and others.

For now, it’s safe to say that if your work is only 25 miles away, and the range on your battery is a minimum of 60 miles, an EV might be right for you. If you live in a colder part of the world and need all the power you can get at a moment’s notice, it might be better to wait it out with a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

Electric Cars Take Longer to “Fill Up”

Unlike gas cars, which take about a minute and a half to refill before you’re back on the road, getting a battery charged for a road trip can be a lengthy process, taking anywhere from 20 minutes in a Tesla to upwards of eight hours in some older EVs.

How quickly or slowly your car charges depends on which of the four categories of charger it’s plugged into at the time as well as the kW rating of the onboard charger inside the car itself. The output of the chargers is measured in “miles of charge per hour”.

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For example: Level 1 chargers connect through a standard 120v outlet–the same kind you’d use to charge a laptop in your home. Obviously these will take the longest of the bunch, because the cord can only handle a limited amperage. In optimal conditions on a 2016 Fiat 500-e (with a middle-of-the-road 6.6kW onboard charger), a 120v outlet could only add about 11 miles of charge per hour. Even though the Fiat is theoretically capable of charging at 6.6kWh, the maximum output of a 120v outlet is 1.6kWh, which means that it won’t take advantage of the car’s full charging speed.

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Level 2 uses a 240v outlet with a theoretical maximum output of 19.2kWh, though most homes are restricted to 7.2kWh. This is best recognized as the outlet you’d plug a washer or dryer into in your garage. In optimal conditions on that same Fiat, you might get closer to 25 miles of charge added per hour, since it maxes out the Fiat’s 6.6kW onboard charger. Level 1 and 2 are the two most common charging solutions you’ll find in the average home. They make for an easy transition into electric vehicle ownership for anyone who either has their own personal garage, or at the very least can run an extension cord to their driveway from inside the house.

When it comes to Level 1 and 2 charging, some cars are only rated for 3.3kW, while others can be rated for as high as 10kW. This can also affect the charging speed. The car’s onboard charger usually acts as a bottleneck–no matter how much output your Level 1 or 2 charger has, your car will only charge as fast as its onboard charger is rated for.

In Level 3 charging, however (otherwise known as “DC Fast Charging”), the charging station comes with its own internal high-powered AC/DC converter which allows it to bypass that bottleneck and deliver anywhere between 40kWh and 90kWh of juice at a time. Using this method, any EVs that come installed with a compatible CHAdeMO or J1772 combo charging port (like the Nissan Leaf or BMW i3) can add around 50-90 miles of range to their batteries every 20 minutes. Unfortunately for now, charging stations that feature DC Fast Charging plugs are pretty rare, though more are being added to the grid every month as EVs continue to gain in popularity.

Eco-happy Portland only has four fast-charging station out of dozens

Even eco-happy Portland only has four fast-charging stations to go around

If you want to know what kind of options you have near you, you can look up local charging stations with the government’s search tool, and international and mobile readers can can check out PlugShare for results in your region.

Lastly, Tesla’s Level 4 proprietary “superchargers” can charge upwards of 350 miles of range to a car in that same span of 20 minutes. But these chargers are compatible only with Tesla’s Model S and Model X, and even the Mercedes B-Class (which actually shares a drivetrain with Tesla) isn’t allowed on the company’s personal supercharger network.

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But even if 20 minutes is faster than the several hours it would take to get a car charged at home, the core problem still remains: it’s downright glacial compared to the sub-three minute routine to fill up a regular gas tank. All that waiting around–or “grabbing a cup of coffee”, as Tesla’s marketing department likes to put it–means that if you tend to spontaneously hit the streets for a longer trip, a gas-powered car or plug-in hybrid are probably going to be a better choice.

But again, if you mainly use your car for commuting in densely populated areas and don’t have a problem scheduling your errands around a somewhat lengthy fill-up, an EV equipped with fast charging capability could fit the role just fine.

Electric Cars Require Less Maintenance

You might be starting to wonder why anyone would be tempted by an EV, but now we’re getting to the areas where electric vehicles start to prove their worth. Because they have far fewer moving parts compared to classical combustion engine, EV engines can last thousands of road hours longer than gas-powered blocks between mandatory maintenance checks. That’s a big deal.

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They aren’t without maintenance entirely, though, as the batteries inside electric cars have a finite amount of life in them before they need to be replaced. Like any battery, the cells inside an EV only have a certain number of times they can be depleted and recharged before they start to lose their maximum capacity, known as “cycling out”. Although overall reliability is on the way up, an EV owner should still expect their battery to start losing some of its total charging capacity at anywhere from 80,000 miles in the case of the Nissan Leaf up to 125,000 miles in Tesla’s Model S. This figure will vary from car to car, so be sure to check the manufacturer’s specs before making your first EV purchase.

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Replacing the battery can be an expensive endeavor if the car isn’t under warranty (a replacement pack can fetch as much as $7500), and should always be factored into the total of how much you think EV ownership will cost in the long run. However, both high-end and midrange EV manufacturers are ahead of the curve on this front, and most will offer some kind of warranty which protects against dead batteries for upwards of ten years after purchase.

If you buy your EV from a respectable vendor, anytime your car alerts you that the battery may be wearing down, you should be able to just take it into the dealer and get a replacement in a matter of hours, with no extra charges incurred.

Electric Cars Can Save You Money in the Long Run

Lastly, electric cars have the potential to save you money, depending on where you live and how you drive.

However, it’s difficult to give one big blanket answer to whether you’ll save you money in overall cost of ownership. If you live in an area with cheap gas and expensive electricity, what you save over time (if anything at all) will be different than someone with the opposite set of bills.

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In general, if you don’t do a ton of driving and only use your car for commuting and local errands, even the highest electricity rates have proven to be cheaper than what you would spend on gas to drive the same distance. Not only that, but now many cities have begun rolling out public charging stations, where EV owners can simply park their cars and fill up for little to no cost. Often the city will charge a small amount to park in the space for the time it takes to refill, but it’ll be much less than what you would pay to charge over an outlet at home.

As always, there are tools that can help you calculate how much you might save with electric car, such as this one from the US Department of Energy. Enter where you live, how much you use your car per week, and what kind of mileage you put on the road each year, and the calculator will help you to narrow down how an electric car will affect your wallet in the long run.

Also, when looking at the sticker price of a car, keep in mind that a higher price doesn’t automatically mean it’ll go farther on a single charge, or charge any faster than everything else out there. There may be more horsepower to play around with, but when using the same plug out of a level-3 DC fast charging system, both the Chevy Spark EV ($25,120) and the BMW i3 ($42,400) will take an identical amount of time to reach a full tank (about 40 minutes on a temperate day). So shop around and compare as many features as you can if you’re in the market for an EV.

Lastly, take a minute to look up the potential tax breaks their state may be offering for the purchase of an electric-only vehicle. Many states offer incentives to go electric that can equal up to 10% the total cost of the car, and you can find out exactly how much you would save by using the calculator provided by Plug In America here.

So Is an All-Electric Car Right for You?

In the end, only you can decide whether an electric car will work for your driving habits. Consider what you expect to get out of an electric car, and whether or not you have a gas-powered backup car available to use in case of emergencies. It used to be that if you wanted an all-electric car, you had to take out a loan on an arm and a leg just to have the chance to look at someone who was thinking about taking a test drive in a Tesla. But now, with increased competition from budget brands like Kia and Hyundai entering the market, electric cars are available to those at any income level–especially with those tax breaks.

And if you’re still unsure of whether or not you’re ready to take the full plunge into an all-electric kind of life, there are dozens of plug-in hybrid models that offer the best of both gas and electric, and won’t leave you stuck in the middle of Route 66 trying to unfurl some solar panels after the battery chokes out its last breath.

Image Credits: GreenThenSolar, Tesla Motors 1, 2, FuelEconomy.gov, US Department of Energy, Wikimedia Foundation 12, 3 

Chris Stobing is a writer and blogger from the heart of Silicon Valley. Raised around tech from birth, he's had an interest in PC hardware and networking technology for years, and has come to How-To Geek to contribute his knowledge on both. You can follow him on Twitter here.

  • Published 02/4/16

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