Michael Bettencourt is a long-time EV owner, both of BEV and PHEV vehicles, and automotive journalist whose vehicle reviews have specialized in EVs and plug-in hybrids for the past 10 years. We’re following Michael in a new series about the experience of EV ownership, in the short and long term.
In this brave new world of battery electric vehicles (BEVs), one of the key differences of EV versus regular car shopping is that where you live, and in particular your overnight parking situation, can often dictate what type of EV is best for you, or at least be a major influence on your vehicle choice.
For us, our family’s situation was an ideal scenario to jump into early BEV ownership, both now and even back in late 2011: living in a suburban home, being a two-car family with a garage and driveway, and having a younger child prone to car sickness that disincentivized longer road trips. We can easily park our leading-edge (for the time) 2012 Nissan Leaf in the driveway as we have for the past 10 years.
Like many folks who regularly see freezing winter temperatures, our garage was full of bulky items that had long banished our vehicles to the driveway, even if it meant regular snow and ice scraping come winter. Our single-car garage housed bicycles, lawn equipment, shovels, winter tires, and the overall detritus of suburban life that piled up to a point where it seemed inconceivable to fit a vehicle in there anymore.
Cleaning out the garage to make room for both the EV and the electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) – often called the charging station – was easily one of if not the toughest part of becoming an EV owner. For us, this happened months before actually becoming an EV owner, ironically.
It's conceivable now for families to consider jumping straight into full battery-electric ownership and giving up on gas station visits cold turkey. There are some caveats to that, however, so here are the key considerations if you’re debating whether or not to stick with the common-but-oh-so-slow Level 1 charging method or invest in a faster Level 2 charger for your new electrified chariot.
You Don’t Need A Garage, But It Really Helps
If you own or rent a home with a garage or any overnight parking space, life with an EV becomes much simpler straight away. There’s no wrangling with a condo board or landlord to install even a basic 120-volt outlet to charge your EV at night.
This type of Level 1 charging with a common household plug is what some folks use to charge their EVs, thus avoiding hundreds of dollars in install fees for a Level 2 charger. It could even become thousands of dollars if there is no room left in the electrical panel or it needs to be upgraded to handle the higher load.
Level 1 charging, though, is the least expensive EV charging option, where you can use the cord that comes standard on most EVs (outside of the Kia EV6 and all Teslas as of mid-2022) to plug into a standard three-prong outlet.
But it’s not ideal, from a safety or a convenience perspective, no matter if you’re looking at a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) or full-on BEV.
That’s because Level 1 charging adds only four to five miles of range per hour of charging. This means you can only add about 40-80 miles of range while charging overnight, and it’s painfully slow to charge when you’re running around and want a quick top-up before your next errand, practice, or visit. On a long-range BEV with a big battery (70+ kWh), a 12- or even 24-hour charging period may not even be enough for a full charge, especially in cold winters.
And safety-wise, while trickle charging is not unsafe, it does generate a lot of heat for a regular outlet.
Thus, it’s always preferable to have a licensed electrician come in and install a more powerful 240-volt, UL-certified Level 2 EV charger. From a cost perspective, most certified Level 2 EVSEs run between $300 and $900, depending on how smart and feature-rich you’d like them, and they can often be rolled into your car payment as a dealer accessory.
Where the most cost variability comes in is with the installation: If your panel is in or near your garage, the labor cost for the installation could be less than the EVSE itself. If it’s at the opposite end of the house, and you have to run wires from your basement panel through your walls and ceiling, it could run many times that smart EVSE cost.
Being able to warm and cool your parked EV in your garage is one of the modern joys of EV living. It’s even better when you can use grid power for this and leave with a full or nearly full battery. Trickle charging on a 120-volt outlet simply can’t provide enough power to do this and charge the car when temperatures dip close to or below freezing. A Level 2 charger, however, has no trouble doing both at the same time.
Apartment-Dwellers and Condo-Owners Have It Rougher
At the opposite end of the ease-of-EV-ownership spectrum are condo owners and those living in multi-unit residential buildings (MURBs) without a regular (or any) parking spot. Not being able to install a Level 2 EVSE themselves, these folks must either petition the building management to install Level 2 chargers, settle for using a slower 110-volt outlet for charging (if they can find one), or rely entirely on our nation’s incomplete and iffy DC fast charging network.
Some ambitious cities now offer a growing number of on-street L2 chargers meant for overnight EV charging, placing them in residential urban neighborhoods. Prices vary, but in the city of Toronto for example, an overnight charge currently costs a flat fee of $3 from roughly 10pm to 8am. The program aims to give an overnight charging option to EV owners without a garage.
Other options for these garage-less EV owners include workplace charging, though from my experience the paid L2s offered at my former office were pricey and therefore barely used until the network operator went under. If workplace L2s are not available, there are some new EVs that come with two or three years of free DC quick charging at Electrify America stations (the VW ID.4 most commonly) that would make a three-year lease worth considering.
Just please don’t sit on busy chargers past an 80-percent state of charge if other folks are waiting, especially if you don’t need the full range of your car right now. This is Public Charger Etiquette 101 and is non-negotiable.
If you’re open to older used EVs, some early Tesla Model S and Xs included free lifetime charging at their coveted Supercharger networks. Also, there may be some free government-sponsored public chargers available near you, but most of them are slower L2 chargers. It’s hard to beat free, though, whether sponsored by the government or granted through private industries.
As mentioned, paying to regularly use a DC quick charging station is also possible, but it's a pricey option. Considering the state of reliability of our fast-charging infrastructure in North America, buying a BEV and depending only on this type of charging should be considered a last resort.
In the end, whether you’re considering a PHEV or BEV or both, it’s worth taking stock of what works best with your own living situation, driving patterns, and local public charging infrastructure. This adds another layer of key research on top of comparing roominess, value, tech and drive feel, but welcome to the wise EV buyer’s age.