June 11, 2013

News & Features

Home chargers have powerful appeal for EV drivers

San Jose Mercury News


Blink's home charging station is $1,495, available through the company. Home chargers also can be found at home-improvement stores. (Blink)

Shinya Fujimoto bought his Nissan Leaf during heady times for electric-vehicle fans. It was spring 2011, when there was so much anticipation over a shipment of these all-electric vehicles from Japan to the West Coast that someone climbed aboard a chopper, shot photos of the cars on shipboard on their way to Southern California and posted them on a blog popular among plug-in vehicle owners.

"These people were crazy," says Fujimoto, a Fremont, Calif., resident who admits to being such an enthusiast that he keeps Excel spreadsheets to illustrate the savings his Leaf has brought over the gasoline-powered vehicle he drove before. (It's been about $100 to $150 per month, he says.)

When Fujimoto's shiny baby-blue Nissan finally arrived in July 2011 — after delays caused by Japan's tsunami — he already had a key piece of equipment waiting for it: a home charging station.

"I wanted to make sure I got it before I got the car," says Fujimoto. His 240-volt Blink-manufactured station was installed a month before the car arrived.

Technically speaking, the charger itself is in the vehicle, and the plug-in station designed to deliver the charge most efficiently is known as the Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment, or EVSE.

Generally, electric vehicles, or EVs, can be charged by plugging in the car's charging cable to a regular household outlet, which in most cases delivers about 120 volts. But EV owners refer to the juice flowing through such "Level 1" stations as a "trickle charge." On a Level 1 power source, it takes up to 21 hours for a Nissan Leaf, for example, to go from zero to a full charge.

A Level 2 AC charger, which delivers from 208 to 240 volts, takes eight hours or less. That is why an EVSE that is more efficient than a Level 1 outlet is found in more and more homes of EV owners.

In general, preparing a home for a charging station is as simple as wiring the residence to power a clothes dryer, says Jason Smith, San Francisco regional sales manager for ECOtality. His company oversees the EV Project, which, until March, installed chargers for free to qualifying Leaf and Chevrolet Volt owners in several major cities, including Seattle.

Level 2 EV chargers, he explains, require a 40-amp circuit breaker, which most of today's homes already have. "The primary consideration is that there is a spare breaker on your main panel," Smith says. If so, "the installation is quite routine." He adds that the work should be done by a licensed electrician, and the installation requires a permit from the community where the EV driver lives. Older homes may require an electrical system upgrade, adding to the cost. Also, permit costs vary from community to community.

These days, you can purchase charging stations at stores such as Lowe's and Home Depot, as well as at Amazon.com. But before selecting a station, EV drivers need to check their owners' manuals and contact their auto dealers and utility companies to make sure their units are fully compatible with their cars, take full advantage of their charging capabilities and are likely to remain usable as EVs continue to improve.

Boning up on electricity basics may make shopping for a station easier. Those who do so find that voltage refers essentially to how much electricity is available, and amperage to how fast that electricity is delivered.

The 2013 Leaf, for example, has a 24-amp charging capability, upgraded from the 2012 model. So if a driver of the 2013 model purchased a 240-volt, 16-amp station, the vehicle would charge slower than it could with a 24-amp station. Conversely, an EV with a 16-amp charging capability will charge no faster if attached to a 24-amp station.

Stations can also be purchased directly from manufacturers such as Blink, whose Level 2 home model retails for $1,495. ECOtality has installed a few of Blink's "Cadillac" charging stations — fast 480-volt DC chargers that can deliver a full charge in just 25 minutes.


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