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Electric-Car Owners Use Special Chargers at Home

Fremont, Calif., resident 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,” said Fujimoto, 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 said.)

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,” said 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.” A Level 1 power source takes up to 21 hours for a Nissan Leaf, for example, to go from zero to a full charge. A preferred 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, said Jason Smith, San Francisco regional sales manager for ECOtality. His company oversees the EV Project, which installs chargers for free to qualifying Leaf and Chevrolet Volt owners in some parts of the country. 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 said. If so, “the installation is quite routine.” He added 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 in the future, 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, will have a 24-amp charging capability, upgraded from the 2012 model. So if a driver of the 2013 model were to purchase 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. Blink’s Level 2 stations are also being installed at workplaces and in public spaces such as parking garages as part of the EV Project. ECOtality has installed a few of Blink’s “Cadillac” charging stations, fast 480-volt DC chargers can deliver a full charge in just 25 minutes.

Long charging times and relatively short mileage ranges from a single charge are the biggest factors that drive potential customers away from EV ownership at present. The Tesla has the longest range, but it comes with a higher price tag than the competitors. Under the program, which is funded in part by the U.S. Department of Energy, 6,500 chargers have been installed in homes throughout the United States.

The amount covered for installation cost is as low as $400 in some regions. To receive a charging station for free through the EV Project, the homeowner must agree to share data from it with the federal government. Data collected so far from the stations of Leaf and Chevrolet Volt drivers since 2009 covers 63 million miles of travel and offers a wealth of information on EV trends, including an increase in use of chargers away from home, according to Smith.