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Electric vehicles: More than plug and go

SAN JOSE, Calif. — You've reserved your electric vehicle and can't wait to zip around town in an all-electric Nissan Leaf, plug-in Chevrolet Volt or one of the other models soon to hit the road.

But choosing the EV that's right for you is just the first step. You will need a reliable place to charge up your electric car, and for most people that means getting a charging station installed in their garage — a process likely to require a permit and signoff from your local building inspector.

Among the questions to ask yourself: What kind of home charging system does the automaker advise you to get? How many miles do you expect to drive each day? What time do you expect to start charging your car? Most important, have you told your utility company you plan to get one?

The first wave of mainstream electric vehicles will hit showrooms by the end of this year, and automakers and utilities alike are eager for consumers to get their home charging equipment installed before they drive their cars off the lot. But because many cities are struggling with budget deficits that have included layoffs of building inspectors, getting a charging station installed can be a 30- to 45-day process. Electric vehicle advocates are working to streamline the permitting process to spare consumers frustrating hassles.

There are two levels of home charging. Level 1 uses a common 120-volt outlet and doesn't require anything new: You can basically plug your vehicle into an existing three-pronged wall outlet. But it's slow, taking eight to 14 hours to charge up most cars.

Level 2 charging, at 240 volts, is twice as fast and is the type of charging most consumers are expected to install. Nissan is telling its Leaf customers that the home charging dock will require a 220/240V, 40-amp dedicated circuit connected to a breaker. The charging dock will need to be hard-wired directly to the circuit by a certified electrician.

Apartment and condo dwellers, or those who park on the street, will need to make other arrangements.

"If you live in an apartment or condo, you need to start having the discussion about EV charging with your landlord or homeowners association," said Chelsea Sexton, an electric vehicle marketing expert. "Or have the conversation with your workplace. You need a reliable place for day-to-day charging, and if it's not at home, it ought to be at work."

But the wild enthusiasm for electric vehicles in certain affluent ZIP codes creates numerous challenges. Utilities are worried that if several EV chargers are installed in the same neighborhood and used at the same time, it could result in overloads on transformers, the pole-mounted devices that transfer electricity from one circuit to another.

That's one reason the city of Palo Alto, Calif., requires a permit, with building and electrical plans, before any charging equipment can be installed.

Other utilities have launched consumer-education programs or plan to inspect home charging stations to make sure they interface with the larger electric grid in a safe way.

Are you "EV"-ready?

If you plan to buy an electric car, here are a few questions to consider:

• What kind of home charging system does the automaker advise you to get?

• Do you have a garage?

• How many miles do you expect to drive each day?

• What time do you expect to begin charging your car?

• Have you called your utility company and told them of your plans to get an electric vehicle?

Electric vehicles: More than plug and go 10/07/10 [Last modified: Thursday, October 7, 2010 5:30am]
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