Cheap Charging: Level II Doesn't Have to Cost $2,000
Let’s face it, electric vehicle charging is overpriced for what you get. At an average of $2,000 for an installed 240-volt Level II garage charger, people are getting hosed. And that’s why the search is on for a cheaper alternative.
Going the budget route usually means 120-volt house current, and a long overnight of charging (20 hours in the Nissan LEAF, for instance), but not always. Manufacturers are cutting prices and offering some pretty cool options. Siemens, for instance, just introduced a 240-volt wall charger, the VersiCharge, that’s designed to sell for less than $1,000. Installation may not cost anything at all because the Siemens unit comes set to plug into a dedicated 30-amp, 240-volt outlet. Even if you don't have a 240-volt dryer-type outlet, one can be installed for around $200 (better to have an electrician do it).
Install it Yourself
The price is significant, because chargers that plug in are typically more expensive than hard-wired units. The VersiCharge is available in both 30- and 70-amp models, and both are adjustable—the 30-amp model from 1.8 to 7.2 kilowatts, and the 70-amp unit up to 16.8 kilowatts. The chargers are set up to communicate wirelessly with Zigbee-enabled devices, including smart meters, and both can be upgraded to access cellular networks or Wi-Fi.
Two cool features, especially considering the price: there’s a “dashboard” that gives you the current price of electricity, and a smart socket that enables communication with your utility so charging can be controlled remotely during peak demand times.
The 120-Volt Option
Most EVs come with a 120-volt charging cable that allows a quick plug-in no matter where you are. Phil Sadow, a California-based electrical engineer, has applied an “upgrade” (its word) to Nissan’s cable that allows it to also charge at 240 volts. Send Sadow your cable, and for $239 he sends it back ready to plug into a 240-volt outlet (while retaining 120 charging). If you don’t have your own cable to supply, the cost is actually as high as the Leviton or Siemens units, $979.
The EVSEupgrade.com cables have proven popular among Leaf owners, but are they a good bet? Automakers and charging companies universally discourage EV owners from using “hacked” cables. “How safe do you think it is?” asks Pat Romano, president and CEO of charging company Coulomb Technologies. “The Nissan cable is rated for 120 volts. If you make aftermarket modifications there’s a risk of fire.” It's not surprising that Coulomb would cast doubt on a product that's considered just as capable of getting the job done, at a significantly lower price than what it's offering.
Playing With Fire?
There's the same resistance to portable 240-volt charging from carmakers. Rich Steinberg, BMW’s manager of EV operations and strategy, likened buying a modified charging cable to “playing with fire.” Steinberg's position—some would call it alarmist—may be more technocratic in nature. He points to the voluntary National Electric Code (NEC), which says in article 625 that 120-volt, 15- or 20-amp charging equipment “shall be permitted to be cord and plug connected,” but all other EVSEs “shall be permanently connected and fastened in place.” That means wall mounted.
That regulation explains why we don’t have racks full of commercial 240-volt charging cords, but at 120 volts they’re imminently marketable. And a company called PlugSmart, partnered with TE Connectivity, is set to introduce a relatively low-priced “smart” 120-volt charging cable. According to Dave Zehala, PlugSmart executive vice president of business development, the unit could be sold at big-box stores in the $300 to $400 range.
Aaron Martlage, vice president of global strategy at PlugSmart, said that NEC rules don’t have the force of law, but are widely respected. He said that PlugSmart won’t be getting into the 240-volt business, but its 120-volt cord is aimed at two markets: Consumers who might want a means of plugging in at home or on the road, and workplace use, with users connecting to separately metered house-current outlets. Although 120-charging may not be effective for plug-in electric cars with large battery packs, Martlage said it is ideally suited to the plug-in hybrids (with smaller packs) that he expects to be dominant in the marketplace.
Martlage said the device is set up to make it easy for employers to bill users for the electricity they consume at such outlets. “It’s not just a glorified extension cord—we think there’s a market for a superior Level I charger,” he said. “The unit authenticates with the socket and identifies the user, avoiding the workplace problem that free electricity could be seen as ‘ordinary income’ to the employee. The unit is also lockable, to prevent anyone unauthorized from disconnecting it during a charge.” A pilot program begins in December, and the unit, with no final price yet, will be widely available in early 2012.
Make it Portable
Leviton, in its Evr-Green line, makes a fully portable 120-volt charger for $950. It features, among other things, a carrying handle and automatic restart if the charge is interrupted.
According to John Hewitt, a TE Connectivity vice president, “Ubiquitous, cost-effective connectivity is essential in this market.” And that’s why Nissan’s latest move, though it has nothing to do with home charging, is significant. The company announced last week a 480-volt DC fast charger priced at under $10,000. That’s huge, considering some fast chargers are priced as high as $50,000.
DC fast charging takes only about half hour for most battery EVs, but the limitations of home electric service means you’re going to be encountering these units mostly in restaurant parking lots (Cracker Barrel is installing a network of them in Tennessee) and gas stations (Nissan is negotiating with several large chains).
Still, a cheaper DC fast charger will probably mean lower-cost public fill-ups for EV owners, and it’s a very welcome development. EV charging is still a work in progress, and further bargains are likely to start cropping up.
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