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living with the leaf

Charger for his Nissan Leaf installed.

There's often a sense of sticker shock when a single option pushes past the $2,000 mark. Perhaps that's why auto makers like to dress up these big features as option "packages," to make it seem like you're getting more than just a rear DVD player or pricey GPS system. With plug-in electric vehicles, ordering up a $2,000+ charger (installed) for your garage is almost mandatory in pure battery electric vehicles, and a popular option for Volt buyers.

Having bought a regular gas-powered, factory-fresh car in the past, and our new Nissan Leaf recently, I can honestly say that these processes contrasted almost as much as the vehicle's powertrains. The home inspection needed before installing a charger, the scheduling and installation of the EVSE (Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment), and the subsequent near-daily interaction with this ionic appliance in your garage is one of the biggest differences of the whole EV experience.

With a regular car, there's a sense of finality about heading down to the dealership. You're going there because you've done your homework, looked into the incentives on it and the others on your shortlist, and are ready to pick up your shiny new wheels, as long as the test drive or dealer staff doesn't put you off enough to run out of there screaming.

Ideally, you'll have test driven all of your short list, but we didn't, and industry surveys suggest most buyers don't either.

With a plug-in car, there's less immediate gratification, since there are more hoops to jump through no matter which vehicle you're considering. You'll be lucky to find any available EV to test drive in Ontario, never mind take one home upon your first trip to a dealership. Even if an EV demo is on the lot, prying the keys for even a drive around the block is tough, as dealers in Ontario must keep the vehicles under a 500 km cap in order to qualify for the provincial rebate of up to $8,500.

But the ordering process, either at the dealer or online, gets more personal when you select your car's colour, options and accessories. This makes it more typical of the car buying process in Europe or Japan than in "I'll take that one NOW" North America.

Getting Ready

Some plug-in car buyers may not need an EVSE at all. For the upcoming 2013 Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid or Honda Accord PHEV, there's not much point in investing thousands of dollars in a charger when a regular wall socket can top up their small batteries in three to four hours. GM estimates that its low-cost SPX chargers will cost about $1,100 installed, making it a tempting but not quite necessary investment, reducing recharge times to four hours from a still reasonable 10 hours on a regular 110V outlet. But it's a must-have for any BEV owner in Canada.

Once you decide you need a charger, you'll need to set up a home inspection with an electrician who will inspect your electrical panel and hardware and judge how big of a job it will be based on where you'd like the charger. Since someone has to be at home to wander around the property inside and outside, plan on half a day of missed work here, unless you can convince someone to come out in the evening.

After that came perhaps the toughest part of our transition to an EV world: cleaning out our tight single car garage to actually fit a car again. We had long become accustomed to parking our cars solely in the driveway, the garage becoming an increasingly full warehouse. This left us with a full storage room in the basement, and a shed in the yard that's almost bursting at the seams.

From there, we hoped for good news on our price quote from partner AeroVironment on a Nissan-branded charger. Nissan estimates an average install price of about $2,000-$2,500, so we were hoping for a figure starting with a "1," or in the low 2s. Final estimate: $3,187. Ouch.

What makes the price vary? A number of things: whether you have the required 40 amp service (60-100 or higher is preferred), whether you'd like a basic 16 or 30 amp charger, and how far away your fuse box is from the EVSE – more than 30 or 50 feet, as mine was, and you're paying more for a custom install. Unfinished basements are a plus, as it makes it easier to sneak wires from the electrical panel to the garage without tearing anything up.

Eaton is the preferred EVSE partner for Mitsubishi with its i-MiEV, and like AeroVironment with Nissan, offers the convenience of rolling the cost of the charger into your car payment. Eaton estimates an average standard installation cost of between $2,300-$2,800. Both companies offer certified electricians trained on testing those particular units. Nissan's Leaf owner portal puts you in direct contact with California company AeroVironment as well as their local installers, while Eaton directs consumers to its site to see their charger lineup and find a local Eaton-certified installer.

This is the safest option, but likely the priciest too. Some buyers, especially ones who want to install EVSEs at both home and work, are going direct to the manufacturer and buying the units online (at anywhere from $500-$1,300), then finding their own licensed electrician willing to install it. From there, the electricians arrange the needed electrical inspection and permits for a couple hundred dollars. All in, some buyers have reported a savings of up to 50 per cent going this route, at the cost of some convenience and specialized training.

We ended up installing a 32 amp Eaton charger, which is a new stainless steel residential unit that will pump in up to 7.7 kW, which is about the same as Nissan's AeroVironment unit. With the Leaf's 3.3 kW onboard charger, it will take about seven hours to charge the car with either device. When cars such as the Ford Focus EV with faster 7.7 onboard capability arrive, charge times from empty should be closer to four hours.

As an early EV adopter, we also qualified for a Toronto Hydro program that had them install a separate meter and associated wiring direct to the garage, which allows them to track exactly how the electricity pull from the EVSE impacts the grid, as well as how much its time-of-use rates affect charging patterns. It also means I have the privilege of receiving and paying for two electricity bills every billing cycle.

But the key benefit is that I can see exactly how much the Leaf and the occasional plug-in press car are costing me, instead of trying to decipher how much each bill has increased over the same period compared to last year's bill. So I'll be reporting on exactly how much my wife's regular daily commute is costing in electricity, as well as whether the Leaf can hold a charge sitting in a cold airport parking lot for four days.

Toronto Hydro says it has plenty of capacity for even the most optimistic number of predicted plug-in sales in the city over the next few years, but what they're more concerned about is clustering. If many EVs are charging up on the same planet-friendly street/neighbourhood simultaneously, there could be a need for local hardware updates to deal with the extra strain on the rapidly aging electrical infrastructure. So the utility is encouraging all plug-in owners to call them and let them know where they're located, and where they usually plug in, to help them closely monitor those zones.

Now that we've had the Leaf for a few weeks, all that preparation for EV life seems a long time ago – and we're actually looking forward to receiving our first "fuel" bill in the mail.


Correction: The original version of this story erroneously implied that the AeroVironment EVSE was a 3.3 kW unit, instead of the correct 7.2 kW. It is the Nissan Leaf's onboard 3.3 kW charger that limits full recharge times from 0 to full to about seven hours using both the AeroVironment and Eaton 7.2 units, while vehicles like the Ford Focus EV with a larger 6.6 kW onboard charger should shorten this time closer to four hours using either of these EVSEs."