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Fox Around the House

Prepping your home for an electric car

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This Friday, March 25, 2011 photo shows James Brazell as he poses with a charging unit for his Chevy Volt electric car at his home in Asheville, N.C. Brazell plugs the car in after short trips. "Pretty much I top it up every time I bring it into the garage," he said. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

After years of promises, 2012 might finally prove to be the year of the electric car. With offerings from Nissan, Chevrolet already available, and more models hitting the market later this year, the promise of a zero-emission vehicle is becoming a reality. But before you rush off to buy one of these green machines, know that plugging in an electric car isn’t necessarily as simple as plugging in a toaster. In order to make the most of an electric car, you’re going to need to make a few changes to your home.

It’s All Comes Down to Voltage

Electric cars might save you money at the pump, but they sure don’t save you time filling up. A typical electric car, like Nissan’s LEAF, takes upwards of 20 hours to recharge a fully drained battery when using an standard 120-volt outlet. While this might not be a problem for those looking to buy a second car for occasional outings, it certainly won’t cut it if an electric car is meant to be your primary vehicle.

In order to achieve a quicker charge, you’ll need to hire an electrician to install a 240-volt, 40-amp line that connects directly to the circuit breaker, a hookup similar to the one you might have for an electric oven or clothes dryer. With the increase in voltage, you can cut your charging time down to seven hours for a Nissan LEAF and four hours for the Chevy Volt, which means an overnight charge makes it a more practical purchase for daily use.

Super-fast charging stations capable of pumping out 480 volts are already on the market, and can recharge a car in 30 minutes or less. But these souped-up charging stations are currently for commercial use only because most homes can’t handle the kind of voltage and amperage required, at least not without some major rewiring of the power grid.

The Charging Station

In order to take advantage of your new high-voltage line, you’ll need a charging station capable of handling the 240-volt current. A number of companies, like Blink and Leviton, have charging stations on the market and some are even rewarding early adopters by giving the stations away for free through grants from the federal government.

In addition to slashing charging times, these stations are also capable of smart energy management, scheduling charging times for off-peak hours, which can potentially save you money.

Before installing a charging station, the first thing you’ll want to do is figure out where to put the cord. While the cables on these chargers will give you several feet of leeway, you don’t want to pull your brand new electric car into your garage only to find that the cord is a foot too short to reach the car. So measure and plan the proper placement before the electrician sinks the new socket into the wall.

Once you have a 240-volt socket installed, adding a charging station is really no more difficult than installing a shelf. A stud finder and a drill should be all that’s required.

If you’re looking to go the extra mile with your eco-friendly car, you can link up the charging station to a solar system, like the one from SunPower, which can help keep your electricity costs in check, making a cheap alternative to gas even cheaper. Of course, as with the electric cars themselves, solar upgrades and smarter charging stations are investments, which may or may not pay off depending on a number of factors, like the cost of energy in your area and whether your state offers rebates or subsidies for cleaner, greener tech.

Putting it All Together

If all this seems a little overwhelming, don’t worry. Most electric car dealers will stop by your house to do a site assessment, making sure that you have everything you need and that your electrical hookups meet the requirements. Some companies even promise to go the extra mile and handle the installation of the charging station on your behalf.