Prepping Your Garage for an Electric Car

With gas prices rising and instability in the Middle East, the thought of an electric car in the garage might be getting more appealing.

Before you jump for the new technology, though, make sure your garage is ready to be a refueling station.

Depending on which car you buy and how old your home is, it could cost a couple thousand dollars to prep the garage so you can charge a car quickly enough to take off for work in the morning with a full battery.

Then again, it could cost nothing at all.

Start with the age of the home. Older houses may not have enough juice to handle an electric car. Fifty years ago, who would have thought we'd be plugging in cars at night?

So the garage may have to be rewired. According to experts, you need at least a 12-amp circuit to charge a car in a reasonable amount of time. You also need a circuit in the garage with little or nothing else on it. Anything else drawing power from the same circuit can slow the charging.

Even if you have a dedicated circuit in the garage, it still may not work for you. Most garages have standard 120-volt outlets. But a dedicated 240-volt outlet, similar to the kind that powers an electric dryer, can cut the charging time in half. That's important depending on the electric car you buy.

Two mass-market electric cars, the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf, have different power systems and different charging needs. The Leaf is all electric and can go up to 100 miles on a single charge. But it needs more juice than the Volt to refill the batteries. It takes eight hours to recharge a Leaf even with a 240-volt circuit, double that at 120 volts.

The Volt can only go about 40 miles on battery power, but it has a small gas motor on board that can keep the car going when the battery runs out. With its smaller battery pack, it can be recharged in 10 hours even on 120 volts, five hours or less at 240.

GM estimates that recharging the Volt will add no more than about $1.50 per day to your electric bill, based on the national average electricity cost of 11 cents per kilowatt hour.

AeroVironment, the company that makes charging stations for Nissan, recommends outfitting your garage with a special 240-volt station. The basic station begins charging when you plug the car in; a smart station can start charging later in the evening when the load on the power company grid is lower.

Either way, you'll need an electrician who knows about car charging to figure out your needs and hook the 240-volt station to a dedicated 40-amp circuit, said Kristen Helsel, vice president of electric vehicle solutions for AeroVironment.

"This is no different than installing an appliance or something else," she said. "We need to take the power from your breaker box and run it to where you want the charging station installed."

Charging stations also are available from other manufacturers. Helsel said it will cost about $2,000 to buy the dock and standard installation services by an electrician when done through AeroVironment and a Nissan dealership.

The Volt, however, may not need anything. If you have a dedicated circuit in your garage, General Motors, which makes the car, recommends charging the car first on 120 volts before spending the cash on a 240-volt charging station.

"Most cars are parked more than 10 hours," said Britta Gross, GM's director of electrical infrastructure. "If I were a consumer, I would always try 120 first, and if you're not satisfied, then you can consider the 240-volt upgrade."

The Volt has a setting that lets the owner pick the time by which the car has to be recharged fully, and the car can wait to start charging. The Leaf has a timer so the owner can set on and off times for charging based on the day of the week.

The Volt charger from GM costs $495, and about $1,500 to install, although it could be more depending on how much work is needed at the house, Gross said.

And whether you need a special charging station depends on how far you drive. If you go only 20 miles a day, a 120-volt outlet will work for either car because the battery doesn't have to be fully charged every night.

Gross said she's working to change building codes so that all garages have 240-volt outlets to charge cars, but she conceded that will take years. Many auto industry analysts say it will be years before electric cars are in a lot of garages because cars powered by internal combustion engines will continue to get more efficient.

A 120-volt outlet wouldn't work for James Brazell, 84, of Asheville, N.C., one of the first people in the country to buy a Volt. He didn't want to use any gasoline, yet he makes several short trips per day, and on some days, when he attends class at the University of North Carolina Asheville, he will drive 51 miles, more than the Volt's electric range.

At first, he used the standard outlet in the garage of his home at a retirement community, but he ended up using a half-gallon of gasoline in four days. Then the charger he ordered from GM arrived at a cost of $530 including shipping. An electrician in his community installed it for an estimated $300, although he hasn't received the final bill.

Now he plugs the car in after short trips. "Pretty much I top it up every time I bring it into the garage," he said.

Before the charging station, the 120-volt outlet didn't charge his car much between trips, he said.

Even though he's a retired oil company executive, Brazell knows that the country will need to change the way it gets around because oil is a finite resource. And he likes driving by gas stations.

"It makes me feel good, especially when gasoline went up 30 cents a gallon the day I got the car back here."