We bought an electric car (Chevy Bolt EV) back in September and thought I’d write up some of the things that I’ve learned over the last three months. I’m mostly writing this from the perspective of a Bolt owner, so I’m talking about this vehicle unless I say otherwise.
The Bolt has a range of 238 EPA miles, and we were able to get it relatively inexpensively thanks to the VW TDI Settlement, a sales tax waiver in Washington, and the EV federal tax credit.
We knew going in that we very rarely drive more than 200 miles in a day, so this range is pretty good. We also were able to get a charger at home, so we can take advantage of cheap power in Seattle. With the diesel and some Safeway gas trickery, we were paying about 4.7 cents per highway mile and 9.1 cents per city mile. In the Bolt, we’re paying about 3-5 cents per mile depending on the driving style and speed. This comes to roughly half of what we would typically pay in fuel, not counting that we can charge for free in some places.
Low cost of Maintenance
One of the things that’s a bit of a surprise with this vehicle is how little maintenance it requires. There’s no oil changes needed because there’s no fuel system. Brakes last forever because regenerative braking is mostly used to bring the car to a stop, with the mechanical brakes used last. There is a single gear, so don’t need a transmission. Power steering is electric, not hydraulic. Practically speaking, this means that there is very little to break and maintain, which reduces the cost of owning the vehicle.
The 2017 Bolt EV Maintenance Schedule calls for rotating tires at 7,000 mile intervals up to 142,000 miles, and replacing the cooling fluid at 150,000 miles. There are obviously some things that you want to do as needed, like topping up washer fluid, replacing bulbs, replacing wipers, fixing alignment, etc., but there’s really not much there.
The mental model for charging is a bit different then the mental model for refueling.
If you don’t really want to drive outside of the area surrounding where you live, then you just plug in at home and you don’t worry about it. It only gets a little bit complicated when you want to drive to another city, in which case you’ll probably need to do some planning. For this purpose, I’ve found that Plugshare does the best job helping you do that.
For figuring out how to plan a trip outside where you live, it’s useful to separate the charging types that you can do into slow (“NEMA 5-15, otherwise known as a regular 120V/15A wall outlet”), fast (“J1772”), and very fast (“DCFC/CCS”). For a large battery like the one in our car (60kWh), slow can take a few days from completely empty, but you can do better than that with the other standards.
If the distance that you’re traveling doesn’t wear down your battery all the way, then great, you’re done, just charge at home. We can make it to the Olympic National Park and back without having to recharge, depending on conditions.
If a very fast charger (“DCFC/CCS”) is available where you’re going, you really only need about an hour to fill it from empty to full. Sometimes they’re located near restaurants, so this is a nice time to stop for a meal. Unfortunately, they’re also less common than you’d like because there are more than one standard for doing this, installation of a station is relatively expensive, and CCS is the new kid on the block compared to older standards like CHAdeMO and Tesla Supercharging.
If a fast charger (“J1772”) is available, then you need to plan a bit more. If you’re just getting a few extra miles of range to make the trip work, then you can probably plug in for an hour or two and be set. More likely though, you might need to charge overnight. To do this, you’ll have to plan to park near someplace that makes one available. In the Pacific Northwest, there are a surprising number of hotels that have them available for guests, so this isn’t very difficult.
If only regular wall outlets are available, then you’ll need to lock the charger to your car and plug in for a while. If you’re driving to an airport, sometimes these are provided by the facilities. If you’re driving to an AirBnB that has an outlet available and you’re staying for a few days, such as on Orcas Island, then this might be perfectly fine.
Note that if you’re using public charging networks, it would be a good idea to order RFID cards for the networks that you want to use. They’re unfortunately not very interoperable, and while you can use their phone apps to start stations, sometimes the app is broken.
For that matter, public charging stations can be often broken, so it’s helpful to look on Plugshare before trying to head to one. We ended up getting cards for Chargepoint, Blink, EVgo, Semacharge and Greenlots. I’d get the one for Aerovironment, but they have a monthly fee and they’re relatively rare.
While existing stations are the easiest to use, you might find that they aren’t available where you want to go. In a pinch, you can use regular 240V power to charge a little bit faster. You can get access to this in the form of dryer plugs, RV plugs, or by combining two legs of non-GFCI 120V power together with a Quick 220 box.
Doing one of those things will allow you to replenish your car overnight, as long as you have your own charging station for that. The lowest cost way to do this is to use an undocumented feature of the OEM station to make operate at 240V with a plug adapter. It still can only charge at a maximum of 12A, but it will go twice as fast as it would otherwise.
If you don’t mind spending a little bit of money, you can pick up a portable charging station that will let you plug into an existing 240V outlet while you’re on the go, such as the Zencar 32A EVSE. The linked one will work out of the box for RV plugs, but you’ll need to set it up to charge at lower currents if you get an adapter for that to a smaller plug.
Another thing you can do is pick up a JDapter to use Tesla destination charging stations. You can often find these for $200 with a code or from different manufacturers. These will let you charge at some hotels or restaurants that otherwise only support Tesla charging. Note that these adapters don’t get you the ability to use Tesla supercharging stations, since those use different pins that the Bolt doesn’t have.
Things Electric Cars Don’t Do
It seems like one big hangup folks have with an electric car is the lack of the ability to do roadtrips. I think given the current state of fast charging, and how complicated it can possibly be to get your vehicle charged someplace without regular stations, that’s still true. Even if you have a large battery and fast chargers available, you’re still going to be stopping for an hour at a time to top up your battery. It’s possible, but inconvenient in 2017.
That said, I’ve only been on a handful of cross-country road trips, and most of them involved moving things between cities. I’ve only actually done it with my own car once, and that’s because I was moving to Seattle from Houston.
If I found that tomorrow I needed to travel between Seattle and say, New York City and couldn’t fly, I’d probably rent a car for a week or two and put the miles on a rental car.
I don’t own a truck because the vast majority of the time, I don’t need the space of a truck. You’re trading fuel economy and safety for that space, so it’s not free to have.
Similarly, gas powered cars cost more to own, at least out in Seattle, and I don’t often need to go places where I can’t charge up on the way, so it doesn’t make sense to own a gas car over renting one when I need it.
If I’m driving to Portland, OR or Vancouver, BC, I do need to plan a little bit, but not as much as I thought I would.
I could see towing being a big deal for some folks, since most electric cars don’t say that you can use them for towing. If you need that (I don’t), you probably will need a truck or larger car for now.
All in all, happy to have an electric car. They’re really inexpensive to operate and are fun to drive. I think they’re ready for prime time if you have a place you can consistently charge and you don’t have to commute more than a few hours a day.
For more specialized uses, such as road trips, towing, or moving furniture, it’s not going to do the job, but that’s okay.