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The Beginner's Guide to Electric Cars

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Mario Gutiérrez / Moment / Getty Images

By Emily Long

Electric vehicles (EVs) are getting cheaper — so whether you're looking for a way to save on the hassle and cost of gas, shrink your carbon footprint, or simply zip around in a new Tesla, there are lots of reasons to consider a hybrid or electric car.


But before you go electric, there are a few decisions you have to make — and some planning you need to do — to make sure the car you buy fits your driving needs. Here are a few things to consider before you make the switch.

Decide Whether to Go With a Plug-In Hybrid or Full EV

While a conventional hybrid (HEV) relies on its gasoline engine and a small battery to work in tandem, a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) can operate on its battery alone — and burn no fuel — for a limited number of miles before the engine starts up to help.

If you never plug your PHEV in, it'll act just like a regular hybrid with the engine and battery trading off. So while you can charge your plug-in hybrid to get the benefits of battery-only driving over a short distance, you don't have to.

A full EV, on the other hand, relies solely on its battery for power — which means it has to be charged regularly.

Calculate Your Costs

There are a few elements to comparing the cost of an EV versus a conventional car. One is the cost to drive your vehicle off the lot. EVs are still more expensive up front: $55,600 compared to an industry median of $36,600. The median cost of a PHEV is somewhere in the middle (around $46,000).

Some electric cars qualify you for up to $7,500 in federal tax credits plus additional rebates and credits offered by your state or city. Some PHEVs have slightly lower credits than full EVs.

If you install Level 2 home charging equipment, that'll add to your upfront cost (more on that in a minute).

But the real difference is in long-term costs, which vary widely based on factors like the car make and model; gas and electricity prices where you live; when and where you charge your EV; maintenance costs; and how much you drive.

For example, it's likely that your energy costs will be lower with an EV (electricity) versus a conventional car (gas) and somewhere in the middle with a PHEV. Use a calculator (like the FuelEconomy.gov's Plug-in Hybrid tool and eGallon comparison) to get a ballpark figure.

Install a Charger at Home

Depending on where you live, you may be able to rely on public charging stations to keep your EV's battery full. But many electric car owners say that it's much easier and more convenient to install a charger at your home if you're able. Your vehicle is likely to spend the largest chunks of idle time parked in your garage or driveway, so if you can charge there you'll save yourself the hassle of waiting at a station.

If you live in an apartment or have to park on the street or in a public lot, you may be out of luck on this (unless you can convince your landlord or property manager to install charging equipment).

Setting up home charging is pretty straightforward. You can plug a Level 1 charger right into a standard 120V outlet, though this will juice up your vehicle very slowly (2–5 miles per hour, according to Energy Department estimates).

A Level 2 charger uses 240V, costs anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $1,000 or more to install, and works much faster — adding anywhere from about 10 to 20 (or more, for some models) miles of range per hour of charging. You can install this type of charger yourself or hire an electrician. Make sure you get the right parts for your vehicle. Tesla, for example, has a specific hardware and installation guide for its cars.

Take Advantage of Free Charging (and Downtime)

Charging at home will add a little bit to your electricity bill, and some charging stations do require you to pay for juicing up your EV. But there are lots of ways to charge for free.

For example, your office may provide charging stations for employees so you can leave your car plugged in for part of your workday. Some hotels, restaurants, and stores offer charging for patrons. You can also find nearby public charging stations that are free using maps like ChargePoint and PlugShare (which have filters for paid vs. free stations).

Note that public charging stations often have time limits (similar to parking restrictions). Make sure you check signage and observe any posted rules.

Plus, you can use any time you're not driving — and any location where you can plug into a 120V outlet — as an opportunity to charge (at your friends' homes, at your Airbnb, etc.).

Plan Your Driving Routes Ahead of Time

Your vehicle's range may be one of the biggest limitations to consider before you buy. Most EVs have a range of fewer than 300 miles, which makes longer trips difficult unless you can find charging stations along the way. PHEVs have very short driving ranges per charge — generally enough for commuting or running errands — but will switch to gas when needed.

Since there are far more gas stations than charging stations, driving a full EV over longer distances requires some planning. Google Maps shows you nearby stations and what kind of equipment is available if you search "EV Charging" or "EV Charging Stations." Apps like ChargeHub and PlugShare offer similar mapping features.

Depending on where and how much you drive, an EV's range may be plenty. But if you travel a lot, you may end up frustrated with charging stops and route planning if an EV is your only option. If charging stations are few and far between, if there's a line of cars already waiting, or if you simply don't want to stop for longer than a lunch break, this could get really old, really fast.

A possible workaround: if you road trip less frequently, rent a car as needed for distances beyond your EV's range. Or go with a PHEV, which can switch to gas for longer journeys.

Use the Right Charging Equipment

If you have to charge your car away from home, make sure you use the right combination of charger and plug. Most vehicles have a standard J1772 port that connects with a Level 1 or Level 2 charging unit. Some cars can also connect to faster Level 3 charging equipment using one of a few different connectors (called CHAdeMO and SAE Combo).

Teslas can hook up to proprietary Supercharger stations, though Tesla also has J1772 and CHAdeMO adapters for stations outside of its network.

Your car's specs should outline which connectors and charging systems your EV can use (or it's something you'll learn on day one of ownership). It is possible that not every charging station you encounter will have fast charging options, but you should be able to connect to any Level 2 charger with or without a J1772 adapter.

Maintain Your Vehicle

EVs don't require regular oil changes like gas-powered cars. But that doesn't mean you can simply charge and go. You still have to attend to other standard-issue car maintenance tasks and regularly inflate and rotate your tires, change your wiper blades, and keep an eye on brake pads. Some EV drivers report that underinflated tires can significantly affect your car's range. Basically, maintenance matters.

But most EVs come with much less frequent maintenance checks than conventional cars (case in point: the Chevy Bolt has no scheduled maintenance outside of tire rotations every 7,500 miles, air filter changes every 22,500 miles, and coolant flushes every 150,000 miles). There may be some minimal maintenance required on batteries and electronics, and of course, things can unexpectedly go haywire.

By contrast, PHEVs will be on similar schedules to conventional cars because they still have gas engines and associated fluids.

Depending on your specific service needs, your neighborhood mechanic may not be equipped for the job (if specialty tools are required, for example). In that case, you may need to seek out a dealer who works on your EV model.

Prepare for Extreme Temperatures

EVs have some quirks in cold weather. All cars are slightly less efficient in the winter, but EVs lose some of their range (25 percent or more) because batteries are very sensitive to temperature. Plus, it takes energy to power climate control — whether you're running the heat or the air conditioning.

One way around this is to precondition your EV while it's plugged into your charger — this warms the car and the battery so stored energy goes toward powering your actual drive. It's similar to turning on your gas-powered car's heat before you actually need to get in and drive away, but with most EVs, you can turn on or schedule this function with a connected app. Heating both your battery and your EV's cabin ahead of time means you'll be warmer and your car will be more efficient despite the cold weather. You can also set preconditioning to work in the summer so your car is nice and cool for your commute.

With a PHEV, heat relies on the gas engine. If you want to stay on battery power, turn on your heated seats until you can't handle the cold and need to blast the heat.

Don’t Forget to Turn Your Car Off

EVs and PHEVs are generally a lot quieter than regular vehicles — which means it's easy to get out, shut the door, and forget that the car is running. Remember to turn it off before you walk away. While it's unlikely you'll come close to draining your battery before you return, you probably shouldn't get in the habit of leaving it on. You may have the option to enable an alarm that goes off when you've left your car running. Some EVs automatically shut off after a set amount of time — and Teslas turn off when you exit and close the door behind you.

Emily is a freelance writer based in Salt Lake City, UT.

This story originally appeared in Lifehacker. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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