Electric car buying guide: What you need to know before you buy

Charge from home, sweet home

As we have pointed out, there are a couple different ways of charging your shiny new EV. What works best will really come down to you. But if you’re serious about getting in on the EV scene, we strongly recommend getting a Level 2 charger installed in your home. While it’s possible to get by on a Level 1 charger (basically a wall outlet) or even using public charging stations, it’s not as convenient as having a Level 2 fast charger nestled inside your garage. Level 2 chargers run on 220/240 systems just like a household appliance, so most any electrician can install it.

Electric car plug charging

Of course it’s not free, but thankfully the government is here again to help offset the cost by providing a 30 percent tax credit off the total cost of purchase and installation — up to $1,000. Typically, a Level 2 charging station can cost anywhere between $1,500 and $2,000 to install, depending on the manufacturer.

Know your (car’s) limits

For those who want to go with a plug-in hybrid, you needn’t worry about this, but if you’re leaning towards buying an all-electric car it’s important to understand a few key factors. This way you’ll be able to recognize what exactly an EV is intended for and where you’ll benefit the most.

You might not realize it, but an electric car will be more than adequate as a daily driver; getting you to and from work with ease. Most yield a range of 70 to 100 miles on a single charge (depending on how you drive), which is more than enough for your daily commute. However, because range is limited — and charging times can be inconvenient — the majority of the electric cars on the market are simply not going to be ideal for longer trips. There are a few out there that can take longer treks — Tesla’s Model S comes to mind — but not unless you’re looking at spending somewhere near or north of $70,000.

More to buy, less to spend in maintenance

Okay, so you’re paying a lot more money, but getting a lot less car? While that might sound like a raw deal, it isn’t and here’s why: All-electric cars like the Nissan Leaf abandon the thousands of mechanical moving parts found inside a combustion engine in favor of just a handful of parts in an electric motor. In addition, all-electrics do not produce tailpipe emissions (because they don’t have tailpipes) and, once again, forgo the associated equipment. What this translates to is fewer maintenance costs and saying goodbye to oil and transmission fluid changes along with gas stops.

On the other hand, because plug-in hybrids do utilize an engine and emissions equipment they will carry more maintenance cost than an all-electric car. Unfortunately, this is where a plug-in hybrid’s gasoline engine will hold it back, but thankfully the costs are still far less than a standard gasoline-fueled engine.

Now here’s the catch (there is always a catch isn’t there?): While you’ll enjoy far lower annual maintenance costs with an EV or hybrid, the batteries will need to be replaced within 7 to 10 years – and they can be expensive. The upside is that many of the manufacturers have provided lengthy warranties that cover this. In this instance, Chevrolet, Toyota and Nissan have provided customers with an 8-year, 100,000-mile warranty.

Not exactly emissions free

Even though all-electrics like the Leaf and the Tesla Model S are marketed as “zero-emissions” vehicles, that isn’t entirely true. The electricity that goes to power these EVs needs to come from somewhere (electricity doesn’t grow on trees after all) and that means coal-burning power plants scattered across the country. NPR has a great interactive map to help you see sources of energy for each state, and the Department of Energy can help you figure out if you can start purchasing green energy in your area.

Nissan Leaf all electric car

For most consumers, this won’t be a huge concern, but for hardcore greenies, it might be. Fortunately there is another solution. Drivers looking to get their energy from a cleaner source can also harness the power of the sun and purchase solar panels for their homes. Not only is this better for the environment, but it will help save you money on electricity costs, which brings us to our next topic.

Considering the costs, is it even worth it?

Okay, so an EV is more expensive to buy, and there are a lot of things to consider, like charging and vehicle range. But once you have one, how much will it cost to operate? Is it actually cheaper than your typical gas-guzzler?

Consider this: In 2011 Americans spent more than 8 percent of their income on gas. That number is based on a total US gas bill of over $481 billion. Moreover, that figure is more than any previous year (including 2008, when the national average price of gas ballooned to $4.11).

According to data collected from AAA, the average American travels 12,000 miles a year. The average car in 2009 got between 20 to 25 miles per gallon. If we take the average mileage return of 22.5 mpg and divide 12,000 miles by 22.5, we get roughly 533 gallons. Now take 533 gallons and multiply that by $4.00 and the average American spends about $2,000 annually on gasoline.

When it comes to an EV, manufacturers like Nissan place the yearly operating cost of a Nissan Leaf at around $600, which is in stark contrast to most gasoline-powered cars. Based on a US average of $0.10/kWh, a full battery charge on a Leaf will cost about $2.40 – if you charge it at home. If you can tap into a charger provided by the city or state, it’s your tax dollars paying for the charge.

Of course, it’s important to remember that electricity rates will vary state to state and can depend on whether or not you’re charging during peak times. As far as electricity bills are concerned, EV owners can expect to see an increase, but more often than not, this will be offset by lower maintenance costs and elimination or reduction of gasoline consumption.

Is an EV right for me?

Answering the following questions should help you decide what kind of car is right for you. If you answer yes to some or all, then an all-electric or plug-in hybrid just might work.

  • Is the charging infrastructure established enough in my city? (Yes / No)
  • Do I generally travel less than 80 miles a day? (Yes / No)
  • Do I have reliable access to a secondary vehicle for longer trips (does not apply to plug-in hybrids) (Yes / No)
  • Are environmental factors a driving force behind wanting to purchase a “green” car? (Yes / No)
  • Am I concerned over the volatile nature of foreign oil? (Yes / No)
  • Can I afford it? (Yes / No)

You decide

The future of cars is electric – at least until we find an even better source of alternative energy — and happens to represent the next step in automotive evolution. Electric cars are now gaining ground both in popularity and market share with consumers. And with oil prices continually in flux due to limited supply and all the political issues surrounding major oil-producing regions, a concentrated effort from the government to promote alternatively powered vehicles is already in full swing. The simple truth, or hard truth, depending on your stance, is that electric cars are here to stay. But whether an EV is right for you is another story.

At the very least, we hope our guide will prove useful in helping you come to that decision.

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