Winter 2012

Close To Home | Gas-Free—and Loving It

Well before the all-electric Nissan Leaf hit showroom floors last winter, there was a waiting list of prospective owners that included UCS member Dennis Levitt, a business owner in Van Nuys, CA. The waiting paid off in June when Dennis learned that his local Nissan dealer had a Leaf that had been “orphaned” by a buyer who got cold feet. Dennis drove the car home that day, and quickly began learning about the advantages—and quirks—of electric car ownership.

Trading the Pump for the Plug

One of the benefits of electric vehicles is avoiding trips to the gas station and instead “refueling” at home. Charging times depend largely on the capacity of the electrical outlet: for example, it takes about 20 hours to fully charge the Leaf’s battery using a typical 110-volt (or Level 1) wall socket—good for about 100 miles of city driving on average. A 240-volt (or Level 2) socket, typically used with electric stoves and clothes dryers, cuts the charging time to about seven hours. Dennis is planning to upgrade to a Level 2 outlet in his garage, despite his observation that tax credits and other incentives for Level 2 chargers have led many contractors to raise their installation prices.

Dennis has little “range anxiety”—the fear of being stranded with a dead battery—since his commute is only about a 12-mile round-trip. “I can usually go Monday through Thursday on one charge,” he says. But on weekends, when he is doing errands or going on longer outings, he needs to be more conscientious about charging the battery fully.

His longest trip so far has been about 70 miles round-trip, and he was almost out of juice when he returned home. (Highway driving and trips with few stops drain the battery faster than city driving.) He looks forward to the day when public charging stations are more widely available, as it may allow him to take longer trips without worrying about getting home to refuel.

High-Tech and Low-Cost

Dennis says that, overall, the Leaf is “a great little car—remarkably smooth, turns easily, and, with no transmission or engine, it’s got virtually no vibration to it.” By opting to enroll in Nissan’s online Carwings program, Dennis allows data from his car’s computer to be uploaded to a website that provides detailed statistics on his driving habits. “I can see graphs for each day, week, or month showing how many miles per kilowatt I’m getting, et cetera,” he explains. “Plenty of information for even the geekiest among us.” The program also ranks participating Leaf owners by their energy consumption and efficiency, providing a whiff of competition to encourage smarter driving.

Dennis estimates it costs about $30 to $35 each month to charge the Leaf, which is much less than the $150 that he was previously paying for gasoline. And he recently learned that his utility offers a special rate plan for electric vehicle owners who recharge during off-peak hours.

He does concede that an all-electric vehicle is not for everyone; a plug-in hybrid (like the Chevrolet Volt) or a conventional gasoline-electric hybrid (like the Toyota Prius) may be better for people who have long commutes or take frequent road trips. But for shorter commutes or a second car, Dennis says, “Go for it!”


Also in this issue of Earthwise:


What is ground-level ozone and why is it harmful to human health?