Friday, March 2, 2012

Practical considerations: Is a Volt right for me?

Buying a Volt is unlike buying any other car. Buying an electric car is very personal. Most people are making a statement for a multitude of reasons (mine detailed below). But with all the personal reasons aside, you might be an unhappy Volt owner if your living and work situation don't fit the criteria that allows the car to excel. Presumably, you will hope that buying a Volt will lower your fuel costs, and I am sure you hope those lower fuel costs will make the Total Cost of Ownership equivalent to a much cheaper car.

Consider HOW you'll be able to charge at your personal residence: Do you own a home? If you do, great! You presumably have private parking, hopefully a garage, and you can plug your car into a standard 120V outlet. No additional equipment necessary.  With a standard 120V connection, it will take about 10 hours to charge a depleted battery.  This was problematic for me. I found that I would make it home with only a couple of miles left. If I wanted to run to the grocery store an hour or so later after getting home and charging on a standard 120V outlet, I wouldn’t have the electrical range, and would burn gas. For me, personally, I want to only burn gas when necessary. Burning gas diminishes your average MPG, and will decrease the return on your electrical investment. For that reason, I opted to install a 240V charger. It gives me about 13 miles of range per hour. If you are in an apartment, or condo, or any place where you don't have dedicated parking, you had best speak to your HOA, or Apartment Complex management to come up with a plan to be able to charge your car from an outside outlet. You might have similar issues in this situation to charging at work. Obviously it’s no good to have an electric car when you can't charge where you live. WORK OUT THOSE DETAILS BEFORE YOU BUY.

Consider your commuting distance to work: I commute about 35 miles each way to and from work. So at 70 miles round trip, if I want to maintain all electric, I need to charge at work. Charging at work, depending on your work place, can go a few ways. It can be embraced with premium parking spots, shiny commercial charging stations, and a ticker tape parade. More often it is met with huge scrutiny, coworker jealousy, and lack of any outside 120V outlets to plug into. When you do plug into the outside outlet, don't be surprised if someone unplugs you. You'll also hear, "Why are you getting free electricity? I don't get free gas to come to work!!^&@." It happens. So you need to do the following...

1) Assess your needs to charge at work. For the car to pay for itself, higher electric miles are beneficial. In my situation, I nearly exhaust my range going to work, which means if I don’t charge, I'll burn gas on the way home. In my instance, it would bring my current MPG rating of 350 MPG down to about 80 MPG over the long term.

2) If you don't need to charge at work (your roundtrip commute is 40 miles or less), then you can skip the remaining steps.

3) If you desire to charge at work, you need to speak to your management. You need to get permission to use an outside plug. Preferably, a plug that won't create a trip hazard and get the company sued. At this point, your company may be thrilled that you have an electric car, or skeptical. If they are thrilled, you might consider asking them to support the movement and install a commercial charging station. If they are skeptical, you need to tell them that if your battery is fully depleted, the car only takes about 13 kWh to charge completely. That will take about 9-10 hours. Normal utility rates are about 12 cents per kWh, so it will cost a little more than $1 a day. Offer to pay for the energy. It will be FAR cheaper than paying for the gas. If they can't set something like that up, volunteer to donate to charity once a month the electricity you use on behalf of the company. Make sure your coworkers know you are not looking for a free ride.

Consider your electric rates: The national average is about 12 cents per kilowatt hour. At this rate, the car can have a very attractive operational cost. In some places, electrical rates are very high. In other places, they are much lower. My rate, for example, is about 6 cents per kilowatt hour. This is the equation you should use to give you an estimate of what it will cost you to drive the car. Take your anticipated electric miles you plan to travel in a year, divide by 100, multiple by 35*, and multiply by your utility rate. This is what it looks like:

15,000 miles / 100 = 150

150 * 35 = 5250

5250 * .12 = $630

*the 35 number is the average number of kilowatt hours you will use to go 100 miles. This number can go up slightly or down slightly with your efficiency.

So the average cost per month is $52 in electricity. Compare this to what you spend in gas.

Consider your driving style: If you want to maximize your range, you are going to have to learn good driving techniques.  This will mean maximizing your efficiency in accerlation, braking, and climate control.  If you are unwilling to adapt your style of driving, don't be surprised if your electric range is at the lower end of the estimate, and not the higher end.
Consider your climate:  Your range will be closer to the minimum expected range the colder it gets.  I was getting about 34 miles per change with average temps in the 30s.  Now that the temps are warming up, and in the 50s, I am getting well over 40.  If you live in Siberia, your range will suffer.  It is one of the downsides of electric cars, and why electric cars are not a perfect fit for everyone.  But there are plenty of people in very cold climates that love this car.  The battery pack in the volt is liquid cooled and heated to improve its longevity and performance.  If the temperature is below 27 degrees, the engine will turn on periodically to assist the heating loop in keeping the battery warm. 

Consider leasing: The actual monthly cost of the Volt lease is very low.  Considerably lower than outright owning over a period of 3 years.  Just be aware that the low lease comes at a price.  The residual value is so high, you will be unlikely to want to purchase the car at the end of the lease, and will probably trade it in for another.

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