So, you like the sound of going electric, but how does it all work? When Mrs E and I started considering an ‘EV’ (as the cool kids will insist on calling it) we quickly realised we had no idea how the whole system worked. What’s more, trying to get a full picture of using an EV in our everyday lives required a significant amount of research from various corners of the Internet. What we really needed was a one-pager that summarised how owning an ‘EV’ works in real-life. So, here it is.
We quickly settled on a Nissan Leaf (I refuse to write Leaf in capitals as Nissan seem to want people to do). Why? Because compared to other EVs, the Leaf just feels like a ‘real’ car. We wanted a proper family car, not a nip-to-the-shops runabout. It’s also a car that is designed to be electric from the ground up, unlike conversions such as the E-Up (from Yorkshire) and E-Golf, Focus E and other cars with the letter E attached. The impressive BMW i3 was rejected on the basis of cost and so was the amazing Tesla range. The Leaf seemed to have great build quality, a comprehensive range of gadgets and was the perfect size for us.
So, everything you read here is based on research into the Leaf. It’s not the same for all EVs but this should give you a good head-start. Everything is correct to the best of my knowledge as of May 2014 but things will change as EVs go more mainstream. And, as anyone who has ever owned an EV will tell you, they will go mainstream.
Let’s get straight to the elephant in the room:
So, range anxiety, eh?
The Nissan Leaf has a range between 60-120 miles. Which end of this you get will be hugely affected by how you drive it. Realistically, we work on the basis of 80 miles per charge but often get more. Range anxiety has so far not come into play for these reasons:
- 95% of our round-trip journeys are way under 80m
- You don’t have to drain the car fully to recharge; so all charges don’t take the maximum time
- You can extend the range easily (see later)
- All motorway service stations will have rapid chargers by the end of 2014 (30min for 80%)
- There are 5,700+ chargers in the UK and this is growing rapidly
- You charge at home little and often; this is not like using a petrol station
At this time you should not consider an EV if:
- Your work involves a lot of travel (especially Taxi drivers)
- You’re in the middle of nowhere
- You regularly partake in long journeys
If any of the above are the case, a hybrid is for you.
If you only take the occasional long journey and commute via public transport or over a short distance, an EV may be perfect. It just requires a different way of thinking about travel.
A different way of thinking about travel?
Yes. You’ll potentially save so much using your EV, you can overcome range problems by spending some of the savings on a hire car or other transport options when needed. I need to go to Liverpool on a regular basis and have now resolved to take the train. If I need to go on an unexpected long journey and cannot go by train or plane, I’ll hire a petrol car for the weekend. In fact, Nissan have offered us free use of a ‘Note’ for two weeks of the year free-of-charge.
I bet an electric car is expensive.
Then don’t take up gambling. Many electric cars are cheaper than performance equivalents as there is less engineering involved. No gearbox, no oil system and so on. Better still the government will subsidise your purchase to the tune of £5,000. Yes, the list price is discounted by £5k. You can get a Leaf for as little as £16,000 new.
What’s all this about battery leasing?
The battery itself has a shorter lifespan than the car. Nissan guarantee the battery for 5 years in terms of performance and 10 years in terms of operation. After 5 years it will start to slowly lose capacity. So, if you’re buying the car outright, you have the option of ‘renting’ the battery at about £70 per month (the purchase price of the car drops considerably). This gives you the ability to replace the battery later on without a substantial outlay. As EV technology is moving fast, we chose to lease the car and hand it back in four years for the next model, as we expect range and performance to have increased.
So where can I charge?
Mainly at home. The idea it you can top it up every day. You don’t run it to empty like a petrol car. That way the recharge time is minimal unless you’re doing a longer stint.
Do you charge off a normal plug socket?
You can, but it’s a bad idea. A Leaf will suck 10A from it, so you’re strongly advised not to have anything else on the circuit and not use extension leads. It’ll also take 12 hours for a full charge.
Sounds painful. Is there a faster way?
You’ve got two more options at home. First, get a 3.3kW charging point and the appropriate cable to connect it to the Leaf. Or, the better option, get a Leaf with the faster 6.6kW charger (optional extra) and get a 6.6kW charging point.
You’re losing me. Whats with the 3.3 and 6.6?
Ok, time to get a little technical. Petrol cars use petrol measured in litres but EVs use electricity measured in kilowatts (kW). The speed at which you can charge your EV depends on how many kilowatts you can provide it’s battery from your charger. Think of it as the ‘pump speed’. So, a 3.3kW that on the Nissan Leaf takes about 8 hours to a full (~80 miles) charge. The faster 6.6kW version takes just 4 hours, but your car needs to be capable of accepting it.
And how much is one of these fancy charging points?
Free. You don’t even have to own an EV to qualify. Just be a homeowner and have off-street parking. That’s only for the 3.3kW version, mind. The 6.6kW version is typically available for an extra £90-£100. That’s what we went for.
A free charger at home? What’s the catch?
Not much. In order to encourage usage of EVs, the government is subsidising the installation of 3.3kW 15A chargers. They are normally about £800 in install. If you want the faster 6.6kW chargers you only pay the difference of about £90-£100. If your EV doesn’t support 6.6kW (sometimes stated as 7kW) charging, this will make no difference. The chargers monitor usage and relay information (via GSM) to the Department of Energy. You can refuse this, but then you have to pay the full install fee.
Who provides the charger?
A few companies subscribe to the scheme. The two main players are British Gas (I know, weird) and Chargemaster.
Does the car have a regular plug socket? Or connect to one?
No and yes. The Leaf has two connection points: A Type-1 socket and a JARI ChaDeMo rapid charger socket. If you buy a ‘regular’ Leaf the Type-1 connects to a supplied cable that plugs into a regular plug socket. This is a bad idea for the reasons previously stated. You can purchase the Leaf with an upgraded charger (6.6kW) and then you get a ‘Mode 3’ cable that connects its Type-1 socket to the European standard Type-2 socket. Home chargers and most street chargers have a Type-2 connection. You can still purchase and use a ‘Mode 3’ (Type-1 to Type-2) cable for your 3.3kW Leaf, but it won’t benefit from faster charging.
ChaDeMo is a new standard for rapid charging. All Leafs come with a ChaDeMo connector. Rapid chargers have a tethered cable (i.e. built-in so you don’t need one) and provide charging at 50kW. This will give you an 80% charge from empty in 30 minutes! Rapid Chargers are being installed in every service station in the country and Ecotricity have installed free rapid chargers in all UK IKEAs. Fast charging whilst you enjoy some meatballs. Hmm. You can’t have one at home as 50kW is frankly a scary level of electricity and your consumer unit would be very unhappy.
Does the home charging point have a cable built-in?
Some do but here’s the thing. The Leaf has a Type-1 connector, which is being replaced with the Type-2. If you go with a ‘tethered’ point you may find yourself having to upgrade it later on, and that won’t be free. We opted for a point with a Type-2 connector and use the cable provided with the car.
Is Charging Free? How do you pay?
It depends. As with traditional fuel there are different players in the EV charging market. Two main ones are Ecotricity and Chargemaster. Chargemaster specialise in town charging points and home charging points. Where we live, Milton Keynes, nearly all the charging points are operated by Chargemaster. Whether you pay or not depends on the council. For instance: In Milton Keynes it’s about £1.70 per hour for a 7kW charge (6.6 in Leaf terms) to £7 for a 30-minute rapid charge at 50kW. In return you get free parking in dedicated bays whether you’re charging or not. However, where I work the sole charger is free to use but I have to pay regular parking charges.
Ecotricity are installing rapid chargers in UK service stations and UK IKEAs. These are currently 100% free-to-use. That’s right. Free fuel.
To use the chargers you need to get RFID cards to activate them. Ecotricity will send you one for free (although they reserve the right to charge an annual fee of £10 in the future for non-Ecotricity customers). Chargemaster have two tariffs and a pay-per-use scheme. However, if the controlling council isn’t charging, this doesn’t apply. So, we have two RFID cards in the car so we can charge whether we encounter a Chargemaster or Ecotricity charge point. Just place the card over the screen and hook up!
The town chargers are operated by different networks but thankfully there are many roaming agreements in place, known collectively as the POLAR network. So, one POLAR card gives you access to all of them. If a charge is levied, it’s taken by direct debit; the entire system is cashless.
What’s the cheapest way to recharge?
Use a free charger such as Ecotricity. This won’t be free forever but at home you can consider an Economy 7 system and use the Leaf’s charge timer to charge overnight only. We’re looking at solar panels to reduce costs in the long term.
So you keep it charging all the time at home, right?
Nope. As I write, our Leaf has a range of 81 miles so I’ve no need to have it plugged in.
But doesn’t it discharge?
It goes down as much as your petrol evaporates; barely at all. The Leaf has a standard 12V battery that looks after the essential electronics just as a traditional car has. Range is not affected.
What if you’re stuck in traffic?
Again, it you’re not moving, you’re not consuming. The only thing that will hurt the battery in that situation is if you’ve got the A/C on full-blast.
Is it physically different from a petrol or diesel car?
Oh yes. Less is more. A car’s electric motor is tiny by comparison and only contains one significant moving part. Also…
- No manifold
- No exhaust
- No gearbox (just a single fixed gear)
- No oil
What about other running costs?
Servicing tends to be cheaper as there is less to do. Suspension and braking remains the same (almost) so that needs looking after. However the motor is pretty much maintenance-free. Oh, and did I mention…
- Zero car tax
- 0% Benefit-in-kind for company cars (rising to 5% next year)
- Lower insurance (mine halved)
- No congestion charge in London
If you’re charging in public, can’t someone just disconnect the cable?
No. The cable locks at both ends. If someone wants to play around with a high-current cable, I suggest you let them.
What is Leaf like to drive?
Incredibly quiet is the first impression. After that you’re taken by the smooth ride and handling. Not having a gearbox (manual or automatic) gives you 100% torque from the off and a really smooth acceleration curve. Think of an overpowered dodgem car and you’re halfway there.
Does Range Vary?
Yes. Various things affect the Leaf’s range, such as temperature and driving style. Fortunately Nissan provide range a tools at your disposal to tweak things. If you’re on a short trip none of this matters but for long runs, you can…
- Switch off the A/C or put in ‘Auto’ mode
- Put the car in ‘Eco’ mode that implements several measures to increase range, such as limiting acceleration
- Don’t drive like a boy racer
- Use regenerative braking
You have an ‘efficiency’ meter in the Leaf that gives you live feedback on how you’re doing. It’s the gamification of economical driving. You can even review your progress online.
Many EVs feature this. In this mode, Dynamos are deployed as part of the braking system and help slow the car down whenever you lift off the accelerator. The dynamos generate electricity which is fed back into the battery. So, the less you use the brakes to slow down, the more electricity is recovered and the less your range suffers. With a bit of practice in slow traffic you can drive the car on one pedal and sometimes your range goes up!
Any other goodies?
Nissan obviously took the opportunity with the Leaf to add on some good bits and pieces that are not exclusive to an EV. Keyless entry is standard and well implemented. Our model has a cool reversing camera, speed limiter, cruise control and USB port for charging and music players. Bluetooth support is also impressive although I can’t for the life of me think why they didn’t include a DAB radio.
The Leaf’s sat-nav comes with a database of charging points and with one click on the steering wheel it will show you geographical range and the distance to the next point (on certain models).
Carwings is the built-in telematic system. Your car comes with a built-in GSM modem (think mobile phone for a car) so it can upload various bits and pieces about the car to a central server. Then you can view your driving history online with all manner of technical data about what you’ve been up to. Furthermore, the car can tell you when it has completed charging and you can even turn on the A/C remotely. It’s not perfect and seems to have a lot of outages but can be useful.
Why would I want to turn on the A/C remotely?
It’s a range trick. Turn on the A/C before you leave and cool/heat the car whilst it is still plugged in. Then the A/C has significantly less work to do when you disconnect and drive off. You can even set a timer to do this automatically.
You’re going to tell me there’s an App for that, aren’t you?
Yup. iOS and Android both have a Carwings app that allows you to check range, charge time and control the A/C.
I’m putting my Tin-Foil Hat on.
All the telematics stuff is opt-in. You don’t have to use it.
What happens if I run out of battery? Will a 9V do it?
No, but the good news is Nissan will come get you. Free of charge for the first year too! The car takes some serious measures to preserve electricity in the last few miles, switching things off and offering sat-nav guidance to the nearest charger.
How do I find charging points or work out when I need to stop?
Your first point of call is zap-map.com. After that, the Nissan Carwings website has a groovy route planner that works out when you’ll need to stop. Once you’re ready it will upload the route to your car and pre-set the sat-nav. Sadly, the Carwings system suffers from an out-of-date database.
Are there charging points everywhere?
It depends on the council involved. Milton Keynes seems to be the capital of EVs, London and Manchester have lots but Liverpool has hardly any. Go figure. Use zap-map.com for the most up to date list (5,700+ points at time of writing). Rules over whether you pay or not and whether you have free parking or not also varies council-to-council.
Sounds too good to be true. Any downsides?
Sure. You can’t just jump in the car and drive 300 miles. You need to plan ahead and currently you may find yourself lacking charging points in appropriate areas (forget about going north of Perth). Even with chargers, you’ll need to stop for longer than a petrol station (although rapid chargers mean this’ll probably just be 30 minutes). The act of driving takes more thought, although I’m finding this seems to be coming more instinct-driven as time goes on. If driving is a big part of your life, EVs may not be your thing yet.
So, how much are you saving Mr Smug Person?
I’m going to do some more posts on this but the back-of-a-fag-packet calculations are as follows: based on my previous diesel car, which averaged about 37mpg, it cost about 16.4p in fuel per mile. Assuming I’m charging from home all the time (I’m not; there’s a free charger near work), it costs about 4.3p per mile. Therefore, my commute costs about £2.96 in diesel and 77p in the Leaf. This is before you consider lower costs for road tax, servicing and maintenance.
Most people I’ve taken out in the Leaf are very surprised by the experience. They were expecting some kind of milk-float. Shorter range aside, everything about it is the same kind of experience as a regular fossil-fuel car; there’s no compromise there.
If you’ve got a question I haven’t answered here, let me know in the comments and I’ll add it.