EVs explained: everything you need to know about electric vehicles

It's time to ditch fossil fuels

Tesla shattered expectations when it unveiled the Tesla Model 3, receiving over 300,000 reservations for a car that's over a year away from supposedly starting production. I was initially among those that reserved my spot in line prior to the unveil, but I already have an electric vehicle (EV).

My first EV purchase wasn't an easy decision, however. I anguished over it for a year after spending at least a week in every pure EV and plug-in electric hybrid on the market. Ultimately, it made sense for me to replace my wife's gasoline car with a 2015 Nissan Leaf.

How do EVs work?

EVs work like a normal car, but an electric motor and battery pack drive the wheels instead of an internal combustion engine (ICE) that relies on burning gasoline (petrol for our friends on the other side of the Atlantic). You drive it like a normal car: hop in, turn it on with the push-button start, shift it into drive and be on your way.

The most noticeable differences are the lack of engine noises and the tire-screeching, instant torque that makes it feel faster than it is. Regenerative (or "regen") braking helps capture kinetic energy that would generally be lost from braking and charges the battery a little, which results in a different feeling when you let off the accelerator pedal.

Kia Soul EV

The Kia Soul EV's battery pack

Some cars have extremely aggressive regen braking, like the BMW i3, which feels like the brakes are being applied as soon as you take your foot off the accelerator pedal. But, it's not as noticeable in cars like the Chevrolet Bolt, Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus Electric, Volkswagen e-Golf and Kia Soul EV.

Generally, those cars have an aggressive regen mode on the shifter you can engage to slow the EV down quicker without applying the brakes. Regen braking isn't a substitute for applying the brake pedal, however.

Why electric?

I'm not going to hound you about the environmental benefits of EVs, because it's not why I bought one. Instead, it was the maintenance intervals, or lack thereof. The Leaf replaced my wife's 2011 Volkswagen (VW) Routan, which was a thirsty minivan that consumed $150 to $300 in gas a month when fuel was around $4 a gallon.

The car required synthetic oil changes twice a year, not to mention other fluid replacements, frequent brake jobs and preventative maintenance once it had higher miles on it. What I found appealing about an EV was the minimal amount of maintenance required.

Nissan Leaf

For the first 60,000 miles of ownership, the only maintenance that is needed is new tires and a cabin filter. Nissan recommends getting the brake fluid examined every year for extreme use cases too, but a $125 fluid change may not be necessary every time.

At almost two years of ownership and about 11,000 miles, I haven't had the brake fluid serviced yet.

Gas is much cheaper now than when I bought an EV, but I still don't have to pay for fuel or oil changes. I also live in Washington state, where electricity is extremely cheap and mostly generated from hydroelectric dams.

What about hybrids?

I have nothing against hybrids and quite enjoy driving plug-in hybrid electrics (PHEV) like the BMW X5 eDrive40e, Volvo XC90 T8 and Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid. Hell, I wish more companies would have plug-in electric powertrains.

But, at the end of the day, there's still a internal combustion motor filled with fluids that requires care.

Hybrids like the Toyota Prius can get up to 52 miles per gallon (mpg), but it still relies on petrol. However, if you're constantly driving long distances, it makes more sense to have a hybrid than an EV.

2016 Volvo XC90 T8

Volvo XC90 T8 plug-in hybrid

PHEVs are a good in-between compromise that gives you the best of both worlds, if you need it. The Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid gets 27 miles of pure EV range and an economical hybrid powertrain, which is one of my favorite PHEVs, but only available in California at the moment.

There's also the Chevrolet Volt, which gets up to 50 miles of electric range in a smaller compact car package.

Sure, there's very little maintenance on modern economy cars, but it's one less thing to worry about with an EV. Just plug it in at night, be on your way the next day and put on a new set of tires every now and then.

Potential lifestyle changes

Living with an EV requires some lifestyle change. When I bought the Leaf, I lived in a rural area that was about 20 miles away from Tacoma, my hometown and the nearest major city. We moved to a suburb last March and the ownership experience is completely different.

Out in the rural area, we couldn't just hop in the car and drive anywhere we wanted on a whim. The range of the Leaf wasn't enough for us to drive to Seattle (45 miles one way) or Olympia (40 miles one way) and back on a single charge. Making trips with multiple destinations, like Seattle and then Bellevue (100 miles roundtrip), required charging along the way, too.

Every trip over 40 miles one way required planning ahead of time, since we'd have to stop and charge to make it home. The planning can get annoying, too, especially since you have to check the status of the chargers every time (more on that below).

Kia Soul EV

Ultimately, moving to a suburb of Tacoma changed the EV experience drastically. Being between Seattle and Olympia (30 miles one way), we can drive down to the Hands-on Children Museum of Olympia and back without charging, where it was required to make it home before.

The grocery store, shopping areas and the freeways are only 5 to 10 minutes away, so most of the trips can be made with less than 50% of the battery charged. There's also more public charging stations along the way, instead of having to go 5-10 miles out of our way to use a public charger.

With an EV, the most important thing I must reiterate is to always plan ahead for longer trips. Bring snacks for yourself and the kids, a blanket if it's cold and always keep your phone charged (more on that later too). It took us a month to get the hang of it, but once we did, it wasn't that big of a deal anymore.

Charging at home

EV's require electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) to charge, which is typically referred to as a charging station. There's three levels of EV charging stations: 1, 2 and 3.

Each level provides different voltage that affects how quickly the car charges. However, the charging rate is determined by the car itself, because the actual charger is in the car and the charging station only serves as a fancy power cable.

Charging at home relies on a SAE J1772 plug (simply referred to as SAE), which is used by every EV you can purchase today.

Since the charging equipment is inside the car, the charging rates vary by car and sometimes trim level. The base Nissan Leaf S used to come standard with a 3.3 kWh charger with the option of a 6.6 kWh that charges about twice as fast.

Kia Soul EV

SAE and CHAdeMO charging connectors on the Kia Soul EV

Most EVs include a Level 1 (L1) charger that plugs into a standard 110V wall outlet. Theoretically, if you live in the city and don't completely drain your battery everyday, it's tolerable.

I've tried charging with the included 110V charger on my first Nissan Leaf press car when I lived in a rural area and was too impatient for it. The Leaf with the former 24kWh battery and 6.6 kWh charger took about 20 hours to completely charge, which wasn't ideal if you're impatient, like me, and tend to drive to places on a whim.

There is one caveat with the 110V charger: your home may not be able to provide the 12-amps it can drain. Typical home outlets are wired to a 15-amp breaker altogether. If you exceed the amperage of the breaker, it'll trip and shut off power.

I've had this happen with a Chevrolet Volt and the outlets in my garage, in my old house that was built in 2010. Of course, I didn't notice it until I went out to the garage the next morning and found the car not charging and my garage lights out.

With a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), this wouldn't be that big of a deal because you can start it up and use the gas motor. It's more of an issue if you required every ounce of power to make it to work and back.

Stepping up to a level 2 (L2) 240V makes the biggest difference in charging an EV. I have a Bosch Power Max EL-51254 EVSE that provides up to 30 amps and a 25-foot cord so I can charge EVs and PHEVs I'm testing, or my wife's Leaf.

BMW i3

Charging time is reduced significantly with an L2 EVSE, because it can deliver over twice the voltage and amperage. The charging time on my Leaf is reduced to 4 to 5 hours for a complete charge from empty with an L2.

It made the biggest difference for me, because even if I forgot to plug the car in the night before, I could still sneak in a charge early the next day. However, charging times vary depending on the onboard charger inside the EV, as the 6.6 kWh charger may be optional.