What to know about installing an EV charger at home

So, you’re thinking about buying a Tesla (or Chevy Bolt, or Nissan Leaf or one of the other options among the growing electric vehicle market). You know that emissions from gas-powered cars likely have more than a little to do with the extreme weather ravaging the globe. You know that, over the summer, Congress passed climate legislation with tax credits that will — at least eventually — make some electric vehicles easier to afford.

But now there’s a more fundamental issue to grapple with: What will it take, and how much will it cost, to set your house up for an EV?

Do I need to buy a charger before I get an electric vehicle?

Actually, probably not. Almost all electric vehicles come with what’s called a level 1 charger. These chargers plug directly into a standard outlet. But while they require minimal effort and money, they also charge a car’s battery at a slow rate. You might be able to add dozens of miles of range with an overnight charge, but it will take more than a day to fully charge an empty battery. You also need to make sure that your home’s electrical system can handle the additional burden of charging a car on top of, say, doing laundry or using a microwave oven (more on that below).

When you hear about installing an EV charger at a home, those conversations are mostly about level 2 chargers. Because they’re more powerful, consumers can fill up their battery overnight, and get dozens of miles of range added by plugging the car in for an hour. Level 2 chargers require a different kind of plug (think of the outlet that your washer and dryer use) and you’ll need to call an electrician to get one set up.

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“Whether or not you’re going to absolutely want to go to a Level 2 has a lot to do with how far you drive every day,” says Simon Ouellette, CEO of Mogile Technologies, an EV research company in Montreal. Another consideration is whether you have other opportunities to charge your vehicle. “If there’s a lot of [public] chargers near your office or on the street where you live … then the urgency isn’t there in the same way it is if you’re really going to be depending on your own residence to charge your car.” (According to data from the U.S. Department of Energy, nearly 4 out of every 5 public chargers are level 2.)

Level 3 chargers are the fastest of all, but because they require so much power, it’s rare to see one installed at a private residence.

How do I know if my home can accommodate an electric vehicle?

First, the bad news: If you rely on street parking, your home likely can’t accommodate an EV. As long as you’ve got a driveway, a garage or somewhere else to store your car, you can install an electric vehicle charger. However, “some installations are more complicated than others,” says Caradoc Ehrenhalt, the founder and CEO of EV Safe Charge, an electric-vehicle charging solutions company in Los Angeles.

In general, it is much easier and less expensive if you’re able to park the car close to an existing power source. These days, you can buy chargers that come with about 25 feet of cable, so as long as you can park within that distance, you should be in good shape.

But some homeowners aren’t so lucky. Ehrenhalt gives the example of a detached garage that isn’t connected to a power source and that’s located far from the house. To install an EV charger in that situation, you’d need to connect the garage to the property’s electrical panel. That could involve trenching and running the cable underground, even cutting through the surface of the driveway before refilling and recovering it. In extreme cases, the whole process can take several days.

If your electrical panel is in the basement, your ceiling is another factor, Ouellette says. You may need to drill holes through it to run the wiring.

The other potentially pricey quandary for prospective EV owners is whether your home’s electrical system is equipped to handle the additional load of charging a car. A licensed electrician can help you answer that question. Harvey Faulkner, a master electrician and owner of Focus Trade Services in the D.C. area, says one major hint that you’ll need an upgrade is if you look at your electrical panel and it doesn’t have any room for additional breakers.

How much does it cost to have an EV charger installed?

Installation costs vary widely, depending on where you live and how complicated the job is.

“If you had a panel literally right next to where you want to park your car and you’re putting a charger in that’s just a few feet away, that type of installation by a licensed electrician, including permitting, might generally start at $500,” says Ehrenhalt. But most installations, he says, end up costing between $1,500 and $3,000.

That total will balloon considerably if your electrical panel or underlying electrical service (the amount of electricity that can be supplied to your house by the public utility) needs upgrading.

An EV charging station “is basically just a dedicated line” of power, explains Michael Anthony Harris, an electrician with Harris Electric Company of Washington. “And in order to run a dedicated line, your panel has got to be able to support it.”

If you need a new panel, expect to pay an additional $2,000 to $4,000 on top of the cost of having the EV charger installed. If you need a full electrical service upgrade, expect to pay an additional $5,000 to $8,000, according to Harris.

Then, of course, there’s the cost of the charger itself. With the exception of Tesla’s Supercharger (which is compatible only with Teslas), all level 1 and level 2 chargers available in North America have a standard plug that will work with any electric car. From there, the options are differentiated by size, charging speed, cord length and whether they connect to WiFi, among other features. Some have hoods or covers to protect them from snow, rain and ice. They can cost between a few hundred dollars and a few thousand dollars. One popular model, the Juice Box 40, costs around $700, and another oft-recommended charger, the ChargePoint Home Flex, is $749. You’ll want to talk to an electrician about which one is best for you.

Tips for making your home more energy efficient

And don’t forget about your monthly electric bill, which is bound to increase. Still, once the upfront expenses of buying the car and installing the charger are behind you, the gas savings will quickly add up. Plus, electric vehicles have fewer maintenance costs than gas-powered ones, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, because their batteries and motors need less attention, and you don’t have to worry about changing the oil.

Can I install an EV charger if I live in a condo building?

If your building doesn’t already have an EV charging station, this is where things can get thorny. “There are so many variables that come into play,” says Ouellette, including how people pay for electricity in the building and the rules that govern common space. “It’s not just a variable of what’s the physical reality of your condo and all that. But it’s also who’s on the board and are they problem solvers?”

Even if everyone can come to an agreement, you still need to determine how much power the building can accommodate. If, for example, the building can handle two EV chargers on top of powering the elevators and lights, how will those chargers be shared? If not, does the building want to pay for upgrading the electrical panel or service? Ouellette notes that it usually loops back around to the question of the building’s bylaws and rules, and “that could be a long loop.”

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