Nature Notebook: My EV experience

Electric vehicle

By Dylan Cooper, columnist

You may have noticed a common theme from a lot of the car commercials that aired during this year’s Super Bowl: electric vehicles. With gas prices currently at record prices of  $4.29 per gallon locally, I felt it would be a good time to share my experience on our electric vehicle (EV), both the good and the bad, without diving into the common political and environmental talking points.

We have always been a two-car family, and in October 2018, we decided to replace a gas guzzler with an EV. We wanted a daily driver without the oil changes, stinking exhaust fumes, loud engine noise, or the worry of volatility in gas prices. For over a year prior, we had compared the major EVs on the market at the time. The offerings from “luxury” brands like Tesla and BMW were too expensive for us. The Nissan Leaf, while affordable, did not have the range we needed at only 150 miles. We went with the 2019 Chevy Bolt EV LT, which had an estimated range of 238 miles on a single charge, and it had one of the best prices for the battery pack size(~$35k for 60 kWh). The Bolt is a four-door, front-wheel drive, and our first impressions were that despite looking like a bubble car, it had a fairly roomy interior and was fun to drive.

Now how did we “fuel” it? Electric cars can charge at various levels. The Bolt came with a “Level 1” charger that can plug into a standard 120 volt outlet at a current of up to 12 amps. At that rate it would take almost two days to get a full charge, or 4-5 miles per hour. In order to charge at a faster rate at home, we bought a “Level 2” charger that uses 40 amps and 240 volts to charge at a rate of about 25 miles per hour or 8-9 hours for a full charge. This charger came with a 25-foot charge cord that is fairly stout and has a J1772 type plug that works with the Bolt. One complaint I have about this cord is that during cold weather, it is hard to maneuver and uncoil the thick cord but it’s still usable. Another feature of the charger was Wi-Fi capability so I could connect to it with a smartphone app to track usage or any problems, the latter of which we’ve had none. That charger cost $549 at that time, and today they are $649. 

We opted for a Level 2 charger with a plug instead of it being hard-wired. This way it would be easier to take with us in case we moved or wanted to take it on a trip. We did eventually move, and it required the same kind of setup at the new location. In the case of road-tripping, some campgrounds have 50 amp service that would work perfectly in this case. Often campgrounds only have 30 amp service so we got a 30 amp converter cord for cheap and kept that in the car but have never used it. 

To use the plug-in type Level 2 charger, we needed a NEMA 14-50 outlet and 50-amp breaker installed in our house. Our electric panel was in the garage so we decided to put the 50-amp outlet next to it to make it cheaper to install and easier access for car charging. For $350 total, the electrician installed it in an hour or so and then I mounted a bracket on the wall to hold the Level 2 charger. So we now had an additional $900 expense on top of the purchase price of the car.

Level 2 chargers are also commonly located at businesses and public areas, and they are very often free of charge to the user. Luray has three of these Level 2 chargers with a J1772 plug located at the Luray-Page County Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center parking lot, the new “pocket park” along between Hawksbill Creek and Business 340 called Creekside Commons, and at the Mimslyn Inn. These are great locations for both tourists and locals to come to town to get their electric car charged while they shop, eat, stay, or even fish the Hawksbill as I did last week. 

The fastest charging method is named “Level 3” with a CCS (Combined Charging System) type plug for the Bolt. I have found these at some rest areas, large shopping centers or convenience stores, some car dealerships, and even a Dunkin Donuts. The closest CCS chargers to Page County are in Front Royal, Woodstock, Staunton, and Charlottesville. These are often pay-as-you-go type stations, but I have found a few free ones over the years. Rates can vary but they usually run around a few bucks per charging session. With Level 3 CCS, they usually limit you to or throttle you down at 80% charge level to protect the battery from receiving high loads when it’s nearly full. My Bolt will take 30 to 45 minutes to get to this 80 percent level if we start near depletion, so that’s enough time for a walk in the park, a sit-down meal, or a grocery run. The cars and chargers are getting more efficient all the time, as are the batteries themselves. For instance, Tesla claims it can give you 200 miles of range in about 15 minutes. They have their own nationwide network of 30,000+ chargers, whereas the other automakers have not been nearly as supportive. I have eight different apps on my phone related to charging the Bolt because usually each charger company has their own app that you need to have an account with. 

In the first winter we had the car, we took a long distance trip to Pennsylvania. Our Bolt sees at least a 25 percent reduction in range in cold temperatures due to needing to condition the battery as well as the cabin. The terrain and speed can also affect the efficiency, so interstate speeds and going up mountains are also known to reduce range more than normal. For a 600 mile round-trip, we made four stops to charge for a total of four hours added to a ten hour trip. Not all of these charging stops were Level 3 so we knew we had to take our time and lucked out when the one Level 2 charging location was at a state park. We spent a total of $20 on charging fees for this trip, whereas if we had taken our internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle (28 MPG) with gas prices at the time ($2.25/gal), it would have cost about $47.50 but with four hours less in travel time. 

The longest trip we have taken in the Bolt was around 1,100 miles to Tennessee via interstate and then to North Carolina while driving through the Smokies and on the Blue Ridge Parkway back home. We spent a total of $45 in charging fees at fast chargers. Because it was a vacation, we didn’t keep track of time spent charging as I was able to plan a couple overnight spots that had Level 2 chargers. If we had taken our ICE vehicle (28 MPG) at those gas prices ($2.68/gal), it would have cost us around $105 in gas.

One of our favorite parts about the Bolt is how quickly it accelerates. It has 265 lb-ft of torque and 200 horsepower, which is pretty decent for a car of its size and class. But at 3,563 lbs curb weight, it is heavier than normal for a car of its size. We’ve been stuck in both sand and mud when getting off the edge of the hard surface. We got it unstuck both times with some extra manpower. I think the weight actually provides an advantage in snowy conditions for more traction and while using the regenerative braking that uses would-be wasted braking to recharge the battery. We rarely use the traditional brake pedal and can drive the car in one-pedal mode where you accelerate by pushing the pedal and “brake” by letting off.

The Bolt is super quiet, and because of this, the car is actually programmed to emit a low noise to warn pedestrians around it at slow speeds that I find only mildly annoying. The quietness on the road is a pleasure to drive with because you don’t have to blast the radio or talk loud to hear over the wind, road, or engine noise of a gas or diesel vehicle.

The Chevy dealership where we got it from was just a few miles from our home at the time. This was another selling point: that we’d be close in case of maintenance, but there has actually been very little need. Windshield washer fluid is the only fluid we need to refill on a regular basis. A tire rotation is the only regularly scheduled maintenance. The dealership covered that part so the lack of maintenance has been a huge savings for us until I had to put a new set of tires on the Bolt last summer after about 35,000 miles.

Soon after the new tires, the Bolt “died” on Friday, August 20th, which happened to be the same day as the Bolt battery recall was expanded to all model years through 2022. The recall was out of concern of over a dozen fires in Bolts caused by two manufacturing defects in the battery known as a torn anode and a folded separator, both of which needed to be present in the same battery cell for a fire to happen. GM had sent out a few software “fixes” and some guidance that said to not park it indoors and to not charge to 100% or let it drain down all the way. We had followed that guidance, and it seemed maybe the last software fix caught the problem before it erupted. Our dashboard error message was saying “Battery Fault” and it would only shift between Park and Neutral. GM paid to have it towed to a dealership where it sat for four months without a fix, while we got a loaner ICE car. One month after our problem occurred, on September 20, GM announced the LG battery plants (in Michigan and Holland)  had resumed production of batteries for replacements. We just had to wait our turn on the list. Our car ended up being towed to a different dealership that had the technicians qualified to do the work. Besides the battery replacement, the 12V battery had to be replaced from sitting there slowly depleting for nearly five months, and they found a leak of some coolant from the drive motor that ended up being a bad seal. All of this work didn’t cost us anything, and actually got us a new 66kWh battery (10% more range), but it did severely inconvenience us in swapping out loaner ICE vehicles a few times and paying for gas in them. We now have the Bolt back as a daily driver with no more issues.

EV range anxiety is a real thing and if you are an anxious person, this part may drive you away from an electric car. Unlike running out of gas, running out of charge means getting towed to a charging station or having a portable generator come to your aid to charge. This is very costly and counter-productive. I have never run out of “juice” but have come within 10 miles of empty and it is nerve-wracking. Just last week, I took the Bolt on a 220 mile trip to work in WV and because of the lack of charging stations there, I went out of my way to the Staunton Level 3 charger to “top off” for $4.30. While driving, I wore extra layers and a beanie so I could keep the heat at a minimum(The Bolt comes standard with heated seats and steering wheel that are more energy efficient than running heat in the cabin). I drove gingerly up the inclines. I ended up making it home with 25% to spare and saved about $40 from having to take my truck.

I enjoy supporting our local electric cooperatives in using their Virginia-made and distributed electricity to power my vehicle. Currently with regular gas at over $4.25/gallon and local electric rates around $0.10/kWh, my Chevy Bolt has an equivalent miles per gallon of 152 MPGe, meaning the same $4.25 that can take my truck 20 miles, can take my Bolt 152 miles. In the past 3.5 years, we have charged the Bolt with a total of 10,454 kWH of electricity from home for an estimated fuel savings of $3500, so that’s a savings of $1000 per year for our driving habits of about 10k miles per year.

We once had grid-tied, net-metered rooftop solar at a previous home, and even with the electric car charging, we had no electric bill from April to October except for the fixed connection fee. Without that, we expect our “fuel” bill to go up over time with electric rates. Our rate with SVEC has remained steady for two years, but they just announced a new rate system that they are trying to get the SCC to approve. Part of the increase is in the fixed consumer charge going up to $30 per month. Part of the change is called “inclining block” and it will determine your rate based on your total usage (over or under 800 kWh) through the summer months (June to September). The biggest increasing factor to customers like us is called a “demand charge” that will basically adjust your rate based on the highest 15 minutes of demanded usage in a month. So we will have to plan to charge the car while we’re not also running the AC on a hot day or the heat on a cold day, while filling a bathtub or drying clothes, or other uses that could add up to a higher peak demand. Our EV life is just full of minor inconvenience and major savings, a roller coaster of anxiety and comfort. 

Dylan Cooper is a Page County native and graduate of Luray High School and Virginia Tech. He is a stream restoration specialist for a local non-profit and a registered professional engineer in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Avid outdoorsman and ardent environmentalist, he resides in Luray with his wife and dogs.  

Email: [email protected]

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5 Comments

  1. Interesting article. I like that you showed good and not-so-good points about EVs I had a hybrid Prius and was pleased with it, however, I am not yet totally sold on a totally electric vehicle. You mention some of my own reasons in your article. Lack of charging stations in rural areas and the extra time added to an already long trip are two of them. Even though you show $$ savings by using electricity over ICE, there is a good deal of additional expenses with an EV. For one, my Prius cost an extra $100 a year for state registration in WV. That’s how they make up for you not paying gas tax since you buy little to no gas. You said, “I enjoy supporting our local electric cooperatives in using their Virginia-made and distributed electricity to power my vehicle.” Are you SURE your power is all Virginia-made? I know the large power plant in Mt. Storm, WV sends it’s power to Virginia. “The facility’s three units use around 15,000 [2] tons of coal per day to generate more than 1,600[2] megawatts of electricity from the coal synfuel for around 2 million people in Northern Virginia.” I am not trying to be a totally anti EV person, I’m just not 100% convinced they are currently the best thing since sliced bread. Thanks for the interesting article, a friend posted the link on Facebook that led me to it.

  2. Thanks for this article. I am contemplating a new vehicle and have considered EV, but doing my research, I realize It is not for me. I am not comfortable purchasing one now….agree with many of the issues things you mentioned. I have a hybrid and love it…gets about 40 MPG..so that still sounds best for me. Now if the dealership will only get in the hybrid model I want!

  3. Glad to see some local discussion around EVs. While it’s true that charging for non-Tesla EVs still pose a challenge, more chargers will be built as momentum builds for EVs. Every major automaker has new EVs in the pipeline. Teslas, which are currently $40k+, solved the problem by building their own fast charging network: https://www.tesla.com/supercharger Other companies have to catch up.

    When you charge at home, you always leave the house with a “full tank”. Many people never drive more than 90 miles in a day. You could easily go to Harrisonburg and back. I can’t remember the last time I took a trip across the country.

    And ultimately, I love the idea of electric cars because it’s freedom. No more being at the mercy of the price of gasoline. No longer being worried about foreign wars over resources. No more funding corrupt leaders of resource rich nations. Electricity can be made easily and cheaply in our own backyard.

    For total freedom, just put solar panels on the roof. Fill er up Bub 🙂

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