Our First Electric Vehicle (EV)

We’ve been talking and dreaming about acquiring an Electric Vehicle for years. We had no plans to pick one up until after completing our house/utility renovations and saving up again, but the misbehavior of our previous vehicle required an acceleration in plans and shifting of priority [*wink*].

We purchased a 2011 Chevy Volt, which Amanda named “Snowy.” It is a first-generation PHEV (plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle). When it charges, its maximum charge rate, at 240V, is about 3.2 kW (kilowatts), which is about half the speed of most modern electric vehicles at this voltage. It also requires Premium gasoline. This will come into play later when talking about charging.

Our 2011 Chevy Volt, “Snowy,” purchased at Rath Mitsubishi in Springdale, AR

Why did we opt for an electric vehicle (not an exhaustive list, and each point would require its own post to be sufficiently thorough), and specifically a PHEV?

  • Fuel flexibility. Electricity can be generated in dozens of ways, whereas gasoline comes from a single, centralized source (crude oil). Having an EV future proofs and diversifies our car’s propulsion source. We hope to charge it at home eventually.
  • Easing our transition to full electric. Living in the country presents numerous challenges. Without understanding all of the nuances of maintaining a BEV (battery electric vehicle) in Fayetteville, AR without the ability to charge at home, we didn’t want to run into a situation where we couldn’t acquire a critical resource (like propane in deep, cloudy cold weather) if we ran out of charge at a problematic time (living off-grid is, to a large extent, all about having backup plans). PHEVs have what one could call a built-in backup plan – the gasoline engine – in times of need. Also, simply, we can’t afford a BEV right now.
  • Resource usage and energy density. This is a complex topic, but, in brief, batteries can be charged thousands of times (making their lifetime energy density massive), whereas gasoline, a toxic substance at all points in its lifespan, is an immediate consumable and must be replenished constantly.
  • Elimination of idling. Electric vehicles sit nearly silent and inert-feeling while at a stop. It is quiet, restful, and restorative.
  • Elimination of direct, dispersed emissions. Electric vehicles do not generate tailpipe emissions directly. While much of the power that goes into them, especially today, likely creates pollution / emissions, the electrical grid has far fewer power-generation nodes that require caretaking compared with every single car on the road. A fully electrified vehicle fleet converts the problem from over one billion pollution machines globally to several thousand. This is a far less complex problem to solve, and it also encourages the EV owner to produce their own electricity (which is almost impossible with gasoline as access to gasoline’s raw materials, refinement methods, and storage are beyond most people’s capacity).
Snowy, delighting in how thematic its name is on this day, introduces itself to one of our resident deer

Now that we’ve had our PHEV for a little over one and a half months, we finally have enough information to give a decent review of the ownership experience. I, Ryan, will focus particularly on charging and whether we would recommend such a vehicle.

Snowy, our 2011 Chevy Volt, provides a wonderful ride. Like most BEVs (battery electric vehicles), despite being a PHEV, it is quite heavy (about 700 lbs heavier, at nearly 4000 lbs, than our previous, larger car) and has a very-low center of gravity. It feels incredibly stable and smooth, cornering beautifully. It accelerates very nicely. My first impression of having an EV, from the driving standpoint, is quite positive.

Unlike a traditional hybrid vehicle, its engine and drivetrain are pure electric. The gas component of the car is actually a generator, providing power to the electric engine as needed. I’ll attempt to keep my excitement on this point to a minimum, though. The technical design of this car is quite fascinating; I would recommend you dig in (Chevy Volt Wikipedia link) if this little tidbit sounds interesting.

The instrument cluster in the car’s dashboard behind the steering wheel; on the left is the battery level.

There are a few things we don’t like about it, of course. The regenerative brakes are quite loud, sounding almost like a siren in the distance when they gently scream at full volume (which is even louder when we have the windows rolled down; it must be quite an experience for pedestrians around us). The heavier the demand placed on them (like when descending a steep hill at a high speed with a lot of brake pedal use), the louder they become. This may be possible to fix, but, at this time, the local Chevy dealership does not have a Volt/Bolt tech on staff.

However, the biggest problem and greatest challenge is charging. We cannot charge at home due to not having sufficient power (at this time), not being able to bring our car close enough to the house without damaging the land (we used to do this and almost created a severe erosion issue), and due to the power source at the house residing about 1,000 feet from where we have to park the car. So we must rely on public infrastructure. And we cannot use Tesla’s infrastructure.

How far has this infrastructure come? How convenient is it? Can one rely upon it? Let’s put it this way – if you’re tenacious and determined, and willing to spend more time than you would on a gas car for propulsion, you can make it work most of the time. I’ve managed to drive almost all of the nearly 600 miles since we acquired the car on electric power (I’ve used 5.3 gallons of gas at this point). However, I’ve often had to walk long distances (a joy and a blessing for me, but perhaps not everyone’s happy space), wait in the car for long periods of time hoping one of the limited chargers will free up, and tinker with a host of apps that all have different purposes.

Due to EV charging being more of a commodity and a service at this point, not a foundational near-utility like gasoline access, there are quite a few competing charging networks and services in varying states of repair and reliability. In Fayetteville, I’ve sampled ChargePointe, Enel X, and ClearToken, which have apps for Android and iOS (I’ve tested Android). And after much trial and error, I don’t or can’t even reliably use any of them. I’ll talk about these and then reveal what I do use.

  • ChargePointe – this appears to be one of the more mature charging infrastructures. Their app is decent, easy to use, and helps you find one of their chargers, plus providing space to report to other CP users the state of function of particular chargers. They also offer a free physical card you can order that will allow you to start one of their chargers if you don’t have a smartphone (or don’t want to use it). However, and this is a major dealbreaker, almost every ChargePointe charger I’ve seen either has absurd pricing (the chargers on campus can easily run over $7.00 for 3 hours, which, for our vehicle at its charge rate, puts the cost almost identical to gasoline) or, worse, is broken. The free chargers at Whole Foods have the attachment clips busted off of the J1772 plugs, and have been in this state for months (showing that either WF or CP doesn’t care to maintain them). It appears that the chargers will not work if the clip is broken. So they’re just expensive, plastic, cracked towers, monuments to fragility and incapacity.
  • Enel X Way – this app works with a charger branded Juicebox. The only ones I know of in town are at the County Courthouse. They were installed in April 2022 but still do not work (in February 2023). The technical staff at the Courthouse has been unable to make them work as they need them to, and fixing them or replacing them with a more functional service has clearly not been a priority.
  • ClearToken – this is the simplest of the payment infrastructures. ClearToken apparently is more often used for laundry services and other similar things. They provide chargers at Colliers Drugstore on Dickson street, a full 10 chargers (the most single-location volume anywhere in town by a decent margin). The smartphone app utilizes Bluetooth, or a similar function, to communicate with the available charge towers. However, they are expensive; at $2/hour, they cost more than double the cost of the electricity pulled from them (and, at Snowy’s modest charging rate, four times more!). I also have not had success at making them work; the one I have tried, AC087, wouldn’t start charging my car. Their support is responsive and refunded my $4.00. But still, the problem remains that the charger experience should be painless and straightforward.

These are just the apps that directly provide charging. I also occasionally use an app called PlugShare, which doesn’t have chargers of its own but does make it easier to find places to charge; like ChargePointe, users can also put comments about the charger’s state of effectiveness/repair. I also use ParkMobile, again not a charging service, but it is the app the City of Fayetteville uses to enable people to park in various lots downtown.

Charging downtown, with a view of our new license plate (which includes a yearly donation to Arkansas Game & Fish)

And that’s where I primarily charge at this point. Just west of the downtown square, behind the Farmers & Merchants’ bank building, are two (yes, just 2) EV chargers. They use the J1772 standard plug (which can be converted if you have an appropriate adapter; this is what Teslas must do, and, thankfully, these converters come standard with them). As of this writing (February 2023), parking via ParkMobile requires a $0.35 service fee and then is $0.25 per hour for Fayetteville, AR parking (this is set by whoever runs the lot). When parking, it is necessary to input your license plate. I’ve seen staff occasionally walking around with a scanner of sorts on a long handle; I surmise that this will read the value on the license plate and then compare it against a database of active parking passes. So it’s probably best not to skip the charge.

To achieve a complete charge from a completely depleted battery to full, I need about 4 hours (though sometimes it can take more if the battery needs to do some conditioning), and this is mostly because of the slow 3.2kW charging rate of our car. This costs $1.35. And, if I can charge after 6pm or before 8am, I can do so completely free.

During paid times (8am – 6pm), I’ve had decent luck finding a charger. Off-hours, though, it can be tough. I wouldn’t count on their availability off-hours, unless you’re willing to gamble.

We definitely don’t mind paying for the electricity we use. But Ozarks Electric has provided this service to the community and, until I can find another reliable way to charge, I am very glad for it.

Ryan plugging in a J1772 plug provided by Ozarks Electric and available near the Fayetteville, AR downtown square

Just to be clear, these two (2) chargers are the only chargers in the whole town, excluding chargers I don’t feel comfortable using (like the ones available at car dealerships), I feel absolutely confident will work every single time I plug into one. Sigh.

There is an alternative method of charging, called 120V or L1 (level 1) charging done with a standard wall outlet, which is fairly reasonable for a car with as small a battery as the Chevy Volt. I would use this if I could, which can take anywhere from 7 – 10 hours for a full charge of our battery (and please note, this is not a standard charge time applicable to all EVs; the Volt’s battery is only about 10 kWh; many full BEVs have 40 kWh – 100 kWh batteries, which can take 30 – 120 hours for a full charge at L1, so it’s not often a reasonable solution for many vehicles). However, I can’t find a place to reliably plug into a 120V socket in town without creating a tripping hazard or at a location that offers standard, outdoor plugs to the public. Also, generally these types of plugs are not weatherproof, unlike the 240V J1772 plug standard, which is affixed to a professionally installed power-transmission unit engineered to withstand the outdoors.

So, do we recommend an Electric Vehicle?

If you meet any of the following criteria, without question yes:

  • Can charge at home – especially for a PHEV that you wish to run mostly on electric, I would say this is essential
  • Are passionate about reducing your personal carbon footprint via your vehicle decision and can tolerate the discomforts, inconveniences, and difficulties of the current local infrastructure
  • Are passionate about immersing yourself in unique and cutting-edge advancements in vehicle propulsion/drivetrains and, as with the previous point, can tolerate what you’d have to deal with to live with one

However, there are numerous ways to reduce one’s environmental impact. A vehicle is just one of them, and of course each person has to make their own decision based on their circumstances and priorities. We accepted, though sometimes quite grudgingly (in my case) I must admit, the necessity of having an inexpensive gasoline-only car in exchange for the glorious opportunity we live every day off-grid on conservation land, surrounded and serenaded by birds, squirrels, deer (though their snorts are perhaps a less melodious voice in nature’s choir), coyotes (their nighttime chatter is energizing, raucous, and playful), and owls. Now that we can live differently, though, and finally gain some hands-on experience with this fascinating technology, the choice was an easy one for us.

We would love to hear your thoughts on electric vehicles of any type – BEVs, PHEVs, and even some of the more unique ones (like hydrogen). Do you own one? What do you think of it? If you don’t, do you plan to at any point?

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Shari Withey

SWEET, SWEET, SWEET…..I have been driving a 2008 Prius since 2010 and LOVE IT!!!! Mine too is white….

John Ray

Thanks for that, Ryan and Amanda. I’ve been thinking a lot about EVs for a long time. I’ve been reluctant to get one, given the cost and particularly the lack of infrastructure in this part of the country. Charging at home still involves the use of fossil fuels, unless you’ve got an impressive solar setup. I won’t buy a Tesla simply because it would enrich Musk even more, and I refuse to support his arrogant, atrocious behavior. I’ve been waiting for hydrogen powered vehicles for years, but it is taking so long. I’m still hopeful.

Ronda Jean (RJ)

And thank you for caring and sharing!

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