A Homeowner's Guide to Electric Vehicles

Updated June 10, 2019
home electrical meter
Saving money on your electrical bill means taking care of your home's electrical system. (Photo by Katelin Kinney)

Electric vehicles pop up in the news regularly, in part because they offer many benefits to modern drivers.

If your home is equipped to install an electric vehicle charging station, an EV can be an excellent choice. Learn more about the technology and its advantages to decide if driving an electric vehicle is right for you.

What Is an Electric Car?

As the name suggests, an electric car gets at least some of its power from an electric motor. Most other vehicles are powered by gasoline-fueled engines, but an electric car is fueled partly or entirely by the electricity that comes from its batteries, which are recharged by plugging the vehicle into an electricity source. The motor in an electric car relies on a controller that determines how much power is sent to the motor based on the position of the accelerator pedal that the driver pushes.

Electric cars that run exclusively on electricity differ from hybrid cars, which are fueled by gasoline but use a battery and an electric motor to use the energy from the gasoline more efficiently. Electric cars that use only electricity have not been widely produced historically because of their limited range (the distance they can travel before batteries need recharging) and a lack of a commitment on the part of manufacturers to making them. Traditionally, the limited range of electric cars has been due to battery technology limitations. However, in recent decades, battery efficiency has improved, resulting in batteries that can power cars longer between charges and take less time to recharge. This has made auto manufacturers more willing to produce cars that are fueled only by electricity.

Efficiency Matters

Electric cars that do not include an internal combustion engine tend to be better for the environment. They produce no emissions, are less costly to operate, and do not rely on oil and gasoline. Even though pollutants are often produced to generate the electricity used to power electric cars, the overall amount of carbon added to the atmosphere is often lower than that produced by cars powered by internal combustion engines.

Electric cars that run exclusively on electricity are more convenient to operate than gasoline-powered cars. You never have to visit a gas station to fuel an electric car, and they do not require much of the maintenance that gasoline-powered cars require. Many people will note that a trip to the gas station to fuel a car can be quite brief, whereas charging a car at home can take several hours. However, the charging times are being shortened as technology improves, and highway DC chargers can fill a battery up to 80 percent capacity in about 30 minutes or so. Fortunately, more and more communities are establishing legislation for installing electric car charging station options in public places to make it more feasible for residents to adopt and use electric cars.

Electric Power vs. Gasoline Power

When it comes to using electric power versus gasoline power for cars, there are several notable differences.

The cost to fuel an electric car that runs only on electricity is 2 cents per mile, but it costs 12 cents per mile to fuel a gasoline-powered car.

Exclusively electric cars commonly go about 100 miles before needing a recharge, though some luxury models can go 250 miles. A gasoline-powered car can be driven about 300 miles before needing to refuel.

There are no carbon emissions from an electric car that lacks an internal combustion engine, but cars with traditional internal combustion engines produce harmful carbon emissions.

It can take several hours to recharge an electric car battery but only minutes to refuel a gasoline-powered vehicle.

Driving gasoline-powered cars means that we need to rely on petroleum imports from other countries for energy, but electric cars that lack an internal combustion engine get power from your local electrical utility.

Electric Car Adoption and Air Pollution: Learn about how adopting electric vehicles helps reduce air pollution on this page.

Electric Cars and Alternative Options: Visit this page to read up on the basics of electric cars and their advantages and disadvantages.

Electric Car Technology and Challenges: This resource gives an overview of the history and challenges of electric car technology.

EV1 Electric Car: The Smithsonian presents this page on the first modern electric car designed for the mass market.

Classifying Electric Cars

The amount of power a particular car derives from electricity allows us to put it into one of several broad categories of electric cars. These classifications help drivers to understand the technology better and to make vehicle choices that are most appropriate for their needs. Depending on the category of car chosen, drivers may need to hire an electrician to make sure that they have the right power supply to charge the battery of their electric car.

Types of Electric Vehicles

Electric Vehicles (EVs)

These are vehicles that get at least part of their power from the electric grid and the electricity it produces. An electric vehicle may be an all-electric vehicle or a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle.

All-Electric Vehicles (AEVs)

All-electric vehicles do not consume petroleum or petroleum-based fuels, so they produce no tailpipe emissions. These vehicles are powered by electricity that they attain from the electric grid and that is stored in batteries that power electric motors.

Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs)

These vehicles combine batteries and an electric motor with an internal combustion engine. You have to plug in these vehicles to recharge their electric batteries, just as with AEVs. Usually, the electric motors on these cars are used to travel short distances or while idling, and the internal combustion engine powers the car for longer trips. These cars will use petroleum or alternative fuels, and they produce some emissions, though less emissions than cars that rely only on internal combustion engines.

Electric Cars 101: This guide from Consumer Reports answers the key questions most people have about electric vehicles.

Plug-In Electric Vehicles: Understand the kind of power grid that will be needed in order to support widespread adoption of PHEVs by visiting this site and consulting electrical companies near me.

What Kind of Electric Car Should I Consider?

The right kind of electric car for a particular driver will depend on a variety of factors, including the availability of car charging stations, cost, environmental friendliness, and more. There are four kinds of electric cars that drivers should consider before making their purchase. The pros and cons of each should be considered before making one's final decision.

Battery-Electric Cars

These electric cars rely only on electricity that is supplied by a battery. Drivers who choose these cars should select a vehicle with a battery that provides a sufficient driving rangebetween recharging for their most common driving needs. Historically, recharging these cars away from home has been difficult, but more and more public charging stations are being constructed, so it is easier than ever to rely on a battery-electric car for one's driving needs. Battery-electric cars do not produce emissions, and they are great for drivers who make many short-distance trips and do not travel long distances very often. Before choosing this type of vehicle, local electricians can help you determine if your home's electrical system can support recharging a battery-electric car.

Plug-In Hybrids

Plug-in hybrids combine a rechargeable battery and electric motor with an internal combustion engine. Generally speaking, the electric motor is used on shorter trips, whereas long-distance travel makes use of the gasoline engine. The net result is a reduction in gasoline use, since some of the miles driven use electricity instead of gasoline. These cars are best for those who have access to plug-in stations or at least 120V outlets, since that is what is required to recharge most batteries used in these cars. Plug-in hybrids are not suitable for towing or for those who regularly transport more than five people at a time.

Fuel-Cell Vehicles

Fuel-cell vehicles feature electric motors that are powered by hydrogen fuel cells. The only byproduct of hydrogen fuel cells is water, so these cars do not produce dangerous carbon emissions. Producing the hydrogen needed to fuel these cars creates emissions, but the net result is still a reduction in total emissions when hydrogen fuel cells are used. These cars can be refueled quickly and have long driving ranges, but there are not many hydrogen refueling stations presently in service. However, more and more communities are looking into adding these refueling stations, which may make it easier for more people to adopt hydrogen-powered cars in the future.

Conventional Hybrid Vehicles

Technically, hybrid vehicles are not considered electric vehicles unless they can be recharged from an outlet. Some conventional hybrids incorporate non-rechargeable batteries and electric motors into their operation in order to improve fuel efficiency. Thus, these vehicles offer benefits to the environment and to the costs of driving even if they are not actually defined as electric cars. These conventional hybrids typically employ regenerative braking and other techniques to lower fuel consumption.

Fuel Cells: Fuel cells have many benefits, but there are key economic reasons why they have not yet been widely adopted, as this page indicates.

Hydrogen Basics: On this page from the U.S. Department of Energy, get the basics on hydrogen and its potential as a fuel source.

Benefits of Electric Cars

It should be clear by this point that electric cars offer several advantages to drivers. Driving them truly can be more cost-effective. And they tend to be more beneficial for the environment and thus go a long way to help address the problem of climate change. Consider these four key benefits of an electric car.

Cheaper to Maintain

AEVs, powered only by batteries, have few moving parts. Because they do not have complex internal combustion engines, there are fewer parts to maintain and fewer parts to break down over time. There is almost no servicing of these cars because they lack components such as radiators, exhaust systems, and so forth. About the only maintenance such cars need regularly is for the brakes, tires, and other similar components. PHEVs do have maintenance needs that AEVs do not have because PHEVs have internal combustion engines. However, they need less frequent servicing because the battery-driven motor means that the combustion engine does not do as much work as it does in a traditional gasoline-powered vehicle.

Better for the Environment

All electric vehicles produce less emissions, which makes for cleaner air and a safer environment. You get even further environmental benefits when clean, renewable energy sources provide the electricity used to recharge electric vehicles. Electric vehicles are also increasingly using recycled and more environmentally friendly materials in their construction. All in all, buying an electric vehicle can reduce waste, keep the air and water cleaner, and contribute to a healthier planet.

Cheaper to Run

Electric vehicles are less expensive to operate because they require less petroleum-based fuel. Drivers can save one-third or more on their driving expenses when they drive electric vehicles because the cost of gasoline is much higher than the cost of electricity in most places. Electric vehicles can cost more up front to purchase, but over time, many drivers save money because of the cost savings on fuel. Saving more money in the long term makes electric cars a no-brainer for many drivers.

Health Benefits

Closely connected to the environmental benefits of electric vehicles are the health benefits. Lower emissions means cleaner and healthier air. Less gasoline use means less water pollution and soil pollution from refinery processes. Noise pollution is also reduced when electric vehicles are used because electric vehicles are quieter than traditional internal combustion engine vehicles.

Benefits of Electric Vehicles: A National Perspective: This report from the U.S. government looks at the national benefits that can come from adopting electric cars.

Fossil Fuels and Electric Cars: This page explores the benefits of electric cars in relation to fossil fuel use.

Electric Car Benefits: Find a brief overview of the benefits of electric cars on this page.

Reducing Carbon Pollution: Here is a good page explaining how electric vehicles can reduce carbon pollution.