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Everything you Need to Know About Buying your First Electric Vehicle

If you find yourself groaning every time the fuel indicator light comes on because average gas prices over $3.50 are burning holes in your pockets, now might be the time to ditch the pump for the plug.

With news that U.S. electric vehicle (EV) sales have doubled in the first six months of 2013 and that more automakers such as BMW and Porsche are rolling out mass-produced EVs, it may not be long before our streets and highways are filled with the quiet hums of electric engines.

In preparation for what many consider the inevitable transition to wide-spread EV use, it’s time to take a look at this emerging market and the possibilities it offers potential EV owners. For questions about cost, charging, range, maintenance, and all the other things you take into account when buying any new car–not just an EV–look no further. Here’s everything you need to know before you take your first drive down Electric Avenue.

Should I Start Saving Now?

You’re probably wondering first and foremost how much you have to spend to get behind the wheel of a shiny, new EV. Like the broader automotive industry, price tags for EVs range from “I make a decent living and am looking to buy my first new car” to “I just bought a new house in Beverly Hills.” On average, though, EVs tend to run a little more expensive than most gas-powered cars. The Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt, two of the more mainstream EVs on the market, retail between $28,000 to $40,000.

Sound expensive? Never fear, Uncle Sam is here to help! Gas vehicles don’t carry with them federal or state incentives, but there are many for qualified consumers looking to purchase an EV. If you’re eligible, the federal government will give you a nice $7,500 tax rebate, with the only caveat being that you need to have a one-year tax liability that exceeds that amount. What’s more, news from Washington suggests that President Obama wants to raise the incentive to $10,000, and instead of a tax rebate, the credit would be issued at the time of purchase!

In addition to federal incentives, many states and cities offer additional benefits ranging from tax rebates to perks like single occupancy use of HOV lanes and even free parking. The Nissan Leaf website has a cool calculator to help you find out what your state can offer you.

Be in Charge of your Charge

Once you’ve settled on a model that fits your price range, the next thing you’ll need to consider is charging it. Before we get into where and when you’ll need to charge your EV, let’s first discuss the three different levels of charging that are currently supported by manufacturers in the U.S.

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Level 1: Level 1 charging is the most familiar, as it works like any standard three-pronged outlet, meaning you can plug your EV into the outlet in your garage to charge its battery. The downside to Level 1 charging is that it’s painfully slow. A Nissan Leaf takes 20 hours to charge using a standard 120-volt charger.

Level 2: This is the type of charging you’ll want to use most often, as it’s much faster than charging with a regular outlet. To charge at Level 2, however, you’ll need special equipment specific to EVs. Using a 240-volt charger can fill up a Leaf in 8 to 12 hours.

Level 3: Some EVs support Level 3, which is by far the fastest way to charge. By hitting your EV’s battery with 480 volts of electricity, you can bring battery levels up to 80 percent capacity in as little as 30 minutes. Be wary, though, because frequently charging your battery with an industrial-strength charger may reduce the overall life of your battery.

The most important consideration you’ll make when deciding when and how much to charge your EV should be pretty obvious: it all depends on how far you’re planning to drive and what your vehicle’s electric range is. That being said, with that brand new set of electric wheels, you’ll probably want to hit the streets as much as possible. So instead of spending more time charging your EV than actually driving it, it’s probably a good idea to pony up for a level 2 charging station to install in your garage.

While these aren’t free and can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000, depending on the manufacturer, the government is there for your quickly-emptying pockets yet again, this time providing a 30 percent tax credit up to $1,000 off the total cost of purchase and installation.

The Good News About Maintenance

As the costs keep adding up, you’re probably beginning to feel like an EV isn’t a great investment. Well, here’s some good news: you know all those obnoxious oil and transmission fluid changes that come with your gasoline car? Say goodbye to them with your all-electric engine.

Without a combustion engine, and the thousands of mechanical moving parts found inside, you’ll find yourself taking fewer trips to the auto mechanic because your electric motor has only a handful of parts. Oh, and did we mention your EV won’t have a tailpipe? Even less to worry about when it comes to maintenance.

There must be a catch, you’re probably thinking. Well, there is one, but it may not be so bad. While you’ll enjoy far lower costs in annual maintenance with an EV, you will need to replace your car’s battery within 7 to 10 years. Replacements can be expensive, but many manufacturers have provided extended warranties for batteries.

So, is it Worth it?

So you know about the upfront costs as well as the longer lasting ones with charging and maintenance, but by now you must want to know if purchasing an EV is really worth it. In other words, you want to know if going electric is a smart financial decision.

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In a minute we’ll get to some specific questions you’ll want to answer before making your decision, but first let’s do some math. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Americans spent on average $2,912 on gasoline last year. That’s a 30 year high, by the way. With an EV, however, the yearly costs for electricity are about a fifth as much. Assuming an average U.S. electricity price of $.10/kWh, a full battery charge on a Nissan Leaf costs $2.40. Nissan and other EV manufacturers place the yearly electricity cost at $600.

Sure, electricity and gas prices will continue to fluctuate, and these are just averages that vary by state, but with an EV you’re probably looking at over $2,000 in savings every year from reduced fuel costs. With an 8-year battery life, you’ll save over $16,000 during that time–more than enough to account for the higher upfront costs of purchasing an EV.

Now before you start rushing out to a dealership, make sure you do some due diligence regarding your personal situation in relation to owning an EV. Some common questions to ask yourself include: Do you live somewhere that has a charging infrastructure? Do you drive less than 80-100 miles a day? Do you have access to a vehicle for longer trips? Are you doing this simply for the economic reasons, or do you also care about the environmental impacts of your decision?

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Start with those, and make sure to do plenty of research before you make your decision. That said, don’t be surprised if you start to see more and more of your friends soon making the switch to an EV. The future of cars is electric, and manufacturers are starting to make owning an EV more affordable and accessible. Ultimately, the decision is yours, and whether or not an EV is a smart financial decision will vary depending on who you are and where you live, but we hope this guide will help you start to think about what your electric car future might look like.

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