By David Roberts
Winter is coming. Or depending on where you live, it may already be here. If you are thinking about a plug-in electric vehicle (EV) purchase or recently purchased an EV, you might be wondering what the change of seasons means for EVs in Vermont and other northeast states where cold temperatures, snow, ice and other mixed driving conditions are regular occurrences.
The main issue is EVs do have somewhat reduced range when driving on the battery in cold temperatures. The majority of EVs in the northeast are plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) which can run on battery power or gasoline, so any reduced electric range means you’ll just be switching to gasoline power a little sooner than in the summer time. All electric vehicle (AEV) drivers need to be more aware of their battery range, but a little preparation makes it easy to get where you need to go.
Traction and Clearance
EV batteries are often placed along the underside of the vehicle – this extra weight helps keep your wheels on the road, especially if you have winter tires installed. Winter tires are the single most important investment you can make for safe winter driving in any vehicle and EVs are no exception. Winter tires do have more rolling resistance than EV manufacturers’ standard equipment tires, but in most cases they have a negligible impact on range.
EVs mostly use front wheel drive, which is fine for most winter driving conditions in the northeast when accompanied by winter tires and modern traction-control systems. A growing number of EVs have all-wheel drive, although at this point these models tend to be at the upper end of the market. Tesla, BMW and Volvo all offer models with all-wheel drive. More affordable options are due to arrive in the next year or so, including a plug-in hybrid Mitsubishi Outlander which has been a popular model in Asia and Europe for several years but has not yet been introduced to the US market.
Aerodynamic designs help EVs maximize their range, but they do sometimes include trim pieces which reduce the ground clearance of the vehicle. If you regularly drive in deep, snowy conditions, you can inquire with your dealer/manufacturer if there are options to provide more clearance.
EVs sold in the northeast are designed to provide a warm and comfortable experience for occupants in all seasons. Heated seats and steering wheels are standard or optional equipment depending on the model. These are more efficient than running the cabin heat and have little impact on battery electric range.
Cabin heating systems are also included, although all-electric vehicles are not able to harvest heat from an internal combustion engine, so they must rely on electric heating systems. Some have heat pumps which are much more efficient than resistance heaters. For example, the Nissan LEAF comes in three trim levels: S, SV and SL. The SV and SL trims include a “hybrid” heating system which uses heat pump technology.
EVs usually include the ability to preheat the cabin while the vehicle is still plugged in to the charging cord. The heat can be turned on with a schedule or smartphone apps to make it cozy before heading out on a trip. The preheat works especially well if you are plugged into a 240V EV charging device (often referred to as a Level 2 charger), but still functions on 120V charging (Level 1), which is as easy as plugging into a standard outlet near where you park your vehicle.
Most EVs can charge overnight on Level 1 charging or in 3-4 hours on Level 2 charging. All electric vehicles also have DC fast-charging capability which can provide an 80% charge in about 30 minutes. All three types of charging may require more time in cold winter conditions, especially DC fast charging.
Some EVs have battery heaters that turn on in the coldest temperatures (e.g. below 0 degrees F), so it is often prudent to leave your EV plugged in overnight when it is very cold. Check with your EV dealer or owners’ manual for more information on whether this is a consideration for your vehicle.
There is a 30% federal tax credit for installing EV charging which can provide a credit up to $1,000 for homeowners or more for commercial locations. This is due to expire at the end of 2016 unless Congress takes action to renew it, so now is a good time to make this investment if you are considering one.
EVs use lithium-ion batteries which can be temporarily affected by cold temperatures. This means less electric range is available when you start the vehicle, regardless of how much heat or other auxiliary loads are running in the cabin. For typical EVs and drivers this means a reduction of 20 to 50% from the official electric range estimate from the manufacturer. Plug-in hybrids are not as affected as they can seamlessly switch to running on gasoline when the battery is depleted. All electric models with longer distance range (200-plus miles), such as Tesla and the forthcoming Chevrolet Bolt, are less impacted due to the larger battery size, but the same issues and recommendations still warrant consideration.
If you are commuting in your EV you could check with your employer to see about adding EV charging at your workplace. This is a great way to increase your range confidence and show colleagues how enjoyable and affordable EVs are.
There are many online discussion groups for EV owners which include model-specific forums. These are a great source of tips for maximizing range and can help guide you to options and features that get the most mileage out of the vehicle.
If you have any doubts about EVs in winter, just remember they are among the most popular vehicles in Norway today – comprising nearly 30% of new vehicles sold as of September 2016. If EVs can handle Nordic winters, you should be all set in the Northeast!
David Roberts is the Drive Electric Vermont coordinator. He has driven an all-electric Nissan LEAF for the past four years and says, if you have to drive, drive electric.
An all-electric Nissan LEAF receives a charge after a recent snowfall.