Mountain climber looking at a difficult trail up a mountain to represent the difficulty of finding options for charging EVs in multi-unit dwellings

Charging EVs in Multi-Unit Dwellings—What’s the Best Path Forward?

by kirkcoburn
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I am really enjoying my EV. However, as I have been tweeting (@kirkcoburn), there is serious range anxiety when traveling beyond my normal 3-mile radius. Public charging stations have a long way to go before they catch up to gas stations in terms of being all over the damn place. 80% of EV owners charge their cars at home, but that’s not all that easy, either if you live in a multi-unit dwelling.

If you’re the guy who’s still driving that 15 miles to the gallon Tahoe, and you don’t think you need your own gas pump at home—why are EV owners so special that they can’t go to a charging station like everybody else? 

First of all, because we can. Second, simple economics. When you charge up at home, you’re usually doing it in the evenings and on weekends, when the power grid is less stressed and energy is cheaper. If you’ve got to go to the mini-mart in the middle of the afternoon, charging costs can jump up 30% (most of you probably don’t even notice). 

Chargers Are a Stick in the MUD

EV owners face a problem: charging at home if they don’t live in a detached house. If you live in a single-family home, you can install your own charging station or run a long utility extension cord from the garage out to the driveway. But if you live in a multi-unit dwelling (MUD), you don’t have the luxury of building a port by the house. Also, the HOA may take a dim view of you hanging that orange power cord out the window to your Tesla. 

Here’s a true story. I have a friend who’s done really well, and they have a couple of Teslas. They also have a vacation condo at a fairly elite golf club. Unfortunately, they can’t get the HOA to agree to let them install a charging station (there are four Teslas in the building), so they all run those extension cords out their second-story window, draped over the rhododendron, to their rides. It’s a good look. 

My point is this. Lots of wealthy people live in a MUD of some sort, and there’s a growing demand for charging EVs in multi-unit dwellings. Youngsters in the workforce are driving EVs while they live in apartments. Families have options for EV SUVs these days, and many families in metro areas live in apartments or townhouses. How many more would be happy to buy an EV if finding a place to charge wasn’t such a hassle? 

Over 155 million Americans live in some sort of multi-family housing. According to Forbes, over half of Californians live in a MUD. In New York City, 44% of renters live in a MUD. The numbers in the rest of the country aren’t as extreme, but HOAs and landlords will have to get on board with building out charging stations on their properties. 

Challenges to Building MUD Charging Stations

Why is everybody so reluctant to build these stations? If the US aims to cut ICE vehicle sales by 50% by 2030, how are we supposed to power up the batteries?

Why not, if the goal is to cut internal combustion engine production in half by 2030? 

The expense of building out charging stations for MUDs isn’t chump change, but that’s really not the primary obstacle to getting on board. HOAs and building managers might also say that they can’t give up valuable space for just a few vehicles that won’t always occupy that square footage. That’s fair, but it’s pretty low on the list of serious objections. 

So, What’s the Real Problem?

The real problem is that apartment and condo managers aren’t experts in charging cars, they are focused on the real estate. They’re really good at making sure the elevators work and the landscaping looks nice, but they are (for the most part) completely in over their collective heads when it comes to figuring out the EV equation. Facilitating charging EVs in multi-unit dwellings simply isn’t part of the playbook.

I mean, these are the basic things they have to think about before the first EV ever comes in for a quick boost:

  • Hardware
  • Software
  • Installation
  • Network integration
  • Payments
  • Management 
  • Maintenance

Okay, sure, that’s a low learning curve. After they get up to speed on this, they’ve got to get really in the weeds. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to building these stations. Logistics are one component of the process, but so is allocating EV spots and managing energy costs. Older buildings may not have the electrical capacity—circuits, load management, and switchboards—to handle the additional power that the charging stations demand, so that adds another layer of costs and logistics. Here’s an example: with an HOA, installing charging units would probably require bylaw changes to address usage and cost distribution. 

The good news is that retrofitting parking areas with EV stations is getting more streamlined every day, so the learning curve for charging EVs in multi-unit dwellings is actually flattening somewhat. 

As charging stations become a more standard amenity in MUDs, EV owners will make the judgment calls that determine if the installation is well-done or not. 

Levels of EV Chargers

As with most everything else in life, EV chargers are not created equally. Most apartments have one option for charging—a Level 1 device that works with an old-school 120V outlet. It takes up to 50 hours to fully charge the battery. Or, in a mere 10 hours, you can get between 35 and 65 miles in range. 

For those of you keeping up at home, that’s the entire weekend you’re at the mercy of Uber. In case you’re wondering, this is the same voltage you use to run your hair dryer. 

If these numbers wig you out, relax. The average American, whoever they are, only drives about 31 miles per day. So if you’re under the gun for a charge, unplug your phone and charge your car. 

Level 2 chargers run on 240V—the same as your clothes dryer or oven. You’ll get about 350 miles from a 10-hour charge. These can also be hard-wired into the electrical system of the building. These are the chargers that homeowners and office buildings usually install since they’ll give you that full charge during the workday or overnight. If you’re thinking about installing a Level 2 charger, check with your power company and state about rebates and incentives. 

Level 3 chargers are also called superchargers, or DCFCs (direct current fast chargers). Superchargers started out with a 50kW charge has zoomed up to 350kW. You’ll have to find a public station to access a supercharger—even if you have a Lotus Evija or an Aspark Owl. Never mind—if you’ve spring for the Aspark, you probably own a power company. 

Anyway, a supercharger will goose your EV up to 90 miles in half an hour. 

Solutions for Charging EVs in Multi-Unit Dwellings

Mountain climber with a rope making headway so others can follow

The federal and state governments are offering some pretty decent incentives for apartments and condos to install EV stations. 

Federal options include a tax credit for the charger hardware and the installation costs. MUDs are considered commercial property for incentive purposes, with higher credits allowed than for residential use. If you’ve already installed stations at your property, these credits are retroactive back to 2017. 

A level 2 station is good for a few thousand, but a supercharger is worth $30,000 in tax incentives. 

There are other federal goodies for lower-income MUDs. A project that covers infrastructure and the foundation can also get funding, with additional grants to buy the actual stations. 

State Incentives for Letting Tenants Start Charging EVs in Multi-Unit Dwellings

Some states are partnering with power companies to incentivize EV projects, including ones for charging EVs in multi-unit dwellings. In Massachusetts, the National Grid’s Electric Vehicle Charging Station Program will cover the entire cost of a project. By that, I mean buying the stations, building the infrastructure, and installation. That’s a deal. In California, Southern California Edison’s Charge Ready Program has rebates that refund up to 100% of the capital outlay. The more boxes you tick regarding being in a MUD or a disadvantaged community, the bigger the incentive. And with EV prices coming down and federal tax rebates going up, EVs are in line with new ICE cars. 

It Never Hurts to Ask About Charging EVs in Multi-Unit Dwellings…

As I have learned, many of you have not asked your landlord or HOA about the possibility of installing charging stations. One of the top real estate developers for MUDs told me that it is the proverbial dog that doesn’t bark. Instead of complaining, many EV drivers change behavior and learn to charge somewhere else. Part of the problem is the lack of answers:  

  • Who pays for the project? (Incentives and rebates)
  • Will it make money? (Indirectly, yes.)
  • How is charging EVs in multi-unit dwellings managed? (Make reservations through the app, levy fines for leaving a fully charged battery plugged in, etc.)
  • Can the building be retrofitted for charging stations? (You won’t know until you ask that, either.)

Point out that installing EV chargers on site will not be a luxury or even an amenity in a few years, and starting the project sooner than later will avoid delays in construction and installation that are likely in just a couple of years. If that’s a non-starter with an HOA, band together with other EV owners to install the stations onsite. You can still collect the rebates if it’s for the entire complex. And you can get rid of those hideous orange cords that drive the neighbors nuts. 

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