Wanted: Fair Costs for Electric Car Home Charger Installations

By · January 27, 2011

As a new generation of plug-in vehicles rolls off the assembly line, a new cadre of consumers has entered the market for home charging equipment. Federal and state incentives are designed to help offset installation costs, which can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars. But some customers and electric vehicle advocates worry that the very programs meant to help lower costs for charger installations in practice have set the stage for price gouging.

When it comes to home charging equipment, said Marc Geller, co-founder of the nonprofit advocacy group Plug In America, "It's important for people to know all their options available." Nissan and General Motors are offering an option for consumers to buy the equipment and electrical work through their respective partners, AeroVironment and SPX. This "one-stop shop" approach is simple and low-hassle for consumers, but the convenience can add cost, said Geller.

What Is a Fair Price?

Nissan estimates on its website that an average home charging dock installation in a new home will cost about $2,000, before tax and license fees. According to Steve Gitlin, vice president of investor relations for AeroVironment, the "standard cost" of the company's package deal is $2,200, including a preliminary site assessment, the charging hardware, installation and permitting.

The AeroVironment service comes with a three-year warranty, so if anything goes wrong, a contractor trained and certified by AeroVironment will be available around the clock to come investigate at no charge, said Gitlin. "You can find any one piece at a lower price," said Gitlin, but "you're not going to get all of that from your electrician down the street."

GM, meanwhile, offers a 240V charging station for its plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt through dealerships for $495. The company has partnered with SPX to provide the "one-stop shop" option, from permitting to installation to inspection. Both SPX and AeroVironment emphasize the value of a single point of contact for customers. According to Gitlin, this is not only a matter of convenience but also reduces risk of "finger pointing" between hardware provider and installer in the event of glitches down the road.

Garage of Volt-owner Patrick Wang

Patrick Wang, owner of Chevrolet Volt #10, worked with SPX to have a Coulomb 240v CT 500 Level 2 EVSE installed in his Berkeley, Calif. home. His total out-of-pocket expenses were $400. SPX coordinated the installation and incentives for Wang. He provides a detailed account of the process and the costs on his website.

Typically, GM spokesperson Kevin Kelly said in an interview, this service costs about $1,500, although it varies from home to home. Factors affecting installation costs can include the electrical panel location relative to the charge point; the type of construction (slab or crawl space)' and crucially, whether it's necessary to do a panel upgrade, which can cost up to $1,000, according to California utility Pacific Gas & Electric).

Going Solo to Save Money

As an alternative to the package deal with SPX, said Kelly, a Volt customer "can pull the permits themselves, do the inspection and see what has to be done to their electrical system." It might cost less, but "most people don't have an electrician on call," said Kelly. GM expects a majority of Volt customers will take the all-in-one SPX route "because of the convenience of the service."

Geller, for one, opted to buy the $800 charger from AeroVironment and hired an electrician to install it at his San Francisco home for less than $1,000.

Charging equipment providers might make it easier to buy the charger, without bundling in the related services. Steve Gitlin just called me to follow up with some info that's probably worth including. AeroVironment is now "looking at a program," Gitlin said, that will make the charger available separately from the installation and service package. "Stay tuned on that."

Uncle Sam Installs Free Chargers, At a Cost

As more manufacturers come online with home charging equipment, Geller said, consumers will have more choices, ideally at a range of price points. "Where there is an issue," he said "is with the government-funded programs," referring to a pair of federal programs dubbed The EV Project and ChargePoint America, which provide free home chargers to select plug-in car drivers. "If to get your free charger, you have to use their installer, and costs are unreasonable, that's unfair," said Geller.

The Department of Energy has provided $99.8 million to charge point maker ECOtality for The EV Project, and $15 million to Coulomb Technologies for ChargePoint America. As part of The EV Project, drivers of the Nissan LEAF and Chevy Volt can qualify for a free home charger, and "most if not all of the costs of installation" will be paid for by the project, as explained on the group's website.

For ChargePoint America, people who buy a Chevy Volt, Ford Transit Connect Electric, Ford Focus Electric, or Smart ForTwo Electric Drive, and who live in one of nine target regions, can qualify for the free charger. Installation costs in most regions are paid by the station owner or individual.

SPX Install

SPX had to replace Wang’s breaker panel because he did not have additional room to install his EV Charger. A Bay Area grant provided $1,200 towards the installation costs. Integration companies like SPX help consumer navigate the confusion of finding incentives.

Individuals participating in ChargePoint America do not have an option to shop around. In order to get the free charging equipment, you must use an installer approved by Coulomb. That's because the federal grant money comes with a few basic strings attached—namely, Coulomb must assure every installation complies with requirements for government contractors, said Scott Miller, ChargePoint America's eastern regional director. For example, Coulomb must provide proof that installers are paid "prevailing wages," and ensure that "no short-cuts" are taken in the permitting process, said Miller.

For Chevy Volts, the approved installer is SPX. According to electric vehicle advocate (and PluginCars.com contributor) Chelsea Sexton, some of SPX's estimates are alarmingly high. She cited examples of plug-in car buyers who found estimates from private electricians as much as 75 percent lower than SPX's estimates for the same project. Reasonable overhead might account for 20-30 percent, she said, but "if you compare estimates for the same job, it shouldn't be that much higher." And although this may not be the rule for SPX jobs, she said, "It's happening often enough to be concerning."

Miller acknowledged that "some people have complained that SPX may be charging more than their own electricians," and listed "several reasons why this is likely to happen." SPX is paying prevailing wages, he said, and also connecting the stations to Coulomb's network operations center in a way that not just any electrician would be trained to do.

Plus, Miller said, SPX provides customer support through a U.S.-based call center. "They have good relations with both Coulomb and GM and can facilitate troubleshooting, not just at the install but throughout the entire program," said Miller. "So what might appear as a higher cost initially may not end up being that way."

ChargePoint America has installed more than 50 home chargers so far, according to Miller. He has seen installation costs ranging from less than $1,000 to an upper bound of about $2,000, but not enough data has come in to calculate a meaningful average cost at this point, he said.

Costs Coming Down, Over Time

Oliver Hazimeh, director of the management consulting firm PRTM, projects prices will come down over time as installation volumes go up and as "larger installers are hired by companies rather than by individual customers." Automakers, he said, "have a vested interest" in cutting installation fees to help reduce the total cost of ownership and make electric models more competitive.

Miller emphasized that local and state incentives are available in many areas to defray the cost of installation in these early days. But government funding should be used efficiently and transparently, said Geller, and public dollars needn't finance a "Cadillac plan" for charging infrastructure. At this stage of the game, he said, "The government should be interested in doing as many installs as possible."

Have you shopped around for home charging equipment and installation? Do you feel like you've gotten a fair deal? What route did (or will) you take?

New to EVs? Start here

  1. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
    A few simple tips before you visit the dealership.
  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
    Take advantage of credits and rebates to reduce EV costs.
  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
    You'll want a home charger. Here's how to buy the right one.