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Living with Leaf: It's Not Easy Being Green

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author photo by Autotrader March 2011

The Nissan Leaf currently has 20,000 reservations. That's a pretty amazing fact for a car that is not yet in dealerships. It's actually more of a cultural testament to how many people are ready to jump in to the next wave of car technology – sight unseen.

But when your future car is dependent on 'fuel' that is wired into your home, it changes the entire car-buying process. Like everything green, (solar power, composting, low-flow toilets, etc.) there are long lead times, start up costs and even home construction involved, and so it was when I purchased my Leaf. I had no idea the amount of commitment it would take out my personal time, effort and cash.

Which explains why Nissan has developed an elaborate online portal where hand-raising customers must follow a series of instructions. At first, I expected a completely automated experience, but in reality, an army of customer service people, partnership company reps and dealer specialists interacted with me the old fashioned way – by phone – to help guide me through the process.

You see, the preparation is all about getting a charger installed in your home. Although the Nissan Leaf comes with an optional "trickle charger" that fits a standard wall plug, experts say it can be harder on battery life and takes a whopping 17 hours of charging. So the bottom line is that before you bring an electric car home, you need to install a specially made UV-rated, 220-240/volt charging unit in your garage or parking area for a more efficient 7-hour charge up.

OK, so let's just get one of those chargers, I said. Not so fast. It's not quite that easy. Take it from me, the process is important to get right and in the right order. The alternative is to incur more cost and major headaches. Perhaps someday, this type of thing will be the norm. For now, we're pioneers headed to the wild, wild, west.

Step 1. Reserve the Leaf (Nissan currently projects 4-7 months before delivery)

I reserved my Leaf in the summer of 2010 and took delivery on February 1, 2011, so Nissan's projected timing was pretty much true for me. But I know other early adopters are still waiting for their cars. Nissan's latest statement is that there will be no delays of Leaf deliveries as a result of the earthquake at the writing of this article, but the car is produced in Japan (although, south of Tokyo) and that country is in turmoil right now, so stand by.

Cost: $99 refundable deposit

Step 2. Accept the Quote (3 months before delivery)

When Nissan identifies that your Leaf is coming out of production, you will receive an email that a price quote is waiting for you. This is where you can negotiate, but with demand so high for this car, you will probably not get too far under MSRP. At the dealership, I overheard that offers were coming in as high as $60,000 if they could get the car immediately. I want to personally thank Stadium Nissan in Orange, California for not selling my unit to the highest bidder. Nissan has an excellent 3-year lease program going for $349 or $379 per month, but that works the government credit into the deal. With a purchase, you get the credit as part of your tax return.

Cost: $33,500 - $34,570 (minus around $10,000 from the government in most states)

Step 3. Contact your electric company (Up to 2 weeks for evaluation)

After the deal was done, my first instruction was to call my electric company. In my case, it was Southern California Edison. SCE has been working with Nissan and other car companies to put together a program for EV owners. SCE's program offers an evaluation of your personal usage, giving you a cost projection based on how many miles you plan to drive every day. I was able to get a rudimentary idea by just going to the SCE website and putting in my information, but the individual evaluation, which took a phone call and several days to receive by mail, was much more detailed.

The two other large electric companies in our area have the same type of program with special rates for EV chargers. Contact your electric company to find out what programs they have to fit your particular usage. The difference for us yearly was nearly $1,000, so we went with a lower-cost EV program that did not demand any extra equipment to be installed next to our electrical panel. If you happen to be in a high "tier" for electricity, installing the extra equipment could be your best bet for cheaper rates, although it will cost up to $1,200 to install. This is a very crucial thing to know before you begin the assessment for your charging unit – because that will factor in to the price of labor if you need that additional power box.

Cost: $0 - $1,200

Step 4. Buy the Charging Unit (Up to 3 weeks for assessment and installation)

In Southern California, there are four companies I could have chosen from that sell and install the necessary 220-240 watt charger. The units are priced basically the same (around $1,000 for materials and $1,000 for labor) and there is a government-funded project called ECOtality that covers the entire cost of your charger if you are in one of the targeted cities where they want to track charging habits. In my case, I did not qualify, so instead, I get $1,000 back from the government.

I felt the safest bet was to go with Aerovironment, Nissan's recommended partner. The appointment was scheduled through Aerovironment's web page, but the person who came to the house was a contracted, local electrician. His job was to assess the layout and local power grid for adding the unit. Since our garage was adjacent to the electrical junction box, and we didn't require an additional power line brought in, the quote came in as expected. The electrician told us that older homes sometimes require re-wiring which can get pretty expensive. The appointment was made for a week later and the unit was installed with no drama.

Cost: $2,200 - ? ($1,000 back from government – Free if you qualify for ECOtality's EVO Project program)

Staring at the shiny new charging unit affixed to the finished wall of my garage was a major reality check. I'm committed. No turning back. It was my first brush with electric car anxiety. But I shook it off. You see, in just a few short weeks, I would never have to visit a gas station again. That made me feel much better.

Coming next time: A complex delivery and plugging in to the Nissan Carwings "Borg."

Want to learn more about living with an electric vehicle? Follow our long-term test of the 2011 Nissan Leaf.

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Used 2011 Nissan Leaf SL
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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Living with Leaf: It's Not Easy Being Green - Autotrader