FOR THE LAST TWO YEARS I have been living out of an electric vehicle. EVs can be great vehicles for nomads, but they are certainly not for everyone. They have some great advantages, which are especially beneficial to my lifestyle. But there are also some fundamental downsides that are important to know about. There is an increasing number of EVs on the market, but overall the market for used EVs is rather small. At this time there are also very few electric vans available. Most of my experience is from driving a Tesla Model S for 8 years and converting it to be my home a little over 2 years ago.
EVs are not all that different. They are built very much the same as regular cars. Most of the structure and mechanical parts are the same. The main difference is that they have no engine, no exhaust and no fuel tank. Instead, they have a large battery along the bottom, an electric motor, and some electronics. Contrary to common belief, the electrical system in EVs is actually the same standard 12 Volt system. Almost everything except the main drive motor is a normal 12 Volt system. Lights, windows, fans, radio, wipers,… all is 12 Volt based. In other words, you have access to a 12 Volt outlet just like in your regular vehicle. The main battery in an EV, which is a high voltage battery, is completely separate and sealed safely. There is no easy or accidental access to it so there is no risk of getting electrocuted.
EV Pros and Cons
Let’s talk about some advantages and disadvantages that an EV has over a gasoline vehicle from a nomad’s point of view. Since the most complex part, the engine, isn’t there, engine specific maintenance is not needed. No oil changes, no timing belts, no transmission or clutch, no spark plugs, no air or fuel filter, no fuel pump. Overall the maintenance on an EV is far less which saves you money and there are less things that can fail.
One challenge that nomads have is getting electrical power. The most common method is either using the 12 Volt outlet, or solar panels and large batteries. Both of these options are rather limited. A 12 Volt outlet only works while the engine is running and only allows relatively small loads. The number of solar panels you can fit on a vehicle is not enough to power anything significant like a heater, AC, or typical appliances.
On the other hand, EVs have a giant battery that can store a huge amount of energy which is plenty to run air conditioning, heating and many other devices. Just to give you an idea, 2 golf car batteries hold about 1.2 kWh of energy. A typical EV holds between 60 and 120 kWh.
One of my favorite features living out of an EV is I can keep the climate control running all night and day. Because the main battery is so large it only uses about 5 to 10% to keep the heater or air-conditioning running overnight. The car creates very little noise when doing so because there is no engine that needs to idle. I can easily stealth park in a city keeping the climate control running without anybody noticing. Installing an inverter in your EV allows you to have regular 120 V outlets and run even high power appliances without a problem. Some EVs even have that already built in. I have a 1500 Watt inverter that can run almost anything you would normally plug into a regular outlet.
One of the most common questions I get from people who have never owned an EV is where do you find charging stations? I got my first EV in 2014 when the number of charging stations was still very limited. Even back then it worked just fine even for road trips. Today finding a charging station is no problem anymore. Today the number of charging stations has surpassed gas stations. Having said that, I mostly spend time in cities or developed areas where charging stations are very common. If you are boondocking and prefer to stay away from cities, your options will be limited. Some of the best places to stay in nature are far from charging stations, especially BLM land.
Charging an EV
There are three ways to charge an electric vehicle. The first is called ‘level 1’ charging which means you just plug in the car into a regular 120 V outlet that you find in any house. Unfortunately charging it that way would take several days. The next option is ‘level 2’ charging. Those are dedicated charging stations you see for example in parking lots or structures. They will charge your car overnight. The third option is called level 3 charging which is high power DC. Those chargers are for very fast recharging while you’re taking road trips.
Because I still work full time and spend a lot of time in cities I often find L2 stations and just plug in while I work or go to the gym or shopping or do other things. The cost is similar to what you would pay at a house/apartment for electricity. But often I find free stations that are run by cities or local businesses.
What does charging cost?
How does the cost compare? The cost to run my climate control overnight is approx 70-90 cents when using an average priced charging station. In extreme winter or extreme heat it might be a little more. When I kept the engine of my Honda Odyssey idling to have AC or heating it used approx 3-4 gallons per night. That’s currently $12-15. Driving an EV costs about 6 cents per mile. In my Odyssey it was 20 cents per mile ($4 for a gallon of gasoline). Add to that the cost for oil changes and other regular maintenance the gas or diesel engine needs.
I personally drive a 2015 Tesla Model S. It comes with free charging for the life of the vehicle, so for the most part I drive for free. It has an amazing amount of space inside due to the clever design of the battery in the bottom. Lots of great features like camper mode and internet connection.
Downside is the very low ground clearance. Even bumpy dirt roads are a challenge. If you like to go off main roads, this is not your vehicle.
Since I drive about 50k miles a year, the higher cost upfront for the vehicles is more than offset by the savings on fuel, propane, solar system, and maintenance. All savings combined are about $8-9k every year compared to a gas vehicle. And I’m so much more comfortable because of climate control keeping it perfect regardless of what the weather or outside temperature is.
There are currently only compact cars, sedans and small SUVs available as EVs. There are no affordable electric vans at the moment. Almost all car manufacturers are working very hard to convert their fleet to electric, hoping to be able to keep up with the behemoth Tesla who is crushing the EV market right now, but it will be a while before affordable and more nomad friends EVs are available.
When is an EV a good choice for a nomad?
If you are mostly boondocking and prefer to stay away from the city, an EV is probably not your best choice. If you run the main battery down, there is no easy way to have a friend help you out with a canister of gas. Solar panels on an EV are not a viable option. Even if you covered the entire car with solar panels, the amount of energy you could harvest would not be enough to drive much. A 300 Watt solar would provide you with maybe 2-3 miles of range per day in ideal sunny conditions. But only if you refrain from using climate control. Solar on an EV only sounds like a good idea until you do the numbers.
If you are spending most of your time in areas that have charging stations, an EV could be a great option. If you drive long distances regularly, an EV will save you a lot of money compared to gas vehicles. If you stay in an area with extreme weather (hot or cold), an EV will provide you with a comfortable environment.