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Three stratas, three solutions for electric vehicle charging

Image of an EV charging in a parking garage
There's growing demand for electric car charging in the parking areas of B.C. apartment buildings and townhouse complexes. Strata councils look to the BC Hydro Alliance of Energy Professionals for help in making that happen.

Patience key to finding the best option (and owner support) for Level 2 chargers

Do your homework. Talk to multiple vendors. And have patience with apartment owners, who may initially balk at the idea of adding electric vehicle chargers to a strata parking lot, but who can be won over.

These are the recommendations of three strata council members who, despite some hiccups along the way, found a way to install Level 2 charging to parking stalls in their apartment buildings. Each opted for a different solution, but all three have emerged with some consensus on what it takes to get it done.

"One of my neighbours has told me repeatedly that electric cars aren't feasible, that they should never be on the market, and that hydrogen fuel cells are the way of the future," says Robert Gutierrez, a strata council member who led the EV charging initiative in his Vancouver building. "He came to a meeting where the contractor explained the options, and I expected him to try to tear a hole in the whole thing. At the end of the meeting, he walked up to shake my hand – back when we were allowed to shake hands – and said, "I might not believe in electric cars, but I believe that what you're doing is right."

Tim Lau, another strata owner in a different building that just installed shared dual-port chargers, offers his take: "People spend the money because they believe it's the future and that they'll be using it later," he says. "There was resistance, even by myself originally – especially to the notion of having to pay a management fee each month. But as we dug into it, we saw it as the way to go."

With the majority of B.C. families living in apartments or townhomes – including more than 70% of residences in Metro Vancouver – a major barrier to widespread plug-in vehicle adoption is a shortage of charging at multi-unit buildings. Even as some cities legislate that parking stalls at new apartment buildings are pre-wired for Level 2 chargers, many strata councils and homeowners in older buildings are wary of the costs of installing and operating the chargers.

Here's a look at how three strata councils worked with members of BC Hydro's Alliance of Energy Professionals to find cost-effective solutions that met their needs.

No EV owners, no problem: a 19-storey Vancouver strata moves ahead

Steven Rudy admits to being reluctant to get the ball rolling when residents at his 120-unit downtown Vancouver building began asking about adding Level 2 EV charging to the building's parking garage about five years ago.

"At the time I remember saying, 'Well, we're not opposed to it, but it's not easy, and it would be a complicated thing," says the strata council member. "We explained that you have to run wiring right from the electrical room, and that it would be a big job. And they said, 'Oh, yeah, you're right. Okay, forget it.'"

A couple years later, Rudy found himself intrigued – but still not sold – by a presentation about charging at the Vancouver International Auto Show. While he learned that an electrical contractor could do the work, he couldn't find anyone with a comprehensive package that would offer installation and a no-nonsense payment scheme for users of the chargers.

The strata eventually paid $700 to get a report on the building's electrical capacity, and the news was good. There was room for EV charging without adding a costly transformer. Then they found an Alliance contractor that helped them develop a strategy that included installation, system design, a cost recovery plan, and energy management.

"The bundled package they offered incorporated the BC Hydro incentive, and the idea was that if we could just get seven people who could pay for individual hardware in their parking spots, we could get it done for $2,500 each," says Rudy. "The only amount billed directly to the strata was the amount covered by the BC Hydro grant."

They wound up getting 10 people aboard, and even two months after the chargers were installed, no one in the building owns a plug-in EV.

"We got 10 people who were sort of forward thinking enough to just say "Yeah, if I do it now, it will be installed for me whenever I get an electric car," says Rudy, who's among the original 10, and now on the hunt for the right EV. "So the race is on to see who gets the first car in the building."

One by one, the chargers will be activated, with each owner paying a $20-per-month administrative fee to the third-party charger provider, Unico, plus electricity usage fees based on time and consumption. The smart chargers will decrease charging speeds at times when the building is using more power.

Rudy says installation was done without requiring the cost of an additional transformer, and that the estimated capacity should allow for up to 30 Level 2 chargers installed before a transformer is added. The contractor also included wiring to all levels of the parking garage, even to one level where no chargers have been installed yet.

At False Creek, a scalable solution with no burden on those without chargers

Not every strata is fortunate to have someone as determined and organized as Robert Gutierrez.

A Tesla owner who liked to go to Whistler and back on a single charge, but couldn't make the trip without overnight charging at home, Gutierrez got busy with his push to win over fellow owners in his strata complex near False Creek in Vancouver. Initial pushback just drove him to talk to more contractors who needed to deliver on three non-negotiable demands:

  • The solution couldn't use any of the strata's precious visitor parking spots.
  • The plan had to be scalable, starting with a few stations but set up so that the infrastructure could handle demand as it grew.
  • Costs needed to be a net zero for any residents who didn't want a charger installed in their parking spot.

With a background in procurement for the government, Gutierrez made a point of getting at least three quotes for the work. And his strata settled on the solution in which the vendor covered all up-front costs and charged a flat rate to subscribers. That made it an easier sell.

"Instead of having to figure out how to raise the funds to install the infrastructure – the conduit, the new panels, everything that controls the system – all I had to do was find seven subscribers," he said. "And five of the seven don't even have electric cars. They bought it because they wanted to get it done. And that was only possible because the [contractor] who made the presentation to the strata did an amazing job."

The other strata in the complex never got on board but wound up contributing in a roundabout way. They were charging a few EV drivers a monthly fee to plug into regular 110-volt outlets to trickle charge their vehicles, and two vehicles were connected to the meter in Gutierrez's strata. He asked for payment of the electricity used, and got it.

Each of the seven "subscribers" paid $3,850 each to cover the wiring and the hardware for a charger in their parking spot. The vendor applied for the BC Hydro rebate – at $14,000, the maximum allowed per strata – to cover the costs of their work, and are set-up to handle all the strata's future charging.

Gutierrez says that the vendor's energy management system "shares the juice" allotted to EV charging – about 350 amps – and that it could allow for expansion to  85 chargers.

"If we had that many, it would get us into the BC Government's guidelines of having 20% of vehicles electrified by 2030," he says.

Gutierrez says the vendor's energy management, combined with energy efficiency upgrades in the buildings, should allow for the strata to get the green light from BC Hydro to increase the amount of power used for charging vehicles. "If we had gone to a 30-amp circuit to each parking spot, under the 2012 electrical code, I think we only would have supported 12 or 13 cars. But under the 2018 electrical code, we can get to 85 cars. We can attach multiple [chargers] to a single circuit."

And if all goes according to plan, that could happen without the addition of a transformer. To free up more power for charging, the strata is looking for efficiencies in the building's elevators, pumps, and other systems, and by upgrading from fluorescent to far more efficient LED lighting.

"Earlier, I was looking at adding a 110-volt plug to my parking spot, and that was going to be a five or six thousand dollar option," he says. "Today, I'm getting 7 kW [per hour] from my [Level 2] charger that I paid $3,850 for, from a 40-amp, 220-volt circuit. That's not bad at all."

At a 7 kW-per-hour clip, a Tesla Model 3 will take less than seven hours to charge to 80%, while many EVs with less range and smaller battery packs can be charged to 80% in three to five hours at that rate. Most EV owners rely on at-home, overnight charging for the bulk of their charging.

A huge complex decides to start with two shared dual-port chargers

Two stratas, four buildings, around 600 units, and growing interest in EV charging. The strata council waited, then decided that it couldn't pass on incentives available through BC Hydro.

But it wasn't easy. Strata council members found that a lot of contractors were busy and unavailable. And while the building had installed electrical panels set aside for future EV charging – a real plus – a drive by some residents to have chargers installed in various owner parking spots was going to be very costly.

"We decided to install shared chargers in our visitor area," says Lau. "Because we have four towers, we decided to put one on the east side of the complex and one on the west side. Each charger has two stalls dedicated to that, for a total of four stalls. And for now, we'll restrict it to resident charging only."

Overall installation costs for the two dual chargers was around $27,000 after $8,000 in BC Hydro incentives. That includes the cost of adding cell boosters in the parking area, required for the chargers' communications, but also a plus for the convenience and security [911 calls] of all who use the parkade.

Not included, and a bit of a surprise for the strata, is an estimated more than $3,500 for the green paint, signage, and protective bollards required for the four shared stalls.

"That's a lot of money for little things that you don't really think about when you're focussing on installation and charger costs," says Lau, as part of his advice to other stratas looking at adding shared charging spots.

Each resident will be charged per use, at a rate of $2 per hour for the first three hours, and $5 per hour after that. "Hopefully that will encourage residents to leave the area for use by other owners who need a charge,' says Lau, who guesses that 15 to 20 residents in his strata own electric vehicles.

Lau stresses the importance of jumping on research and selling the idea of adding charging as early as possible to give residents time to adjust to the idea. He says the consensus in his strata was that adding charging was part of improving the building and making it more marketable. And while the strata needed to dip into its contingency fund to pay for the work, the visibility of BC Hydro rebates was a key factor in swaying opinion.

"We waited until there were grants available," he says. "Maybe because of that, vendors were busy. Expect there may be some delays and that you may need to be patient before you get what you need."