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Going electric: Electric car owners aren't looking back

Monday - 3/5/2012, 2:00am  ET

Nissan Leaf (Frederick News Post)
John and Susan Hanson stand recently with their Nissan Leaf electric car as it charges in Jefferson. (Frederick News-Post/Adam Fried)

John and Susan Hanson have always been environmentally astute.

Their business, Catoctin Pottery, is in a historic mill near Jefferson that uses solar-energy power and has a compost toilet. They buy additional power for the mill through Clean Currents, which uses wind-generated electricity sold to consumers through their existing power lines.

They had considered energy-efficient transportation and, after a test drive and gathering information on plug-in cars, they decided to turn over a new leaf in their lives ----and bought a Nissan Leaf.

The car brought about a lifestyle change, Susan Hanson said.

With limited driving range, an estimated 100 miles on a full charge, the couple has to calculate where they are going and if there will be a place to plug in once they get there.

So far, the most they have driven without stopping was a 60-mile pleasure drive around the area.

"We do go to our daughter's home in Washington," Susan Hanson said, "but we can charge up there."

Susan Hanson said she has a "heavy foot" when it comes to driving, something she had to learn to control with the Leaf.

The savings, both in fuel costs and to the environment, outweigh the challenges of owning an all-electric car, the couple said.

"It cost about $40,000, but we got nearly $10,000 in tax credits and savings," said John Hanson. That included $7,500 in federal tax credits; no Maryland sales tax, saving $2,000, and $300 off the cost of the $2,000 charging system at the mill, where they live upstairs.

The charging system is hooked to a 220-volt line in the mill. That "normal" system takes about eight hours for a full charge. A "trickle" charge, using a 120-volt system, takes up to 24 hours. There is also a "fast-charge" system that takes only 20 minutes or so, but there are few of those around, John Hanson said.

The car includes a kit with a plug for the Leaf and basic three-prong plug for a house outlet. "We've even used an extension cord with this to charge it up," John Hanson said.

When visiting their daughter in Washington, the car has about 30 miles left on its range after they arrive. The Hansons can use trickle charge at the daughter's home for eight hours or so and it will provide enough to get back to Frederick.

Susan Hanson said they chose the Leaf over a hybrid (combination gas and electric) because hybrids only solve half the fossil-fuel-use problem.

The Leaf got High Occupancy Vehicle number 85, which allows the vehicle to use the special highway lanes.

Figuring at $3.50 a gallon for fuel, the Hansons said they only use about one-fifth of the cost with electric versus gasoline to operate the Leaf. "It costs us about $1,000 a year to operate the Leaf," John Hanson said.

There is no starter, no transmission, less routine maintenance costs (lubrications are necessary, but no oil changes) and no emissions testing requirement.

The Leaf comfortably seats four people, but can seat five, and has a cargo area in the back. It has front-wheel drive and the amenities found in a traditional vehicle from air conditioning and heater to radio. It even has heated seats and a heated steering wheel and a rearview camera.

"It isn't as good in the snow as our Subaru," Susan Hanson said, "but as good as any front-wheel drive car."

The couple said they will decide in a year whether to keep the Subaru or make the Leaf their main transportation.

"Most people think of the plug-in cars as their second vehicle, just for around town," John Hanson said. "But we may use it all the time."

All of those amenities, such as air conditioning and heating, pull on the electric power, the couple said.

A solar energy collector on the rear part of the roof connects to a separate battery that runs the radio, headlights and windshield wipers.

On a demonstration ride with John Hanson, one could see how much power is being used and the indicator of remaining mileage change as the car traveled up and down hills. While most usage obviously drains power and remaining mileage, drifting down a hill adds more electric and gives a longer range to the car.

John Hanson said he believes future plug-in cars will have longer driving ranges as technology progresses.

The car, bought at Frederick Nissan, took about two months to arrive after the Hansons ordered it, John Hanson said.

Steve LaTour, a salesman with Frederick Nissan, said the dealership has sold four Leafs to buyers from Frederick and the surrounding area.

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