Electric Charge

Charging StationElectric car use is on the rise, and more states are considering legislation addressing charging stations in associations. What’s at stake? Plugs, power, placement and more.

Linda Campbell finally convinced her homeowners association to let her charge her electric car using an outlet outside her west Denver townhome. Then she took her cause to the Colorado statehouse and became part of the debate currently unfolding across the nation.

California, Hawaii and now Colorado and Oregon have passed laws addressing charging stations in common areas. Association boards in other states are weighing options should their residents make demands similar to Campbell’s.

State lawmakers, association lawyers and vendors note that with electric car use on the rise – and projected to grow exponentially – it’s high time to discuss the issues that electric car charging stations pose for commonly owned properties; where to put the stations, what electrical source to use, who pays for the wattage, who pays for insurance, and how to balance the safety and convenience of all residents against the demands of those who want to embrace the “green energy” push being promoted by state and federal policy.

“We’ve got about 10 to 15 requests coming in from associations (asking how to accommodate charging stations), and you’re going to see a lot more,” says David Firmin, an attorney with the Arvada, Colo., law firm HindmanSanchez. “There was a rush, I think, to get the (Colorado) law passed, and realistically speaking, as community associations try to move toward green aspects of life, some of the long-term ramifications haven’t been thought out. For instance, what happens to the stations when owners move? What happens when the stations become old or unnecessary?

DRIVING FORCES

More than 100,000 highway-capable, plug-in cars have been sold in the U.S. since the market launch of the Tesla Roadster in 2008, according to hybridcars.com. The U.S. market share of plug-in electric passenger cars increased from 0.14 percent in 2011 to 0.53 percent of all new car sales during the first quarter of 2013, according to fueleconomy.gov. As of June 2013, there were 18,145 public and private charging points – including 4,672 in California, 1,552 in Texas and 1,247 in Washington State, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

As U.S. and automaker policies – in the form of tax incentives, government grants and manufacturer rebates – encourage the production and sale of electric cars to reduce the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels, electric car use is only poised to increase. And despite the introduction of fast-charging stations that can provide a car with 60-80 miles of range in 20 minutes of charging, the DOE continues to call for “affordable, convenient and compatible options to charge at home.” As a result, the nation’s community associations will likely be faced with increasing demands to accommodate charging stations.

Jasmine M. Fisher, a senior associate with the California-based law firm Adams Kessler, has worked with several communities on the charging-station issue. California requires associations to make “reasonable” accommodations for electric car charging stations, while allowing them to put “limitations” on residents’ requests. It’s the interpretations of what constitutes a “reasonable accommodation” – as well as a “limitation” acceptable under that law – that could be problematic, Fisher says.

“The association’s first question is: ‘What the hell is this?’” she says. “The board didn’t know about it, and the manager had never heard of it. The second question is: ‘Do we have to allow it?’ And I say, ‘Absolutely.’ The third is, ‘What do we need to do?’”

PLUG-IN PROBLEMS

Complicating the charging-station issue is the unique characteristics of commonly owned properties.

For instance, the law that Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed in May prohibits associations from putting unreasonable restrictions on the installation of charging stations and makes charging stations in multifamily housing eligible for money from the state’s electric vehicle infrastructure fund. But community associations have different housing and parking configurations that can make this accommodation difficult. Some have carport spaces that are open except for a roof, allowing two separately owned cars to face each other with no dividers between them; some have private, enclosed garages with outlets on a common meter; some have large parking lots with assigned spaces and no outlets.

How does an association run an electric line and install a station under a carport so it’s effective for the owner but also safe for the car opposite? If an owner has a private garage, how do associations meter electric consumption for individual charging stations? If stations are installed in parking lots, questions may arise about how to make them both aesthetically acceptable and hazard free – without long cables that might trip pedestrians or faulty installation that could lead to fires.

Suzanne Leff, a partner in Denver-based Winzenburg, Leff, Purvis & Payne and a member of CAI’s Colorado Legislative Action Committee, has represented communities where residents have asked to plug their trucks into common outlets to heat their engines during cold weather. The issues that arose, she says, are similar to those now surfacing for electric car charging stations.

“We can’t just pull a document off the shelf and say, ‘Sign off on it.’ We have to consider the characteristics of each property. I’ve addressed this by telling associations that they need to enter into an agreement and be specific about who’s responsible for maintenance, repairs and damages that might result from that electric station. We go back to the owner and say, ‘This is what the association is willing to agree to.’”

Community associations that have addressed the new laws, Leff says, typically require electric car owners to pay – and be responsible for – the installation of a charging station, code compliance, permits, inspections, parts, maintenance and insurance. Some also require a waiver of liability from the owner of the charging station.

Pinnacle at Highline, a 228-unit condominium complex just south of Denver, has private garages with electrical outlets for some residents and open parking areas – without electricity sources – for others. The association anticipates charging station requests will increase when Colorado’s new law goes into effect Jan. 1, 2014; Pinnacle now has a policy for garage owners but not for residents with parking lot spaces.

Bill Cossaboom, Pinnacle board president, says he thinks the board would make allowances, although he acknowledges he doesn’t know where stations would go in the condominium’s parking lot. “I don’t know what a charging station looks like at this point,” he says.

POWER AT PLAY

High on the list of concerns about the new laws are how to bill electric car owners for the electricity their charging stations use. This is problematic when it comes to a garage or a common meter.

An electric car charging station requires a 240-volt-dedicated, 40-amp breaker, according to station vendor Car Charging Group. The cost to install a public Level 2 electrical vehicles charging station – a type that Colorado law now allows in associations – can range from $1,500 to $3,000. Fees to use a station vary; for Car Charging Group stations, the fee is $0.49 per kilowatt hour or $2.49 to $2.99 an hour in states without per kilowatt charges. Others estimate that charging an electric car tends to cost less than that – as low as $1.50 per hour.

“A lot of associations have one common meter for common areas, and there’s no way to parse out (individual electricity charges),” says Fisher, who recently spoke before an assembly of about 50 community managers to help them make sense of the California law. “How do owners know what they owe? Maybe the owner doesn’t pay extra for electricity, and it gets absorbed by all owners in their dues, although I wouldn’t recommend that. Maybe associations and car owners agree that, every quarter, the association compares last year’s electric usage with the current year’s usage on that meter and charges the electric car owners the overage. Or maybe car owners agree to pay a flat fee each month for electricity usage. Or maybe each car owner gets a separate electrical meter, even though that’s sometimes not practical.”

The Pinnacle board decided on the latter: Residents with above-ground parking spots who want to install stations must have a separate, below-ground line that’s not park of the common electrical system and has a meter that bills to a personal account.

Firmin says electricity billing may need to evolve as more charging stations are installed: “As these chargers become more and more common, we’re going to find out what the average use is to charge a vehicle, much like a hot water heater or washer and dryer that has standard usage over a year,” he says. “Then you can charge based on average usage per kilowatt hour.”

LOOKING GOOD?

Another issue is the aesthetics of installing stations in common areas.

“They can be ugly,” acknowledges Firmin, who notes that Colorado’s law allows associations to “consider reasonable aesthetics” when negotiating stations installations. The difficult part about the law’s language, he says, is the interpretations of “reasonable aesthetics.”

“Can it be painted pink or purple?” he asks. “Who decides that? We’re recommending that associations get ahead of this. Rather than being reactive when requests start coming in, they should clearly identify what aesthetics they plan to consider.”

California’s law says stations must be consistent with the association’s architectural standards, according to Fisher.

“These are weird looking little boxes,” she says. “They’re by no means pretty. The association could certainly place some restrictions, such as requiring a trellis screen around it to shield it from view.”

At the same time, what’s “attractive” is in the eye of the beholder, says Fisher. “For lots of communities, especially those with a younger clientele who embrace green energy, these stations may become an amenity that’s actually attractive.”

DANGER: LIVE WIRES

As for the potential hazards of charging stations, associations need to consider not only that residents might trip over electric cables or that fires might result from station overloads but also their own liability. Common areas are typically owned collectively by residents. In a 100-unit condominium, for instance, each homeowner typically owns 1/100th of the common area, which is often the parking space.

“These things have to be addressed legally and realistically,” says Dee Wolfe, CMCA, PCAM senior vice president at Colorado Association Services, a management company representing about 200 communities.

Colorado’s law requires charging stations in common areas be installed by licensed electricians, but there still will be poles popping out of the ground to support the station and cords possibly running across lots, creating plenty of obstacles, Firmin says. “So now the question is, how can an association protect common areas and residents while being flexible enough to allow the installation of charging stations?”

California’s law says owners must pay for damages associated with a charging station and requires those installing stations to maintain at least $1 million in insurance coverage. It also states that associations are not liable for damages associated with the stations. Oregon enacted a similar law in June.

“I’m not sure what damages could arise, but let’s say it had loose electrical wiring, and it electrocuted someone or fell over and smashed someone’s car,” Fisher says. “I think it’s a good idea (for associations) to have a provision saying (owners) must have insurance, and then a separate requirement saying, ‘Whether or not your insurance covers (damages), you’re liable for the damage caused by your charging station.’”

Those interviewed for this article tend to agree that because “green” states such as Hawaii, California, Colorado and Oregon took the lead on charging-station legislation, it won’t be long before states with similar energy inclinations follow suit. Fisher says she expects New York to consider legislation soon.

J. Patrick Moore, CMCA, administrator of King City Civic Association, is already weighing the options for his 55-plus community about 15 minutes of Portland, Ore., especially now that the state is requiring associations to allow owners to have charging stations. “There’s been support here for ‘green’ cars and electric vehicles,” Moore says.

He’s sure, sooner or later, an owner will bring an electric vehicle home and want to recharge it.

by Dana Wilkie

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