Electric vehicles in condominiums: Case Studies (Part 1)

Ratification: failed. I remember the board meeting, sometime mid-2019—before COVID—I was seated at the front table, where the meeting was about to begin, watching a group distribute mixed English- and Cantonese-language flyers opposing electric vehicles in our building. Something about danger—funny not just because the alternative is tanks of explosive gasoline under each car, but worse, the garage exhaust fan hadn’t worked for years, and the guy who’d allowed that to happen was handing out flyers. But those electric vehicles? Watch out.

We have three elevators in my building and our community is so stingy, they lived with two for years, and when that broke, one—nevermind the five-minute wait for an elevator, or packing cheek-to-jowl with 8 people every time the car came. Before the replacement, the community argued for months over who’d pay, the lower floors arguing vigorously for a reduced share of the cost, on the theory that “we only go up one floor, so shouldn’t have to pay the same as the top-floor people”. When we replace the hallway carpeting, I’ll be sure to bring my ruler, because I know the odds of getting payment are approximately zero unless it’s itemized in inches.

The real reason for flyers at the meeting? My board colleague Ryan was “stealing electricity”, plugging his Tesla into a common electrical circuit in the garage. With this crowd, that was not OK.

Ryan’s Tesla

I’d actually seen this coming. By Spring 2019, I’d seen a dozen or so EVs in our 400-space garage, and it was clear it was going to be a thing unless sensible policy was enacted. I gave it my best shot, writing up a policy, and soliciting feedback in two community meetings. We’d started with a dead-simple flat $25/month to charge, but after a community member pointed out that plug-in hybrids, also popular, would probably use less electricity, we added another tier at $15/month. Perfect? No, but with the controlling text written in English, implementation by a two-member Cantonese office staff already overworked managing 20 employees, 400 monthly invoices and another 100 bills, and a population of 800 whose first languages included Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, even Spanish, that was as close as we were going to get.

Citizens of Pawnee - YouTube
Parks and Rec, a show I gained newfound appreciation of, after 3 years of board service.

Not everyone saw it this way; the folks in the back wanted billing by the kilowatt-hour, and barring that, a complete ban on charging. Best-case, their demands were totally impractical—thousands of dollars installing proprietary chargers and Internet access in an underground garage, in addition to recurring fees for payment processing and management software, and yet another tool nobody knows how to use, all for the sake of properly billing $400/month. And the ban? Illegal under state law. Predictably, it’s been two years and the problem remains unsolved, Ryan still charging his Tesla, happily paying $25/month because that’s what he thought was fair, looking at his use.

Overview

This two-part series will explore how common-interest communities (the legal term for homeowner’s associations, or HOAs), especially condominiums, are facilitating the transition to electric vehicles. The first part documents how several associations handled the issue; the second is more analytical, going into detail on the questions a good policy should answer.

Researching this article, I surveyed representatives from 20 HOAs across six US states (CA, DC, NJ, IN, IL, WA). A key finding: it’s still really early. Though I sampled only 20 associations, I didn’t find a single charger installed in Illinois, New Jersey, or Indiana (9/2021). The only community I’d characterize as “having their act together” EV-wise was Bowdoin Place Condominiums (Seattle, WA), a 26-unit building whose size and layout made a straightforward “direct tap” possible.

Some things to keep in mind reading the case studies:

  1. Compliance. Is it legal? In California, where I live, state law prohibits EV bans and obligates boards to develop policy for charging.
  2. Billing. Direct utility billing is most convenient, but may not be possible in large buildings.
  3. Capital costs and ownership. Who owns and pays for the equipment? Let owners install their own chargers; associations should fund and retain ownership of electrical systems, especially considering major electrical upgrades may be required to accommodate charging.

Note: This is a practitioner’s account, reporting what worked for us as community members and elected policymakers. We are not attorneys and this is not legal advice.

Direct tap: Bowdoin Place Condominiums, Seattle, WA

Bowdoin Place is a two-building, 26-unit condominium development in the Fremont neighborhood (near the Troll) in Seattle, Washington. The building sits atop a small hill, with a concrete-walled ground-floor garage.

The electrical meters were in the garage, so when six unit owners wanted EV chargers, they ran six conduit lines across the garage, and split the costs.

https://i0.wp.com/dbabs16qyv5rp.cloudfront.net/1744523/1744523_24.jpg?w=750&ssl=1
Bowdoin Place Condominiums, Seattle

It doesn’t get much simpler than running a wire. “Each EV charger is installed in the owners units assigned parking space”, explained John Yu, an owner at Bowdoin Place. “The electricity is directly connected to that units meter. The installation was to 6 units based on the owners request for the installation.”

5 owners opted for the JuiceBox by enel-x; one preferred a charger from Tesla.

A brief aside on electrical billing

Never miss a chance to keep the association out of it.

Reddit, /r/hoa

I read that a couple years ago, it’s stuck with me. Using a “direct tap” from the utility meter keeps the association out of metering and billing. You really want to stay out of metering and billing.

My condo was built in 1976 with a single meter for each of gas, electricity, and water. At some point, the decision was made to install individual electrical meters for each unit (I believe this may have been due to regulation, but I couldn’t substantiate this), forcing my association to be a “submeter operator” (we re-meter and bill for electricity).

Submetering is awful. Every two months, by law:

  1. Our staff goes door-to-door, gathering 328 meter readings, along the way dealing with inconsistently-placed meters, multiple meter types (3/4/5 dials, different dial -> kWh factors), vacant units, and vision-impaired senior citizens who report incorrect readings
  2. Ensure recent calibration of meters, required by the California Public Utility Commission (PUC)
  3. Apply the right utility rate, which requires tracking enrollment in CARE and other programs, ensuring rate discounts are applied (e.g. to senior and low-income citizens) as applicable
  4. Ensure rebates such as the California Climate Credit, are credited to individual submeter customers in a compliant way (1/328? Based on use percentage?)
  5. Determine which taxes apply (e.g. Oakland Utility Users Tax), implement the correct calculation formulas and rates
  6. Journal all of it into the accounting system, ensuring taxing authorities are paid timely, often by check
  7. Issue resident invoices, and get ready for the inevitable complaints and billing disputes: “This is way too high” (it’s for two months), “I used only 18 kWh of electricity in three months” (no you didn’t), “I’m not paying this” (great)

With net metering (feeding energy back into the grid), time-of-use (different rates based on time of day), and even more taxes and assistance programs, it’s borderline impossible to stay compliant. You owe it to your association to steer clear of this.

Shared stations: Pacific Renaissance Plaza, Oakland, CA

Photo of Pacific Renaissance Plaza - Oakland, CA, United States
Pacific Renaissance Plaza, by Yelp user Chris I. January 20th, 2019

Pacific Renaissance Plaza is a mixed-use development in Oakland, California; residential towers and a street-accessible commercial area (mall), with three floors of underground parking.

The garage is divided into a deeded [1] portion used by residential owners, and a public pay-to-park garage available to the public, intended for owners, employees, and customers of commercial units. Four shared chargers are available in the commercial section on a first-come, first-served basis, though charging requires both paying the normal parking fees, as well as separate payment to ChargePoint. They don’t seem too popular; two of the four were inoperable when I visited, and according to management, residents who want to charge “would need to pull a token when they use the EV chargers in public parking, and pay for parking when charging is done”.

Pacific Renaissance garage, showing a ChargePoint CT4000. Taken by the author on September 15, 2021

Pacific Renaissance uses equipment from ChargePoint. The firm’s model is outright sale of chargers to businesses and real estate operators, who operate them using Chargepoint’s subscription software for billing and station management (an additional expense). This has the advantage of letting operators “choose their own adventure”: free charging (as a customer/employee perk), cost recovery, or a large, profitable operation with many chargers—it’s up to the operator.

Overall? Not impressed. One of my priorities at City Center (my community) was avoiding electrical mark-ups. It’s bad enough making people pay inflated rates for charging; forcing them to pay for charging, and then for the privilege of parking—in my own home, no less—is borderline insulting.

And then there’s the issue of regulation. Today, submetering rules (detailed above) don’t apply to EV charging, but given the California PUC‘s regulatory zeal, anything could happen, especially in homes (condos or apartments). I have a hard time imagining it being 2030 without wonderful new “regulatory innovations” such as rate caps, time-of-use requirements, or other measures. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors already mandated 10% of spaces have chargers in commercial lots over 100 spaces, due by January 1, 2023.

Those electric vehicles—watch out. I guess the people in my building didn’t see the signs on many garages here, noting that exhaust “contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm” 😊

Not yet solved: City Center Plaza, Oakland, CA

I live here, 15 stories of residential space atop a 400-space, three-level underground garage. Unfortunately, direct taps aren’t an option as the vehicles are hundreds of feet from the meters.

Due to financial constraints (need to focus on structural and water issues), we’re tabling the project until probably 2023. Our early thoughts (many inspired by my experience in software and tech ops) are as follows:

  • Invest in what won’t change: I learned this from software. I don’t know what the future holds for load allocation, billing, rooftop solar, or numerous other fast-changing areas of technology. What I do know is that whatever form it takes, we’ll still need conduit, transformers, service panels, and other base infrastructure, so we can invest there without too much risk.
  • Phases. We’ll probably work in waves every year or two, electrifying 20-30 spaces spread out across the garage in each wave. This lets us test, learn, and refine the approach as we go, an incremental approach the Strong Towns folks would like.
  • Keep bills low. We don’t want residents to pay a markup on electricity, even if it means spending more upfront.
  • Keep it simple. There’s almost certainly some kind of communication system needed, but ideally it would be extremely simple; wired Ethernet, LoRA, etc. No patches, no software updates, no viruses, no Windows machines in the closet.

If you know of a good system for this, please leave a comment.

Other approaches

I came across two residential garages (one in San Francisco, another in Richmond) with a handful of shared chargers for residents. At the one in Richmond, residents can use the charger but are expected to move their car when charging is finished; at the San Francisco one (slightly higher-end), a valet moves cars to and from the charging station, managing sharing and returning cars to owner spaces when charging completes.

My friend Jared lived in an apartment without charging, relying on a nearby Supercharger (Tesla) for power. He mentioned it taking only an hour, but sometimes needed to charge multiple times in a week. He lives in a townhouse in Texas now, and is delighted to charge at home.

I manage a six-unit apartment, and when we install electric vehicle chargers (still a few years off), I’m going to run conduit directly to the chargers. If you can get away with it—the stations aren’t too far from the individual units’ breakers or panels—I would highly recommend this approach.

What’s next

In Part II, we’ll survey the elements of a good policy: (1) compliance, (2) billing, and (3) capital cost allocation.

What strategies have you seen for common-interest charging, especially in multi-hundred-space residential garages? Leave us a comment.


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[1] “Deeded”: all common-interest ownerships (titles) have a separate interest, and a common interest. Separate is yours alone, common is owned along with other association neighbors. Your CC&Rs define whether your parking is part of your separate interest (“deeded”) or the common interest (“assigned”). Assigned parking can be moved; deeded is yours alone.

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