The truth about charging and driving EVs in the winter

Updated

Tesla superchargers in the snow
To charge effectively in cold weather, an EV’s battery needs to be warm. But how can you do that with an all-electric car? Image source: Reuters

The battery range of an electric vehicle (EV), and the ability for that battery to charge, are arguably two of the most important factors of EV ownership. Range anxiety, or the idea that your battery will run out of power before reaching your destination, is a large concern for prospective EV owners.

While more and more EV chargers are being installed around the country, it is an unfortunate fact that EVs perform at less than their peak in cold weather, and that might mean a shorter battery life. This reduction in performance is caused by a few things, but there are ways to counteract them.

Below, we’ll get into what you need to know about winter driving with an EV, how you can help mitigate the impact of the cold, and whether or not it should be a major concern. 

Key takeaways:

  • You should never let your EV get below a 20% charge in winter. Cold weather makes it harder for EV batteries to heat your car, which leads to them draining them more quickly.
  • In winter weather, always have a backup plan for EV charging in case your driving range is reduced more than you anticipate; know where charging stations are located and keep your car plugged in until you leave your home.
  • Some good options include the electric Ford F-150, the Tesla Model X, and the Tesla Model 3; they offer ranges of over 300 miles and have key features like heated seats and preconditioning, which help reduce stress on the battery when in the cold.
  • A cold climate should not be a reason that you do not get an EV, but if range anxiety is a real concern, a plug-in hybrid car is a good alternative.

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    Why does cold weather affect the mileage range of an EV?

    One of the biggest challenges with EVs in cold weather is that the battery needs to work harder to do things like keeping the heat on. The best performing battery is a warm battery; cold weather makes the batteries work harder, and drains more power in the process

    According to AAA, in freezing temperatures of 20°F and below, there is a 41% decline in long-range mileage ability if the heater is running. A 41% performance decline is the difference between being able to drive 100 miles in warm weather versus 59 miles in cold. 

    Of course, real world ranges can differ, based on your driving habits, how much charge your battery started with, and the temperature of the battery itself.

    How does cold weather affect the charging times of an EV?

    If your EV’s battery is too cold, it may take a lot more energy in order to start. Lithium-ion batteries within the car themselves are sensitive to temperatures, preferring a range of 60 to 80°F. If possible, keep your car in a garage so that it is less susceptible to becoming overly cold.

    Your best defense in cold weather is not letting your EV get below a 20% charge. That 20% charge acts as reserve in case the battery is too cold and needs to pull from that stored energy to begin the charging process.

    Make sure you start the day with a full charge and know where you can find a charging station to make the most of your EV’s range. When it comes to EV charging in the winter (or any time of the year, really), you should have a backup plan for finding a charger. This way, if your driving range is reduced more than you anticipate, you can make it to a charger without being stranded.

    What can I do to mitigate the negative effects of cold weather on my EV?

    With regular gas-powered cars, the engine provides heat to the car cabin just by running. The amount of heat the engine gives off helps kick the car heater into gear. Being that EVs do not have engines, the battery needs to supply heat in a more energy-intensive way, that comes soley from the battery's power.

    Here are a few things that you can do make your car perform better in the cold: 

    Opt for heated seats and steering wheels

    Luckily, electric car manufacturers are finding ways to enhance performance in the cold by including cold weather packages.

    They come with upgrades such as heated steering wheels, heated seats, and preconditioning options (more on this below) that sound simple, but actually are a big help when it comes to keeping your battery running longer. These features can help keep you toasty even when your car is cold when you first turn it on. Then, after you’ve been driving and your car battery has the chance to warm up, turning on the heat won’t be as much of a drain on the electricity. 

    Get a car with a heat pump

    Some EVs, like the Audi E-tron, come with a heat pump heating system, which is a more energy-efficient heating option; it can reduce the energy loss and range loss that come with heating an EV in cold temperatures.

    Set a leave time and/or practice preconditioning

    Many new EV models allow you to set a “leave time” for when your car needs to be fully charged, with a warm battery and a pre-heated cabin. For example, Tesla owners have the ability to "precondition" their car, which entails setting a time via the Tesla app for their car to pre-heat.

    If you consider the fact that many people pre-heat standard engine cars in the winter, setting an app or remembering to keep your car plugged in until you leave isn’t really that much different.

    Keep your car plugged in and plan ahead

    Keeping your car plugged in ensures the battery is already warmed up, so that when you turn your car on, it won't need to expel extra energy. You should also plan ahead and coordinate charging stations along your route. 

    Learn more: Electric car charging stations: fees, where to find & more

    What’s the best EV for cold climates?

    To be honest, there is no real winner when it comes to a specific EV overcoming cold weather. The fact is that any EV can work in the winter, and the right one for you just depends on your specific needs, charging availability, and budget. 

    With that said, if you're going to be frequently driving for long stretches in the cold, we do recommend the electric Ford F-150 and the Tesla Models X and 3. Each of these options comes with heated seats, a bigger battery size, and the preconditioning function. They each also offer over 300 miles of range.

    Remember, though - many times, EVs with bigger batteries are more expensive than their smaller-battery counterparts - think $100,000 versus $30,000 - so you’ll have to consider that when figuring out your budget.

    SolarReviews' recommendation when it comes to cold weather and EVs

    Cold weather is not a reason to not get an EV, especially since Norway, Sweden, and Iceland have the highest amount of EVs per capita! 

    We believe that cold weather conditions should not deter you from buying an electric car. If you have a somewhat typical or normal commute and tend to run short-distance errands, the reduced battery life probably will not affect your lifestyle so negatively that you should not get an EV. However, if you need to routinely drive hundreds of miles in the winter and don’t want to worry excessively about stopping for a charge, a plug-in hybrid car could be a better option for you.

    If you do wind up going the all-electric vehicle route, we recommend going with a new model that has a high range, think 300+ miles per charge, and comes with a heat pump HVAC system. Heat pumps will heat your car more efficiently and a high mileage range will allow extra leeway between charges. 

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     - Author of Solar Reviews

    Ana Almerini

    Web Content Specialist

    Ana is a content specialist at SolarReviews. She uses her experience in marketing and knowledge from her master's in climate communications to research and review the solar industry.

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