Plug Your House Into Your Car

DSC03942If you free your mind to explore the possibilities for your home, you can come up with some pretty cool ideas. Start with the facts and then free-associate.

Fact 1. The garage of Hammond Forever House is located at the edge of the property, separate from the house. It depends on an electrical line from the house for power.

Fact 2. We disconnected the overhead electrical line to the garage when we lifted the house. We need to replace it.

Fact 3. We own a 2001 Toyota Prius (1st generation gas-electric hybrid car) and plan for our future cars to be 100% electric.

Fact 4. The garage roof slopes toward the south, making it the best roof on the property for installing Photo-Voltaic Solar Panels (the kind that produce electricity).

Fact 5. Dave the Father-in-Law knows a thing or two about electricity and electric cars.

What conclusion do these facts lead to?

Using the car in the garage as a back-up generator of course!

Dave and I at Earth Day Maple Ridge with our display
Dave and I at Earth Day Maple Ridge with our display

If you’re like me, you didn’t come to that conclusion on your own. I needed Dave to think of it because he is a retired electrician and member of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association. He knows that as soon as you banish fossil fuels and go 100% electric in your home and transportation, there are a lot of options for making stuff work together.

Having dug up the yard already, it wasn’t a big deal for us to dig another little trench from the house to the garage to bury some electrical conduit. It will be nice to have electricity in the garage without having the overhead wire in the way.

For some reason, Leanne and I were not around that day so Dave and our electrician, Jim from Golden Ears Electric helped the excavator get the trench right. It’s a bit painful paying an electrician to dig a ditch at the rate he charges. Dave, on the other hand, has agreed to put his fee on a lay-away plan. It’s a little vague. Someday, perhaps, like the Godfather, he will ask a favour.

With the trench dug, it was not too much trouble (or money) to run an extra conduit or two so that not only can the garage be powered by the house, but the house can also be powered by the garage!

Listen to your electrician and follow your municipality’s requirements for what gets filled in around the conduit. In Maple Ridge it’s sand. On public property, BC Hydro wants something else.

The two bigger conduits you see are for power cables: one to the garage and one back

A Tesla Powerwall
A Tesla Powerwall

from the garage. The smaller conduit is for control wires so that we can monitor and control whatever is going on with the solar panels, batteries, Tesla Powerwall (super battery) or whatever else we may someday be able to afford to put in there. Our computer in the house can tell us exactly how much power the panels are generating, for example.

After the City Electrical Inspector has looked at your trench, conduit and sand, you can add more sand, fill the trench halfway, add a warning tape, and then backfill all the way to the top. Again, the rules may be different where you live.
The warning tape will let you know that there are electrical cables down there if you ever dig there in the future. Imagine you decide to dig a well in the same spot next week. “Oh yeah,” you’ll say to yourself upon finding the red tape, “how could I have forgotten so soon!” You may feel stupid for having forgotten, but at least you won’t be electrocuted.

Once your electrician has hooked everything up correctly, your electric car, gas-electric hybrid, or large battery pack can be used just like the gas generator some people keep for emergencies. It’s just a lot quieter and more efficient.

Here is a video I took of the demonstration Dave and I set up for the Earth Day Celebration in Maple Ridge in April. It was part of the VEVA (Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association) display so you can see other electrics, too.

With a full electric car the set-up may be simpler, but with our 2001 Toyota Prius, which is a gas-electric hybrid, Dave bought an inverter to change the current from the 12-volt auxiliary battery (that’s the battery every car has) to standard 110 volts so you can plug stuff into it.

Gas engine and electric motor serve to keep the batteries charged
Gas engine and electric motor serve to keep the batteries charged

The larger, hybrid battery pack keeps the 12-volt battery charged and, in turn, the gasoline engine keeps the hybrid battery charged. That means the gas engine turns itself on and off as needed (that is how the Toyota Hybrid system operates while you’re driving, too).

In a power outage, we can go out to the garage, plug the house into the car and turn on the car. The car will keep the power flowing until it runs out of gas.

Plug stuff into the inverter (front) which draws power from the auxiliary battery (rear)
Plug stuff into the inverter (front) which draws power from the auxiliary battery (rear). The hybrid battery on this 14 year-old first-generation Prius is under that long “bench” at the back of the trunk.

It will take a long time to run out of gas. In the three hours we had the system running for the display, there was no noticeable drop in the fuel gauge.

In our house, the wire coming into the house from the garage will be connected to something called a critical panel. This panel will power the fridge, freezer, a few outlets and a few lights. Normally, the power will come from BC Hydro just like everything else. When the power fails, however, the critical panel can be switched to receive power from another source, in our case the garage.

We plugged a radio and a light into the car for a few hours
We plugged a radio and a light into the car for a few hours

It’s very important you do this right, and with a certified electrician*. During a power outage, BC Hydro will cut the power to an effected power line so that their crews can

Leanne re-wiring an outlet

fix it. If the critical panel is not set up right, you can send power from your back up system down the very wire that the crew is working on. That can get a worker electrocuted because they won’t be expecting the wire to be live.

I hope you enjoyed this quick rundown of how to run conduit in anticipation of having an electric spacecraft or what-not in your garage. The electrical team (Leanne, her dad and Jim from Golden Ears Electric) are working hard on wiring the house right now, so I’ll show you more about the electrical system soon.

*As usual, the advice is to ask your regulated, registered, licensed professional what to do and then do that. If you don’t know how, pay that person to do it. (Reminder: general contractors are not regulated or licensed, so make sure they are following this advice, too.)

Published by

James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

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