Electric vehicle for the outdoor industry

Electric vehicle towing trailer outside Sea Kayak Oban

As the start of the 2023 season approached and our smaller vehicle began to show some distinct eccentricities, we realised we would need a new vehicle for the business. We had considered an electric vehicle (EV) before, but until we actively needed a replacement there was no real need to move away from the status quo.

Having now taken the plunge, we thought we would share our experience after the first season for anyone else who might be tempted.

A note on EVs: as a solution to the climate crisis they’re not perfect, and the focus needs to remain on decreasing the number of vehicles on the road, no matter how they’re powered. But over their lifetime, and especially if your electricity comes primarily from renewable sources, an EV’s carbon footprint is considerably less than that of a petrol or diesel vehicle, in particular given that a lot of the materials used in their construction can be recycled. (See here for more information)

The buying process

Loan application

We used an interest-free loan from the Energy Saving Trust in order to buy the vehicle. It was specifically for business users buying a used EV. Like many funds it opens and closes depending on tax years and on how much money is left in the pot.

The actual application process was relatively straightforward. What was difficult was working out whether the particular vehicle we wanted would be eligible. Because EST is an intermediary it can be hard to speak to people and get concrete information. There was also a rather nerve-racking time when we had to commit to buying the vehicle before the money was actually in our account, which meant that a) we needed to have the funds available and b) there was still a small chance we wouldn’t get the funds. On top of this the dealer didn’t send through the right paperwork and EST didn’t pick up on it till well after we were expecting the money in our account. Some of this was to do with our particular circumstances, of which more below.

The vehicle

In order to run our business, we needed a vehicle with at least 7 seats, good amounts of storage, and the ability to tow a trailer. This meant there were only 3 vehicles that would work: the Vauxhall Vivaro-e, the Peugeot e-traveller and the Citroen e-space Tourer. They’re all essentially the same vehicle under different brand names, but they only came out very recently so there weren’t many on the second-hand market. To add to the challenge, the loan conditions meant:

– we were only allowed to spend £30,000 – you can’t put any extra money in on top of the loan amount

– we had to buy from a dealer registered with specific bodies

This really really limited our options, hence the need to commit to putting the money down before we received it – when we found a suitable vehicle we couldn’t run the risk of someone else buying it.

In the end we found a Vauxhall Vivaro-e which fit the bill. Mark had to go down to Luton to pick it up, and it took him 17 hours to get back – the range is not meant for long distances….

Boat transport

The need for towing was crucial. Many EV manufacturers just haven’t gone through the process of getting their vehicles rated for it. And as we found out, just because the Vauxhall site lists a towbar as an optional extra on new vehicles doesn’t mean they’ve actually manufactured a towbar for it…. In the end it took research by our local trailer engineer and a lot of patience on our part before an approved part was finally fitted to the van.

In the interim we looked into getting roof bars, but decided the wind resistance would probably have a significant impact on range. If you went for something like a Karitek system the weight would also be a factor (just as it impacts fuel efficiency on a petrol or diesel vehicle). We don’t know what the actual impact would have been, so if you have an EV with a roof rack please share your experience!

Once we finally got the towbar on, we were pleased to see that towing doesn’t have nearly as much impact on range as we expected – probably largely because our trailer fits in the vehicle’s slipstream. The Vivaro is more than capable of pulling the load, even in its eco (low power) mode when full of 6 clients plus kit.

Day to day running

Range

The stated range for the vehicle is around 134m on a full charge. In practice we usually find it displays around 125m range after a full charge, though we have got it up to 143m. On a not particularly cold day, without towing and on a mix of country roads and Oban town this seems to be pretty accurate. Towing in summer reduces it by about 30-40%. We haven’t tried towing in winter, but we do notice a significant drop in range (up to about 50%) on very cold days.

There is no way we would use the electric van to go down to Valley or P&H, collect 20+ boats on the big trailer and roof rack, then drive back. But for most of what we do on a day to day basis with clients, on short runs between Oban / Easdale / Shuna layby, it works absolutely fine.

Charging

On a standard domestic supply, on a not particularly cold day, we can get the vehicle fully charged overnight with no problem. While there was an initial shock at the jump in our electricity bills, the costs are way below what we’d be paying for diesel for the equivalent mileage. A lot of business rates have cheap overnight and weekend electricity, which can bring the cost down even further.

Driving

Given the lack of choice, we weren’t hugely focused on the handling as a feature. As a vehicle its main downside is that is has a very unwieldy turning circle, but does have the advantage that you can’t stall it, and it’s smoother and quieter than a diesel equivalent. Unlike an automatic petrol or diesel there are no gears, so it’s not deciding for you when to change gear. The electric motor means the heating system gets to temperature very quickly, but it will eat into your battery life. Although all the same principles apply for power use as with petrol or diesel (eg the faster you go the more you use, the smoother you drive the more efficient you are), the limited range can make you more aware of it.

Client reactions

There’s no doubt that the vehicle attracts attention and starts conversations, from clients but also from other providers, suppliers, and passersby. Many clients have responded positively to the fact that we have an EV, and it definitely fits with our ethos of trying to minimise our carbon footprint.

Verdict

This is not a long-distance vehicle, and we certainly wouldn’t recommend it for someone who wants to make an electric camper conversion, put the boats on the roof and head off into remote corners of Scotland for days on end. And smaller outfits who just have one vehicle for work and personal use might find it limiting if you regularly need to travel a long way – although the technology is improving quickly, and more options are coming onto the market all the time. But as a purely work vehicle it does an excellent job, and for centres or outdoor organisations with purely company vehicles, who are looking to reduce their carbon footprint, it would be perfect: great for carrying clients and gear, and the fact that you just plug it in at the end of the day rather than having to drive to a fuel station is both convenient and economical.

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