Electric Utility Task Vehicles for Your Retreat
We wrote before about the benefits of considering electric vehicles for your future retreat transport needs – see our article ‘Is a Tesla the Best Car for a Prepper‘.
We concluded that some sort of electric vehicle would be excellent in a Level 3 situation, because electricity might be easier to generate/create than other fuel/energy types. But of course a Tesla is a very expensive vehicle, and not well suited for ‘working’ purposes on a farm.
There is also a much less expensive possibility that would be suitable for many preppers. Getting an electric ‘golf cart’ type vehicle, sometimes also referred to as a ‘golf car’. You might initially think of true golf carts and reject the thought of such things having any use at all in a grid down retreat situation, and while it is true that the type of vehicle you’d see on a golf course or in use by a ‘Mall Cop’ would not be a good general purpose vehicle at your retreat, that’s not the type of vehicle we have in mind.
Instead, and as well as the traditional/commonly seen type slow sedate golf cart type vehicles, there are many more types of electric vehicle that might be better suited for off-grid use.
Different Types of Electric Vehicles
We are talking about a probably open vehicle that has seating for two or four people, and some load carrying capacity (up to maybe 1000 lbs) to carry general stuff about the farm and even from your retreat to a local town and back. It might also be able to tow another 1000 lbs or more, and could even be 4WD.
Some are more like mini-tractors, and can be fitted with various accessories to help you in your farming (and with a snow plow blade too for winter driveway clearing). Some are fairly slow, others are surprising sporty, with maximum speeds in excess of 25 mph. These types of vehicles are sometimes termed a ‘utility task vehicle’ or UTV, or perhaps a ‘Side by Side’ vehicle, or a Recreational Off highway Vehicle (ROV).
So the first thing you need to do is define the ‘mission’ of the electric vehicle. Is it to primarily be used to transport you and trade or shopping goods to/from the local town, or will it be used as a mini-tractor type farm vehicle? If the former, depending on the type of roads you expect to encounter, especially after a few years of zero maintenance and with no snow removal in winter, you’ll know the sort of traction system you need and the range the vehicle should have. Maybe a regular golf cart will be fine, maybe you’ll need an off-road type vehicle. Maybe the range of the vehicle with standard batteries is fine, or maybe you need heavy-duty batteries.
If you want to have a mini-tractor type vehicle, you’ll be needing a very different set of capabilities and design considerations. If you want a vehicle to carry back deer and other game when you go hunting, then obviously other issues apply, including having a cargo tray.
These electric utility vehicles vary widely in price, the same as cars. But as a round figure, plan to spend more than $10,000 on a new vehicle, depending on the features you want.
Of course, there are much less expensive second-hand ones out there, but if you are buying second-hand, you should probably factor in the cost of a new set of batteries too. The chances are whoever is selling a used vehicle will claim the batteries are almost brand new, and maybe they even have a recent manufacture date on them, but because lead-acid batteries are very susceptible to mistreatment (particularly being discharged down too far) even a new set of batteries might have a very short remaining life.
Ebay Motors has a UTV section in it with a number of listings at any time for electric type UTVs, and a separate section (under Other Vehicles and Trailers) for Golf Cars. We’ve sometimes seen them listed on Craigslist, and most medium/larger cities have dealers who specialize in such vehicles.
When buying any sort of electric vehicle, you also need to understand if the charger is included with the vehicle or if that is an additional extra item.
Range is – or should be – measured differently for a UTV than for an electric car, because they use different types of batteries. A regular car probably uses Li-ion batteries, and they can be discharged pretty much all the way down to zero charge without harming the batteries, so if the car’s range is quoted as ‘how far you can go on a complete charge’ that is a valid measurement to consider.
But a UTV is probably powered by Lead-acid type batteries, and they behave very differently. The more you discharge a Lead-acid battery, the fewer the number of times that you can recharge it, and the greater the harm you do to the battery. So when you are being quoted a range for a UTV, you need to understand what percentage of charge depletion is being used to assess the vehicle’s range. Is it the range to use up half the battery charge, 80% of the charge, or the theoretical maximum 100% charge range which you should never use?
Best practice for Lead-acid batteries is to discharge them only 50% before recharging; some, but not all, of the better ‘deep cycle’ batteries can allow up to an 80% discharge. We discuss matters to do with caring for and best using Lead-acid batteries here.
There are two more things to consider when assessing range capabilities. The first is that the range assumes new batteries in best condition, and the second is that the range assumes moderate speeds and good surfaces. As the batteries age, they will hold less charge each cycle, and your range will therefore drop every time you recharge the batteries. If you ‘need’ to be able to travel 20 miles on one charge, you ideally should get a vehicle with a 30 or 40 mile range, so that you can continue to get at least 20 miles of travel from the UTV for a long time before needing to replace its batteries.
It is common to see UTVs claiming ranges from about 20 miles up to about 50 miles ‘per charge’ but you’ll need to carefully understand what ‘per charge’ means’.
Batteries and ‘Fuel Economy’
There is no standard battery configuration for UTVs, and so simply understanding the different range capabilities doesn’t directly equate to how much electricity each vehicle requires to travel one mile. That’s a bit like saying ‘this car gets 200 miles per tank of gas, and that car gets 300 miles’ – unless you know how many gallons of gas in the tank, the range figure doesn’t directly equate to fuel economy.
So you should understand the battery configuration for the UTV. Generally, UTVs have some number of either 6V, 8V or 12V batteries, and probably all connected in series.
Many vehicles operate on 48V or 72V, but whether this is the result of a series chain of 6V, 8V or 12V batteries varies from brand to brand.
To understand the ‘fuel economy’ of the vehicle, you need to know how many kWhrs of electricity are used to drive how many miles. Divide the miles traveled by the kWhrs used, and you’ll get miles per kWhr. Probably this will range from 2 to 5, and noting how electricity will become scarce and expensive in the future, you should pay attention to this number and be willing to pay an up-front premium to get a more efficient/economical vehicle.
We are starting to see some UTVs with range/economy boosting features such as higher efficiency motors (rather than old-fashioned series wound motors) and regenerative breaking (ie, when you press the brake pedal, the motor becomes a generator and starts charging the battery again). Search out the most efficient UTV you can find, as long as it also provides the other functionality you need as well.
Many UTVs will recharge from a regular 110V AC power outlet, and many will also accept direct DC charging too. Ideally, you’d like a vehicle that will work both ways so as to give you more flexibility for the type of charging equipment you use.
If you live in a sunny area, you might even decide to mount solar cells on the vehicle’s roof (and some models come with a solar roof already installed). We’re a long way short of being able to have the solar cells power the vehicle real-time, but if you have maybe 200W of solar cells on the roof, then when the sun was shining directly on them, that would give you the equivalent of about a 1 mph speed from solar power alone. That’s not exactly brilliant, but if you are driving into a town and back again, and if you get five hours of sun, that could give you as much as another kilowatt-hour of power which might give you as much as 5 more miles range on your day’s use of the vehicle.
If you do get an electric UTV, you should of course remember to increase the number of solar panels (or whatever else you’ll use to generate electricity) you have to reflect your increased electricity need and consumption.
If you are buying some type of UTV, and plan to take it anywhere other than on perfect road surfaces, you probably should be sure to get a vehicle with a roll cage on it to protect you in case it tips over. These protective cages also require you to have seat belts fastened, so you want good seat belts in the vehicle too.
A vehicle with four-wheel braking would be slightly preferable to one with two-wheel braking.
It is true that an electric UTV doesn’t need some things to be maintained that would otherwise be required in a gas-powered UTV. Clearly it has no internal combustion engine and all the related things to do with that, but equally clearly, it still has plenty of moving parts plus it has a battery system too.
Whatever vehicle you get will have a detailed owner’s manual with maintenance schedules included. Our point here is merely to point out that electric vehicles are not maintenance free. They still need work on their brakes, steering and suspension, for example, and they need regular attention to their batteries, water levels in them if applicable, checks for any corrosion around the batteries, and so on.
Plus, every some years, depending on your usage, you’ll need to replace the batteries themselves.
As an interesting aside, in a normal modern-day living environment, the total costs of ownership as between a gas or electric UTV are similar – some people claim one is better than the other, others claim the opposite. Certainly, a gas-powered unit that might have 200 miles of range before needing refueling is much more convenient than an electric one which might need some hours of recharging every 30 miles. But in our case, we’re buying not so much for present convenience as we are for future utility.
Ideally you want to be able to continue using some forms of powered vehicles in a Level 3 situation. In a Level 1 or 2 situation, this is easily achieved by simply using the fuel you have stored. But in an extended Level 3 situation, you need to be able to make your own fuel. There are a number of different ways of making gasoline or ethanol type fuels, LPG or methane type gas fuels, and diesel, and in addition to that, you’ll of course have some methods of generating electricity too.
The best prepper will have several vehicles, each powered from different fuel sources. At least one should be electric.