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In Minnesota, electricians are plugging into a new niche installing EV chargers

A small but growing number of Minnesota electricians are finding steady work installing residential electric vehicle chargers.

Minnesota has around 35,000 electric vehicles on the road today, but that number is expected to rapidly grow in the coming years as more models become available. The state is using federal funds to help build out a public charging network along major highways, but even so, research suggests most drivers are likely to mostly charge at home. 

Some will simply have to plug into an existing outlet in their garage, but many will need electrical upgrades, especially those with older homes or those who want to take advantage of faster charging times. Participating in certain utility programs may also require the installation of new equipment.

That’s creating an opportunity for electricians like Adam Wortman of St. Paul, who installed an electric vehicle charger at the home of a clean energy advocate four years ago and has since retooled his business to focus almost solely on similar projects.

“It’s where I see the demand,” Wortman said, “and from a business standpoint, it’s nice to have a specialty,” 

It’s unclear exactly how many electricians have decided on a similar path, but anecdotally it’s more than a few. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 292 has trained and certified more than 400 electricians over the past two years to install commercial electric vehicle chargers along state and federal highways, but residential installations are more commonly non-union contractors.

“What I’ve seen is that with more electric cars and with more of the demand for electric car chargers, a lot of these smaller shops seem to be picking up work,” said Andy Snope, business representative and legislative and political director for IBEW Local 292. “They are getting a niche and a reputation.”

The market for electricians installing vehicle chargers is bifurcated into commercial and residential projects. He and others estimated that dozens of electrical firms install chargers, but just a handful focus primarily on chargers. Firms attract jobs through word-of-mouth advertising and references from vehicle manufacturers or utilities such as Xcel Energy. 

“It seems like kind of an underworld niche for electrical contractors who are usually smaller but are getting a lot of this work, which is great for a small business,” he said.

Paul Hanson, energy service sales representative for Connexus Energy, said the cooperative recommends that customers getting vehicle chargers reach out to Wortman and a handful of other contractors who specialize in installations and have had good reviews over the years. Hanson said he’s started hearing from solar and heating and cooling companies that want to get on the utility’s list of preferred charging installers.

“Everyone is trying to get their hand into the electric vehicle market,” Hanson said, adding that Connexus saw a 90% increase from 2021 to 2022 in members enrolled in its off-peak vehicle charging program.

Electricians working on vehicle chargers generally gain their first experience working with Tesla, which had the first electric vehicles on the market. Many electricians bought Teslas early and discovered other buyers were struggling with firms that knew anything about chargers.

Bryan Hayes, founder and owner of Bakken Electric LLC, bought a Tesla in 2012 and moved from providing general residential electrical services to installing vehicle chargers. Though Hayes had been an electrician for two decades, he wanted a change.

“My reason for doing it was more ideological,” he said. “I wanted to do something that leaves a legacy of making the world a little better place than I found it.”

Hayes built a staff of six electricians who have installed over 4,000 chargers in the Twin Cities region, ranging from garages to apartment buildings to downtown Minneapolis ramps. His projects come from recommendations from electric vehicle manufacturers and word-of-mouth advertising.

One area of growth has been installing chargers in multifamily buildings. Hayes created a separate company, U.S. Charging, to partner with Tesla to install its commercial chargers in multifamily buildings. “Condominiums and apartments [and] hotels are now a big focus of my business,” he said.

St. Paul-based Sherman Electric owner Jim Sherman has installed thousands of vehicle  chargers and collaborated with Xcel Energy on its Accelerate at Home charging program several years ago. Installations represent 40% of his business, with working at restaurants a second specialty.

“I think the market is getting more specialized and more niche than ever,” Sherman said. “I know contractors that only work on hospitals, and I know contractors that only do apartment buildings.”

Part of the specialization comes from building codes that have become stricter and more demanding. Sherman and his staff of four assistants developed expertise and an understanding of building codes by concentrating on vehicle charging and a handful of other industry sectors, primarily restaurants.

The charging sector is new enough that inspectors often call Sherman with questions and situations they encounter. Homeowners who suffered poor installations pay him to correct the mistakes.

The biggest challenge lately has not been codes or charger technology but instead educating newer EV customers. The early electric vehicle buyers had few questions because they had done their homework and understood the technology.

“My average phone call now is about 20 minutes to sell a customer because I have to educate them about how [the charger] works, how the cars work, how the cars charge, how the power works — everything,” Sherman said. “The early adopters, the Tesla people, knew their stuff. Now it’s getting to be a wider, broader range of people driving electric vehicles.”

In the Twin Cities, home and multifamily building owners typically pay $2,000 to $3,000 to install a Level 2 charger, which provides from 20 to 50 miles per charging hour. Level 1 charging, in contrast, requires a common outlet and no electric system upgrade but charges vehicles at just two to five miles per hour. 

Wortman said Level 2 chargers can require homeowners with attached garages to add another circuit to their electric panels. He installs a separate meter for detached garages and usually upgrades the building to a 240-volt system. Then, typically, he has the homeowner pay Xcel or their utility to drop a line from its transmission grid to power detached garages.

While there’s no average day for Wortman, he usually has two to three installations lined up. Many times, he and other electricians will pick up small jobs like changing out or adding plugs or other repairs in addition to installing chargers.

Clients say electricians are hard to schedule for smaller jobs and are happy to pay them to do extra work, he said. He and other electricians also consult with clients on federal tax and utility rebates they can use to reduce their costs. 

Multifamily apartments and condos present different obstacles. Electricians sometimes must connect chargers to the electric systems of clients living several floors above the garage. Or they work on managed charging that moves electricity around to different cars, a common solution to serve the growing number of EV drivers living in apartments and condominiums.

Hayes has directed much of his business to working with multifamily clients and Wortman and other electricians see it as the next frontier.

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