A recent Toronto Star article by environment columnist Peter Gorrie kicks off in earnest the debate over retrofitting older condo buildings to allow residents to charge electric vehicles on site. Very few condominiums currently provide electrical hookups in their garage, which will be problematic if and when electric cars ever become popular.

Gorrie’s article focuses on his condo board’s explanation why electricity cannot be provided to the parking units other obvious problems with the concept of charging electric vehicles in condos. A number of options are raised together with the relative popularity of each. The article presents a good starting point to help get people thinking about this issue seriously.

Gorrie begins by making some common but incorrect assumptions that are worth correcting in order to provide condo directors and unit owners with the proper legal context needed to debate this topic intelligently.

The most obvious inaccuracies deal with how electricity is billed and, second, how such costs are allocated and shared. Gorrie says:

As with all older condos, the electricity bill covers the entire building, including private and common areas. The expense is apportioned among the units according to their floor area.

So, meeting participants argued, even if the owner of a battery-powered car could plug into a maintenance outlet — which would be difficult to arrange — it would be unfair.

First: While most older buildings in the GTA do not submeter electricity at present and simply treat that utility as a common expense to be shared by all owners, an increasing number of condominiums are seriously looking at submetering and some have already taken the plunge. Condominium boards currently have the legal ability to implement electrical submetering without owner approval, thanks to government legislation intended to help boards download the costs to unit owners, which more accurately allocates the costs and encourages conservation. Those boards that put the submetering issue to a vote often encounter stiff resistance, mainly because anecdotal evidence suggests that unit owners pay more for submetered electricity than not, even though their common expenses tend to stabilize as a result of utility costs being downloaded from the condo corporation’s books. We wrote about submetering previously here and here, but the debate on the financial impact of submetering is left to another day.

Second: Common expenses are not necessarily allocated in proportion to their floor area as Gorrie suggests, but they frequently are. Legally, common expenses are allocated in the proportions set out in the condominium declaration, which document is drafted by the developer, and can reflect any formula the developer chooses.

The next thing in Gorrie’s article worth addressing is the strength of the condo’s argument against providing free electricity and charging facilities, described as follows:

As the president’s letter puts it: “Anyone who uses one of the electrical outlets in our garage to power or recharge a vehicle is using power paid for by all unit owners. This is comparable to having the gasoline used in one’s car paid for by all unit owners as part of their monthly condominium assessment.

“Condominiums currently do not supply gas for residents’ vehicles and do not provide a location for their vehicles to get gas.”

This argument isn’t iron-clad: Residents with low electricity consumption already subsidize energy-hog neighbours who keep lights blazing, crank up the air conditioning with the balcony door open, and spend hours watching a 50-inch plasma TV. Still, it’s potent.

The gasoline analogy seems suitable enough. As for the argument that electricity for car charging should be treated as a common expense because owners are already subsidizing their less-efficient neighbours, the reality is that no condominium board in its right mind can or should permit unrestricted use of electricity for charging electric cars or anything else outside the boundaries of a dwelling unit. The Ontario government estimates that the cost of electricity will increase by 46% over the next five years but has imposed a 10% artificial reduction in rates over that same period, suggesting that taxpayers and ratepayers will face a massive increase eventually. In these circumstances, it’s quite likely that many condo boards will implement submetering, either with or without owner approval. To offer free electricity for vehicle charging when electricity rates are rapidly increasing is more than unfair, it’s political and financial suicide.

A third problem in the article is the fact that people who want the extra service or facility aren’t receptive to the concept of paying for it. Gorrie writes:

A suggestion that those with charging stations pay a surcharge to cover the approximate cost didn’t generate enthusiasm.

Neither did the idea that individual residents could pay to have charging stations installed in their parking spaces, even though, since the devices can bill users individually, metering needn’t be a problem.

In most situations, the debate would end here. Few condominiums can or would offer increased or enhanced services or facilities without a plan to fund the expense and unit owners typically have no business expecting any such increase or enhancement without paying the cost in one way or another. To give electric car owners a free ride in this respect would create a slippery slope but, unfortunately, there are no easy answers.

Other than the issues raised above, here are some additional considerations that must be factored in to the discussion.

First: Modifications to common elements must be made in order to wire the garage for electricity. If it is sufficiently expensive, or if the board chooses to treat the project as substantial and put the issue to the owners, a positive vote of 2/3 of the unit owners would be required, as per Condo Act, section 97(3).

Second: Some solution for submetering would need to be found. As stated above, condominiums providing free electricity makes no sense. That said, there is no legal impediment to a condominium full of like-minded residents to vote in favour of treating both the project and the cost of electricity as a common expense. It’s their money!

Third: Parking spaces are not all the same. In some buildings, the spaces are exclusive use common elements and their allocation is prescribed in the condo declaration. In others, the spaces are individual units that are privately owned. The possibility of reallocating spaces so that owners of electric cars can park near common charging stations will depend on the legal status of the space. The allocation of spaces may be changed with consent or a large majority vote, but there is no legal means to compel the legal owner of parking unit to switch spaces with anybody else [unless, of course, you’re the Quebec Human Rights Commission].

Fourth: In those cases where the parking spaces are legal units and not common elements, owners wishing to install wiring or a charging station in their parking unit would likely be required to enter into alteration agreements under section 98 of the Condo Act [to the extent that the modification requires alteration to surrounding common elements.] These agreements address who is responsible for maintaining, repairing, and insuring any improvements made to units.

There will doubtlessly be other issues that arise and will be dealt with by trial and error.

From Gorrie’s article, it is clear that condo boards are already faced with requests by unit owners to devise a solution for charging electric cars. The frequency and volume of these requests will probably increase. Additionally, older condominiums that are moving to smart metering might seriously consider wiring their parking garages and installing facilities for electric car recharging, which might one day be a valuable feature that enhances property value. In these circumstances, a wise condo board might start considering the issue now. Here are some steps that boards and unit owners can take in their own buildings today to get the ball rolling:

• Take an informal poll of owners to determine the owners’ level of interest, but recognize that the interest will surely grow over time.

• Strike a committee to start looking at the legal, engineering and other applicable issues and provide a report or discussion paper that can form the basis of a plan. Ask interested unit owners to get involved to share their ideas and the workload.

• Focus on whether the project can be implemented in stages, such that the garage is wired in one or more phases, and that individual parking spaces be hooked up floor-by-floor or on some other basis. This allows costs to be spread out over time.

• Talk to the service providers and check out emerging technologies for both recharging stations and submetering.

• Get quotes on required materials and services.

• Consider whether a revenue-generating opportunity exists for the condo corporation.

• Get legal advice as to whether owner approval is required for the project and whether owner alteration agreements must be entered into.

• Once the scope and cost of the project are clear, devise a budget to fund the project over several months or years to gather the funds necessary to avoid the need for sharp increases in common expenses.

• Ask your property management firm or local chapter of Canadian Condominium Institute about whether other local condominiums have undertaken projects of this sort successfully.

• If your corporation has success or finds an ingenious solution, share your findings and results with others.

For now, unit owners eager to buy an electric car should be sure that charging facilities will be readily available at their condominium. If not, owners will need to be patient since developing such facilities are lengthy, complicated and costly projects and, further, most condo boards would likely not proceed until there is a sizeable number of owners who demand the service and approve a plan to pay for its installation and operation.

Owners should also accept the fact that they must pay for the electricity they use in the garage, regardless of whether or not their dwelling units are submetered. No pay, no plug.

We’ll be watching this issue with interest and look forward to reading and writing more about it in the future. Share your thoughts with us anytime by posting a comment below.