Electric UTVs: A Buyer’s Guide for Universities

Universities around North America are using electric utility vehicles in a variety of applications to boost sustainability and cut costs. But there can be big differences in the power, performance and durability of electric UTVs.

You’ll need to make sure that the battery pack and controller deliver the range and power to meet your needs and that the frames will stand up to wet, corrosive environments and many other factors. Electric UTVs can save your facility hundreds of dollars a year in gasoline, but unless you do your due diligence you may sacrifice power, performance and durability for sustainability. I would suggest you begin the process by taking into account your operating environment. Since both the water and chemical fertilizers used on college campuses can cause rust, make sure your vehicles are built on rustproof, corrosion-resistant aluminum frames and have aluminum bed boxes. Steel frames, even when coated, tend to rust in these environments. Vehicles with aluminum frames and bed boxes will generally last longer.

Power: Battery Packs and Controllers

Make sure the vehicles you select will deliver the power your need. Generally, those with 48-volt battery packs and 500-amp controllers are the most powerful of the standard offerings. Yet many vehicles have 350- or 400-amp controllers, so they don’t carry or tow as much weight as those with more powerful controllers.

Consider, for example, a mid-sized vehicle manufactured by a major brand with a 400-amp controller and a 48-volt battery pack. Its bed load and towing capacity are both just 600 lbs. (272 kg). A comparable vehicle made by another major manufacturer features a 48-volt battery pack but a more powerful 500-amp controller. This vehicle delivers a bed load capacity of 800 lbs. (362.8 kg), 200 pounds more than the vehicle above. Its towing capacity is 1,500 lbs. (680.3 kg), two and a half times as much as the other vehicle. As a result, it slashes travel time, boosts productivity and potentially lasts longer.

Further, the 500-amp controller features controlled downhill ability plus zero-speed detect to prevent roll away. The vehicle with the 400-amp controller may freewheel in descent until it reaches nine mph. This can be a safety hazard. Some vehicles feature DC motor controllers; others, AC. AC controllers are noted for better acceleration and speed on hills, but they lose low-end torque for pulling the load. If you stop on a hill with a full load, you may have problems getting the vehicle started again. DC motor controllers, on the other hand, produce all available torque at low RPM so they can pull heavy loads. Make sure your controller offers regenerative braking, handheld speed programmability and diagnostic capabilities, standard. Good diagnostics let you track the vehicle’s usage, running hours and miles covered for effective car rotation in larger fleets. They also issue automotive-style fault alerts that can help you prevent expensive damage, accidents and downtime.

Range, Charging and Maintenance

Range is another issue to consider. Speak to your sales professional about how many hours a day and in what applications the vehicles you are buying will be used. Range is something customers often over- or underestimate, so you may want to track this before buying. Standard deep-cycle batteries deliver 15-30 miles of range. Upgraded battery packs can increase this range, and possibly the warranty. Relatively new to UTVs, lithium ion batteries give excellent range, but they are quite expensive. In some applications, such as parking and security, it may be worthwhile to purchase optional extended range batteries. Lighter vehicles, built on aluminum frames, consume less power to do the same job, so they extend range.

Take a close look at the charger. Universities often want vehicles that allow for “opportunity charging” at various sites around their facilities. This requires vehicles with on-board chargers and reel retractors that let your crews charge their cars during lunch breaks and other free time. Make sure they come standard. Some manufacturers offer these only as an option, at added costs. To prevent common user errors and downtime, look for smart chargers that tell you when the car is plugged in and receiving power, and issue state-of-charge alerts. This can prevent dead cars and increase soft savings. Even with the best cars, proper battery maintenance is critical for extending the life of your battery, yet this often falls between the cracks in today’s busy campus environment.

Single point watering systems (SPWS) may pay for themselves as they simplify battery maintenance and extend the life of the vehicle. Look for a manufacturer who offers special “campus packages” that include common options such as SPWS, extended range batteries, canopies and more. These accessories are considerably less expensive when bought as part of a package.

Warranty, Support and Service

A new battery pack can set you back as much as $1,000. To avoid expensive surprises and budget fluctuations, buy vehicles with the longest, strongest warranty you can find. Don’t just check the battery warranty; check the warranty on the controller, motor and battery charger as well. Some manufacturers cover the battery and these electrical components for four years, twice as long as others.

Comparing warranties is not always as straight-forward as it should be. Some manufacturers provide vague warranty information on their websites and marketing materials. That can be a danger sign. Make sure the terms of the warranty are clearly spelled out. It is also important to partner with a manufacturer who offers a large portfolio of task-multiplying commercial accessories such as van and tool boxes, stake side kits, dump beds and bed-based attachment systems. Many manufacturers carry mostly recreational accessories, and they won’t give you the versatility you need.

Closing Thoughts

Sophisticated buyers think long-term when purchasing UTVs by considering not just the sticker price but the total cost of ownership. Vehicles made abroad are often less expensive than those made in America, but you can wait months for parts and service. That’s no bargain. Buy vehicles that are made in the U.S. and backed by an extensive network of dealers and distributors for easy access to parts and factory-trained technicians. Users are sometime leery of electric vehicles because of the cost of battery replacements. But when you consider the cost of fuel, tune ups, oil and filters, belts and other maintenance on gasoline vehicles, a battery pack generally pays for itself within a year and a half, yet they last two to four years depending on usage.

About the Author
Kurt Meyer joined Club Car in 1999 and is currently part of the utility product management team.During his 16-year career, Kurt has held positions in Marketing, Aftermarket, and New Product Development, developing new products, systems and strategies.