How to Charge an Electric Car

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Once upon a time, low-emission vehicles were that rare West Coast bird that seldom flew east of the Sierra Nevada. The reason was air quality problems that led to the creation of California Air Resources Board (CARB) emissions policies that preceded and still exceed those of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

But now that 13 states and the District of Columbia have adopted CARB standards, sales and infrastructure have followed suit, especially in support of electric vehicles (EVs). And while more choice is great, it’s not without confusion.

From Sleepy to Supercharged

Types of electric vehicle connectors
Unlike a conventional fuel pump, one size does not fit all when it comes to EV chargers as there are different connector types for varying levels of charging. (Tesla)

EVs are still widely misunderstood. They don’t all look like alien spacecraft, they do not operate in complete silence, and they certainly don’t use the same charging cords.

A quick scroll of the U.S. Department of Energy’s website will list dozens of battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) that currently qualify for a federal tax credit. What it doesn’t list is the half a dozen types of connectors used to charge three different ways.

Level 1 Charging

120-volt household electrical outlet
Level 1 is the most basic but slowest of charging options. Basically, it’s your 120-volt household wall outlet. (Christian Wardlaw)

This is your household-style, 120-volt wall outlet, which every EV is equipped for. However, this is the slowest way to charge. Although convenient, Level 1 charging typically yields 2-5 miles of range per hour of charge time. But the type of EV matters, too. Using a Level 1 charging source, a fully depleted PHEV can be completely charged within a few hours while a BEV, with its much larger battery pack, can take days.

For Level 1 charging, there is but one choice of connector: A NEMA 5-15 grounded 3-prong cord.

Level 2 Charging

SAE J-1772 Level 2 electric car charger
Currently, the vast majority of charging stations are Level 2, and every EV is compatible with a J-1772 connector. (Chevrolet)

The most common type of charging option found at public stations, Level 2 chargers are typically installed for in-home use as well. Utilizing a 240-volt outlet, charging times are faster than a Level 1 but also vary based on kW. On 3.8 kW, a BEV will add up to 12 miles of range per hour of charge time. That figure nearly doubles on 7.2 kW. A PHEV will receive the same number of miles (approximately 12), regardless of kW.

The types of connectors that work with a Level 2 charger are as follows:

  • NEMA 14-50: The 4-prong cord typically associated with large appliances and RVs.
  • SAE J-1772: This Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) standard is otherwise known as the universal connector, as it’s available for all EVs.
  • Tesla Roadster: The 2008 model is discontinued and not compatible with the automaker’s Supercharger network.

Level 3 Charging

Tesla Supercharger electric vehicle charging station
Tesla’s Supercharger network is the largest, fastest, and most exclusive of Level 3 charging stations. (Pixabay)

Also known as DC fast charging, Level 3 delivers high-powered energy and can charge a depleted battery up to 80% within an hour, after which point the charge will slow down. And because their larger batteries can accommodate the power surge, this option is reserved strictly for BEVs.

Connectors for Level 3 chargers include:

  • CHAdeMO: Generally found on Asian makes (e.g., Nissan, Kia, Toyota).
  • SAE Combo/CCS: Generally found on U.S. and European makes (e.g., BMW, Chevrolet, Ford, Volkswagen).
  • Tesla Supercharger: Proprietary for Tesla vehicles and charging stations.

And, yes, ambient temperatures will affect charging speed regardless of amperage.

Where to Plug In

EV charger connector adaptor
Adapters, available directly from the car company or through aftermarket channels, make utilizing charging stations easier than ever. But always check the charger information for accurate compatibility. (Nissan)

By far the easiest way to charge an EV is by plugging it into a wall outlet. Since every EV comes with a NEMA 5-15 connector and because every home and office has a 120-volt outlet somewhere, this option is really no different than plugging in a new refrigerator. But, as stated earlier, it represents a trickle charge.

For example, the Kia Niro PHEV, which has an electric range of up to 26 miles, will take approximately 9 hours to fully charge on a Level 1 source. Use a Level 2 outlet and that time decreases to less than 3 hours.

In contrast, a big-battery BEV like the Jaguar I-Pace will take much, much longer. Estimated charging time with a Level 2 is listed at about 13 hours. The half-strength of Level 1 charging will mean at least two days plugged in, if not longer. No one has time for that. Level 1 is convenient, sure, but not if you actually want to go somewhere.

Level 2 stations are the most prolific thanks to national networks like Blink, ChargePoint, Electrify America, and others. Also, because many are located in public areas, like city halls, parking facilities, and schools, plugging in might be free of charge as offered by local municipalities and retailers.

When it comes to fast charging, EVgo has the largest Level 3 public network in the U.S. with more than 1,000 stations in 34 states. Tesla, on the other hand, has 1,422 stations, but their use is exclusive to Tesla vehicles.

Tesla also offers accessory J-1772 and CHAdeMO adapters so its customers can use non-Tesla stations as well. But its patented connector remains unavailable to other automakers to duplicate or create similar adapters. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has stated that he is not opposed to future sharing of the Supercharger network, but only time will tell if any sort of universal usage deal comes to fruition.

How to Connect

Man Using EVgo Charging Station
Pick a charging station provider, download the smartphone app, and start, stop, and pay for charging – from Level 1 to 3 – right on your phone. (General Motors)

Level 1 charging needs no instruction, but Level 2 and 3 public stations do require some know-how. For starters, charging networks require an individual account in order to access their stations, even if the charge is complimentary.

Rather than create a sign-in with every network in your area, select one or two that you would frequently use based on your commute and driving habits. Using the system’s dedicated smartphone app, you’ll be able to see in- and out-of-network stations, the connection type offered, their charging status, and connector access. Some, like ChargePoint, also send out RFID tags by request.

Once at a charging station, turn off your vehicle. Sometimes a vehicle will not allow the charging port door to release if the vehicle is on. Next step is to unlock the power source. Like with a Level 1 outlet, always plug into the power source first before inserting the connector into the vehicle. Based on the network, there are multiple ways to unlock and make payments.

If using ChargePoint, you’ll need to have the app open to the station’s location, press “Start Charge,” and then tap your phone against the reader until the station beeps, signaling the connector is unlocked. The same procedure would be followed when using the RFID tag. Now plug in your vehicle and once the charge is confirmed, the connector will automatically lock.

With EVgo, there is less physical activity as you can select and unlock your station connector by tapping your phone screen rather than the machine reader. Then plug in and hit the app start button. You can also start charging by swiping a network RFID or credit card.

To stop a charge, simply select that option via the app or return to the station and unplug. Keep track of your vehicle’s charging status as connections can be remotely stopped. This will occur automatically when the station senses your vehicle’s battery has reached full capacity or, in the case of Level 3 chargers, a session time has passed. This is anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes.

Level 2 chargers may have time restrictions as well, especially when free to use. Because of the longer charge times, though, these limits are generally in the 2- to 4-hour range depending on location.

Possible Issues

BMW i3 and Volkswagen e-Golf Charging
Although public charging has become more prevalent, accessibility remains limited. (BMW)

The tiring pace of Level 1 charging can be remedied by installing a dedicated Level 2 home unit. This will run from $600 to $2,000 based on specifications and features, like Wi-Fi capability, but also before any incentives.

Public charging is where some issues occur. Based on location, especially in city centers and at universities, EVs may outnumber available stations. In the past, and before automatic locks, owners would return to their vehicles only to find their connector plugged into someone else’s car.

And even when the support is meant to benefit, in practice it may cause more headaches. For example, shopping centers and parking structures are rebranding parking spots into EV charging hubs. But on busy weekends or during major events, much to the chagrin of owners, those spots will be occupied by anything but EVs.

The apps are generally accurate in terms of real-time status, but owners need to be more mindful, too. A station can be listed as in use or unavailable if a connector hasn’t been properly returned. Or the door cover for a last-resort Level 1 outlet (which some stations offer as a backup) wasn’t closed.

Overall, though, infrastructure is catching up to meet consumer acceptance and future demand. And if the worst-case scenario means having to unplug a lamp in order to sloth-charge your EV, that’s fine. We could all use the occasional long nap, anyway.

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