Contributing Author: Craig Fitzgerald
The list of reasons to buy an electric vehicle keeps growing. The range is usually over 200 miles, the cost is coming down, and people are beginning to understand how they can best utilize an EV’s capability. They’re not for everyone, but they represent a legitimate means of transportation for a lot of the 16 million people who buy new cars every year. The big question is, how easy is it to recharge an EV when you’re on the road?
The ease of charging your EV depends on the level or speed at which you’ll be charging.
Level 1 charging is basically for emergencies, or when you’re going to be storing your EV for an extended period of time. The Level 1 charger is the plug that your electric vehicle comes with as standard equipment. At one end it plugs into any 110-115 V wall outlet. At the other end, it plugs into the car.
The good news is that you can plug your car in just about anywhere. The bad news is, Level 1 charging is crushingly slow. A Level 1 charger will charge at a rate of 1.8 kW per hour. How long it will take depends on what you’re driving. The larger the battery pack, the longer the charge will take.
For example, say you’re driving a Nissan Leaf Plus, which has a 62-kWh battery pack. A Level 1 charger will deliver approximately 5.9 miles for every hour it’s plugged in. To get a full charge in your Nissan Leaf Plus from 0% capacity at 1.8 kW per hour, It would take 38 hours and 16 minutes.
That seems ridiculous, but say you’re staying at a friend’s house 160 miles away for a few days. You could drive there, plug into any exterior electrical outlet, enjoy your time with your friend, and head off a few days later, fully charged.
A Level 1 charger is also handy if you’re just looking to top off a battery that’s been depleted to 75 percent. With a 62-kWh pack, you can top that off in 9.5 hours.
A Level 2 charger is what most EV drivers are going to use for recharging most of the time. That’s because most EV drivers are going to have the capacity for a Level 2 charger installed at home.
In the early days of EVs 10 years ago, this meant buying a $2,500 charger and having it installed by an electrician. That’s not necessary any longer. Newer Level 2 chargers don’t require permanent installation. They work with a 220-240 V electrical socket, which you might be familiar with if you have an electric clothes dryer. The charger plugs into that 220-240 V socket and the other end plugs into the car. If you live in a relatively modern house with 200-amp electric service, it might cost you $300 to have an electrician wire up a 220-240 V outlet in the garage.
Level 2 chargers will recharge a lot faster than a Level 1 charger. They have the capacity to charge at 7.2 kW per hour, though most vehicles have a limit to how fast they can be charged. Our Nissan Leaf Plus example limits charging speed to 6.6 kW.
The difference in speed is about 3.5:1. A Level 2 charger will recharge our 62 kWh Nissan Leaf Plus from 0 to 100 percent in about 10 hours. Most people charging at home are going to roll in the garage at 25 percent capacity, so a Level 2 charger will be able to recharge their car fully overnight.
The Level 2 charger is also going to be the most plentiful of all chargers available when you’re away from home. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there are currently about 43,000 charging stations spread out across the United States, providing approximately 120,000 charging ports. The vast majority of those chargers are Level 2 charging stations open to the public.
The Level 3 charger is the gold standard at this point. These 400 V beasts can recharge an empty Nissan Leaf Plus in about 90 minutes or about 150 miles per hour of charging.
You won’t be installing a Level 3 charger at home. They’re incredibly costly, so these are going to be found at public charging stations, mostly around large cities and high-traffic areas. The Tesla Supercharger stations are Level 3 chargers, for example. You’ll find those at Tesla stores and located at rest areas along major routes.
The trouble with Level 3 charging is that the industry hasn’t standardized on a single plug the way it has for Level 2 charging. Since about 2000, every EV built for use in the United States uses an SAE J1772 plug for Level 2 charging.
When you get into Level 3 charging, there are three different types of charging ports:
An acronym for Combined Charging System, this is basically the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) standard for fast charging. CCS outlets have mostly been driven by American and European manufacturers.
CHAdeMO is an acronym/abbreviation of “CHArge de MOve”, or “move by charge.” The name is a pun from the Japanese phrase “O cha demo ikaga desuka”, which translates to “Let’s have a cup of tea while charging.”, indicating about how long it would take to top up your battery. CHAdeMO outlets have mostly been promoted by Japanese manufacturers.
Tesla has its own style of charging port, which supports its own charging stations. All Tesla Supercharger stations are for Tesla vehicles only. Teslas also have an adapter that lets them charge at CHAdeMO chargers.
Currently, there are about 10,000 Level 3 chargers around the United States. Tesla operates about 10 percent of that Level 3 charging capacity with its own stations.
Finding a Charge
Manufacturers make finding a charging station easy. Like a Low Fuel light, your EV has a warning to let you know when you’re reaching the end of your battery capacity. As you’re driving, your EV will alert you that your state of charge is low, and then direct you to the nearest charging station. Most cars will allow you to filter on just Level 3 stations or open it up to Level 2 stations in the immediate vicinity.
The public charging network is still like the Wild West. There are plenty of places where you might be able to find a free charge. For example, about a mile from where this is being written, the town of Holliston, Massachusetts has a Level 2 charging station for its two Nissan Leafs that it uses to read water meters. That charging station is open and free to the public.
Most of the time, though, you’re going to charge using one of the major charging networks. Aside from Tesla, the top 5 charging networks are:
Each one of these networks has pros and cons that require their own article to get into. Each network has an app that will help you find the most convenient location.
Every passing week, charging an EV gets easier, and with every passing year, manufacturers are building EVs with more capacity – making range anxiety a thing of the past. EVs are eventually going to be the way most of us commute. Understanding the way we charge is going to give you a leg up in the future.
Craig Fitzgerald began his automotive writing career in 1996, at AutoSite.com, one of the first online resources for car buyers. Over the years, he’s written for the Boston Globe, Forbes, and Hagerty. For seven years, he was the editor at Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car, and today, he’s the automotive editor at Drive magazine. He’s dad to a son and daughter, and plays rude guitar in a garage band in Worcester, Massachusetts.