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Electric Car Charging 101 — Types of Charging, Charging Networks, Apps, & More!

There’s no doubt about it — electric car charging is different from fueling a car with gasoline. On the whole, it’s much more convenient to charge an electric car — you get home, you spend 7 seconds plugging in, you go on with your day or night, and you spend 7 seconds unplugging when you are ready to drive somewhere again. But circumstances vary, and public charging is a whole other beast. So, here’s a thorough but introductory guide on electric car charging.

Home Charging

2013 nissan leaf

Nissan LEAF charging with EVSE.

~95% of electric car charging is done at home. There are a couple of common ways to charge at home. One is to simply plug into a standard electricity outlet. All electric cars have what is termed an “onboard charger” in the car itself. So, all you need is to use the charging cord you get with your car to connect your car to a source of electricity.

However, simply plugging into the wall won’t charge your car very fast — you’ll add just about 4 miles of charge or driving range in one hour of charging. If you want to charge faster, you probably want a home charging station (aka “Electric Vehicle Service Equipment,” or EVSE) — I know, it’s a weird name.

What’s EVSE?

UK electric car charging home

Electric car and EVSE in UK.

EVSE is what a lot of people are talking about when they talk about a “home charger” or “wall charger” or “home charging station.” Actually, though, EVSE is any device which brings AC power to your car, where it is then turned into DC power and fills your car’s battery — via the car’s onboard charger. In other words, it’s various types of cords or cords + boxes that can be used to charge your car. There’s a wide range of EVSE on the market, and I’ll discuss several of the options in a future article.

Important to note, though, is that not all electric cars are created equal, and not all electric car onboard chargers are created equal (no matter what EVSE you buy). Below is a table of the various electric (including plug-in hybrid electric) cars on the market, the maximum charging capacity of their onboard chargers, and approximately how many “miles of charge” or “miles of driving range” can be added to these cars in one hour while charging on an EVSE.

Model Max Charge ~Miles Added Per Hour 100% Electric or PHEV
Audi A3 e-tron 3.3 kW 11 PHEV
BMW i3 7.4 kW 25 100% Electric / REx
Cadillac ELR 3.3 kW 11 PHEV
Chevy Spark EV 3.3 kW 11 100% Electric
Chevy Volt 3.3 kW 11 PHEV
Fiat 500e 6.6 kW 22 100% Electric
Ford C-Max Energi 3.3 kW 11 PHEV
Ford Fusion Energi 3.3 kW 11 PHEV
Ford Focus Electric 6.6 kW 22 100% Electric
Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid 6.6 kW 22 PHEV
Hyundai Sonata Plug-in Hybrid 3.3 kW 11 PHEV
Kia Soul EV 6.6 kW 22 100% Electric
Mercedes B-Class Electric 10 kW 29 100% Electric
Mercedes S550 Plug-in Hybrid 3.3 kW 11 PHEV
Mercedes C350 Plug-in Hybrid 3.3 kW 11 PHEV
Mitsubishi i-MiEV 3.3 kW 11 100% Electric
Nissan LEAF 3.3 kW / 6.6 kW 11 / 22 100% Electric
Porsche Cayenne S E-Hybrid 3.6 kW / 7.2 kW 12 / 24 PHEV
Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid 3 kW 10 PHEV
Smart Electric Drive 3.3 kW 11 100% Electric
Tesla Model S 10 kW / 20 kW 29 / 58 100% Electric
Tesla Model X 10 kW / 20 kW 29 / 58 100% Electric
Toyota Prius Plug-In 3.3 kW 11 PHEV
Volkswagen e-Golf 3.6 kW / 7.2 kW 12 / 24 100% Electric

If you are looking to buy an EV charging station, here are a few tips:

  • Don’t pay more than $1000 (minus installation). ~$700 should be plenty for a good charger.
  • Do have a certified electrician install your EVSE (unless you really, really, really know what you’re doing). If you can judge the quality of work of an electrician, feel free to find your own. Otherwise, your car dealer or salesperson should be able to recommend one.
  • Get at least 30-amp EVSE, but 40 amps or higher is more strongly recommended, even if your current EV can’t make use of the higher amperage. The reason? It will be more useful with longer-range EVs you are likely to buy/lease down the road.
  • At least consider getting a portable EVSE. (In case you move.) It’s no more expensive than permanently mounted EVSE.
  • You may be able to get a tax credit or rebate on EVSE in your utility jurisdiction, city, or state, so look into it and be sure to track the costs and retain the receipts in case they are needed.

As I wrote earlier, without a special, relatively expensive EVSE and simply plugged into a normal electricity outlet in the US, you will likely add just ~4 miles of charge/range in an hour, so most people decided to purchase a “level 2” EVSE. However, if you have an EV with a small battery or drive very little and always have enough time between charges to charge it as much as needed, you may not benefit from such a purchase and may not want to part with the extra cash. I’m planning to get an EV in a few months and am not planning to buy an extra EVSE since I’ll only drive ~20–30 miles a day, which can easily be refilled charging overnight. There are also several free level 2 charging stations in my area that should be easy to utilize if I want a faster charge once in a while.

EV Electricity Rates

Some utilities have special electricity rates for people with electric cars. These can save you a lot of money, and you could even end up with a lower electricity bill than you had before you had an EV. More broadly, these rates are called “time of use” (TOU) electricity rates, and the reason utilities offer them is because it benefits utilities if you charge your car (or run your dryer, run the dishwasher, etc) at certain low-demand times like the middle of the night.

You should definitely check if your electricity offers special TOU rates for EVs, or TOU rates in general. And then you should select one that best fits EV ownership and charge at times of low electricity prices … as much as possible, at least.

Charging Away From Home

Ontario electric cars chargingAs far as charging options when away from home, the situation varies for everyone. You may have a charging station at your work, at a sports center you frequently use, at a shopping center you frequently use, and so on. But don’t expect that they stand out — you may need to locate one on a website, an app, or via someone in the know to actually find these. I have walked past such a charger almost every day for the past year and I just found out it was there while looking at a charging station map for my city. I was shocked to discover it was there! Of course, if we had EVs around here, I think I would have noticed them charging at the station, but who knows?

It’s very important to note that not all public charging stations are the same. Some are free, some are not. Some charge much faster than others. And, perhaps most importantly, different electric cars need different types of charging ports. The first thing to know is if an EV has fast-charging capability at all. Check out this comparison of electric car charging capabilities for more on that… or read the “Fast Chargers” section further down this page.

Charging Networks

There are different charging station networks out there, and you generally have to get a card for each of them to use them. These are easy enough to get — you just go to their website and register for an account. Some of the more common networks in North America are: ChargePoint, Blink, Greenlots, eVgo, AerovironmentAzra, SemaConnectCircuit ÉlectriqueRéseauVer, and Sun Country Highway.

Rates vary — ranging from session/monthly/yearly flat rates to per-kWh rates to hourly rates, or a mix. There are also a lot of free charging stations, often installed by governmental bodies. Charging station sites/apps discussed further down this page should help you easily sort through everything.

Fast Chargers (aka Level 3 & Level 4 Chargers)

EV Charging StationsNo matter what type of charger you use or what kind of car you have, it’s important to understand that the speed of charging is never the same at 1% of charge as it is at 99% of charge. Basically, when your battery is closer to empty, electricity can flow in at a rapid pace. As it gets filled up, though, that rate must slow. This is called “tapering,” and you’ll notice it beginning at around 50% of charge, but it gets really strong above ~80%. Generally speaking, for this reason, unless you really need to fill up to 99% or 100%, it’s advised that you just go to 80% and then go on your way — and some charging stations actually cut your charge off at 80%.

That said, some types of chargers are much faster than others. Most abundant are “level 2” chargers that charge your car at about the same rate as a home EVSE. But there are also “level 3” chargers (technically called DC fast chargers) that charge much, much faster. They aren’t technically called “level 3” chargers since level 1 and level 2 chargers provide AC electricity to your car via your onboard charging while these faster chargers bypass the onboard charger and provide DC electricity to your battery via a special charging port. But to keep things simple for consumers, we prefer the term “level 3 charging.” Furthermore, we’ve gone and coined Tesla Supercharging as “level 4 charging” since it is much faster than level 3 charging.

Update: CHAdeMO and CCS networks are beginning to roll into superfast charging as well, up to even 350 kW. However, very few stations have been installed and no non-Tesla cars on the market right now are able to charge at more than 100 kW. Only a couple are able to charge at more than 50 kW.

CHAdeMO: These level 3 DC fast chargers are much more common than SAE Combo fast chargers at the moment. They work with the most popular electric car in the world, the Nissan LEAF, and are installed at Nissan dealerships across the nation. Aside from the LEAF, other cars that can use them are the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, Kia Soul EV, and (with an adaptor) Tesla Model S. Also worth noting here is that Nissan has a “No Charge to Charge” program in several states in which LEAF drivers can charge at these stations for free. At the moment, CHAdeMO fast chargers have a max power output of 50 kW.

SAE Combo (aka CCS): While this level 3 DC fast-charging standard is preferred by German and US automakers, they haven’t yet built the network out to the extent that Nissan has built out the CHAdeMO network. So, it’s generally a bit harder to find SAE Combo fast chargers along the routes you are going to travel. Cars that use the SAE Combo standard include: the BMW i3, Chevy Spark EV, and Volkswagen e-Golf. At the moment, SAE Combo fast chargers have a max power output of 50 kW.

Supercharger: At the moment, only Teslas can use the Tesla Supercharger network. Superchargers are installed widely across the US (and Europe) and can charge an electric car faster than any other chargers out there. Tesla is quickly growing the Supercharger network, and this creates one large competitive advantage for the popular EV company. At the moment, Tesla Superchargers have a max power output of 120 kW.

Here’s a table of the fully electric cars on the market (none of the PHEVs are able to use fast chargers), which types of fast chargers they can use, and approximately how many miles of charge/range can be added in 30 minutes of charging:

Model Fast Charger Type Standard or As An Option Miles of Charge in ~30 Minutes
BMW i3 SAE Combo Standard 75–100
Chevy Spark EV SAE Combo Option 75–100
Fiat 500e
Kia Soul EV CHAdeMO Standard 75–100
Mercedes B-Class Electric
Mitsubishi i-MiEV CHAdeMO Standard 75–100
Nissan LEAF CHAdeMO Option 75–100
Smart Electric Drive
Tesla Model S Supercharger & CHAdeMO Standard / Option 170
Tesla Model X Supercharger & CHAdeMO Standard / Option 170
Volkswagen e-Golf SAE Combo Standard 75–100

Worth noting is that, of all the charging stations out there, there are always some that are down for one reason or another. Tesla’s Superchargers have a much higher uptime and reliability than others, but no matter which network you are using, it’s worth checking out user comments on sites/apps like PlugShareEV Charge Hub, and ChargePoint — and also having a backup charger or two in mind in case the one you intend to use is down.

Level 2 Chargers

While DC fast chargers are still quite limited, there are level 2 chargers all over the place. Okay, not “all over the place,” but in a lot more places than fast chargers. These charge your car at a similar rate as a home EVSE (~10–30 miles of charge per hour). To find these chargers, you’d again use sites/apps like the ones I just mentioned — PlugShareEV Charge Hub, and ChargePoint. In the next section, I’ll quickly run down these three sites/apps and one more, including their pros and cons.


EV Charging Sites/Apps

PlugShare

PlugShare

PlugShare is probably the most popular EV charging site/app to date. It includes all types of charging stations (level 2, CHAdeMO, SAE Combo, Supercharger) and stations from various charging station companies/networks (ChargePoint, Blink, EVgo, GE, SemaCharge). It also includes a “Trip Planner.”

One nice feature of PlugShare is that it includes various details about each charger, such as a description, cost, hours of accessibility, photos, types of plugs present, and user feedback (comments).

Something lacking is that the trip planner (as far as I’ve seen) doesn’t tell you how many miles it is from one charging station (or address) to the next. So, you have to jump over to a mapping tool like Google Maps to find out if you have would enough range to get to a particular charging station when planning out a trip. Hopefully this information will be added soon, as the current setup is quite annoying and time-consuming.

You can actually find stations in other countries beyond the US on PlugShare as well! I have used it to find stations in Poland. Admittedly, though, PlugShare seems to be missing some.

Here’s the PlugShare website, Apple app, and Android app.

EV Charge Hub

EV Charge Hub

EV Charge Hub also lets you find charging stations by type, but offers more types: CHAdeMO, J1772/SAE Combo, Tesla Supercharger, J1772, Nema 515, Nema 520, and Nema 1450.

It also lets you search by network, but again lists more networks than PlugShare lists. In fact, it lets you filter between so many networks (16) that I’m not going to list them here. 😀

Again, EV Charge Hub includes various details about each charger, such as a description, cost, hours of accessibility, photos, types of plugs present, and user feedback (comments).

Unfortunately, EV Charge Hub doesn’t let you map out a trip at all — well, it kicks you over to a mapping app such as Google Maps.

Here’s the EV Charge Hub website, Apple app, and Android app.

EV Trip Planner

EV Trip Planner

EV Trip Planner is a site/app that has historically just been for Tesla drivers, but it is now incorporating features for Nissan LEAF drivers as well. It includes a route energy planner, various charging tables & calculations, a map showing where Teslas actually travel (I discovered that 4 Teslas have used that EV charging station in my neighborhood that I mentioned earlier!), and some other web and physical offerings.

EV Trip Planner is highly regarded and quite popular in the Tesla community. Hopefully it branches out to serve other electric car models.

ChargePoint

ChargePoint

ChargePoint is “the world’s largest and most open electric vehicle (EV) charging network.” It currently serves >23,400 locations, according to the website. Workplaces, multifamily dwellings, homes, retailers, parking garages, and more — it serves just about everything.

It also has a charging station map on the web and an app. Usefully, it doesn’t just shows ChargePoint stations, but shows other network and public stations as well. It also shows you various personal stats like greenhouse gas emissions avoided, gas savings, and energy use.

Here’s the ChargePoint website, Apple app, and Android app.

If you have any other favorite sites/apps (or at least ones that you like), drop us a note.

EV Charging Etiquette

To wrap things up, there’s EV charging etiquette. For more on that, I’ll just direct you here:

EV Etiquette — 8 Rules

EV Charging Etiquette Video


I think that’s good for an “Electric Car Charging 101” course. Perhaps I’ll follow up with an “Electric Car Charging 201” course at some point. 😀

Images by Nissan, Copyright © 2014; Michal Wnuk, Copyright © 2014; Plug’n Drive Ontario (some rights reserved); Joe A. Kunzler (some rights reserved)

 
Written By

is the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular cleantech-focused website in the world, and Planetsave, a world-leading green and science news site. He has been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and he has been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy since 2009. Aside from his work on CleanTechnica and Planetsave, he's the founder and director of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, SCTY, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB. After years of covering solar and EVs, he simply had a lot of faith in these companies and felt like they were good companies to invest in as a portion of his retirement strategy. To connect with Zach on some of your favorite social networks, go to ZacharyShahan.com and click on the relevant buttons.

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