Electric Vehicle Charging 101
In addition to offering a superior driving experience and big savings on fuel costs, electric vehicles offer the convenience of charging a car over the errand of visiting a gas station to fill up. It makes them a great option for daily driving—you just have to get used to plugging them in.
If you’re starting your journey into the world of EVs, you’re going to hear a lot about things like kilowatt (kW), kilowatt-hour (kWh), direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC) power and their adapters, and more. It can be overwhelming at first, but we’ve put together this helpful guide to break down the basics of electric vehicle charging, explain the different “levels” of charging available, and help you understand how to use them.
Charging Tech and Speed
At its core, the battery in an electric car is like a supersized version of the battery in a cell phone. Batteries hold DC electricity and deliver it on demand, whether you’re turning on a cell phone’s screen or stepping on the accelerator pedal in an electric car.
Like a smart phone, charging an electric car is really simple: just plug it in. But the size of the battery means it takes a lot more electricity, and a lot more time connected to a standard outlet, to recharge.
How fast an electric car recharges is based on three factors:
1. How much electricity can be drawn from the source—a 9.6 kW line supplies more instantaneous electricity than a 1.4 kW line can, resulting in higher charging speed.
2. How much electricity the car can accept—if an electric car can only accept up to 6.6 kW, it will limit the aforementioned 9.6 kW supply line to 6.6 kW.
3. The size of the battery—a larger battery takes longer to charge than a smaller one. A base trim Fiat 500e has a 24 kWh battery, while a Tesla Model S 100D has a much larger 100 kWh battery. Efficiency variables aside, at its most basic level, a larger battery most often means longer range.
The first factor—how much electricity can be drawn from the source—is what electric car drivers have control over. There are multiple “levels” of charging, referring to how much power they’ll supply your battery.
When you plug an electric car into a standard 120-volt household power outlet, you get Level 1 charging. This makes it by far the most accessible type of charging. Most garages have a power outlet, and all electric cars come with a basic charging cord to make use of it.
However, Level 1 offers the slowest form of charging available, capable of replenishing only 3 to 5 miles of range per hour. This makes it best suited for plug-in hybrid owners whose vehicles could be fully recharged in less than 8 hours—and if they aren’t, they still have an internal combustion engine to rely on. Level 1 charging doesn’t make the cut for daily use for a full battery-electric vehicle because their batteries are so large compared to a hybrid’s. From empty, it would take more than 40 hours to completely recharge a Chevy Bolt, and longer still for the Model S 100D example we previously mentioned. This is where Level 2 charging comes into play.
Level 2 charging uses 240-volt power, same as what’s used for high-power appliances such as ovens, clothes dryers, water heaters, and air conditioners. While it’s becoming common for newly constructed homes to come with optional 240v power in garages specifically for electric vehicle charging, most existing homes do not have it set up.
Electric vehicle owners usually have a 240v line run into their garage, where they can connect Level 2 electric vehicle service equipment (EVSE), which is the proper name for electric vehicle charging units.
Level 2 charging at home is enough for the vast majority of an electric vehicle driver’s needs. The same Chevy Bolt that takes more than 40 hours to charge at Level 1 can take less than 10 hours to charge at Level 2. And that’s a full charge from empty—most people don’t put more than 200 miles on their car in a day, so charging regularly takes less time than that. So instead of filling up from empty or close to it, like most drivers do at a gas station when the tank runs low, EV owners just plug in to top up their charge every night and wake up to a fully charged vehicle the next day—errand eliminated!
Level 2 charging is also what’s available at most public chargers that are being installed at places like grocery stores, restaurants, and hotels. They’re a convenient resource to keep your car charged while you’re out and about away from home. And more are popping up daily.
But these chargers won’t cut it when it comes to road trips far from home, and that’s where Level 3—or DC fast charging—fills its role.
Level 3 chargers essentially send DC electricity straight from the power grid into an electric car’s battery. This allows them to bypass the car’s built-in charging limit and supply a huge amount of electricity in a short amount of time. Drivers can get recharged from empty and back on the road in 30 minutes or less, making Level 3 charging an ideal solution for road trips.
Tesla’s Superchargers are the most well-known and well-established network of Level 3 chargers, but they are limited exclusively to Tesla vehicles, with the exception of a pilot project in the Netherlands announced in November 2021. Other groups, like Electrify America, are working on building out their own networks of Level 3 chargers to make road trips easier for other electric vehicle drivers.
Fast charging is a crucial element of electric vehicle infrastructure, and Tesla and other companies continue to invest in the technology to further reduce the amount of time it takes to charge a car when EV owners are away from home for extended periods, whether for work or pleasure. We at Current Automotive already believe in the superior ownership experience of electric vehicles, and it’s only going to get better as time goes on.
While Level 3 charging can get you back on the road in minutes, it should not be considered for daily charging needs, as regular DC fast charging use can reduce the life of the battery.
Here’s a quick breakdown of how long it takes to charge three popular battery electric vehicles at all three levels.
What it means for you
While Level 1 charging clearly takes too long for the big batteries in most electric cars, Level 2 charging provides the vast majority of EV owners the convenience of refueling at home overnight while they sleep, along with the cost savings and reduced emissions compared to gasoline-burning vehicles. And the creation and continuous expansion of Level 3 charging networks is allowing electric vehicle drivers to road trip anywhere in America while enjoying a quieter, more comfortable, more powerful ride over conventional gas-burning cars.
Additional Charging Resources
Electric vehicles are still relatively new, so chargers aren’t located everywhere just yet. Thankfully there are a number of apps and websites out there to help drivers out when they need to charge.
PlugShare and ChargeHub are apps that allow users to share locations of public electric vehicle chargers and update their status – if they’re occupied or need maintenance. PlugShare even allows users to make their home charger available to other drivers.
Tesla has a trip planner built into navigation systems that will automatically plan a route to faraway destinations that includes Supercharger stops.
Chargeway is another mobile app that has a somewhat different approach. It simplifies plugs and charging levels into colors and numbers. It also has an in-built trip planner that will plan your stops according to what electric vehicle you’re charging.
A Better Route Planner is a similar online app that can be used for other electric vehicles, planning stops at public Level 3 chargers.
By arming you with the ability to find a plug anywhere you go, these tools make it even easier to drive electric.