Electric car charging: the basics you need to know (updated)

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2015 Nissan Leaf

2015 Nissan Leaf

The number of plug-in electric cars on North American roads grows every year, and with them come new buyers.

Each new electric-car driver will have a few things to learn, so we've rounded up some tips on how, where, and when how to charge up that new plug-in vehicle.

Whether you're already an owner, considering the purchase of a new or used battery-electric or plug-in hybrid car, or just curious, here's what we think you need to know.

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The first thing you'll need to understand is the difference between the three types of charging.

Note that this advice is for charging in North America; if you're in Europe or Asia, there are differences that we're not covering in this article.

2011 Chevrolet Volt plugged into Coulomb Technologies 240V wall charging unit

2011 Chevrolet Volt plugged into Coulomb Technologies 240V wall charging unit


Level 1, or 120-volt: The "charging cord" that comes with every electric car has a conventional three-prong plug that goes into any properly grounded wall socket, with a connector for the car's charging port on the other end--and a box of electronic circuitry between them.

This is the slowest type of charging, although for plug-in hybrids with smaller battery packs (say 4 to 18 kilowatt-hours), it may be enough to recharge in a few hours to overnight.

The charging cord will test the circuit when you plug it in, to ensure that it's properly grounded and the current is strong enough to power the charger

CHECK OUT: How To Wire A New Garage For Electric-Car Charging: What You Need To Know

Most have a series of colored lights that will indicate when or whether the car starts charging once you've plugged it into the wall, then into the car's charging port.

Level 2, or 240-volt: Most dedicated home and public charging stations operate at 240 Volts, with their cables again connecting to the standard charging port on your car.

If you have a charging station installed at home, it will require the same type of wiring as an electric stove or clothes dryer.

2011 Chevrolet Volt home charging

2011 Chevrolet Volt home charging

This will be at least twice as fast as Level 1 charging, often quicker, due to the higher amperage of the circuit.

At minimum the charging station should be installed on a dedicated 40-amp circuit, but if you want to future-proof your wiring, 50 or 60 amps is better.

Generally owners of battery-electric cars like the Nissan Leaf will require a Level 2 home charging station to provide overnight recharges.

Many plug-in hybrid drivers—including Chevy Volt owners—often stick with the standard 120-Volt charging cord for several hours during the night.

DC fast charging: Sometimes incorrectly called "Level 3" charging, DC fast charging uses direct current (DC) rather than household alternating current (AC) and is very high-powered.

This means that only public sites dedicated to DC charging, often along highways, are practical—given the higher cost of the utility having to install dedicated high-power lines.

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