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.
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
TYPES OF CHARGING
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
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
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.
2015 Nissan Leaf
Unlike the first two charging types, where every plug-in car in the U.S. uses the same "J-1772" socket (except Tesla, and even it provides an adaptor), there are three different kinds of DC quick charging.
- CHAdeMO: This is currently the most popular standard, used by the Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, and Kia Soul EV.
- CCS (Combined Charging Standard): All U.S. makers except Tesla and all German makers use this standard, including cars from BMW, Chevrolet, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, and Volvo that are fitted with quick-charging ports.
- Tesla Supercharger: As usual, Tesla has gone its own way and created a dedicated network of free, high-powered fast-charging stations that can only be used by Tesla owners.
Tesla Supercharger site with photovoltaic solar panels, Rocklin, California, Feb 2015
Note that except for Tesla, DC fast-charging uses either a separate charging socket (CHAdeMO) or a larger socket that includes the conventional Level 2 socket (CCS).
Not all electric cars have fast charging in the first place—only a very few plug-in hybrids offer it—so make sure you know whether your car has it, and if so, which standard it uses.
After that comes the question: So, where exactly do I go to recharge, anyway?
ChargePoint electric-car charging station at Nest Labs, Palo Alto, CA
WHERE TO CHARGE
- Home: Today, a majority of recharging is done at home, and overnight. That's usually when electricity is cheapest--just think of it like plugging in your cellphone at night. If you have a battery-electric car, it's best to install a charging station in your garage or carport. For plug-in hybrids, many owners just stick with the 120-volt charging cords.
- Work: Charging at work is quietly growing in popularity. It's a good way for corporations to cut their carbon footprint, it's not that expensive to install, and it's a nice employee perk--whether or not the company or landlord charges a fee for it. (Some do, some don't.)
- Public sites: Finally, there are thousands of public charging stations throughout the U.S. and Canada, and the number grows each week. Virtually all public sites offer Level 2 charging, with a few providing DC fast-charging as well--increasingly with both CHAdeMO and CCS cables. Some public charging is free, while other sites impose a fee, using a number of different (and mostly) incompatible networks that generally require membership up front.
We strongly recommend that you get a smartphone app to locate charging stations wherever you may take your electric car.
MORE: Charging Your Electric Car At Home: What You Need To Know (Aug 2010)
One of our favorites is Plugshare. It not only lets users rate and offer advice on individual stations but even includes locations where homeowners offer up their own charging station for other electric-car drivers to use.
2015 Nissan Leaf
Finally, we'd be remiss if we didn't point out that there are points of etiquette to consider so that all drivers of plug-in cars help each other out.
Some of the most challenging situations come from competition for public charging stations.
First, there's the problem of "ICE-ing," in which a car with an Internal Combustion Engine parks at a charging site, blocking access for plug-in drivers--whether inadvertently or maliciously.
Your best bet there is to see if there's a local security guard or a way to page the driver. Failing that, leave a factual but courteous note pointing out that their action prevented you from recharging--which was the sole purpose of the spot they parked in.
Electric vehicle parking by Flickr user aaron_anderer, used under Creative Commons license
Admittedly, some charging spots are not well marked, while others are located close to buildings and hence in the most desirable spots, increasing the chance of selfish behavior.
Assuming you find a public charging site, how should you behave?
First, make sure that you don't occupy the space longer than it takes your car to recharge.
Charging spots are not there to provide free parking for electric-car drivers, just as no gasoline or diesel driver would expect to be able to park at a gas pump for hours.
Second, if you can't get back to your car to unplug and move it immediately once it's done recharging, you may choose to leave a note for other plug-in drivers. Usually it will say something like, "If the green light on my dash is flashing, you may unplug the charging cable."
Electric Vehicle Only parking sign, Philadelphia public garage [photo: Jim Burness]
Some electric cars now have interlocks that require the key fob to unlock the cable, however. Make sure you know whether your car does.
Third, be aware that if you've still got 30 to 50 miles on your car--and you're planning to drive less than that--you may want to wait until you get home. Even if the charging is free.
Someone may well be on their last miles, and need the recharge a lot more than you do.
Finally, there are other disputes that we're going to steer clear of.
Be aware, for instance, that some drivers of all-electric cars believe that plug-in hybrid drivers should always defer to their needs, because the plug-in hybrid can use its engine to get home--but the battery-powered car can't.
The goal is for all of us just to get along.
And you're likely to find electric-car drivers to be enormously informative, willing to talk about their cars and why they like them, perhaps even offer you a drive.
That's how some electric cars get sold to first-timers: They drive the car, decide they like the experience, learn about the much cheaper cost-per-mile of electricity versus gasoline, and the seed is planted.
Meanwhile, educate yourself, be courteous to others, and go forth to drive electric!
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was originally published in May 2015. We have updated it to reflect the current state of electric-car charging, a topic that continues to draw interest among existing and prospective electric-car buyers.