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A Primer on Public DC Fast Charging

By
Chase Drum
May 2024
6
min
While charging at home or work is the cheapest, and generally best, option for filling up your EV, sometimes you’ll need to charge on the go. DC fast chargers reduce charging times, making it easier to take long trips. Here’s what you need to know.
picture of electric car dashboard, seen through the steering wheel
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Fast Charge Your EV On the Go

In a previous GreenCars 101 article, we discussed home and workplace charging – which will serve the charging needs of the majority of EV drivers for the majority of the time. However, when you’re on a road trip or if you can’t easily charge at home or work, you will likely need to use a public direct current (DC) fast charger – and this article is here to help you with all the ins and outs.

Among the various charging options available to EV owners, DC public fast chargers stand out for their ability to significantly reduce charging times, making long-distance EV travel feasible and fast.  However, not all fast-charging stations are equal. There is a large gap in the quality of chargers, and there have been many recent headlines about fast chargers getting overwhelmed by demand and being more scarce than a gas station.

DC fast charging (sometimes called Level 3 charging) provides a rapid charge by delivering high-voltage DC power directly to the battery – bypassing the vehicle's onboard charger used for Level 1 and Level 2 AC charging. This method can often charge an EV from 20% to 80% in about 20 to 30 minutes, which is a stark contrast to the hours required by Level 1 and Level 2 chargers. Despite its convenience, there are important factors to consider when accessing these charging stations.

Chargepoint charging stations

Make Sure You Know Your EV’s Compatibility and Connectors

Not all EVs are compatible with every DC fast charger, as different vehicles and charger manufacturers may use distinct connector types. The main types are CCS (Combined Charging System), and Tesla’s Superchargers – which come in multiple versions, but which are backwards-compatible.

There has been a lot of buzz in the EV space around the Tesla standard, called the North American Charging Standard (NACS), which most automakers are switching to in 2025 – with some automakers offering adapters to existing drivers with CCS-equipped cars for free. Using the Tesla plug gives drivers access to the extensive Tesla Supercharger network, making electric vehicle travel more convenient. There is also another older standard called CHAdeMO, but, outside of the west coast, they are pretty uncommon.

Before planning a trip, verify that your vehicle is compatible with the type of connector used at the DC fast charging stations along your route.

Charging Speed and Battery Health

While fast charging is convenient, frequent use can potentially impact your battery’s health over time. Rapid charging speeds generate heat, which can slightly degrade the battery's longevity if not managed properly. However, most modern EVs have built-in thermal management systems to mitigate these effects, but it's wise to see how fast charging is recommended for your vehicle. While fast charging does degrade the battery, newer studies seem to show that batteries degrade far less than previously thought – and degradation is negligible with newer vehicles. It’s also worth mentioning that combustion engines actually lose power over their lifetime.

Fast Charging Prices and How to Avoid Extra Costs

DC fast charging is generally more expensive than slower charging methods, with charging costs influenced by many different variables. Some operators charge by the minute, while others charge by the amount of energy delivered.

Understanding the pricing structure of the charging network is crucial to avoid unexpected expenses. Additionally, becoming a member of a charging network can mean lower rates and streamlined payment options.

Research Fast Chargers Along Your Route

Fast-charging stations are becoming increasingly common, but their distribution is not yet uniform, especially in rural areas. Also, not all public chargers are fast chargers; many are Level 2, so it is important to make sure that your car is sending you to the fastest locations.

Planning is essential, particularly for longer trips. Apps and online tools like PlugShare, or the EV manufacturer's navigation system, can help locate charging stations and provide real-time availability information, preventing detours or waiting times. Most newer cars will even do this for you, but it can be worth double checking what it recommends.

Fast-Charging Etiquette

As the EV community grows, so does the importance of charging etiquette. This includes limiting charging to the necessary amount to reach your next destination or another charging station, thus freeing up the charger for other users.

Additionally, it's courteous to move your vehicle once charging is complete, even if the station does not enforce a strict time limit.

Plus if you know you’ll be stopping for a while, it may be best to use a Level 2 charger instead of using a fast charger – you’ll also save money by doing so.

White Telsa plugged into Tesla charging station

EV Preconditioning for Fastest Charging

Batteries like to stay in a certain temperature range – coincidentally close in temperature to the human body – especially when fast charging. This is why when an EV is cold and it arrives at a charger, it can take longer to charge.

Most new electric vehicles have advanced systems to make sure that the car stays at the right temperature, or at least allow you to manually prepare the battery for fast charging. This will use a bit of energy, but is easily offset by the range gained (and time saved) when the car’s battery is able to charge at its peak speeds.

Safety First

While people may think otherwise, DC Chargers are designed with safety in mind, and for the elements. Even in extreme weather, it’s very unlikely to get hurt by charging equipment, but always use your best judgment. If a cable seems more worn-down, or even exposed, and another one is available that isn’t, don’t risk it.

Conclusion

DC fast charging offers a convenient solution for recharging electric vehicles quickly, especially on road trips, and it’s constantly expanding. Automakers, governments, and private companies are investing heavily in the development of more widespread charging networks. Plus, even over a few years, the continuous advances have led to more efficient batteries and charging systems resulting in faster charging times.

All the while, there has been a great expansion of the network, with more charging locations to help improve accessibility, making EVs more appealing to a broader audience and contributing to a more sustainable transportation system. By understanding the nuances of fast charging, EV owners can simplify their driving experience – making driving easier, cleaner, and in a lot of cases, more exciting.

Front view of a Tesla Model 3 driving through canyon roads

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