GreenCars 101
Electric Cars

How to Charge an Electric Car

Laurance Yap
Jun 2024
How do you charge an electric car? Is it as simple as plugging in a smartphone or laptop? Mostly, the answer is yes, but there are a few nuances you should be aware of. Read on to learn more.
Woman plugging in an electric car

How to Charge an Electric Car

When you drive a gasoline vehicle, the process of “charging it up” remains the same pretty much wherever you go. If the reading on your fuel gauge has you feeling uncomfortable, you simply pull into the nearest gas station, plug in the gas pump, and in a few minutes, you can top up and be ready to hit the road.

If you are an electric vehicle owner, how do you charge your car? Is it as simple as plugging in a smartphone or laptop? Well, the short answer is, “yes, pretty much.”

Charging an Electric Car: The Basics

To charge an electric car battery, you’ll typically plug it into a charger every night – just like your mobile phone. Unlike a gasoline car, you likely won’t run the battery down to almost empty before charging; you’ll just plug it in when you’re not using it.

In addition to charging at home, EV chargers can also be found in public areas around the United States such as office buildings, grocery stores, and shopping malls – where you can fill up for a fee. They are also found on major highways and can be used while traveling.

While gasoline vehicles all “charge up” at approximately the same speed, not all ways to charge an electric car are equal. Charging time varies based on the level of charger you use: Level 1, Level 2, or Level 3 (also referred to as DC fast charging).

Charge Station for Electric Cars

Level 1 Charging: Best for Plug-In Hybrids

Level 1 chargers typically plug into a household 120-volt outlet, like you’d plug your phone into. Since it takes a few hours to charge your phone when plugged into such an outlet, it should be no surprise that a Level 1 charger will take a really long time to charge the battery in your electric car – typically only 3 to 5 miles per hour of charging.

Even if you plug in your car for, say, eight hours, you’ll get only 24 to 40 miles of range. For a long-range battery you’d need days for a full charge. Using a Nissan Leaf with a 62-kWh battery as a reference, a full charge on a level 1 EV charger would take between 30 and 40 hours! A Tesla would take even longer thanks to its larger battery.

So, for full-electric vehicles, Level 1 charging isn’t really an option. However, Level 1 chargers offer a good top-up for a plug-in hybrid.

Woman on phone at EV Charging Station

Level 2 Charging Station: Electric Cars at Home or Work

If you’re driving a fully electric car, you’re going to want regular access to a Level 2 charger. Using a 220-volt outlet, similar to what you’d plug your clothes dryer into, a Level 2 charger can deliver 12 to 80 miles of charge per hour. The same Nissan Leaf from our previous example would take 3.5 to 4 hours to charge on a Level 2.

Many Level 2 chargers are also available in public areas for a very low cost per minute, and are very useful if you’re going to be at a mall or at work for a few hours.

Mom with groceries at EV Public Charging Station

Level 3 Charging Station: Fast Charging and Long Trips

Delivering charge at a rate of 3 to 20 miles per minute, Level 3 chargers use DC (direct current) instead of the AC (alternating current) of Level 1 and Level 2 chargers. This makes Level 3 chargers up to 15 times faster than a Level 2 charger.

Level 3 chargers are perfect for charging your electric vehicle quickly – the Nissan Leaf that would take 30 to 40 hours charging on level 1, or 2.5 to 4.5 hours on level 2, takes only 30-40 minutes to fully charge on a Level 3!

Level 3 chargers are very expensive – tens of thousands of dollars – which explains why you wouldn’t have one at your house. You’ll commonly find them in locations on highways to allow drivers to grab a quick charge on longer trips. That extra speed comes with higher per-minute charges.

While Level 3 chargers are the fastest, they are also like junk food for your electric car battery. All batteries rely on a chemical reaction to produce power – and the charging process is one too. Just like with your laptop or your cell phone, the battery’s capacity will deteriorate slightly with every charge. Using Level 3 charging will increase the speed of this deterioration.

Wireless Charging for Electric Cars

Electric Car Wireless Charging

Wireless charging has yet to make its way to our shores, it is already available on some models in Europe and South Korea.

A wireless pad is positioned on the ground where a vehicle is parked, and the vehicle gets a wireless vehicle pad, installed on its underbody. The ground pad and the vehicle pad convert alternating current (AC) to a magnetic field that transfers power over the gap between the two pieces. The current generation of wireless charging systems operate with power outputs and speeds roughly equivalent to level 2 plug-in charging, which would make them a convenient solution for home charging; a wireless EV charger would still need a 220-volt dryer-type outlet to plug into, so installation costs would be roughly the same.

woman using a smartphone app

Electric Car Charging: How to Choose

If you’re buying a plug-in hybrid, all three forms of charging are viable means of adding range, but if you’re going full electric, you’re going to want to have a dedicated Level 2 charger to plug into on a regular basis – either at home, at work, or both. Level 3 chargers make long trips in your electric car easier.

If you’re buying a new electric vehicle, the manufacturer may also offer free, or discounted, public charging scheme. For instance, Volkswagen, Audi, and Porsche EVs come with three years of free charging (with conditions) on the high-speed Electrify America network, while BMW and Nissan offer owners a charging credit on the EVgo network.

As always, it pays to do your research.

Front view of a Tesla Model 3 driving through canyon roads

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