When you drive a gasoline vehicle, the process of “charging it up” is the same pretty much wherever you go. You pull into the nearest gas station, plug in the gas pump, and in a few minutes you’re ready to hit the road.
Charging an electric vehicle is a little more complicated. You’ll treat it more like a mobile phone and plug it in when you’re not using it – either at work, at home overnight, or in a public place.
While all gasoline vehicles “charge up” at approximately the same speed, not all ways to charge your electric vehicle are created equal. There are different kinds of chargers, fit for different purposes. Here’s a quick rundown of what level 1, level 2, and level 3 charging means.
Level 1: Best Only for Plug-In Hybrids
Level 1 chargers typically plug into a household 120-volt outlet -- like you’d plug your phone or laptop into. Given that 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 long time to charge the battery in your hybrid or electric car – typically adding only 3 to 5 miles per hour of charging.
That means that even when plugged in for eight hours at work, you’ll get only 24 to 40 miles of range; meaning that for full-electric vehicles, Level 1 charging isn’t really an option.
Using a Nissan Leaf with a 62-kWh battery as a reference, a full charge using a Level 1 charger would take somewhere between 30 and 40 hours!
That said, an extra 24-40 miles of range is a perfect top-up for a plug-in hybrid vehicle, most of which have less than 100 miles of range and have a gasoline engine backing up the electric motor for longer drives.
Level 2: Perfect for Charging Your Electric Car at Home
If you’re driving a full-electric vehicle you’re going to want regular access to a Level 2 charger at home. Running on 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 charger – fast enough that you’d leave home every morning with a full “tank.”
A Level 2 charger may come with your electric car, or you can purchase one for about $700 (or more, depending on features). You’ll do most of your EV charging at home overnight when electrical rates are lower.
Level 2 chargers are also commonly 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.
Level 3: Use on 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. Level 3 chargers are up to 15 times faster than a Level 2 charger.
Level 3 chargers are perfect for charging up 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 suck in a full charge on a Level 3 charger.
Level 3 chargers (or DCFC, DC fast chargers) are very expensive, to the tune of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, which explains why you wouldn’t have one at your house. You’ll most commonly find them in locations along well-travelled highways to allow drivers to grab a quick “top off” on longer trips. That extra speed comes with an extra cost at higher per-minute charges. You might pay about the same as gasoline for an equivalent amount of range.
Can Level 3 charging harm your EV battery pack reducing range or durability? A recent study by the Idaho National Laboratory found that an EV’s battery pack will indeed deteriorate faster if its only power source is Level 3 charging – but that the difference is marginal. The laboratory tested Nissan Leaf EVs – two were recharged from Level 2 chargers, while the other two were recharged only at Level 3 charging stations. After 50,000 miles of testing, the cars that were charged using only Level 2 recharging lost around 23 percent of their battery capacity, while the Level 3 vehicles lost around 27 percent.
What kind of charging is best for you?
If you’re buying a plug-in hybrid vehicle, all three forms of charging are viable means of adding range; but if you’re going all-electric, you’re going to want to have a dedicated level 2 charger to plug into on a regular basis: either at home, work, or both. Level 3 charging makes taking long trips in your electric vehicle easier; they are available on several charging networks so check your area for who has the best local coverage.
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.