Electric Car Charging Basics

By
Dave Nichols
Updated:
Sep 2022
Time to read:
5
min
We all know how to fuel a gasoline-powered car, but how do you charge an electric car? Is it as simple as plugging in a toaster, smartphone or laptop? Well, the short answer is, “yes, pretty much.”
Lady scanning phone for charging

How to Charge an Electric Car

Before jumping into how to charge an electric car, let’s review some of the charging basics.

EV batteries deliver power to a car’s electric motor by using energy that is stored inside the battery cells. When the battery is being charged, the electric flow is reversed to replenish the power used. Currently, electric vehicles use lithium-ion battery packs though these will soon be replaced by lighter and more environmentally-friendly solid state batteries.

To charge an EV battery, a charging station is often installed and used at home. They can also be found in many public areas and used while traveling – often for a small fee. The time it takes to charge will vary based on the level of charger you use: Level 1, Level 2, or Level 3 (also referred to as DC Fast Charging). EV charging stations are sometimes referred to as Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment (EVSE). For simplicity, we’ll just refer to them as charging stations.

Level 1 Charging

The most basic plug-in method to recharge an EV battery is known as Level 1 charging. Many household appliances, from toasters to coffee makers, use this 110V standard outlet, also commonly known as a 120V outlet.

Level 1 is the simplest and most inexpensive way to charge your car. It also takes the longest. With Level 1, most cars charge at a rate of 3-7 miles of range per hour. While Level 1 charging is slow, most drivers are not recharging the battery from zero each day. For people with short, local commutes, Level 1 charging is a simple, affordable option.

If you drive a Plug-in Hybrid (PHEV), Level 1 charging at home is adequate in most cases. The battery of a PHEV is smaller than an EV and, as such, requires less time to recharge.

One huge advantage of Level 1 charging is that it doesn’t require any special equipment for at-home use.

Level 2 Charging

If speed and convenience are important to you, a Level 2 charger is the better choice. Similar to the power source for high-power home appliances, like a clothes dryer, Level 2 chargers use a 240V power supply. Many EV drivers decide to install a Level 2 charging station in their home because it provides a faster charging time. 

A Level 2 charger charges at a rate of 20-30 miles per hour, so a full charge can take just six hours. A Level 2 charging station costs between $350 to $1,000 for the hardware, plus the cost of hiring an electrician to install the station. The installation cost can vary based on the age of the home and whether the electrician needs to do any rewiring. There are several Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment (EVSE) manufacturers to choose from, including Chargepoint, ClipperCreek, Siemens, Enel X and others. EVSE manufacturers and some utilities can suggest local installers as well.

Level 3 / DC Fast Charging (DCFC)

Level 3 chargers, also known as DC Fast Chargers (DCFC), can recharge an EV from zero to 80% in about 30 minutes. There are Tesla Supercharger stations that can charge even faster, but they are proprietary connectors that only work with Teslas. 

Level 3 chargers use three common connectors: the Combined Charging System (CCS) plug, the CHAdeMO plug and the Tesla plug. The three connectors are different but serve the same purpose. Many public Level 3 charging stations support several formats but, depending on your vehicle, your car will support only one of the three connectors.

The CCS connection is often used for vehicles made by European and American vehicle brands, such as the BMW i3 and the Chevy Bolt. The CHAdeMO connection is used in Asian models like the Nissan Leaf and the Kia Soul. Last but not least, the Tesla plug is only available for Tesla vehicles.

Due to the complexity and cost, Level 3 chargers are primarily used for public charging. Although fast, it is not recommended to use Level 3 charging stations regularly, because they do negatively impact the life of the battery over time. 

Next, let’s explore where you can charge your vehicle: at home, at public charging stations and at work.

Home Charging

Electric cars can be charged at home with Level 1 or Level 2 chargers. A Level 1 charger has a simple cord like any other household appliance and does not require special installation. Level 2 chargers, on the other hand, operate at a higher voltage and do require a licensed professional electrician to perform a safe installation.

Public Charging

While charging at home will take care of most of your EV charging needs, it’s important to know about public charging, especially if you are planning a long trip. Public charging is usually at Level 2 or Level 3, and the cost of charging varies. Some chargers are free to use such as those found at government buildings, libraries, and some malls and businesses.

To use public charging stations, it’s often required to register with the operating company or utility. There are various ways to use them: with a membership number or code, a charge card, a smartphone app or a combination. 

Workplace Charging

EV charging at work has become an added perk that benefits everybody. It helps employers promote clean transportation and corporate sustainability efforts, and it helps employees charge conveniently and affordably. Many employers provide workplace charging at no cost, while some have a fee-based structure to offset capital or operational costs. 

In addition, many states and local utility companies offer rebates to offset purchase and installation costs for commercial workplace charging. Depending on the business and its business model, it could be free to use or part of an extended retail charging network for which charging rates may be highly variable. 

How to Find Charging Stations

There are many ways to locate EV charging stations near you. Whether you’re driving across country or taking a casual Sunday drive, here are a few ways to find an EV charging station no matter where you are. 

PlugShare

PlugShare has a website and an app that provide EV charging station information across North America, Asia, and Europe. It aggregates information regarding the EV charging networks, locations, charging fees, payment method, real-time information on usage and more. It provides information about all types of charging stations.

What is unique about PlugShare is that it is user-sourced, meaning there is a community of active members who contribute and update the database. In addition to public stations, they also show residential stations shared within neighborhoods. 

ChargeHub

ChargeHub provides information that is similar to PlugShare, with an app and a community. One unique feature is that it lets you send a message to other users through its app. This allows users to coordinate charging station time and provides a way to share resources, if needed.

AFDC

The Alternative Fuels Data Center (AFDC) is a U.S. Department of Energy database that shows an assemblage of public charging stations from Level 1 through Level 3. They also provide similar information that lets you filter by charger types, EVSE networks and connectors through zip codes. 

Charging on Road Trips

The fear of being stranded during a long road trip is known as Range Anxiety. However, there are many private and public efforts to add more charging stations. Private companies such as Electrify America, EVgo and ChargePoint continue to expand their charger networks. 

According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Alternative Fuels Data Center, there are currently over 46,000 public EV charging stations in the U.S., with a total of over 115,000 individual (EVSE) charging ports and those numbers are growing every day. Plus, automakers continue to add more range to their cars, and the charging infrastructure continues to expand so that Range Anxiety will soon be a thing of the past.

Get the GreenCars Newsletter

Subscribe to receive the latest EV news, releases, trends and updates.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.