Charging

Definitive Guide to Charging Electric Cars

Definitive Guide to Charging an Electric Car

Table of Contents

How Do You Charge an Electric Car?

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.” For those considering buying an electric car, one of the first questions is, how do you charge it up?

In this article, we’ll explore how to charge an electric vehicle (EV) and answer questions such as:

  • What types of chargers are out there?
  • What charger do I need for my home?
  • What will it cost to get a home charger?
  • Where can I find charging stations when on the road?
  • How much does it cost to charge an electric car?
  • How much range can I expect between charges?

Charging Basics

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.

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. The two names can be used interchangeably.

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 the rate of 3-7 miles of range per hour. For instance, a 2020 Nissan Leaf with a 149-mile range may take over 20 hours to fully charge. 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 should be enough.

For example, most electric cars today have a battery range that extends beyond 125 miles. In fact, many new EVs have a range of over 200 miles. Consider the 2020 Nissan Leaf S model, which has a range of 149 miles. Let’s assume you have a daily commute of 20 miles. An overnight charge (charging for eight hours) of 3-7 miles an hour would provide a 24 to 56-mile recharge every night. If the Leaf is mostly charged when you come home after work, this top-off would be enough.  

If you drive a Plug-in Hybrid (PHEV), Level 1 charging at home is usually adequate. The battery of a PHEV is smaller than an EV and, as such, requires less time to recharge. To learn more about PHEVs, please check out our article on Plug-In Hybrids.

One huge advantage of Level 1 charging is that it doesn’t require any special equipment for at-home use. Automakers provide a connector kit when you buy a new electric vehicle. These connector kits simply plug into a basic household outlet on one end and connect to your car on the other. If you need to purchase one, they are inexpensive and easy to find. For help finding the best home charger for your car based on price, type and compatibility, use our Home Chargers tool.

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 stove or 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. If we look at the same 2020 Nissan Leaf, recharging an empty battery to a full charge can take just six hours. Nissan recommends installing a Level 2 charging station at home, but it may not be necessary depending on your daily commute.

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 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 30 minutes or less. For instance, the 2020 Nissan Leaf mentioned above can use a DC Fast Charger and fully recharge in about 30 minutes. There are also 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: Combined Charging System (CCS) plug, 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 and not at home. To give an idea, a typical Level 3 charging station can range from $10,000 to $50,000, not including installation. 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.

Battery Impact

An electric car’s ability to accept electric power is dictated by its battery chemistry. That being said, not all EVs can use a Level 3 charger. To understand why, let’s explore how Level 3 is different from Level 2.

Level 2 chargers use AC current that is converted to DC inside the vehicle. In contrast, a Level 3 charger feeds DC electricity straight into the battery, without conversion. This allows the car to charge more rapidly. The charging station’s software regulates the flow of electricity, so it doesn’t overload the EV’s system and risk damaging the battery. It does this by reducing the power supply to a Level 2 as the state of charge reaches about 80 percent.

Level 3 charging should not be used as the primary source of charging. Continual use may accelerate battery degradation, resulting in loss of efficiency and lifespan of the battery pack.

For more information on batteries and range, read our Definitive Guide to Batteries and Range.

Next, let’s explore where you can charge your vehicle.

Where Can You Charge an Electric Car?

Finding a place to recharge might be easier than you think. With several convenient options available, let’s explore where you can charge an electric vehicle: at home, at a public charging station and at work.

Home Charging

As mentioned above, 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, too. Public charging is usually at Level 2 or Level 3, and the cost of charging varies. Additionally, some chargers are free to use which we’ve highlighted on our Charging Network Map. Many of these charging stations are privately managed while others are either state-owned or utility-owned.

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. It can also benefit building owners, as it is a great way to future-proof their commercial property and bring in extra revenue. 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.

Examples of workplace charging can include local businesses, malls, university campuses, healthcare facilities, utilities, federal agencies and more.

How Do You Find an Electric Car Charging Station?

There are many ways to locate EV charging stations near you, whether you’re driving across country or taking a casual Sunday drive. Let’s explore four ways to find an EV charging station.

GreenCars Charging Network

Our charging network includes 119 locations that provide free access to 260 charging stations across the U.S. with no strings attached – just cables. Show up at any location, highlighted on the map in green and yellow, to get free Level 1 and/or Level 2 charging. Other nationwide charging stations in which you are charged a fee for electricity are also listed and highlighted in grey. We’ve got everything you need to get charged up and on your way!

You can find our Green Partners in Alaska, California, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia, with more coming soon.

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.

Alternative Fuels Data Center (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.

How Long Does It Take to Charge an Electric Car?

The time it takes can vary from 30 minutes to 30 hours, depending on various factors:

  • Level of charge (1, 2 or 3)
  • Charging rate of vehicle
  • Battery capacity
  • Battery state
  • Environmental factors

What You Need to Know

The level of charge used (level 1, 2 or 3) to replenish a battery will generally determine the speed at which an electric car can charge, but that's not the only deciding factor. It's important to note, too, that overall charging speed is limited by a vehicle's maximum charging rate. Different makes and models have different maximum charging rates. For instance, if a vehicle has a maximum charging rate of 20kW per hour, and the charging station being used has a maximum charging rate of 40kW per hour, the vehicle will only charge at a maximum speed of 20kW per hour.

A battery's capacity is the limit for how much power a battery can physically store. Electric cars outfitted with large batteries can hold more power and go further between charges but require more time to recharge from zero than batteries designed to hold less power. Similarly, a battery's state of charge will impact how long it takes to recharge. It will take longer for a depleted battery to recharge than if that same battery already had a partial charge. Freezing temperatures will also slow down how fast an electric car charges and reduce its efficiency. Drivers may experience an overall reduction in electric driving range during extreme temperatures.

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, there are about 21,876 charging stations with 65,003 individual charging outlets across the United States and that is growing every day. Plus, roughly 80% of EV drivers charge at home and use their EV locally. If traveling a long distance, many opt to use their gasoline-powered car. A roundtrip that might take eight hours in a gas-powered vehicle can easily take over 10 hours in an EV when you factor in charging time. There is also the possibility of having to wait for an available charging station. However, 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.

What Does It Cost to Charge an Electric Car?

The cost to charge an EV depends on various factors, including location, time and rates. A person living in Nebraska can expect to pay a lot less to charge their electric car compared to a person in Hawaii where electricity rates are more expensive. EVs generally cost less to fuel than a comparable gasoline-powered car, because electricity rates tend to be more stable than gasoline prices.

For example, the average residential electricity rate in the U.S. is 12.85 cents per kWh (as of February 2020). This hasn’t changed much from five years ago when it was 12.29 cents per kWh. While local rates may have fluctuated more or less, the national average price has been stable. The average person driving an EV for 15,000 miles per year can expect to pay about $600 per year (or $50 per month) to charge.

Let’s assume that you’re paying 15.5 cents per kWh and are considering a 2020 Nissan Leaf with a battery range of 149 miles. To charge up to a 100-mile range will cost 30 kWh. If we take 30 and multiply that by 15.5 cents, we get a total cost of $4.65 per 100 miles of range.

If we compare to a gasoline-powered car, assuming a cost of $3.25 per gallon with a vehicle that gets 25 miles per gallon, that same 100-mile range would cost $13 per 100 miles. As you can see, the savings of an electric car really begin to add up over time.

When you consider other EV savings in the equation — including federal tax credits, state rebates and reduced maintenance costs — it’s clear that an EV can lead to substantial savings overall.

Cost of Home Charging

Like other commodities, electricity is priced at the intersection of a supply and demand curve. When demand is decreased, the cost of using electricity is reduced. When demand increases, so does the cost of using electricity. The best time to charge an electric car is typically at night, when most people are sleeping – which is convenient because you’re probably sleeping too!

Because they provide the power, electric utilities are incentivized to help their existing customers learn more about the benefits of EVs. As such, some utilities will provide special EV rates. These rates are only for customers with EVs and can reduce the cost of charging as well as the total cost of home electricity.

Some utilities offer a Time of Use (TOU) plan, allowing customers to take advantage of reduced rates at certain times – often at night. TOU rates are not specific to EV owners and, therefore, anyone can take advantage of the reduced rates. Many Level 2 chargers also have automatic systems that can be set up to charge EVs during the reduced-rate times. This is done so the homeowner can take advantage of reduced costs without having to remember exactly when to plug in.

Cost of Public Charging

With more electric cars on the road each day, public charging stations have become increasingly common. Many stations are part of a larger charging network that works with aggregators as well as manufacturers.

There are three main pricing models for public charging: pay-as-you-go, monthly subscription and free.

The pay-as-you-go option is the most common among drivers. Pricing is based on either dollar per kWh or simply by the hour. In a dollar per kWh scenario, rates can vary depending on several factors such as location, peak times or how the commercial owner of the property has set their rates. For instance, a mall may charge 38 cents per kWh. Around the corner, a similar charger may be priced at 18 cents a kWh. Another may simply be free. The hourly model is also used in some locations. For instance, instead of charging 49 cents per kWh, charging companies can have a standard $4.99 per hour charge.

To see if GreenCars has a free charging station near you, visit our Charging Station Map.