How to Charge an Electric Car
Charging an electric car might seem like a foreign idea at first. However, the convenience and significant savings from skipping the pump cannot be overstated.
If you’re considering an EV, you might be wondering: “How do I charge an electric car?” Before jumping into how to charge an EV, let’s quickly 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 also sometimes referred to as Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment (EVSE). For simplicity, we will continue to 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, many EVs today have a battery range that extends beyond 125 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 battery-electric vehicle (BEV) or PHEV. 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.
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 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 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: the CCS (Combined Charging System) 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 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.
An EV’s ability to accept electric power is dictated by the 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, 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 to not 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. 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: at home, at public charging stations and at work.