The Basics of Electric Vehicle Public Charging
Most electric vehicle owners charge their cars at home overnight. But charging on the road allows you to drive more than the range of a single charge. To cover the basics, we’ll explore the types of charging, how to find public charging stations, and the best way to plan a trip.
Types of Charging
There are three different types of charging supported by modern EVs.
This is the slowest and most accessible type of charging, which uses the common U.S. household outlet. You'll need the cord set that generally comes with a new EV purchase. For a plug-in car like the Nissan LEAF or Chevy Volt, a Level 1 charge, sometimes called "trickle charge," will provide about 4 to 5 miles of range per hour of charging. That’s not very helpful for a quick stop, but you can find these outlets nearly anywhere you stop. Level 1 is sufficient for locations where your car will be parked for long periods such as a workplace, an overnight hotel stay, or long-term airport parking.
This is the most common type of EV infrastructure currently being installed. These stations are the same voltage as a home dryer outlet. Equipment at these stations have the J1772 connector, so you won't need to bring any equipment. You will, however, most likely need a membership card to initiate the charge. (See below for a list of these networks.)
These stations provide anywhere from 3 to 6 times the charging rate of a Level 1 station. To know how fast a Level 2 station will charge your EV, you'll need to know one detail: the rating of your vehicle's on-board charger. This is typically either 3.3 or 6.6 kilowatts.
The 2011-2012 Nissan Leaf has a 3.3-kW charger, while the 2013 model has a 6.6-kW charger. Check your owner's manual for your vehicle for the charger's rating. A 3.3-kW charger will provide a typical plug-in car with an additional 12 to 15 miles of range for each hour of charging. At this rate, a long lunch or similar stop, perhaps at your destination, can provide you with the range for the next leg or return trip. A 6.6-kW charger, much more useful, will give you 24 to 30 miles of range per hour.
DC Fast Charging
You might have assumed after Level 1 and Level 2, that the next step up would be Level 3. That might have been true if fast charging had been universally standardized. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet.
Japanese manufacturers Nissan and Mitsubishi support a standard called CHAdeMO—while BMW, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, and Volkswagen teamed up with the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) to create a standard that will allow a single port to be used for Level 1, 2, and fast charging. This is called the J1772-combo connector.
While this sounds nice to have a widely supported standard, there are currently no vehicles and no charging stations that support the SAE fast charge standard. The Chevy Spark EV, expected in 2013, should be the first vehicle on the market to use the J1772-combo connector.
CHAdeMO was the first to market and is the solution that the West Coast Electric Highway in Oregon and Washington is using. These stations will charge a Nissan LEAF from empty to 80% full in 25 to 30 minutes. This means that a 10-minute stop can get you as much 30 miles of added range. (The fast charger in Woodburn, Oregon makes for an easy trip between Portland and Salem.)
To further complicate the fast charging story, Tesla Motors didn't use either of the two methods we've discussed. Instead they created their own, the Tesla Super Charger.
Now that you know the various types of charging, how do you find them?
Finding Charging Stations
Many of the new EVs have navigation systems that display charging station locations. This is a convenient feature, since it is always available in your car—but EV infrastructure is being installed at a rapid pace and these built-in systems are often out-of-date. Also, they do not provide you with real-time operational status or availability information. For this, you'll need a smartphone.
The two most popular charging station apps are Recargo and PlugShare. Both of these apps aggregate information from the charging station providers with user-provided content. The status information can tell you if the station is operational and available. Users can check-in at stations and provide status and location notes. These notes can be very helpful. While an address can get you to the area, a note can tell you that the charging stations at Lloyd Center, for example, are on the second floor of the Northwest lot at Pole J12. Check-in reports can also tell you if the station has been recently used, and if the last EV driver to use it had any problems.
The Recargo app also includes a stream of the latest stories from PluginCars.com. (Full disclosure: PluginCars.com is owned by Recargo.)
Charging Network Membership
Many of the public charging station networks require a membership card to activate the charging session. Some of the networks charge you a dollar or two an hour to charge, but even a free station may require a membership card to start the session. You can use the apps mentioned above to find out which networks are in your area. These are the leading networks (at least in my neck of the woods):
- ChargePoint - The largest networks in North America.
- Blink - Funded by The EV Project. These are prolific in the Northwest U.S.
- AeroVironment - Selected for the West Coast Electric Highway in Oregon and Washington.
For most EV driving, you'll have more than enough range for daily needs. For trips beyond the range of your vehicle, you should plan ahead. Google maps or similar tools can give you accurate distance estimates. Recargo and PlugShare can show you the charging stations available on the various route options.
If you need charging and there is no EV infrastructure available, campgrounds are one source for emergency charging. Campsites often have 120V and 240V service. If you have a portable Level 2 unit and plug adapters, this can get you back on the road in an hour or two. You'll likely have to pay the typical fees to use the campground.
As with any vehicle, occasionally, things go wrong. Make sure you have a backup plan, such as the locations of more than one station along your route.
In the extremely unlikely situation of running out of juice—which should never happen if you’ve planned ahead—it’s a good idea to have your cell phone and the phone number of roadside assistance. AAA now offers EV services, including roadside charging. If you come up just a mile or two short of your next charging spot, this could prove very helpful. But again, with a basic understanding of your vehicle’s range, the types of charging, and a few minutes of planning, your zero-emission journeys will always be smooth sailing.
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