Electric Vehicle Charging 101

This is the seventh blog in a series about our Midwest electric vehicle adventure.

Over the past two weeks, we’ve embarked on a 5-state road trip through the Midwest in an electric vehicle (EV). One of our main motivations was to demonstrate that the increased range of newer EVs and the increased buildout of public charging stations throughout the United States make it easier than ever to drive long distances in an EV.

On average, US car owners drive about 31 miles a day—a range that newer EVs can meet several times over on a single charge. Further, according to the US Department of Energy, over 80 percent of EV charging happens at home, where EV owners have set up their own chargers. Many drivers can also fill up their batteries at their workplaces. 

This means that being dependent on public charging, as we were on our road trip, is the exception—not the norm. Our success using public charging infrastructure demonstrates that even the rarest, most challenging charging needs can be met. Based on our recent experiences, we’ll take you through the basics of EV charging. (It should be noted that Tesla has its own extensive charging network and its own kinds of plugs—see the second lesson for more on that—but non-Tesla owners can’t use it.) Hopefully, our EV Charging 101 will answer your questions about how to fill up an electric car.

First Lesson: The Levels

The first thing to know is that there are three different charging levels. We’ll use the 2017 Chevy Bolt we rented for our road trip as a point of reference for how quickly you can fill up the battery at each kind of charger, so you’ll need to know that our Bolt gave us about 220 miles of range with a 60-kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery.

Level 1 chargers are the slowest, but they are also ubiquitous and work for some people’s needs. Level 1 is the EV community’s word for a regular 110-120 volt (V) wall outlet. That’s the same voltage you’d use to power most of the stuff in your house, from a floor lamp to a microwave to a phone charger. It would take about 40 hours to fully charge the battery on our Bolt from empty at a Level 1 charger, at a rate of about 5 miles of added range per hour of charging. This is not ideal: we avoided using Level 1s and avoided letting our battery run close enough to empty that we would need one. But we’ve heard it can work in a pinch.

Level 2 chargers are much better at EV charging than a regular old wall outlet and, in our road trip experience, they were easy to find at all our destinations and along many highways. They are 220-240 V—that’s the same voltage as a standard-size electric clothes dryers that can be found in some homes. Scott Willenbrock, an EV and clean energy champion we met with in Champaign, IL, even has a NEMA 14-30 adapter he uses to plug his car into friends’ dryer outlets when he goes on road trips much longer than ours. We found that public Level 2 chargers typically charge at a rate of about 6 kilowatts (kW). For our long-distance Bolt battery, that means a Level 2 charger can add about 25 miles of range per hour of charging. Filling up the whole battery from empty would take around 9 hours. Since cars are parked approximately 95 percent of the time, Level 2 charging is often the most suitable method of filling up an EV.

For the first few days of our road trip, while we were getting a feel for our EV, its range, and its needs, we relied on Level 2 charging overnight at all our destinations. The EV community refers to this as destination chargingand it worked wonderfully! It’s also the most affordable option, allowing us to fully charge our car for free in many places. We could plug in our Bolt, leave it overnight, and come back to it in the morning with all of us energized and ready to go. Toward the end of the trip, when we were more comfortable with lower battery percentages, we started using Level 2 chargers to top up while we had meetings or did something purely recreational (like, say, watching the US women’s soccer team take no prisoners). 

Level 3 chargers are also referred to as fast chargers, DCFC chargers, and DC fast chargers. They are 400 V or more, and typically charge at a rate of 50-60 kW. This means our Bolt battery could fill up from empty in 1 hour and 20 minutes, at a rate of 150 miles of added range per hour of charging. Sounds great, huh? Unfortunately, the increased charging speed goes hand-in-hand with increased prices. Level 3 charging is the most expensive option of those we have discussed so far, typically costing us around $30 to recharge almost all of our battery and gain back about 200 miles of range. Even though a full charge is expensive, most EV drivers use their car to go between home, school, and/or work and to run errands, so if they need to use Level 3 charging, it can be for a top off rather than for a total battery recharge. And, of course, fast charging is great for roadtrippers like us.

It’s also important to note that not all EVs are designed to handle this kind of charging. If their battery is smaller, they won’t be able to receive that kind of voltage. Two examples are the older models of the Chevy Spark and all Smart Cars: these are intended to be small, short-distance commuter cars. Early models of EVs exhibited slight reductions in battery range over time if they consistently used Level 3 charging, but improvements in battery chemistry and battery management have since reduced these concerns. Another important note: not all Level 3 charging stations end up delivering precisely the promised voltage, leading to not-so-fast charging and thus longer charging times than anticipated. 

Second Lesson: The Plugs

Different kinds of EVs also have distinct charge ports, which are like outlets on the car. This means that the shape of the plug you connect to your EV to recharge it varies as well. There are three classes of plugs, also referred to as connectors: CCS (which stands for combined charging system, also known as SAE Combo or Combo), CHAdeMO, and Tesla. The plug shape varies by make for Level 3 charging only. All EVs sold in the U.S. after 2000 use J1772 plugs for Level 2 charging.

The Bolt uses the CCS class of plug for fast charging. There are more pins, which are like prongs, on a Level 3 CCS plug than on a Level 2 CCS plug. CHAdeMO plugs work for the Nissan LEAF and for Teslas, as long as the Tesla driver has an adaptor. Unfortunately for the rest of us, Teslas’ plugs are proprietary, and only work for Tesla drivers.

Madhur plugging in our Bolt at a Level 3 charger in Lafayette, Indiana

When going on a long-distance trip like ours or considering buying an EV, you’ll need to know what class of plug can refill your car. Thankfully, apps that EV drivers use to find their closest public charging stations can filter by plug type. That means you only need to remember one or two names (for us and our Bolt, it was J1772 and CCS) and then not worry about the rest.

Third Lesson: The Charging Companies

Public charging stations are owned or operated by private charging companies, utilities, local government, or, as in the case of Columbus, a public-private partnership. Some charging companies require you to have a membership to recharge your EV at their stations. You may need a physical membership card, or you may be able to log in with your phone, using the same technology available at some ATMs. Some of the charging companies have partnerships so that you can use your account with one to fill up at another’s stations. Several of them also have useful map apps that allow you to find and get directions to their closest public charging stations. Some EV drivers we spoke to had favorite companies and ones they avoided. We ended up using the services of six charging companies on our trip, with mixed results.

As this nascent industry grows and builds out the necessary infrastructure across the country, there are some wrinkles to be ironed out. Several Midwest EV drivers we met on our trip had had the same problems across the region, some of which we subsequently experienced ourselves. Examples include poor charging station design, with charging cables not even reaching charging ports, and poor station maintenance—especially during Midwest winters, we hear! The good news is that we never got stranded, and our occasional issues could always be solved with a quick phone call, which resulted in a free recharge for our Bolt at least once.

Conclusions: Public Charging in the Midwest

We figured out what charging station memberships we needed, what kinds of plugs worked with our EV, and how quickly our EV could fill up at Level 2 and Level 3 charging stations before we started our road trip. Once we were on the trip, we encountered few difficulties while plugging in, and none of them were insurmountable.

Ann Arbor, MI was the only place where we couldn’t park and plug at the first charging stations we had in mind because other EVs were plugged in—and then we just drove to another floor in the same garage and found available chargers. Chicago was the only city where we had to go to a second garage to find a working charger, but parking in downtown Chicago isn’t easy regardless of what kind of car you drive. This is part of why EV-positive policies must also include better electrified transportation options beyond light-duty passenger vehicles.

We also discovered that some charging stations are designed to look sleek and futuristic, while others were more along the lines of a small, plain metal box. However, appearances can be deceiving: how glamorous the charging station seemed was not an indicator of how well it worked.

When we had long-distance drives, like from Champaign to St. Louis (170-180 miles), we stopped at Level 3 chargers to extend our range. On these Level 3 charging stops, we nearly always spent time at nearby businesses, including local restaurants, Walmarts, and Dunkin’ Donuts. (In our Midwest adventure, we found that quite a bit of the region’s Level 3 chargers are paired with Walmarts and Dunkin’.) This suggests that there is a strong economic case for businesses both big and small to install Level 3 chargers on site to attract EV- and hybrid-driving customers. Generally, you can also spend your time at Level 3 chargers relaxing by reading a book, watching TV, or stretching your legs while your EV fills up.

Or you could (even) talk to your neighbors at the plug. EVs are still rare enough in most states that it’s easy to bond with a fellow EV driver at a charging station, and we’ve found that EV drivers in the Midwest love to talk cars. Some of our favorite moments on the trip were talking to drivers just as excited about this new technology as we are and fielding questions from curious passersby. We hope that this sense of tight-knit community lasts while better policies drive further EV adoption and expand the EV community across the country and in the Midwest in particular.

We went on a Midwest electric vehicle road trip to talk about transportation policy, highlight the already booming benefits of electric vehicles to local economies, and shatter stereotypes about what it means to be an electric vehicle driver. We’re blogging about our findings, including tips for other aspiring roadtrippers and policy suggestions for further progress.

Other blogs related to our electric adventure include:

Driving (on) Clean Energy: Touring the Midwest in an EV

State of the States: EVs and EV Policy in the Midwest

Road Trip Report: How Ohioans Buy EVs (It Should Be Easier)

Avoiding Range Anxiety with an EV Road Trip Checklist

Road Trip Report: Midwest Cities Move Multimodal

Midwest Electric Vehicles in 5 Maps

About the Authors

Ada Statler

Schneider Fellow, Eastern Region, Climate & Clean Energy program

Samuel Garcia

Schneider Fellow, Midwest Region, Climate & Clean Energy program

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