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Public Charging Is Easy, but There Are Details You Need To Understand

Pete Starman / Getty Images © Provided by US News & World Report - Cars Pete Starman / Getty Images

First of all, it’s important to point out that most electric vehicle (EV) owners charge at home most of the time. One of the best aspects of EV ownership is being able to plug in your car when you get home from work, and wake in the morning to a full charge. No more visits to the gas station, no more smelly hands, and no more pricey gasoline.

With that said, people who live in apartments or condos may not have the option to charge at home. In addition, you can’t charge at home if you’re on a road trip. You may be able to charge at your destination, but if your trip is longer than your car’s range, you’ll have to charge en route.

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Fortunately, public charging is available for EV owners who need to use it. While infrastructure is continuously growing, there are still areas where public charging stations are limited. Nonetheless, you should be able to map out your travel routes and find stations that are conveniently located.

Public charging is as simple as plugging in your car and waiting until it has enough capacity to get you to your destination – or the next public charging station. However, there are several details you need to know to make your public charging experience hassle-free.

Charging speeds vary widely among public stations, different EVs use different types of connectors, and prices and payment methods vary by station. Speeding up your charging pit stops and saving money requires a basic understanding of how charging curves work, especially related to your car battery’s state of charge.

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Charging Levels (Speed)

There are currently three different charging “speeds”: Level 1, Level 2, and DC fast charging (DCFC), which is often unofficially referred to as Level 3. Level 1 charging refers to plugging into a standard 120-volt wall outlet. Yes, you can plug any electric car into a normal outlet in your home, but it will take days to charge an EV to full using this method. You can expect it to add about 3 to 5 miles of range per hour.

Most people who own an EV have a 240-volt outlet installed at their home, so they can use a Level 2 charger. This way, they can add about 20 to 25 miles of range per hour. With Level 2 charging, you should be able to charge your car to full capacity overnight.

If you’re going on a road trip, chances are you can find a Level 2 public charging station at or near your destination. Level 2 charging stations are the most common throughout the country. However, Level 2 charging is not ideal for use on road trips or during your commute. They make more sense when you have time to stop for several hours, while you’re at work or at a restaurant or hotel, for example.

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DC fast chargers are the most useful for road trips. These chargers also vary by speed, but you can expect to charge your battery to about 80% in around 30 to 45 minutes.

If you’re planning a road trip in your EV, it would be wise to map out DC fast-charging locations ahead of time. In addition, if possible, book a hotel with Level 2 charging access on-site or nearby.

Connectors (Plugs)

One of the most confusing aspects of EV charging is the fact that there are three different types of connectors. The most common is known industry-wide as SAE J1772. Every electric car in the U.S. can charge at Level 1 or Level 2 with a J1772 connector, and the connector comes standard with the car. Level 2 public charging stations all use J1772 connectors.

If an EV is capable of DC fast charging, it will have a J1172 connector with two additional large pins that allow it to plug into and charge using a DCFC system. This is officially called an SAE Combo Combined Charging System (CCS) that’s commonly referred to as J1772 CCS Combo connector – or just CCS for short.

Nissan and Mitsubishi use a CHAdeMO connector for DC fast charging. This means you can’t fast-charge the Nissan Leaf or Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV at charging stations that have CCS connectors. However, the upcoming Nissan Ariya electric SUV will officially mark Nissan’s departure from the CHAdeMO connector in favor of the CCS connector.

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The third and final connector only applies to Tesla’s vehicles. It’s not compatible with any other electric car. The Tesla connector is the smallest and most streamlined among charging connectors, and it works for all charging levels. However, every Tesla vehicle also comes with a J1772 adaptor that allows it to charge at non-Tesla Level 2 public charging stations.

Tesla also offers a CHAdeMO adaptor for DCFC, though it doesn’t offer a CCS adaptor in the United States.

Charging Basics

There are several mobile apps that help EV drivers find charging stations. Some of the most widely used are PlugShare, ChargePointe, Zap-Map, A Better Routeplanner, Open Charge Map, ChargeHub, and Chargeway. Some apps not only locate charging stations, but also inform you of the speed of available chargers, what connectors they have, and whether or not they’re occupied. Tesla vehicles have a built-in trip planner that’s capable of all the above.

Every electric car battery has a “charging curve.” While it can get quite confusing to spell it all out, here are the basics: charging climbs rapidly to a peak rate for a time, and then slows as the battery gets closer to full capacity. Think of filling a glass with water. You can pour rather quickly at first, but you have to slow down as the glass fills up, or it will overflow.

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For this reason, it’s best to fast-charge your car to about 80%. This way, you can charge quickly and get back on the road. Waiting for the car to charge to full can take much longer than charging to 80%, since the last 20% could take as long – if not longer – than the first 80%. Once you notice that your car’s charging speed begins to slow down significantly, it's time to end your charging session and get back on the road.

Charging to 80% is also better for the life of your battery, it will speed up your road trips, and it’s more considerate to other EV drivers who may be waiting to use the charging station. Before you depart for your road trip, you should charge to 100% at home. Once you arrive at your destination, you can use a Level 2 public charging station to charge the car to 100%. Level 2 charging is cheaper than DCFC (or free), and when it comes to charging that final 20%, DCFC isn’t going to provide a time advantage.

Charging Networks

There are many different charging networks across the country, and the list is growing. Aside from the Tesla Supercharger network, the three largest networks in the U.S. are managed by EVgo, ChargePoint, and Electrify America.

Pricing and payment methods vary among different charging networks, and pricing can fluctuate based on the day of the week and the time of day. If you’re lucky, you may be able to find a Level 2 station that’s free to use. DC fast-charging stations typically require an access card or a mobile app for use. You simply link your debit or credit card to the app, and you’re ready to go. Unlike gas stations, few public fast-charging stations have credit card readers.

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Some charging networks offer special plans that require a monthly fee, but reduce the cost of charging. Regardless, DC fast charging is much more expensive than Level 2 charging, so it’s best to only use it when you have to. Still, even the most expensive public fast charging is typically cheaper than paying for gas.

More Shopping Tools From U.S. News & World Report

Are you considering buying an electric car? Perhaps you’re in the market for a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV)? Check out our new car rankings to research and compare the cars you're interested in.

Some electric cars are available with outstanding lease and financing deals. Visit our best new car financing deals and lease deals pages to peruse current offers. Keep in mind, many electric cars are eligible for a U.S. federal EV tax credit of up to $7,500.

It would also be wise to check the used market. Due to a lack of demand, used EVs tend to sell at bargain prices, though that’s not the case with Tesla’s vehicles. As demand for EVs grows, used prices are rising, so now is a better time than any to check the used market.

Also, be sure to visit our U.S. News Best Price Program page. It connects shoppers who want to buy or lease a new car with local dealers. It also offers significant savings with pre-negotiated prices, home delivery, and online sales options.

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