Everything you need to know about charging an electric car; take a look at these 11 frequently asked questions

Answers to the most common questions about electric vehicle charging, from where to charge to how much it costs and how long it takes to recharge.

Most EV owners speak of a moment of zen, a point, usually a few weeks after buying their car, when all anxiety about charging and range disappears. They discovered the new technology and realized that it was not so difficult after all.

But for new owners, or those curious about electric vehicles, charging can be intimidating. How does it work? How long does it take? What is a kilowatt-hour, anyway?

Refueling an electric vehicle involves chemicals, currents and wires, and will never be as simple as pouring a drop of dead dinosaur goo into a tank. But it’s not rocket science either. On the spectrum of life’s tasks, the brainpower required to charge a car is closer to what you’ll need to use your microwave than, say, file your taxes. (And a kilowatt-hour is just the amount of energy needed to power an electric vehicle for about 3 miles, depending on the car’s weight and speed, driving conditions, weather, and many other small variables.)

If you’re new to electric vehicles and you’re in the US, here’s a charging manual to get you up to speed.

Where can I charge an electric car?

There are three options: a private charger (meaning at your home or office), a public fast-charging site, or a slower public charging site, known as a Level 2 station in EV parlance. The first option is usually the best and cheapest and does not involve waiting. Another smart strategy is to recharge at a Level 2 public station in a place where you’d be spending some time anyway, like the gym or grocery store. These chargers typically add around 30 miles per hour (depending on both the charger and the car). They are also relatively cheap to build and are therefore popping up everywhere, particularly in shopping malls and office parks. For every fast charging station in the US, there are six slower Level 2 charging sites.

How do you charge an EV on a long drive?

You’ll probably want to recharge the so-called fast charger on the go. There are about 8,000 of these sites in the US, dotted with gas stations and rest stops along interstates and other major highways. Once you enter a destination, most EVs will now plot the most efficient route, including charging stops.

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Those who prefer the DIY approach can create their own itinerary through an app like Plugshare, a platform where drivers get information about charging locations, including feedback on the speed and reliability of each site. You can filter the results in myriad ways, weeding out slower chargers or networks you don’t prefer.

Can I take a road trip in an EV?

Good question. There are still vast electron deserts in the US thanks to the country’s sheer breadth and its reluctance to subsidize charging infrastructure as aggressively as lawmakers in Europe and China. You’ll definitely want to think twice about an EV road trip in the Dakotas, for example, or the Deep South.

That said, there aren’t many corridors left that are off the map for electric vehicles. And the cables are getting denser every day, thanks to a recent federal infrastructure law that began investing $5 billion in charging infrastructure this fall. Each state has its own plan for spending the money, but the Biden Administration’s goal is 500,000 new stations, including one every 50 miles on major thoroughfares, including in the Dakotas.

How long does it take to charge an electric car?

Most of the time, around 15 minutes will suffice with a fast charger. The most modern electric vehicles and charging infrastructure are built to get the job done quickly. When the machinery on both sides of the cable is fairly up to date, a quarter of an hour will add over 100 miles of range for the vast majority of contemporary electric vehicles, which is usually enough unless you’re on a long road trip.

That said, the car can be a limiting factor. Many older or entry-level EVs don’t have the hardware to quickly suck up electrons. Some only add two or three miles a minute, regardless of the speed of the charger they’re plugged into. Environmental factors, such as cold weather, can also hamper the process.

You can check how fast each EV model charges at Bloomberg Green’s Electric Car Ratings. Note that all electric vehicles gain electrons more slowly the closer they get to “full”. This is called a charge curve and most EV veterans incorporate this dynamic into their refueling strategy.

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How much does it cost to charge an electric car?

In the wild, probably around $18. That’s for a 15-minute session with an average contemporary EV at a typical rate (35 cents per kWh). However, in truth, this is probably the most complex question in the load. Prices vary widely by state and network, and pricing structures also differ, with some companies charging by the kilowatt hour and others by time. To further complicate matters, rates can vary depending on the time of day, and there are memberships that offer lower unit prices in exchange for a monthly or annual fee.

There are, however, loopholes. Some EV purchases these days come with free charging on certain networks for a certain period of time. And if you get paid at work, there’s a good chance your employer will at least partially subsidize it. Municipal charging stations often have free hours too, say after 6pm

How much does it cost to charge an EV at home?

On average, around $50 per month. That’s based on how much Americans drive (13,476 miles per year, on average) and how much they pay for electricity (16 cents per kilowatt hour, on average). Although, again, this varies widely depending on where you live and how efficient your EV is at converting electrons into miles. For example, charging a relatively inefficient machine, say a GMC Hummer, in Hawaii, the most expensive state for electricity, could easily cost more than $300 a month, even though Hawaiians generally drive less than the rest of us.

How accurate are the EV range estimates?

It depends. Official EV range estimates reflect a mixed route driving regimen as determined by the Environmental Protection Agency. Higher speed cruising is only part of the equation; the same goes for intermittent traffic. Generally speaking, if you’re going fast on an interstate, your observed range will be slightly lower than estimated. In traffic or running errands in the city, the opposite will happen: the battery will last longer than expected.

Please note that your choices are also important. Cranking up the air conditioner, carrying heavy cargo, and accelerating quickly, among other things, will reduce hamstring distance.

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Can any car charge at a Tesla station?

Unfortunately not. While the EV leader has opened some of its charging stations to other car brands in Europe, its US network is still only available to Tesla drivers. The company realized early on that chargers sell cars, and its US ecosystem still has more fast-charging cables than all other networks combined. When it comes to electric vehicle market share, Tesla’s so-called superchargers remain a sizable competitive advantage.

Can a Tesla be charged at a non-Tesla station?

Yes, if you have a Tesla, you can plug it into just about any public charging station, though you’ll need an adapter (Tesla uses a different type of plug than other electric vehicles on the market, which have almost all converged on a standard format called J1772 ). Because of Tesla’s sheer share relative to other electric vehicles, private for-profit charging networks still desperately need your business. You get your cargo cake and you can eat it too!

What happens if my EV runs out of battery?

When range is running low, most contemporary EVs do the math and automatically navigate to a nearby charger. Many also activate some kind of “limp home” function, a setting that turns off climate control and other non-essentials to squeeze out a few more miles of distance. Even when the battery is almost dry, your car will creep slowly (gas pedal will feel mushy) to at least die in a safe place. At that time, there are roadside emergency charging services in some markets, but in many places, you’ll need a tow truck to move your locked EV to a plug.

What is the most efficient way to charge an electric vehicle?

If you want to prioritize battery life, charge mostly on slower networks, don’t fill to the end, and don’t drive until empty. Get a level 2 charger at home (or work), plug it into 20%, and recharge to 80%. Rinse. Repeat.

The government estimates that most electric vehicle batteries will last between 12 and 15 years. And remember, the longer you have your electric vehicle, and the more you drive, the more carbon you offset. Raise it to around 200,000 miles and it will start to glow green. ** Speaking metaphorically.

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