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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.
Level 1

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.
Nissan LEAF charging ports

The Nissan LEAF SL model has two charging inlets—one for the CHAdeMO quick charging standard (left), and the J1772 inlet (right) for both Level 1 and Level 2 charging.
Level 2

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?
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