Basics of EV Charging
(Photo/Electrify America)

What the Plug? EV Charging Explained

With different levels, connectors, speeds, and networks, electric vehicle charging can sound complicated. Let’s get you plugged in.

Charging an electric car is more complicated than simply filling up your gas car at the pump. Different charging levels, different charging rates, and different types of plugs. Don’t worry — we’re here to help, and to make sure that charging your electric vehicle is as painless to your brain as it is to your wallet.

We’ll cover charging speeds; the differences between Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3. We’ll cover the different connectors, so you know what to plug into where. And we’ll cover charging networks and apps so you can find the right place to plug in.

Let’s dive in.

Checking Your Levels

Basics of EV Charging
(Photo/Electrify America)

We’ll start with charging speed. There are three basic levels of EV charging speed, called Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3. It’s not exactly glamorous, but the names work.

Level 1 EV Charging

Level 1 is the basic option: charging from a standard wall plug at home. Every EV or Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV) comes with a Level 1 plug with a standard three-prong wall socket on one end and a plug to connect to your EV on the other.

Using standard 120-volt household power, Level 1 charging can add around 3-5 miles of range per hour. It’s convenient, if slow. For comparison with the higher levels of charging, the Level 1 charging rate is around 1.2 kilowatts. It’s your home’s wiring that is the ultimate limit of Level 1 charging speeds, and that dictates the capacity of the car’s charge system.

Level 2 EV Charging

Basics of EV Charging
(Photo/Tesla)

Level 2 uses household AC power like Level 1, but it uses a 240-volt connection like an electric range or clothes dryer plug. While Level 1 chargers use a simple cable and wall plug, Level 2 chargers require a more complicated charging station.

Many Level 2 chargers need to be installed into your home; they can’t just be plugged in. They could even require a complete electrical service upgrade, involving the panel and power coming into your home. It’s complicated wiring, so it should be done by a qualified electrician.

More than just double the voltage, Level 2 charging lets you increase the current, or amperage, that can flow through the system. Using a NEMA 14-30 receptacle — it stands for National Electrical Manufacturers Association and is the fancy name for a standard dryer plug — you can charge at 7.2 kilowatts. That’s six times faster than a Level 1 plug, delivering around 25 miles of range per hour.

Your Charging Mileage May Vary

This is where we note that all range miles per hour figures are highly dependent. They vary based on the weather — mostly temperature, how efficient your EV is, and even the internal charging capacity of your EV.

Basic Level 2 charging is enough to fully charge most EVs overnight, with extra capacity to make sure you can preheat or cool your EV in the morning.

Level 2 240-volt charging allows up to 80 amps. That’s 19.2 kilowatts, nearly three times faster than the more common 30-amp plug. It can give your EV more than 60 miles of range in an hour of charging.

But not all EVs and PHEVs can support 80-amp, 19.2-kilowatt charging. Most EVs actually can’t handle these speeds yet. The common max capacity for an EV is 7.6 kilowatts, approximately enough for that common NEMA 14-30 plug.

That’s because it offers a good balance of charge speed and installation cost, plus the cost of the charging electronics in the car. More speeds means more money.

How Many Level 2 Chargers Are There?

The U.S. Department of Energy lists nearly 50,000 Level 2 electric charging stations open to the public in the U.S. and Canada. Most of these public Level 2 charge points support a maximum of 7-12-kilowatt charging, and they’re usually cheap — free or a couple of dollars per hour.

Tesla Destination Charging

Tesla Destination Chargers are Level 2 EV chargers. They’re commonly installed at hotels and other places that are, well, destinations. Places you won’t mind a few hours on the charger.

Most EV owners will have a Level 2 charging station because they can give most EVs a full charge overnight. There are dozens of manufacturers of these systems that offer slightly different features but similar charge speeds.

Level 3 EV Charging

Basics of EV Charging
(Photo/Flo)

Level 1 and Level 2 are both AC charging methods. Alternating current is sent to the EV and is converted to the direct current the battery needs by electronics in the car. Level 3 does the DC conversion in the charging station. Having a larger (and more expensive) charge unit lets Level 3 move much more power more quickly.

Level 3 charging includes all DC fast charging. That means peak charging rates from as low as 24 kilowatts all the way up to 350 kilowatts. And 350-kilowatt charging is the highest currently offered, with only a few vehicles supporting the 800-volt internal wiring needed to charge so quickly.

Level 3 charging can top up your electric car’s battery in minutes rather than hours. A 24-kilowatt Level 3 charger can give your EV up to 100 miles of range in a single hour. Step that up to 350 kilowatts, and your EV could add 100 miles of range in under 6 minutes.

How Fast Is Fast?

Basics of EV Charging
(Photo/Electrify America)

The 24- and 350-kilowatt chargers are the two extremes. The 50-kilowatt chargers are much more common, with the highest-rate chargers that are commonly available offering 150-kilowatt charging.

It’s important to note that the charge figure — that 350-kilowatt number — is a maximum rate, not a minimum. So no matter what fast charge rate your EV supports, it can charge at a station that supports faster or slower charging. Your EV will tell the charging station what it can handle, and the station will adjust as needed.

Long trips are where you’ll want to use Level 3 DC fast charging. These high rates of charge can degrade the battery more quickly over the life of the EV; plus, it costs more than charging at home.

When to Stop Level 3 Charging

Most Level 3 charging should also be stopped at around 80% of the battery’s capacity. An EV battery can accept a higher charging rate when it is empty, and that rate gets lower as the battery gets “full.”

With most EVs, the maximum charge rate can fall to under 10 kilowatts once the pack reaches 80%, and it will get even slower as it nears 100%. Because Level 3 charging is often billed by the minute, charging to 100% at these stations can get expensive.

It can also take hours to go from 80% to 100%, even though getting from 0% to 80% can take minutes. So charge to 80%, drive, and charge again as needed to cut your charge times and bills.

Where Can I Fast Charge?

Basics of EV Charging
(Photo/U.S. Department of Energy)

The U.S. Department of Energy’s EV charging station location database shows 7,467 Level 3 charging sites in the U.S. and Canada. However, most Level 3 sites have at least two and sometimes five to 10 charging stations, meaning the number of actual plugs is much higher.

How much higher? Tesla operates 2,564 of its Level 3 stations (called Superchargers). Those sites have more than 30,000 individual charging points.

While Tesla labels all of its Level 3 sites as Supercharger sites, some charge at 72 kilowatts, with others at 150 or 250 kilowatts.

Cost of a Fast Charge

Some EV charge networks bill you for Level 3 charging by the kilowatt-hour, just like how your home power bill is calculated. Others bill you by the minute, and which the charger uses is usually based on local rules. Common costs range from $0.25 to $0.60 per kilowatt-hour or when time-based, around $15 per hour spent charging.

Some Level 3 chargers add a fee for the time when you’re plugged in but not charging, which is called idle time. The charge is to encourage you to finish charging and move your EV to leave a spot for the next vehicle. All EV chargers should let you know the cost before charging starts.

The Great Plug Debate

The early days of EVs saw every automaker working on its own plug design. Each one thought it knew best how to get electricity from plug to car. Fortunately, automakers put a stop to that in a hurry. Today, there are just a few main plug standards in use in North America.

The main EV charge plug is the SAE J1772 plug. It’s used by everyone in North America except for Tesla. The five pins in the handle work for Level 1 and Level 2 charging. They allow power to pass through, and for the car and station to communicate.

Faster Charging, Bigger Plugs

Basics of EV Charging
(Photo/Electrify America)

Level 3 charging demanded a more capable plug. Two shared designs surfaced, with Tesla continuing to use its proprietary plug.

CHAdeMO

The first was called CHAdeMO. The name comes from a Japanese phrase and is an abbreviation of “move using charge.” This plug has four main pins, and most North American CHAdeMO plugs allow 50- or 100-kilowatt charging speeds.

This plug is much less common, used by Nissan (for the Nissan Leaf) and Mitsubishi (for the i-MiEV and Outlander PHEV).

Combined Charging System

Combined Charging System, or CCS, is the most common current shared standard. These plugs add a second port directly below the SAE J1772 plug used for Level 1 and Level 2 charging. The extra two pins are for positive and negative DC current.

Every automaker other than Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Tesla in North America uses CCS. These charging cables can handle up to 350 kilowatts. The cables are heavy and rigid and are usually short. You’ll need to park much closer to a Level 3 charger than most Level 1 and 2 options.

Tesla Charge Plug

Basics of EV Charging
(Photo/Tesla)

Tesla uses a proprietary connector for its vehicles and Supercharger stations in North America. The plug means that only Tesla vehicles can use Tesla charging points. However, with the purchase of an adaptor, Tesla vehicles can use CCS, CHAdeMO, and J1772 charging points.

Are You on the Right Network?

Basics of EV Charging
(Photo/Jeep)

Like gas stations, most Level 2 and Level 3 chargers are part of a charging network. A charging network operator is responsible for customer billing and maintenance of each station, but usually doesn’t own the site.

Major EV charge networks include ChargePoint, Electrify America, EVGo, Blink, and Flo. There are more than a dozen networks, some regional, some nationwide, but most offer CCS and CHAdeMO plugs at each site.

Most networks need an app to let you start charging your EV and pay for the charging session. Because there are so many networks, meaning users needed to keep a balance on multiple apps, some networks are now sharing. ChargePoint and Electrify America, for example, now allow “roaming.” Users of one network can charge on the other without the need for two apps.

Some charging networks and stations let you tap a credit card to start charging and pay, but the stations are hard to find. Others, like Flo and ChargePoint, can send you a special chip-enabled card that can start a charging session.

Plug-and-Play Billing

Basics of EV Charging
(Photo/Charge{oint)

Another new service called Plug and Charge makes starting a charging session even easier. Your payment information is stored in your car, which then communicates to the charge station.

Instead of plugging in and starting a session with an app, you plug in and your EV does the rest. Plug and Charge is becoming available on more vehicles and networks but is still not widespread.

Because there are so many charging networks, apps can also help you find the closest charger. Apps like PlugShare and Chargeway give you user reviews and comments so you can make sure a charger has been recently used, see its status (operational or not, occupied or not), and even find out if there’s a coffee place or a bathroom nearby.

Some EVs have charge location data built in, a very handy feature that lets you incorporate charging into your navigation directions. But having access to this info in your hands away from the car is still useful.

EV Charging Explained

EV charging is still not quite as simple as filling up with gas, but it shouldn’t be intimidating. It is getting easier and easier as standards are implemented, infrastructure is built, and technology in the vehicles, batteries, and chargers improve at a rapid rate.

2022 GMC Hummer EV truck Edition 1
GMC Hummer EV Review: Does This 'Supertruck' Live Up to All the Hype?
Our Motors editor and overland guru Bryon Dorr spent 2 days in Phoenix, Ariz., driving the GMC Hummer EV on and off road. This electric 'supertruck' truly impressed in some ways — and flopped in a few as well. Read more…

Evan Williams
By

Evan Williams has been drooling over cars since the time he learned to walk. He went to school for engineering, but transitioned into a more satisfying career in automotive and outdoor media, and has been at it for nearly a decade now. Evan is based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and is the Motors News Lead at GearJunkie. He spends his non-automotive time walking his dog, hiking, cycling, jogging, and trying not to be too much of a hack mechanic.