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Everything You Need to Know About Charging Electric Vehicles

Tips and tricks for getting EVs battery-ready at home and on the road

a man holds an electric charger as he prepares to charge his vehicle

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With gas prices climbing at the pump and nearly every automaker and truck manufacturer from Ford to Volvo introducing new electric vehicles, you may be thinking it’s time to make the switch. But before you go for a battery-powered car, be prepared to make some adjustments — and to learn the best ways to charge your EV and how to find charging stations on the road.

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Most EVs on the market today can typically travel 250 to 300 miles on a single charge. That’s great for getting around town, but longer road trips require a little advance planning to find convenient pit stops to charge the battery. Charging stations take more effort to find than traditional gas stations, which pop up at most intersections and highway rest stops, and there aren’t a large number of them — yet. The bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, signed into law last year, includes $7.5 billion to build out a nationwide EV charging network, which should help.

“But getting approval from local and state governments takes time,” says Brendan Jones, president of Blink Charging. So don’t expect new stations to start sprouting up on interstates overnight.

In the meantime, what’s the best plan for charging your EV, how can you find charging stations while you’re on the road, and what does it take to install a charger at home?

EV charging basics

The good news is that after years of squabbling, automakers have settled on a standard plug for all EVs in the United States — with one exception. The industry standard plug is called a J1772 port, and it is usually located right where you’d find a gas cap for filling up. Tesla, however, uses its own plug standard, which means its cars can only charge at Tesla-branded stations and other EVs cannot charge at Tesla stations — unless you have an adapter. The price of adapters can be as high as $200, and they don’t always work smoothly.

The bad news is that driving ranges for EVs are still limited. Cold weather and hills can deplete a battery faster than driving in mild weather across the prairies. And because it takes longer and puts more stress on these batteries to fill up the first 10 percent and last 20 percent of capacity, if you’re on a long trip, your EV will usually suggest you stop to charge before dropping below 15 percent of power, and then will recommend that you charge up to only 80 percent of capacity. Topping up your EV to 100 percent is usually best done at home, overnight.

Home chargers

For most EV owners, the simplest solution is to charge up at home. A home charger is usually referred to as a Level 2 charger (versus Level 1 charging, which refers to plugging into a regular 120-volt home outlet, and public Level 3 chargers, which use faster direct-current systems). A home charger can bring a vehicle from near zero to 100 percent capacity in approximately seven hours. These chargers, which are relatively easy to install and cost between $500 and $650, are smaller than a bread box and plug into a 240-volt, four-pronged plug known as a NEMA 14-50. Newer homes already have NEMA 14-50 outlets (usually in the basement) for electric stoves. If you don’t have a 14-50 plug near the circuit box in your garage, having one professionally installed costs anywhere from $200 to $800. (In an emergency, EVs usually come with an adapter to allow you to plug into a standard 110-volt home outlet, but it takes hours to add just a few miles of range this way.)

There’s now a growing array of Level 2 EV chargers, including the JuiceBox 40 and HomeStation (both priced above $600). These chargers usually include a smartphone app that allows you to remotely schedule charges, select off-peak hours for cheaper charging and cool or heat the car before you get in. It will also notify you when the battery is fully charged.

Public chargers

Public EV chargers are still scarce in many parts of the country, with about 48,000 charging stations and 120,000 individual charging ports available, according to U.S. Department of Energy data. However, more are coming. GM says it plans to install more than 2,700 stations over the next three years, while Volvo is working with Starbucks to install charging stations at stores along a 1,350-mile route from Seattle to Denver, and 7-Eleven has announced plans to add at least 500 charging ports at 250 U.S. and Canadian stores by the end of this year.

Even better, an increasing number of public chargers offer so-called DC (direct current) fast-charging stations, which are much quicker than home Level 2 chargers and can power up a vehicle from 15 to 80 percent in just 30 to 40 minutes. However, the rate of charge can vary depending on the vehicle. The new Hyundai Ioniq 5, for example, jumped from 10 to 80 percent in roughly 18 minutes when tested, but that’s because it’s one of the few EV models available with a new faster-charging 800-volt system.

Special deals are available that can help lower the cost to charge. For instance, if Hyundai Ioniq 5 owners use Electrify America stations, charging there is free for the first two years. Even if EV owners do have to pay full fare, a typical charge costs a lot less than a tank of gas. A recent charging stop with a Ford Mach-E took 37 minutes to go from 23 to 80 percent capacity and cost just $12.94.

Finding a Charging Station

Most automakers have partnered with a charging network company, such as ChargePoint, EVgo or Electrify America. The car companies make it as easy as possible with in-dash apps that tell you when to charge and recommend stops along your route if you’re using their navigation system.

Unfortunately, there’s no universal database that includes all the charging stations in the country. So just using, say, the Ford app or Google or Apple maps won’t cover all the nearby stations. What’s worse is that it’s not uncommon to reach a station you’ve driven 10 minutes out of your way to find only to discover it’s out of service or in use.

Instead, it can be helpful to start with the automaker’s app and then supplement it with another smartphone app. Network operators like ChargePoint and Blink offer thoughtfully designed Android and Apple iOS apps that show location information in addition to recent photos of the facilities and fees. There are also free mobile apps such as PlugShare, Open Charge Map and ChargeHub. PlugShare, for example, has a robust database of charging locations that range from Walmart parking lots to indoor garages.

Navigating the EV future

Companies are still trying to predict how consumers will use charging stations in the years ahead. Will people choose to charge their EVs at home, or will they expect to use stations at the local mall or big-box store? Will folks look for charging stations that more closely resemble today’s gas stations? Robert Barrosa, Electrify America’s senior director of sales, business development and marketing, says the company is considering adding to its existing 800 charging stations with new stations that have waiting rooms, snacks and restrooms.

So even if how and when we charge is bound to evolve over time, one thing is abundantly clear: Our automotive future is driving toward electric.

​John R. Quain is a contributing writer who covers vehicle technology, personal technology and privacy issues. His work also appears in The New York Times and PC Magazine and on CBS News.

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