Charging is the primary adjustment for new electric car owners. While somewhat similar to filling the gas tank of a gas car, people with home charging no longer need to drive to a gas station to refill.

However, charging isn’t quite the same as pumping gas, and there is a bit of lingo to learn. After that, it becomes as familiar and easy as plugging in your phone.

This article covers all the basics of charging, both at home and on the go at public charging stations.

Benefits of Home EV Charging

The easiest and usually cheapest way to charge your EV is to plug it in at home. The vast majority of EV owners charge their vehicles at home, usually overnight while energy is cheapest.

If you’re like most drivers in the U.S. and you travel less than 40 miles a day, you should be able to get all the range you need by plugging in your car for a few hours at night.

Plug-in hybrids (PHEV) and smaller EVs can often use the standard 120V wall socket, just like you’d plug in your phone or laptop.

Home Charging: Level 1 or 120 Volt

Level 1 charging is the simplest form and can be done with the charging cable that comes with the car and the standard 120-volt outlet. It is the straight-from-the-box, no additional equipment required option. It’s also the slowest, at about 5 miles per hour of charging

My wife has a PHEV with 20 miles of electric range so a 120V charger is plenty. Her car's battery will charge from 0% to 100% in about 4 hours.

When she needs her car to charge faster than that, we also have a level 2 (240-volt charger) that I use for my fully electric car. Sidenote: if you want to learn more about Amps and Volts, here's a helpful article.

Understanding volts and amps for EV charging

Level 2 240 Volt

Level 2 chargers use the same grounded outlets as high-powered appliances, like an electric stove or water heater. In fact, when I visit extended family or stay at an Airbnb, I can often plug my car into the dryer outlet with an adapter!

Level 2 charging is about 5 times faster than Level 1 charging, providing roughly 25 miles per hour of charging. If you drive long distances or want the convenience of a quicker charge, it might be worth installing a Level 2 charger in your home. However, Level 2 charging requires additional equipment that should be installed by a professional electrician. 

The costs for equipment and labor can rack up quickly, so you’ll want to get an estimate before committing to the installation. Consumer Reports even recommends trying out Level 1 charging first and seeing how it works for you before you invest in Level 2 installation.

If you go for it, know that level 2 charging will save you time and will likely increase the value of your home for future buyers. As more car owners switch to EVs, a garage with its own Level 2 charger will look pretty appealing.

Most EVs use one of two types of charging connectors: the J-1772 standard or the Tesla proprietary charger. You could think of them as the USB-C and Lightning cables of the electric vehicle world. Just like with phone charging cables, you can purchase separate adaptors to switch from one type of plug to the other.

Schematic of varirous EV plugs and sockets

Level 1 and Level 2 charging both use AC power. With AC charging, the charger itself is located inside the vehicle, and is responsible for converting the AC power into DC power that the battery can use. These onboard chargers are proprietary, with specialized software depending on the brand. The cables, much like phone charging cables, don’t have to be the same brand so long as they’re the same type.

Home Charging Costs

How much you’ll pay to charge an EV at home depends on your energy costs and how much you drive. The average US EV costs $53.44 per month to drive. The same mileage in a gas fueled car that gets 30 mpg would cost about $140 dollars. That’s a monthly savings of $86.56 or $1038.72 per year! You can save money on your utility bill by charging your EV during off-peak hours or using charging optimization apps. There are even places you can charge your vehicle for free (we’ll talk more about charging stations below).

What if you live in an apartment building? You can still own an EV. Apartment dwellers should plan ahead for when and where they’ll charge, much like ICE car owners need to plan ahead to stop for gas. Depending on where you live, there may be public chargers available, an EV parking spot for rent, or you may even be able to charge your car at work. Some areas and cities are installing EV chargers in utility poles, making them readily available on the street. When all else fails, drivers can power their vehicles at the nearest charging station.

Street charging in New York City
This is public street charging in Brooklyn, NY

Public Charging Basics

If home charging isn’t an option, or if you’re going on a long trip that will drain your battery, you may want to charge on the go at a charging station. Depending on your electric bill, it may even be cheaper to power your battery at a charging station than at home. Most charging stations have Level 2 charging, but you can also find charging stations with DC Fast Charging.

Illustration comparing charge speeds at different levels

DC Fast Charging and Supercharging

Direct current charging (often called DC fast charging or DCFC) charges vehicles at a much faster rate, as the name implies. It's not uncommon to be able to add 100 to 200 miles per 30 minutes of charging.

Tesla's Supercharger network features NACS connectors that handle both AC and DC power, but most other charging stations have CCS (Combined Charging System) plugs for now, which are basically extensions of the J-1772 connector.

CHAdeMo connectors, used in the Nissan Leaf, can also be found at some charging stations.

Every EV has a maximum charging speed, usually ranging between 50kW to 350kW. That’s the fastest the car battery can charge, regardless of how much power the DC outlet can deliver. It's important to know your car's top charging speed.

It's also important to understand that charging speed is not consistent. Most cars will throttle the speed over time and at certain thresholds, like over 80% state of charge.

Charted charging curves for dc fast charging

There’s no incorrect way to plug in at a DC charging station, but you’ll want to look for a charging spot that offers no more than your maximum charging speed. It’s just good EV charging manners to let cars with faster charging use the higher speed equipment.

You can find a charging station that suits your needs by using one of the many public charging apps available on your phone. Some people use more than one app so they can always find a nearby station. These apps allow you to filter by your vehicle needs and some allow you to pay for your charge through the app.

PlugShare will allow you to search for free EV stations. Many credit cards now offer additional points for purchases at EV stations and other financial incentives may be available for EV owners.

Screenshot from a charging app

Paying for your EV charge is pretty simple. Some stations require you to pay through an app, keeping your credit card on file and scanning a QR code or indicating your stall number in-app when you plug in. Some charging stations will have you pay at the dispenser, the same way you’d pay at a gas station, with your credit card or even your phone. 

Other stations require an account to pay. You set up a personal account with your credit card on file and use a provided card or phone tag to begin charging. Volta chargers allow free end-user charging by providing ad space on the charging dispensers. You can often find these near shopping centers or grocery stores. And, of course, there are free days and free chargers. Just plug in and fill up!

Even with the fastest of fast charging, powering up an electric vehicle will take longer than stopping to fill up the gas tank. What can EV drivers do while waiting for their cars to charge? All sorts of things.

If you’re charging at home, your car can fully charge while you sleep. You can charge while at a doctor or dentist appointment, while getting your hair or nails done, or while grabbing a cup of coffee. You can charge while you pick up groceries or go shopping. Go out to lunch or dinner, stop by the gym, or take the dog for a walk. Check your email, finish up some work, or go to the movies. If all else fails, you can sit in your car and read a book, listen to a podcast, or play games on your phone.

Charging an EV isn’t the same as pumping for gas, and we should adjust our expectations and embrace the possibilities that come with a little extra downtime. With the right mindset, charging your EV could become one of your favorite errands.