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Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Charging An Electric Car Away From Home But Were Afraid To Ask (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this story, we talked about charging an electric car at home. Next, let’s address charging your EV when you are out on the highway far from home. That’s when 440 volts or 880 volts Level 3 DC fast chargers are necessary. [Note: many hotels and B&Bs now offer Level 2 charging for customers who will be away from their cars for an hour or more or even overnight. That may mean there is less need to use a fast charger on your journey if you know there will be a charger available at the end of the day.]

Level 3 DC fast charging

Some EV drivers never use a public charger. They get all the charging they need at home. But when they need to go over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house, they may need to stop along the way to replenish the battery. This is the area that gives most people concerns about driving an electric car and, to be honest, it is confusing and a little scary.

Tesla owners have the least to worry about. The put their destination into the navigation screen and it automatically tells them where Superchargers are located and how to find them. Other manufacturers are starting to offer similar services, but few are as well thought out and reliable as the Tesla Supercharger network.

Most people want to know, “How long will it take to recharge my battery on a trip?” Here again, the answer is, “It depends.” DC fast chargers are rated in terms of kilowatts — the amount of electrical power they can deliver. The lowest is about 25 kW, but those are antiques today. At the present time, 100 kW is common, although there are still some 50 kW chargers around. Newer chargers can deliver 200 kW of power and 350 kW is becoming more common.

Let’s say you find a 200 kW charger along your route. Does that mean your car will charge twice as fast as it would with a 100 kW charger? Not necessarily. Once again, it depends on how the car was built at the factory. Some high end cars like the Porsche Taycan can use that much power, but a Chevy Bolt cannot.

When considering an electric car, the questions you want to ask the dealer are, “What is the maximum charging power this car can handle?” The truth is, when you are out on the highway, charging times can vary considerably depending on what car you drive, what charger you are using, how many other cars are using nearby chargers at the same time, and how much you want to charge your battery before you get back on the road.

Here’s an example. According to Autoweek, the base Nissan LEAF can only accept 50 kW of power. There is a “fast charging” option that accepts 100 kW of power, but frankly, that is at the low end of what most cars offer today. The Chevy Bolt is limited to 55 kW, which makes taking trips difficult. If you plan to be driving long distances, charging power can be the difference between a pleasant journey and an exercise in frustration.

How Much Charge Do You Need?

One thing many EV advocates don’t talk much about is that it takes longer to charge a battery from 80% to 100% of capacity than it does from 20% to 80%. Often, it is quicker overall to make two shorter stops to charge to 80% than one longer stop to charge to 100%. It’s one of the things that makes owning an electric car different.

Keep in mind that electric cars are new technology and changes can happen fast. Right now, thanks to interruptions in global supply chains caused by the war on Ukraine, the price of nickel and cobalt has soared since the beginning of the year and the cost of battery grade lithium is going up as well.

Partly as a result of those cost pressures, many manufacturers are switching to lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries. These so-called iron batteries have some pluses and minuses. They are a little less energy dense than batteries that rely on nickel and cobalt, which means you need more of them. That in turn leads to heavier batteries. The good news is, they are far less likely to catch fire, cost significantly less than conventional batteries, and are more tolerant of being charged to 100% of their capacity.

In addition, manufacturers are finding ways to allow their cars to charge faster. Just recently, Ford announced it has reduced the time it takes the battery in the Mustang Mach-E to charge from 80% to 90% from 52 minutes to 15 minutes. That’s good news for people using those cars for longer journeys. The real issue with electric cars is not how fast they go, but how fast they charge. When choosing an EV, make sure to find out all you can about how long you need to stay stationary to charge the battery.

Every sales person should know the answer, but many don’t. Ultimately, it is up to the buyer to do the legwork needed to determine if the car is able to meet his or her needs. If it isn’t, look elsewhere. Fancy styling or a great looking color won’t be much help if the car is unable to fit your lifestyle.

Electric Car Charging Apps

Many times, people will say they are scared to drive an electric car because they don’t know where to charge it when away from home. Let’s stop right there for a minute. The average American drives less than 30 miles a day. That means if your car has a range of 200 miles or more, it will only need to be plugged in once or twice a week, usually at night while your car is parked, so a lot of that anxiety is not based on facts.

But let’s assume that you are not an average driver or that you need to make a trip of several hundred miles. How do you find chargers and plan your route? Actually, there are a number of apps that can handle that chore and they are getting better all the time.

One of the best is A Better Route Planner. You put in your location and your destination and it will tell you where to charge along the way. It’s the next best thing to the Tesla route planning software. PlugShare and Plug In America also have apps that are useful and easy to use. No EV driver should leave home without all three apps loaded onto his or her smartphone. In addition, there are apps for ChargePoint, Electrify America, EVgo, and Blink that can be useful. Be sure to add them to your smartphone as well.

Set Up Your Accounts Before You Travel

The Tesla Supercharger network offers a seamless “plug and pay” experience. Once you connect, the system automatically recognizes your car and bills the cost of electricity to the credit card associated with your Tesla account. Other networks are working toward “plug and pay” capability, but aren’t there yet. If you plan to use their chargers while away from home, make sure you set up an account with them before you start your trip.

Nothing is less enjoyable than standing outside in the rain trying to read the phone number for customer service on a charger you are not authorized to use. There are reports that sometimes the people answering the phone (if they answer at all) are somewhat less than helpful.

A note about charging plans offered by manufacturers. Many automakers have made arrangements with one of the major charging companies to offer their customers free charging for a limited time. Make sure that plan includes chargers in the areas where you plan to travel, and that the dealer clearly explains how to activate the account.

It’s no fun to be out in East Overshoe only to find the charger you planned to use won’t work because your access wasn’t confirmed in advance. If you are entitled to a charging plan, it’s a good idea to charge locally once before you head out on the highway, just to make sure you and the charging provider are friends.

A Word About Adapters

Unless you are an electrical engineer, you may assume all electrical connections are the same. They are not. There are three basic fast charging systems in use in North America today — CHAdeMO, CCS, and Tesla. They each have their own plug. CHAdeMO is nearly obsolete. Tesla owners can now buy an adapter that lets them use a fast charger equipped with a CCS plug. Tesla is seriously considering opening its Supercharger network to all EV drivers, but non-Tesla owners will need and adapters of their own to use it.

Make sure you carry all the adapters you will need for your journey. Someday in the not too distant future, there will be one plug for all EV charging just as there is one nozzle on all gas pumps, but that day isn’t here yet. You can moan about how silly it is to have different plugs or you can equip yourself with the adapters you need today. They are small and don’t take up much room, so there’s no excuse for leaving home without them.

You should also bring your charging cable and adapters with you so you can plug into any 120 or 240 volt outlet you can find if there are no fast chargers available. A little forethought can prevent a lot of headaches during your journey.

The Electric Car Takeaway

Electric cars have only been around in large numbers for a little more than 10 years. The technology is improving rapidly, but it is fair to say charging an EV while on a trip is not quite as quick and easy as filling the gas tank of a conventional car — yet.

For many, the words “different” and “scary” are pronunciated. Our hope is that these guides to charging an electric car will take away some of that fear. My wife and I have driven an electric car exclusively for the past 4 years without ever once running out of battery power. The transition to EVs is taking place right before our eyes. Don’t let concerns about charging stop you from being part of it.

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