Are Electric Car Chargers Universal? (Including 4 Handy Charging Tips)

Charging an electric car is as simple as plugging the car into the electric grid. While the normal Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) cars run on petroleum or diesel as fuel, electric cars run on well…electricity. Similar to how you would insert a petrol or diesel pump in a fuel station into your car to refuel it, charging an electric car essentially requires you to insert a suitable cable that matches the inlets in your car.

The action itself is comparable to plugging a USB cable into your phone to charge it.

However, while your phone has batteries the size of your fingers, car batteries are massive and weigh up to 550kgs. So, with these massive batteries, you can expect the charging points to be a little bit more complicated than simple wall plugs at your home.

With numerous electric car manufacturers and a nascent electric car charging market, electric car chargers around the world (and within the same country) are not universal.

So for those of you wondering ‘do electric cars all have the same plug?‘, the answer is; No, electric cars don’t all have the same plug.

There are 3 main types of charging stations that electric car owners and enthusiasts should be aware of. The electric car charging market is currently slightly complicated with the different types of charging and competing standards in the use of plugs and pricing structures.

Before you get more confused and overwhelmed, this article will help to provide you with the definitive guide on how to navigate the electric car charging topic and charge your vehicle without any hassle.

Charging Basics: How Long Does it Take To Charge Your Car?

Before we dive into the different types of chargers, we first need to understand how the charging within your car works.

There are a lot of numbers and figures your manufacturer provides you with the vehicle. When it comes to charging, the most important figures are kilowatts (kW) and kilowatts per hour (kWh).

What do those mean?

In the context of charging, kW represents the speed of charging (or the charger capacity to drive electricity to the car). kWh refers to the car battery capacity to store energy. To determine the time needed to charge your car, simply divide the capacity of the battery (kWh) and divide it by the charging power (kW).

Consider this hypothetical example: if you have a 50kWh car battery with a 25kW charger, it will take around 2 hours to be fully charged. And if having the full charge of 50kWh gives your car a hypothetical maximum range of 200km, you are essentially able to drive 100km for every hour of charge.

With the above example, you now have more useful and actionable information that sticks with you. If you want to drive 50km, you know that you need a minimum of 30 minutes of charging from a 25kW source for that vehicle (Please note that this example is purely hypothetical to help you with understanding the basics and not representative of any electric car in the market).

Unlike refuelling ICE vehicles, charging electric cars takes time. To optimise your time and ensure that you don’t find yourself stranded in the middle of nowhere with no charge, you need to be aware of how much time is needed to charge your vehicle to obtain a certain mileage.

Of course, this is not information which you have to fully understand and remember. After all, most electric cars should be equipped with an on-board screen to show you how much mileage you have, and the approximate time left to charge for the full range.

Just be aware that the charging timing is affected by the battery capacity and charging power itself. With this understanding, we are ready to jump into the main types of charging.

The Basics: Types of Charging

Electric car chargers currently fall under 3 main categories. They are quite simply known as Level 1, 2 and 3 (more commonly referred to as DC Fast Chargers) charging stations.

With increasing levels (1 to 2 to 3), the charging power (kW) increases and hence the faster it is to fully charge your vehicle!

There are, however, different plugs that exist within each level.

Level 1 Chargers

Level 1 Chargers use the standard 120V power outlet found in households. These chargers typically deliver a charging power of up to 1kW and take quite long (around 8 hours) to fully charge. Most electric cars come with an adapter that allows you to plug into your wall socket at home to charge the vehicle. You can also easily purchase a new adapter online on Amazon if needed.

All electric cars in the market currently can be charged via this mechanism.

The obvious benefit of using the adaptor is that no additional installation or equipment is needed. It is what you would do to charge your laptop for example.

Level 1 Nema 515, Nema 520 Plug

However, with a low charging power, it can take very long for you to fully charge your car and is not ideal when you are in a rush. This method of charging might be more useful for charging your cars overnight at home. Also note that by charging your vehicle using your home electricity, your home utility bill might reflect an increase in average power usage.  

Level 2 Chargers

Level 2 Chargers are found in both households and commercial charging stations. They use a higher voltage (240V for residential and 208V for commercial) than Level 1 chargers. This translates to a charging power ranging from 3 to 20kW. With the charging power, it would typically take between 2-6 hours to fully charge an electric vehicle (depending on the specifications).

Every electric car in the market can be charged using Level 2 chargers. There are 4 types of plugs in this category:

  • SAE J1772 plug which is a standard plug that is most widely used
  • NEMA 1450 plug which is designed for RVs
  • NEMA 6-50 plug which has a similar design to Level 1 plugs
  • Tesla HPWC plugs are unique to the manufacturer’s cars and cannot be used to charge non-Tesla vehicles.

That’s good to know, but you probably want to know what they look like right?

SAE J1772 (all EVs)
NEMA 1450 (For RVs)
NEMA 6-50
Tesla HPWC

With Level 2 chargers, you can save a considerable bit of time to fully charge your vehicle. However, the general rule of thumb is to never reach a point where you have to fully charge your battery from 0% to 100%. Instead, you should be aware of your driving habits and charge as and when needed to ensure that you always have good mileage on your car. But more on that in the later sections.

The point here is that you should not be taking the full 2 to 6 hours to charge your vehicle in the first place. You should be able to get 10 to 60 miles of range per hour of charging.

Commercial Level 2 chargers can be found across the country. The residential Level 2 charger, however, has to be installed at homes as they cannot be connected to the conventional wall plugs at home. While you can do extensive research and install it independently, it is highly recommended that you hire a professional electrician to install the system as it helps ensure the safety and reliability of the set-up process.

Once again, for residential Level 2 chargers draw on the electricity from your house and it will be reflected in the utility bill. Avoid charging your car in electricity peak demand periods to save some money on your utilities. Contact your electric utility company to check if they offer special rates for electric car owners. Some areas provide discounted rates if you charge within a certain time of the day.

For those with solar panels installed in their homes, some Level 2 chargers can integrate the power supplied from those renewable sources to charge the car. This can help you save on the electricity cost.

Examples of Level 2 charger manufacturers include ChargePoint, Siemens, Clipper Creek, JuiceBox and EVGo. Note that some electric car manufacturers like Tesla and Nissan also have their own Level 2 charger productions.

Level 3 Chargers

More commonly known as DC Fast Chargers or CHAdeMO charging stations, Level 3 chargers offer the highest charging power and fastest charging times. Level 3 chargers typically deliver more than 20kW of charging power and can take anywhere between 20 minutes to 1 hour to fully charge an electric vehicle.

However, not all electric cars are capable of charging at this level. You are highly advised to check the user manual to know whether the car you have or intend to buy, has such capabilities.

There is no need to worry about accidentally plugging a car that might not be capable of charging at Level 3 to a DC Fast Charging station. This is because Level 3 chargers have plugs that are different from Level 2.  There are 3 types of plugs again:

  • SAE Combo CCS plug is most widely used in American and European markets
  • CHAdeMO plug is used widely in Asian markets
  • Tesla Supercharger plugs (same as Tesla Level 2 plugs, only available for Tesla cars)

So, what do these ones look like? Here’s a diagram for each:

SAE Combo CCS
CHAdeMO
Tesla Supercharger

Regardless of which type of plug is needed, most manufacturers also provide adaptors so that you can interchangeably use SAE CCS and CHAdeMO inputs.

Due to the high charging power, Level 3 chargers are used for industrial and commercial applications only. They cannot be installed as a residential option.

Non-Contact Charging

Just like how there are wireless charging options for your smartphones, the inductive charging technology has found its way to electric car batteries charging as well. While inductive charging is not as widely spread, its convenience of just parking on a specific lot to charge the vehicle is appealing and expected to take off real soon.

The charging times are not as impressive, averaging around half the time it would take for a Level 1 charger.

With technological improvements and the push for greater convenience, it might not be too long before we see more inductive chargers interlaced in parking lots.

Charging Infrastructure

Awesome! You now have a good grasp of how long it takes to roughly charge your car from the different levels of charging and plug configurations. So apart from the household options, where can you access the commercial charging points?

Knowing the locations of charging points across your country is as important or arguably more important than ICE car drivers knowing where petrol stations are. The reason is that while an ICE car can be refueled within a minute, electric car charging takes time and affects how far you can drive.

Planning your route and knowing where the charging points are situated along the route allows you to optimise your time, prepare the right adaptors for plugs if needed and improve your overall experience while driving.

There are plenty of online maps that let you know where different chargers are located across the country. Charge Hub’s map and Plug Share provide a pretty comprehensive and updated information on the charging stations in the US. Zap-Map and Open Charge Map provide the necessary information about charging stations located in the UK and around the world respectively. These websites and some apps online also allow you to plan your route and recommend stations along the way – saving you the hassle of having to manually search for stations.

For Tesla drivers, while you have adapters that allow you to access the general charging stations, you can locate Tesla chargers across the map using these platforms or using your Tesla navigation system as well.

There are also private charging stations in some office buildings which might not be listed on these sites. If your office has a charging station, do check how you can access it across the day and if you could park there for the entire day and so on.

Here is a quick look at how the UK’s charging infrastructure works:

Paying For Charging

Charging your car means you are also charged money (pun intended).

The charging infrastructure in most economies is pretty complex and crowded with many different players. Because of this, there are multiple providers of Level 2 and 3 charging stations and multiple ways of payment and cost structures.

More generally, Blink, EVgo, ChargePoint and EVBox are some players who claim to have a larger number of stations across the US and the world. EVgo claims to operate the largest network of public EV charging stations in the US while ChargePoint and EVBox have around 60,000 installed charging stations across the world as of 2019.

There are a whole host of other players including Alfen, Allego, ABB, Clipper Creek, Shell, Siemens, Schneider Electric and so on. However, before you start getting dizzy, the safer option might be to refer to the maps suggested above to have a good idea of what providers are near your location.

As for the pricing, the common modes of payment include a monthly subscription model, using an RFID card issued by the charging station provider and using a mobile app. As of now, contactless credit or debit card payment options are not as widespread, but it is only a matter of time before that changes.

It is highly recommended that once you know which providers have a large number of stations near your location and on the national level, you visit their website and understand how to use their services.

Car manufacturers like Tesla and Nissan (non-exhaustive) also have their own policies. For example, Nissan’s “No Charge to Charge” program provides new Nissan Leaf drivers with 30 minutes of Level 3 charging and 60 minutes of free Level 2 charging for free. This applies to participating stations and lasts for 2 years from the time of purchase.

Tesla, on the other hand, provides drivers with 400kWh of free Supercharger credits each year. That should give you about 1,000 miles of distance on the road.

Before purchasing your car, check out if the manufacturer has charging discounts or policies which might be of benefit to you.  

Charging Tips and Etiquette

It is important to maintain good battery life for your car. It helps you make full use of the battery for a longer period and gives you less trouble while driving.

Here are some tips to maintain good health of your battery:

  • Do not let the battery level fall to 0%.
  • If it falls to 0%, charge your car as fast as possible because leaving it uncharged for an extended period might require jump-starting or replacement of the battery.
  • Leave your vehicle plugged in even if you are not planning to drive for an extended period. Most cars are equipped with smart controls to maintain charge levels.
  • Batteries perform best when charged regularly so don’t wait for the level to drop to a very low percentage before charging.

If you are charging outside your home, please remember to be considerate and not hog the charging stations especially if there are limited slots and other cars are waiting to be charged.

The Future of Electric Car Charging

Hopefully, just like how we have reached a stage where only 2 main types of handphone chargers exist, we might reach a point where the types of standard chargers also converge.

As we move forward in the new decade and with the electric car adoption projected to increase at a faster rate, it is not long before your driving and charging experience becomes as seamless and convenient as it is for the ICE car drivers now.

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