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Electric Car Charging: How it Works

All You Need to Know about Electric Car Charging

One of the great benefits of owning an electric car is that you’ll never have to go to a gas station again (unless you need snacks). You can plug into a power outlet practically anywhere — at home, at work, around town while running errands or during a long road trip. But given that battery-powered cars are new to many people, you may have questions about electric car charging. So, here are some of the basics about how electric car charging works.  

Before you hit the road, do some research and learn the basics of electric car charging.
Before you hit the road, do some research and learn the basics of electric car charging. Photo: Aleksandravicius/AdobeStock

Charging speeds

In simple terms, charging an electric car has three speeds: slow, medium and relatively fast. We say “relatively fast” because no battery-powered electric car as of 2022 could be charged as quickly as the couple of minutes it takes to fill up a conventional car with gas (although some Tesla fast-charging stations are getting closer to that standard). Keep an eye on new models because charging times are improving constantly.

More technically, electric cars have three broad charging methods, known as Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3 (or Direct Current Fast Charging).  

Level 1 charging

Level 1 is the most basic and slowest form of charging. You plug into a 120-volt AC outlet via a common three-prong plug. The benefits are convenience and cost. Almost all electric cars come with a power cord from the factory, and you typically won’t have to call an electrician to modify your home. 

The downside of Level 1 charging is that it takes a while. Typically, you will gain only about 5 miles of driving range for every hour of charging. It can take 40 to 50 hours to fully charge an electric car, and roughly 5 to 6 hours to charge a plug-in hybrid. That said, most people commute less than 25 miles per day. So, you can easily gain enough charge to last the day (about 40 miles of range) by plugging in overnight. 

Charging at home is a great option if you have access to a plug. So, if you own (or rent) a home or condo with an accessible plug, you can almost always do home charging without making any home modifications (and save a ton of money each month over gas). 

If you live in an apartment or condo, however, you may not be able to charge at home (much depends on where you live). This doesn’t mean you can’t own an electric car, but your costs will be more by charging at commercial stations. For the use of a commercial fast charger, the current upper-range cost can be comparable to the cost of gas.  

Level 2 electric car charging is roughly five times faster than Level 1 electric car charging.
Level 2 electric car charging is roughly five times faster than Level 1 electric car charging. Photo: The Supporter/AdobeStock

Level 2 charging

Level 2 charging is roughly five times faster than Level 1. You gain on average 25 miles of range for every one hour of charging and can fully charge an all-electric car in 4 to 10 hours depending on the size of the battery, and a plug-in hybrid within 1 to 2 hours. So, you can typically recharge a near empty battery overnight while you sleep.  

In cities, you’ll find Level 2 stations everywhere, around office buildings, shopping centers, healthcare centers, etc. You can also do Level 2 charging at home, but that usually requires calling an electrician to install the port. At home, you would typically plug into a 240-volt outlet via a three-prong plug (commercial services often uses 208-volt outlets). It typically will cost in the range of $1,000-$2,000 to install Level 2 capability at home, but it can vary depending on the port and the electrician.     

DC fast charging 

As the name implies, this is the fastest way to charge an electric car. A near-empty battery can typically be charged to 80% capacity in half an hour. 

We say “usually” because fast charging stations vary in strength from 50 kilowatts to 150kW, and can be more than 350kW. The charging speed also depends on the model of the electric car. The main difference between fast charging and Level 1 or 2 is that the car is charged with direct current (DC), whereas Level 1 and Level 2 send alternating current (AC) to the car.

Batteries store only DC energy, but the power that comes off the power grid is always AC. With Level 1 and 2 charging, the AC is converted to DC in the vehicle. With fast charging, the conversion is made within the DC power station and then sent directly to the car battery.   

Importantly, you typically use DC fast charging to charge the battery only to 80% capacity. Once the charge reaches 80% complete, the speed slows down to protect the battery. (Some fast charging stations stop automatically at 80%.) It can take as long to charge the remaining 20% as the first 80%. So, many drivers prefer to stop charging at 80% complete, which will reduce the car’s maximum driving range on the road. 

Fast charging is a commercial service. It costs $50,000 or more to install a fast-charging station, so this not something that the typical homeowner will be setting up outside their house. The good news is that fast charging stations are becoming much easier to find, including stations at hotels, restaurants and movie theatres.

In cities, you’ll find electric car charging stations everywhere.
In cities, you’ll find electric car charging stations everywhere. Photo: Tom Wang/AdobeStock

Charging costs 

Your home charging costs will vary depending on the electric car’s efficiency, how much you use it and where you live. The good news for Washington and Idaho residents is that residents pay low rates for electricity per kilowatt hour compared to other parts of the country. 

As of October 2022, Washington and Idaho ranked No. 1 and No. 2 respectively among states for affordable energy, according to Choose Energy. The cost was $0.10 per kWh in Washington. So, if your electric car requires 40 kWh to recharge fully (a relatively small battery for an electric car), the cost would be $4. Meanwhile, a Tesla model with a 100 kWh battery would cost around $10 to fully recharge. (For anyone who has been paying more than $5 a gallon to fuel up in recent years, the cost of electric has special appeal.)

Commercial rates, though, are often double or triple the cost of residential charging. Investopedia estimated the cost at between $10 to $30 per charge at a Level 3 fast charger and $1 to $5 per hour at a Level 2 commercial station but noted that the actual costs can vary tremendously even within the same area. It’s a good rule of thumb to check the rates before you plug in. 

—Written by Victor Whitman 

—Top photo by Oleksandr and PhotoStock/AdobeStock

AAA Washington Insurance Agency is here to help. If you are looking to review your car insurance or simply have questions, call (877) 222-4678 for a free, no-obligation consultation. You also can find an agent near you, or request a quote online.

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