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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Charging Basics

Most electric vehicle (EV) owners charge their cars in their garage, overnight. At other times it is useful to charge while out and about. Charging on the road allows you to drive more than the range of a single charge and opens up more locations to your electrically-powered driving.

To charge up while away from home, you'll need to know how to find the charging stations that will work with your EV. These are two things we'll cover here. To help keep this at an introductory level, we will not be discussing Amps, Volts, kilowatt-hours, or any other electro-technical jargon when it can be avoided.

Types of Charging

There are three different types of charging supported by modern EVs:
Nissan Leaf Charging ports - CHAdeMO (Left), J1772 (Right)
  • Level 1: The slowest and most accessible is Level 1. This is the common US household outlet. To use this, you'll need to have a trickle charge unit. This generally comes with a new EV purchase. For a plug-in car like the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt, this will provide 4 to 5 miles of range per hour of charging. Not very helpful for a quick stop, but you can find these outlets nearly anywhere. Level 1 is sufficient for locations where your car will be parked for long periods such as workplace charging, an overnight hotel stay, or long-term airport parking.
  • Level 2: This is the most common type of EV infrastructure currently being installed. These stations are the same voltage as a home dryer outlet. These stations have the J1772 connector, aka J-plug, built in so you won't need to bring any equipment. You will, however, most likely need a membership card to activate it. Below there is a list of these networks. These stations provide anywhere from 3 to 6 times the charging rate of a Level 1 station. To know how fast a Level 2 station will charge your EV, you'll need to know one detail: the rating of your vehicle's onboard charger. This is typically either 3.3 kilowatts (kW) or 6.6 kW. The 2011-2012 Nissan Leaf has a 3.3kW charger, while the 2013 model has a 6.6kW charger. Check your owner's manual for your vehicle for the charger's rating. A 3.3kW charger will provide a typical plug-in car with 12 - 15 miles of range per hour that it is plugged in. At this rate, a long lunch or similar stop, perhaps at your destination, can provide you with the range for the next leg or return trip. A 6.6kW charger will give you 24 to 30 miles of range per hour. 
  • DC Fast Charging: You might have assumed after Level 1 and Level 2, this would be Level 3. That might have been true if fast charging had been universally standardized. Unfortunately, it was not. Japanese manufacturers Nissan and Mitsubishi support a standard called CHAdeMO. BMW, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, and Volkswagen, on the other hand, teamed up with the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) to create a standard that will allow a single port to be used for Level 1, 2, and fast charging. This is called the J1772-combo connector. While this sounds nice to have a widely supported standard, there are currently no vehicles and no charging stations that support the SAE fast charge standard. CHAdeMO was the first to market and is the solution that the West Coast Electric Highway in Oregon and Washington state is using. The (coming soon) Chevy Spark EV is expected to be the first vehicle on the market to use the J1772-combo connector. We'll see if it can displace or co-exist with CHAdeMO. To further complicate the fast charging story, Tesla Motors didn't use either of the two methods we've discussed. Instead, they created their own, the Tesla Super Charger. Ignoring the confusion, the network that is currently installed in the Northwest is CHAdeMO, so we'll discuss this one. These stations will charge a Nissan Leaf from empty to 80% full in 25 to 30 minutes. This means that a quick 10 minute stop can get you 30 miles of range. This rate makes long distance drives possible. The fast charger in Woodburn, Oregon, for example, makes a trip between Portland and Salem easy in an EV.  
Now that you know the various types of charging, how do you find them? 

Finding Charging Stations 

Charging Station Smartphone Apps - PlugShare (Left) and Recargo (Right)
Many of the new EVs have navigation systems that include charging station locations. This is convenient since it is always there in your car, but EV infrastructure is being installed at a rapid pace and these built-in systems are often not up to date. Also, they do not provide you with real-time operational status or availability information. For this, you'll need a smartphone. There are apps written by the charging station manufacturers as well as crowdsourced apps that can tell you all of this valuable information.

The two most popular charging station apps are PlugShare and Recargo. Both of these apps aggregate information from the charging station providers with user provided content. The status information can tell you if the station is operational and available. Users can check in at stations and provide status and location notes. These notes can be very helpful. While an address can get you to the area, a note can tell you that the charging stations at Lloyd Center Mall are on the second floor of the Northwest lot at Pole J12. Check-in reports can also tell you if the station has been used successfully recently. 

Rather than choosing either PlugShare or Recargo, I would suggest installing both of them. Their information, especially the user provided information, is not the same. Depending on what you are looking for, one may be more helpful than the other.

Network Membership 

Charging Network Membership Cards
Many of the public charging station networks require a membership card to activate the charging session. Some of the networks charge you a dollar or two an hour to charge, but even a free station may require a membership card to start the session. You can use the above-mentioned apps to find out which networks are in your area. In the greater Portland area I would suggest joining: 
  • ChargePoint (http://chargepoint.net/) - One of the largest networks in North America. 
  • Blink (http://www.blinknetwork.com/) - Funded by The EV Project, these are prolific in the Northwest US. 
  • AeroVironment (http://evsolutions.avinc.com/) - Selected for the West Coast Electric Highway in Oregon and Washington. 


For most EV driving, you'll have more than enough range for your daily needs. When you do intend to go on a trip beyond the range of your vehicle, make sure you plan it. Google maps or similar tools can give you accurate distance estimations. PlugShare and Recargo can show you the charging stations available on the various route options.

As with any vehicle, occasionally, things go wrong. Make sure you have a backup plan.

If you need charging and there is no EV infrastructure available, campgrounds are one source for emergency charging. Campsites often have 120V and 240V service. If you have a portable Level 2 unit and plug adapters, this can get you back on the road in an hour or two. You'll likely have to pay the typical fees to use the campground. 

In the extremely unlikely situation of running out of juice—which should never happen if you’ve planned ahead—it’s a good idea to have your cell phone and the phone number of roadside assistance. AAA now offers EV services, including roadside charging. If you come up just a mile or two short of your next charging spot, this could prove very helpful. But again, with an understanding of your vehicle’s range, the types of charging, and a few minutes of planning, your zero-emission journeys should be smooth sailing.

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