Electric car sales are on the up, manufacturers are introducing new models every few months, and there is a growing range of home chargers to fill the batteries each night. But, while plugging in and charging is often a very simple process, there is a lot to get your head around.
You need to understand the power constraints of your home's electrical system and outlets, then you need to decide which type of charger to buy, where to install it, what extra features you want it to have, and how much you want to pay.
This guide will walk you through some common questions asked by drivers who are considering buying their first electric car.
How many miles do you drive each week, and does your employer offer car charging?
First, let us start with the very basics. We ask these questions first because you might be in the fortunate position of having a short commute to a workplace equipped with car chargers. If this is you, then you might not even need to install a charger at home — so long as your employer doesn't mind you filling up the battery for personal use as well as commuting, of course.
Is there a public charger near to where you live?
On a similar train of thought to the previous question, if there are public chargers near your home, then perhaps you can pay to use these instead of installing your own at home.
You should regularly check to see how busy your local public chargers are, as they might not always be available when you need them. They probably can't be relied on to fully satisfy your electric car charging requirements, but if you live near a public charger and your work lets you charge there, between these two options you might be set.
Public car chargers are an increasingly common sight in towns and cities iStock
As a piece of anecdotal evidence, I live in a residential part of south west London and have a neighbor who owns a Tesla but does not have a driveway, so is unable to install a personal charger. The neighbor seemingly gets by with charging elsewhere — at the public charger on the next street, for example. Another does a similar thing with their Jaguar I-Pace, which is topped up using a public charger fitted to a bollard on the sidewalk.
If you are going to rely on public chargers, you should bear in mind that electric car sales are increasing and your local chargers could soon be in greater demand, making them less convenient. They also can't be replied upon quite as much as a gas station, and sometimes you will arrive at a charger to find it doesn't work. I have experienced this several times, where the charger either needs rebooting (via a call to the customer helpline) or is broken and either cannot be used at all, or can't accept payment via contactless bank card.
How does at-home electric car charging work?
The slowest option is to plug your electric car directly into a wall outlet. This makes use of the car's internal charger, but charge times are incredibly slow, giving the battery just three to five miles of range per hour of charging. I once plugged a Tesla Model X into a domestic home socket and the estimate time until full sat at "more than 24 hours" for most of the day.
This can be an option if you are visiting family for the weekend and won't be needing your car — just plug in, leave it for a couple of days to warn maybe 100 miles of range, and reimburse their generosity however you see fit. Every electric car sold in the U.S. comes with a 120-volt Level 1 portable charger, which plugs into a regular wall outlet like any other electrical device.
A step up from this is the Level 2, 240 volt charger. This is the most common type of home charger for electric cars and is also used widely by public charging stations too. They vary in power and can charge cars at between roughly 12 and 60 miles of range per hour. Given most electric cars have a range of around 200 to 300 miles, that higher charge speed means just 3.5 hours of charging to mostly fill an almost empty battery. But remember, a fuller battery charges more slowly than an empty one, so the first 50 miles of range might take just two or three hours, but the final 20 percent will take much longer.
Even at the slower Level 2 rate, a larger electric car can be filled from empty overnight, making it ideal for most use cases.
Say you get home from work at 6 or 7pm; you can plug the car in for 11 or 12 hours before needing it again in the morning. It's unlikely you'll need to use the car's entire potential range on every journey, so in reality an overnight charge every few days will be more than enough to cover your commute and regular journeys.
It is worth briefly noting how all electric cars sold in the US use the same charging connection, apart from Tesla, which has a proprietary connection. It is a similar story in Europe, where most electric cars use the same connection, apart from Tesla. Thankfully, Teslas come with an adaptor to overcome this, and they now also work with the CCS high-speed charging standard seen across the US and Europe, without an adaptor.
Tesla's Supercharger charging stations cannot be used by any other vehicle, although Elon Musk has said he is open to this situation changing and even said in late-2020 how Superchargers are "being made accessible to other electric cars." However, Teslas come with (or can be bought with) an adapter to use with all other chargers.
It should also be added that electric cars have different charging connections depending on the market they are sold in. So as long as you use your car in the market you bought it from – such as the US, Europe or Asia – it will work.
Finally, at-home chargers can also be used to fill the batteries of plug-in hybrid vehicles, not just fully-electric cars. So if you have a hybrid like a BMW i8 or Range Rover PHEV (plug-in electric hybrid), you can charge its battery at home then use it in EV mode for short journeys without starting the engine.
Which type of Level 2 charger is best?
This depends on whether you want your charger to be portable or wall-mounted. A portable Level 2 charger plugs into a wall outlet at home and, as long as you have had your electrician fit a 240 volt outlet, will fill up the car at around 12 to 18 miles of range per hour.
Buying a portable charger makes sense if outright speed isn't your primary concern, and if you have a second home, as it's easy to take the charger and cable with you.
If portability is not important to you, then a wall-mounted Level 2 charger is best, as they are larger and more powerful, filling batteries at a quicker rate.
You will then need to decide if you want a cable attached to the charger, or just a socket on the wall of your property, or in the garage. With just a socket, the charger looks much neater and will be a subtle addition to your home; you then keep the cable in your car, as most have a dedicated space for them in the trunk or frunk (the front trunk).
Alternatively, if you don't want to carry a cable around, you can install a charger with its own. These tend to be around 15 feet in length, making it easy to plug in your car so long as you park within a few feet of the charger. For us, a socket looks neater but a charger with its own cable increases convenience, and potentially trunk space too.
Be careful not to locate a charger where the cable will be a trip hazard iStock
How to understand the power of a charger
There are several ways to measure the power and speed of an electric car charger, such as volts and amps. But perhaps the most widely used stat is kilowatts, written as kW. The slowest public chargers are 3.6 kW (or 16 amps), then 7 kW, 12 kW and 22 kW are common faster outputs, with 50kW now increasingly common too.
Your current car might not be able to accept electricity at the faster rates, but your future one probably will, so we recommend buyers consider spending more on a faster charger now, instead of having to upgrade to a new one when you buy your next electric car.
For context, the fastest public and Tesla chargers are much quicker, with charge rates of between 120 kW to 250 kW. The Electrify America and Ionity public charging networks in the US and Europe respectively are built to offer up to 350kW, but for now no car can handle that, The closest we have for now, as of early 2021, is the 270kW Porsche Taycan. EV startup Rivian recently said it plans to use chargers capable of over 300kW.
To be clearer, chargers like these cannot be installed at home. Instead, home chargers tap out at 22kW (depending on your home wiring), which is still plenty for an overnight charge.
Can a car charger be installed at any property?
This depends on the type of property you live in, and who owns it. If you are renting, then it is unlikely that your landlord will want you installing a car charger — but then again, there is no harm in asking to make sure.
If you own a house with a garage or driveway, then go ahead and buy yourself a car charger. You may need an electrician to come and upgrade your wiring, or fit a 240 volt outlet, but this is simple enough to have done.
Amazon Home Services provides a car charger installation service, which asks all of the important questions before letting you make the purchase. However, the actual charger is not included, so you'll need to buy that separately, then book installation from Amazon.
If you live in an apartment and have a designated parking space, perhaps in the basement parking lot, then you will need to check with the landlord before booking a charger installation.
How much do home car chargers cost?
A less powerful, portable Level 2 charger can be had for under $200 — like this Duosida model for $180 — while more premium portable options get closer to $400, due to having longer cables, higher power outputs, and useful features like integrated displays.
Wall-mounted chargers generally fall in the $400 to $500 region, with some options approaching $700 or even $1000 for this model from Bosch.
This 240-volt, $400 charger from Blink Charging offers a good range of features, including an 18-foot, integrated cable, compact design and Wi-Fi. It works with electric cars from all manufacturers, including Tesla, and has a delay-start motion to ensure your car only starts charging once electric rates are cheaper at night.
Home Level 2 Electric Vehicle (EV) Charger. Delay Start to optimize Utility Rates. 240V, 30-AMP, 18 Ft Cord. Charges All EVs Including Tesla. SAEJ1772
What extra features are worth paying for?
As with most products, you can spend more money to have a car charger with extra features. Some connect to your Wi-Fi network and can be controlled via a smartphone app.
The app also shows the status of the charger and a log of how much electricity it has provided since first installed; this can be a useful way to keep track of electricity usage, but in many cases your car (and its own app) will do this anyway.
Some chargers also have Amazon Alexa support, so you can ask the voice assistant to start and stop charging. This may seem helpful, but personally we're happy with a charger which works when plugged in and stops when removed; for us, there's no need for voice assistant support here, but we understand if some readers see value in this extra convenience.