Hose and nozzle, cord and plug. We tend to think of EV charging like we do going to the gas station, except it takes longer. Same basic thing, though: You stick this thing in your car, and when it’s done, you can drive farther. That’s where the similarity ends, though.
For one, you don’t have a gas pump at work or at home. I have the luxury recharging at both; I can plug the Bolt EV in during either of the two parts of the day I won’t be using it for hours at a time, working or sleeping. It’s very convenient, and it means never going out of my way to stop for gas at the cheapest station. Among today’s EV owners, this is a pretty common scenario, but it’s one that’ll change as more people buy EVs. Which brings us to public charging.
Although it’s still cheaper than filling up with gas, I tend to avoid public charging because it’s significantly more expensive and considerably less convenient than doing so at home or at work. Even with today’s Level 3 DC fast-charging stations, you’ll need to be in the same place for at least 45 minutes to get a good charge. Level 2 charging, the sort you can get wired into your home, is OK if you’re going to be leaving your car in the same place for several hours, but if you’re just running into the grocery store, there’s almost no point. Unless you’re running on empty and need those couple extra miles to get home, public charging is not really worth the hassle if you’ve got a charger at home. If you don’t, you could get by on public Level 2 charging as long as you plug in almost every time you park and have made peace with the fact that you’ll rarely ever have a full battery and maximum range. Workable for city dwellers with short commutes but not ideal. Trust me, I’ve tried it.
Let’s pause for a minute for a quick primer. Level 1 charging, which is just plugging into any old outlet, gets you maybe 5 miles of ranger per hour charging. It’s basically only useful if you can plug in overnight or really need a few more miles of range to reach your destination. Level 2 is plugging into a dedicated charger or a 240-volt outlet (like for your electric clothes dryer), and it’ll get you up to 25 miles of range per hour charging. Much better, but if you’ve got a big battery and it’s empty, it still doesn’t feel like much. Level 3 is the current leader, with commercial-grade public chargers that can get even the biggest EV batteries up to 80 percent charged in 45 minutes or so. Chargers twice as powerful as Level 3 are on the horizon but not here yet.
Back to public charging. Level 2 chargers, being the older technology, are by far the most common. You can find them at malls, grocery stores, airports, train stations, or even just in a parking lot. It used to be they were nearly all free to use, a perk to entice customers with EVs. These days, most seem to charge money, with both flat fees and time-of-use fees depending on the owner. This brings us to our next issue with public charging: paying for it.
I’ve used public chargers from several companies, including ChargePoint, EVgo, Blink, and EV Connect, but a cursory internet search turns up at least 15 providers operating in the U.S. Every single one of them would prefer you sign up for a membership and download their app, but every one I’ve tried also allows for guest use. There are perks for membership, including better rates, quicker payment, and quicker activation at the charger, but the real benefit is not having to deal with guest access. At minimum, it requires entering a credit card number either online or through their app, which you’ll have to download. At worst, it requires calling the customer service line, waiting on hold, then reading them the charger’s ID number and your credit card number over the phone. Some EVgo stations I’ve used have credit card readers, but every one I’ve found hasn’t worked. Prices vary wildly as the charging networks generally let the owner of the station set the rates. Some charge a flat fee, some charge by total time or electricity used, and others do both.
When we first got the Bolt, I checked websites/apps such as PlugShare to figure out which public chargers were most common in my area. Around here, it’s ChargePoint and EVgo, so I signed up … for ChargePoint. At the time, all of EVgo’s options included a monthly fee, and I didn’t plan on using them enough to justify it. That’s changed in the past few months. This created its own issue. EVgo has a monopoly on Level 3 public chargers in Southern California, so every time I took a longer trip out to Palm Springs or San Diego, I’d have to use an EVgo station and make the transaction over the phone, which extended the length of my mid–road trip pitstop.
This is where public chargers are critical. The Bolt’s 238-mile range is great for everyday living and trips around the greater Los Angeles area. Getting somewhere farther than 120 miles—half the Bolt’s range—requires preplanning. Ideally, wherever I’m going, there’ll be a public Level 2 charger nearby and I’ll be there long enough to make it a nonissue, but that’s hardly a given and rarely the case. A Level 3 charger makes it a lot easier, but they’re far less ubiquitous even around here than Level 2s. Going to Palm Springs, as an example, requires me to stop at the outlet mall on the way back for an hour while the car charges, as there are very few Level 2 chargers in Palm Springs and none convenient to hotels and restaurants at this moment.
That assumes the charger is free, of course. I’ve been lucky; only once have I had to wait for someone else to charge before I could plug in, and I had planned to get lunch while the car charged anyway. It was a long lunch. Most places have only one public charger, and most of those only have one plug. Even in L.A., half a dozen public Level 2 chargers in one spot is a pleasant surprise. I’ve never seen more than one Level 3 charger in the same location, and although they all have both the CHAdeMO and SAE CCS plugs, EVgo Level 3 chargers can only charge one car at a time. ChargePoint has a new line of Level 3 chargers that can do multiple cars at once, but I’ve yet to encounter one. Finding an available charger is something of a crap shoot, but most apps will tell you (sometimes accurately, sometimes not) if the charger is in use if you know who runs it.
On top of occupied chargers, you also have to worry about gasoline-powered vehicles parked at chargers. Often the parking spaces with chargers are right up front so they can tap into the building’s electric grid. It’s not uncommon for gasoline-vehicle drivers to treat these like normal parking spaces and leave you high and dry, but people seem to be getting better about it.
This is all after you’ve actually found the charger. Some places are nice enough to put up signs pointing you to them, but often you’ve got to go looking. PlugShare and other apps are again helpful here. Other drivers can leave notes about the stations, including where on the property you can find them, how many there are, and whether they’re working. Some will even leave notes while they’re charging to give others permission to unplug their cars if they’re not back after a certain time. It’s a bit like hunting for a gas station in an unfamiliar town except they’re harder to spot; even the big Level 3 chargers can hide behind a pillar or large SUV.
All of this is just your standard public charging. In a pinch, there are all sorts of portable charging cords and adapters you can buy to grab a charge where you can. The most common are for 240-volt outlets, such as for ovens and dryers, though there are different plugs depending on the amperage, and you’ll need a different adapter for each. In my experience, 30-amp outlets are the most common, but you’ve got to find an unused one owned by someone who doesn’t mind you plugging into. RV parks and campsites, which use 50-amp outlets, are a good place to look and the easiest to go about paying the owner for use if there’s one nearby. Otherwise, you can always fall back on the good old 120-volt wall outlet, but you’ll be there a while. Do ask before you plug in, regardless, as someone is paying for that electricity and might not appreciate you running up their electric bill without asking, even if it’s only a few dollars’ worth.
I’ve waited to address public charging until my time with the Bolt is nearly up so I could provide as complete a picture as possible. Here in Southern California, where EVs are popular and public chargers are fairly common, public charging is workable if mildly inconvenient. So far, the number of chargers seems to have mostly kept pace with the popularity of EVs, but we’re already seeing lines forming at Tesla Superchargers. As EVs become more common, the public charging network is going to need to grow at the same or better pace to keep up, and whether that happens is anyone’s guess. If electric cars are ever going to be ubiquitous like some people predict, we’re going to need a lot more chargers, and we’re going to need them everywhere, at nearly every parking space, so people who can’t charge at home or are running low can top up. That’s going to take a lot of investment from a lot of people, and it remains to be seen if supply keeps up with demand.
Read More About Our 2017 Chevrolet Bolt:
|2017 Chevrolet Bolt Charging Update 6|
|Avg distance between charges||97.1 miles|
|Avg pre-charging state of charge||48%|
|Avg range pre-charge (ideal/predicted)||117/97|
|Avg energy per charge||28.32|
|Avg predicted charge time||6h, 20m|
|Avg post-charging state of charge||90%|
|Avg range post-charge (ideal/predicted)||237/180|
|Cost of public charging to date ($8.07 avg)||$298.42|
|Cost of office charging to date ($1.95 avg)||$126.89|
|Cost of home charging to date ($4.82 avg)||$115.68|
|Total charging cost to date||$540.99|