EV Charging Standards 101

As our world is beginning to see the lights at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, we are also beginning to see the lights of electric vehicles on our roads. EV’s (short for Electric Vehicles) have experienced a new “surge” in interest over the past year thanks to a new administration putting the pedal to the metal in getting more electric vehicles on the roads. In just the past few months, multiple car companies have made headlines with announcements of new and exciting all-electric cars such as the Ford F150 Lightning and the Nissan Altima. These new vehicles aren’t just existing cars with a battery stuck inside them; rather, they have been engineered from the ground up to take advantage of the unique characteristics of electric vehicles. Not only is it environmentally friendly and cheaper to drive an EV, but it has other benefits such as no oil changes, no brake pad replacements, and no transmissions or alternators to break down. But while many people seem to be interested in buying an electric vehicle, many are nervous about how vehicle charging works.

As you may already know, unless you are driving a hybrid vehicle, you can’t put gasoline into an electric car. If you don’t want to get stranded in the middle of an interstate, you have to keep your battery charged up. Most electric vehicles have battery capacity ranging from 24 kWh to upwards of over 100 kWh. What is a kWh? kWh stands for Kilowatt Hour and is a measurement of electrical capacity (or, as your science teacher would put it: the capacity for your car to do work or move). Electric car batteries are huge. To give you an idea of the size of some EV batteries, a 100 kWh found in a Tesla Model X could easily power the average American household for just over three days and could charge an iPhone 12 at least 9200 times. These batteries provide the high amounts of power needed to drive sometimes hundreds of miles on a single charge. Now with great power comes a great need to charge. Because of the size of these batteries, a standard wall outlet won’t always be sufficient to charge your vehicle fast enough. Instead, EV chargers are typically divided into three categories or levels.

Level 1 (Snail’s pace but accessible anywhere there is a standard 120V wall outlet):
Level 1 charging is slow, very slow, like the line at the DMV slow. It can juice a car up about 4–6 miles per hour of driving range. This is usually not adequate for most drivers; however, if you typically don’t drive many miles in the day, this option might work for you (as a college student in Boulder, CO, this solution was sufficient for me during my freshman year). While slow, level 1 charging has one significant benefit, it works anywhere you have a wall outlet. This is perfect for situations where you are in a location without a good way of powering up your vehicle. Most cars, such as the Nissan Leaf, come with a level 1 charger that can be easily taken anywhere for emergency charging. All EV’s on the road today work with Level 1 chargers.

Level 2 (Perfect for most driving scenarios):
Level 2 charging is by far the most common type of public vehicle charging available. It is much faster than level 1, providing charging speeds that vary depending on the kW rating of the charger. According to data from a public EV charging company ChargePoint, a 6.2–7.6 kW charger can give about 20–25 miles of range an hour. This is perfect for most driving situations and can usually completely fill up even the largest of EV batteries overnight. Level 2 chargers can also be installed at home by using a 240V electrical line. The cost of installation can vary depending on how your house is wired, but it generally isn’t too expensive even if you need to add an additional 240V line as government incentives in certain states will help pay for a charger. Just like level 1 charging, level 2 charging is available on all EV’s that are on the road today and use the same plug shape for level 1. There are many apps to assist you in finding the nearest Level 2 charging, such as PlugShare or ChargePoint. Some locations like Scott Carpenter Park in Boulder, Colorado offer free charging!

DC-Charging/Level 3 (SUPER SPEED): 
Contrary to popular belief, there is technically no such thing “level 3” charging. However, I believe level 3 is the easiest term for consumers to understand. What people are referring to when they say level 3 charging is called DC Fast charging (Direct Current). Unlike level 1 and 2 charging which use AC (Alternating current) that has to be converted to DC by your car before it reaches the battery, DC charging directly sends power to your battery. This type of charging is extremely fast and the exact amount of miles of range per hour gained varies greatly based on the specific specifications of the charger and what a particular vehicle can accept. In some cases, this charger can add upwards of hundreds of miles of range in less than an hour. Many EV’s can be charged to 80% in about 30 minutes. Why 80%? Batteries (including the one in your phone) typically slow down charging speeds around 80% capacity to reduce battery degradation over time. This type of charger is usually only necessary for road trips where you need to juice up fast. These chargers are extremely expensive to install, and you probably won’t find one installed in a home. All Tesla Supercharger locations are DC fast chargers. Unfortunately, Non-Tesla DC Fast chargers currently have more limited availability and are compatible with most, but not all EV’s on the road today. To make things a little more complicated, there is a DC charging standards war that further complicates things that I will touch on in a bit.

You may have noticed how I avoided for the most part stating how fast each charging level can fully charge a car’s battery from 0–100%. I believe it is more important for buyers to understand the miles of driving range per hour added when charging rather than the percentage of battery capacity gained as every car is different, and each vehicle can have vastly different sized batteries and charging speed caps. Take a 2015 Nissan Leaf which has a battery capacity of 24 kWh, which gives an estimated range of just 84 miles. Now take a Tesla Model X with a 100 kWh battery with an estimated range of 325 miles. If a 6.6 KW charger charges a Nissan Leaf from 0–100% in 4 hours, that same amount of power delivered would have charged the Tesla to just 26%, yet the Tesla will have received a similar amount of range as the Nissan Leaf in that same time frame.

Now for the yucky stuff: Charging standards.
Charging standards are typically defined the shape of the plug used and how power is delivered to your vehicle. Like how an iPhone cannot be charged using the same cord that can charge Android devices without an adapter (or dongle) and vice versa, EV’s are dealing with a similar issue. In North America, there are four common charging standards:

Image source: https://evcharging.enelx.com/images/PR/Articles/blog/EMW_plugs_.jpg

Note: This image erroneously states that CHAdeMO is a Japan only standard.

AC Standards (Level 1 and 2):
-J1772 (sometimes called J-Plug): Your standard connector that is found on every US electric vehicle not ending in the word “esla”. 
-Tesla Connector: Similar to Apple’s lightning cable in that it is proprietary and only compatible with Tesla cars.

DC Standards (DC Fast Charging “Level 3” ):
-CCS (Combined Charging System): Sometimes called CCS1 in the US. A port that not only supports DC fast charging but can accept a level 1 or 2 J1772 charging cord on the top half making this an attractive standard and likely the winner of the standard war. Not currently compatible with Tesla’s (fun fact: there is a CCS2 Tesla adapter for European markets, but no CCS1 adapter exists for the US). 
-CHAdeMO: Also supports DC fast charging. Compatible with cars such as the Nissan Leaf and Tesla’s (with an adapter). This standard seems to have lost to CCS as more and more cars are dropping support for it and using CCS instead.
-Tesla: Only compatible with Tesla’s. Found at Tesla supercharger stations.

It is understandable if this technical jargon fried your brain. There are, unfortunately additional variations with these standards in different countries, so finding a cohesive explanation of each standard in North America took a little bit more time than a simple Google search. Here are the key takeaways for each standard that you should remember:

J1772 is like a sociable people person who gets along with a bunch of different people. It is compatible with all modern EV’s (some Tesla’s may need an adapter) and can provide slow but always available level 1 charging and the best for most cases level 2 charging. It can also plug into the top half of a CCS port.
Mnemonic device: 1772 is a large number and J1772 works with a large number of cars.

CCS (Combined Charging System): The USB-C of the EV charging world and J1772’s best friend. Likely the future port for mainstream DC-Fast charging “Level 3” just like USB-C is the future of device charging. It is being used by many different automakers. Most importantly, it can act as one port for all levels of charging since a J1772 plug can fit into the top half. 
Mnemonic device: You will “See see us” all over the EV charging world. Combined meaning you can also plug in a J1772 plug into the same connector.

Tesla: The Apple Lightning port of the EV charging world. It is widely available, but like how the Lightning cable can only charge iPhones, the Tesla connector can only charge Tesla cars. 
Mnemonic device: It works only with Tesla.

CHAdeMO: A standard soon to go the way of the DVD or VHS tape. CHAdeMO is in the process of becoming a legacy standard with little support. 
Mnemonic device: CHAdeMO stands for Charge For Moving. More like Charge for Moving On.

Whew! While there is indeed a variety of EV jargon to remember, especially when it comes to charging, most people will have no issue figuring it out once they own an EV. Fortunately, it looks like the charging situation will be less complex in the future as Tesla announced this year that they are planning to open their Supercharger stations to non-Tesla vehicles. This announcement is huge as it will not only greatly improve the critically needed fast-charging infrastructure for all vehicles but will eliminate some of the incompatibilities of the different charging standards. With all of the new and exciting vehicles arriving over the next few years, joining the world of electric cars is becoming increasingly more attractive. As an EV owner myself, I believe now is the perfect time to consider making your next vehicle purchase an electric experience.