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(Pocket-lint) - One of the biggest barriers to electric car adoption is charging. The fear of not being able to charge the car, not being able to find a charger, or not being able to figure out how it fits into your life, can deter prospective customers from considering an electric vehicle (EV) as their next vehicle.

But with an incoming ban on new petrol and diesel car sales for the UK, electric is something we will all have to embrace. So let us explain how electric car charging works in the real world.

Is charging an electric car difficult?

No, not at all. Most people will charge their electric car at home overnight, with public charging only needed on long journeys. Is it more complicated that rolling into a fuel station? Yes, it can be.

Zap-Map - which keeps a live database of the number of chargers in the UK - says there are over 15,500 charging locations in the UK, with almost 43,000 connectors (at the time of writing). These are in common locations like restaurant car parks, shopping centres or motorway service stations.

The simplest solution is home charging, but if that's not something that's available to you, then charging points in public car parks or at your place of work might be. It very much depends on how you want to use your car and whether you need it to be as fully charged as possible most of the time.

What speeds do electric cars charge at?

There are really three different types of charging for electric vehicles at the moment, although things aren't completely standardised, so there's some variation around these options:

  • Slow (AC, 3kW) - most cars will come with a 3-pin plug cable to charge from a standard domestic wall socket.
  • Fast (AC, 7kW-22kW) - from a domestic wallbox or public charging station, you should get a cable with the car.
  • Rapid (AC, 43kW; DC, 50-350kW; Tesla Supercharger V3, 250kW) - the fast-chargers you'll find on the motorway and elsewhere, the cable is attached to the charger.

There are AC (alternating current, like your domestic power supply), and DC (direct current) chargers. The AC chargers are lower power, so slow, the DC chargers are higher power, so faster.

However, the car itself plays a part in the rate of charging because it controls the flow of energy to the car's battery through its onboard charger. That will mean that the speed at which an individual car will charge, when connected to a power source, will vary.

For example, some manufacturers (Audi e-tron for example) will come with 11kW AC charging as standard and offer 22kW AC charging as an option. So, you could connect your car to a 22kW charger, but it might only charge at 11kW because the rate it charges at is governed by the car - so you'll need to check the small print for your car.

Equally, although there's up to 350kW charging on some networks, many cars only support 100kW charging, so they won't charge any faster than their top rate.

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Here are some examples for common cars charging speeds at various rates:

  • Nissan Leaf (40kWh): 3kW takes 21 hours; 7kW takes 7.5 hours; 50kW takes 60 minutes to 80 per cent
  • Jaguar i-Pace (90kWh): 3kW takes 30 hours; 7kW takes 12 hours; 50kW takes 85 minutes to 80 per cent
  • Tesla Model S (100kWh): 3kW takes 25 hours, 7kW takes 11 hours; 120kW takes 40 minutes to 80 per cent

Nothing in car charging is absolute because there are lots of variables, like environmental temperature, battery condition, and the number of people using the charging station - so everything is an approximation.

It's also worth noting that cars will vary the speed based on the charge level - up to 80 per cent will charge fast, before dropping off to slower charging for the last 20 per cent, which is done to preserve battery health in the vehicle.

What types of charging connector are there?

Your car will likely come with the cables it needs for slow domestic charging (i.e., a three-pin/EU plug on one end) and AC fast charging, which is usually a detachable cable you'll connect to the charger and the car. Finally, for rapid DC charging, the cable will often be permanently attached to the charger - like a fuel pump - so you just have to connect it to the car.

However, the connectors aren't all standard, but many look similar.

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Type 2 connector

This is the standard for charging in Europe and it's likely to be what you get on a domestic wallbox or a public AC charger (like you'll find in many supermarket carparks). Your car will probably have a Type 2 socket on it and a Type 2 cable in the boot (or under the hood). Type 2 will usually be used for AC charging at slow and fast rates.

You'll find Type 2 on many cars - Hyundai Ioniq, BMW i3, Audi e-tron.

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CCS (combined charging system) or Type 2 Combo

This is one of the standards used for rapid charging and is the standard in Europe. It's called "combined" because the top of the charger is the Type 2 connector shape, with a couple of additional pins at the bottom for the direct current. This means that on the car itself, a Type 2 charger would connect to the top section for AC charging, but the fast CCS charger would connect at the bottom too for the DC charge. As this is a rapid charging DC solution, the cable is connected to the charger "pump" permanently.

Because the Type 2 is part of this connection, you'll often find CCS on those Type 2 cars - Hyundai Ioniq, BMW i3, Audi e-tron.

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CHAdeMO

CHAdeMO is a larger connector used for DC rapid charging and you'll probably encounter it on the Nissan Leaf, or as pictured above on the right, the first-gen Kia Soul EV. 

CHAdeMO is one of those rapid DC charging solutions you'll find where the cable remains connected to the fast charger.

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Type 2 Tesla

Tesla also uses the Type 2 connector in Europe, but it's a variant that will support rapid charging from a Tesla Supercharger. This means there's one socket that will use most connections, from Supercharger to cable connection to a wallbox. In the US, Tesla uses a different connector. 

The Tesla Supercharger network is designed for Tesla cars only and even though you can potentially connect a car with a Type 2 socket, you won't be able to charge from it, because the car talks to the Supercharger to control the charging process. However, this will change in the future: in July 2021 Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, said the Supercharger network will open to all EVs.

However, the more recent Tesla Model 3 in Europe has a CCS connector on it, meaning some Tesla Superchargers have CCS too, usually marked as for Model 3 owners. Note that although the connector will fit other cars with a CCS socket, if it's not a Tesla, it can't use Tesla's charging network.

Other charger types

There's also a Type 1 connector, although this is older and not widely used. It's on the original Kia Soul EV (and there's a cable supplied that connects to it), but the 2020 Kia Soul EV moved over to CCS.

While many wallboxes will use a Type 2 connector, there's also the MK Commando, the industrial socket, which might be used as a source connector, especially in Europe where we've seen it offered in hotels. In this case you'll need to connect it to a charger cable and might need an adapter.

Why is the rapid charging only to 80 per cent?

The given figures for rapid charge only tell you how long it takes to reach 80 per cent. The reason for this is down to battery health, because the "rapid" part of the process only happens up to 80 per cent, with the last 20 per cent being much slower. This is to preserve battery condition and avoid overheating. 

As the car manages the charging process, the rate of charging drops off as it fills, so that last 20 per cent will take a lot longer. If you're slow-charging that's not a problem because the battery won't be getting hot, but on a fast charge it might. In most cases, the car battery has a thermal management system that will operate to either heat or cool the battery so that it stays within the optimum operational temperature range.

What about domestic wallboxes?

Home charging is the most cost effective way to charge your electric vehicle. You'll be on your domestic tariff for starters and in many cases you'll be able to say when charging will or won't happen. For example, you can tell your car to only charge off-peak so you're at a lower rate of cost. 

There are different types of wallbox, from the basic 3kW to a more standard 7kW, there are models with cables attached or those you connect to. A wallbox will need to be professionally installed and, in many cases, the cost will be subsidised by the car manufacturer. Installation isn't hugely expensive - you can get a wallbox from about £250 installed in the UK - but in some cases, buying a new car will get you a grant for a free wallbox install.

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What about public charging networks?

This is where things get a little more complicated. There are a number of different charging networks across the UK and Europe that you can access in public. 

In some cases, you'll need a card or an app to access a particular network's charger. That might sound confusing, but once you know what you have in your area and what you need to access, it will become a lot clearer.

For example, the BP Pulse (formerly Polar Network, but BP bought it) - one of the UK's most prevalent networks - allows you to subscribe for a monthly fee (£7.85) to get access to its chargers, but you can then charge at no cost for the electricity you use on many of its network chargers. But it also offers pay-as-you-charge pricing too, meaning you can just stop and pay with a contactless card.

The UK's motorways have Ecotricity's Electric Highway installed, which requires you to sign-up and use the app on your phone. This will allow you to start and stop the charging and take care of the billing. You're charged per kWh that you charge. At the time of writing that's 30p per kWh.

Ionity, which is installing some of the fastest chargers in the UK and Europe at 350kW, will let you use the app on your phone to connect and pay. The extra speed costs much more, however, at the time of writing it's 69p per kWh - which is much more expensive than petrol or diesel fuels.

Other networks, like GeniePoint (common in the South West of England), requires you to sign-up but then use a web app through your phone. You can also register an RFID card (it can be any card, it just links it to your account), you then pay a £1 connection fee per charge and then a per kWh that you take (35p per kWh at time of writing).

At the moment the public charging setup is full of variables. The easiest approach is to register for a couple of services you'll encounter and use an app like Zap-Map to help you locate chargers when you're away from home charging. That will also let you see if the charger you want is working - as this might dictate the route you choose or where you park, for example - although there's not a 100 per cent guarantee a charger will be in working order, as we've found out on many occasions. This is why Zap Map is useful though: you can report broken or malfunctioning chargers.

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Some manufacturers are also setting up other schemes that will allow access to various different charging networks (a little like Tesla), but you'll have to look at the individual specifics of any scheme you use. The Tesla Supercharger Network is by far the simplest solution at the moment, because you just connect your car, it authenticates and then you get your charge - with the cost reflected on the screen inside (it's 28p per kWh at the time of writing - when it opens to all EVs we don't know if the cost will vary for non-Tesla vehicles).

How much do electric cars cost?

The price of electric cars is now firmly in the affordable category too, with basic models costing around £20,000 and new luxury models offering the experience to fit their £60,000+ price tag. The UK Government is still running the PICG incentive scheme that will see you get up to £2,500 off the price of an electric car that meets the set criteria (anything over £35,000 is ineligible, however, after the government reduced the grant scheme and shook up the system). You can read more about the criteria for electric vehicles, and how much you could receive, on the UK Government website.  

As for the electricity costs themselves, that will depend on the charging network tariffs or your domestic electric tariff (home is where most of the charging will happen, in which case, the Energy Saving Trust estimates you'll be paying around £2-4 per 100 miles. Increasingly, there's a push towards solar panels and domestic energy storage to take you off grid - with the likes of Nissan and Tesla both pushing this as an option. 

If you're doing lots of long journeys and are pushed towards Ionity as a supply option, for example, then your running costs will be much more than current fossil fuel prices. The exception would be if you buy a Tesla, as Supercharger networks are close to a third the cost of Ionity and less than fossil fuels. Electric Highway is the happy medium, useful for occasional top-ups away from home.

There are also fewer moving parts to an electric car, so servicing costs are much lower, meaning that on average, EVs are cheaper to run than petrol or diesel cars. You also don't have to pay emissions charges and there are tax breaks for business users too, so EVs can be much more affordable to run than a conventional combustion engine.

Writing by Chris Hall. Editing by Mike Lowe. Originally published on 25 July 2018.