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 car. 

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 6,500 charging locations in the UK, with over 18,000 connectors (at the time of writing). These are in common locations like shopping centre car parks or motorway service stations for example.

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 fully charged all 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 standardised, so there's lots of variation):

  • 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, 50-100kW; Tesla Supercharger, 120kW) - the fast chargers you'll find on the motorway, 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, the DC chargers higher power.

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 etron 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.

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

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

Nothing in car charging is absolute because there are lots of variables, like environmental temperature, so everything is an approximation.

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 - a little 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 get at the supermarket. You car will probably have a Type 2 socket on it and a Type 2 cable in the boot. 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 etron.

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CCS (combined charging system) or Type 2 Combo

This is one of the standards used for rapid charging and is likely to be the adopted 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 rapid CCS charger would connect at the bottom too for the DC charge.

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

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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 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 connection, 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. 

Other charger types

There's also a Type 1 connector, although this is older and not widely used. It's still on the Kia Soul EV (and there's a cable supplied that connects to it), but we're not sure it will be on the next model of Kia, as it's slowly being phased out.

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. In the case of a Commando socket, the cable going into your car will likely be one of the above types.

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 car. 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. 

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 - 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 most 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.

There are different schemes. For example, the Polar Network will charge you a monthly fee (£7.95) to get access to its chargers, but you can then charge at no cost for the electricity you use - but it also offers pay-as-you-charge pricing too. Charge Your Car offers a similar approach at £20 a year.

There's a shift towards oil companies offering charging points on forecourts too - and in some cases, you can charge your electric car free. So, yes, it's a very varied experience, but once you're an EV onwer, you'll soon figure out what your demands are and what works for you.

How much do electric cars cost?

The price of electric cars is now firmly in the affordable category too, with basic models costing around £13,000 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 £3,500 off the price of an electric car that meets the set criteria. 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. 

There are also fewer moving parts, so servicing costs are much lower, meaning that on average, electric cars are cheaper to run than petrol or diesel cars.