Electric car charging points explained
Confused by the many electric car charging station types and how they work? Read on for info on charging speeds and tethered charging
The process of topping up an electric car’s battery is totally different to the petrol station experience most of us are familiar with. Understanding the various connectors and charging speeds can seem overwhelming initially, but get it right and there are huge running cost savings to be had.
Unlike with petrol and diesel cars, you can fill up an electric car at home. Many electric vehicle (EV) drivers will benefit from having a home charger installed, allowing them to take advantage of cheaper off-peak electricity rates - and potentially cut out the need to ever have to fill up when away from home.
An overnight charge with a home charger typically means that a car is ready to go again in the morning with a full battery. And with a bit of planning, it’s possible to run a multi-EV household with just one home charging point.
You can always use an ordinary three-pin plug to charge, but this is the slowest option and dedicated home charging units cut charging times dramatically, making them a more practical option for most drivers. What's more, many manufacturers recommend that you avoid charging with a regular domestic socket unless it's absolutely necessary, because the prolonged usage can cause damage and be dangerous to your supply.
For many prospective electric car drivers, the challenge is understanding - and having to rely upon - the public charging network for longer journeys. While many current electric models are able to travel 200 miles or even 300 miles on a full charge, long trips may require you to use public charging points.
It’s not just the issue of compatibility that’s challenging. Sometimes public charging stations are out of use or faulty, and even if you find one with the right sort of connector, there are different designs that operate differently, with varying charging outputs and costs to use.
So, topping up an electric car can get confusing, which is why we’ve collated everything you need to know about charging an EV here.
Public electric car charging: cables and speeds
When it comes to power output, electric car charging points fall into two main categories: slower chargers that use an AC current, and rapid chargers using a DC current. Charging speeds are measured in kW, and the higher the number, the faster the charging rate will be. Don't confuse kW with kWh, which is the unit used to measure the total capacity of a battery.
It is worth remembering that the times can vary massively depending on the capacity of your battery. In addition, when using a rapid (DC) charger, an empty battery will be able to charge significantly quicker.
Some older electric cars may not be able to use rapid (DC) charging, and while most modern EVs support this, the charging speed is usually limited to 50kW or 100kW, with only larger and more expensive cars being able to take higher powers.
The types of charging cables and connectors used can vary depending upon the charger type, so before travelling to a charger, it's important to make sure it's compatible with your car.
|Charging station class||Typical power output||Estimated charging time for a 50kWh battery|
|Slow (AC)||2.3kW to 6kW||22 hours at 2.3kW|
|Fast (AC)||7kW to 43kW||7 hours at 7.2kW|
|Rapid (DC)||50kW to 100kW||0-80% in around 30-60 minutes, depending on car|
|Ultra rapid (DC)||100kW to 350kW+||0-80% in around 30-60 minutes, depending on car|
As mentioned above, batteries charge fastest when at their emptiest, which is why rapid and ultra-rapid charging times are usually quoted up to 80% charge. The reduction in charging speed at higher battery percentages is down to onboard computers in the car holding the charging rate back to protect the battery from excessive wear, rather than limitations of the charging point. Regardless, there is no way to remove this limit, even if you're in desperate need of a super-quick charge.
Electric car home charging
Home charging points are the most convenient way to charge your electric car if you have off-street parking. Not only can you top up overnight when electricity can be cheaper, but you can also rest assured that the charger will always be available when you arrive home - unless you regularly have charging battles with other people in your household.
Costs vary depending on the brand and type of charger you go for, but you can expect to pay around £1,000 or more for your own charging point. Most households are limited to a 7kW supply.
After the initial outlay of a residential charge point, you will be able to take advantage of cheaper electricity. Some suppliers offer costs as low as 7.5p/kWh, much lower than the UK average of around 34p/kWh, as of October 2022.
Bear in mind that many manufacturers often throw in free home chargers when buying a new electric car, so you may not have to pay extra to have your own charger. Remember, too, that you can always charge using an ordinary 2.3kW domestic plug, though you'll have to be able to get the car close enough to the plug as using an extension lead to charge a car can be dangerous and some models will prevent you from charging if the car cable is not directly plugged into the mains.
Electric car charging station types
EU guidelines stipulate that any new electric car sold since 2014 should have a standardised Type 2 connector, which means that tethered points (charging points with a built-in cable) should be compatible with any EV sold since then.
There is no regulated charging standard for rapid charging, though, which means manufacturers are free to pick between the slower and older and less common CHAdeMO connection or the faster and more readily available CCS connection. This shouldn’t be too much of an issue, because most rapid charging stations have both connectors, but CCS connectors do support higher charging speed. These high-speed chargers are always tethered, so there’s no need to fish out your own cable.
How to find an electric car charging station
Range anxiety - or the fear of running out of charge - has long been a concern for electric vehicle drivers, and while there have been huge improvements in the average range of EVs, finding a suitable public charging point can still be tricky.
Many mapping services - like Apple Maps and Google Maps - have started to incorporate these into their databases, as have in-car sat-navs to a certain extent. Dedicated EV mapping tools like Zap-Map (pictured above), which present all the information around connectors and pricing within the same app, can be far more usable, though.
Google Maps, available on both Android and Apple operating systems, lets users find the nearest charging stations while showing how many charging points there are and their power ratings, but sadly doesn’t show whether they are currently in use. Apple's Maps app also has built-in charging point locations.
Zap-Map, meanwhile, is available on desktop and mobile and is packed with handy features, such as a route planner which suggests potential charging stations to use along your route. If you enter the make, model and real-world range of your electric car, it can also take that into account. There is also a ‘Zap-Chat’ section which shows the comments of other motorists who have used the charging station you are looking at.
Most charge point providers, including Pod Point and BP Pulse, offer maps showing where their own charging points can be found, but you will naturally be limiting your selection by searching for one brand only.
Some cars’ sat-nav systems can provide up-to-date information about charging points, too, with Tesla models showing the location of the company's own chargers, whether you're likely to be able to get there without having to charge sooner, and how much battery charge you're likely to have left when you get there - very clever.
How to use an electric car charging station
While there may be a little bit of variation from charging point to charging point, you generally need to follow the same process for charging your electric car. For the most part, it's very similar to how you would pull up to a petrol station to fill up the tank. You may need to use your own cable for untethered points and potentially point your car in the right direction to make sure the cable reaches the charging port on the car.
You'll also need to establish how you're going to pay for your electricity. More and more public charging networks accept contactless payments, but in most cases, drivers will need the network’s app (some of which handily offer lower pricing for members).
Some charging companies let you view your charging progress within their app, but if this isn’t the case, your car’s app will usually display this too, so there’s no need to stay by the car to keep an eye on its progress.
Electric car charging point problems
Sometimes drivers arrive to find charging points closed, cables and connectors don’t work or aren’t compatible with their car, or there are no available charging points. Platforms such as Zap-Map are working to combat this, by providing up-to-date information about a charging point’s status as well as feedback from those who have recently used that charge point.
In our experience, reaching out to the network of any malfunctioning charging point has usually resulted in a remote reset of the device (if it's just a software glitch and not physical damage), though phone call wait times can be lengthy.
As mentioned above, don’t be too concerned if a rapid (DC) charger isn’t providing its full power - your car may be throttling this back to preserve battery health.