The complete guide to charging an electric car
Electric cars differ from petrol and diesel vehicles in the way they're refuelled: they're powered by electricity from the national grid, with a plug socket allowing their large batteries to be charged via a cable.
Plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) also feature a socket and a battery. This battery is often smaller than those typically found in electric cars, which is why PHEVs don't return as much zero-emissions range. While they feature an electric powertrain, plug-in hybrids more closely resemble normal cars as they also use an internal combustion engine running on either petrol of diesel.
The only drawback with charging is that it takes a lot longer than filling up at the pumps. A typical, household three-pin plug is the slowest method, with full charges likely take 24 hours or more. Home wallbox charging units are faster, offering top-up times of a few hours. Then there are public rapid-charging stations: these are few and far between at the moment, but compatible electric vehicles can be fully replenished in just minutes. Soon, you'll even be able to sell energy stored in your car's batteries back to the National Grid at times of high demand.
Electric vehicles and PHEVs use a small selection of different plug sockets and connectors: knowing the type of socket and cable your car has is important, as this will dictate where and how fast you can charge.
Charger types explained
In the early years of electric cars, one of the biggest dilemmas surrounded the kind of charging sockets and cables they would use. While fuel pumps and octane levels have long been standardised across various countries, electric vehicle manufacturers initially developed different connectors that best suited their cars’ batteries.
However, in Europe there has been a big push to simplify things. In 2014, the European Commission ruled that all new plug-in vehicles and all new charging stations should feature a Type 2 (occasionally called a Mennekes) connector.
Even though new plug-in vehicles now feature Type 2 sockets as standard, a single car may be compatible with multiple cables. That is to say a cable with a Type 2 connector at one end may have a different connector at the other, allowing it to plug into some power sources, but not others.
Not all plug-in cars come with a Type 2 cable as standard: some manufacturers will force you to buy them separately as an optional extra.
Most electric vehicles come with a cable that can be plugged straight into a three-pin socket at home. One limitation here is that the maximum current that can be drawn from most houses is 3kW, meaning a full charge on an electric car will the best part of a day, and possibly even longer.
Not all sockets can supply 3kW reliably: it's common for power to drop to 2kW (or lower), which will extend charging times even further. Another drawback is that sockets aren’t often near a driveway, so you will likely have to use an extension cord. Some manufacturers recommend that you avoid using an extension cable if at all possible, as drawing maximum current for a long period of time can potentially be dangerous.
This is a single-phase socket that allows a maximum charge speed of 7.4kW. They're predominantly found on older electric cars – such as the first-generation Kia Soul – in Europe, although newer vehicles have dropped it almost entirely. Some home and public charging units come with Type 1 connectors, although there are no public charging stations that only provide Type 1 cables. If you have a cable with a Type 1 plug at one end and a Type 2 plug at the other, you should be able to use the vast majority of public charging points.
The Type 2 socket is the most common kind on new electric cars and on most home wallbox charging hubs too. Like the Type 1 socket, it will allow a maximum, single-phase charging speed of 7.4kW, however it's also compatible with three-phase supplies – usually found on industrial estates – providing up to 22kW. Houses can upgraded to provide three-phase, but this requires work from a qualified electrician, and is usually very expensive.
This style isn’t very popular, as it was featured on cars such as the Ford Focus EV and other lesser-selling electric vehicles. Some public charging stations feature this connector, but they are rare.
This is a rapid DC charging connector, developed by a consortium of German and American car makers including VW, Audi, Porsche, General Motors, Ford, Mercedes-Benz and BMW. CCS stands for Combined Charging System, and it’s the favourite among European manufacturers as well as some Asian makers such as Hyundai. These are available for use only in public 'fast-charging' stations, which commonly provide 50kW of power. Your car must come with a CCS socket to be able to use the rapid chargers.
Rapid-charging stations – such as those provided on the growing IONITY network – can provide up to 350kW of power via a CCS connection, although in reality this is preparation for the future: no electric cars on sale can currently ingest electricity at that rate.
While CCS is a rapid DC charging technology developed by German and American manufacturers, CHAdeMO is its Japanese counterpart. Developed by Nissan, Toyota, Mitsubishi and a host of electrical appliance firms, CHAdeMO is Japan’s answer for rapid DC charging connectors. It also works on 50kW power and, again, cars have to feature a specific CHAdeMO socket to be able to use the connectors provided at public charging stations.
The good news is that all rapid DC charging stations that supply CCS connectors also supply CHAdeMO connectors.
Can I use a three-pin plug to charge my car?
Yes you can. Most electric vehicles and plug-in vehicles are supplied with a home charging cable that can be plugged into a regular socket. Bear in mind that the maximum current a home socket can draw is 3kW. This means fully charging an electric vehicle such as the 40kWh Nissan Leaf will take at least 13 hours.
Manufacturers are increasingly recommending that three-pin sockets be used as a last resort, so bear this in mind when deciding if an electric car is right for you.
How to use a home wallbox charger
Most plug-in car owners will install a wallbox charger to make charging their vehicles more convenient. You can either buy you have a tethered unit where the charging cable is attached box, or you’ve got get untethered one with just a socket, leaving you to provide the cable.
Charging is simple in either case: locate the socket on your vehicle (usually obscured by a cap, just like a fuel-filler cap) and plug in the cable. Lights in the wallbox will indicate whether charging has commenced, and most cars will have a read-out of their own on the dash or infotainment screen.
How to use a public charger
Public chargers are slightly different to use from home chargers: some require a subscription account or an RFID (radio frequency identification) card in order to access them, while others work on a pay-as-you go basis. To find the nearest ones, www.zap-map.com has the most comprehensive map of public chargers in the UK.
You can specify the type of connectors and speeds you’re after in order to refine your search. Click on the individual station icons, and it will tell you what the payment rates are – usually expressed in terms of pounds per kilowatt-hours – and whether or not you need a subscription account.
In order to make charging more convenient for drivers, the government has indicated that it would like to see contactless payments rolled out as standard for all public chargers. While some firms have committed to this, not all chargers have been made ready for it yet.
The actual charging process is as easy as with a home charger. Drive to an available bay, either pay in advance or use a subscription card to unlock the charger, and then simply connect the cable to your car’s socket.