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How do you charge an electric car?

So you’re thinking of buying an EV. Great! But, um, how do you charge an electric car? This is how…

Published: 25 Apr 2023

Congratulations! You are either the proud new owner of a planet-saving, neighbour-impressing electric car, or you are thinking about owning a planet-saving, neighbour-impressing electric car. Either way, this is big news.

And presumably if you’ve clicked on an article headlined ‘How do you charge an electric car?’, you’re more likely to be in the latter camp at the moment. If not, well… that is an interesting move on your part.

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You see, switching from petrol or diesel to a ‘leccy-driven car means you’re about to embark on a number of changes. None more fundamental than how you put the energy in the things to make ‘em move.

So without further ado, here’s our explainer on how to charge an electric vehicle (EV). You could say it’s EV-peasy… yep, bad joke. We’ll up our game now.

How do I charge an electric car?

You charge an electric car by plugging a special charging cable into a special socket. That’s it in a nutshell. What, you want more?

Okay, if you’ve got your own driveway or garage space, the vast majority of the charging you do will take place at home. This is good news because it’s convenient (no more queuing at the forecourt) and where you’ll usually find the cheapest electricity. Yes, even in these financially troublesome times.

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Most people opt to install a home charging unit - often called a wallbox - because they can be fitted outdoors (so no trailing an extension cable out the window) and offer faster charging times than can be achieved with a three-pin plug. Generally these offer up to 11kW of power, but that depends on the unit you get installed and how much of a current your house can process. Most in the UK are set up on a ‘single-phased’ connection, whereas faster ‘three-phase’ setups are normally reserved for industrial sites.

When you need to top up your electric car’s battery, simply pop the cover open and plug the cable into the socket. There’s nothing more to it than that, other than some home charging units that allow you to customise your charging session via a smartphone app. Which can be very handy.

App or no app, most EVs will show the estimated charging time on the dashboard.

Won’t youths simply unplug my car and leave me stranded?

A fair concern, and also an invalid one. Electric car sockets are built with a locking mechanism in place, so once you’ve plugged in and locked the car the cable will be locked in place. So miscreants and pranksters can’t simply run around the estate yanking out cables.

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What if I can’t charge at home?

Ah, well in that case you’ll need to find yourself a public charging point to replenish those juices. These can be found everywhere from lampposts (occasionally) to service stations (very frequently): the most comprehensive map of chargers in the UK is Zap Map, although some EVs can be programmed to find the nearest charging point via the sat nav.

If you’re lucky you might work somewhere that already has a bank of charging points installed in the car park. In which case you can simply commute to work, top up while you fulfil your nine-to-five, then head home again. Easy.

But if you’re travelling longer distance, you will need to stop somewhere that has a rapid charger; other names include ‘fast’ or ‘ultra-fast’ chargers. There’s a lot of jargon, sorry.

What on earth is a rapid charger?

It’s a charging point that has been designed to top up your electric car as quickly as possible. These can provide anywhere between 50kW and 350kW via a DC current, as opposed to the slower AC current that powers everything from your lawnmower to your toaster at home.

How long does it take to charge an EV?

The simple answer is ‘it depends’. The more complicated answer is that it depends on what sort of charger you’ve plugged into, and how much power your electric car will accept as electricity is thrust into it.

If you’ve plugged into a home charger and need a full top up, you can expect it to take a few hours at least. Most people plug in overnight so they wake up to a full battery.

However, if you’ve plugged in to charge at a service station’s rapid charger, then your turnaround time could be as little as half an hour. Just remember that the last 20 per cent of your charge will be much slower than the first 80 per cent, as the physics of ramming electricity into a battery means the charging rate slows down the closer it gets to being full.

Oh! Is that why I’ve read so much about a car’s 0-80 per cent charge time?

Exactly that. And let’s face it, if you’re paying for rapid charger access and the energy is only trickling in, you’ll get fed up of waiting. And there could well be a queue of fellow EV drivers behind you, all pacing up and down and tapping their watches. Best not make them any more irate.

Do I, um, need a travel adaptor for my electric car’s socket?

Goodness no. A few years ago there were a variety of electric car charging cable heads/sockets on the market, but the Type 2/CCS combo is now almost entirely universal on EVs that you can buy today.

The Type 2 bit is usually for slow-ish charging and it fits into the CCS socket: the full CCS plug adds another couple of round contact points to the charger and allows for the super-fast charging speeds that’ll have you topped up in no time when you’ve peeled off the motorway.

Of course, you can top up an electric car via a three-pin household socket if you want to, but this usually isn’t recommended as they’re not designed to take that amount of current for that many hours at a time. Remember, you won’t be looking for a three-pin socket on the car itself, you’ll need to use a three-pin-to-Type-2 cable for this. These are often supplied with new EVs, but not always.

How much will charging cost?

The simple answer is ‘it depends’. Apologies, is the deja vu too much for you? As a rule of thumb, topping up at home is the cheapest way to do it, and if you can top up at night that sometimes means you can make the most of the cheapest tariffs because electricity is at its most affordable when demand is low.

Charging in public is usually more expensive, because the provider will be making their cut and you’ll also be paying a premium for the faster speeds typical on rapid chargers. You can sometimes subscribe - or take out a membership - to certain providers in order to get a cheaper rate, but ad hoc access - where you simply rock up and pay by card - is now law for new charging stations.

We’ve got a full explainer on electric car charging costs here.

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