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What's a smart charger? Do I need one for my EV?

UK law mandates you’ve got to use a smart charger. So what exactly is it?

Published: 11 May 2023

As the number of electric vehicles sold in the UK and around the world continues to grow, more and more of us are looking at slapping a wallbox (y'know, those outdoor EV-charging sockets) on the sides of our homes.

If you've already got one that was bought before 30 June 2022, the chances are it's a 'legacy' charger that simply connects to the car with a cable and, er, puts electricity in it. At a push, you might be able to set a timer.

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Since then however (and in addition to making housing developers responsible for installing EV home charge points with all new builds), a new law means all EV home chargers sold now have to be 'smart' chargers.

Yep, the law now states that home chargers have to be clever. There are several benefits to this, which we shall explain momentarily.

So, what is a smart charger?

A smart charger - or smart home charging point, or wallbox... whatever you want to call it - has a data connection to the car, the grid and your energy provider. Just like your smart electric or gas meter, you’ve got more visibility and control over your electric car charging. And the smart tech enables the system to be controlled remotely, by you and your energy provider.

Since home chargers usually charge your car much more slowly than the 'rapid' devices you get at most service stations, some smart chargers also have ‘boost’ functionality, which will speed up charging if you need to leave the house sooner than planned.

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Does that mean there are non-smart chargers?

As mentioned, legacy chargers don’t have the same connected tech, simply drawing down the power from your household supply when you plug your car in. And that's merely three-pin plug levels of intelligence.

Got it. How do these smart chargers work then? And why do I need one?

Smart chargers are the quickest way to rapidly reduce your EV's running costs, not least because the recent hikes in energy prices have made some public charging points obscenely expensive.

When you plug in, the smart charger may or may not be controlled by a touchscreen but will always have a companion app with which you can remotely control the time and speed of the charge.

The connection to the grid and provider will one day enable your car to absorb the energy made by green sources like wind turbines, essentially using your car like a giant power bank. With lots of EVs plugged in, the grid will be able to do this on a national scale. Exciting times.

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And so, the government has passed legislation about making all chargers smart, in preparation for the Great Electric Switchover of 2030 (not officially an actual thing). No doubt to avoid a Great Electric Power Outage Debacle when everyone tries to charge at the same time.

How much will a smart charger cost me to install?

It varies, depending on how bothered you are about how it looks and whether you need any of the extra features, as described above. Some models can cost as little as £350 (without installation).

Others cost upwards of £1,000 (again, just for the device), but offer a choice of colours and styles so you can avoid the soap-dispenser-on-the-garage-wall design of some of the cruder models.

Installation costs for smart charging points can vary depending on your location. That’s because you’ll need an MSC-certified electrician for the installation. The good news is, if you time it right (think Fridays around 4.30pm or Sundays at 3.45pm) plenty of dealerships are willing to throw in some discounts to secure that final sale before they shut for the night.

Most smart charger manufacturers have a network of approved installers too, so that takes some of the legwork out of getting set up.

Any money-saving schemes I should know about?

There are a few schemes being run by various organisations, including some government bodies, to offset some of the costs of installation, if you can’t get the dealership to discount. If you don’t qualify for one, try another. 

The government’s original Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme (EVHS) came to an end in April 2022. It was replaced with a promise to assist with home charge point installation, provided you meet certain criteria.

Landlords, flat dwellers, those renting and businesses are those being targeted by the new scheme. If you’re a homeowner with a driveway, you’re less likely to qualify. Sorry.

Will it make my charging costs cheaper?

It’s likely. When it comes to how much you’re paying to charge, all smart charging points help you control that. Night time is often seen as the best time to charge an electric car because this is when demand is lowest and electricity is cheapest. Some energy providers provide special EV tariffs too.

The UK's Big Six providers have all offered energy deals geared towards making EV charging cheaper: while some of these have been withdrawn in light of the energy crisis, the likes of Octopus Energy and OVO Energy continue to offer packages to keep electricity prices as low as 10p per kilowatt-hour (the standard rate is around 32p/kWh).

How long will it take to charge my electric car?

There are a number of factors that determine how long an EV battery takes to recharge, including the type of electrified car you're driving. For example, fully electric cars usually have much bigger batteries than plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs), and therefore need more time to fully replenish.

As a general rule, a 0-100 per cent charge is an overnight job on a smart charger that maxes out at 7kW.

But remember, you're never (we hope) going to get home with 0 miles of range left on the gauge and you're unlikely to need a full battery for a day's driving unless you're going long-distance.

Need to make the most of the juice in your EV? Here are six top tips for wringing out as much range as possible.

Should I buy a tethered or untethered smart charger?

That's a great question. And much of it depends on whether the model of smart charger you've chosen gives you a choice in the first place. Some of the more advanced chargers are tethered (i.e. are fitted with their own cable) to better manage power and the features on offer.

Tethered chargers can look a bit unsightly to some as it means leaving the cable exposed to the elements (unless there's a clever mechanism for hiding it). Having said that, an untethered smart charger (i.e. with just a socket) means you'll be pulling your own cable out of the boot in the pouring rain more often than you really bargained for.

If you're confused about EV sockets now, this handy guide explains all you need to know.

Where do solar panels come in?

Solar panels have become more popular since the energy prices leapt up, but there isn’t a huge choice of smart chargers that are compatible with solar panels. If you have these, or intend to install them in the next five years, you’ll want to pick a smart charger that will help prioritise the use of any excess energy. 

For example, your home will draw down all the energy being generated by your panels. Anything spare could charge your EV, heat your hot water cylinder (if you have one) or charge your home power bank (again, if you have one). By directing excess energy to your EV, you could lower your charging costs even more.

Could charging my car affect the power to my house?

Possibly, though with a smart charging unit, the danger of that happening is really very small. They have safety mechanisms to prevent 'nuisance tripping'.

Some smart chargers offer load-balancing features, which is handy if your household has more than one EV. In the simplest terms, this helps you charge your cars simultaneously without tripping the power for the whole house. It’s also considered safer for your car’s battery.

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