If you recently bought an electric car or you’re thinking about it, I’m excited for you. After picking out the perfect car, you have to pick out the perfect car charger.
That’s right, electric car chargers aren’t cookie-cutter products where they’re all identical. In fact, two options could be dramatically different and you could wind up buying a charger you don’t like using.
There are lots of options on the market when it comes to electric car chargers. Consider how fast you want to charge your car, how much money you’re willing to spend, if you want added features, where you’ll put the charger, and how safe the charger is. The answer varies from consumer to consumer.
In an effort to save you time, money, and headaches, I put together this buyer’s guide. I’ll walk through the inner workings of your EV, explain the different chargers on the market, and ultimately give you 9 helpful tips to help you decide which charger is perfect for you. Let’s get started.
Quick Disclaimer: For Residential Use Only
Just to quickly clear things up, this article is written with the consumer in mind. The topics and details I give are specific to consumer-grade electric car chargers. Commercial operations use different voltages and terminology.
In other words, this article is for people looking to charge their electric car at home — it’s not for businesses looking to install a charging station outside of their office.
How EV Chargers Work
Charging an electric car is something that we all know about and accept. The only issue is, how does it actually work?
Well, it’s sort of like charging your phone, just a little different. The outlets in your home have electrical power patiently standing by.
When you plug in your phone charger, the electricity starts flowing out. When your phone is plugged into the other end, the connection is made between the wall and your phone’s battery (to oversimplify).
Batteries are built like a two-way highway. Power can go out of the battery and power the phone or car components. By doing this, the “reserve” of power in the battery goes down. After enough time, the battery dies and can’t be used to power your device.
On the other lane of the highway, batteries are built to allow electricity in. This effectively restores their “reserve” and allows the battery to be used again.
An EV charger gets plugged into your home’s electrical grid and charges the battery in your electric vehicle.
Charging your EV is the only way to increase the driving range. The way they recharge is also a big reason why electric cars last longer than gas cars.
Understanding Voltage and Amperage
When you talk about car chargers, voltage and amperage often come up. Voltage is how much electrical power is available. When it comes to EV chargers, this really depends on your home’s available voltage. Often, this is something that you can’t change.
Amperage is the current of a wire that’s being plugged into a socket in the wall. Different sizes of wires allow for different amperages to go through them. If you want to imagine this concept, amperage is how much electricity can fit through a wire at any given time. A higher amperage means electricity can travel faster to the end device.
The cable used will determine the amperage of the charger.
The fastest charge possible has the highest voltage and highest amperage.
Why Does Your Electrical Car Charger Choice Matter?
So, why does it even matter what charger you have? There are actually a few reasons. Let’s take a look.
Speed of the Charge
The biggest variable between car charger options is how fast it can charge your car. If you want to restore your battery’s range as fast as possible, then it all boils down to your car charger.
Most chargers come with a rough “range per hour” value. This tells you about how many added miles of range you’ll get per hour that your car is charging. Faster chargers have higher RPH values.
Compatibility With Your Home
Some homes simply can’t deliver the voltage that a car charger requires. Trying to put a 240V charger into a home that can only deliver 120V simply won’t work.
Compatibility With Your Car
Certain cars only work with certain chargers. For example, a Tesla 3 car charger won’t work on a standard Chevy Bolt.
The charging port in your car will dictate which type of charger you can use. This is the case for fast chargers, at least (more on this later).
Make sure you buy a car charger that actually works for your car. For home use, non-Tesla car chargers have a universal port, so you can’t pick them up incorrectly. Tesla uses their own proprietary charger.
Make Sure You’re Not Wasting Money
There is a little bit of confusion when it comes to sizing your car charger. Opting for the highest voltage and amperage rating on a charger doesn’t mean that you’ll get a faster charge.
If your outlet only offers 120V and you plug in a 240V charger, you’ll still only charge at a rate of 120V. The same is true for using a higher amperage than your car can handle.
All you’re doing is spending more money for a charger that won’t charge any faster than a lower-level one. Don’t waste your money.
The Levels of Electric Car Chargers
As promised, here’s a little more insight into the levels of electric car chargers. This is going to come in handy as you shop around.
Level 1 chargers are the slowest, least expensive, and least invasive. It gets powered by 120 Volts and uses a standard SAE J-1772 plug. The plug has 5 circles arranged in an upside-down pentagon, with larger circles on the top and bottom of the configuration.
This level of charging is the most ubiquitous around the country. Almost every house comes with 120 Volts that can be used for charging. Actually, if you have an outlet in your garage, you can already start charging at Level 1 without added construction or upgrades.
The amperage is going to range from about 12 to 16. If you run the math out, it equates to about 3 to 6.5 miles of range per hour. That means an overnight charge of 10 hours will yield up to 65 miles of range at the highest.
- Least expensive
- Least invasive
- Most readily available
- Almost every house can accommodate this
- Standard charging port
- Slowest charging
The next-fastest option is Level 2. This uses the same trusty SAE J-1772 plug that the Level 1 charger use. The big difference here is that Level 2 chargers call for 240 Volts, not 120.
This upgraded voltage typically means you’ll need to do some modifications in your garage. You’ll need to up the wiring and add in an electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) unit. In other words, you need a professional electrician to come in and do some work.
What’s the payoff? Much faster-charging speeds.
The amperage ranges from 16 to about 40. The corresponding range per hour rate is about 10 to 45 miles. This equates to 450 miles of range from a 10-hour charge.
Even though they take more energy, this style of charge is usually more energy-efficient than Level 1 chargers. Still, they’ll cost much more on your monthly electric bill (as negligible as that amount is).
- Faster charging speeds
- More energy-efficient
- More expensive
- Requires professional installation
Level 3 (Also Known as DC Fast Charging)
Level 3 chargers are exclusively reserved for commercial buildings. For one, they require DC power (your home uses AC electricity). On top of that, they require a DC voltage upwards of 480V.
In addition to high voltage, these chargers also have amperages over 100. This highest level of charging is by far the fastest. Some stations offer a 0-80% recharge in less than an hour.
The type of charger used will vary from car to car. There are three general types of fast charger ports:
- Tesla Supercharger
- AE Combined Charging System (Combo/CCS)
- Fastest possible charge
- Can’t be used in your home (for commercial use only)
- Super expensive to install
- Some concerns about battery health after using a fast charger
How to Decide Between Level 1 and Level 2 Chargers
As a reminder, Level 2 chargers are a lot faster than Level 1 chargers, but they require an electrician to do the upgrade. So, do you bring in an electrician or just get a Level 1 charger that plugs into the wall? It’s not the easiest answer — it varies from person to person.
The ability to choose how fast your car “refuels” is one of many compelling reasons to switch to an EV in the first place.
Anyway, how are you supposed to pick between Levels 1 and 2? It all revolves around your required daily range.
Using Your Daily Required Range
If you commute 20 miles one way, then you need a minimum of 40 miles of range a day. This means that you need a charger that can provide 40 miles during a single session overnight.
In this example, let’s say you get home at 5:00 pm and leave for work at 7:30 am. That leaves you 14.5 hours to recharge and make up 40 miles. As long as your charger can accommodate 2.75 miles of range per hour, you’re fine. This lands you in the Level 1 category.
If you need to do the same daily commute but have less than 6 hours to charge each day, you’ll need a Level 2 charger.
Here’s a quick equation to figure out which level you need (in general)
Miles used per day/hours your car is plugged in overnight
If the number you calculate is higher than 6.5, you’ll need a Level 2 charger. Less than that and you can get away with a Level 1.
Can You Charge at Work?
Another consideration before deciding between Level 1 or 2 is whether or not you can charge outside of the house.
A lot of businesses have EV charging stations in their parking lots. This means that you can charge your car at work rather than at home. This will completely change the equation and will probably result in you getting away with just a Level 1 charger.
Think about it: if you’re charging 8 hours a day while you work, you won’t need to charge for 8 hours at night.
If the average commuter works 8 hours and has 12 hours of overnight charging, any commute under 65 miles one way will land you in the Level 1 zone (20 hours times 6.5 miles of range per hour is 130 miles. Divided by 2 is a 65-mile one-way commute).
Alternatively, see if there are neighboring businesses that wouldn’t mind you using their charging stations.
Plug-In vs. Hard-Wired Chargers
Another topic to talk about is the idea of a plug-in versus hard-wired charger. This refers to how the charger is connected to your home’s electricity.
A plug-in charger plugs into a wall outlet just like any appliance. The charger itself is a loose cable that you can carry around. One end of the cable has your carport on it, and the other is a plug that goes into an outlet.
It’s used by plugging one end into your car and the other end into the wall.
The benefit of a plug-in charger is that you can take the cable with you wherever you go. If you charge in multiple locations, this style is a no-brainer. You can just leave it in your trunk and forget about it until you need it.
This option is also the least invasive. You don’t need an electrician or any installation in order to use it.
Since there’s no extra installation, this option is also the less expensive one.
In the beginning, hard-wired chargers were the overwhelmingly popular option. Now, most chargers on the market are plug-in chargers (for the reasons I just discussed).
When to pick a plug-in charger:
- Want to reduce cost
- Need a portable option
- If you live in a rental that doesn’t allow installation
- You might move in the near future
- Your next car won’t be an EV
- You park in a garage next to an electrical outlet
In the other corner, you have hard-wired chargers. These are permanent installments that get wired directly into your home’s electrical grid. The charger will be positioned on a hook nearby the connection.
Once installed, all you’ll see is a cable with a car charger on one end. The other end feeds into a station specific to your charger.
A hard-wired charging station looks like a legit charging station. There aren’t wires connecting it to an outlet and it’s a completely freestanding unit. It’s more discrete and looks great in my opinion.
The major downside is that it has to be professionally installed by an electrician. In a lot of cases, you’ll buy the hard-wired charger and have the electrician install the specific unit to the wall. It can always be changed out in the future for a newer and better charger, but it requires an electrician to come back.
If you park outdoors, you’ll probably be required to install a hard-wired charger. Local code will determine if this is required or not. Most places require it because they’re more resistant to weather and won’t cause a shortage or fire due to an extension cord getting wet.
Keep in mind, this option is more or less permanent. If you’re new to the EV crew and don’t know if you want to stick with electric cars in the future, you shouldn’t get a hard-wired charger.
On the same point, you shouldn’t get a hard-wired charger if you’re renting your house. If the landlord disapproves of the installation, you’re out of luck. Also, if they sell the house and kick you out, you just wasted all that money on a charger that can’t come with you.
When to pick a hard-wired charger:
- If you park outdoors (local code probably requires a hard wire)
- If you want a professional-looking charger
- If you plan on sticking with EVs
- An electrician is coming to upgrade you to Level 2 anyway
Calculating Range Per Hour
Before getting into my helpful tips, I also want to show you how to calculate the range per hour of the different chargers. As you’re shopping around, you won’t find listed “range per hour” values. Why not? It has to do with your car’s battery, home’s voltage, and charger’s amperage.
#1: Get Your Car’s Battery’s Capacitance and Max Range
The first step is to find out your car battery’s capacitance. A quick search through your owner’s manual will usually give you the answer.
For reference, a new Chevy Bolt has a capacitance of 65 kWh. This means that the car can accept 65 kilowatts of power every hour.
To find a usable range per hour, you’ll also need to grab the max range of your vehicle when it’s fully charged. For the same Chevy Bolt, the max range is 259 miles.
#2: Level 1 or Level 2?
This is necessary to determine the voltage going to your car’s battery. Again, Level 1 uses 120V and Level 2 uses 240V. Keep this number handy.
#3: Find the Charger’s Amperage
Now you’ll need to read the fine print on your prospective charger. Every listing should tell you the associated amperage of the charger.
Some chargers have different amperages. It simply means you can change the setting between slower and faster-charging options. Not a big deal. You can use all of the listed amperage figures for this equation (just run them through the equation separately).
#4: Calculate the Charger’s Wattage
The charger has an associated kW value. This tells you how many kilowatts of power it can generate when it’s plugged into the wall.
Find wattage by multiplying voltage and amperage. A 12-amp charger plugged into a 120V wall generates 1440 watts.
To get kW instead of watts, just divide the number by 1,000. 1440 watts equals 1.44 kW.
#5: Use this Equation
To finalize how many hours it’ll take to charge, use this equation:
(Capacitance of car battery) / (charger’s calculated wattage) = Hours to fully charge
If you want to know how many miles of range per hour that is, you just need to do one more step.
(Max range in miles) / (hours to fully charge) = Miles of range per hours
Example of Calculating Range Per Hour
Let me plug in some numbers to show you how the equation works. I have a Level 2 charger that’s rated at 32 amps. Level 2 uses 240V. To find kW I do 240 times 32 divided by 1,000. I get 7.68kW.
Let’s use a Chevy Bolt in this example. Its battery has a capacitance of 65 kWh and the max range is 259 miles.
Time for some math (using the equations from step #5):
(65kWh) / (7.68kW) = 8.46 hours to fully charge from 0-100%.
(259 miles) / (8.46 hours) = 30.6 miles of range per hour of charging
9 Tips to Choose an Electric Car Charger
Now that you understand more about electric car chargers, it’s time to talk about some tips that will help you pick the perfect charger.
Even though you’re restricted to Level 1 and Level 2 chargers, there are still a lot of different options on the market. Consider these 9 tips before swiping your card and buying one.
1. Do You Want a Level 1 or 2?
The first thing to ask yourself is if you want a Level 1 or 2 chargers. In a previous section, I outlined the key decision-making factors between these two levels.
Before going any further, you should take a beat and really think about it: which level do you want, and which one do you need?
If your commute might change in the next few years, maybe your level will also change. Just being the person that I am, I would probably opt for the Level 2 option just in case anything changes in the future.
Still, you could go with a non-intrusive Level 1 and simply upgrade in the future if you need to.
2. Decide Between Hard-Wired or Plug-In
After determining which Level of charger you want, you’ll have to decide what type of wiring you’d like. The most popular option on the market is a plug-in, and I favor that option, too.
If you want a permanent, professional-looking charger, then the hard-wired option is right for you. For a less expensive, portable, and non-intrusive option, you can grab a plug-in instead.
3. Determine Your Preferred Charging Speed (Miles of Range Per Hour)
Even after choosing between Level 1 or 2, you still have to pick what type of speed you’d like. This boils down to the posted amperage of the charger you pick.
Higher-amperage chargers will charge your car faster but will typically be more expensive.
A quick way to calculate this is to figure out how many miles a day you need to charge and how many hours you have to achieve that. That’ll get you a target miles of range per hour of charge.
From there, use the equation from the earlier section in this article and figure out what type of amperage you need.
4. Find Out the Overall Safety
Certain chargers are safer than others. I would highly suggest sticking with an option that’s tested and certified by a nationally recognized brand.
A really cheap option that hasn’t been tested might pose a fire risk. It’s never worth it just to save a few bucks on a charger.
5. Consider the Reliability
Along the same vein of safety is reliability. The same testing can be done to establish how reliable a charger is, and the results should be published.
Reliability refers to how long the charger goes before breaking and how many issues you’ll face through using the charger daily.
A more reliable charger means that your car will get the same high-quality charge every time it’s plugged in. With a reliable charger, there’s no waking up to a dead car.
6. Where Do You Want to Put the Charger?
For new installation, you’ll have to consider where you want to put the charger. The best option is a space close to your electrical panel and near where you’ll park.
The good news is that chargers don’t take up a lot of space. This means you can probably squeeze it in wherever you typically park without any huge headaches. You’ll just need to do some brainstorming before the electrician comes out.
It’s a good idea to defer to the electrician when it comes to charger placement. The further from the panel it is, the more conduit is run and the more expensive the installation will be.
7. Look for Smart Features
Surprisingly enough, there are a lot of smart features offered in certain chargers. Things like delaying charging to off-hours for cheaper electricity, resuming a charge after a power outage, and smartphone compatibility are all features to look for.
A lot of times you can reach out to your electric company to see if they have discounted rates for electrical usage during certain hours. Scheduling your charging specifically during off-peak times could save you even more money.
8. Learn About The Ease of Connecting
I was surprised to find out that different chargers are easier to plug into your car compared to other chargers.
Some of them don’t feel sturdy at all and it’s a real headache to make sure it’s fully connected. It makes it a hassle every time you plug in your EV.
I would do some digging before picking an EV charger to find out how smooth the connection is. Always check the customer reviews online or ask friends about the charger they use.
9. Think About the Cost
At the end of the day, the cost is a big issue when it comes to finding an electric car charger. You can easily find options that are thousands of dollars while others are less than a hundred.
Remember, cheaper options are usually missing something that the more expensive ones have.
When it comes to a car charger, I would probably lean toward the more expensive options. They’re more reliable, safer, and have some functions that might actually save money.
Think about how often you charge your car. I would say that this is a category where splurging makes sense. The last thing you want is an unreliable charger that doesn’t juice your car up and you wake up to a dead vehicle. What’s the price of your peace of mind?
There you have it. I just went into detail about how to choose an electric car charger. If you want some more helpful guides, take a look at the rest of my blog. I also have a number of car products that I love and highly recommend. Let me know in the comments which charger you went for and how you like it.