Unpack the different EV charging technologies to confidently decide the best fit for your project in five minutes.
Whether you’re purchasing your first electric vehicle (EV) or developing an electric vehicle charging project for their organization, you’ve likely had a moment of hair-pulling researching all of the charging options.
I wrote this guide to clarify the EV charging landscape. I want to help you decide the right fit for your project.
Engineers don uninspiring names for their inventions. CPUs, 5G, MRIs, MP3s. Real helpful, guys!
Electrical engineers naming electric vehicle (EV) charging is no exception. It’s so bad that EV charging technologies sound like stages pulled right out of 1980’s video game: Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3.
Am I the only one to identify this “coincidence”?
Like me, you’re not an electrical engineer. But you want the low-down to make an informed decision for your next EV charging project.
Let’s break EV charging down in simple Layman’s terms in under five minutes. Because I’ve always liked you, Laymen (and women).
To start, “level” refers to voltage levels. If voltage is no less confusing, think of voltage as “pressure” in electrical terms. Higher “pressure” means higher power delivery or charging speed.
Level 1 starts with the lowest voltage and the lowest charging speed. As the “Level” increases, so does the charging speed. Let’s briefly break it down:
Level 1 Charging
The most common, accessible, and slowest form of charging, Level 1 chargers plug into a standard wall outlet in a US home or office, typically 110 or 120 Volts (V). If you own an EV, the vehicle likely came with a Level 1 charging port to plug in at home.
At 1.3-1.5 kW of power, think the power draw of your kitchen microwave, a Level 1 charger can deliver 100 miles of range in about a day. It’s best for charging overnight at home or workplaces where people park cars for a long time.
Level 1 charging is the least expensive charger, best suited for powering up for daily commutes or running neighborhood errands. For example, Level 1 charging can cover the average American’s daily 30 mile commute after about 6-8 hours of charging (i.e. overnight)
The obvious drawbacks include requiring the patience of a Buddhist monk to charge your car. But what if you don’t have 10 hours to wait for your car to charge?
Level 2 Charging
For those seeking more control and a faster experience (hello, Americans!), enter Level 2 (L2) charging. Operating on 240 Volts, think a typical home electric dryer outlet, Level 2 chargers can deliver 100 miles of range for most passenger vehicles in about five hours.
The higher voltage on L2s requires hiring a trained electrician for installation. Note: Do not install a L2 station without a professional. That’s right, let Uncle Randy sit this one out!
While L2 charging uses the same port (called J1772), it boasts many technology benefits over Level 1 and comes with a higher price tag and installation requirements.
While Level 1 chargers operate like an appliance (It’s either on or off), L2 chargers allow more functionality through “Networking”, allowing owners do do all types of fun things like charge drivers for energy consumed, restrict usage to specific drivers, and monitor performance in real time.
If you’re installing a L1 charger in a single-family garage, networking isn’t that important. But if you’re managing hundreds of chargers in a big parking garage networking is essential! To learn more about networking, and what it might cost, check out How Much Does it Cost to Operate EV Charging Stations?
But what if you need lots of charge right now? Sometimes, even L2 charging doesn’t cut it.
Ricky Bobby Charging (Level 3)
Introducing Level 3 charging, or the “I wanna go fast” charging option. The fastest, and I would argue, most American charging option on the market.
Level 3 (L3) charging, also referred to as DC (direct current) fast charging (DCFC), or supercharging for our Tesla drivers. It all refers to the same technology. For simplicity, we’ll refer to fast charging as “L3” for the rest of the article.
L3 charging requires vehicles include special onboard charging equipment to convert incoming power from the electric grid (alternating current) to a form your battery can store (direct current). Operating at 480 Volts, L3 also requires a hefty power supply from your local utility.
In other words, preparing for L3 charging is often time- and resource-intensive. It’s also a big jump in cost from L2 to L3 charging. A typical L2 charger might run $2,000, whereas a single L3 charging station could set you back $50,000.
But the charging speed between L2 and L3 is worlds apart. Today’s fast chargers can replenish 80% of an electric vehicle’s battery in around 20 to 40 minutes. Rapid advancements in battery technologies indicate 5-10 minute fast charging sessions are right around the corner.
Not all EVs are compatible with L3 charging. Some automakers make EVs that can only accept level 1 and 2 charging. Automakers wised-up that people want a fast-charge option (thanks, Ricky), even if they rarely utilize L3 chargers. That’s why they’re equipping nearly all new electric vehicles with L3 ports.
Just because a vehicle can accept L3 charging doesn’t mean they get the fastest charging rates. For example, my 2013 Nissan Leaf can only accept up to 50 kW of charge, limited by my onboard hardware. So even if I plugged in to an L3 charger rated for 150 kW output, my aging Nissan could only accept 50 kW.
But what about the different charging plugs?
A Quick Guide for Fast-Charging Technologies
Have you noticed gasoline and diesel fuel pumps have different nozzles? This design safeguards against drivers from filling up their vehicles with the wrong fuel and ruining their engines. A clever mechanism to protect humans from doing what we do best, what my 2-year old refers to as “Uh-oh’s!”
While electricity powers all EVs, the nozzles (or “ports” in EV speak) determine which vehicles can connect to what chargers.
A common question I hear is: “Can my Tesla charge at a non-Tesla station?” “How about the other way around?” Let’s provide some clarity.
US drivers have three fast charging options. Without getting too wonky, here’s an overview:
- CCS: The Combined Charging Standard (CCS) supports both alternating current (AC) and direct current (DC) charging on the same plug. This is important because CCS vehicles can accept slower L1 and L2 chargers and faster charges at L3 stations, all with a single port. It’s flexible, widely adopted by North American and European automakers, and not limited to a single manufacturer.
- NACS: In November 2022, Tesla made their proprietary plug, dubbed the “North American Charging Standard” (NACS), available to all vehicles that can accept it. As a result, Ford, Rivian, GM, Volvo, and several global automakers announced their vehicles will accept NACS in 2025. Visually, it’s also the smallest connecting, requiring significantly less materials and space compared to the alternatives.
- CHAdeMO: One of the original fast-charging standards developed by Japanese automakers. Unlike CCS, it only accepts DC fast charging and cannot accept AC L1 or L2 charging. Due to these factors, most industry experts agree CHAdeMO is phasing out.
Adapting to the Times
The good news is all the technologies listed above have after-market “adapters”, allowing vehicles equipped with CCS to plug in to a Tesla Supercharger, or vice versa.
As an example, several years ago Tesla developed an adapter for their vehicles to charge at CCS stations. Adapters, while less convenient, are the best band-aid we have while charging technologies standardize over the next decade.
But charging isn’t only confined to hardware. Some automakers may use software to limit charging access. For example, non-Tesla vehicles with NACS may not be “authorized” to charge at all Tesla supercharging stations.
If you drive a Tesla, you can charge nearly anywhere with the right adapters. All others can charge at any public non-Tesla station.
Your EV Charging Journey
EV charging doesn’t need to be complicated. The faster our industry makes EV charging accessible to the average driver, the faster adoption can occur.
The industry is consolidating. Soon, EV charging will be as easy as filling up at a gas pump. No PhD required.
Until then, you have this guide to point you in the right direction. Whether you’re starting your EV journey or planning an EV charging project, you should feel empowered to navigate the world of EV charging and make informed decisions that suit your needs, preferences, and long-term goals.
Consult your EV charging professional for their recommendations to meet your goals together and reduce operating costs. Knowledge is power. Happy charging!
About the Author
My name is Alex. I make it nearly impossible for organizations to fail at adding electric vehicle charging stations to their properties and across their portfolios.