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Making sense of EV public charging

Opting for an electric car can be daunting, particularly when you can't charge at home. Here's what you need to know about public charging.

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It looks confusing, but with a shift in thinking you can learn how to make public charging points work for you, even if you can’t charge at home. 

For non-EV owners the prospect can seem daunting. “I think people are typically concerned about being made to wait to charge versus the way they usually use, say petrol.” says James McKemey, head of policy and public affairs leading UK EV charging infrastructure firm, Pod Point. “And the idea that they’re going to be marooned in the middle of a journey, either having to wait for a very long time for their car to charge or not being able to access the charger.”

According to Zap-Map, the UK’s leading charge point mapping service, there are currently around 70 providers of public charging and at the end of May 2023, there were more than 43,000 electric vehicle charging points across the UK, across more than 25,000 charging locations.

The number increases every year but it’s well reported that that this is not yet at the rate it to meet the 2030 deadline. Each operator has to apply to councils to put chargers in place, which they say is slow.

Famously, Tesla has built its own network of ‘Superchargers’ for its owners, but the company is starting to open these up to other EV users across the world. Currently, 15 of Tesla’s 98 UK charging sites are taking part in a pilot scheme.

What are the types of public chargers?

After street chargers, which are usually used by people who live nearby them, the vast majority of public chargers are termed destination chargers. As the name suggests, these are places where you go to and normally leave the car to go and do something else – for example: hotels, tourist attractions, station car parks, supermarkets, gyms, and shopping centres.

The other category is rapid or ultra-rapid chargers. These are most commonly located at motorway services, and you generally wait around while your car charges then continue your journey.  They get a lot of attention (and bad press) but as we’ll explain, it’s best to view these only for occasional use.

What are the speeds of public chargers?

There are currently four terms for the speed of public chargers: slow, fast, rapid and ultra-rapid. These terms are fairly unhelpful (would you have guessed that ‘rapid’ is faster than ‘fast’?), but the car industry has never been very good at clear, unambiguous jargon.

The power of an electric car charger is measured in kW (kilowatts). Your electric car’s battery will have a capacity given in kWh (kilowatt hours). It’s like the capacity of a fuel tank.  

We’ll run through some sample power outputs for these types of chargers but don’t get too hung up on the amount of power attached to fast, rapid and ultra-rapid. The figures are shifting with the technology: tomorrow’s fast could be yesterday’s rapid. Just remember that in any group of chargers, the one with the biggest number is the fastest.

Slow charging covers home and public charging most often by lampposts. It is rated 3kW-5kW. A full charge takes a long time with 3kW. A typical electric car (60kWh battery) takes just under 16 hours to charge from empty to full using a 3kW slow charging point.

Fast chargers have power outputs between 7kW-22kW and you start to find them on streets and at destinations. 7kW fast chargers are the most common home chargers and a typical electric car (60kWh battery) takes just under eight hours to charge from empty-to-full with a 7kW charging point.

Rapid chargers are between 50kW and 100kW, while ultra rapid chargers can provide charge at 150kW and more. These are most likely found at motorway services or car dealerships for some prestige brands. For many electric cars, you can add up to 100 miles of range in about 35 minutes with a 50kW rapid charger.

The rate at which an EV charges is slow when the battery is near-empty, then rises to its maximum charging speed, then drops slows down again once the battery is 80% charged to preserve the battery life (modern smartphones and other devices do the same thing). Owners are advised that it’s good to keep an EV no higher than 80% charged unless you know you’ll need its maximum range. 

“The way your charging works is your battery management system will protect the battery when it’s very empty, and particularly as it’s starting to get very full,” says James McKemey. “That means you’ll get a peak rate when your battery is under 50% charged.” 

Every EV has a claimed peak rapid charging rate. For each EV it road tests, Autocar magazine records how much power is actually drawn by the car as it passes a 10, 30, 50, 70, and 90% state of charge (SOC).

The fastest-charging car it has tested to date is the Porsche Taycan, which has a claimed rapid power peak rate of 270kW (which is classed as an ultra-rapid charger, which are rarest). Its weighted average test charge rate was 198kW, which gave an indicative charging wait of 22 minutes to go from 10%-90%.

The slowest-charging car (of 19) was the Kia Soul, which has a claimed peak rate of 50kW and had a weighted average test charge of 38kW, which meant it took 51 minutes for the same fill.

How to charge 

Another anxiety about public charging – especially rapid chargers – is that you turn up and find that you can’t use a debit/credit card and you have to sign up for an RFID card (Radio Frequency Identity Card) from that particular provider. You can use an RFID reader to scan via an app on your phone.

With so many operators, it has been a mixed picture, but now all motorway rapid chargers (which you might have to use out of necessity) will take a contactless card.

In July 2023, the government introduced the new Public Charge Point Regulations in draft form which will come into force later in 2023. These will require charging firms to increase the availability of contactless payment systems. All new public chargers that are faster than 8kW will have to offer contactless payments. 

The type of charging cable you need varies by vehicle and the power of the charge point.  Electric vehicles either have a Type 1 (the older standard) or Type 2 (almost universal) and CHAdeMO or CCS for DC rapid charging. However, most DC rapid charging stations have cables fitted to them (tethered) with both a CHAdeMO and CCS connector.

It’s usually plug in at the car first, then the charger (unless it’s already tethered, like all DC and some AC chargers), authorise payment and start charging. The charger will tell you that your battery is charging (lit up blue) and when they have finished Many EVs have lights on the charging port and/or display charging on the dashboard.

Most also come with a dedicated app developed by the manufacturer which will tell you the state of charge. Just remember to enable notifications on your phone.  You can end charging at any time by unlocking the car, disconnecting the cable at the car, then at the post.

How much does public charging cost?

Public chargers are about two thirds more expensive than home charging. They can’t make use of off-peak tariffs and the operators have to set them up, maintain them and make a profit. The higher the charge rate, the more expensive the infrastructure is because it needs a higher power connection.

“Most EV drivers start to understand how many miles you get out of a kWh,” says James McKemey of Pod Point. “A typical EV is about 3 ½ miles a kWh and therefore that’s a metric that makes sense. Domestic rates at the moment are somewhere in the region of 36p per kWh which is historically very high, and most public charging starts at that level, and then the really high power chargers can get up towards 85 or 90p.” 

Not every charging point will tell you what the rate per kWh is before you start charging. The slower, more plentiful chargers save costs by confining charging info to an app.

Zap-Map tells you the charge for each provider that it covers and there are a number of online calculators such as Smart Home Charge, which installs home chargers. The new legislation will require all chargers to produce real-time data on their status, offering better information to potential users.

Many car parks used to let people who paid to park charge for free, but this has largely gone with rising energy costs. Some, especially those with rapid chargers, levy an overstay fee to stop people leaving their EV sat there long after it has finished charging, in order to ensure that the charger is able to be used by lots of people.

VAT on public charging is the standard 20%.  “VAT on home charging is 5% and that is an unfortunate dynamic because typically those who can charge at home are more affluent,” says McKemey. “We would like to see public charging VAT reduced.”

There is still some free public charging

You can charge for free at some destinations like hotels, public car parks and supermarkets. Those currently with free EV charging points include Sainsbury’s, Lidl and Aldi.  Morrisons, Waitrose and Asda also have EV charging points, but they aren’t free to use on a pay-as-you-go basis. The 7/22kW Pod Point chargers at Tesco are no longer free to use – a victim of rising energy costs.

Let the car charge while you’re not there

There’s a view that there’s too much focus on rapid chargers. Once you have established where your go-to chargers are where you can leave your car (supermarket, gym, station car park, cinema, restaurant etc.) the only time you should need to take some time actually with the car waiting for it to charge should be a motorway services rapid charger, and even then, you can time it with a natural break to use the services, have a coffee or eat. 

“That might feel worse if you come at this from a petrol perspective, because it’s a longer time,” says McKemey, who himself has no home or workplace charger but uses a rapid charger only once or twice a year.

“The really important thing to say from a convenience standpoint is it’s very, very rare that you use these chargers and most of your charging is happening at other places, be that at home, be that at work, be that at destinations that you use.”

Charging an EV at destination chargers is more about top-ups than fill-ups and will cost you less. “Installing more charge points at common destinations, such as supermarket car parks, would be a potential game-changer,” says Danny Morgan, editor at Smart Home Charge.

“These would not need to be the expensive rapid chargers seen at service stations, but instead a plentiful supply of regular fast chargers, which are much cheaper and easier to install.

“This would require a change in mindset in how we fuel our cars – moving to getting regular battery top-ups as we’re out and about rather than emptying the tank and filling it to the brim – but it makes better use of existing car parks where our vehicles are sat doing nothing for a period of time and would reduce reliance on public rapid chargers, leaving them for those who really need a superfast charge.”

Which are the best public charging networks?

Public charger reliability is one of the major worries for those who are looking to buy an EV.  Hardly a week goes by without a documentary or a car magazine report where an EV driver tries to take a long trip and arrives at a public charger and it’s not working.

“I think things still need to improve,” says Pod Point’s McKemey. “So, I don’t want to give a complacent picture but it’s much better than public discourse would tell you.” The new charging legislation also sets a minimum standard for public charge reliability of 99%, putting an emphasis on firms to ensure that units are durable and capable of constant use.

But which providers are currently better than others? Zap-Map conducts an annual survey of electric vehicle (EV) drivers in the country. The last survey of September 2022 had responses from more than 4,358 Zap-Map users. The majority owned only an EV and charged at home, but 50% used supermarkets and 48% motorway services.

Users were asked how satisfied they were with the reliability, ease of use, cost and facilities of the different providers. These were ranked with up to five stars available.

There will be another survey published later in 2023, but for 2022 in joint-first place overall were two ultra-rapid networks, Fastned and MFG EV Power. The two networks – which both provide hubs with multiple chargers each location – scored highly for reliability and ease of use. Taking third place in 2022 was rapid network InstaVolt, while Connected Kerb and Osprey were joint fourth. 

Although they are backed by household names, Shell Recharge came 18th out of 21 and BP Pulse 20th with three and two stars respectively. As we’ve said in our feature on home chargers, BP Pulse’s home and public charging currently gets a lot of criticism from EV drivers.

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Russell Hayes
Russell Hayeshttps://amzn.to/3dga7y8
Russell Hayes’ early career was 14 years of motoring journalism in print, television and online. He worked for What Car? and Complete Car magazines, the BBC's original Top Gear programme and Channel 4's Driven. Since 2007 he has written motoring history books on subjects including Lotus, TVR, the Earls Court Motor Show, the Volkswagen Golf, Volkswagen Beetle and Bus and the original Aston Martin V8. Now a full-time author, two more books are in the pipeline for 2023 and 2024.