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EVs Explained

Level 1 vs Level 2 vs Level 3: Everything you should know before charging an electric car

Sales of electric vehicles (EVs) have exploded in the last few years, with the proliferation of charging stations following suit. As developments in infrastructure, clean energy, and climate legislation bring us closer to an all-electric future, it’s important to understand the charging technology that will eventually take the place of filling up on fossil fuels.

In this guide, we’ll walk you through the different charger levels, the distinctions between plug-in and hardwired chargers, as well as how to install an at-home EV charger. If nothing else, you’ll know the basics the next time you book a rental car in Europe – after all, driving a Tesla in Iceland will spare you $9 a gallon.

Level 1 charging

Image credit: Lectron

Most EVs come with a basic level 1 charger. It plugs into a standard (120V) power outlet much like any other ordinary household device. Generally, it doesn’t require any special installation – you just plug it into the wall. Compared to Levels 2 and 3, a Level 1 will move slowly, hence the nickname “trickle chargers.” When fully depleted, a Level 1 can take a day or longer to reach full charge. Despite its low charging speeds, it can still be useful for overnight charging. If you only use your car sparingly, or you predominantly use public chargers, a Level 1 charger may be all you need at home.

It’s important to note that Level 1 chargers aren’t as energy efficient as Level 2 chargers and will cost more to fully charge your vehicle. But, generally speaking, Level 1 charging is still cheaper than fueling a traditional gas-powered car.

Price: Up to $200, but one usually comes with the vehicle
Power output:
1.2 kW
Charging Speed:
5 miles per hour or less
Power source:
120V outlet

Level 2 charging

Image credit: JuiceBox

Level 2 charging is the most popular way to power up an EV. Found in both public places and personal residences, Level 2 charging speeds typically range from three to 12 times faster than Level 1. They’re increasingly common in public places such as shopping centers and office parks, with over 54,000 Level 2 chargers added in the U.S. in 2022.

When choosing a Level 2 charger, you may want to make sure the amp rating isn’t higher than that of the vehicle. It won’t harm the car, but any additional power over that threshold won’t charge it any faster. You can find the amp level your EV will accept in your owner’s manual and compare it to the amp rating of the charger you’d like to buy.

Level 2 chargers are designed to work with most vehicles, so compatibility usually isn’t an issue. In North America, chargers either come with the J1772 connector or the proprietary Tesla connector. Tesla vehicles also include a J1772 adapter. So with rare exceptions, you can just about use any Level 2 charger with your EV. In Europe, chargers usually come with the Type 2 (Mennekes) connector which is the standard for all EVs sold in the region, including Tesla.

Price: The price typically ranges from $300 – $800 for home units. Some cars come with a Level 2 charger.
Charging speed:
12 to 70 miles per hour of charging
Power output:
3.3 kW – 19.2 kW
Power source:
240V outlet

Guide to installing Level 2 chargers

Plug-in vs hardwired

Level 2 chargers come in two types: plug-in or hardwired. Those that plug in use a 240V outlet — typically used for large appliances like washing machines and ovens. Others need to be “hardwired” or directly integrated into your home’s electrical panel. Should you have a compatible 240V outlet handy and you’re employing a low-amp Level 2 charger, the setup could be as straightforward as plugging it in. However, in most cases, you will need to hire a professional.

Plug-in chargers

When plugging in a Level 2 charger, you need to ensure that:

  • The outlet is compatible with the charger.
  • Both the outlet and circuit board have a sufficient amp rating (at least 25% higher than the charger’s maximum amp draw).

In North America, most 240V outlets are NEMA outlets. By and large, the NEMA outlets used by EVs come in the following amperage ratings:

  • 30 amps (NEMA 14-30)
  • 50 amps (NEMA 14-50 or NEMA 6-50)

If you’re unsure about any of this, you should consult an electrician before charging with a 240V outlet. It can be potentially dangerous to plug a level 2 EV charger into an outlet if your home can’t handle the power draw.

Hardwired Chargers

Hardwired chargers are mounted on the wall and include three feet of flexible conduit and service wires that extend from them. These wires meet and connect to the wires coming from your electrical panel.

Hardwired units are more expensive, but they have a watertight connection. Offering protection from the rain and the elements, they’re suitable for outdoor use. Normally, they’ll deliver a larger range of amp and charge-speed options than plug-in units do, too.

Ultimately, you may want to install a hardwired charger. This might be because you are looking for outdoor charging or if you don’t have a suitable 240V outlet available and don’t want to have one installed. On the other hand, plug-in chargers are portable, so you should keep in mind if you will need to charge your vehicle at multiple locations.

Hardwiring or installing a 240V outlet

At any rate, you may want to either install a 50-amp outlet or have your charger hard-wired into your home’s electrical system. Either option will generally require the assistance of a professional electrician, both for the installation process and to determine whether your house can handle the energy draw. Installing a 240V outlet is a technical and risky operation that’s subject to strict regulations and approval.

Many residential households are not equipped for the power draw of Level 2 chargers, in which case your service panel may need to be upgraded or changed. If the charger is being installed outdoors, it needs to be rated for outdoor use. You will likely need to get a permit from your local building department before you start the installation. After the installation, an inspection may be necessary to ensure the work meets local building and electrical codes.

How much will it cost for the installation?

This can vary dramatically based on a number of factors, such as how far the panel is from the installation point of the charger. If both your panel and charger are to be in the same place (such as the garage), then it might only cost a few hundred dollars. But, depending on the complexity of the installation, the price could rise to well over $1,000. Thankfully, many states and municipalities offer rebates and other incentives for installing EV chargers that can help offset these costs.

Safety and maintenance

Always install chargers in a well-ventilated area to prevent overheating and keep away from flammable materials. Check the charger periodically for signs of wear and tear, especially if it’s installed outdoors.

Level 3 charging (DC charging)

Image credit: Pexels

Level 3 chargers are found in public and commercial areas and are operated by private charging networks like Tesla and Electrify America. Private residences are not suitable for installation.

Level 3 chargers are very fast; they can charge up to 15 times as fast as Level 2 chargers and may fully charge a car in less than an hour. This makes them very useful if you’re in a rush and need to charge quickly. But there are some trade-offs to the increased speed. The cost-efficiency of Level 3 charging is lower than Level 1 and Level 2, so it will be more expensive to achieve a full charge. Level 3 charging can also gradually degrade a vehicle’s battery health, so it’s generally better to use public Level 2 chargers when time allows.

Different charging networks and EV manufacturers use different types of connectors. The most pervasive examples include CHAdeMO (used by Nissan and Mitsubishi), CCS (used by European and American manufacturers), and Tesla’s once-proprietary Supercharger connector, which everyone from Rivian to Ford and General Motors is starting to adopt. Some public charging stations provide multiple types of connectors, but not all. You must also consider compatibility. Many older or cheaper EV models don’t support DC charging.

Price: Often $10,000+
Charging Speed:
120 to 1,200 miles per hour of charging
Power Output:
50 – 350 kW

Future of EV charging

Europe and China are taking the rise of EVs seriously, and are preemptively building infrastructure to prepare. 450,000 new EV chargers were installed in Europe as of April 2023, a growth rate of over 50%, and the rate of EV charger installation in China has been even more dramatic.

While the US sadly lags behind both Europe and China in this area, it’s still experiencing significant growth in both the number of EVs and charging stations. By 2030, the Biden administration says we’ll have 150,000 to 500,000 charging stations by 2030. With charging infrastructure rapidly expanding, the days of limited charging access are finite, and soon enough range anxiety, too, will become a thing of the past.

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EVs ExplainedFeatures

EVs Explained: What is a kilowatt-hour, and while we’re on the subject, what is a kilowatt?

“Now presenting our brand-new (insert new EV here), with a 50-kWh battery pack and 300 kW motors,” exclaims some extravagant press release from yet another startup. While it’s quite nice of you to spill all the beans like that, I’m still left wondering what the heck some of these measurements mean, and I’m sure some of you are too.

Welcome to this blooming age in the automotive landscape, where electrified cars stand on as big a pedestal as traditional dinosaur-powered performance vehicles. So many newfangled machines. So much innovative tech. Yet, interestingly, there’s not much in the way of explanation behind some of the most basic terminology, and what few definitions do exist lie buried under mounds of glitzy press material and spec sheet drag racing.

We’ve all read the brochures and the magazine reviews, diving into the colorful world of fully electric cars and plug-in hybrids. They’ll toss around new terminology like it’s already in the common vernacular, ignoring the fact that this is still relatively fresh tech being drip-fed to the world. Therefore, many terms haven’t fully clicked in people’s minds. But hopefully, this new explainer series should clear the fog around these words that are becoming as household as “horsepower” or “miles per gallon.” 

Our inaugural lessons to kick off this series: what the heck even are “kilowatts,” how do they relate to electric cars, and how do they pair with the equally-tossed “kilowatt-hours?” Well, I’m glad I asked – and hopefully drove enough interest to entrap you here – because it’s time to get schooled in five minutes or less.

Rivian R1T Charging in the desert
Image credit: Rivian

What is a killowatt?

This frequently-spoken term is not exclusive to EVs or electricity and can trace its core components back to pretty much any of our high school science and math classes. Anyone who has ever stumbled across a German auto magazine will likely guess where this is going.

Kilowatts are merely a metric measurement of power output, just like horsepower. Plain and simple.

Renault Mitsubishi Alliance Exposed Motors
Image credit: Renault Group

A kilowatt (kW), which translates to 1,000 watts (W), is the alternate unit of measurement if you’re too cool for horsepower. If you want to click with your new friends from Frankfurt, talk about how many kilowatts the straight-six in their 1995 C36 AMG makes. There’s even a brainless, one-step formula for converting kilowatts into ponies. Simply multiply your kilowatts by 1.341. 

For instance, let’s say you stumble across aforeign auto magazine talking about how the E92 M3 GTS had a power output of 331 kW – again, metric, so 331,000 W if you wanted to break it down. Before you scroll another line down the spec sheet looking for a pre-calculated conversion, you can multiply that 331 by 1.341 to get 443.87, on par with the manufacturer-claimed 444 horsepower. 

Bingo! Easy, right?

Lucid Air Sapphire
Image credit: Lucid Motors

Shift over to electric cars. Just as horsepower has become the ubiquitous unit of power measurement for internal combustion engines, the kilowatt has achieved a similar status for electric motors and may be used to denote output before official horsepower and torque ratings are published. The methodology for translating power measurements remains unchanged from pistons and cylinders to stators and magnets. Imagine some gilded brochure for the Tesla Model S Plaid that states that its motors’ combined output equals 760 kW. Multiply that by 1.341, and bam! 1,019.16, in line with its 1,020 horsepower rating. 

Tracking? Heck yeah, you are!

But the way that kilowatts relate to EVs is only half the story. One must also understand their relation to battery packs.

What is a kilowatt-hour?

While electric motors measure power output by kilowatts, battery packs measure energy capacity by kilowatt-hours. If you’ve read this far and decided you can’t stand me, please consult this handy YouTube video below for its breakdown of what a watt hour is and how it’s calculated. However, should you despise video explainers more than my written words, then please bear with me, as there’s a bit more to it than what we’ve discussed so far.

“How battery capacity is measured and what is Wh? (Watt Hour)”

A kilowatt-hour (kWh) determines how much energy can be expended over a unit of time, which, in the context of EVs, directly relates to a vehicle’s maximum power output and range. While the kWh is now a standard unit for measuring EV battery capacity, it’s long been a common unit of measurement for energy consumption in homes and appliances.

Lucid Air Sapphire - Exposed Car Internals - Top View
Image credit: Lucid Motors

Back to the Model S Plaid, let’s say you’re flooring it down the highway at a perfectly legal speed. Your foot’s all the way down on the throttle, extracting every bit of that 760 kW output. Welp. Congrats. You’ve killed it. The car dies within seven to eight minutes or roughly 0.13 hours after starting with a full charge, as the Model S Plaid’s battery has a capacity of 100 kWh, meaning it can expel 100 kW of power over roughly an hour. 

Now, let’s switch things up and say you’re on your way home from doing Tesla owner things, such as hot yoga and overpaying for bread with avocado on it (this is satire, by the way, so relax.) You’re taking it easy and hypermiling every stretch of the way, probably only expending an average of 50 kW during your drive. You’ll likely see about two hours’ worth of use and be able to travel a significantly farther distance with that 100 kWh battery than if you were to demand maximum attack from the electric motors a majority of the time.

Humorously, if you build some Frankenstein bastard child of a project car using the Plaid motors hooked up to a base model Nissan Leaf’s 40 kWh battery and went flat out, the party would be over in less than three minutes. Do with that information as you will, project car YouTubers of the world. 

That’s perhaps the simplest way to explain its relevance to prospective consumers. Smaller battery packs with lower capacities will result in shorter overall ranges and limit how much power an EV can reasonably output, while larger battery packs flip the script, enabling longer distances and more kW of power.

Lucid Air Action Shot
Image credit: Lucid Motors

It’s why you often see the pricier, long-range variants of electric vehicles sport more powerful motor setups and longer overall ranges, thanks to their higher kWh rating. And it’s partly why some performance variants with even more powerful motors wired to the same batteries (or even slightly bigger) may have shorter ranges, as their elevated performance now demands more from the battery, in addition to other factors like stickier tires, thermal challenges, and aero changes.

“Watt do you mean it can’t charge any faster?”

Last tidbit! Before we go too deep down a rabbit hole that’d require another article, let’s discuss how kilowatts and kilowatt hours pertain to charging your EV. Yes, everyone’s least favorite part. 

Just as kilowatts measure the power coming out of your EV, kilowatts can very much be used to measure the power going back into your EV, hence why we also measure chargers’ outputs in kW.

For example, a 50 kW charger will theoretically fully replenish a 50 kWh battery from next to nada in roughly an hour. A 100 kWh “fast charger” should be able to do the deed on the same battery in approximately 30 minutes. Ever wonder how these fast chargers can get monstrous powerhouses like the Model S Plaid, Lucid Air, or Taycan Turbo S up and ready to rock in less than an hour? Because fast chargers can output anywhere between 150 to well over 300 kW.

Rivian R1S closeup
Image credit: Rivian

Note other limitations can hinder how quickly an electric car can charge, including the set kilowatts an EV can accept. For instance, the new Volvo EX30 only has a maximum charge rate of 153 kW, which is more than enough for its 64 kWh battery, but far behind the 350 kW max charge rate of a comparable Hyundai Ioniq 5.

Class dismissed… for now.

Of course, there are so many other smaller factors that feed into the performance, charging, and discharging of an electric vehicle, which we can spin into another piece. But that’s the basic jist of the relationship between the fat K-W and the new wave of electric chariots.

For now, remember that kilowatts measure the power the car uses and produces while kilowatt-hours represent the energy stored in the battery pack, which directly impacts the EV’s range and output. And to any prospective owners out there, I hope this lesson has better equipped you to shop with confidence – or at least read Euro auto mags without scratching your head at the power figures.

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