Electric car charging in the UK

The UK’s electric car charging infrastructure has changed substantially in the past 12 months but can it make an EV suit your lifestyle?

Electric cars have long faced two key problems, that of a limited range and a lack of places to charge. Electric car ranges are extending with each new model launch and battery technology breakthrough but what of the charging facilities? Does the UK have the EV charging infrastructure to support widespread electric car use and could an EV fit in with your lifestyle with the charging infrastructures we have now? These are the questions we hope to answer with our guide to electric car charging and the UK network. 

Firstly, most EV owners still plug in at home, at work, or both. Most cars are parked for hours on end outside houses or offices, and it’s the perfect time to top up the battery so you have a full ‘tank’ whenever you need it. A modern 7kW unit will take a Nissan Leaf from flat to full in about four hours, easily achievable during an overnight or working-day charge. If you’re charging from a normal household power supply though, the process will take significantly longer.

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These time frames make a 200-mile round-trip commute feasible in the latest electric cars, and it will cost only a few pounds in electricity rather than £20 or more in a diesel. The stumbling block is when you need to go further than the Leaf’s range allows in one journey. How can you get a top-up while out and about? There’s good news and bad news. On the positive side, there are now more than 13,000 public charging points where you can top up your batteries – five times more than in 2011. The bad news is that many will now cost you money.

This is the biggest change in the infrastructure since the rise of the electric car began in ernest around the start of this decade, although it wasn’t unexpected. The original system was supported by some manufacturers and extra Government funding helped establish a network of chargers. Ecotricity plumbed rapid chargers into 96 per cent of motorway services and every IKEA store, while Chargemaster and others put lower-voltage posts on streets and in car parks.

All were free to use, with only occasional nominal fees needed in some cases to subscribe and receive a special RFID card to allow access. It meant EV owners could top up for nothing when they were out shopping or on a long trip.

Now that plug-in cars have become more popular, however, the networks want some money in exchange for their electricity. While irritating, it does have the effect of discouraging the chargers’ use by anyone who doesn’t need to top up, as it’s much cheaper to plug in at home. 

How long does it take to charge an electric car?

One of the big questions when it comes to electric car ownership tends to be – how long it will take my electric car to charge? As you can imagine with all the different models, charger types and charging networks we'll go into below, the answer is – it depends. The average EV charging time can be anything from eight hours on a normal domestic power supply to less than an hour with a high-voltage rapid charger. The important thing to remember is that if an electric car suits your lifestyle, you'll be able to charge it at times when you're not using it so the length of time it takes to charge shouldn't really be an issue. We explain more below…

Types of electric vehicle charger

Different EVs require different chargers, and unfortunately there’s not a single car-charging adaptor that allows you to plug in anywhere – unless you’re relying on the slowest form of charger supplied with most EVs as basic equipment, which will generally plug in to a standard three-pin domestic socket.

Commercial or corporate charger installations may look very different to one another, because they are manufactured and installed by different networks. However it’s generally the speed of charge your car can handle that determines which type of charger and connectors you need. Here’s an overview of the three main types…

1)   Slow chargers

The basic charger supplied with most electric cars and plug-in hybrid cars allows you to charge overnight using a standard 13-amp three-pin plug – although some come with a ‘Commando’ type plug for weatherproof outdoor applications. A typical maximum current draw of 3kW means a full charge usually requires up to eight hours.

This is fine if you park off-street at home and are able to plug-in overnight, or if you have a charge point at work you can connect to all day. However, it’s obviously next to useless if you need to top-up your batteries on the motorway or away from home, although EV drivers always carry their 13-amp charger as a last resort! 

2)   Fast chargers

Fast chargers double the rate of charge you can pump into an EV’s battery, and thereby halve the typical ‘fully charged’ time to three or four hours. Although fast chargers operate at up to 7kW and 32 amps, most 13-amp slow chargers can also be connected, but will simply draw fewer amps and therefore not charge at the faster rate. The connectors used to plug into Fast Chargers are usually the Type 2 ‘Mennekes’ units, that look like much beefier evolutions of the basic ‘Commando’ units with seven pin holes, and a flat top so you can’t plug them in upside down.

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3)   Rapid chargers

Cars like the Tesla Model S and Kia Soul EV have more advanced electronics that can take a faster charge than most rivals – up to 120kW in the case of the Tesla, which is why you can charge a Model S battery up to 80 per cent of its full capacity in ‘just’ half an hour. Tesla Supercharger Stations use a proprietary plug that means rival electric car brands can’t use them, but other Rapid Chargers use CCS and JEVS-type plugs, which are respectively Japanese- and Euro-spec connectors, and compatible with a bigger range of electric cars. (Tesla is reportedly heading down the CCS path for future models too.) Most other EVs that are rapid charge compatible can take 50kW.

The UK’s charging networks

There are at least 20 different companies and organisations installing and running nationwide or regional electric car charger networks in the UK. Other EV chargers which are installed and run independently may be available to users of larger networks too, or simply at the discretion of their owners.

Typically, EV charger networks are run by energy firms and other companies wanting a slice of future profits from the growing car charging business, or local authorities and organisations who are more environmentally-motivated. That’s great in theory, but in practice it makes life pretty complicated as each individual network requires an EV driver to register and carry a network-specific swipe card in order to use their charging points.

The more networks you want to use, the more cards you’ll have to carry. Different charging networks run different membership models too, with some operating ‘pay as you go’ systems, some requiring significant subscription fees, and others offering free power and minimal sign-up fees. This may sound daft to drivers used to paying for petrol anywhere with the same credit or debit card, but the situation has arisen because Government subsidies for network installers are only available if operators collect detailed data on usage patterns. Unfortunately, there’s no standard national system to do that.

Of course, if you are a creature of habit and always charge at the same facilities this needn’t be a problem. It can be awkward if you want to travel to new areas though. EV drivers will know it’s advisable to check out both the availability of charge points on their proposed journeys, and also which network operates them. Some registration systems – such as Charge Your Car – operate across more than one network, and it’s likely this approach will become much more common in future.

How much do public EV chargers cost to use?

If you want to charge in transit, you’ll almost certainly need a smartphone. Apps have largely replaced old RFID cards, which means you no longer need to wait for anything to be posted to you. You can even download while sat in the car.

Some apps merely ask for your credit or debit card info, and will charge you based on time and power used. The phone sends commands directly to the point, telling it to start and stop, and to open access flaps. Other apps (such as Polar and PodPoint) ask you to pre-load money into your account, much like Transport for London’s Oyster card.

Access and electricity costs vary. Some venues such as hotels and shopping centres give power away for free, but most posts cost around £1.50 per hour. Rapid chargers are generally more expensive, reflecting the fact that they can cram more electricity into the battery in a shorter time. An Ecotricity charger at a motorway service station will cost £3 to connect for up to 45 minutes, plus 17p for each kWh of electric. Ecotricity home-energy customers get a discount. Other rapid chargers, such as those at some Shell stations, simply charge for the electricity. Currently the rate is 25p/kWh, so adding 60 miles to a Leaf will cost about a fiver.

It makes sense for regular charger users to forget pay-as-you-go and instead pay a monthly subscription to a service such as the Polar network. This speeds up access via an RFID card or keyring fob, and makes use either free or far cheaper. Most will find it’s better value for money if they require a rapid charge more than once a month, or a standard top-up once a week. There are ways to rapid charge for free, though. Some dealers will let you use their chargers for free during working hours, and IKEA stores will refund the Ecotricity cost if you spend in store. Don’t get excited by the rows of Tesla Supercharger points that are popping up, though – they work only with Tesla cars.

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Is it worth all the effort? If you have access to charging at home or work, you’ll be able to run an electric car for a fraction of the cost of a petrol or diesel car. If you charge at public points only, the savings will be far less, and there’s the extra stress of finding a spot. However, if you merely use these chargers for the occasional long trip, the growing network – plus the increased range of EVs – is making these cars a practical proposition for thousands more motorists.

Now find your EV charger…

It would be foolhardy to undertake a journey of any significance in an electric car without planning ahead. If you are a member of a network you’ll already be familiar with local charger locations, and probably also a user of that provider’s website or phone app where all its charging locations will be listed.

For travel outside your network, you need to access one of the websites like Zap Map or Open Charge, which claim to list all the public chargers across the UK. They also offer specific information about the equipment on offer, the cost to plug in, and the operational status of every charging facility.

Useful as it is, online information is user-generated in a proportion of cases, and not always up to date. So we’d recommend taking the precaution of personally contacting potential charging stations ahead of your arrival. You’ll want to make sure they’re functional and suited to the vehicle you’re driving, unless there are multiple options in the area.

Top tips for EV charging 

1. Get a good home charger

A home charging point will usually be fitted for free when you buy the car, thanks to Government grants to encourage EV use. You may want to upgrade to a 7kW charger if your car has the capacity to accept it, or if you want to ‘future proof’ your installation for an upgraded car you may one day purchase.

2. Get a good electricity deal

Check your electricity supplier’s prices. It makes sense to move to a deal that has the lowest price per kWh but a higher standing charge, as you will become a heavy user. If you will charge your car mostly at night, consider an Economy 7 meter with cheaper rates in the early hours. The Leaf has a programmable charging timer that can make the most of this.

3. Plan ahead

If you plan longer journeys carefully, they needn’t be stressful. A Leaf’s satellite navigation lists charge points, but websites such as  Zap Map or Open Charge are more detailed, telling you what type it is and whether it’s currently working. 

4. Check your phone reception

When using a public charge point controlled by an app, make sure your mobile phone reception is good enough to receive data. Otherwise you could be waiting a while for the instructions to reach the charge post. It’s especially a problem in multi-storey car parks or places with a lot of people, such as concerts and theme parks.

5. Be polite

EV owners are generally friendly, and most will move off a charging spot once they have enough power to get home – leaving it free for another driver to use. Make sure you follow this etiquette, too, or you could be seriously inconveniencing someone.

6. On the spot

Despite clear markings and the threat of fines, some internal-combustion engine car drivers still park in EV charging spots. In the EV community it’s know as being ‘ICEd’, and there are Twitter and Facebook pages dedicated to shaming offenders. If you really need to charge and are blocked, ask the service station or shop staff to make an announcement asking the driver to move.

What is your experience of electric car charging stations in the UK? Let us know in the comments…

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