Range Confidence: Charge Fast, Drive Far, with your Electric Car

By David Herron

Informal electric car charging at any power outlet, versus a regular charging station

We cannot always charge our electric car a regular charging station. This doesn't mean getting stuck with a dead car, because electricity is everywhere. Carrying a powerful charging station in the car, along with a collection of power adapters, can keep your car rolling rather than forcing you to call for a tow truck. Some trips, like a camping trip in the mountains, may simply require charging at a campground on a 240 volt 50 amp power outlet meant for RV's.

Currently (2018) the public charging station network isn't enough to let us freely drive our electric vehicles anywhere we want. Most cities have public level 2 and even fast charging, but the inter-city charging network is weak. Electricity is everywhere, but has to be adapted into a charging plug for use with the car. Charging stations adapt electricity to fit safety constraints designed by the automotive industry for safe electric car charging. We're not allowed to simply plug-in to a regular power outlet, because of the safety interlocks designed into the system.

A few scenarios for informal electric car charging at power outlets

  • Traveling into an area with zero charging stations
  • Home-base charging
  • Other places where a low-cost charging outlet is required
  • Sneaking a charge from an available power outlet (Not recommended - ask for permission first)

It's always preferable to charge at an approved electric car charging station. The UL approval is meant to ensure safety, that the charging station has met all safety requirements, and functions according to the charging specification. Therefore informal charging at a regular power outlet should be seen as a move of last resort.

Many folks are using a regular power outlet to charge their electric car at home. It's great - the typical 10-12 hours the car is parked overnight means perhaps 50 miles of added range. This is low cost - the power outlet may already be there - and puts the 120 volts 12 amps (1.2 kilowatts) line cord charger provided by the manufacturer to good use.

That 120 volts 12 amps line cord charger which came with the car can be used anywhere to get some electricity into the car. Some electricity is better than no electricity. Your travel needs may bring you to places a simple 120 volt outlet makes the difference between a successful trip or a failure.

For example, during a trip to Florida in October 2012 I managed to rent a Nissan Leaf for driving between Orlando and Daytona Beach. That's more distance than the Leaf had, which meant finding places to charge. Neither the hotel nor the Daytona International Raceway had regular charging stations, and 120 volt outlets did the job. The hotel allowed me to use an outdoor 120 volt outlet seemingly set aside for RV's. An overnight charge gave enough range to reach the racetrack. At the I was allowed to use 120 volt outlets in the paddock, and the all-day stay at the track gave enough range to reach the hotel. That worked for a couple days of driving back-and-forth between hotel and race track, and then back to Orlando for our flight home.

High power outlets like this NEMA 14-50 outlet are the primary objective for full-speed 6 kiloWatt electric vehicle charging away from both home and the public charging network. This, and other 240 volt 40-50 amp outlets, will let you charge at 6 kiloWatts continuous power. That's enough for 25 miles of range per hour of charging, which is useful enough. Many RV parks have NEMA 14-50 outlets, making them potential informal charging locations.

The pieces of this puzzle are:-

  1. The power outlet
  2. Possibly an extension cord
  3. An "EVSE" (portable charging station) with J1772 charging cord
  4. Possibly a J1772 extension cord
  5. Charging port on the vehicle, and the on-board charger

Which end to extend? We can use an extension cord between the power outlet and the EVSE, or between the EVSE and the car. The safest is to use a J1772 extension cord between the EVSE and the car.

Safety Every step must be done safely. We bought our electric vehicles to, for example, help the climate. Getting on the evening news by causing an electrical fire negates the gain you might have achieved.

What's the charging rate? How many amps will be used by your car through a specific charging unit? Your car will support a maximum charging rate, often 6 kiloWatts. The owners manual will list the maximum charging rate, and some electric cars support changing the rate. The car and EVSE negotiate the charging rate depending on the capacity of the EVSE and car:

EVSE type Range per hour of charging Power required Circuit
Typical line charger 4 miles 120 volts 12 amps 120 volts 20 amps
3 kW EVSE 10-12 miles 240 volts 16 amps 240 volts 20 amps
4-5 kW EVSE 18 miles 240 volts 24 amps 240 volts 30 amps
6 kW EVSE 20-25 miles 240 volts 32 amps 240 volts 40 amps

What's the required power outlet and cord ratings? The electrical code's 80% rule says a "continuous load" must be limited to 80% of the rating of the circuit breaker and power outlets. The last column in this table tells you the required rating to support a given charging rate.

Ampacity is the measure of the maximum safe current (amps) we can use in a wire of a given thickness. Generally, the thicker the wire the more current it can carry. Wire thickness is measured in "gauge", and you may have seen this number used. A typical home extension cord is 14 gauge, for example. That wire gauge is completely insufficient and unsafe for the line-cord charger that comes with electric cars.

The 120 volt line-cord charger usually runs at 12 amps, and requires a 10 gauge extension cord. The 6 kiloWatt charging stations run at 32 amps continuous, and requires a 6 gauge extension cord.

More details see: Electric car charging within electrical code and power outlet limits


Range Confidence is Copyright © 2016-17 by David Herron

Informal electric car charging at any power outlet, versus a regular charging station

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