When you drive your electric car around your home city, it’s pretty easy. You charge while you sleep at home or while you work, and that’s about it. Charging never takes any time or inconvenience — it’s better than gasoline, and a lot cheaper. You don’t use fast chargers or treat it like a gasoline car.
See the other from my series on EV road trips:
On a real road trip — beyond just getting from A to B on the highways — charging becomes more of an adventure. There, gasoline wins when it comes to being carefree. Planning an some compromises are necessary. There are places it’s hard to go. You also limit many of your meals to take-out or restaurants next to fast chargers (so that charging again takes less time from your day than filling with gasoline.)
This story will talk a lot about charging. To be fair to EV skeptics, you are unlikely to read many gasoline road trip stories that focus on where the driver filled up with gasoline. Even so, many people actually enjoy the charging hunt as a bit of extra adventure and challenge. There are compromises but having to drive a gasoline car has its own compromises as well.
One of those compromises is cost. My 5,000 mile trip had me pay around $100 for electricity. I also used up 1,500 of my “free supercharger miles” that I have as credit from Tesla
As you can see, I did a lot of charging off Tesla’s supercharger network. That’s because I had their CHAdeMO adapter which let me use the “other” fast charging network. That’s a useful tool in most places, a supplement to Tesla’s network, but in British Columbia, where I did most of the trip, the Tesla network is small and the CHAdeMO network much larger. The first article in this series describes the virtues and issues of the CHAdeMO adapter.
Those chargers were slower than Tesla ones, but when I did long charges at them I usually was able to eat a meal or shop to avoid wasting the time. Because I brought a table and chairs, I was sometimes able to pick up takeout on the way to a charger and set up the table. A number of the chargers were at rural rest stops with picnic tables, and as a bonus, many of them were free. (They recently started charging for most of them, but that’s only in BC — free, is not very common.)
A fair number of the other free or cheap miles were done using the best possible way to charge — overnight at your hotel. 12 of my 24 nights I was able to charge in some fashion, though in 5 instances only at the ultra-slow “Level 1” that adds only about 50 miles to your car. That’s barely worth it. Much better are the full Level 2 stations that will completely refill your car while you sleep. Slow charging is better for your battery, and if done while you sleep, it takes no time other than the effort to plug in.
At home, Level 1 and 2 chargers outside your home or office are close to useless. They simply won’t get you much power in the short times you park at them. If they are not free, they often cost much more than your home charger. If they are free, they are more often full (people will take free, even if it’s close to useless.) You pretty much ignore them — I will park at stores close to the chargers and make no effort to plug in.
At your hotel
It’s different on a road trip. The 50 miles from a standard plug saves you 15 minutes at a CHAdeMO charger, and perhaps only 6 at a supercharger. If you’re paying 30-40 cents/kwh though, a fill-up at the hotel of 50kwh can mean a savings of $15-$20. As such, when you add in the convenience and gentler charge, a hotel with free Level 2 charging is worth paying a $25 premium to get. (Even though I have free credits I still think this way because the credits will last longer if I do.)
Only a modest number of hotels have charging, but that is changing, especially as EV drivers start picking hotels based on whether they have it. At present, demand is still low, but eventually hotels will need to reserve chargers to guests so that people can depend on them. Indeed, for travel really far off the fast charger networks, overnighting for a charge is the only option that’s practical, and to not get the charge could be a disaster. Closer to the fast chargers, not getting the charge is just some const and inconvenience.
While a large number of hotels can scare up a plug outside, particularly if you carry a heavy duty (12AWG) extension cord with you as I do, the effort is probably not worth it unless it’s easily located, assured to be a dedicated circuit or the extra 50 will make a significant difference in your trip, such as let you do a 50 mile detour, or use a more convenient fast charger. If you have a fridge, it will let you keep that powered.
A few times I stayed at hotels that had some spare RV spots. Some RV spots have a 50 amp plug, which delivers the fastest charging you are likely to get on a Level 2 charger for those who (as they should) bring the right adapter. More common, unfortunately, is the “30 amp” TT-30 RV plug, which is not 60% of a 50 amp but rather 37% of it, good for about 100 miles in a 10 hour overnight stop. That’s always useful, unless you are counting on using it to refill an empty car. We stayed 2 nights at such a motel and it filled our car up each night because we were not driving quite as much. Very nice.
To plug into an 30 amp RV plug is not easy, though. No standard adapter does it, but many suppliers sell a special EV-only adapter that will let one use the 50 amp plug but with an important caveat — this defeats the adapter’s automatic current setting circuits, and the plug will try to draw 32 amps from the 30 amp plug if you don’t take special care to dial it down and prevent it. An more expensive aftermarket adapter for Teslas is available which avoids this problem if you plan to do this regularly or don’t trust yourself to do it manually.
Charging at short stops
As noted, usually it’s not worth much to stop at chargers for a short time. There were a few instances where we did it anyway, if it was convenient and we were stopping for a meal. Sometimes the EV charging spaces are the best available parking and being reserved for EVs, it’s a nice perk, even if the amount of power given is modest. They are often free in shopping areas.
At two tourist donations, the presence of a 50 amp RV plug was useful for a small boost that saved the need for a fast charge. The most interesting was the most amazing box present at the ghost town of Sandon, BC. The most interesting attraction there is the hydro power station, the oldest continuously operating one in the west. The station provides power to an array of almost every standard socket you can imagine (though oddly not the J1772 plug that all EVs can charge from.) Your car is charging from the very hydro station you are visiting, which is a nice and green thought. It’s not clear why, since only a couple of cars can park near the box, but it has multiple 15 amp, 20 amp, 30 amp RV, 30 amp welder and 50 amp RV sockets all packed close.
Also handy was a 50 amp RV socket hidden away at Palouse Falls, the official waterfall of Washington State. It’s in a remote location and we only learned about it reading the guidebook on our way through the state, with only a little more electricity in our battery than we needed to reach our charger-equipped hotel. The detour would have not been possible just using Tesla superchargers, though there were CHAdeMO stations along the route we could boost up at. The presence of a 50 amp plug at the waterfall itself was just enough to handle the detour — sometimes a little power goes a long way. We pulled up to the hotel in Pasco, WA with only a small amount left in the battery and filled it up for no extra charge at the hotel.
What needs to improve
Over time, almost all hotels will get EV charging, because as EVs become a decent fraction of cars, it will be a key amenity that those drivers insist on. In most places even a full 50kwh (200 mile) fill-up costs less than $5 of electricity at night, so it may remain included with the room, or they may add a surcharge, but it should remain cheaper than use of fast-chargers. Today, it’s still pretty hard to search for hotels based on whether they have a charger, and none of the usual hotel sites that let you see prices and book let you search for charging. (The site plugshare.com lets you ask to show chargers near lodging but it’s not particularly easy to use.) Eventually, there will need to be a reservation system, including perhaps the ability to reserve how long you need to charge.
As many cars can fill up in about half their stop, you can have two guests share a circuit, but nobody wants to get up and move their car at 3am. For this, a simple solution is to put two parking spaces at several of the chargers and have hotel staff do that switch when they get a signal from the chargers. Cars of long term guests may only need an hour of use, for which case valet parking or cheap slow chargers make sense.
Some hotels are near fast charging. Since you can’t usually keep your car overnight at a fast charging spot, you usually will check in to the hotel, put the car in the charger and let it charge while you are getting ready for bed (or do the reverse in the morning.) That works but will be an issue when everybody wants to use the charger at 9pm or 8am. On the 5,000 mile road trip I twice took hotels a short walk from fast charging, though in one case the fast charger had a free slow charger next to it which was better for overnight use.
While you often read people wanting fast charging to be faster, the reality is that when you are doing something else near the charger, they are already too fast. Fast chargers want to cycle people through quickly, and so they usually insist you unplug and move as soon as you are done, even if you are still in the middle of dinner. One solution to that is to build fast chargers which have 2 or more cords and 2 or more parking spots, so that somebody else can come in after you’re done and you don’t have to move.
The national charging strategy
With President Biden pushing a bill that will offer immense amounts of money for new charging, it’s important they get it right. Most charging installed so far got it wrong, and there are powerful lobby forces hoping to get some of that pie. They should remember:
- Driving around your hometown, all you need is charging at your house or workplace, and it doesn’t even have to be that fast — 3kw is plenty.
- For people who don’t have such a place (mostly people who live in apartments) regulations could encourage 3 to 7 kw charging there, and in a few cases, on curbs. Commuter parking lots and offices also need this.
- Fast charging is rarely needed in cities if you have the above, but should be placed at places people regularly stop for about 30-60 minutes. Restaurants are great but are mostly accessed at lunch and dinner, so that’s not so great.
- Fast charging infrastructure is needed out in the rural areas, and filling in the gaps in the current networks. The main highways are largely provisioned and will add more. RV parks may be a natural place to put 50kw chargers in remote rural locations.
- All places people sleep — hotels and campgrounds — should get 7kw charging that can refill a car overnight, and be ready to add more of it. A system to reserve it and share it is also needed.
- As we move to a solar grid, charging moves from the night to the morning, and we want to be ready for that. (That means workplace charging, daytime lots and some curbsides.)
What we don’t need is tons of expensive 350kw charging except along main highways for those times people are in a big hurry. We don’t need slow chargers (Level 2) at places people stop for less than 2-3 hours, though that’s mostly what the first subsidies bought. We don’t want to think of these like gasoline cars that drive around until empty and then hunt for a filling station. That’s the old way. Time for the new.