Battery EVs run on pure electricity, unlike hybrids which use a mix of gasoline and electricity. Batteries need recharging, so here’s a look at the various charging standards and how they work. Don’t be put off by the variety of levels and plugs; the bottom line is that almost any EV you buy in North American can be charged almost anywhere!

Getting a Charge

You can find charging stations using your car’s inbuilt charging app if it has one and/or by visiting plugshare.com which tries to map all the L2 and L3 charging stations.

Level Up: L1? L2? L3?

There are three levels of charging. In all cases, your car will have a socket or connector, and the charging station usually includes the cable and plug that fits into the socket; this whole scheme looks vaguely like the fuelling system used on gasoline cars, so some people (mistakenly, IMHO) refer to the electrical cable as a "hose" (it’s not hollow, it’s full of wire, hence a cable, not a hose, but whatever…​). As my friend Gord Maric puts these levels with great simplicity: "level 1 toaster plug, level 2 dryer, level 3 commercial plug"

  • L1, Level 1, is 120V at 15 or 20 amps AC ("alternating current") - basically plugging your EV into a North American-style home wall outlet. This is the lowest power and hence the slowest charge. 1800 Watts is about what a full-size microwave oven uses. L1 really only exists in North America, since Europe and elsewhere (rather sensibly) run their household appliances at 240V, which L2 uses.

  • L2, Level 2, is also Alternating Current (AC) but four times as powerful - double the voltage and double (or more) the current. The minimum for L2 is 240V at 30 Amps, which gives 7200 Watts. This power draw is akin to the highest setting on most electrical ovens or clothes dryers. You can, in fact, plug most EVs directly into an oven or dryer plug (with an adapter, usually). However, most homeowners with EVs will hire a licensed electrician to install a L2 "charging station" or "EVSE" - electric vehicle service entrance - which is more convenient and flexible. This isn’t truly a "charger": the actual charger which converts from 120/240V AC to the DC that batteries need, is an integral part of the car. Some L2 units go to higher currents: Tesla’s "Wall Connector", for example, can run on a 90 Amp circuit if your breaker panel is up for it. This gives a charging rate of around 17 KW (the 80% rule covered at the end of this page gives 72A, times 240V, gives 17280W, or 17KW). Many brands of home EVSEs (including Tesla’s current version) offer bells and whistles such as monitoring, control and even software updates over WiFi.

  • Level 3 is the real high speed charging, the only one that can be called "fast charging". These charging units cost tens of thousands of dollars each, run on 400V to 800V DC, and need several hundred amps of current each, so you are not likely to have one in your garage or outhouse anytime soon. L3 run at 50-350KW and will charge most current (no pun intended) cars in a quarter or half an hour to an hour.

As mentioned, with L1 and L2, the actual "battery charger" is inside your car, whereas with L3 the large box with the cable coming out of it (or a larger box nearby) contains the actual charger.

Get the Plug Out (or In)

In North America, all cars can use the standarized Level 2 standard known as SAE J-1772. SAE is the Society of Automotive Engineers, It describes a standard plug and voltage levels. Most cars have a J1772 socket. Teslas, the best-selling EV at the moment, don’t. They have their own socket, but there’s a J1772 adapter. So it’s true that all EVs sold in North America can charge at a J1772 charging station.

One issue with L3 is that there are three standards in North America, and a few more in other parts of the world. Anyone remember Betamax vs VHS, or HD-DVD vs Blu-Ray? Competition is usually beneficial, but interoperability is important too!

  • Tesla’s standard for their Supercharger network has recently been standardized by the IEEE as "NACS", the North American Charging Standard. Since the Supercharger network is currently the world’s largest single network of stations, installed in countries where Tesla cars are sold, it makes sense to standardize on this. See this map of Tesla stations in North America. Tesla superchargers and Tesla L2 charger cables have the same plug on them, which includes an "open the charging port" button that is easier on the hands than the competition. Tesla Superchargers have historically not been usable by other vehicles, but Tesla have started open their network by adding "CCS" cables (see below).

    As of late 2023, almost every EV manufacturer has announced their decision to switch over to NACS withing the next model year or two. Most of these car makers had previously committed to CCS, which we’ll look at next. And they had sold many vehicles with CCS, so moving to CCS presumably shows their committment to making EVs universally chargeable. They will all make adapters so customers who bought vehicles with CCS will be able to use NACS as well. Choosing an EV charger should be as much a no-brainer as gas vehicles buying the same "octane" gas at all dealers regardless of brand. The NACS standard will eventually get us there. The VHS-vs-betamax problem is done!

  • Combined Charging System (CCS), also called SAE Combo, arose in North America and Europe, and is mandated in Europe. Up to and during the switch to NACS, CCS has been used by many North American and European makers, including GM, Ford, Audi, BMW, Daimler. CCS in Europe uses a different plug than here; European Teslas can use European CCS chargers either directly (Model 3) or via a Model S/X adapter (which costs about 200 Euros). Many North American Teslas can use Tesla’s own CCS Adapter, which costs about US$200, though older Teslas (including my own, grump grump) needed a hardware upgrade before using it. I have this adapter and it works, as well as can be expected given the vagaries of the many different CCS networks.

  • CHAdeMO originated in Japan. The popular Nissan Leaf uses CHAdeMo, but it’s pretty much the only car that does. In North America, Tesla offers a CHAdeMo adapter but it’s US$500 and limited to a 50KW charge rate.

  • There are one or two other charging standards, that aren’t relevant to my audience.

For Tesla owners in North America doing road trips in 2024, one of these CCS adapters might be worth it if you frequently drive to places that aren’t well served by Tesla’s own network.

CHAdeMo and CCS were locked in a struggle for dominance for a decade, until NACS came for both of them. Experts had been predicting the demise (or at least irrelevance) of one or the other for years. Half the experts on each side, of course. Turns out both were right. With the NACS bandwagon-effect mentioned above, NACS has carried the field, at least in North America.

Charging Networks in Canada

The following are the main operators providing charging stations across the country. You can find a consolidated map of all known stations on https://plugshare.com. All of these are reasonably reliable but occiasionally subject to vandalism by luddites and/or copper thieves who destroy the cable.

The following operate large - either cross-country or large regional - networks.

  • Sun Country pioneered charging across the Trans Canada Highway (TCH) with a network of Level 2 chargers, and continues to operate this network and to sell chargers.

  • Tesla’s SuperChargers also exists across the mainland TCH; making it one of the first L3 networks that allowed to drive the entirety of the TCH (barring Newfoundland) on one network.

  • Petro Canada is the other "first" cross-Canada network.

  • Canadian Tire does not want to miss the boat and built out a cross-Canada network.

  • Flo Networks is a Canadian company that offers Level 3 charging service and makes and sells their own L2 and L3 charging equipment.

  • ChargePoint (US owned) offers L3 charging stations in Canada.

  • The Ivy Charging Network is an Ontario regional network owned by electric power suppliers Hydro One and Ontario Power Generation. They offer both L3 and L2 stations; many of their L3 locations offer CCS, ChaDeMo and Tesla (the latter via Tesla’s ChaDeMo adapter). They’re found at OnRoute stops on the 400-series highways.

  • Desjardins is a mostly-Quebec-based regional charging network.

Feel the Power (err, don’t, actually): Electical Details

This paragraph may be considered "the gory details" by some; feel free to skip it and come back later.

Electrical Power is measured in watts (as in, a 60 watt light bulb), or more usefully for EVs, in kilowatts (1000 watts). Electrical "power" - the ability to move your car - is computed by multiplying voltage times current (amperage). Students are taught to remember this as easily as PIE:

P = I * E

P (power) is in watts, I (induced current flow) is in Amps, and E (electromotive force) is in volts. You probably recognize amps from your circuit breaker panel (or fuse panel); 15 Amps for lighting circuit, 30-40 amps for an electric dryer or range, etc. If you know the voltage and amperage ratings, just multiply them together to get Power. A motor using 10 Amps at 120V is using 1200 Watts. If you know Power and one of the other two factors, divide Power by the known factor to get the other. For example, a 5W LED bulb at 110V is drawing a current of I = P / V, or 5/120, or about 0.04 Amps (4 100dths of an amp) - almost nothing. A 100 Watt incandescent bulb is drawing 100/120 A, 5/6 or 0.8333 Amps. That’s less than 1 Amp, which is why you can run several of those on one 15 Amp circuit.

Electrical "branch" circuits (so-called because they branch out from your main electrical panel) are rated by the maximum current of the circuit breaker they are connected to. House circuits are usually 15A; dryers and ovens 30A, sometimes 40. The appliance or other "load" is supposed to operate at an average current of 80% of the breaker capacity, thus a 40A breaker should be run at 32A. When you (or preferably your licensed electrician!) installs an L2 charger ("EVSE") at your house, they will generally put it on a 40A breaker and set the little dial inside the EVSE to a max of 32A.

An EV battery is rated in kilowatt-hours, that is, for how many hours it can deliver the kilowatts. Typical sizes are around 70KWh for a battery-electric car. Your cell phone battery is rated in mAH, milli-amp hours. Milli = 1/1000, so a typical 4,000 mAH cell phone battery at 5V would be 20WH or 0.002 KWh. Quite enough for a mobile, but not enough to move your car very far!