One of the first questions I am asked by people who talk to me about our EV is where do you charge it, and how long does it take. I totally understand this, after all you don’t see charging stations along the road the way you see gas stations. Our EV is very much a city car; we don’t use it for long journeys, and it would not really be that practical for them since it lacks any support for rapid DC charging.
By far the majority of our charging happens at home. We will typically plug in once or twice a week when we get home and let the JuiceBoxPro 40 on the wall in the garage schedule our charge for over night. That typically takes 2-3 hours, but since the car is there all night we really don’t car that much.
The only other place we charge is typically in retail outlet parking lots where they have charging spaces for EVs, and that is the topic I wanted to cover here since there is a lot of variation here in the availability, and quality of those chargers. We have visited a number of locations in the East Bay area, as well as some locations in San Francisco itself and down the peninsula. Some locations are free, others require payment; some are rapid DC chargers, others are level 2 AC chargers. The one thing they (almost) all have in common though is not very many EV spots.
Free vs Paid
Most of the locations we visit that have free charging are continuously occupied. Even the locations that have time limits on the charging spaces are heavily used and it is rare to arrive and find one available. Typically the only time I have managed to get one of the free Volta spaces at our local mall is when I have been able to park nearby and wait in the car (normally because our youngest is napping in her car seat).
When a destination has free chargers, we cannot rely on them being available, which in turn limits the range for our EV trips to basically half of our total range.
The locations where paid charging points are provided can be easier to get into, but even then with only one or two spaces available, and typical charge times of 2-3 hours, it is by no means certain that we will be able to get a space.
The other issue, and this is also exacerbated by there being so few spaces, is that any problems with the charger can leave you stranded. Here in Alameda right now, the three places we most often charge all have faulty units. Response times to fixing these problems varies a lot too, although at the time of writing all the problems I have reported to the respective networks still remain, several weeks after reporting them.
Our personal experience suggests that Chargepoint’s network is the most reliable, though we have limited experience with EvGO since most of their chargers are DC rapids and our B Class lacks DC charging capabilities.
Level Two or Rapid?
Most of the retail locations we visit here have the slower level 2 AC chargers. A few have only DC rapid chargers, and one has mostly DC chargers, with a single level 2 AC one as well. Which one makes sense probably depends more on the average length of stay of customers. The two locations nearest us with rapid chargers are grocery stores (and both are operated by EvGO); rapid chargers will deliver more charge in the 30-45 minutes an average shopper spends in the store, but most people shop close to home & probably do not need a rapid charge at the grocery store.
One 50 kW rapid charger could be replaced by eight 6 kW level 2 chargers, servicing many more customers with the same cost in electricity.
In shopping malls, where the average visit is longer, a level 2 charger will deliver a good charge, although with only 2-4 of them available, it does not serve many customers in the course of a day. Most of the malls around here have far too few charging spaces; in my opinion, it is more important to have enough spaces than to have free charging. The only mall in the bay area that has worked this out is Westfield’s Valley Fair in Santa Clara, with a total of 44 level 2 charging stations available. They are not free, but they are also not terribly expensive and having so many of them means there is a good chance there will be one available.
The other problem with EV charging spaces is users abusing them. Whether that is staying in the space long after the car is fully charged, finding ICE cars parked in them or even EVs parked in one that is not even plugged in, the property owners really need to enforce the rules on the EV spaces.
The two (free) charging spaces at Alameda’s South Shore Center also have another issue: people using them who are not shopping at the mall. We have observed employees from nearby businesses park in the spaces and go to work, and in one more extreme case we saw somebody park in the space, unpack a folding bicycle from the trunk and cycle away, leaving their car charging!
For retailers not sure whether they should be adding EV spaces, just consider where an EV owner will choose to shop given a choice between a mall with EV charging and one without. Free charging is a great benefit, but only if there are enough spaces to have a reasonable chance of getting one, and when abusive users are dealt with by the mall security too.
Rapid or level 2 is, I believe, an easy choice. Add as many 6 kW level 2 chargers as possible. More spaces means more happy EV driving customers, and all EVs can charge from a 6 kW level 2 charger. Rapids have their place for sure, but it is not destination charging: They are much better suited to freeway services where people are stopping off to refuel on a long journey.
It is also important that the chargers are networked. Much as I love the simplicity of Volta’s free chargers – just plug in and walk away – a big part of the problem with them remaining occupied too long is that they have no way of letting the EV’s owner know that charging has completed. Since the Chargepoint ones know who I am, I can both check on the status in their app and also be notified when charging is complete. Networked chargers also show their availability on a map (to be fair, Volta’s app does claim to show availability but it is frequently inaccurate for some reason).