While the most common place for charging will be at home, not everybody has that option. Also, there are times when, even if you normally charge at home, you might need to top up somewhere else. Frustratingly, most of the public charging options require an RFID card or app on your phone and an account (usually free, but still something that needs to be setup before you can charge). There are four companies operating chargers that you are likely to come across in California at least (there are others, but these four are the ones we’ve seen most often). There are also some non-networked locations which typically don’t require an account at all.
If you are going to join only one network, Chargepoint is the one to choose. We have encountered their chargers everywhere from the small office parking lot nextdoor to our public library (a single 3.3 kW shared point) to the short term parking lots at San Francisco International Airport (a lot of 6.6 kW chargers). The price for charging is set by the owner of the location, so be sure to check. Many are free, but not all. Their handy app will show you the pricing of the charger itself. Since some are located in public parking garages though, you may need to pay for the parking on top of the charging cost.
Chargepoint tell me that they recommend having the price increase after 4 hours to incentivize people to move their cars once charged. Some lots have lower time limits (one I have used a few times in Walnut Creek has a 90 minute limit – and since it is right in front of the city hall & police station, they enforce that limit strictly).
There are three ways to start charging at a Chargepoint location:
- Using the RFID card they send you in the mail when you sign up
- Using the app to start the charger by its location & ID
- Using your phone’s NFC capability as if it were an RFID card
I have tried all three, and to be honest I still prefer the RFID card. The app is useful for cases when there is a problem with the card. One thing to note: whichever method you use to start the charge, that is also the method you should use to end the session.
In addition to pricing, their app will also let you know whether the chargers are in use in real-time (although that can change by the time you get to it), and historic usage by hour so you can see when peak times are for each location. The app also shows locations of chargers from other networks, though it does not have real-time information about availability of those locations.
A unique feature of the Chargepoint network is the ability to add yourself to a waitlist for a location that is occupied (if the owner of the location enabled it), or to be notified by email or text message when the location is available. This is a great feature for popular locations (and with the increasing number of plug in vehicles on the roads, many of these chargers are busy most of the day).
We have not seen many Blink Charging locations around our area, but there are parts of the country where they are much more common (Washington, Oregon, southern California, and Tennessee seem to top their list for locations). We do have a few though, and their account is free to sign up for too.
As with Chargepoint, you get an RFID card in the mail. You can also use their app to start and stop sessions, or call their customer support number, which is printed on the chargers.
As with the Chargepoint app, their app also has a map and real-time availability information. Pricing is set by Blink, but varies by state. They do not appear to have any free locations.
When we first got our EV, EVgo required a monthly subscription for all of its plans. That has changed however, and they now have a free pay-as-you-go plan like the previous two.
EVGo’s differentiator is they primarily seem to have rapid DC chargers. Since our EV cannot use those, I don’t have any direct experience of EVGo yet (we signed up as they do indicate some level 2 AC locations on their maps, but all the ones we’ve seen have been DC chargers).
Assuming the car supports DC rapid charging, an EVgo location will probably be the best choice for somebody without charging at home or work. They are often located near places like supermarkets or cafes, and only allow 45 minute sessions (60 minutes during off-peak hours for members with paid subscriptions).
Of course, they too have an app with the real-time availability and location map. Their pricing is set by them and is the same at all locations.
Volta Charging is the other “network” we use frequently. Unlike the others, there is no account needed to charge, no sessions need to be started or stopped. They are always free, just plug in and go.
Their locations are typically shopping mall parking lots – just look for the blue glowing vertical bill boards!
Chargers are typically 6.6 kW level 2 AC chargers (compatible with pretty much all US EVs). They are often busy though. Being free and in shopping malls makes them very popular. Some malls impose time limits on their use, others do not. I do not know how well enforced those rules are when they exist.
There is an app that provides real-time status, though in our experience it is not always accurate. We have driven over to one that is showing available only to find another car in the space, plugged in and actively charging; more than once. Given the account-free operation, there is also no way to get notifications when charging finishes, and we have frequently seen cars sitting there no longer charging for hours. Our nearest Volta location is used by workers at a nearby post office to charge their personal cars every morning, blocking the spaces until they come back to move the car into their employee lot. I have also seen people pull into them, plug in an then get a bike out the back of their car and disappear, presumably back home.
In part, I suspect, because of their heavy use, we have also had issues with them not working. There is a mechanism to report issues, and they do appear to fix them within a few weeks of the report which is great.