This post, part of a series we're running all about electric cars, was written by Stephanie Crawford from HowStuffWorks.com.
The average automobile owner doesn't have a gasoline pump in the driveway or garage. If you've got a car with a gasoline engine, you're likely in the habit of fueling at a nearby gas station when you're running low. Electric cars, though, are changing the game. Finally, you can "fuel up" just by plugging in at home or on the go. The challenge, though, is whether you can do that just by finding the nearest outlet.
This is one of the challenges electric vehicle (EV) manufacturers are trying to overcome to make EVs a convenient alternative to gasoline vehicles. There's already an effort to create a network of charging stations where you can charge your EV or exchange your battery for a fully charged one. However, it'll likely be a while before using the nearest charging station is as fast and easy as visiting the nearest gas station.
One way EV engineers are answering this charging challenge is with onboard charging stations. An onboard charging station has a similar job to those blocky AC power adapters for laptop computers, computer monitors and other high-powered electronic devices. They convert the AC power you receive from the power outlet on your wall into DC that the electric device can store in its batteries. For EVs, an onboard charging station means you could just plug your car into the same outlet as your computer.
An onboard charging station almost eliminates the inconvenience of finding a place to charge. You can plug in at the homes of your friends and family when you visit them, even if they don't own an EV. You may be able to arrange power access while you're parked at work or school, too. Most importantly, you can juice up from your home outlets while you sleep.
On the downside, this lower-voltage charging means long charging times. Using Level 1 charging, an EV plugged in to a U.S.-standard 110-volt outlet in your home could take 14 hours to charge fully. Plus, though the price-per-mile is less in your EV, you'll probably only average about 100 miles (160.9 kilometers) on that full charge. These numbers are based on figures for some of the EVs being tested and scheduled to hit the market in 2011 and 2012.
A Level 1 charge from an onboard charging station is sufficiently convenient, if your car's parked long enough. Whether the car has or can use an onboard charging station will vary with the manufacturer. If your car is never parked long enough to get a Level 1 charge from a 110-volt outlet, though, the convenience is lost. In those cases, if you have the option to install a 220-volt charging station somewhere near where you park your car, you can move up to Level 2 and charge your EV in half the time. Manufacturers are helping new owners by making it convenient to install and finance at-home charging stations, which could pay for themselves in per-mile fuel savings within the first year.