How does charging electric vehicles at public charge points work?

Considering an EV but not sure how charging on the road works? Here’s what you need to know.

Audi e-tron charging
Audi e-tron charging

Interest in electric vehicles is rising rapidly, particularly since the government announced petrol and diesel cars will be banned from sale from 2030.

However, the idea of switching to an electric vehicle can be daunting, with all this talk of charging and range anxiety.

Audi e-tron charging
(Audi)

If you can charge your vehicle at home, ensuring you have a full ‘tank’ every time you leave the house, public charge points won’t be much of a concern. But if you do a lot of long journeys or you can’t charge at home, using public charge points will be a vital, if currently alien prospect.

With this in mind, we’ve put together a simple guide to show that while EV charging can seem like a minefield, once you’re set up it’s not much different to filling your car with petrol.

What is a public charge point?

A public charge point is the petrol station of the EV world. It’s a place where EV owners can go to charge their vehicle, and they’re usually located in convenient locations, such as motorway service stations, hotel car parks and supermarkets.

In some cases, they’re also available on residential streets, something that is becoming increasingly popular.

How do I find one?

The best way is to use a site like Zap-Map, which provides a map of pretty much every connector in the UK. However, if you have an account with a specific provider, it will almost certainly have an app that will show its own charge points.

How do they work?

The process is similar to using the ‘pay at pump’ feature of a petrol station, though it can vary slightly between providers. You simply drive up to the charge point and follow the instructions on the screen to set up payment, then plug your vehicle in using the cable on site or using your own.

Tesla Supercharger Network
Tesla’s Supercharger network is consistently rated highly – but non-Tesla owners can’t use them. (Tesla)

It’s not always quite that simple, though. There are numerous providers, each with their own app. The vast majority should now allow for contactless payment, but it’s usually cheaper if you sign up for an account and pay through this. Some services require a monthly subscription fee, too.

How much does it cost?

Here’s where it can get complicated. Charging from home is the most cost-effective way of topping up your batteries, but when it comes to public charge points, it can vary depending on the provider and the speed of the charge – think of it like comparing the price of a litre of fuel at different forecourts, as well as the difference between premium and regular fuel.

As an example, BP Pulse charges 12p per kWh to subscription members, which some charge points costing nothing at all – membership costs £7.85 per month, with the first three months free. However, if you ‘pay as you go’, there’s a minimum spend of £1.20 with prices starting at 18p per kWh.

However, using a contactless payment method sees prices start at 25p per kWh with a minimum spend of £1.50.

Are all chargers compatible with all cars?

No, so you’ll have to make sure your car is compatible with the charge point you’re heading to. In truth, you’ll be unlucky if you head to a location you can’t use, but it’s worth noting. When searching on a site like Zap-Map, you can filter by connection type so it only shows places you can charge.

Which provider is best?

If you have a Tesla, great news, because the firm’s Supercharger network is consistently voted the best in the UK. However, drivers of non-Tesla models can’t use them.

According to a survey by Zap-Map, which asked EV owners to rate 16 major networks based on reliability, ease of use, cost and facilities, Tesla scored 4.8 out of five in 2020. The rest of the top five was Instavolt (4.4), Osprey (4.1), Pod Point (3.7) and Swarco E.connect (3.6).

The bottom five were Electric Highway/Ecotricity (2.0), Charge Your car (2.6), Source London (2.7), BP Pulse (2.9) and GeniePoint (3.0).

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