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How to Find EV Charging Stations

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There are many reasons that the ideal charging option for electric vehicles is a home charger: it’s the most convenient and affordable means of fueling, and public options in the U.S. remain in a disconnected state, with multiple networks, capabilities and payment methods. But sooner or later, you will need a public charger, whether you want to travel outside your range comfort zone or you just find yourself with an unplanned need for juice. In that case, a long list of services and apps is available that can help you find a quick boost or plot out a longer trip.

Related: Electric Vehicles: Understanding the Terminology

Automaker Apps and Software

The first source of help comes with the car some are good, and some are developing. The closest thing to a seamless all-in-one experience is Tesla’s app and in-car software, along with its extensive proprietary network of Supercharger and Destination charging stations. Tesla owners can find charging, identify fast-charging locations (including real-time availability), plan trip routes with charging stops, and plug in and pay (at a predictable rate), all within the Tesla ecosystem. It’s not perfect, but it’s easily the most mature combination of app functionality with a DC fast-charging network and billing simplification.

Other EV automakers are working rapidly to create similar experiences with their brands’ EV apps and software. They are striking deals with charging network partners to create ad hoc networks under their individual brand names. The aim is a comprehensive automaker app and in-car software that can include locations and real-time availability of stations on the road, route-planning assistance based on the car’s state of charge and a simple, automatic payment process at the charging station. Among the most Tesla-like are brands that integrate the international Plug & Charge standard (ISO 15118) into their apps and cars, now including Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. It’s a standard for communication between an EV and the charging station — more common now in Europe, newer for the U.S. — that lets you charge and pay with one-click (or no-click) convenience. Though they are rapidly evolving, most automaker systems are works in progress, however, and you’ll want some additional help.

Individual Charging Network Apps

The various charging networks have their own apps with registration and payment systems to locate and use their chargers. Users likely would want at least a couple to supplement the automaker or third-party apps. Among the variety of choices, ChargePoint has the most public stations in the U.S. overall; EVgo and Electrify America have substantial numbers of DC fast chargers, with many on major routes and at destinations; in some regions, Volta Charging is putting chargers at retail locations that offer 30 minutes or more of free Level 2 charging (a pair closest to my D.C. home offers two hours). In addition to its extensive network, ChargePoint has one of the most user-friendly apps, with details including a station’s busy times, real-time availability of a charger and a waitlist feature to get in line. But there are other considerations when adding network apps to your smartphone, such as finding a network with chargers handiest to your home or regular routes. Chargers are not distributed equally across the nation. For example, as of August 2021, 31.4% of all public chargers in the U.S. were in California, according to the Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center.

Third-Party Options

Though some of the network-branded apps above do help you find other-network chargers, you’ll likely want to add some network-agnostic alternative sources of information to your arsenal for navigating the charging landscape. There are many, some with particular specialties or strengths. Below are a few options to try for a start:

  • Google and Apple map apps. A quick way to search for charging is already on your phone. Both Google Maps and Apple Maps allow you to search for charging stations nearby or near another location, and provide some information on stations, such as network, access and directions. While quick and easy, my experience is that both miss some of the chargers in my area and key details are sometimes lacking — one near me in a parking garage does not show the cost to get into the garage and lists it as having 24-hour access without noting that it is closed on Sundays. 
  • PlugShare. This useful and popular free app — the company claims seven out of 10 EV owners have it — maps and compiles data on stations from most public charging networks, as well as non-network chargers and private residential chargers that owners will share. Multiple filtering options include charging network, plug type, power levels, whether a garage location requires payment for entry and nearby amenities such as Wi-Fi, shopping, food and restrooms. It also shows if the station is in use where the data is available and allows app users to post photos and added details (useful if the charger is hidden in an obscure corner of a parking structure). App users can edit the station information, leave notes about out-of-order ports and rate their overall experience at the station think of it as a cross between Wikipedia and TripAdvisor for chargers. The app also allows payment at stations that accept its Pay with PlugShare (you can filter for that, too). A new feature is a trip-planning function, and the app also is compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, though with some limitations for in-dash use. A note of caution is that the company behind this app was bought last month by the charging network EVgo, though the companies say PlugShare (which has been independent for more than a decade) will continue to operate as an independent information source. A free alternative with similar capabilities and a similar active community of users is the ChargeHub app.
  • A Better Routeplanner. The modestly named app can do just what the name implies — help you plan a trip including charging stops — and easily revise it on the fly if traffic, weather or other factors alter your plan. The basic app is free; a premium version ($5 per month) adds more features such as real-time weather, though the free version can be plenty for occasional use. The app is compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
  • EV Hotels. This app is currently priced at $2.99 but could be worth it if you travel a lot, have strong hotel preferences or want to stay within a particular hotel chain’s brands to pad your rewards points. It identifies charging locations specifically at hotels, which are sometimes hard to identify in other apps, as well filters by other factors such as plug type or power level. Another useful feature is the ability to search for chargers within a set walking distance from a hotel you might like that doesn’t have onsite charging.

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Former D.C. Bureau Chief Fred Meier, who lives every day with Washington gridlock, has an un-American love of small wagons and hatchbacks. Email Fred Meier

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