Receptacle Roundup I: NEMA 5-15

Welcome to the wild, woolly world of outlets!  More juice than we know what to do with!  You know this one:

NEMA 5-15R

They’re North American standard 3-prong outlets, or technically, duplex NEMA 5-15R.  “NEMA” is the National Electrical Manufacturers’ Association, “5” is the prong configuration, “15” is the current rating in amperes, and “R” is receptacle (versus “P” for plug).  This one has GFI (Ground Fault Interrupt), which can cut the power if it senses a short.  Power is cut faster than it can stop your heart.  GFI is required by code in kitchens, bathrooms, and garages.

At 120 volts and 15 amps (thus, 1.8 kilowatts), it’s no speed demon, particularly since most devices draw 12A just to be sure (1.44 kW).  It charges a completely-depleted Prius Plug-In in a few hours, but a Nissan Leaf will charge for over twenty hours.  All e-motos on the market now are somewhere in between.  For us street-legal bikers, 120V is good (really good for e-scooters).  Cars run at higher voltages, so they prefer 240V.  But of course, 5-15’s EVERYWHERE, even outdoors and in public.  All others will be compared to the standard 3-prong, or “Level 1.”

Other than (sometimes) GFI, there are no safety features; weatherproofing has to be done by an enclosure, and you still have to exercise due care.  Both the slots and the mating 5-15P prongs are technically exposed, so rain and fingers could contact.  You can pull out a 5-15P while under load, which then throws a little arc.  Arcing is a bad idea; aside from looking cool/scary, repeated arcing erodes the metal.

And yet, who’s complaining?  Just how many people are shocking themselves?  Have you ever actually worn out an outlet, and had to replace it?  Every EV sold to consumers will do direct 5-15 charging; the electrical codes grandfather it in.  Even if you somehow wore one out, a replacement receptacle is a couple bucks at any hardware store.  The labor is higher than that, and if you feel handy you could even do that too.  No, the real issue is the low power and slow speed… or is it?

Not only do a majority of Chevy Volt owners charge at Level 1, but a survey found that a majority of Tesla Roadster owners were using only 5-15.  That’s right, a Tesla that takes a full day to recharge completely here.  The reason?  Few people come home empty, without actively trying.  Most commutes in the U.S. are 4-8 miles each way; even stopping at stores along the way won’t fully deplete a Volt for an overwhelming fraction of U.S. commuters.  It certainly won’t drain a Tesla.  Thus, an overnight charge from 5-15 is plenty for the typical day.  Many employers have a standard outlet somewhere; if you can top up at work, then 5-15 alone is surprisingly good.  As they say, a car spends ridiculous amounts of time parked, and with time to burn, who needs more juice than this?

There are exceptions, of course, just like the market contains Priuses, Teslas, and my bike.  The chief exceptions (aside from brutal commutes) are wintertime, and extended driving days.

Heavy use of climate control is tough on EVs.  In the summer, you have the option of rolling down the windows, or toughing it out.  Winter is a bigger issue.  Aside from sluggish batteries, not defrosting windows becomes a safety issue.  In a gasser, the engine is wasting massive amounts of energy as heat, so some is tapped for heat and defrost.  Not so for pure EVs (though the Volt, Prius, etc. can and do run the ‘banger).  People with BEVs may be caught short, and hybrids will burn more gas, more often.  To an extent, you can preheat or precool modern plug-in cars while in the garage, using a timer or smartphone app.  But both heat and A/C tap enough of a 5-15 that the battery computer may stop charging altogether.

The other exception is long days, i.e., lots of errands.  Even then, what’s really the problem would be two back-to-back long days.  Let’s say your commute is twenty miles, round trip.  Even if you arrive home completely flat, you only need to add twenty miles to head out the next morning- still easy with 5-15 overnight.  The outlet only fails you if you try to do this two days in a row… and you don’t have workplace or public chargers either.

You could make the argument that slow charging takes a person out of their utility’s off-peak hours.  Off-peak or super-off-peak rates for electricity may be less than half of peak.  I don’t have much sympathy for this line.  Electricity is so much cheaper than gas that a few hours past off-peak is only nickels and dimes- you’re still clearly ahead.  And of course, a brutal commute every day is your own fault; no one forced you to go to that job, after picking that residence.  Plan better next time.

I can even punt from there.  Your household may feel it needs a second or third motor vehicle.  A pure battery EV will likely work out; many families have been surprised.  Many found their EV “second car” became their first choice most days, and the gasser (or hybrid) was actually Plan B.

Still, there are enough people, enough of the time needing more than NEMA 5-15.  Fortunately, there are plenty of options, which is what this Roundup is for.  But for non-road-tripping in an EV, buyers are often pleasantly surprised how effective 5-15 is (including work and public 5-15s).  We’ll discuss road trips under the more-roadworthy outlets.

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21 thoughts on “Receptacle Roundup I: NEMA 5-15

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