Receptacle Roundup IIb: Build Better Boxen

First a little terminals terminology: these Roundups are not titled after “chargers.”  A charger is what comes just before the battery, and feeds it DC electricity directly.  Thus, the charger is built into the vehicle; it’s generally not in your garage or at the curbside (with few exceptions, which I’ll have to bring up).  What’s next to your vehicle is called EVSE- Electrical Vehicle Supply Equipment.  In the case of Level 1 (ordinary household outlets), that’s simply the 3-prong receptacle in the wall, possibly the cord going across too.

At Level 2, it’s getting complicated.  A J1772 interface has the cord permanently mounted; the vehicle side is its “socket.”  It can run anywhere from 80A, down to standard household current.  Not only does the J1772 EVSE tell vehicles how many amps there are, but there are plenty of features out there.  There are power meters, of course.  Many cars have a timer, to keep your charging within low-rate periods (“off-peak” or “super-off-peak” power).  If you don’t have a timer, an EVSE unit might be programmable instead.  A public, pay charger may need to verify your membership and payment are up to date.  It is then networked; at minimum a networked charger can report a fault back to base, or to members in the area.  Even better, the unit can message you when your battery’s full, or if someone else unplugged you.  (Yes, I’ve heard of that happening, including to a friend of mine.)

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Many of these features are implemented in public chargers by:

Coulomb Technologies ChargePoint– units built by Siemens and Leviton.  Sites may install EVSEs with Level 1 (NEMA 5-15/5-20R), Level 2 (J1772), or both.  Charging may be free or pay; in both cases, a membership card must be waved, or at minimum a credit card with an RFID chip.  I suspect the card requirement, even for free charging, is to deter vandals.

SemaConnect SemaCharge- offers ChargePro units, with J1772 only.  Otherwise, similar in use to ChargePoint.  Both offer smartphone apps, with location finders and real-time status updates.  In many cases, both can reserve a certain charger, and also tell you that a charger is occupied.

JuiceBar has an interesting business model for their EVSEs.  JuiceBar doesn’t charge money… at least, not to you, the vehicle operator.  The company negotiates a deal with sites that need power, either to attract customers, or for their employees, or possibly the kindness of their hearts.  JuiceBar then installs site EVSEs, and charges the site owner.  The owner, of course, pays their monthly electric bill like any other month.

Blink is the opposite; Blink installs both home and public EVSEs, then sells you a membership plan.  Different plans have different levels, like cell phone service.  And like cell service, your membership and payments track across both home and at-large recharges, via the RFID card you have to wave.  Guest EVs can opportunity-charge, but Blink’s rates are then slightly higher.  It’s the vehicular equivalent of roaming charges for cell phones.

The eVgo network (from parent NRG Inc.) is primarily in Texas.  However, they have been expanding into more states, primarily California but also others.

And of course, office buildings, storefronts, restaurants, hotels, theaters, libraries, etc. are able and willing to set out anything from simple receptacles to full-on J1772 without networked support.

For installation in your garage, J1772 EVSEs are offered by Siemens, GE, Eaton, Leviton, ClipperCreek, Schneider, Aerovironment, LeGrand, and others.  Some are cheaper than others; a few may be on the shelves of local Home Depots and Lowe’s.  Some appear simple and passive, others offer networking.  Some are indoor/outdoor rated; the cheap ones generally aren’t.  Despite this competition, the “cheap” ones are still over $700… before installation, which might not be cheap either.

Meanwhile on the opposite end, many people want to charge their J1772 vehicles at home, but without paying  $1,000 or more to install all the J1772 features.  So far, it is apparently not in the interest of the big “appliance” manufacturers to sell dirt-cheap EVSEs, since none are on the market.  Instead, hobbyists and aftermarket firms are selling mass-market implementations.

Readers, I give you the OpenEVSE project.  OpenEVSE is an Internet-based working group that offers J1772 designs.  To run the control electronics, the group has selected the Arduino electronics platform.  This commercial platform is then finished into an embedded controller, including OpenEVSE’s software.  If you’re handy with a soldering iron and such, you can download the plans from the OpenEVSE site, buy the major parts (an Arduino and the J1772 plug), then integrate.  Most people aren’t quite this adept, so OpenEVSE will also sell you a prepared Arduino module.  The cost is still hundreds less than store-bought J-models.

EVSEupgrade has an interesting operation, creating cheap EVSEs via hardware hacking.  Owners of Nissan Leafs, Toyota Prius Plug-Ins and new RAV4 EVs, and Mitsubishi i cars receive power bricks made by Panasonic as standard.  These power bricks and attached extension cords are used to adapt 120V standard outlets to those vehicles’ J1772 ports, when true J1772 power isn’t available or necessary.  On examination, it was found that these power bricks were mostly overdesigned for that role- but not completely.  They could be hacked to accept 240V power with minor modifications- some internal components needed upgrading, and the plug of course has to be one of the 240V interfaces.

EVSEupgrade will then take your power brick, upgrade it, then send it back to you.  Upgrading is much cheaper than building from scratch, so Leaf and Prius drivers save big versus a new, high-powered EVSE.  Since power cords are a bit important to an electrical device, the firm promises to do the work in a day or so, and sends via FedEx overnight both ways.  If that’s still too slow, they even offer to swap your brick for theirs, or sell you a unit upgraded from brand-new stock.  (This is less of a deal, of course, since buying these power bricks in the aftermarket costs more than in a bundle with the car.)  And yes, the firm stands by their work with a warranty.  They’ve been doing this for almost two years now, and EV drivers using their “hackasonics” aren’t complaining.  If electronics aren’t dead by two years, they’ll probably last for years more.

There are plenty of ways to get J1772-type power into your vehicle, both expensive and cheap.  If you get told that you have to spend over a thousand dollars to get J1772 charging speeds, you have Plans B.  But you know what’s even cheaper?  Existing connector standards.  For low mileages, standard NEMA 5-15 works for a lot of owners, since overnight is a long time to be plugged in.  For more miles, there’s another standard, that also was designed for vehicle electricity…

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