Electric car-charging etiquette 101: Five rules for a courteous power-up

Regardless of what kind of plug-in electric car you drive, if you use public charging stations, you can help make the experience a little better for everyone else, simply by being considerate.

Jorege Silva/Reuters/File
An electric car charging sign is seen at a PTT Pcl's commercial EV (Electric Vehicle) charging station, in Bangkok, Thailand.

As electric-car adoption expands past early adopters into more general buyers, it may be difficult for public charging infrastructure to grow as fast as the number of electric vehicles on the road.

Here in the U.S., every month roughly 10,000 new plug-in vehicles are sold or leased—and that number could rise dramatically once the highly anticipated 200-mile electric cars like the Chevy Bolt and the Tesla Model 3 are widely available.

Even now, some public charging stations are starting to see backlogs, with not enough plugs available to accommodate the needs of drivers.

One major charging network, ChargePoint, has just added a new feature called Waitlist that allows customers to reserve a place in line to use one of its charging stations.

In time, infrastructure will catch up to the demand. But for now, we all need to make do with what’s available.

Regardless of what kind of plug-in electric car you drive, if you use public charging stations, you can help make the experience a little better for everyone else, simply by being considerate.

Here are our tips for general courtesy and charging-station etiquette.

Battery-electric cars vs plug-in hybrids: who gets priority?

Some people believe plug-in hybrid or extended-range electric-car owners shouldn’t even use public charging infrastructure—or should immediately unplug and give priority to a "pure" electric-car driver if one comes along and needs to charge while a plug-in hybrid is using the charging station.

I mention this first because just today someone contacted me to discuss the issue. That person felt only battery-electric vehicles should be allowed to use public charging stations, and that the steady sales of plug-in hybrids will create havoc at charging sites.

I understand this reasoning—that battery-electric drivers need to recharge to reach their destination, while plug-in hybrid drivers have a backup power source.

But I don’t agree with the thought process that prioritizes charging for one kind of electric-car driver simply because of potential need.

Many people who buy plug-in hybrids do so to drive on electricity as much as possible, and burn as little gasoline as possible. If they arrive at the charging station first, or reserve it ahead of time, they have the right to use it.

That said, it’s always admirable to consider the needs of others.

If you drive a plug-in hybrid and a battery-electric driver arrives while you're charging and seems distressed about not being able to recharge, consider offering them your plug.

You may want to ask a few questions to understand how serious the need is—but do consider offering them your plug if you really don’t need the charge to get to where you’re going.

Sure, your lifetime gasoline consumption may go up a little, but you’ll feel good about having helped someone out, once you have time to think about it.

In these early years of electric cars, we are all de facto ambassadors. Many EV owners are extremely passionate about supporting the transition to electrics: they allow strangers to test-drive their cars, and they evangelize about their benefits at every opportunity.

Yet often we end up quibbling over who has more of a "right" to use public charging, based on “how electric” a specific vehicle is. It’s likely better to be considerate than to stand your ground. Can't we all just get along?

Always return the connector to its holster

Always holster the connector when you’re finished charging. I’ve come across many public charging sites where the connector is lying on the ground near the base of the station.

Many stations won’t unlock the connector unless the user swipes a network card, so this transgression wasn’t done just by someone passing by. It had to be the previous user.

Leaving the connector on the ground creates a potential trip hazard, and boosts the chances it will be damaged and dirty for the next user.

Leave the charging site as clean as (or better than) when you arrived.

Speaking of dirty: if you use public charging frequently then you’ve likely come across a station that wasn’t in the cleanest condition when you arrived.

I know I didn’t even want to touch some of the charging stations in New York City parking garages. I’ve gotten in the habit of cleaning the stations that are dirty when I leave, so the next person doesn’t have the same experience.

I'm neurotic about having a clean windshield, so I always have paper towels and glass cleaner in my car—and I started using them on dirty connectors.

Now I carry a separate rag to clean off the whole unit if I have a few minutes to spare before leaving. I encourage others to do this also.

Finally, I shouldn’t even have to say this, but ... please don’t leave trash on the ground around the station. If you come across some left there by a previous user, be the better person and pick it up.

I recently watched a couple in an electric car leave plastic cups and a water bottle at the base of the DC fast-charging station at my restaurant after they used it.

Perhaps it was by mistake, but please make sure you don’t do that. Property managers and owners won’t want charging stations on their property if users leave the area littered with trash.

Don’t park in electric-car charging spaces if you aren’t charging. Ever!

Lastly, and probably most importantly, you may drive an electric car, but please don’t park in the spaces at charging sites if you’re not charging. And I say that even if it may be legal to do so.

Many parking spaces at charging stations don’t specify that a vehicle must be charging to park there. Quite often there are no signs, or they just say, “Electric Vehicle Parking”.

Please don’t use that space just for parking unless you plan to charge. I see too many drivers are using these valuable spaces as their private parking spots, blocking them from their intended use for charging.

Part of the problem is that charging stations are often sited close to buildings because it makes installing the power lines simpler. It can cost many thousands of dollars more to put them further out in parking lots, and often stations are placed purely on where they cost the least to install.

Those are prime parking spots, and that's definitely a part of the problem.

We’re highly critical of gasoline or diesel car owners when they block a charging station—but in my opinion, it’s just as egregious when an electric-car owner intentionally blocks a public charging station just to use it for parking.

But this issue is especially problematic at DC fast-charging stations. It’s imperative that we keep these stations available for the drivers who need them. There aren’t nearly enough fast charge stations yet, so if you’re not using it, don’t block it

Be courteous and considerate: your actions have implications.

Many of these recommendations are simple common sense. But it never hurts to be reminded, from time to time, that everyone with a plug-in electric car is a custodian of the future in one way or another.

What we do today influences how quickly or slowly the transition to electrics will occur, and how fast the infrastructure arrives.

So let’s all be mindful of our actions, and work together to see that both of those things happens as quickly as possible.

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