Travels with our electric car

When I was a kid, some comedian had a joke about a new electric car.  The car itself was cheap, but the extension cord cost a fortune.  To this day, a lot of people still ask, “But will you be able to find a place to plug it in?”  Here for the truly curious is a detailed look at a trip we made from Seattle to Arizona and back in our 2023 Hyundai Kona EV.  Those who are entirely new to the subject may want to look at the explanation in the notes at the end about the charging game in general. And by the way, there is more detail here than strictly necessary. It may have taken more time to write about some of these events than to experience them.

Before starting.  We’re “lucky” enough to have a charging station at our parking space at home. The building originally lacked the capacity to add more than a handful of these outlets; our condo association put considerable time and effort into wiring up half the spaces this last year. (At least one of our neighbors had an EV for months before installation began — some people have a charger available at work, for instance.) In the picture you’ll see an ordinary 120-volt outlet and a round 240-volt socket that looks like you would plug a washing machine into it. We imagined that the 120-volt outlet was just for the vacuum cleaner, but it’s all we’ve really ever needed. We used the big one once before our trip, to try out the 240-volt “Level 2” cable that we bought for the occasion.

Our destination for the first day of our journey was the Best Western in Keizer, Oregon, near Salem, 217 miles distant.  The night before our departure we charged our battery to 90%, which gave us an indicated range of 279 miles.

Day One: Keizer, Oregon. We arrived with an indicated 51 miles left, about 96% of the predicted performance. (As we logged more hilly miles at highway speeds and using climate control, the Kona gradually adjusted its estimates downward.) We happily pulled into one of the slots by the free charging station near the entrance and plugged right in.  A Tesla soon parked next to us though, and its owner explained that he needed to prepare for a 7:00 a.m. departure, and asked if he could have the charger before the time our car was done.  We worked out a deal where he unplugged our car at 10:00 p.m. and then plugged it back in when he was finished.  I look upon this now not as a problem but as an opportunity for cooperation among EV enthusiasts.

Day Two: Rogue River, Oregon. This stop was ideal. The charging station was next to the entrance at the Best Western, and I plugged in while Alex registered.  The space was right outside our bedroom, so we could monitor the car’s state-of-charge by just looking out the window at the light on its charging port. There were two charging stations, and nobody else parked anywhere near them, so there was no reason to bother going outside to unplug when we were done.  Again, all the watts we wanted, at zero cost.

Day Three: Anderson, California.  Near Redding.  This was our only really problematic charging experience, but advance planning allowed us to bring it off fairly gracefully.

We arrived at the Best Western in the rain and were directed to the single charging cable, near our room.  The charger had been reported working (there are apps for this) two days before, but no amount of plugging and unplugging and throwing of the switch on the side of the box would cause it to function.

We had planned to get our dinner by walking across the street to the local Safeway, so we just drove over there instead, to take advantage of the four Electrify America DC chargers. This would be good practice for us anyway. We hadn’t used a fast charger since the day we brought the car home, but we knew that we would need to several times on our trip.

Of the four charging stations, only two seemed to be working when we arrived. A nice lady was just finishing and offered us her spot,  Amazingly, that charger now no longer worked. A line began to form:  a couple with a rental Kona much like ours, but white; a guy with a Lucid, an astoundingly quick luxury car.

The other working charger was occupied by a young fellow with a Mustang Mach-e. We pulled into the space on the other side and I waited while Alex set off toward the supermarket, on the far side of the parking lot, to get frozen dinners to microwave. After a while the Lucid guy disappeared, but the Kona people were very patient.  I learned that this was some sort of Electric Vehicle week in California and that they had been encouraged to take one as their rental — this was pretty much their first experience also.  I was a little ashamed of the time it took to charge to 90% — I called Alex to see if we could get by with less — but they didn’t want to hurry me at all. It’s good that we were able to make this work — aside from a ChargePoint station a few blocks away, the closest public fast charger was in the next town. Is this what life on the road would be like? Actually, this was the last time on the trip that we didn’t get to charge at the expected place.

Day Four: Modesto, 231 mi. On the way, a treat to make up for the delays at Anderson. Some California highway rest stops provide absolutely free EV charging stations among their amenities.  We stopped at an area near the town of Willows to top up:

On to Modesto. At the DoubleTree Inn, parking is available two ways: give your car to the valet and they’ll take it, charge it, and bring it back in the morning (there’s an app to limit how much they can drive it); or do it yourself, parking at the charger while you’re using it, and then moving your car across the street to the parking garage when you’re finished. We chose the latter, because of some preference about baggage handling.  There was some confusion about getting the charger to work, but the trouble seemed negligible compared to the day before. Interestingly, the other spaces near the chargers seemed to be occupied by the same cars the whole time we were there — possibly left there by the valets.

Day Five: Bakersfield, 204 mi. The Marriott at the Convention Center. Charging stations available near the front door; some delay with activation due to confusion with phone apps and the numbers on the chargers — each station bears two numbers, one of which also appears on another station, as though two different people had numbered them, at cross-purposes.  I went out at midnight and moved our car, again without making any apparent difference to anyone except the watchful security guy.

Day Six:  Joshua Tree, 215 mi. We thought it wise though to take a break at Barstow.  Besides public restrooms, the well-named Outlet Mall there has ChargePoint stations — around the back, where we found them after a lengthy search. We spent most of our charging time trying to help another couple who were surprised to get an electric rental car and were just learning about the payment app.

At Joshua Tree, our bungalow had a 240-volt outlet near the front door.  Management had neglected to leave a charging cable inside, but fortunately we called before they closed for the day and they brought one over — I don’t think that our own was long enough to reach.  We were there for two days, and might have been able to wait until the  following day to begin charging anyway. The tiny white light on the floor at the left edge of this picture is on the charging cable itself; the faint green light on the front of our car indicates that the car’s battery is charging.

Day 8: Still at Joshua Tree. We plugged in again to top up after our trip through the National Park.

Day 9: Surprise, AZ., 285 mi. This distance requires a stop for charging, and provides a good example of the planning process. Four likely options presented themselves, after 128, 145, 215 or 265 miles. The Love’s Travel Center at Quarzite had a reputation for being busy and having slow chargers; we zeroed in on Blythe with its Denny’s, Chevron and convenience store, nearly right in the middle of the route.
The car is shown here plugged into the charging station closer to the road, because that one got better online reviews. It took almost 48 minutes and $15.61 to  bring us back up to 90% — I think because the car had to use its air conditioning to protect the battery in the heat.  Because of the convenient location, we stopped here again on our return trip (when we spent $12 in 27 minutes).

From Blythe we drove another 150 miles to our hotel in Surprise, using 170 miles worth of “expected” charge because of the need for air-conditioning in the 100 degree heat. (In fairness, the predicted mileage figure drops appropriately when you turn on the A/C.)  The Hampton Inn offers free charging, in spaces that may be in shade well into the morning. We plugged in two or three times during our week-long stay — each time borrowing the required key from the front desk. Patrons are asked to avoid the late afternoon and early evening hours, because that’s when Phoenicians are cooling their homes.  Electric vehicles make it easy to program off-peak charging and to control charging remotely.

Day 14: Cathedral City, 303 mi.   We drove the familiar 145 miles to Blythe and another 158 to the Best Western at Cathedral City, near Palm Springs.  Charging was free there; I went out about midnight and moved the car around to the back of the hotel where parking spaces were plentiful.

Day 15: Santa Barbara. Valet parking is the only option for charging at the Santa Barbara Inn (I think they have Tesla destination chargers and use an adapter for other makes.)

Day 16: Morro Bay, 189 mi.  A corner room at the Hampton, with a view of our car in the parking lot. Some extra in-town miles for the laundromat.

Day 17: Post Ranch Inn, 174 mi. Valet charging.

Day 18: Tomales Bay, about 200 miles. Our do-it-yourself rest stop was at a Chipotle in Daly City, with a charger only steps away.  By the time I returned with lunch, the car was gone — it had finished charging and Alex had moved it a few spaces away to let another car in.

That afternoon, the older motel near Point Reyes offered an unusual opportunity. There are two Tesla “Destination” chargers, so we pulled up there first and got out our Tesla adapter just to see if it really worked.  We waited for a minute before plugging it into the car, as advised.  Charging seemed faster if anything. We took the car out on a trip to the grocery store later, and then plugged it into the generic charger for the evening, in case a bunch of Teslas showed up.

Day 19: Garberville, 177 mi. ChargePoint charging stations a ways downhill from the door, but they worked fine.  We used 55.687 kWh, about twice as much as our last “fast” charge at Blythe — but we paid $52.27, or about four times as much.  The difference is that, after they are finished charging you for the electricity, they charge you rental on the parking space.  This is to keep you from monopolizing the facility when somebody else might want it. Also, if I understand correctly, some of this money goes to the hotel itself. We want hotels to be happy about providing charging stations, so, toward the end of our trip, we stopped worrying so much about going out at night to unplug our car. We occupied the space for nearly 19 hours.

Day 20: Brookings, OR., 208 mi. The Beachfront Inn provided us with our last really novel charging experience. They have mounted an electrical box on a short post next to a shade tree, and installed every sort of 120- and 240-volt outlet they could think of.  We knew in advance that charging here was BYO, and that’s why we bought our 240-volt cable in the first place.

The car beyond ours isn’t an EV, and seemed to belong to a staff member. Apparently, capacity isn’t an issue.

Days 21 and 22: Newport, OR, 208 mi. The EV charging station at the Hallmark Inn in Newport is a cable coiled up on the far side of the maintenance shed.  They laughed when we asked whether we should worry about moving our car when we were finished.  I did anyway, just so it would be closer to our room.

Day 23: Astoria, 133 miles. The Cannery Pier Hotel, ChargePoint stations near the entrance. We plugged in early, and the app on my phone suggested that we would be finished by 9:30, so I expected to go out and move the car.  But as the evening wore on, it kept saying “About 1 hr. and 25 min. remaining.” I went out at one point and looked at the car and the charger and it seemed to be delivering only about a quarter of its advertised rate. I gave up and went to sleep, and we didn’t bother checking it again, even in the morning when Alex went down to forage for breakfast.  We ended up paying $74 for 32kWh (about five times the effective price at Blythe) — because the car was plugged in for 20 hours. I think it’s reasonable to pay a dog-in-the-manger fee for occupying the space — but not so much if they make it difficult to leave.

Day 24: Seattle, 176 miles. We started with an indicated range of 260 miles, and finished with 81, about 98% of the predicted mileage.

A brief explanation of charging methods

Level 1: Ordinary household current.  Like most EVs, our car came with what is basically a beefier version of the cord you use to charge your laptop, but with a big plug on one end that fits into the car.  You could plug this cord into the same socket as your electric razor (options in the car, or in the bulge in the cord, allow you to reduce the wattage so you don’t blow a fuse).  This is a gentle, basic way to charge, but it would take about 36 hours to fill our battery all the way up from scratch.  This sounds primitive, but even somebody who commutes 60 miles a day would soon have a big surplus if charging ten hours per night. What about a serious road trip, though?  Well, once you’re on the highway, it doesn’t matter what kind of charger you have at home.

Level 2:  240-volt charging. You may have this at home too, if, say, your washing machine is in the garage; but where you want it is at the place where you’ll stay just overnight.   It will give you all the charge you want in 8 or 10 hours, and you’re on your way again. Hotels increasingly have these, and frequently offer the service for free.

Level 3: Direct-current fast charging. It’s charging during the day, in the middle of a trip, that people wonder about most. Commercial charging stations, spaced predictably about the landscape, fill your “tank” up to 80% in maybe 45 minutes (depends to some extent on the car itself).  If Level 1 is a domestic habit,  and Level 2 happens while you splash about in the pool at the resort, Level 3 is best enjoyed during lunch; but it can fill in for either of the other methods in a pinch.

Charging your electric vehicle, like charging your phone, can be thought of as moving electrons (a lot of them) around inside your battery.  This is only useful if it can be done with some efficiency. Like everything else, this process is managed by a computer.

The more such electrons, or the faster you move them, the harder it is to do well. Extreme heat or cold interfere also, and the process generates its own heat. Your phone will last longer if you try to avoid charging it over 80%.  Our car can expect a lifetime diet of 120 volts almost exclusively, but we made some compromises during our trip. Some models offer bigger batteries for those who want extra range.

Some notes on cost 

We logged 3642 miles on our trip. Credit card records say that we spent $363.05 on charging; but we have a $60 credit at Electrify America, probably from a misunderstanding in using their phone app. Subtracting that number gives us an energy cost per mile of just over 8 cents. Unplugging the car in the middle of the night at Garberville and Astoria might have saved us something like $100, bringing the cost down to under 6 cents. Also, our new car came with 250 kWh of free charging at Electrify America; if it had been convenient to use their chargers exclusively, we could have made the trip with practically no out-of-pocket energy cost.

By the way, one kilowatt-hour of charge probably gets us about 3.5 miles.  The EPA compares EV efficiency to gas mileage and figures that we get about 120 mpg overall (134 in town, at more reasonable speeds).