Here at Transport Evolved, we spend most of our time bringing you the latest news in the world of cleaner, greener, safer and smarter transportation. Sometimes, that means covering the latest press releases from major automakers. Sometimes, it means taking cars out for long test-drives to put them through their paces. And sometimes, it means answering reader questions.
Today, we’ve been sent the following question by Phil, who is about to test out a Nissan LEAF for a few days to see if it’s a good match for him and his family.
I’m after some advice on the use of an extension lead to charge a car. I’m getting a Nissan Leaf on a 7 day trial and have no driveway, so would have to use an extension lead to charge it.
I have seen Robert Llewellyn and some other people use one in videos, but for my trial it says not to use one.
It wouldn’t be an ordinary extension lead I would use, it is one I use when I go camping, and I have an adaptor to plug it into a mains socket, so with all the extra safety features of the extension, what do you think?
Thanks for your question, Phil. It’s one which we’ve been asked before, so we hope you won’t mind if we turn this into a little piece of advice for other would-be plug-in owners who are asking the same question. In fact, charging with extension cords is one of the more common questions we’re asked, so we think it’s high time we offer our advice.
Why its ‘officially’ not recommended
To start, it’s probably best to examine why most automakers advice against using extension leads when charging a car, and why many even discourage the use of a portable charging ‘brick’ or Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment (EVSE) instead of a dedicated charging station.
It’s common sense that an low to medium-power electric car charging station — portable or fixed — takes power from the mains electricity at either 110 volts or 230 volts, and feeds it into the charging inlet of your car. The type of fixed, permanent charging stations sold for home use are traditionally capable of between 3 kilowatts and 10 kilowatts of power transfer, depending on the type of charging station and the car you’re wanting to charge. Portable charging stations usually provide between 1.5 kilowatts and 2.8 kilowatts, depending on the country you live in.
In pretty much every country we can think of, charging stations which are permanently wired into a building’s electronics are supposed to be installed and checked by a qualified electrician. In some places, those installations must also be certified as being both safe and up to appropriate wiring regulations or code. These checks not only check the quality of the installation, but also ensure that the electrical circuit feeding the charging station is appropriately rated for the amount of power the charging station and car will require.
When it comes to a portable charging station however, the unit can be plugged into any power outlet, regardless of its age or condition. In the UK, where Phil is writing from, this means a household outlet which is rated at 230 volts and 13 amps. We should note however that most portable charging units pull between 6 and 10 amps to give at least minimal headroom between the maximum current drawn and the maximum theoretical current the outlet can provide.
Assuming the wall outlet the portable EVSE is plugged into is correctly wired, has the correct power rating and has clean, no-corroded contacts, charging your car from it will have no problem.
But if the contacts are corroded or poorly maintained, the cable joining the socket to the fusebox is of an incorrect rating, or there’s some other lose connection somewhere between fuse box and EVSE, it makes it harder for electricity to pass through the circuit. When that happens, the cables and connectors can heat up.
Since it’s likely that most domestic outlets are correctly maintained and appropriately wired, automakers generally consider it okay to charge up from a wall socket in an emergency, since they can vouch for the condition of the charging cable and EVSE ‘brick’.
Include an extension cord of unknown origin, specification and condition, and most automakers get a little nervous. That’s because you’re not only adding an extra pair of connections to the circuit — which increases the risk of a poor connection somewhere — but you’re physically making the electrical circuit longer. The longer the physical circuit, the more likely it is that the electricity will find it harder to flow along the cable.
What’s more, most extension leads aren’t meant to work with the heavy, sustained loads called for when charging an electric car, and can easily heat up when pushed too hard.
To avoid any unexpected problems, most automakers — especially when carrying out extended test drives — request people don’t use extension cords.
Reality is sometimes different
You’ll note we split the nitty-gritty explanation into its own part, and that’s because as is often the case with life, the reality of using extension cords is somewhat different.
Of those we know with plug-in cars, most carry some form of emergency extension cord with them on longer trips or when visiting friends and family who don’t have a dedicated charging station. Instead of being a cable they’ve found in the back of the garage, these owners will take their time and buy a cable which is approved and rated for use on higher electrical loads.
In the UK, where it’s okay to still wire your own extension leads, some owners even make their own heavy-duty extension cords, buying appropriate heavy-duty 13-amp sockets and flexible, heavy-duty ‘Arctic’ cable that is rated to carry an electrical load far higher than the EVSE will pull.
In these cases, the use of an extension cord isn’t all that risky — although we should note there is always some inherent risk in adding extra physical connections in the circuit — and when used apporpriately with a well-maintained, tested power outlet, there shouldn’t be a problem.
In Phil’s case, we note that the cable he’s proposing to use is one which is rated to carry far more than the current the portable EVSE will use , and even makes use of the CE 16-amp (blue) plug found at camp sites across Europe on one end. As well as being a larger connector — which lowers mechanical and electrical stresses on the plug and socket — the cable itself is rated to carry 25 amps, far more current than the EVSE will pull.
If someone were to use this extension cord to charge an electric car, it would be one of the better extension cords we’ve ever seen used for the purpose. Here at Transport Evolved, all of our plug-in owning staff have used extension cords from time to time to charge a plug-in car. And for the most part, we’ve not had any problems. But we also know people who have been unlucky through using an unfamiliar outlet, or whose portable EVSE has pulled out of the attached plug, causing an electrical short and heating. As a consequence, you should NEVER use a portable charging unit with an unknown power outlet or an unknown extension cord, and you should only really use portable charging units as a temporary or emergency solution in preference to a dedicated charging station.
DISCLAIMER: We’re not condoning the use of extension cords to charge your plug-in car. Nor are we saying bad things will happen if you do. We’re saying that yes, there are risks and yes, when used with the correct precautions, you shouldn’t have a problem.
Transport Evolved accepts no responsibility or liability for those who choose to use an extension cord after reading this discussion. Instead, the onus is on each individual to accept all liability when using a portable EVSE — with or without an extension lead.
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