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Electric Charging Station Etiquette for Plug-In Cars

What EV, PHEV and ICE Drivers Should Know

With only a handful of electric vehicle and plug-in hybrids roaming the streets these days, confrontations at public chargers over who goes first are rare. But confusion and conflict at the car-charging station are bound to become more prevalent soon. At least 18 new car and SUV models with rechargeable battery packs are coming into the U.S. market over the next three years, increasing demand for access to public chargers.

Will there be confusion? Yes, over the best way to handle the conflicts that can arise when more than one power-needy motorist at a time wants to use the parking lot's only public electric vehicle (EV) charging station.

Will there be conflict? Yes, over who goes first and whether it's OK to unplug someone else's car to get your charging session started. Expect problems over what to do about the drivers of plugless hybrids or internal-combustion engine vehicles who think that empty EV charging spots are perfect parking spaces.

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A charging-information note on the dashboard of the Chevrolet Volt, left, could have alleviated the all-electric Nissan Leaf driver's consternation at being beaten to the charger by a car that can run on gasoline if necessary.

A charging-information note on the dashboard of the Chevrolet Volt, left, could have alleviated the all-electric Nissan Leaf driver's consternation at being beaten to the charger by a car that can run on gasoline if necessary.

There are lots of reports in EV driver forums about plug-in cars being kept out of charging spots by unknowing or inconsiderate drivers of plugless cars who are using the charging spots as parking spaces. The complaining hasn't devolved into pushing, shoving and fisticuffs. Yet.

So far, the plug-in world is a fairly homogenous one, made up of like-minded people who have demonstrated a willingness to cooperate. As more and more plug-in vehicles make it into the market, the buyer profile is sure to change. The collegiality that has kept conflict at the charging spot mostly verbal could crumble. So to help keep the peace and make public charging easier for everyone, we've prepared this guide to plug-in etiquette.

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If there's repeatedly no car in a plug-in spot in a lot that's routinely full, is it OK for a driver of a plugless car to use the space?

No. It's never OK to take up an electric vehicle charging spot, even if it does seem to always be empty.

Does a "pure" EV have precedence at a public charger over a plug-in hybrid?

This has engendered a lot of argument in the plug-in community. Some believe that because plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) can also run on gasoline, they should always give way to EVs, which have only one alternative to electricity — a tow truck.

But it's not always that easy. Some drivers of plug-in hybrid vehicles take pride in running as much as possible on their vehicles' batteries. They feel just as dependent on that charging station as EV drivers do.

"Some PHEV drivers don't even keep much gas in their tanks," insists Chad Schwitters, president of Plug In America, an organization that has helped lead the way for EVs and PHEVs and has worked with lawmakers all over the country to help prepare our cities and states for plug-in vehicles and the necessary support infrastructure.

So what's the answer?

If a PHEV and an EV arrive at the same electric car charging stations simultaneously, the drivers can discuss and decide who is most in need of the power, with the first session going to the one who is neediest. Drivers who've met and decided on a charging strategy should exchange cell phone numbers. The driver who is first to use the charger should call the other as soon as the session has ended so that the other driver can come back to the charger and plug in.

Other than those simultaneous arrivals, the basic rule of thumb ought to be first come, first served. If an EV arrives at a station that's already being used by a PHEV, the EV should wait, at least until it is clear that the PHEV is fully recharged.

Most plug-in cars have some sort of signal-light system indicating when the car is being charged and when the charge is complete. Unfortunately, there's no standard: Every manufacturer uses a different system. Some of the signals automatically turn off a short while after the charging is completed, so it's not always possible to tell at a glance what's going on.

Is it ever OK to unplug someone else's car?

If the other plug-in car has clearly finished charging and is still occupying the EV charging station space, the plug-in community generally agrees that it's OK to unplug that car.

But the driver who switches plugs should always leave a note on the other car, explaining why it was unplugged ("Your car was fully charged and I need some power to get home tonight") and the time he unplugged it. It's also nice to leave your cell phone number so the other driver can call and thank you for the nice note — or perhaps discuss why the two of you seem to differ on the permissibility of unplugging another driver's car.

That seems easy. Are there complications and caveats?

Of course there are. In California, for instance, it is illegal for a vehicle to be in a public EV charging space unless that vehicle is plugged in (even if it is fully charged). So unplugging someone to get your own charge puts the other driver at risk of a ticket — or worse, a tow bill. But the law is only enforceable if there is proper signage at the location, warning drivers that they can be ticketed or have their vehicles towed if they aren't plugged in.

Rules differ from state to state, and many states don't have parking rules for public charging stations yet. That leaves the rules of use up to the parking-lot proprietors who installed the chargers. So always be cautious and read all the posted notices before unplugging someone else.

What's the proper way to unplug another driver's vehicle?

If you are going to do this, always leave a note explaining the circumstances. Most plug-in drivers still feel they are part of a small community that needs to be mutually supportive and they won't object to the occasional unplugging if their car is already recharged.

It's also good policy to leave a note on your own windshield, letting other drivers know when it would be OK to unplug your car.

What's the best way to notify another driver of charging needs or issues?

Several plug-in vehicle advocacy organizations have posted downloadable preprinted notes and notification cards that drivers can use.

EV Charger News has developed a charger protocol windshield card that lets others know when it is OK to unplug your car, and Plug In America has charger etiquette cards that cover plugging and unplugging.

If you don't want to use those cards, then carry a small notebook in your glove compartment and quickly jot down and place a short note on your vehicle's windshield, indicating the time you started charging, the earliest time at which your car can be unplugged (that is, when you'll have enough recharging to get home) and your cell phone number so other drivers who need access to the charger can contact you to discuss any issues. You can also use the notebook to leave notes for other drivers. You can tell them to please plug you in when their charge is finished, for example, or to please remember that plugless cars don't belong in EV charging spots — stuff like that.

Are there ways to queue up?

Certainly. A nice way to do it is to leave a note like this on the car occupying the charger you need to use:

Hi, You were charging when I got here, but I need a charge, too. So I parked my [make, model, color of car] in the space next to you with the door to the charging port open. I'd appreciate it if you'd plug me in when you leave, and either call or text me at [insert your cell phone number] to let me know when you started my charge, so I'll know when I've got enough power to get home. Thanks [your name].

If you can't park next to the car that's using the charger, a variation of the same note would ask the driver to call you when he or she is about to depart so you can come back to the parking lot and move your car into the spot.

How long can a plug-in vehicle occupy a charging spot?

Contrary to what many seem to believe, those "EV Only" parking spots at public charging stations aren't parking places. They're just like the concrete pads in front of gas pumps. They are spaces that should be occupied only while the vehicle is being refueled.

So occupy the space only as long as you need it for charging. Don't think of it as a preferred spot at your favorite mall or parking garage. Others need to charge, too, and if your car is just sitting there after having been recharged, you are doing a disservice to fellow plug-in drivers.

There are lots of programs and applications (standard equipment with most EVs and PHEVS) that alert drivers via their smartphones and other telecommunication devices when a charging session has ended. Unless you are in the middle of a meal, concert, movie or the kid's violin recital, heed the alert and move your vehicle from the charging spot to a regular parking place.

What happens at airports?

Electric car charging stations at airports and bus and train stations are the exception to the parking-space rule. If you plug in before leaving on a three-day trip, you can hardly be expected to come back and move your car when it is recharged.

Most EVs and PHEVS, however, can be fully recharged in a day or less at a standard 110-volt outlet. Drivers should encourage transit authorities to install plenty of long-term plug-in vehicle parking spots with 110-volt outlets and reserve any Level 2 (240-volt) chargers for people picking up or dropping off passengers who need a quick recharging session to top up their batteries before heading home.

What can you do if a plugless vehicle is occupying the charging spot?

The initial temptation, of course is to leave a really nasty note. (Keying their paint or flattening their tires, while equally tempting, is definitely out.) But people who are thoughtless enough to park a plugless car in a plug-in charging spot probably aren't going to have their behavior changed that way.

The best way to handle the situation is to leave a polite note, reminding the driver of the offending vehicle that charging station spots are like gas pumps and that blocking access deprives someone of the fuel needed to complete a trip.

Then alert the parking-place operator that a plugless vehicle is blocking access to the charging spot, and, if there are warnings posted, go ahead and call the police department and ask that the offender be ticketed or removed. If you take either of the last two steps, you probably won't want to put your cell phone number on the note you leave on the other vehicle's windshield.

Is it proper to borrow power from friends?

Most people have 110-volt outlets in their garages or apartments that can be used to trickle-charge an EV or PHEV. But it's best when visiting friends and relatives to ask permission to borrow some juice before you show up. And always offer to pay. Most plug-in cars will draw so little power from a 110-volt outlet over the course of a 4-6-hour visit that leaving a dollar bill in gratitude would be wildly overpaying. But it's the thought that counts.

Practice Safety

Finally, remember that parking lots are public places with lots of foot and vehicle traffic. Don't leave excess lengths of the charger cord out where people can trip on or drive over them. Tuck them under your vehicle. Also, neatly rewind the charging cord on its proper holder when you unplug your car. Don't leave a tangled pile of cord on the ground for the next driver to tussle with — or for some unfortunate pedestrian to stumble over.


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