The Pain of Public Charging

Ecotricity Motorway Service Station Fast Charger (Image: Ecotricity)
Ecotricity Motorway Service Station Fast Charger (Image: Ecotricity)

I have been closely following the development of electric cars for about 18 months and over that time have come to know and sympathise with many of the grievances felt by electric car owners. As the delivery day for my ZOE approaches, however, (it should be Tuesday this week) these issues are fast coming into focus as I will have to tackle them personally very soon.

Many of these issues revolve around the use of public charging points, including:

  1. Charging points are very often not well located, so there isn’t one where you need it.
  2. Use of a charging point may require a dedicated access card and/or payment.
  3. Access to the charging point may be restricted, for example many are on car dealers’ premises and are restricted to the dealers’ customers and/or to the dealers’ opening times.
  4. Finding charging points is difficult as there are multiple, conflicting charge point maps.
  5. The parking place intended to be used for charging may be blocked by a combustion car.
  6. Charging points use a multiplicity of different connectors. There are at least 5 different connectors used for electric cars, and at least 3 can be found on UK charging points (the Type 2 Mennekes used on the ZOE for slow and fast charging, the CHADEMO used on the Nissan LEAF for fast charging, as well as the standard 13 Amp socket).

It is the first three points that I want to touch on here – they are closely related. The other three issues are significant in their own right and I will cover each of them in future posts.

The first issue, that of charging point location, is a broad one. Until charging points are ubiquitous it is inevitable that there won’t always be one where you need it. Unfortunately, in the UK at least, this situation is made worse than it need be.

Firstly, many charge points are equivalent to a standard domestic electrical supply – in other words, a 13 Amp socket on a post. These are nearly useless in the public arena. At home it’s fine to leave your car overnight to charge but there are few times you want to leave your car unattended in a public place for 6-12 hours and certainly not during a long distance trip.

Secondly, deployment around the UK is very patchy. Some towns and cities (London, Oxford, and Manchester, for example) have had schemes that have installed large numbers of charge points within a designated area. At the same time other areas have none at all. For example, I work in Milton Keynes and it has 28 ZOE-compatible charging points (on the Open Charge Map). I live in Northampton, about half an hour’s drive further north, and it has none.

Thirdly, even those regions that have many charge points often have them in the wrong place. This is a point well made by Ecotricity with its Electric Highway of charge points along the major motorways:

“We chose the motorway network for good reason. The big focus so far – with charging facilities – has been town and city centres. But we think they’re needed the least here. You only need to look at car use statistics for the answer. The average car in Britain travels around 20 miles a day, a distance most modern electric cars can sustain for almost a week without needing to charge.

“Most car owners have access to off-street parking (70 per cent apparently) and are able to charge at home, at night. So most cars don’t need to charge, most days. It’s longer journeys where charging is most needed.”

The second issue is one that I’m currently fighting with. I need to do some long distance driving soon after picking up my new ZOE. However, there is no quick and easy way to get an access card that allows you to use a public charging point. No, you can’t just go into a shop or Post Office and buy one.

Not only that, but there are multiple access card schemes so that you may need to be a member of multiple schemes if you want to travel across the country. This situation is improving, however, as the schemes start to co-operate and grant access to each other’s members.

This is my experience so far:

  • Last Wednesday I applied online for an Ecotricity Electric Highway card. It starts free, but they reserve the right to charge £10 per year in future if you’re not an Ecotricity customer. The online application form requires a vehicle registration number (VRN) – which I didn’t know then – so I used my ZOE’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). I don’t know if that’s going to cause problems. Anyway, it takes up to 14 days to receive the card which is rather slow.
  • Also on Wednesday I applied for a Plugged-In Midlands card. Membership is £20, but it is not clear if this is in perpetuity or not. Again, I used the VIN instead of the registration number. The card is supposed to be sent within 5 working days.
  • On Saturday I applied for a Source London card, so I can visit the capital. Membership is £10 and is only guaranteed to be valid until 30 June 2014 when the scheme management is being transferred to a new operator. By this time I had been given my ZOE’s VRN so was able to use that. Again posting out the card takes up to 5 working days. The difference with this scheme is that, unlike the other two, the membership is definitely for the person, not the car, so having registered you can then add multiple electric cars to your account (a forward thinking view that I appreciate).

It’s looking pretty unlikely that I’ll get a charge point access card in time for my first long distance trip (though, having spoken to Ecotricity and their supplier, ChargePoint Services, it’s possible they can expedite me one in time). To be fair to these schemes, though, they do allow you to apply online and get a card within a reasonable amount of time (even if it’s not quickly enough for particular trips I’m planning).

Much worse is the London Congestion Charging scheme which I assumed would be similar but no, that would be too much to expect. It’s hard to believe but to apply for an electric car discount on the Congestion Charge you need to download a form, print it off, add a photocopy of your vehicle registration document, and a cheque for £10, and put it all in an envelope to send to the scheme address, then allow 10 days just for the document to be processed, then wait for an approval letter to be sent to you. Yes, really – in 2013! And in the meantime you must pay the charge in full. You can’t make this stuff up.

Anyway, this brings me on to the third issue. Since I can’t rely on having access to fully-public charging points for imminent trips I have been looking at using car dealerships as charging stations. Renault, Nissan and Toyota dealerships, for example, have charging points if they are accredited for electric car sales.

However, dealerships naturally tend to allow their charge points to only be used by their own customers, so I am limited to Renault premises (and only those that have EV facilities). More of an issue, though, is that being commercial premises there is generally only access during opening hours. While that is a general nuisance, it can be more limiting than it seems at first glance. What can actually happen – and this is likely to be the case for my first trip – is that you can have access for charging on your way to a destination. But then on the way back the same facility is unavailable because you are returning in the evening when the premises have closed.

My overall conclusion so far, therefore, is that public charge points are a pain. In fact I’m rapidly coming to a definitive but inescapable conclusion:

The various public bodies, committees and organisations that have defined, deployed and organised the UK public charge point network are staffed exclusively by people that have never owned an electric car.

Home Forums The Pain of Public Charging

This topic contains 20 replies, has 10 voices, and was last updated by  mervync13 5 years, 2 months ago.

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  • #4281

    Trevor Larkum

    Nino, welcome!



    Today we set out for our first ambitious EV drive from Ashford, Kent to IKEA Croydon. The trip was 52.5 miles, and before leaving our fully-charged battery was estimating a range of 85 miles.

    When we arrived we found ICE vehicles in 3 out of 4 charge bays, and that the chargers hadn’t actually been connected! I had an email from Ecotricity in May saying they were expecting it to go online in the first week of June, and muggins here didn’t check before setting out.

    I called the emergency number on the side, and very nice chap politely pointed out in not-so-many-words that I was a bit of a berk for not checking first, and was an absolute star in trying to find a route for us. We could’ve gone through London to the IKEA Wembley fast-charger, but then that would’ve meant motorways all the way home for a 79 mile journey – optimistic!

    The kind man from the emergency line found us a Zero Carbon World chargepoint 38 miles away, when we had a range of 41. I don’t have a ZCW card, so he’d even gone to the lengths of calling the hotel who owned the point and arranging for us to be able to charge for a fee (£10).

    We just made it. 2 miles from the destination the range estimation was “— miles” and the warnings kept sounding. Thankfully when we arrived the charge point was in perfect working order, and the hotel staff said we were the first to ever use it. Stopped for a meal, and when we were done it was back up to 42% charge.

    I’m quite relieved that I didn’t become a Jeremy Clarkson anecdote! I’ll be sure to check in advance before heading out on a long trip again. It’s a shame the Zoe’s satnav doesn’t make it easier to avoid fast roads.

    I must join the EVDA and see if there’s any lobbying activity to register interest for charge points at businesses, and to nag the government to legislate against ICE vehicles in EV charge bays.


    Trevor Larkum

    Well done, Deejay – it sounds like you had a bit of an adventure! The joys of being a pioneer!

    Perhaps your conclusion was similar to mine – public charging is a lottery, but the ZOE is a star.

    PS: I’m not sure from your post – what was the total distance you achieved by the time you got to the ZCW charge point (in case it’s a new record for this forum)?



    About the satnav, I’ve some changes to the settings to make life easier. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to remember them so I have to set them again and again.

    – In settings > navigation change the symbol to a Zoe 🙂
    – In settings > navigation I changed the route preferences to always ask. That way when entering a destination it always asks me if I want the fastest, shortest or “eco route”. The last one seems a planning that is fast but avoiding freeways.
    – In settings > navigation > POI (or so) unmarked the gas stations. Not that it really matters as the chargepoint database is probably years outdated. And it keeps forgetting I did it anyway…

    The second setting is probably the only one I really keep on re-changing when going somewhere. I do hope for a proper software update and a much, much, much better and up to date chargepoint database soon.



    So far I’ve tried three public charge points, with the following results:

    1) Watford car park “The Avenue” (near the town hall) – worked perfectly. It was my first go at using a charge point so it took me a few goes to figure out how the SourceEast chargers worked, but once I had it sussed it was fine. This a Pay’n’display car park, with the EV spaces signposted as “4 hours max” so this should deter commuters at least.
    2) Watford shopping centre – according to their website, the centre has EV charging points, but they weren’t signposted clearly, and when I got there they turned out to be domestic sockets only suitable for an EVSE cable. Boo. On the plus side, they had used tensa barriers to stop them getting ICEd. I doubt that’ll work at Christmas…
    3) Local village car park – another SourceEast one, but stupidly installed in a way which makes it impossible to plug in a Zoe’s charge cable:
    But again, it’s a 4-hour space so should deter commuters.

    So, I’m one for three so far…

    On the subject of duff information about charging facilities, I’m going to try to make a small difference here. I’m responsible for the technical support of a number of shopping centre websites across the country (sadly not the Watford one), and I’ve asked the marketing managers for each centre to look at how they show info about charging facilities. I know some of them have had chargers installed, so I’ve suggested they make a bigger thing of it, and also that they clearly state what facilities are available, and which network runs them. I’ve noticed that quite often the things we do on our sites get copied by other shopping centre companies, so here’s hoping!

    • This reply was modified 5 years, 3 months ago by  Steamrunner.


    Just been down to our local Waitrose(less than 2 miles away) thought I would try my Polar charging card for the first time. After waving the card over the arrows on the post the green light came on and asked me to lift the flap and connect the lead, which I did, then duly plugged into my Zoe yes the the dashboard said it was going through the various checks then the charging rings appeared with 1 hour 55 minutes followed by red lights and warning lights flashing ‘battery charge impossible’. Great, I moved the car over to the next charging post the warning lights came on straight away with ‘battery charge impossible’. My first experience a disaster how can this give us confidence to travel any distance? I was hoping to travel down to London in the Autumn but am not sure the 80 mile trip there would be worth risking. Still will complain to Polar and see what happens. Have never seen anyone using the charge points at our local Waitrose now I know why!



    Hello andyw

    To quote ” Our local ASDA Superstore have now started blocking the 4 EV charging bays at the front of the store with traffic cones.”

    Could you please give me the ASDA store address. I can then ask my local ASDA to do the same for me. I am going to rely heavily on the ASDA when my Zoe eventually arrives for charging.



    Trevor Larkum

    Steamrunner, I imagine you have this in mind but it would be really valuable if the shopping centre website were very specific about the charge point capabilities. Saying they have some is useless if you get there to find out they’re only 13A sockets or the nearly as useless – for ZOEs – 16A Type 2s.



    Yes, that’s exactly what I meant – as it’s what I found when I tried it myself! I’ve explained to them what information they should give, hopefully they’ll follow it up… I can but try!



    Our asda store no longer bothers coning off the spaces. Went again recently and ice cars blocking them all in 🙁
    Why did they even bother putting them in!

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