Level 3 Is A Perfectly Legitimate Term For DC Fast Charging

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I came across an interesting conversation on Twitter earlier today that made it pretty clear that most people don’t know that much about the levels of EV charging, and sadly many people who know a little more than average often know just enough to cause trouble and confusion for others.

I’ll forgive you if you have no idea what these guys are talking about. They’re not bad people, and they’re not dumb people. If you follow them, you’d know that they’re very knowledgeable about EVs and EV charging, so it might seem absurd to see them say that there’s no such thing as Level 3 or L3 charging. Obviously, DC fast charging exists, and many people call that Level 3, so why are they saying it’s not real??

What They’re Talking About

What they’re talking about is SAE’s J1772 standard, which includes not only the J1772 plug, but also the standards for charging speeds and types.

The SAE J1772 standard lays out five types of charging: Levels 1-3 of AC charging, and two levels of DC charging. The AC standards are:

  • AC Level 1, for 120 volt AC charging at 12 or 16 amps. This maxes out at 1.92 kW, but 12 amp is more common.
  • AC Level 2, for 240 volt AC charging at up to 19.2 kW (up to 80 amps).
  • AC Level 3, for faster AC charging from 22.7 up to 166 kW (this standard never actually ended up being used).

The DC levels are:

  • Level 1, for up to 80 kW
  • Level 2, for up to 400 kW

So, if you go by SAE’s charging standards, there really is no Level 3 DC fast charging. What we commonly call Level 3, SAE would call DC Level 1 or DC Level 2.

Nobody Really Follows This, Though

The truth is, everybody from CleanTechnica’s writers to charging network executives to government officials can be seen referring to DC fast charging as Level 3. Once again, I personally may or may not be an idiot, but I don’t think the executives of major charging providers and automotive manufacturers are that easy to pin that tail on. So, this begs the question: why are so many smart people referring to DC fast charging as Level 3?

The answer is that SAE isn’t really official. I don’t mean to trash it at all, but the fact is nobody has ever suffered any consequences for not marching to SAE’s tune. It is a private entity, and the standards documents it compiles and propagates aren’t legally binding on anybody. Government entities may even reference these documents (because they are often quite useful), but that doesn’t mean anybody is obligated to use the language and terminology that SAE does.

While everybody from Elon Musk to an EV fanatic with ten followers on Twitter (one is their mom) often follows SAE’s terminology (especially the SAE Levels of Autonomous Driving™®©℠), people by and large use Level 3 to refer to DC fast charging, because everybody else does it. If you do it, other people will know what you mean, so it doesn’t hurt anything.

I’ll go ahead and define my own EV charging standard that everybody can reference if they want to at the end of this article. If anybody tells you that it’s incorrect to call DCFC Level 3, you can point to my published standard here and point out that my standard is just as official as SAE’s standard, plus it’s more widely used!

But first, let’s talk a bit about language.

Language Issues Can’t Be Solved Or Dictated By Authorities

I’d argue that categorizing all DC fast charging as Level 3 is more of a linguistic issue than a standards issue. What really matters is whether the car charges when you plug it in, and you could call your car’s charging port the Alien Abductee and the charging station The Probe and it wouldn’t change anything. But, if you came up to somebody else at a charging station and told them your probe wasn’t working right, they wouldn’t know what you’re talking about (but might be able to guess).

In other words, we’ve all got to be on the same page at least a high percentage of the time to communicate. But, the need for consistency and precision is an argument that can only be taken so far in defense of following a written standard instead of using what everybody is using.

After all, language changes over time. If it didn’t change, you’d be able to read this ancient English sentence: “Hwät! we Gâr-Dena in geâr-dagum þeód-cyninga þrym gefrunon, hû þâ äðelingas ellen fremedon.”

If you didn’t know, that’s the first few lines of Beowulf. That ancient Germanic language bears some resemblance to modern English, but it may as well be a foreign language. We got to here from that language a little bit at a time. Each generation (to the chagrin of their parents and grandparents) spoke a little differently than the last one. Even during a lifetime, one encounters new words for new things, borrow words from foreign languages, and much more.

This process of linguistic evolution is almost never guided by officials of any kind. Attempts to mandate language often fail when it is tried. Why? Because something as basic as how people speak is guided by culture and not authority.

This is what happened with charging “levels.” While the SAE doesn’t call DC fast charging Level 3, almost everybody else refers to it as Level 3. Even people who want to follow the SAE on this know what somebody else means when they say Level 3, so the language has changed despite their refusal to use the new term that has emerged in EV culture. Those of us who call DCFC Level 3 might be uneducated rubes in your eyes for doing it, but that’s an opinion and not a fact.

Jennifer at CleanTechnica’s Standard Levels of Charging (As Derived From Popular EV Culture in 2023)

I know the above reasons aren’t enough for some people, so I’ll give you a standard you can use so you can feel good about saying Level 3 to refer to DC fast charging.

Due to confusion over what is the proper way to describe EV charging speeds, I hereby promulgate this unofficial standard for EV charging levels. It’s based on popular language in the EV community, and is likely to be understood by all EV owners, manufacturers, and charging providers. Its already widespread use makes it an easy standard to adopt, so it wouldn’t be smart to do anything else.

Jennifer’s official charging levels are:

  • Level 1: All 120-volt charging, regardless of amperage
  • Level 2: All 240-volt charging, regardless of amperage
  • Level 3: All DC charging of vehicles above 22 kW, with no maximum amperage

Some other terms to know and use:

  • DC Slow Charging: DC charging below 20 kW, often due to a nearly full battery at a Level 3 station or an overheated battery in an air-cooled electric vehicle (see “Karabast!” below)
  • Euro Charging: 22 kW AC
  • Direct Solar Charging: Delivering DC power directly to a vehicle’s traction battery from onboard solar panels
  • The Ringy Dingy Thingy: The part of a car that dings or chimes to get your attention. This part is usually integrated into the vehicle’s computer these days, but it used to be a separate electronic module in older GM cars
  • Karabast!: You should yell this or utter it despondently when your vehicle won’t charge properly for whatever reason. More information here. Pronunciation and usage examples here.

Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1948 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba