What to Do When You Encounter a Broken Public EV Charger

On-road EV charging sites sometimes don't work as promised. Here's what to do if it happens to you.


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Once in a while, drivers will encounter a gas station with a pump that doesn’t work—maybe even an entire bank of pumps. But what happens to electric-vehicle drivers when they arrive at an EV charging site to find one or more of the stations doesn't work?

The Tesla Supercharger network is widely acknowledged to be very reliable, not to mention easy to use. Drivers of any other EV, though, may sooner or later arrive at a charging station that’s dead, damaged, offline, not reading credit cards, or providing current at slower-than-advertised rates. All of these problems mean the same thing: The driver’s EV won’t be able to charge on that station.

Charging stations may not be able to recharge a car for a variety of reasons, from losing their network connection to simple vandalism. Among the reasons listed in a study from the University of California-Berkeley that covered San Francisco Bay Area charging sites earlier this year were “unresponsive or unavailable screens, payment system failures, charge initiation failures, network failures, or broken connectors.”

As vending-machine operators will confirm, equipment placed in public locations will suffer from vandalism, neglect, and misuse. This writer, however, has charged electric cars on a variety of public networks for five years. Problems with software compatibility, payment validation, power supply, and communication between an EV and the charging station seem far more common than outright vandalism. Credit-card readers (required in some areas now) are particularly problematic.

The extent of the problem is hard to gauge, because charging networks generally don’t release reliability data that’s easy to independently verify. And what a network claims as “uptime” can mean simply that the station is connected to the central computer—not that it can actually recharge the battery of an EV that connects to it. In a word, it’s complicated.

Here’s What You Do When You Encounter a Broken EV Charger

So what’s a driver to do when that happens? First, call the customer service number to see if the station is down permanently or just experiencing a momentary glitch. Second, find the nearest alternative charger—ideally the next row over. And third, report the problematic station so other drivers are forewarned and the network sees a report of an unsatisfactory experience.

Call the Charging Company

Depending on the type of failure, especially if all other stations are already charging other cars, it’s usually worthwhile to call the toll-free customer service number. What appears to be a dead station can often be rebooted to start fresh, just like a personal computer. In this writer’s experience, the reps at Electrify America, one large national charging network, are friendly, polite, and can often initiate a charging session remotely even if the station itself won’t.

Find an Alternative

If that fails, Plan B is to find another charging station nearby. Ideally, it’s just down the row of chargers—the same as moving to another gas pump at the same fueling station. And chatting with fellow EV drivers may speed things up. Often another driver who’s plugged will offer to leave at 70 or 75 percent charge instead of the usual 80 percent, to let the next driver connect that much sooner.

It’s also useful to figure out the nearest alternative charging site if all working chargers are occupied or the entire site is down. Apps such as Plugshare, A Better Route Planner (ABRP), and Chargeway (all available in the App Store or Google Play) can identify nearby charging sites and their speeds. An EV’s own navigation system may offer the same ability as well.

Report Issues in Your App of Choice

Third, report the malfunctioning charger on the charging apps. If you haven’t called the customer service line, this lets the appropriate network or owner set up a service call to get it fixed. Sometimes their remote diagnostics will tell them if a site isn’t working, or a communications link isn’t working—but not always. They may have no way of knowing if a credit-card reader isn’t working, or if there’s bubblegum in the charging connector.

It’s equally important to warn other drivers that a site has problems—it’s a public service to other EV drivers in these early years of adaptation. (Not to mention, scanning those comments on the station you’re headed to before you get there can be worthwhile.) Many charge-locating apps let users post comments (Plugshare calls it “checking in”), from directions to photos, including whether they were able to charge their specific EV successfully. Those reports are particularly important to other drivers if a charging pedestal or a whole site is completely dead, despite the phone rep’s best efforts to make it charge.

This summer, Ford added the ability to report a non-working charger to its FordPass app, used by drivers to find a charging site and initiate a charge session. Ford’s Matt Stover says the app feeds those reports into the Plugshare app as well, sharing that timely information with a site that's been used by EV drivers for 10 years now.

Don’t Despair, Your Odds are Good

As in much of life, things that don’t worry get far more attention than things that do. While social media and headlines are full of dire tales of arriving at a nonworking charging station—with only a few miles left, on a dark and stormy night, most likely—the majority of on-road charging stations work just fine.

The biggest challenge may be figuring out the different user interfaces among charging networks. After all, you don’t have to learn a new set of commands to use an Exxon gas pump vs a Chevron gas pump.

So odds are your EV will recharge just fine. Still, to be on the safe side, make sure you have a charging-locator app or two on your phone. And take comfort in the fact that finding gasoline for road trips 100-plus years ago was infinitely more challenging. Over the life of your electric car, charging options will likely get more plentiful, more reliable, and hopefully, more pleasant too.

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John Voelcker
John Voelcker is a reporter and analyst covering electric vehicles, auto technology, and energy policy. He has written or edited more than 12,000 articles on low- and zero-emission vehicles and the energy ecosystem around them. His work has appeared in print, online, and radio outlets, and he is frequently quoted as a subject-matter expert. He splits his time between the Catskill Mountains and New York City, and still one day hopes to become an international man of mystery.