By Ward Arms – forensic electrical engineer, EFI Global and Wes Hansen – forensic electrical engineer, EFI Global
Electric vehicles (EVs) are a relatively new mode of transportation in mass production. Using electricity to propel themselves means a new infrastructure is gradually being put into place – one which few are familiar with. It’s important to explore factors surrounding charging technologies, including charging levels, duration and usage cost, in addition to overall charging station reliability. Public charging infrastructure – with proper standards for installation, operation, maintenance, and safety – will have to be implemented nationwide for mass adoption of EVs to occur. As such infrastructure is created, and standards are instituted for public use and safety, there will be consequential property loss outcomes that are best to begin preparing for now.
Charging technologies vary greatly
In examining charging technologies, not all are created equal. The lowest level and slowest method of charging, level 1, is a portable charger sold with the vehicle. It’s used primarily in residential settings and plugs into a standard 120V outlet. Though it charges an EV at a relatively slow rate (3.5 to 6.5 miles per hour), it utilizes a low power output (1 kilowatt) and therefore incurs lower electricity costs. Assuming 1200 miles are typically driven in a month and electricity costs 15 cents per kW, it would cost $52 per month to charge the EV.
If an EV owner was interested in a faster charge, they might look to a level 2 charger – a kind that can be purchased and professionally installed into a garage and is also offered to use in a public setting for a fee. A level 2 allows for a 3 to 7 times faster charge, cutting the total charging duration from more than 30 hours, to about 10. The hourly cost to utilize a public level 2 charger ranges from $1 to $5.
Finally, the direct current fast charging (DCFC) charger, also known as fast charging stations, are exceedingly more powerful than the former two. While some level 1 chargers have a rate of 3.5 miles per hour of charging, DCFCs can do the same in a minute (and can even reach up to 20 miles). Logically, these have a higher power output (50-300 kW) and cost more to utilize ($10 to $30 per hour).
Lack of national standards and questions of reliability
No national standards exist yet for the installation, operation or maintenance of EV charging stations. It was only earlier this year that the U.S. government first publicly addressed the need. In June, the White House announced a plan to develop new standards for the “first-ever national network of 500,000 electric car chargers,” adding that, “Without strong standards, chargers would be less reliable, may not work for all cars and lack common payment methods.” In the sparse public charging infrastructure that exists so far, the joint Office of Energy and Transportation described a situation with little consistency, stating “…wide disparities exists among EV charging stations in key components such as operational practices, payment methods, site organization, display of price to charge, speed and power of chargers….”
Of equal or greater importance, safety standards must be formed too. Currently there are no safety statutes to which the chargers are required to adhere to once installed, leaving room for an array of risks posed to property and the persons charging.
Even once public charging stations are widespread, there are looming questions about the stations’ overall reliability. Drivers often face situations where the stations charge at far slower speeds than advertised. Charging stations are supposedly engineered to withstand harsh environmental conditions, but this theory has not held up in global EV markets, as many chargers are broken upon arrival or fail to start charging when plugged in.
EV charging infrastructure and property loss
The inevitable trial and error of developing and implementing a sound public EV charging infrastructure will have weighty implications for the property loss industry. Factors such as material defects, poor installation, inadequate maintenance and environmental conditions have already resulted in many instances of property loss. In 2019, a fault within a charging unit caused its aluminum front panel to explode as the charger was being disconnected from a vehicle. In 2020, a group of superchargers built next to a hotel experienced a loss after being installed in an area that regularly floods. And in 2022, a large parking lot fire broke out which according to investigators, likely resulted from a short circuit in one of the fast charging stations. As EVs become more ubiquitous in society, so too will charger technological failures and property loss.
Electrical failures consequential, and not uncommon
Let’s consider why transformers and other outdoor electrical systems commonly fail. First, water – from hurricanes, tornadoes, or accidents – can cause water intrusion, or worse, submersion. Depending on contaminants present in the water, exposure may cause instant short circuits, and/or compromise electrical insulation and susceptible metals. Additionally, fires can spark from loose/glowing connections. According to The National Fire Protection Association, a glowing connection takes place “when a circuit has a poor connection such as a loose screw at a terminal, increased resistance causes increased heating at contact, which promotes the formation of oxide … A spot of heating develops at that oxide interface which then becomes hot enough to glow.” And when combustible materials are close enough to the hot spot, they can ignite. A large-scale example of this happened in June 2022, when digital automation and energy management company Schneider Electric recalled 1.4 million electrical panels due to thermal burn and fire hazards, all of which involved a loose neutral screw connection within the load center.
Other fundamental causes of electrical system equipment failures include the breakdown of insulating materials because of friction, tearing, or excessive electrical stress, as well as transformer failures resulting from inadequate protection against power surges or material defects, among other things. Finally, there can be engineering design defects – where under typical use, a product suffers systemic failure, injuring the user or property when using a product in its intended function.
Staying ahead of the curve
Slowly but surely, EVs and charging stations will become a fixture in modern day life. It’s critical that we not only familiarize ourselves with EV technology but prepare for the ways in which a new technological landscape will impact property losses. With such knowledge and preparation, the goal is to be ready when the time comes, not surprised – not struggling to catch up, but instead swiftly adapting to meet the needs of our clientele.