Monday, September 04, 2006

Better Digs

"Hey, does that car float??" Slacker in front of Hardee's

I almost choked when the guy asked me this. For some reason he thought it was an old "Amphi-Car", a tiny boat/car built in the '60's.

I told him "I doubt it since it has 1200 lbs. of lead in it". I left him there with a confused look on his face and went in to get the holiest of holies....the Mushroom and Swiss Thickburger, hold the fries. The Hardee's isn't really close to my house. I eliminate my guilt of wasting gas on a stupid cheeseburger because hey- I ain't burning any gas.

Anyway...after not parking at the county garage for 5 or 6 months, I figure they've forgotten all about me and my specially reserved parking spot and I don't feel like dealing with these petty little garage queens. The new Metro parking structure is cleaner, and totally unmanned. You swipe a "speedpass" card to pay and exit. I called the parking manager and left a detailed message requesting permission to plug in and that he call me.

He never did but I'm plugging in and no one seems to care. The garage is nice and the EV is protected and ready to go when I get back from work.

2,223 miles logged so far.

The learning curve

"Aren't you going to sell it?"- Co-worker

As the months went by, and the EV sat idle I did think about it. The problem is, people would expect me to give it away since it didn't work and I wasn't exactly sure how serious the damage was. Well I'm not a quitter and I wasn't going to just give it away.

Now it's early August. After spending some quality time and money on the Delorean, I turned my attention back to the EV. My parts guy told me that brush springs were not listed as a part but the entire brush holder assembly, complete with springs is. The cost was only $113.00. I figure it's a safe gamble so he ordered it and a set of brushes.

His suppliers operate on a "whenever" business schedule so it took some time for the parts to arrive in the mail. I opened the package and the brush holder was....different. Totally different springs. It looked too small. This can't be right I groaned.

On Friday, a buddy came over and helped me remove the motor. We made special note of what cables went to which lugs on the motor. took 20 minutes and we barely got dirty. Try that with a gasoline engine. In my basement, we examined the motor and took some pictures.

Next, we figured out how to take the end-cap off where the motor brushes are. This took about 10 minutes. The brush holder is attached to the inside of the motor cap. 2 of 4 springs had snapped. The brushes were ruined. The metal frame that holds the brushes was melted in places. It could be salvaged if necessary but the springs...where would I get the perfect tension and length of spring?

We took some more pictures and then I unscrewed the 4 screws that hold the brush holder assembly to the end cap and removed it. I positioned the new, wierd brush holder and lo and behold- it fit perfectly. It just uses a different style of spring to hold the brush in.

Sigh...are you kidding? The new brushes I just got are the OLD style. The pigtail is in the wrong place and the little metal spring-hook itsn't necessary anymore and it's just in the way..or it will be when the brushes wear to a certain length. I called my parts guy again and emailed him pictures with a detailed explanation of the problem. New style brushes are on the way. I cut the hook off of the old-style brushes and moved the pigtail out of the way of the spring and used them anyway. I'd keep the new-style brushes on hand as spares for when these wore out....hopefully in about 10 years.

I drove down to Rexel bought another circuit breaker for the charger to replace the one I cannabilized for the house A/C and installed it. The next Thursday my buddy came back over and we reinstalled the motor. Again, it only took 20 minutes or so. Done right? Not quite-

I attached the armatures 180 degrees out...backwards. The motor ran backwards. I had 3 reverse gears and one forward gear. Shit. We crawled back underneath and I removed the end-cap and swapped the armature wires on the brush holder assembly and we put it all back together. This took about 15 minutes. Now it all works fine.

I paid:

$113.00 for the holder assembly
$56.00 for the replacement old-style brushes
$56.00 for the new-style brushes
$117.00 for a new, higher amperage contactor (not related to my original problem)
Total: $342.00.

$225.00 if you don't include the contactor. I bought it because the original contatctor is only rated for 100 amps. When I drive the vehicle, I draw up to 400 amps through it. It gets HOT so I bought a tougher one.

Considering I would have lost a LOT of money if I sold it broken, this is a bargain. I've been driving it for a month now with no problems. Since then, gasoline has ranged from $3.17/gallon and fell to $2.79/gallon.

I don't really care. The price of gasoline is so volatile these days that I'm still way ahead of the game.

Forced Hiatus

"It's a nothing part 'till you ain't got one" - Firefly

The county parking garage manager allocated me a permenant parking spot in front of an electrical outlet so I could charge up while I'm at work. He assured me that the maintenance staff would be directed not to unplug me. No extra money was necessary. I commuted by EV to the Metro rail station every day for about a month.

Unfortunately a catastrophic failure of the motor brush holder assembly put a total halt to my electric commuting. One morning, just a few hundred yards from home, one of the 25 year old brush tension springs broke. The sparks broke yet another spring. I limped it home and the light show of sparks from underneath the EV was impressive to say the least.

The commutator was scored from the arcing and the heat. The new brushes that should last ten years wore down in a matter of minutes. The motor brush holder was nearly turned to slag. I was very disheartened because the motor is 25 years old and parts are not widely available. I called my parts guy and told him I need springs or a brush holder or perhaps a compatible replacement motor and he began making the rounds of his suppliers.

In the meantime, I topped off the charge and rolled the EV to an always unused parking spot in my townhouse complex.

To add insult to injury, in late May, my home air-conditioning self-destructed and it also ate the circuit breaker in the house breaker panel. Rather than repair the old, inefficient A/C again and again, I had the whole thing replaced with a top-of-the line system. We had to cannablize the EV charger circuit breaker and install it in place of the A/C breaker.

In the intermediate months, I let the EV guru hunt for parts and I drove the DeLorean. I overhauled the front suspension, replaced the radiator and installed a transmission seal. As a Sirius satellite radio stock holder I outfitted the DeLorean with a radio and now I get all the '80's music I can handle.

I'll post pics of the slagged parts when I get a chance.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Too good to last...

"The maintenance guy unplugged you. He say you be stealin' energy"- parking garage attendant.

Guilty. I didn't ask first because it was largely experimental and I wasn't sure I was going to continue driving this way. I plugged in without asking permission. I'm a baaaaaaad EV'er.

So after 2 days, the maintenance guy unplugged me. He had no idea what the vehicle was or what it was doing. He just did it because the parking garage is the only area in his tiny little life that he has any control over and by God he's going to exert control in his little sphere of influence every chance he gets. According to the parking attendant, he thought I was plugging in to heat the van. Oh man... Ok so my big, inefficient charger uses $1.52 to charge me up from "E" at home. I suspect my little charger uses .25 to .50 cents to charger me up from 2/3's. I explained that my charger uses less electricity than one of the garage light bulbs and I was advised to contact the regional county garage manager.

I called this gentleman and he seemed genuinely interested in helping me. He stated that I couldn't use those outlets (for reasons he declined to explain) and promised to "set something up" for me.

We'll see what happens. I can make it home ok without charging but it's a lot harder on the batteries.

Full power communting

"You're so clever!"- Friend

Yeah right. I'm such an amatuer.

With my new onboard 72 volt charger, I've bravely set off on my morning commute to the Metro station. The first time, I rolled into the station having used less than half of a full charge. I easily found a parking spot in front of a column that had a 110 volt outlet and plugged in. I set the charger for only 5 amps because I didn't want to overcharge the batteries while I was away for 10 hours. This charger is dumb and doesn't shut off automatically. At the end of the day when I returned, I found my charge up to about 80%. I learned I can safely increase the rate of charge to the max 10 amp output that this charger will give.

The drive to the station was great. At 4:30 a.m. there's no traffic so I'm not holding anyone up even though I can easily attain the speed limit. The lights are all green so I'm not wasting juice stopping and starting. The ramp that connects the secondary road to the Metro touches a major highway and has a steep hill but the Comuta handles it well. I just put on the flashers when I hit it. It's 45 seconds of delay for whoever is behind me. They can live with it.

The drive home is no problem either because in the afternoon the traffic pattern is horrible and I hit every single red light. I waste some juice by stopping and starting so many times but because traffic never gets above 35 miles an hour, I'm never the one holding things up.

I've learned that the key to maximizing your range really is to maintain maximum RPM's in the motor's main torque band so I keep the van in 2nd gear and wound up tight. I typically make it to the station with 2/3's charge left and that's at 33 degrees F which reduces my capacity.

I've also learned that "topping off" with the charger while I'm in the shower seems to help as well.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Respiration and Circulation

"What's it for?"- Drone at auto-parts counter

Every time I need an auto part I have the same conversation. It goes something like this:

Me: "I need a distributor cap, Bosch part #: xxyyzz."

Counter Drone: "What's it for?"

Me: "Does it matter? I just gave you the part number."

Counter Drone: "Yeah but what vehicle are you putting it in?"

Me: "What does it matter? Is there a law against putting German parts in an American vehicle?"

Counter Drone: "No, I just want to make sure you get the right part."

Me: "I know what part I need. I need a Bosch #xxyyzz. Don't look it up by vehicle, just plug the part number into the computer because my car is definitely NOT in your computer."

Counter Drone: "Yeah but what's it for??"

Me: (sigh) "A 1981 DeLorean DMC-12."

Counter Drone: (taps on keyboard) "That's not in here."

Me: "No shit. I told you that. Go get your boss. I know damn well what kind of parts my car takes and it's none of your business what the application is. All you need to know is that I need a Bosch xxyyzz."

Drone Supervisor: "Hi, can I help you?"

Me: "I need a Bosch part number, xxyyzz"

Drone Supervisor: "Sure, what's it for?"

Me: (Heavy sigh) "Forget it. Just forget it."

And so it was when I visited the local auto bone-yard for a blower that I could use to circulate heat and keep the windshield clear. I told him I just wanted any old working 12 volt "squirrel cage" blower. We went 'round and 'round until I snapped and said that if he wanted to know what kind of vehicle it was for, to just come out and take a look.

He stepped around the corner and stopped in his tracks. He called one of his destruct-o-drones over from dismantling a Mercury Cougar and told him to "go to bin 22 and give this guy whatever kind of fan he wants". $15.00 and a small, Bosch recirc fan later, I headed back home. That was less painful than a normal parts-house thank God.

There are vents remaining in the dash left from the original heating system. It used a gasoline (of all things) heater. Sounds scary and dangerous to me. I'm glad it was all ripped out before I bought the thing. I've already gone to the local parts place and bought generic ventilation duct tubing that will connet to the vents. The next step is to get to Home Despot or Not-Lowe's and buy a general-purpose enclsoure box. I intend to cut a hole, mount the fan and connect the ductwork to the box. I'll also dissect an old heater or hairdryer and mount the heating coil in the box.

I haven't really had a big problem keeping the windshield clear, but it's been cold and I'm sure sick of it. It's March but it's supposed to snow tomorrow. Blech.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

The struggle with brakes

"You have to be able to stop before you can go" - Dad

Lately I can't seem to get the brakes pedal to be as hard as I think it should be. I've tried everything. New master cylinder, one-man bleeder kits, Myti-Vac pump, you name it.

I'm not losing any fluid but it's just not as good as it could be. I bench-bled the master cylinder. Not long after I replaced the master cylinder, the snap ring popped free and I think the piston was travelling "out" of the bore more than it should have. I might need to remove it and bench bleed the thing again. What a hassle.

...And for Christ's Sake, someone send me some warmer weather PLEASE!!!!

Friday, March 17, 2006

EV life so far...

"Is that a Jeep?" - Suburban troglodyte standing on the curb.

Ok, if you're an American in your 30's and you think my triangle van looks like a Jeep then you drink way too much cough medicine.

It's St. Patrick's day and it's still cold enough to reduce my range. We had a couple of freak warm days that hit 80 degrees and the improvement was instantly noticeable. I drive the EV exclusively except for when I need extra speed or range. At my current rate of consumption I won't put gas in the DeLorean for over a month.

The DeLorean steering and handling has slowly degraded over the last year. Dry-rotted suspension bushings and worn out ball-joints are the cause and not only is the EV saving me fuel but it's also saving me from damaging my stainless pride any further while I set aside the cash for suspension parts.

The winter range limitation is bugging the crap out of me though. I promised myself I wouldn't drop $800.00 on a fancy compact onboard battery charger but there has to be a compromise between "nothing" and "too much". I was actually considering building a battery charger but I stumbled on a brand-new, simple battery charger on the internet for only $150.00. It's heavy, but compact, plugs into an ordinary 110v wall outlet and can assist in equalizing charges because it has a variable voltage output from 12 to 72 volts. I can charge 2, or all batteries or any combination in between. I can choose between 5 & 10 amps. Not fast, but adequate.

Now as liberal as Maryland is, it's still not California. We don't have "public charging stations" at every Park 'n Ride or Costco like Cali does. Even so, I did scope out lots of 110v power outlets at the Metro parking garage. I have a good, heavy gauge extension cord. If I can even park on the same row as one of these outlets, the van can charge up nice and slow for the 10 hours I'm away and I'll have a full charge to drive home on every day! I'm going to mount the charger under the passenger seat I'm fabricating.

I'm trying to decide between just plugging in and feigning ignorance if the garage employees catch me or actually asking permission and trying to explain my EV to a bunch of minimum wage workers who barely speak English and might turn me down just for spite and not because of any regulations.

At least now, I'm not always bound to stop when I hit the "point of no return". If there's an outlet where I'm going, and I have the time to let it charge, I can exceed 15 or 20 miles in one direction.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

System Refinements

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) -- Iran will no longer consider a proposal to move its uranium enrichment program to Russian territory and is instead considering large scale uranium enrichment at home, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told reporters Sunday.

It's now March 12th, 2006 and while I tinker and learn how EV's work, I read the news and watch situations like this with interest. I refuse to propagate any conspiracy theories or post any sort of doomsday rant. I'm just saying that it's nice to know that there's an alternative available to me, at least for local travel.

So far, I've logged almost 2,000 miles on the Comuta Van. Once the motor brushes were replaced, I haven't had a single blip of trouble. The weather has been in the 20's and low 40's for about a month now. This has reduced my range from around 40 miles to 26-28 miles. This isn't enough to get me to the Metrorail station but it is more than enough to get me to the heavy rail MARC train station. The MARC system leases track time from Amtrak and CSX. These are full-sized trains with big, comfy cars that are far cleaner and populated with far nicer people than the DC subway system. I really enjoy riding it but the downside is, it runs far few trains, costs a little more and requires much tighter timing of my daily schedule. Even so, it's a good deal because my company pays my rail costs 100%. Fortunately for me and Northrop Grumman, I've proven myself to be worth it.

I believe that in an EV, conserving every amp can help so I've replaced a lot of the exterior lighting with LED's. They last forever, draw almost no power and are almost as bright as lightbulbs if you get the clustered type. The Comuta Van, being an ex-Postal van had a lot of "marker lights". Take a look at a modern Postal truck and you'll see what I mean. Replacing all of these little guys will ease the load on the accessory battery.

I was only able to drive the van in warm (70 degrees F) weather a few times before winter set in. The motor controller it turns out, is not mounted in the best way. The thing gets very hot channeling all of those amps through to the motor and it should be mounted to a large, metal surface to draw off the heat. Whoever installed the controller here, mounted it to a ABS plastic surface. A few times while driving up long hills, I drove the controller into overheat protection mode. At first, it emits a tone by shifting the switching speed to warn you, but after that it automatically begins cutting back on the amperage to the motor. The effect is similar to running out of juice. You have to stop for a few minutes to let it cool down before it'll give you full power again. To combat this, I mounted a large heatsink to the controller and installed a muffin fan above it to keep the controller cool. I plan on re-mounting it to the firewall, which is a large aluminum surface.

The 25 year old brake master cylinder started leaking but a replacement was readily available at Advance Auto for $19.95. The Comuta Van was built with a lot of "of-the-shelf" parts from other common vehicles so I'm hoping to minimize the amount of hunting I have to do.

The Curtis battery gauge arrived and installed well. It took me a couple of tries to connect it to the traction pack correctly. I had a brain cramp and couldn't figure out which was the first or last in the daisy-chain.

I installed a shifter boot to keep the dust and road noise out. One day, a darling family member was sick of the split seat vinyl and bought me a "flaming dice" seat cover. As a joke, I completed the theme complete with dice tire valve stem caps, dice license plate screws, fuzzy dice, a giant dice gear-shift knob and a chrome, lo-rider steering wheel.

My other big improvement will be to replace the old glass type Buss-fuse-and-spaghetti fuse panel with a modern, blade fuse enclosed fuse block. I'll wire up some extra slots for more accessories like a 12v outlet to charge the cell phone and cheapy stereo system.

I'm also curious to see if it's possible to add 2 or 3 batteries in parallel to some of the batteries in the traction pack. Theoretically, this will deepen my "pool" of available amps, giving me greater range. It won't increase the voltage, or give me more speed but I want range. I need the system voltage to stay the same or my charger won't be able to charge the pack anyway. I'm not sure it'll work though because I'm not certain if the pack will discharge evenly when I drive. I could end up over discharging the parallel cells, killing them quickly, wasting money.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Fix is in.

"The electric motor itself needs no lubrication. However, the brushes should be checked every 6 months or 3,000 miles for tightness and proper length..."
- Comuta Car service manual

The weather is cold now. We've had a few snows. It's cold enough to reduce battery capacity to a level that prevents me from reaching the Metro station and coming back without charging up. It's not a great time to lie on the ground doing mechanical work.

Still, curiosity will drive me outside every time. I want to know what's wrong with the Comuta Van and how expensive it'll be. I suspect the potbox that attaches to the accelerator pedal. I'm betting the resistor windings are shot and the "drive" signal isn't being sent to the motor controller. I broke out the multi-meter and started tracing power:

  • 12 volts available from keyswitch to motor controller solenoid: Check.
  • Solenoid engages when key is turned: Check.
  • Resistance changes when key is on and accelerator pedal is depressed: Check. (This surprised me)
  • 72 volts being supplied to controller input when key is on: Check.
  • Controller outputs voltage to motor when pedal is depressed: Check.
  • Double-check that voltage from the controller is present at the cables attached to the motor: Check.

So juice is flowing through all parts of the system and is fed into the motor but the motor doesn't turn. Something is "open" in the motor. Eww....that's not good. By now I've posted a plea for help on the newsgroup and more than one person has told me to check the motor "brushes".

The Postal Van manual just tells you how to drive the thing. It contains no repair information at all. I hope that the info in the Comuta Car/Citi Car service manual is compatible. The van has almost 10,000 miles on it by now so I'm starting to believe that brushes are my problem. The brushes complete the circuit by maintaining contact with the spinning commutator. The commutator is a mass of copper that spins in the center of the motor. The 4 brushes are in holders touching the commutator every 90 degrees around the commutator. As they wear, a spring keeps drawing them tight against the commutator to maintain contact. Eventually they wear down until they are too short to touch and the motor stops.

I crawled under and removed a dust collar and the cooling fan hose. I can see something...with a spring and a wire attached. That must be it. I disconnected the spring and pulled out a stubby block of carbon. It's barely 1/4" long. I've isolated the problem. Now all I have to do is find replacements for a 25 year old GE motor.

Glen, the fellow who sold me the van is very courteous and knowledgeable. He was actually concerned about my "EV experience" and wanted it to be positive. He actually found the brushes from a couple of sources and sold them to me at the lowest price: $50.00.

Consider this: An oil change today costs anywhere from $17.00 to $60.00 depending on if you do the job yourself or have a Jiffy-Change do it for you. You do this every 3-5,000 miles. I paid $50.00 for a 10,000 mile "oil change".

All I had to do was unclip each brush and unscrew the little pigtail from each brush. I slipped each new one into it's holder, clipped the springs on and attached the pigtail. It took 20 minutes. No oil, no filter. No hazmat. I washed my hands with ordinary bar soap when I was done.


"You broke it already? See, this is not how to convince people that an EV is better"
- co worker

I've been putting a lot of short trips on the EV now and haven't had any problems. I'm about to retire my toolbox back inside the house because it's been so reliable. Of course it wouldn't have mattered given the problem that crept up...

Coming home one night from the grocery store, I stopped to make a right turn at a traffic light. I tapped the pedal to creep forward a bit...but nothing happens. A few more taps...nothing. I cycled the key switch and heard the solenoid click on and off which says that the motor controller is connected to the batteries. I shifted from reverse to 1st gear and tapped the pedal. This time there was motion. The light turned green and I drove home with no further issues.

Over the next 2 weeks, this happened 3 more times. Intermittant problems are the absolute worst to track down. I like things to be completely broken before I fix them. It takes some of the mystery out. Well I got my wish. Again, coming home from the store I cut through a library parking lot this time. I stopped at the stop sign, poised to make a right turn. Step on the pedal and nothing. No amount of fussing or picking would fix it this time. I was only a few hundred feet from home and the ground was level so I just pushed it home. The only real damage was done to my dignity. Now I'm dead in the water and the EV is an 1800 lb. lead weight.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

How far can I go?

"What do you mean, you "don't know how far it goes""? - co-worker

Well I don't... At least not yet.

Something fairly essential was missing when I bought the Comuta Van: A fuel gauge.
I knew this of course but a voltmeter shouldn't be a hard thing to come by. Being a 25 year old prototype, the odds of finding an exact replacement are slim. Not to fear, I've read that Curtis instruments sells this sort of thing. They are the same company that made the super-wham-o-dyne motor controller that I'm using.

They make a nice, simple, color-coded LED bar graph gauge that is green when full, and drops into blinking red when empty. Kind of pricey though. Some people on the newsgroups are trying to sell me on these "E-meters" that track amp-by-amp discharge to give you the exact moment that you're going to cease moving. Even more pricey. Where does anyone get anything these days? E-bay of course. Wow...none to be had. The EV trading post at one for half price so I buy it and hope for the best. We're doing the snail-mail dance with money orders and shipping so it'll be a while.

In the meantime, I'm bravely driving around with a 2" hole in my dash and no idea how far I'm going to go. The weather is between 45-70 degrees so the cold weather shouldn't affect the batteries too much yet. Over the days I start running errands to the grocery store, putting around on the backroads and hitting my favorite coffee shop. I'm logging the odometer with longer and longer drives to see how far I can go. I'm taking my time learning how it drives and trying to adapt my driving habits to a new style of vehicle.

Here's a neat thing I discovered that almost led me to wreck the thing on my 2nd trip out:

When you "coast" in a gasoline car, engine compression and friction slow you down pretty quick. You don't pay any attention to it. It just is, and you know how far you're going to coast before you roll to a stop at the traffic light. In an EV, there is no friction, and certainly no compression. The only friction is the tires on the pavement. Even with the motor in gear, it's like coasting in neutral. You roll a lot further. I learned the hard way by not allotting enough braking room and nearly rear-ending the car in front of me. In reality this is good though, because you learn to conserve energy by coasting down every little hill you find because it's much easier to maintain speed. By the "burp 'n coast" method, you learn to extend your range. You learn to plot your routes so that you depart by coasting down steep hills, and travel the flats and shallow grades coming home (or vice/versa).

One day, I'd run a string of errands around town that led me to put 32 miles on in stop 'n go traffic, up and down an assortment of hills. I figured I didn't have much battery left, but I wanted to know just how far I could push it. I found a scenic circular drive in a residential area nearby and drove a few long laps. Finally around 38 miles I sensed a lack of performance, so I headed home. By the time I was 1/16th of a mile from home, things really started slowing down. By the time I hit my parking spot, I hit 40.7 miles on the clock and I was out of juice. That's roughly 40 miles of hills and stop 'n go traffic. In a perfect world, I could probably eke out 45-50 miles.

It took about 6 hours to charge up and for 3.5 hours of that, the charger buzzed and hummed so loud I thought it would vibrate itself right off of the workbench. Thank God it's in the basement where I can isolate the sound.

Monday, February 20, 2006

The bison and the river

"Man, I hope it's supposed to smell like that"- Author

The charger is untested. The only way to make it activate is for it to sense a "load" or pack of batteries. I've decided that I don't want to punch a hole in my basement wall unless I know it works. Now this is a hell of an impasse... I didn't build the damn extender cable long enough to wrap around the stairs and out the front door.

As I stare into the ceiling it hits me. I yank the clothes dryer vent duct out and snake the cable out through the dryer vent. It's only 6" from where I intend to make the hole anyway. Like a kid at Christmas I ran the cable out to the thirsty little pig and made the connections. It took a few trips up and down the stairs, but once I got the contacts seated in the new connectors right the charger powered up.

Boy howdy did it ever... A 25 year old Lester-matic charger is primitive to say the least. It's a giant silver box with giant transformers and rectifiers in it with a lawn-sprinkler timer and a couple of crude circuit boards. It makes a God-awful hum when the batteries are low as they put the biggest load on the charger. The first time it made a stink as it burned off the dust that had settled inside. It's also very "brute force". It will turn off automatically when the amps draw down from 40 to 5, but it can't sense individual battery states and it just does a best guess and turns off. At least it gets a lot quieter when the batteries get halfway full.

And it works. The whole operation is neat and tidy. The cabling all stays nice and cool from the breaker to the vehicle even under the heaviest loads since I didn't skimp and used heavy gauge wiring throughout.

With a little trepidation, I used my air chisel and chipped out a hole in my brick-front townhouse. It was a lot harder than I expected but I made it tidy by mounting a utility box on the wall from Home Despot. Not only did I run the charger output cable through this hole but I also ran an air hose from my air compressor and a normal extension cord for 110 household power. Now I can more easily use my air and electrical tools without snaking hoses and cords out of my windows or front door. When I sell the house, I'll install and ordinary 110 outlet there for whoever buys the place. When I'm not charging up, I coil the cable up next to the garden hose and the box is closed up all neat and tidy.

My neighbor and the condo-nazis haven't said a thing.

Fill 'er up!

"What do you mean, you "can't charge it up"? You don't have all that figured out yet?"- my friend Paul

So all this time, I've had various theories about how to bring the river to the bison since the bison can't come to the river to drink. I could:

A) Build a weather-proof box and mount the charger outside.
B) Buy an $800.00 Zivan onboard charger and wire it up somehow.
C) Mount the charger in the basement and somehow run a cable long enough to reach the van's parking spot.

A) is out. The condo-nazis would never allow it. They already sent me nasty letters about the DeLorean thanks to my withered crone of a neighbor.

B) is out, (for now) because the cash is already flowing freely enough thanks.

C) it is then. My basement is already set up as a shop of sorts, complete with brushed stainless steel workbenches and cabinetry to match the DeLorean.

I cleared of a shelf physically closest to the van, against the wall. This is a good I need to install an outlet here, and get power to the outlet. Cripes. More books, more reading. Enter the "Black & Decker Complete Guide to Home Wiring". It didn't show -exactly- what I wanted to do, but I figured it out. My breaker box is 20 years out of date to boot. I found ONE shop in town that sold safer replacement breakers that would mount in my box, but how much amperage do I need to be safe? Well the charger draws 22.5 amps AC so...a double-pole 30 amp breaker should do. 3-strand 10 gauge wiring from the breaker, through the basement ceiling to the outlet to handle the load. My charger is 220 volts AC input, like your dryer or oven except that the plug is shaped differently. I found the required outlet at Home Despot. I bought conduit and wall clamps and an outlet box and mounted it all up. Wiring a 220 outlet is cake. There is no "neutral". There's 110 volts on one contact, 110 on the other and black is ground.

Ok, so the charger has power. The "river" is flowing. The DC output cable from the charger is only about 7' long. It's about 50' from the wall to my available parking spots. Ever wonder why the utility company pumps AC down our power lines when nearly everything in our house requires DC power? Because DC (Direct Current) doesn't travel down long lines worth a damn. After a mile, all you have is hot wire and low voltage and current. AC travels much greater distances before you need a "substation" with transformers to boost the power.

Man...50' at 40 amps DC...That's not going to travel well unless I use some heavy cable to minimize resistance. Like nuclear submarine shore power cable. near as I can read, the charger output cable is 8-gauge. I'll buy 50' of 6-gauge and connect them.

In the meantime, all this planning is taking a couple of weeks. Out of fear for the batteries' health, I took to charging them in pairs (6v + 6v=12) with an ordinary car charger. What a hassle. The van and the charger have these weird, industrial, gender-less connectors called "Anderson" connectors so like everything else, I was guided to a website that sold them and order a bunch (in case I screw up).

Again...just ONE store in the area had what I needed...and man was it costly. $96.00 for 50'. Why? Because the damn oil shortage has driven up the price. What has the price of oil to do with the price of copper cable? Nothing. But the insulation is PLASTIC which is a by-product of oil. Had I bought this cable 4 months ago, it would have been 1/2 the price!!

Now I have to put these funky connectors on 50' of raw cable. I used a GIANT super-hot soldering iron from Ebay to melt some heavy solder into the connector contacts and prayed that I didn't burn the house down. The trick was shoving the cable tip into the solder while it was still molten. I did this 8 times. There are 4 conductors in the cable. Red, green, black and white.

Red and green I designated for the 72 vDC output which charges the traction pack. The black and white I designated for the 12 vDC output which charges the accessory battery. The new, heavy-duty "extender" cable mated perfectly to the original charger DC output cable.

Underway on batter power II

"Ok...I have to ask. What is it?"- Neighbor by now I have kind of a "hip bone connected to the thighbone" understanding of my EV. It has batteries. When I turn the "ignition" key on, power is applied to the solenoid, which connects the traction bank to the motor controller. I step on the pedal and the 12 volt signal at the pedal commands the controller to feed the motor.

An interesting thing about my particular EV is that even though it has a 3 speed manual transmission, it has no clutch. No clutch pedal. You just slam-shift it. When you reach the designated shift point, you just let off the accelerator pedal and -gently- shove it into next gear. The synchronizers allow for smooth shifting. The reason you can do it in an EV is because the motor can spin down to any speed required to synchronize. A gasoline motor always idles and resists synchronization, hence a clutch is required. less expensive maintenance item to worry about.

I put the van into 1st gear and gently stepped on the pedal. Smoothly and without a sound, I rolled out of my parking spot. Neat. Just like a golfcart. I looped around my parking lot a few times, cautious of my spongy brakes. The shifting took getting used to but no big deal.

Whew. That was fun. Too bad I have to stop now.

You see, buying 12 batteries from Sam's Club means they are all manufactured at different dates and are all in various states of discharge from sitting on the shelf. A check with a battery hydrometer shows that some are nearly discharged and some are about halfway. None are greater than 2/3 charged.

I guess now would be a good time to see about wiring up the battery charger...

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Underway on battery power

"On downhill operations, do not allow the vehicle to reach speeds in excess of 49 mph. To do so will cause the motor armatures to rotate so fast that they will fly apart..." ----Commuter Vehicles Postal Van Operator's manual.

...Not exactly a ringing endorsement of durability. Still, it's 25 years old, and it was basically a prototype vehicle. Being as it was designed for the government, that's probably a conservative warning. I've had the van up to 57 mph with no problems and I've coasted downhill up to 65 mph. I just put it in neutral so I don't overspeed the motor.

Installing and cabling the batteries was interesting. I knew they were "in series" or a large string but I wasn't sure where the beginning and ending of the string was. Fortunately I was given a diagram that showed how. The batteries are in two banks of 6. One front, one rear.

Ok, so the batteries are installed. How do I apply power to the motor? Another advantage the Postal van had over the early Citi cars is the addition of an "accessory" or "house" battery. This single 12 volt battery powers the lights, fans, etc so you're not draining the traction pack. It also applies power to the solenoid that connects the traction pack to the motor controller. The motor controller then feeds the motor via the signal from the accelerator pedal. Simple enough except that nothing's labeled and wiring data on the van is scarce because there were so few made.

The first few tentative taps on the pedal yielded nothing until I figured out that I needed the accessory battery. I thought it was strictly for lights and comfort items. Dang....I don't have a spare 12 volt battery handy. Or do I? Well it's October now and boating season is over so I raided my boat for it's marine battery and installed it. Heck, at least it'll be charged regularly.

Once the accessory battery was installed, I put the transmission in neutral and barely tapped the pedal. I was rewarded with a smooth, quiet spin-up of the motor. It's dangerous to spin and unloaded electric motor because it can overspeed and damage itself.

Next, I noted that the motor cooling fan and all the lights worked. It appears that I'm safe for a test turn around my townhouse complex...

What makes the EV go?

"It's a triangle. Rich, your EV is a triangle. Promise me you'll never let yourself be seen in a triangle"- co worker

To answer the above question, batteries make the EV go but what kind? The type and quality of batteries increases in price, performance and life span but at what moment do you reach the "point of diminishing returns"? This means, at what moment have you spent too much money for what the batteries will give you?

I Googled and newsgroup'd the various types of batteries and I came up with a bewildering list of choices:

1. Flooded Lead-acid: Reliable, least expensive, most recycleable. Life-span: 4 years. Range: 40-50 miles on average with a temperature variable: 30 miles at 30 F, up to 50 at 80 F.

2. AGM & gell: (Absorbed glass mat) Less of a temperature variable. Approximately 40% more expensive. Slightly less range. No acid spillage and no hydrogen gas buildup during charging.

3. NiCad: nickel Cadmium. Poor availability. Yet more expensive. Evironmentally toxic. Poor recycleability. Very costly. Longer lifespan. Shorter range.

4. NiMh: nickel metal Hydride. Up to 10x more in cost. Almost 2x the range (100 miles per charge). Approx. 10 year life. Poor/non-existent availability outside of Hybrid production cars. Almost no recycling infrastructure yet. Requires computerized charging equipment.

5. LiIon: Lithium Ion. 10x as expensive or more, but usually double the range. Some models overheat or explode if overloaded. No availability beyond electronics and hybrid auto industries. Lifespan is debatable but generally expected to be greater than lead acid batteries. Requires computerized charging equipment.

On the surface, the choice seems easy but I read much deeper into the subject than what's shown here. You'll have to do your own in depth research. I just couldn't justify the expense of exotic batteries in a 25 year old vehicle. It's kind of like putting day-old tap water into 25 year old Scotch whiskey. It's just not done. I also wouldn't want to burn up special batteries while I'm tinkering and learning.

Needless to say, I went with the least expensive, most reliable option. 12, 6 volt lead acid golf cart batteries. This is how it's normally done, especially by do-it-yourself EV'rs. I caught a Sam's Club member ship and spent $46.00 each. They're kind of low-end to middle grade batteries so we'll see how long they last.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Dissecting your specimen

"I heard it rained in Washington state today. It's all Bush's fault" -The Left

I'm not dumb. I know gasoline prices aren't going to stay this high but the point is, I'm sick of people telling me that there is no other way and that gasoline is a staple that you "have to have" like flour, sugar or milk. As a sailor with 15 years in the service 7 months of which I spent in the Persian Gulf protecting shipping from suicidal Islamists, I'm tired of wondering where my fuel comes from and who it's supporting. I make it a point to pay attention to world events when it could mean my ass gets sent to a foreign country "protecting" people who don't want my protection.

A lot of the EV newsgroups I've subscribed to are nothing but pulpits for Eco-Nazis to scream from. They have little or no technical content. I was publicly berated for suggesting we concentrate our topics on the technology and ignore the politics. Some of these people are simply nuts. Bush's conspiracy, Big Oil, Big Industry, The Big 3, The Man...I don't care what the cause of high fuel prices are. All I need to know is that petro-based fuels cost more than I feel like paying for them and I'm not going to let anyone tell me that I have to buy them.

So, back to the Comuta Van...

You can tell there were barely any vehicle safety requirements 25 years ago. This is a totally street legal vehicle made of PLASTIC and an aircraft aluminum tubing frame. Oh, and drum brakes all the way around. She'll stop on a dime....NOT.

For once though, I seemed to have done my homework. The wiring is all intact, nothing really broken. It's just dusty from 10 years of indoor storage. The brakes are spongy and the master cylinder needs rebuilt but that's to be expected. The ancient steering box is ok but the tie rod links have slop. Parts availability -may- be an issue but the seller and I keep in contact and he's a great help.

These old Citi/Comuta vehicles were controlled by a Frankensteinian mechanical contactor array that switched the battery pack from series to parallel depending on how far you pushed the pedal. That's how power was applied to the motor. It also made for an "on/off" mentality and a real jerky ride. I'm thrilled to say that my little "Dilbert-mobile" has been upgraded with something I'd never heard of before: A PCM (Pulse controlled modulation) type controller.

This is one reason why EV's are feasible now. It's a sealed black box with no moving parts and it feeds power to the motor by switching power on and off at an incredibly rapid rate. It's silent and it knows how much juice to apply by the potentiometer or "potbox" attached to the pedal. When you step on the pedal, it's smooth as silk. It'll probably outlast the van by many years.

As I pick at the wiring, I notice that all the warning lights and motor power switches have been disconnected because of the upgrade. I'll have to patch some of this stuff back together. A few accessory wires are disconnected but once I have batteries, I'll be able to figure out what goes where with my trusty multi-meter.

I are an engineer, after all.

The Long Haul

"I've got to quit stuffing 20 lbs. of shit into a 10 lb. sack" -Author

Now it's October 2nd and I've finally managed to coordinate my financial, professional and social obligations so that I can pick the damned thing up. Hurricane Katrina has come and gone and gas prices are like nothing no one has ever seen. I'm too disgusted to gloat and I've limited my comments to my friends and family to "Still think I'm crazy?".

The seller was very patient with me and was a great sport to meet me for the hand-off. I took my first good look at the thing. No surprises here. It's a mix of freaky/ugly/nerdy that only a 25 year-old view of "modern" could conjure up. Still, it grows on you. I instantly decide I like it. It barely weighs anything without batteries in it and we secure it to my U-Haul trailer with no trouble.

Folks, I'm here to tell you that the drive from Annapolis, Maryland to Roanoke and back is a long and dreary experience in a 30 year old 1 ton pickup with dual exhaust and no radio. I never use it for anything except hauling my boat so I saw no need to stuff it full of comforts. I'll damn sure put a CB radio in it to talk to the truckers if nothing else.

I made it home safely and crawled into bed the minute I was parked. At 6 a.m. the next morning I rolled it off the trailer and into my parking spot so I could return the U Haul. "Why is this damn thing so hard to push now?" I thought in frustration. Gravity should have run away with it. Oh sweet....let's shove against the parking brake. D'oh!

I screamed down to the U Haul joint and then off to work. 20 lbs. in a 10 lb. sack....

Sunday, February 12, 2006

EV Irony

"EV's are too expensive and too limited in capability" - Various

I've admitted to myself that I'm not about to plunk down $28-40 THOUSAND dollars on a used Toyota RAV4 EV with nickle-metal hydride batteries and that this nerdy little van is going to be my ride into the world of alternative fuel. I've secured a small loan and an agreement with the seller: $3,500 dollars and he'll deliver it halfway in Virginia. The irony of this, is that I'll be using my 1975 Chevy 1-ton pickup truck that gets like 9 gallons per mile to go get it. My buddy Paul calls it the "Kriegswagon", or War Wagon. Not very efficient.

While I'm working all this into my schedule of family, work and military reserve duty I'm crunching yet more numbers based on parts, batteries, charging costs etc. against the operating costs of an ICE (internal combustion engine). I've had 15 years in the Navy. I use a lot of alphabet soup when I write. The theoretical numbers were verrrrrrry interesting:

My DeLorean gets 22-25 mpg. Pretty good for a 24 year-old car. Assuming I -never- drive it anywhere except to the Metro station and home, that's 28 miles per day, or a little more than a gallon per day. It carries 13 gallons. At my town's current price of $2.50/gallon, that's $32.50 per tank every 1.5 weeks or so. Let's take all the words out of this equation and just crunch numbers:

DMC-12 Annual operating expenses
$32.50 X 35 weeks (7,000 miles)= $1138.00
Annual tune up: Sparkplugs $47.76
Cap and rotor $19.95, $8.95
Sparkplug wires $59.95
Air filter $7.45
Emissions test $14.95
Oil change @ 3 months $143.64
Total: $1392.89

EV Annual operating expenses


BGE charges .07 cents per kWh (kilowatthour) The van's charger draws 3.5 kWh max and takes 6 hours to charge from dead.

.07 cents X 3.5 kWh= .245 cents.

.25 cents X 6 hours= $1.47

$1.47= 35 miles, or one "fill up" (conservatively) so 300 miles (the average ICE range per tank)

300 miles/35= 8.5 "fill ups" at $1.47, which is $12.60 for 300 miles of travel. And

7,000 miles of travel for the year at $1.47 per charge is: $257.25

*component prices from

These components are not special or overpriced despite the unique nature of the DeLorean automobile. It came factory equipped with a Volvo V6 engine.

Other than a VW TDI Beetle or a Honda Insight, there is no vehicle that you'll travel 300 miles in for only $12.60 cents, or 7,000 miles for only $257.25.

Wait, what about all that other stuff? What about maintenance costs for an EV?

There are none. No oil, no coolant, hoses, belts, headgaskets, smog pump, catalytic converter or other crap. Brake pad? Wheel bearings? Transmission oil? Yes but you'll notice I didn't include that in the costs of EITHER vehicle to keep a level playing field. Also, those systems are infrequently serviced in any vehicle so I don't count them as "annual" operating costs.

The only maintenance a DC series-wound motor requires is new brushes every 10 THOUSAND miles. The new Advance (it's a brand name) DC motors only require brushes every 80 thousand miles. The electronic control systems for an EV have no moving parts and are sealed. They usually live longer than the vehicle itself.

Batteries are another issue and I'll talk about them in a battery dedicated post. Just to soothe your curiosity now, I'll tell you that an ordinary lead acid battery pack will last about 4 years if cared for properly and cost you from $700-$1200 dollars depending on your car's system voltage.

Where'd all the EV's go?

"I don't know how you can spend your time off working this hard" -co worker

As I watch the gas prices climb, I'm looking at all the, hybrid etc. I live in a townhouse. I don't have to room to brew used cooking oil into fuel and I don't have the time to run down every Chan's Hunan take-out to look for cooking grease. I still haven't found a project or "starter" EV that I can afford. The technology seems to have improved since I last looked into it but the prices have skyrocketed. Everyone thinks I'm crazy but I smell something bad in the wind... it's now about July '05 and the hurricanes are ramping up.

One day I'm cruising the Yahoo! newsgroups looking for EV forums when I stumble on the C-Car group. What the hell's a C-Car? Then I get into the pictures...ohhhhh yeah. I remember seeing this tiny little wedge-shaped vehicle in Florida as a kid. Not very often though. They're called "Citi Cars" or "Comuta Cars". As I dig into the archives I find that they are affordable in the low thousands or even hundreds of dollars. Ok, fine. I can fix one up but what are their capabilities? I start asking around and the answers are kind of daunting:

35-42 mph (depending on the year and system voltage)
35-40 mile range.
3.5 or 6 hp motor (eesh.. still electric motor hp is calculated differently)

That's just not enough to get to the Metro.

A day or so later I receive an email from a fellow who is a parts and knowledge source for these vehicles. (Name withheld to protect the innocent) He tells me about the vehicles and asks me about my needs. He then tells me that he has a vehicle that'll probably do what I want. It's called a "Comuta Van". Van? Originally designed for the U.S. Postal service, it has a 3 speed transmission and here are the raw numbers:

50-55 mph
40 or 50 miles per charge.

Hmm...maybe maybe. Very affordable too. The catch? It's in Alabama and I'm in Maryland.

The Plan

"No plan survives contact with the enemy"

Yeah right.... No matter how hard I try, I never plan anything as well as I should.

The DeLorean I bought that "needed a little TLC"? It was crap. It took 10 months of work and $3,000 dollars just to turn the ignition key.

The boat, trailer and motor I bought for $300.00? Also crap. The transom was rotted (cleverly hidden though) and it took $2,000 dollars to make it sea-worthy.

Still, I've always managed to pull my chestnuts out of the fire by learning the necessary skills and doing the repairs myself thereby saving thousands of labor dollars. The DeLorean is a head-turner at every filling station and carshow. The boat is rock-solid and provides endless hours of relaxation and $2500.00 dollars is a steal considering a comparable new boat and trailer are $15,000 grand. But just ONCE, I'd like to start a project off on the right foot.

Ok, so the first thing I did was look up "electric vehicle" on Google and Yahoo! (Where else?)
Whew... the modern ones are expensive! Ok, so I've learned so far that many electric vehicles in my price range travel between 30 and 50 miles per charge. Is my life adaptable to that limitation?

Next, I spent an afternoon using MapQuest to plot the mileage and possible routes to all my usual destinations...the DMV, the mall, the grocery store, the gas station...oh wait I'm not supposed to need that one...let's, the veterernarian for my aging mutt... and most importantly, the Metrorail. That's the Washington DC subway system for those of you who don't know. All of these destinations are within 20 miles except the Metro. It's a 28 mile round-trip. The trip to work will be tight unless I can think of another way.

The kernel of an idea.

"There is a field marshal's baton in every soldier's knapsack"- Napolean Bonaparte

This is kind of a late start for documentation on this project. I actually purchased my first EV on 02 October '05. This entry will be mostly about inception of the idea so here goes...

I'm a firm believer that part of being an American is having your cake and eating it too. That means I believe that the average American is smart enough and driven enough earn, design or build whatever he or she wants without waiting for Big Industry or the Federal government to provide it. Sort of an engineering view of Napolean's axiom.

I've been a car nut for ages and I've also always held an interest in science and technology. I own a 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 stainless steel beauty that I have lovingly restored. As much as I love cars, it's easy to see that our love and need for them is literally putting us over a barrel. Before the 2005 hurricane season, and before Iran started rattling their saber, I was angry over gasoline prices when they hit $1.80/gallon.

What to do? Hey...this is America people. We find another way.