Sunday, February 26, 2006
"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 http://www.austinev.org/evtradinpost/has 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
"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.
"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 spot...now 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. Ok...as 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.
Ok...so 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. So....one 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
...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...
"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
"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.
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
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
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 www.delorean.com
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.
"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 options...bio-diesel, 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:
40 or 50 miles per charge.
Hmm...maybe maybe. Very affordable too. The catch? It's in Alabama and I'm in Maryland.
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 see...school, 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.
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.