Sunday, September 16, 2007


"MMmmph! Damn, that tingles!" -me catching some current from a battery terminal.

Yeah, I've started wearing rubber gloves now. I also disconnect the battery pack in more than one place when I work on the car.

I've suffered yet another component failure after the motor controller and it's the same old song: An old, and weathered part that probably outlived it's projected life-span. Luckily it was minor and relatively inexpensive.

The "main" contactor is a big, multi-hundred amp relay that connects the battery pack to the motor controller when you turn the key. It is both a safety and security device. The contactor that failed is the "Albright" brand. The terminals and large contacts are open to the air, and this allows corrosion, circuit resistance and commutation (sparking) to occur. A lot of EV'ers use these and they are durable but I don't like them. The moving, high-current parts are exposed to the elements and that just seems dumb.

I took a page from my Comuta Van days and bought a new Kilovac sealed contactor for the same price. It's a simple grey cylinder. The magnetic coil and the large contacts are permanently and totally sealed. The main contacts are also submerged in a sort of oil so every time you turn the key on and the contacts close, there is no arcing, sparking or commutation. They are rated for 1 million open/close cycles and something like 900 amps. It should last forever.

Installing it was a pain in the a$$. I had to remove the belly pan that protects the motor and everything else hiding in the engine bay. I had to use an angle grinder to cut away the old contactor bracket and drill mounting holes for the new contactor. Not difficult, just tedious.

And, once again I'm on the road. It's September now and the temperature has dropped as if someone threw a switch. Everything is cool and happy and I'm up to 3,200 miles so far.

I figure I'll get 7,000-10,000 more miles from these batteries.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Built for me, not for you

"My EV, as it sits is not commercially viable"- me to co-worker

Why is that? I'll be blunt.

The average American consumer is greedy, lazy, demanding, and unwilling to make any sacrifice for the common good. A quick look at the cars on today's highways will make it painfully obvious. Even in a brand-new chassis, no one will settle for a spartan commuter car that eschews luxuries like A/C, power-everything and a DVD player for the baby in the back even if the return on investment means a 60 mile round-trip commute without gasoline.

Plus, my car lacks safeties that a commercial EV should have.

1. Emergency Stop. Hey gas cars don't have one, why should mine? Because people today enjoy litigation. A big, red Panic button to kill all power is a must.

2. Motor temperature gauge or dummy light. I found the temp sensor wires. I just need to attach a light. This'll keep Joe Lunchpail from roasting his motor.

3. Charging Cord Idiot Safety: This is a relay that will prevent the car from turning "on" when you turn the key if the charging cord is still plugged in. This'll keep you or Wifey from driving away with the cord still attached. I've never done this even once but I'd like to install one anyway.

I have an EV for me. Now I want to build one for "you". And to that end, I've purchased another 1974 VW Beetle with a straight body and a siezed engine. I'm going to pull out all the stops on this one. All the safeties, quality components, larger motor and controller, lights and gauges. Disc brakes all the way 'round. Beefed up suspension.

It's time to get out of this tiny townhouse and buy a house with a garage and maybe a workshop area. I'm up for sale and my bid on a house was accepted. I just need to sell my townhouse now....

Anyone looking for a townhouse that's centrally located to DC, Baltimore and Annapolis??

Easy Cruising

"So, did you drive the electric car today?"- my boss

Sigh...he asks me this nearly every day. For lack of anything more interesting to say I guess.

The fact is, I've had to make some costly repairs over a short period of time to this car. When it runs, it runs perfectly. It's not like a gas powered car that might run poorly but still run. With this thing, it's all or nothing. If these kinds of repairs become recurring events, then it means one of a few things:

1. The drivetrain and power systems are poorly designed.
2. The technology just isn't "there" yet.
3. The user (me) isn't operating the car properly.

Hey, if an electric car seems to be a bad concept, I'll admit it but I'm not ready to call it quits yet.

The batteries, charger and motor controller are all new. The only big-ticket item left to fail is the motor. I've re-examined it and I don't think that's likely. Why did 3 of 4 expensive items fail?

1. The batteries were 5 years old. That's old for lead batteries. I consider that to be "routine".
2. The charger was exposed to water. Duh. Let's see how the new one lasts now that it's sealed up.
3. Controller failure...this is the only one I don't have an obvious, concrete reason for. I can safely say that it was old. Maybe 10 years old. It didn't have a heat-sink installed on it so it was probably good and hot sometimes which isn't good for it. I installed a heatsink a week before it died which is too little, too late. There's also no forced air cooling. Most's rated for 120 volts and I'm running 128 volts. The "pre-charge" system should protect it from premature failure but only time will tell. I have no idea of the quality of the rebuild. It's just a magic "black box" that's all sealed up against weather so I couldn't examine it. I'm betting that Flight Systems did a good job though.

I've driven for over a month since my last repair with no hassles. It's July 4th and I'm celebrating my independence from oil cartels, terrorists and Eco-Nazis. I've only fueled up my DeLorean once or twice since March. Just operating the car has not been "inconvenient" or required many changes in my day-to-day life. The act of plugging in doesn't really take any time or energy. Planning my trips to ensure enough energy or access to a plug has become second nature, much like a gas car owner plans trips to maximize fuel efficiency.

I guess if I have one real complaint about the car, it's that it is slow to accelerate. A more powerful controller and a slightly larger motor would fix that easily but it's more $$$ so I'm sticking with what I have. The top speed of 70+ mph suits me fine.

Idle Times

"The Navy is all about coitus interruptus"- me to a shipmate

My controller failure happened the day before I shipped out for a few weeks of sleep-deprivation, er, I mean duty with my unit. I spent the time wondering how I'd come up with enough scratch to pay for a new controller. It's very frustrating to put my life on hold to go play sailor/soldier. 4 more years until retirement.

When I got back, I found a half-dozen "wanna-be" controller contraptions on the internet. Most of these people didn't even respond to my email. Someone recommended a couple of companies to rebuild my Curtis 1221B- Flight Systems Industrial Products and Logitech systems down in Tejas.

I opted for Flight Systems because they were physically closer. The cheerful woman on the phone quoted me $500.00 for a rebuild. I took a gamble and mailed it off. A week later, it was returned to me in brand, spanking new condition. I installed it in 15 minutes and was back in action.

EV repairs are simple compared to conventional car repairs but they can be more costly. The question is, how frequent are these repairs? How will the equipment hold up?

Go/No Go

"Maybe Flight Systems can help you"- email

On into April and early May I drove without a problem. Every chance I got. I believe for an alternative to be mainstream, it has to stand up to consumer abuse and it has to fill a void without a whole lot of upheaval in a person's routine and it has to be safe. "Safe" is a relative term. Idiots are clever people and I've seen time and time again that you can't "Idiot Proof" a product. Someone will always find a way to use something "in a manner other than directed" and hurt themselves.

Nevertheless, my EV could use a few minor safety upgrades that the average consumer should have. I'll get to that later though. I've got a whole new problem to wrestle with.

In early May, I was 3 miles from home at a traffic light waiting to go. The light turned green, I depressed the go-pedal and the car moved- all of 3 inches and stopped. NOW what the hell is wrong?

I hit the hazard lights and pushed the car to the side of the road. 1100 lbs. of lead is freakin' heavy.
I was right next to a gas station (oh the irony) so I just kept pushing until I was in the parking lot. I pulled out the only real tool you need for an EV- my trusty multi-meter. With a little book-learning, any numbskull can isolate an EV failure. You might not be able to fix it right there, but you can figure out what's wrong.

Symptom: Motor fails to run.

1. Is the pedal sensor sending the control signal to the motor controller?
a) Set meter to Ohms and check for 0-5k Ohms on the pedal wires. Yep. Next:
2. Are all battery cables still connected? This is a simple visual check. Yep. Next:
3. Is the main contactor (which connects the battery to the motor controller when you turn the key) working? Click, click. Yup. Plus, I measure 128 volts going into the motor controller.

Ok, so you have power. Power is going into the magic controller. The pedal sensor IS telling the controller what to do. Is the magic controller awake and sending any power to the motor??

4. I put my meter on the magic controller outputs and there was nothing, nada. So the controller is dead. This took me 10 minutes. It's just like figuring out plumbing. Where does the "water" stop flowing? Goes-inta's and Goes-outa's.

Yay. Simple. Except Magic Motor Controllers cost anywhere from $1200 to $2500 dollars.


The big toaster

"I still don't think you understand how it works"- vendor email

After my onboard charger's spectacular death, I began researching alternatives. The vendor of my original charger is a private individual who builds them in his own shop, no assembly line, no "customer service" department. I emailed back and forth with him for a while and gave up on him.

First of all, he's convinced that everyone who buys his product is an idiot and that if his charger fails, it's automatically the fault of the user. I can understand how he came to be this way. After all, he constantly gets email and phone calls from people who don't know what a voltmeter is. I -understand- how he got to be this way, but I don't -condone- that attitude. Basically what I got from him is that he's too busy building new units to repair mine anytime soon. At $1550.00 for a new one, I started looking for a cheaper, simpler alternative.

The Zivan NG3 charger is "EV's for Dummies". It's built in Italy. You send the vendor your battery specs and they program it for you. You install it in your car and that's it. No adjustments, no hassle. I picked the 110 volt 15 amp version. It'll charge the car more slowly but I can plug in to any 110 VAC outlet and not worry about tripping someone's circuit breaker. This means flexibility. After all, when you look around, just how many 220 volt laundry dryer outlets do you see around? Not many.

My new charger arrived in a week. It cost me $950. Yes, the price of EV components sucks but they're supposed to last a long time. IF you design the car correctly that is. I made damn sure that the cowl vent was sealed up tight before I put the new charger in. No more rain water intrusion. The new charger doesn't have some of the features of the old one like multi-voltage inputs, adjustable amperage output, blah blah blah. I never used those features anyway. Still, this charger is very "smart". It's computerized and automatically turns off based on the battery's condition, not just a timer, it can tell if the battery pack is disconnected, it will shut off on an over voltage or under voltage condition from the wall AC voltage or the battery DC voltage. It has a single LED and gives a variety of beep codes to help you understand what's going on.

In the EV photo album, it seems to be one of the more popular choices. You can check all the other cars that use the Zivan charger here:

I've been running it since the beginning of April without a hitch. Just plug it and forget it, like a big toaster.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Great Balls 'o Fire

"Do I still have eyebrows?" -me

As I dissected the E-bug it became very obvious to me that the car was only driven and not "maintained". At least not the electric-drive portion. Dry batteries, non-functional instruments, and some questionable segments of wiring and that wasn't all.

The charger needed adjustments to properly charge the new batteries I had finally installed. I still wasn't sure that I had set it right or even if the charger was working properly. I opened the trunk and noticed a wetness on top of the charger. I looked up and noticed that the trunk vent wasn't properly plugged and that the charger lives right beneath it. Shhhhhhh!!!t. But it's all puddled on top and none has gone into the charger which is not weather proof. So I mopped it up and vowed to fix the vent.

A couple of days later I'm convinced that the charger isn't shutting off after finishing the charge like it should. No wonder. Water probably got into it at some point in the last 2 years before I owned it. After changing some settings, I plugged the car in to see if things work right. Nothing. I didn't hear the sound of the cooling fans spooling up. I pop the trunk and see the power breaker is off. Well I must have left it that way while making adjustments. I flipped it on.

For a brief second I heard a zzzzzZZZZZZZZTTT and saw a white light inside. I didn't dare touch it for fear of shock and then a ka-POW! and a hot, white ball flew out at me. So that's what plasma smells like.

The freaky thing? The charger still worked. It still won't turn off automatically though. It's an unknown quantity so I'm done with it. The next day I started researching replacement battery chargers.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Not a Drop to Drink...

"Why don't you just start a used car lot?" - Friend

When I first bought this EV, I was told outright that the batteries were dead and needed replaced. The current range on these batteries: 2 miles.

As I was storing cash to replace the pack, I figured I'd at least check them out. Just for fun, I popped a cap off of a battery. Bone dry. Dry? Wait a sec... I popped all 4 caps on all 16 batteries and every single cell was bone-dry. No wonder it only goes 2 miles.

Well hell, distilled water is only .75 cents per gallon so I bought 4 gallons and added it to the batteries. In the end it took a total of 11 GALLONS of water to properly electrolyze the batteries. Talk about neglect.

Now for the scary part...charging. I had no idea what would happen if I tried to charge these severely abused batteries. Nothing? Explosion? Thermal runaway? A fire? I plugged the car in for 10 minutes and unplugged it. I touched every battery and interconnecting cable and nothing was hot. I resumed charging in 30 minute intervals for a few hours. Eventually I was confident and just let the charger finish.

The moral? Be kind to your batteries. Keep them clean and keep them hydrated.

Now here's a story for you...

I was browsing the ev photo album website: when I found a shiny red Bug named "Reba". Closer inspection showed that this HAD to be my car. Every little wiring and construction detail matched my car. I emailed the guy and he confirmed it. The batteries in the photo were the same ones still in the car. They were about 5 years old. At least a year past the normal lifespan. I took the chance to ask the builder some questions about the car:

1. Why 8 volt batteries instead of 6v? Doesn't this shorten the range a lot? Or does it?

2. I found a lot of other converted Beetles in the website. All of the 8 volt conversions claim to get a longer range and higher speed than yours. Why is that?

3. Why do I have to hit the toggle on the dash before I turn on the car? What are the household lightbulbs under the hood for?

He responded with some interesting answers:

1a. 6 volt batteries made the car a total slug. 8 volt batts gave it enough "umph" to keep up with traffic.

2a. The other people are overly optimistic about their cars. He was being brutally honest under his driving conditions and habits for range and speed.

3a. The Curtis 1221B controller is only rated for 120 volts total. The car has 128 volts total. This is overdriving the controller. When you first turn on the key, the inrush of current to the controller capacitors is beyond it's rated limit. The toggle charges the capacitors through the lightbulbs which are acting as resistors. This is much more gentle and within the controller's rated limit. The lightbulbs glow briefly and die out indicating that you're ready to drive. It takes about 3-5 seconds. If I had a 1231 model, I could get rid of all this pre-charging nonsense.

I was still skeptical about the choice of 8 volt batteries but I figured he knew better so I decided to stick with them. I found a distributor in Delaware who would deliver for free. Since Delaware has no sales tax, this was an added bonus. I researched 8 volt batteries and this is what I came up with in terms of cost and quality:

1. Sam's Club: 8v (110 min) Energizer- $63.00/ea Quality: Worst.
2. Trojan T-875- (117 min) from $134-114/ea depending on distributor. Quality: Best.
3. Trojan T-890- (132 min) from $144-159/ea depending on distributor. Quality: Best.
4. US Battery 8VGC- (121 min) $89.00/ea from Tri-State Battery Quality: Excellent.
5. Astro-lite Power Master (121 min) $83.00/ea from Tri-State Quality: Unknown.

Now the Astro-Lite is actually a Dekka battery from East-Penn manufacturing. Dekka batteries are often used by EV'ers and claim to be excellent quality at an affordable price so I bought these. The salesman could have just pushed Trojan's on me and made more money but he stated that these are excellent batteries that would give me performance and save me money.

Here's hoping.

The "new" older EV

"Wow...this is so much better" - me

After examining possible donor vehicles, I concluded that for my budget and engineering skills, going backwards would move me forward. Old Volkswagens make excellent conversions due to their simplicity, and access to open spaces for battery layout. I really wanted something sporty like the Bradley GT II sports car kit or a Karman Ghia but I needed something that seats 4 and Karman donors are rare and usually in very rough shape.

When I found this Beetle already converted for only $2500.00 I saw it as a chance to get my 4-seater and have my work done for me. It also gives me a chance to examine the engineering in case I decide to repeat the creation in a Karman Ghia later.
As you can tell from the picture, it's kind of anti-climactic. Unless you're a classic Beetle fan of course. These cars have survived for decades because of their sturdy engineering, their simplicity and practicality. Parts are plentiful and CHEAP. Aftermarket parts are available everywhere.
Here are the stats as it was when I bought it:
1. 128 volt system. 16, 8 volt golf-cart batteries (up from the paltry 72 volts of the old Comuta Van)
2. PFC 20 onboard charger from Manzanita Micro technologies. The charger alone is worth $1550.00. It can utilize any input power from 60 volts to 240 volts AC. It can output 12 to 360 volts DC at up to 20 amps. It's small and mounts onboard.
3. A heater! Thank God... It has a 1500w ceramic heater. It only runs when the car is plugged in but it makes for a cozy car in the morning and the heat usually lasts until I arrive at my destination.
4. DC to DC converter. This is an upgrade over using a heavy marine battery to power the 12v stuff like headlights, horn, etc. The converter taps the total battery pack and steps it down to 14 volts. This keeps the headlights bright, the wipers snappy and the horn good and loud. The SEVCON converters were built for underground mining cars so they're easily tough enough to withstand automotive use. It's also small and light and mounts under the back seat. It draws very little amperage and doesn't really affect your total range. It also prevents uneven discharge from tapping the traction pack at mid-point to get your 12 volts because you're tapping the total pack.
5. Advance DC 6.7" motor. This is actually a bit on the small side but I find that the car is fast enough. An 8" motor would have been better.
6. Curtis 1221B motor controller. Same as the Comuta Van. I'm actually 8 volts over it's limit but there's a fix for that. I'll explain later.
7. Instrumentation. 3 analog meters. 1 for 12 v systems, a 400 amp ammeter to show consumption, and a traction voltage gauge that reads up to 300v DC. The ammeter has failed and needs replaced.
The pans are solid and not rusted. I intend to paint everything with POR15 rust preventative just in case.

EV Mk II Mod I

"So you just gave up on the electric vehicle huh? You're just going back to gas powered cars and you're gonna screw all our kids by not leaving any gasoline for them?" -co-worker on a joking rant

It's hard to believe that my last post was only 7 months ago. It seems so much longer. Here's what happened in that time:

1. After my record of 2 months without purchasing gasoline, I concluded that my experiment was a success- That is, the ability to successfully use an electric vehicle for most of my daily driving.

2. I decided that the next logical step would be to construct or buy an EV that was more like a conventional car instead of a plastic cheese-box. It would be more comfortable, have greater range, more power and more advanced features.

3. I sold the Comuta Van for a tidy profit on eBay and bought a Bradley GT II kit car for conversion purposes. I then determined that this was a mistake as it only seats two and I decided I wanted more seating. The DeLorean is already a 2-seat sports car so at least I still have that.

4. I found a dead-in-the-water 1974 standard VW Beetle that had already been converted so I bought that as it seats 4 people and had the other features I was looking for.