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.