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.