Low-impact Living at the Eldergrove Homestead

Our Transportation Options

Moving, Beyond Petroleum AND other fuels

"Speed is irrelevant when you are going in the wrong direction", M. Gandhi

Humans, being a social sort of animal, need to be on the move. On a biological level, we move about to gather food, whether from the garden, the fields, the farm stand, the local farmer's market, or the "big box" grocery chain. We travel to find a mate, some companions, or just a gathering of like-minded folks. We go off to "find ourselves" in the solitude of wilderness or to make a splash in a metropolis. We repeatedly relocate 5 days a week to trade our time for money, sometimes to satisfy our "needs", but often just to buy back the time to travel somewhere else. And sometimes we just travel about because we can, as an expression of free will, as a safety valve for emotional pressures, as a way to see what's out there, or as a form of personal re-creation.

Now, viewed objectively, our vastly swollen population travels far more than what's really necessary. And one of the things that defines us as humans is our use of fire; in this case, burning petroleum. But if it's easy, cheap, convenient, and safe, what's the problem? Part of the problem is the fact that we have usually turned only about one-fourth of the fuel into something useful, essentially wasting the rest as unused heat. After a century of burning up about half of the Earth's entire store of easy-to-reach, ancient, liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons in a ceaseless struggle for "economic development", the time may be long overdue to start looking for safer, saner, more efficient alternatives. Check out this informational graphic that shows the situation we are currently in.

And turning the 250-year supply of coal that the U.S. sits on into liquid fuel (syngas) simply releases that much more carbon into the atmosphere as CO2. Even the billion tons per year we're burning now is ridiculous! I don't care if you are a CO2-reducing, Global Climate Change fanatic or if you think it's all just a Big Government Conspiracy to take away your freedom, there are simply too many humans on this planet literally burning up too much of a non-renewable resource increasingly quickly. At some point a sensible person has to move beyond how they feel about cutting back on their energy use, and beyond what they believe about the latest scientific findings or the intent of governmental bodies, and just face the facts!

About 28% of all energy consumed in the U.S. is used for transportation. Petroleum is getting increasingly less cheap, both at the pump and in terms of the total social and environmental costs. Deep-water and tundra drilling is getting deeper and more desperate as demand and costs rise. Tar-sand crude is corrosive and abrasive to an already crumbling infrastructure of pipelines from Canada. The natural gas vehicle fuel alternative proposed by T. Boone Pickens is just a rich oil-man's self-serving advertisement for putting more money in his very deep pockets while "fracking" (injecting beach sand, precious groundwater, and a stew of toxic chemicals into deep shale deposits to push out more oil or natural gas) the heck out of some areas and strip-mining sand from others.

Automobiles cost a bunch to buy, maintain, insure, license, park, drive, house, and dispose of, not to mention the environmental costs involved in mining their raw materials, the energy cost of manufacturing and transporting them, and building and maintaining ever-expanding roadways, bridges, parking lots, etc. In the Twenty-First Century they have become a quaint anachronism, and a threat to the planet. As mere consumers or dependents (really, just parasites), we are sucking the Earth dry of its stored energy!

In addition, the roads and streets are far less safe where infrastructure is based solely on large motorized vehicles, most of which are essentially high-speed "tanks", luxurious "cocoons", or high performance NASCAR "wannabees". When the morning and evening commutes are clogged with cretins in cars, where's the convenience? And what does "easy" get you besides more time sitting on your stagnant behind, followed by a drive to the fitness center to burn those unused calories? What would your area look like if the economy were based on local trade, less transport of goods and labor, and less reliance on petroleum or other non-renewables?

In the book, "The Transition Handbook - From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience" by Rob Hopkins, you can get a sense of one of our possible futures. But just looking at it from the view of someone trained in engineering, any structure (like a form of transport) is composed of dead weight (the vehicle) and live weight (the passengers). Our former car, a 2001 Toyota Prius, weighed 2837 lbs. with a full tank of gasoline. With Larisa and me in the car the total went up to 3137 lbs., with 300 lbs. being our approximate live weight. So, just considering the movement of weight through a distance, we were about 9.6% efficient in moving ourselves around using the Prius. Our latest gasoline-powered cars, a 1996 Geo Metro, a 1999 Chevy Metro, and most recently a 2001 Honda Insight Hybrid, all at 1830 lbs. are better, but still only 14% efficient at moving our human cargo.

The latest high-efficiency (84/49 highway/city miles per gallon) gasoline-powered vehicle that showed some promise as a mass-produced model was from Elio Motors. It is a tandem 2-person, 3-wheeled, 55 horsepower, 3-cylinder, front-wheel driven, fully enclosed "car" weighing around 1200 pounds. Adding Larisa and myself brings the weight up to 1500 pounds and we achieve 20% mass-moving efficiency. Not bad! I hope that it actually goes into production by the fourth quarter of 2018 as currently projected, but funding remains a problem thanks to low petroleum prices. With an single rear wheel available to swap for an electric hub motor wheel assembly, this looks like a great vehicle to turn into a parallel hybrid (84 mpg gas car at highway speeds, 100+ mpg electric car at speeds under 35 mph).

Compare this to our electric trikes (more on these below). With them we use a 65 lb. vehicle to move 150 lbs. of human, making the trikes about 70% efficient at just moving mass around (and they run on sunshine and muscle power instead of gasoline!). Or to use Hopkin's example, 10 gallons of gasoline is equivalent to about 4 years of human labor. So traveling 8600 miles per year in a Prius averaging 43 mpg year-round burns 200 gallons. With 2 humans in the car, that's 40 years of our combined labor used up in a year, mainly to move 2837 lbs. of dead weight. Time for a new paradigm!

So what WILL work to really reduce our vehicular planetary impact?

Start by doing something! We do this on a "poverty income" so what's YOUR excuse?
  • Learn to NOT use a car when you can. Walk, jog, run, bike, scooter, use the bus, carpool, take the train, work from home, etc.
  • Think about what you could do for a living that is meaningful, fun, and good for local economic health, from somewhere near or at home.
  • Recycle a fixable gas-saving car or convert one to renewable fuels. If you can't fix it or convert it don't drive it!
  • Work on vehicle maintenance, improved lubricants, and your driving habits to get better mileage.
Petroleum is such useful, and possibly soon to be much harder to economically extract stuff. It can be converted into so many different compounds. It's really terrific as a lubricant in machinery. Why do we persist in treating it as if it were worthless by just burning it? What can we do instead?

I doubt that biofuels are the answer. There are simply too many vehicles and people using them. Ethanol makes a great anti-knock fuel additive but there's not really enough of it to burn it as the sole fuel in your tank. Previous estimates about ethanol indicated that it's 15% "better" (meaning higher octane rating, more oxygenated, etc.) than gasoline. But the January 2008 article in Science magazine by Scharlemann and Laurance indicates that biofuels actually accelerate global warming! And ethanol is less energetic per gallon than petroleum-based gasoline, actually reducing gas mileage. As we are forced to use incrementally increased, government-mandated ethanol blends we subsidize the petrochemical and agricultural chemical industries, and chemical corn "farmers", at the expense of everyone else.

There is only so much arable land, sunlight, and water, and removing all of the top growth (for cellulosic ethanol) along with the fermentables/oils (for corn ethanol or biodiesel) starves the soil of organic matter. Corn is an enormous feed source for all that cheap beef in the U.S. and as commodified "#2 Yellow Dent" it's a strategic resource on the "carrot and stick" side of foreign policy. Dead soldiers and oil-country civilians, along with a huge national debt partly caused by unfunded (no new taxes!) oil wars, are the "stick" side of that policy.

And all of you folks getting the free vegetable oil from local fryers that usually gets recycled as animal feed, burning it straight in your converted diesel engines, won't be doing so for long. Increased demand will cause it to cost something, then cost even more. So how do you feed the cars, trucks, people, and other animals from a dwindling resource? Something's gotta give!

Fuels are part of a global economy, so the transportation decisions we make affect all parts of our local economy as well as those around the world. As "needs" increase exponentially, so will prices. As oil prices go up, the oil companies drill and/or export more oil. The price at the pump goes up and people start to complain and cut back on driving. Then the price falls due to lower demand and people start to consume more again. Around and around we go through cycles of "boom and bust". Meanwhile, people forget the reasons for these cycles and presume a conspiracy on the part of "Big Oil" to limit the sales of a "limitless" asset. Yes there's a conspiracy: To take profitable advantage of the stupidity and short-sightedness inherent in human nature, whether it's done by speculators on Wall Street (as in the price spike of 2008), or by an oil/mining conglomerate raking in record profits while collecting government hand-outs for the depletion of their resource (all while reducing refinery output and not investing in new refineries).

A fuel and your money are soon parted!

Recent automobile advertisements have featured someone going from gas station to gas station looking for a half-price special, day old gasoline, etc. wondering why it is never discounted. Good point! Maybe it's because you are essentially hooked on petroleum and the oil companies very much know it. As the petroleum industry reminds us daily, your 401k retirement plan most likely has petroleum stock in it for optimal return on investment. We have invested elsewhere. Hydrocarbon-fueled hybrids, biofuels in general, nuke/oil/coal-powered electrics/fuel cells, synfuels from coal/"garbage", and even renewably-powered electrics/fuel cells are all just stop-gap methods to make up for the fact that we are all just too soft and lazy to take personal responsibility for all of our transport needs. True, humans been this way ever since the first domesticated human slaves, oxen or workhorses. So how do we realistically chip away at these "needs" if we still decide to use a combustion-centric vehicle?
  • REDUCE YOUR SPEED (twice the speed = at least 4 times the power required!!!)
  • Reduce vehicle weight (load-appropriate vehicles; don't cut butter with a chainsaw!)
  • Lighten the load you're carrying (including your own weight!)
  • Reduce vehicle frontal area (smaller "face" to the wind; forget the boxy vehicles except for in-town use) See note*
  • Decrease drag coefficient (more streamlined, less airflow turbulence, fewer protrusions) *
  • Decrease rolling resistance (higher tire inflation, LRR silicon rubber compounds, etc.) See note ** 
  • Increase power conversion efficiency (full, high-voltage, not "mild" hybrids, electric motors instead of fuel-burning engines, and see more below on synthetic lubes, etc.)
  • Reduce trips and distances (combine errands, work from home, plan more efficient routes, reduce cross-traffic turns, carry a folding bike for in-town errands)
  • Lower acceleration rate ("leadfootitis"; this is transportation, not a race, not an emotional outlet, and not a video game!)
  • Keep your speed constant when cruising (internal combustion engines run best at a specific, stable RPM)
  • Look ahead for stops and coast down in speed (drive like a bicyclist; make the terrain and inertia work FOR you)
  • Use renewable energy (wind/solar/human, etc. for power or for "refueling") See note ***
  • With any vehicle you need to reduce friction and other parasitic energy losses and you need to improve efficiency. In combustion cars this means using synthetic, Teflon (PTFE) or molybdenum-based lubricants, changing air filters frequently, and using some sort of hardened, high-end spark plug (we have used iridium plugs with great success).

* Note: A website that lists most vehicle frontal areas and drag coefficients can be found by Clicking Here.

** Note: An Adobe PDF file on tire rolling resistance of some brands is available by Clicking Here requires a free download of Adobe Reader).

*** Note: If you're interested in an awesome website (Electric Cars are for Girls!) with links to nearly EVERY site dealing with electric vehicles, just Click Here.

My Pet Peeves

Recent TV commercials sponsored by Mercedes Benz have featured someone touting the benefits of "clean diesel", saving the U.S. over 90 million gallons of gasoline per day if we would just make the switch. Sure, we would save gasoline, but we would end up burning more petroleum, since more gasoline can be made from a barrel of oil by "cracking" long chain molecules. So who do you think really profits from a switch to diesel, besides the car-makers? And who do you suppose will pay for the added health problems associated with increased smog (from added NOx emissions) and ultra-fine (PM 2.5) diesel particulates stuck more deeply in your lungs, the oil companies? Volkswagon certainly learned the economicand public relations cost of engineering their diesel emissions system to burn 40 times dirtier than U.S. standards while appearing to be ecological whenever on the testing rig. Click Here if you would like to see what the Union of Concerned Scientists, an information source with nothing to sell you, has to say on the matter.

And if you are complaining about high prices at the fuel pump, STOP BEING A BABY.
  • The Europeans have been paying 2-3 times as much as North Americans for years.

  • Necessity is the mother of invention, whether it's smaller cars, electric vehicles, more two-wheelers, three-wheelers, better infrastructure for non-motorized transport, or what-have-you. Petroleum scarcity and high prices are what will drive innovation.

  • It's a matter of supply and demand. Demand (drive) more and you'll pay more.

You think that drilling more domestic oil, in the arctic, on stormy off-shore rigs, carpeting certain areas with earthquake-causing fracking wells, or from energy-intensive, low economic return, highly polluting shale sands will actually reduce prices?  At what added cost in pollution, health damage, and climate instability? The price at the pump is loaded with economic "externalities". Are you aware of how little time risky and environmentally disasterous arctic drilling will buy us? Do you know of any oil companies that aren't multinationals? The oil goes to the highest bidder and if you are not it, that is just too bad. GET OVER IT! Let's move on and wean ourselves from our burning addiction to "cheap" energy, subsidized by sending your Federal tax dollars (the oil depletion allowance) to companies that are realistically only after higher profits, not healthy planets. Get free of fuels if and while you can !! 

Ride the Net, Not the Highways

One final note about saving on gas. Larisa (Spring, 2008) turned one of her part-time accounting jobs into a home-based business by signing up for satellite Internet access. Her employer paid half the monthly satellite bill, and she sent completed invoices to the main office printer via "PrinterShare", a free, down-loadable program found at PrinterAnywhere.com. The invoices traveled up to the ViaSat1 satellite, beamed down to Cheyenne, Wyoming, soared into a server somewhere, then headed by optical and copper cable back to the main office's waiting computer, and the printing began. So she did "virtual printing" in order to eliminate a 32-mile round trip to work in a sometimes noisy, crowded office, and all the hassles of timing, preparation, etc. involved in leaving home. Thinking trumps oil again!

Renewable, Self-Fueling Transportation (wholly or partly) - Several versions for different conditions, distances, and loads

Our first choice: A solar-charged, human/electric, plug-in hybrid for nice weather and short commutes (actually this one doesn't have the on-board solar panel, at Larisa's request, and has big "Harley-style" luggage bags instead). If you would like to see a brief Quicktime movie (Apple MOV file) of Larisa riding this thing in a "zero-to-24 mph test", without pedaling, just Click Here for a 3 MB download (free Quicktime player download required).

If you would like to see more detailed photos of the trike conversion, just Click Here for a free PDF file. Actually, as of early April, 2013, Larisa sold this trike. She bought a 26"-wheeled, semi-recumbent bicycle (very upright, pedal-forward design, with sprung gel saddle). She was using the trike to make a 10-mile round-trip commute on very steep, packed gravel roads to do bookkeeping at a nearby "industrial-Organic" farm, but recently stopped doing so. She now has something better suited to tooling around closer to home on "tractor paths" and poorer gravel roads. As long as she can climb a hill at a reasonable speed without feeling like she is wobbling around all over the road, the switch makes some sense. It will not be quite as comfortable, stable, or as good in winds, but it does handle/avoid huge potholes better, goes off-road, is slightly more visible to motorists, and is slightly more efficient in terms of rolling resistance (2 tires vs. 3, and taller wheels roll easier). So many variables! That's why there are so many different styles of bikes.

Personally I prefer bicycles, all kinds of bicycles.
  • They are made for smooth roads, potholes, or totally off-road.
  • They're designed for speed or load carrying, short commutes or long distance touring, singly or with others.
  • They burn a fuel you already consume willingly and usually without complaint.
  • They are three times as bio-mechanically efficient as walking, far easier on your joints than running, and can handle much rougher terrain than skating.
  • Even the most pricey are far cheaper than cars in every respect.
  • Maintenance is easy to learn and repairs or modifications aren't beyond the do-it-your-selfers.
  • They are made for any age and ability level, even including electric motor assistance as an off-the-shelf option.

Given our commitment to work occasionally, 12 hilly miles away, rain, shine or snow, we utilize a combination of transport options. Bob drives a recumbent "tadpole-style" (2 wheels in front that steer, 1 rear drive wheel) tricycle called the "Road", made by Catrike. (Technically speaking, they are 3-wheeled bicycles, as the "bi" refers to two legs, not wheels, going through circular cycles of motion). We bought it at the Hostel Shoppe in Steven's Point, Wisconsin, an excellent, fully stocked shop full of knowledgeable cyclists. The trike has a lightweight aluminum 6061T6 alloy frame, wheels, and components, along with 80-110 psi tires and 27 gear ratios. It is designed for high efficiency, a wide range of slopes, and maximum comfort. A recumbent bike is designed with the rider seated on a comfortable, padded, chair-like "seat", leaned back to a varying degree, and pedaling out in front of the body. This gives both maximum comfort and low aerodynamic drag (and with the low position of the trike, head-winds and side-winds are nearly unnoticeable).

The upside?

Hills are no longer such a big problem, both due to the high power output possible in this back-braced position, and because I can go as slowly as I want - even stop and restart! Trikes may have more rolling resistance because of 3 tires, but that's more than compensated for by putting less concentration on balance and more on power output. And with direct steering connections to the wheels instead of complicated linkages, the steering is like a race car. It's precise, self-centering, powerful, stable even at very high speeds, and easy to U-turn in a narrow roadway.

The downside?

People who are accustomed to upright bikes are concerned that they are less visible to automobile traffic. I've ridden my trike in traffic and I've found that people notice me MORE than if I were riding an upright bike, just because the trike is so unusual. And I ride with an orange flag flipping around 6 feet in the air. Plus I ride at the speed of the traffic flow, taking a lane instead of hugging the curb. My theory is, "If it's in the ditch, it's junk." Ride there and you'll get treated that way. Even at low speeds the trike is more predictable to other drivers since you can ride a straighter line. And when you stop at a light you aren't flopping around trying to stay upright, putting your foot down, getting it back on the pedal again, etc.

The trike has been modified by adding 1/2-inch thick, foam rubber pipe insulation over the seat webbing rails. Alloy frames normally transmit a fair amount of road shock. This option really smooths out the bumps, making gravel roads tolerable and rough pavement almost a pleasure! And since cleated cycling shoes are very limiting in terms of footwear, and the "Power Grip" straps used by so many off-road cyclists put your feet to sleep when riding in the recumbent position, I have loops of bike inner tubes attached to, and hanging below, my pedals. These act as heel straps, keeping my feet centered at the right height on the pedals. And the straps allow me to even out my pedal strokes by pulling back on the pedals nearly as much as I push outward (yielding up to 30% more power). The other major modification, detailed below, is the addition of a 36-volt electric hub motor and DeWalt Lithium Iron Nanophosphate batteries.

If you would like to see a more complete explanation of the "Lithium Lounger" project, just Click Here for a free PDF file download of the handout that was available from me at the Clean Air Car Show at the 2008 Midwest Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living Fair. And if you are interested in doing your own conversion, the complete summary of the conversion I did can be found by Clicking Here for another free PDF file download.

This is Bob's "TrikeTruck", the "Lithium Lounger" after electric motor conversion, with a trailer full of freshly-picked apples weighing around 150 lbs., and a couple of "24-volt" (40-volt max.), 10-watt solar panels behind the headrest, trickle-charging the batteries. The hybridization of the trike makes a quick job of hauling big loads around our neighborhood! More on this below, just scroll down to the next trike photo. Or choose one of the PDF downloads from the previous paragraph. And if you would like to see the detailed EVAlbum listing of our trikes, just Click Here.

Our Second Transportation Choice

Our solar-charged, plug-in electric vehicle conversion for warm but rainy weather, or when we need to haul more, or we are simply in a hurry.

This was our latest big electrical project, as of the winter of 2008. We converted a 1979 Porsche 924 into an all-electric, battery-powered commuter vehicle. It used 12 lead-acid, gel cell batteries and had a perfect-condition range of about 50 miles at 55 miles per hour. A slower average speed gave a MUCH greater range (up to 200 miles if you're willing to drive at golf-cart speed, due primarily to less air resistance and a battery phenomenon called "capacity offset").

It recharged from our newly expanded photovoltaic solar array (2100 watts) using an on-board, 120-volt AC, temperature-compensated, gel-cell charger, or directly from our solar (PV) panels. In this photo the driver's seat is removed to repair the upholstery. In the background is my neighbor's old restored VW Beetle. To see some other Porsche 924 conversions on EValbum.com, try these links: Steve Clunn's and Gary Dion's. You can see the EV Album listing of our car by Clicking Here.

It's Downright Un-American!

Many people seem really skeptical, if not downright angry, about the notion of a car that can only travel 50 miles at highway speed, then needs recharging. Think of it as a vehicle that's had bariatric surgery ("stomach stapling"). It takes smaller gulps of energy and is best fed more frequently. You think there's no charging infrastructure? I think that there are a lot more AC outlets, at least in any city/town, than gasoline stations! You think charging is too slow compared to gas fill-ups? Will your progeny still think it's slow compared to walking or bicycling once your generation has burned up all of the cheap, easily found fossil fuels?

General Motors did plenty of surveys back in the '90's, when building their EV-1, and found that this mileage range suited about 90% of commuters. The biggest stumbling blocks are related: owning, insuring, licensing, and maintaining a second car, and the initial higher cost of battery-powered transportation, especially if you want the absolute latest technology and more range. People seem to want a vehicle that can do everything, even though they typically own more than one vehicle per family. That's why the Japanese did so well by introducing hybrids, and why GM really stumbled with the electric-only EV-1.They learned their lesson with the Volt, as owners report filling their gas tanks very infrequently, relying on their 38+ mile electric-only range most of the time.

But re-building a cheap, used, possibly non-functional petroleum car into an electric that suits most of your transport needs makes lots of economic sense, even if you charge it from the Grid. We drove and insured the electric car about 8 months per year (mainly because batteries don't work well in extreme cold), saving our high-mileage gasoline car (seen below) for long-distance trips and the 4 months per year when it's just WAY too cold outside.

But why, you may ask, did we use such an old foreign sports car?
  • It is fairly light, for a car
  • It doesn't have computerized gauges & controls, and very few electric accessories that would lower our range
  • Being a production body it's already crash-tested and deemed road-worthy
  • With a high-voltage battery bank and motor it is capable of reaching high speeds quickly (to avoid crazy drivers)
  • It is registered, insured, and licensed exactly like its gas-fueled incarnation
  • It has a very small frontal area (for a car; riders on bikes are much smaller)
  • It has a very low drag coefficient (aerodynamic shape)
  • This combination gives us the range we need while keeping battery cycling below 50%
  • Its suspension can handle the weight of the batteries
  • Once the combustion-related stuff is removed, it has enough room for our needs
  • It has been stored in a heated garage for the past 18 years so there is almost no rust on it
  • It was fairly cheap yet drivable, so we could easily get it home
  • And there were 151,000 built (the most of any Porsche) with many cheaper, easier to find, VW parts on board.

What are the drawbacks? 

First there is the lack of all the "bells and whistles" people have grown accustomed to. But seriously, do you really need your car to be a cellphone, entertainment center, storage locker, and snack bar? Can't you just focus on driving safely? I like the idea of traction control, stability control, automatic parking, proximity radar, heated seats, GPS and navigation, climate zone control, gadget synchronization, satellite tracking, etc., etc. But it all comes at some cost and I am not just talking about money. Sports car drivers know what I mean! Sometimes you just want a car that acts like a car.

Then there are the actual battery drawbacks. These include:

  • Slow recharging, although 240/480-volt charges are available. Batteries all tend to prefer slower charging rates as they get more full. So most chargers are designed to get you fairly quickly to 80%, then slow down the charge rate. Capacitors charge quickly but actually have poor capacity and voltage per capacitor. Their huge voltage swings can be a problem for the motor controller so they are best used in combination with batteries.
  •  Poorer range as the temperatures drop, and this applies to all battery and fuel cell vehicles, converted or purchased new. This can be eliminated or reduced through the addition of, or substitution for, ultra-capacitors (which have their own unique problems). Or you can go the low-tech route using battery warmers plugged in (and sucking power) when you aren't actually driving.
  • You are dealing with more physical size and weight than your gas tank, even when it was full. Proper weight balance and suspension are major considerations. Lithium batteries have more capacity by weight than lead-acids, but they are pretty bulky. Sheer battery bulk, configuration, placement, and room for cooling can be factors in choosing a vehicle to convert.
  • Batteries are not as dangerous as a half-full tank of explosive gasoline vapor, but they still require well-designed mounts, strapping, temperature monitoring and control, and, in some cases, venting. Sealed batteries add a little more weight, bulk, and expense but they are a great choice for safety, convenience, and longevity.
  • The latest design; worth waiting for, and a great reason to do nothing! Seriously, I can't recall a battery discussion I've had that didn't include someone's comment about the latest design they just read about in the popular press. It will revolutionize energy storage. It's lighter, less bulky, cheaper, more environmentally benign, etc, etc. What they didn't see in the technical journals is that their favorite design only works at 400 degrees, can't be allowed to freeze, self-discharges rapidly, has low power output or longevity, etc., etc. Waiting for the Holy Grail of batteries just leads to easy excuses for inaction! If you have to wait for anything, make it an affordable used electric production car. They are increasingly easy to find. 

And do not forget to keep the total design in mind!

I recently met a man who intends to rebuild a 4WD Subaru into an electric conversion in Montana. The added weight of trucks and SUVs does mean more room for batteries and better suspensions to handle the weight but there are some other trade-offs. Besides the gnarly roads he wants to drive (that add even more tire friction to some already high rolling resistance tires) he will be dealing with increased air resistance (that will sap range and top speed), hauling more range-killing weight up the hills, the added mechanical resistance of the 4WD system, and the cool temperatures that batteries dislike. Getting any kind of range will mean using lithium batteries and ultra-capacitors along with a fast charger and lots of monitors, so this project will not come cheaply!

We actually built a previous EV conversion, a hybrid no less, in 1992. Using an Oldsmobile Firenza with a blown engine, we added a G.E. motor, 96 volts of reconditioned nickel-iron (Ni-Fe), "Edison" batteries made in the 1950's, a Curtis 1220C controller, and an 11 HP, 6500 watt, gasoline generator that started from the "start" position of the key-switch. Mistakes were made and lessons quickly learned.

Lesson #1: don't pull recycled 4/0 cable through EMT (electrical metal tubing) if it is a tight fit. The car would not climb over 25 mph because a repaired spot in the cable insulation got cut by the inner metal seam of the EMT and caused a high resistance short that wasted most of the batteries' power. We did not discover the problem until the car was torn apart and the parts recycled to other EV enthusiasts. And the generator added SO MUCH complexity, weight, noise, vibration, space deficit, etc. Never again!

Further details on the Porsche are posted at the bottom of this page, or you can download a free 20-page PDF summary of the project, including numerous photos (about a 5.4MB file) by Clicking Here.

This Was Once our Third Choice

A modern gas/electric hybrid for our cold, icy winters, for added passengers, or for trips over 50 miles; not self-fueling or a plug-in electric, but it was OK, for a car. This was our recycled 2001 Toyota Prius, discussed further below. If you would like to see all 8 detailed photos of the trike rack on top, Click Here for a free download.

Our former gasoline-powered car, the Junkyard Prius

Back in 2010, if we needed to be somewhere distant, at a specific time, hauling a large load or added passengers, or in really foul weather (or some combination of these) we rode in our 2001 recycled Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid car. In mid-2002, as we were thinking about how to improve our automobile situation (we were using a 1983 BMW 318), we reviewed the currently available electric and gas/electric hybrids. "Think", a company in Norway, was about to market an all-electric car in the U.S. market called the "Think City". But soon after this Ford bought the company and scuttled the program except for a few lease situations (their better idea!). So we looked again at hybrids and really liked the Toyota Prius. But on our income it didn't seem possible to buy a new one. So we decided just to keep our eyes open for any used ones that might be available (even though we knew how unlikely that was because of high demand and low supply).

While taking a load of rusty steel to the local scrapyard using a neighbor's pickup truck, we just happened to be driving down a street that went past an automotive salvage yard. We found a Prius in front of the building sporting a sign reading "$5500, AS IS". It had been purchased by the junkyard at an insurance car auction. It looked great but it wouldn't start. It had been in an accident. The tires were bald, it hit some ice in a curve, and the entire right side was scraped against a guardrail. Then it spun and mashed the left front end. The insurance company sold it because the dealer's estimate for additional repairs (after doing $7500 in body work) exceeded a reasonable limit. But the dealer's highly trained technicians, and a Master Mechanic flown in from California, misdiagnosed the car's problems. If you'd like the fully detailed story just Click Here for the free Adobe PDF download.

Anyway, instead of requiring a new power controller, or "inverter", to run the electric motors, the existing inverter simply needed 3 skinny wires repaired. They had been bumped out of position during the accident. Toyota's technician, didn't understand that a car's components only communicate when all the connections are complete! Diagnostic computers couldn't solve what I fixed in 15 minutes using a simple continuity checker. We saved nearly $13,000 by recycling this car. And since most of the energy a car will ever use is consumed in its production, that alone is possibly sufficient to justify the car's use. But it does two other things very well. It produces roughly one-tenth of an average car's tailpipe emissions, and it gets great gas mileage (double our previous car's best).

The Real World

Since the focus of the Prius is lower pollution, it needs to maintain a hot, very reactive set of catalytic combustion devices in the exhaust system. So when the weather is very cold, the gasoline engine needs to run more than it does in hot weather, just to keep the emissions down. In our case this means an average tank mileage of around 38-40 mpg when it's below zero F., and around 47-52 mpg during the Summer. So even at its worst, the Prius doubles the mileage of a non-hybrid, gas-powered car with the same power output. Put in terms of overall efficiency a standard gasoline car ranges from 20 to 25%, diesels do a little better due to higher energy density and compression (with a huge pollution penalty) and the Prius runs up to about 37%.

A fine example of the inherently better efficiency of electric motor drive systems over fuel-burning engine drive-trains can be found by comparing two luxury cars, the "Cadillac XTS" and the "Tesla S". Motor Trend Magazine recently published articles about both, including their respective energy consumption figures at highway speed, listed as kilo-watt-hours per 100 miles. The figure for the Cadillac was 120-125 kWHrs/100 miles while the purely electric Tesla was 37 kWHrs/100 miles. Why did the electric car, which weighs more, which carries two additional (small) passengers, and which costs only slightly more use less than 1/3 the energy for the same task? Put simply, it doesn't waste most of the available energy as heat and planet-altering pollutants. It burns no fuel, and if it is recharged from a solar/wind/hydroelectric system it can be powered completely from renewable energy. Beat that, Detroit! Hopefully Chevrolet's new all-electric Bolt will give Tesla some competition.

Still, if you want a purely electric or hybrid vehicle do not buy it new. Only a small privileged clique can afford a Tesla. You will save more energy by either recycling any fairly fuel efficient vehicle, converting it into an electric vehicle, or by cutting back on riding in your car in favor of driving a bicycle (or trike)! In other words, Don't Cut Butter With A Chainsaw! Use the appropriate vehicle for the trip, in terms of speed required, length of trip, comfort level needed, and the load you are hauling. If you want something cheaper, the best option is still rebuilding a car with a dead engine, making it an electric conversion. A number of companies offer parts, plans, etc. One of my favorites is Grassroots EV.

The Really Real World

You don't think that your current car pollutes very much? Care to bet on that? You can calculate it yourself by Clicking Here to reach an online comparison tool, with data from GreenCars.com. You enter your present car (or any other) and engine type alongside one of the modern hybrids (use the Prius if you really want a shock). You enter your yearly mileage, the cost of gas in your area, and even your driving habits. You get a breakdown of yearly cost, along with emissions of carbon monoxide and dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates (soot) and unburned hydrocarbons (smog). Very revealing!

Our trusty Prius decided to become troublesome after 8+ years of service (you like diagnosing problems on your computer? Try working with 8 networked ones on the Prius!) so, rather than spend a bunch of time and money repairing a problem we could not fully diagnose or afford to fix, we sold it on E-Bay. The new buyer has the time, the funds, the equipment, and the heated shop space that we lack.

Meanwhile we contacted a fairly local mechanic who specializes in rebuilding old Geo Metros (Suzuki Sprint, Chevy Metro, Subaru Justy, among other brand names). He refurbished a 1996 Metro with 3-cylinder, 1.0L engine and 5-speed trans-axle which we picked up in May of 2011. Both the average and highway mileage figures were nearly equal to the Prius, mainly due to the smaller engine and 1100 pounds less weight to haul around. Before changing to iridium plugs, synthetic oil, synthetic trans-axle fluid, or synthetic wheel bearing grease, our first tank of gas (in combined highway and short-trip city driving) averaged 50 mpg. Our second tank, used mostly for very short, cold-weather trips without full engine warm-up, averaged 37 mpg. Our yearly average was around 43 mpg, the same as our Prius. So hybrids usually win in city driving, but how many cars can even attain 37 mpg in highway driving? Does yours? Have you kept records of miles driven and fuel purchased to verify your on-board car computer's computation?

A further update on our current vehicles (January, 2014)

After a few years driving the 1996 Geo Metro it became time for a complete brake rebuild, including new rotors, drums, pads, etc.. The cost coupled with the overall rustiness of the vehicle made little sense. So we traded it in for a newer, FAR less rusty 1999 Chevy Metro with 30,000 fewer miles. We had originally though that we could "limp by" and wait another year for the Elio Motors trike that we reserved in May of 2013, but bad brakes and a very rust frame cannot be ignored. It was nice knowing that we could safely continue to get top-notch mileage for another year or two, until we could double it with the Elio!

And still more updates (June, 2015)

When the Chevy Metro needed its front control arms and ball joints replaced we decided to see if our neighbor would finally be willing to sell us the red 2001 Honda Insight Hybrid I found for him 7 years earlier. He kept complaining about its lack of acceleration, despite averaging around 50 mpg. So we've parked the Chevy for repairs and we purchased the Honda, with 275,000 miles on its engine and a faulty hybrid battery (IMA) system for $1000. After several weeks of work it was a fully functioning, solar charged, plug-in hybrid, getting an average of over 60 mpg. You can read all of the details on our blog.

And yet more updates (October, 2015)

Finding yet another red Honda Insight, this time a 2000, again with a poorly functioning hybrid battery, for $500 was a real fluke. I just happened to be reloading browser passwords in Mozilla Firefox and chanced upon a local Craigslist ad that was only 22 minutes old. Once again we reconditioned the battery pack, did some minor repair and maintenance work, and ended up with a car with 125,000 fewer miles on the engine. The 2001 Insight was sold back to my neighbor when his Toyota Avalon refused to start. He really likes the Insight again now that its hybrid system works! 

And yet more updates (March, 2017)

Now thinking that perhaps the Elio autocycle we pre-ordered would never actually make it into production, and thinking that parts for a 17 year old car that was never a big seller would become harder to find, wouldn't it be prudent to have a "parts car" standing by? The $500 Insight was supposed to be that car, so we looked for another red Insight and quickly found one for sale nearby for $1800. The price seemed high but it had been fanatically maintained and extensively modified for higher mileage. It had four mounted snow tires and and four high-mileage summer tires. It had a custom-made bicycle rack for two bikes. It had its external mirrors removed and replaced with panoramic internal mirrors for an extra 3 miles per gallon. And it had after-market cruise control with the "MIMA" (manual Integrated Motor Assist) circuitry added to enable a motivated driver to stretch mileage even further. Needless to say, with its improved mileage, and after the usual work to recondition its battery pack, this 2001 Insight has become our automobile of choice. Perhaps the 2000 Insight will become an all-electric in the near future......

Some additional sources: 

  • ElectricRider - electric add-ons for bikes, U.S. importers of Crystalyte motors & controllersSunBicycles - recumbent bikes and others

  • Bikes at Work Inc. - makers of heavy-duty, lightweight bike trailers

  • Catrike - very lightweight, efficient, responsive, and stable tricycles with "direct steering"

  • Terratrike - ditto, especially the "Zoomer" and "Zoomer Elite" models

  • Inspired Cycle Engineering - makers of the "Trice", a folding trike with rear suspension available in 2 heights

  • HP Velotechnik - makers of the "Scorpion", rear-suspension trike

  • KTA Conversions - providers of electric car conversion parts, in California

  • Wilderness EV - conversion parts and kits, specialists in VW and Geo Metros, in Utah

  • Electro-Automotive - conversion parts and kits, in California

  • Elio Motors - Prototype 3-wheeled car slated for mass production in mid-2014. Check them out on Facebook!

The Historical Archives

Our Latest Project (9/01/2005)

We've just begun restoration work on a 1971 G.E. Elec-trak all-electric garden tractor. It uses six 6-volt deep-cycle batteries for motive power and to power a 3-motor electric mower, or a 36-volt, 30-inch rotary tiller, a front blade, and a 1-bottom plow. We plan to charge it using three, 120-watt photovoltaic (solar electric) panels, using the excess capacity that our PV panels supply in the Summer. We will keep you updated on the progress of this journey to further replace our oil-driven machinery with renewables.

Latest news (10/31/05)

The G.E. Elec-trak is now up and running. Wiring was repaired where it got damaged from contact with the drive motor pulley. Then the two smallest relays that the previous owner replaced got rewired so they no longer caused a short circuit in the instrument cluster. Overfilling the batteries had caused massive acid spills in the battery compartments, requiring some extensive cleaning, rust conversion, priming, body putty, metal backing plates, and a final double coat of brushed-on truck bed liner. The entire unit was repainted with 2 coats of Sunburst Yellow Rustoleum paint. The mower and rotary-tiller also got the yellow paint, plus the mower's underside got 2 coats of epoxy enamel. The old batteries got recycled and replaced with 6 U.S. Battery, T-125 golf cart batteries. We added another Kyocera KC-120 PV panel to our solar electric array and wired three of the closest matching (amp-wise) of the panels with switching that allows us to change their output to "36" volts for tractor charging or "12" volts for home use. So we now have an all-solar means to mow trails, till the garden, plow up additional soil if needed, and grade the gravel driveway, plus it's so quiet and fun to operate!

At this point (October 2006) we've done mowing and rotary tillage from April until late September. No problems! It's so quiet that our cat walks nearby when I'm mowing. Since battery capacity on the lead-acid cells decreases with temperature, we have retired the Elec-trak until next Spring.

The Latest Project (January 2007)

We're currently working to outfit Larisa's Catrike with a Crystalyte Phoenix "Racer", 36-volt DC hub motor (from ElectricRider.com). It will be a wheel replacement for her current 20-inch rear wheel (so she can remove it and swap with her current wheel for normal bike riding). It will use four DeWalt, 36-volt, lithium "Nano-Phosphate" batteries, mounted in a pair of removable, side-mounted racks attached to the bike. We're modifying the charging procedure so that the batteries can accept either an external 36-volt input from our solar panels (all four batteries charging at once), or use the standard AC charger on individual batteries for occasional "balancing" charges. Using nano-particles, the battery can handle much higher charging and discharge currents since the electrode surface area is so much higher. Full charge on a single battery with the AC charger occurs in 1 hour, but full charge on all four batteries using the solar panels should occur in only (depending on discharge) 2 hours! Top speed will be around 24 mph plus whatever the rider exerts, but Larisa will use it mainly for climbing large hills on a 5 mile commute to a nearby land cooperative. Range will depend on how fast she wants to climb and how much she pedals with it. I'll post photos, along with more performance data, when it's completed.

Latest Electric Trike Update (May 25, 2007)

The trike runs great but we've just gotten the last of the four DeWalt batteries and I haven't done range trials yet. Acceleration is phenomenal! With almost 4 Lance Armstrongs at the rear wheel, each weighing about 8 pounds, pedaling up hills is so easy! Charging on solar is equally flawless. I switch 2 of our Kyocera KC-120 panels to series configuration to achieve around 40 volts, open circuit. When the batteries are discharged the charge rate is around 4 amps or so into a 36-volt load. As the voltage rises to 38 volts (full batteries) the charge rate tapers to less than .25 amps and trickle charges. The next step is finding a couple of 12-volt, thin-film, amorphous silicon solar panels to mount on a lightweight framework above the rider. The idea is to shade the rider while continuously charging the batteries when the sun is shining. This will make it a truly autonomous vehicle!

Latest Electric Trike Update (June 16, 2007)

This is an overview of the trike. I don't have the solar panels on it yet, but I found a couple of "24-volt" (about 39 volts, open circuit) half-amp panels at the MREF this year. The panels are made by Innovative Energy Systems, and are model VC-5. They are multi-crystal silicon strips mounted under thick plastic and over a stainless steel sheet. I may just mount them over the battery box. This is a straight-on front view showing how everything fits nicely behind the seat. Also note the cat paw prints on the Catrike seat! If you'd like to see 4 pages of photos showing more details of the trikes, just Click Here for a free download of the Adobe PDF file. And if you don not have a copy of Adobe Reader, just Click Here for a free download of the program.

This is Bob's Lithium Lounger hybrid trike after bringing home a trailer nearly full of apples. The old Burley trailer has some heavy-duty 110 psi tires and its hitch is slightly modified to compensate for the weird rear triangle frame angles on the trike. The sun is refueling the batteries and the rider is getting refueled on freshly picked apples! This is the business side of a DeWalt battery pack with the A123 Systems nano-particle lithium cells. It's a 10-cell pack with a resting voltage of 33 volts. The upright slots near the bottom left and right are the main power contacts, with battery management (BMS) pins in between. The main negative is on the far left. The main positive is the far right. When charging in DeWalt's charger, the BMS pins allow for cell balancing, which should be done occasionally in any series pack if you want maximum output and no cell damage due to voltage reversal. The alternative, which I usually use, is to top off the charge very slowly using a trickle of amps from a solar panel. The nano-particle electrodes allow these batteries to charge or discharge at up to 60 amps (each) without overheating, gassing off, or exploding. Don't try this with any other lithium battery! To see an excellent article comparing all of the various lithium battery technologies, from the IEEE, just Click Here.

Update on Sept. 18, 2007

Both of our Catrikes are now converted to human/electric hybrids, both using four DeWalt iron-nanophosphate lithium batteries, wired in parallel for "36" volts (33 resting volts) with 9.6 amp-hours capacity. Bob's red Catrike has the added cruise control that makes hill climbing just a little bit easier. With cruise, you don't have to hold the throttle position, saving all of your concentration for pedaling and steering. Bob's trike also got the two solar panels previously mentioned mounted behind the headrest, above the batteries, making one of the trikes fully autonomous (riding or parking it in the sun automatically charges the batteries)! Top speed without pedaling is about 24 mph on the level. For range estimation, picture a top-notch cyclist putting out 300 watts of effort. That's full-blown, flat-out, lungs gasping, legs burning effort. Now do that for an hour, and that's what the batteries can do! Add leg power and you extend the range. Add sunshine and the on-board PV panels can take the batteries from empty to full in about 18 hours, or extend your range while traveling.

Update Fall 2007

We would be doing more biking, but in mid-August of 2007 we received a 500-year rainfall event, giving us over 22 inches of rain in under 24 hours, and over 44 inches in 36 hours (official measurements from a nearby Minnesota Dept. of Transportation rain gauge), most of it in a few hours at night. And the rain came after a few previous days of 2-inch rains, fully saturating the soils. This led to massive flooding, even on the ridges, washing out roadways, carrying away bridges, huge mudslides on steep hills, you get the picture. We're fine, with no garden damage and only a badly rutted gravel driveway (that mostly ended up on our porch and flower beds) that took a few days to repair with large rocks from a neighbor's "field rock" stash and lots of regrading with a tractor and blade.

But roads are now improving and we're resuming some commutes and exploratory trips. The hybrid trikes are performing better than expected, are charging quickly and easily, and are more fun to ride now that the weather has cooled.

Update June 2008

At this year's Midwest Renewable Energy Fair I was displaying and demonstrating the "Lithium Lounger" at the Clean Energy "Car" Show, near the entrance to the fairgrounds. It was a lot of fun to "hot-dog" the trike around the entrance area. And I was interviewed by both newspapers and television reporters. But the real jolt for me was seeing the light bulb snap on over people's heads when they realized that this was serious transportation. I built the first trike conversion so that Larisa would have a local commuting option besides our Toyota Prius. But it had to have the range, battery longevity, hill-climbing ability, and speed to be a serious replacement. We achieved that, and at the Fair you could see women nudging their husbands and commenting, "Why don't we convert our bikes like that?" And people who had injuries/surgeries on their legs, backs, etc. were looking at the electric assist and commenting about how this could put them back on bikes, getting some much-needed exercise that actually takes them somewhere. No fuels but food and sunshine, no license needed in our State, and the ability to get somewhere with relative ease, comfort and efficiency: the human-electric hybrid as a Freedom Machine!

Latest Project: July 22,2008

This is our latest replacement for a petroleum-powered tool. It's a Makita UC4030A AC electric chainsaw, running on a 36-volt DC-to-AC inverter. The inverter is a Tripp-Lite APS3636VR, and it is plugged into the 36-volt electric tractor via a 50-amp "range outlet" wired directly into the tractor's main DC switch. The full combination is VERY quiet, completely portable. The chainsaw is VERY smooth-cutting and quite fast for an electric saw. Plus there's no more gas to mix and no foul smoke in my lungs or clothing. Now we can hitch on our wood-hauling wagon, drive electrically out to the woods, quietly cut trees into easy-to-carry lengths for loading, and drive home to buck the wood into stove lengths. Another plus: the 60-pound inverter, mounted low and centrally, gives the tractor a lot more traction on wet slopes. It was an expensive addition to the tractor (around $1000 for the saw and inverter) but the tractor was obtained for only $100, with another $400 spent on new batteries, paint, etc. In short, this makes work fun! To see additional photos of the tractor-inverter-saw combination as an Adobe PDF file, just Click Here for a free download.

Latest Project: December 2008

Our electric Porsche conversion project began with a search in the local, weekly, used-car paper, found at a nearby grocery chain (I was there for a meeting, not to buy anything!). I opened right to an ad for a 1979 Porsche 924, 50 miles away, for $1200. We thought about this for over a week before calling the number, then connected with the owner and drove over to buy it. Driving a real sports car, with its low center of gravity and perfect weight distribution, is definitely a "gas"!

But several local "gear-heads" have given me grief over ripping out a perfectly good gasoline engine (with only 70,000 miles on it) to install an electric motor. Well techies, comparing the peak horsepower of an unloaded gas engine to the loaded continuous horsepower of a motor is quite misleading. The output curves are very different. Try comparing torque at low RPMs and you will partly see why we prefer the electric motor. The other factor is efficiency. A petroleum-fueled car is about 24% efficient at converting gasoline or diesel into motion, while a "series-wound", DC electric drive system is roughly 80% or better. Any other questions?

So, after MUCH research and laborious calculation on the ideal combination of battery weight vs. capacity, speed, acceleration, safety, and range for our local driving needs, we found a couple of websites that make the calculations pretty simple. Just Click Here to get to the EV conversion webpage that probably gives the more realistic prediction. And Click Here to see a PDF file (from their webpage) of the actual calculations generated by this program for our Porsche, using Bridgestone B381, low rolling resistance tires. I used different, but highly similar, controller and battery options in the calculation. The results should be identical either way since I keep the tire pressures up near their listed maximum. Note that I expanded the data on the second and third gear ranges since these are the gears we will use for city and highway driving, respectively.

After finding the right combination of weight, motor (Warfield WarP9), and battery voltage, we shopped around for batteries on the Net and locally. The local deal was by far the best! A local farm store chain (Fleet Farm) sold Deka Dominator, 12-volt, 98 Amp-hour (20 hour discharge rate) gelled-electrolyte batteries for $150 each, with a quantity discount for a large order. We ordered 12 for a nominal 144-volt system, a programmable, 144-volt, 10-amp gel battery charger (QuickCharge, from Oklahoma), and a complete kit of motor, controller, DC-DC converter, etc. from Grassroots EV. The motor adapter also comes from them, custom-machined to fit our car.

We went with the gelled, lead-acid batteries for very specific reasons. These include:
  • ready availability, in-stock, only 11 miles away, and made in the U.S.A.
  • low initial cost, especially compared to the nickel or lithium-based alternatives, reliability, high quality, and predictable performance characteristics (unlike many Chinese-made offerings),
  • very high impact, vibration, and corrosion resistance
  • easy recycle-ability, at any local place that sells batteries,
  • safety (no venting of explosive gasses and no risk of acid spill even when punctured),
  • good cell voltage (2.15 V/cell, 12.85 V per battery) and pre-packaged in a 6-cell battery, unlike the nickel cells that are around 1.2 V/cell, but not as good as the 3.3 V/cell of the lithiums,
  • the ability to leave them uncharged for days, or even weeks without sulfation damage (don't try this repeatedly with "wet cells" or AGMs or your capacity will get reduced pretty quickly),
  • "cycle life" (1000 discharge cycles to 50% capacity vs. 370 cycles or less for Absorbed Glass Mat or "wet cells"),
  • extremely low self-discharge rate (only 1% per month!), while still featuring:
  • very low internal resistance, due to improved plate and cell interconnect design, very pure lead and electrolyte, etc.  
Cycling Ability v. Depth of Discharge (for Deka batteries)

                                                 Typical Life Cycles:                        
Capacity withdrawn:              Gel Batteries       AGM Batteries
       100%                                 450 cycles          150 cycles
        80%                                  600                   200
        50%                                 1000                  370
        25%                                 2100                  925
        10%                                 5700                 3100

The are only four negative aspects to these batteries:
  • like all lead-acids, they are heavy for a given capacity (840 lbs. in our version)
  • they have to be charged with a voltage regulated, temperature compensated charger,
  • they must be kept over -22 F, or -30 C, or the electrolyte can freeze,
  • and they are the most expensive lead-acid battery when compared by capacity.

If you would like to see a simple comparison of deep cycle cells, just Click Here. If you want all of the technical details, just Click Here. Lead-acid batteries are about 98% recycled and 99.9% recyclable ("human nature" accounts for the difference). The competing technologies simply are neither fully debugged, nor anywhere approaching affordable, for full-size vehicular use in an "electric only", non-hybrid, highway-speed vehicle. They include:

  • nickel-iron "Edison Cells" (hard to find; variable quality; poor acceleration and only 70% charge efficiency; expensive; low, 1.4-volt cell voltage means lots of cell connections)
  • nickel-cadmium cells (expensive; memory effect limits discharge; cadmium is toxic waste; prone to sudden cell failure; low, 1.2-volt cell voltage means lots of cell connections)
  • nickel metal hydride (expensive: many increasingly hard-to-obtain, rare-earth metals used; large self-discharge rate; need cooling system for both charge and discharge; low, 1.4-volt cell voltage means lots of cell connections)
  • and lithium types (VERY expensive; variable quality; need tight electronic charge/discharge control over each cell; need cooling during both charge and discharge; terrific cycle life and cell voltages)
In our case, if we wanted to double our range at 55 mph, to 100 miles instead of 50 (on flat ground with no wind), using lithiums we would have to spend at least 8 times as much for batteries. We would carry the same amount of weight but we would need a bigger car, since the double-capacity cells would have more volume. I think we will let the "Big 3" car makers (U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium, if it still exists if/when the Big 3 go "belly-up") with loads of research money develop and mass-produce a better alternative before hanging out on the "bleeding edge" of technology.

As it stands, we have spent $1788 on lead-acid batteries which, if we use the car four times per week, allowing only a 50% discharge on each use, using it for 30 weeks per year, will last about 8 years before recycling. After that we will see which battery technology has survived the competition of the marketplace.

And what is the point of trying to reduce your carbon output if you charge your EV conversion from the grid? Sure it's cheap, compared to burning petroleum, and the emissions are way lower (about 70% as high in carbon emissions) if you control them at one coal smokestack instead of millions of tailpipes. But do not even bother talking to me about "clean" nuclear power. Talk to your great-great-great-great...grandchildren about your current preference for forgetting about nuclear waste as you wait another 20 years to get additional nuclear facilities online, at a cost/kilowatt 3 times what you are paying now (if the high petroleum-fueled energy demands of mining uranium are not eclipsed first by "Peak oil"). If you are really serious, why not just buy your power up front and make it renewable?

So in line with this, we have upgraded our solar system to have enough PV panels to keep up with the charging rate of the car. This involves 5 more 130-watt Kyocera PV panels, additional wiring, more switches to move power around, and an Outback Flexmax 80 Maximum Power Point Tracking Controller. There is more about the upcoming changes to our solar system on our Solar Electricity page.

Latest News (January 18, 2009)

The WarP9 motor arrived two days ago, which just leaves the motor adapter, the controller, the DC-DC converter, the power brake vacuum pump, the gauges, the battery terminals, and the tachometer sender to accumulate. They are being shipped at various times from now until the second week in February. It got down to -35F here two nights ago so I'm glad that the batteries were here and stored indoors! Needless to say, we are hoping for warmer weather to start stripping the Porsche of its Internal-Combustion-Engine-related components ("de-ICE-ing" in EV terminology).

Latest News (February 13, 2009)

It's still pretty cold here but most of the car conversion parts have arrived. Moving clockwise from the top left, you see the 12-volt power brake vacuum pump, the Iota DC-DC converter, the 1000-amp motor controller from Logisystems, Anderson power connectors, the tachometer sender for the motor, the main power relay (or contactor), the main power fuse, the throttle ("pot-box", or potentiometer that tells the controller how much to send to the motor), the "shunt" that tells the instruments around it how many amps are flowing through the power wiring, the voltmeter, ammeter, and amp-hour meter, and two of the 24 tinned, cast copper battery terminals. All that's left to arrive is the machined motor adapter, coming from Florida. Wish us some warmer weather!

Latest News (March 11, 2009)

Last Friday I finally finished the last of the 50 steps required to remove the engine from the Porsche. The electric tractor is blocked in place on our icy driveway and a cable winch is being used to ease the engine hoist forward to pull the clutch from the drive shaft. This was a slow and careful operation since I needed to make sure that the drive shaft splines were undamaged. The new coupler that adapts the electric motor to this shaft is still under construction. I sent the folks at CoolGreenCar.net a tracing of the actual face of the flywheel housing so they could make sure the holes for the adapter plate are correctly positioned. Here is a closer shot of the engine being raised using a hoist borrowed from our next-door neighbors. The engine, cooling system, exhaust header, muffler and pipes, fuel pump, gas tank, air conditioning parts, power antenna, and associated wiring all came out within about 3 days. Now I'm working on fixing and adjusting all the little electrical and body-fit problems. Like the doors and rear hatch that didn't quite close right, the plastic speedometer gear that cracked and wouldn't operate the odometer, rewiring the tachometer for the electric motor's tach sender, etc. It's about 10F and very windy here today so outdoor work is on hold.

Latest News (June 1, 2009)

The conversion is complete! The Porsche now is solar-charged from our photovoltaic (PV) panels, out-accelerates its gasoline fueled past incarnation, and is quieter than the tires it runs on! You can download a free 17-page PDF summary (updated frequently) of the project, including numerous photos (about a 5MB file) by Clicking Here.

Latest News (August 2, 2009)

After using the electric Porsche for awhile some modifications began to make sense. We're currently rewiring the battery bank so that we can charge it directly from our solar array instead of using an inverter and the on-board AC charger. We will be plugging it directly into the same cable that runs from our Outback MPPT tracking controller to our electric tractor, but running it into the car as "48-volt" DC (the controller is easily switched to 12, 24, 36, 48, or 60 volts). And we are adding two 6-battery shunt regulators that keep each battery topped off without overcharging (which can lower battery capacity). Charging batteries in series always leaves the possibility of unbalanced cells, and the shunt regulator simply bleeds off a tiny bit of power from each battery that reaches its peak voltage before the others. The alternative is a much more expensive parallel charger.

Latest News (October, 2009)

We have suspended the insurance on "Sunshine" for the winter and parked it in our shed, plugged into its "48-volt" DC umbilical cord, from which it gets the occasional boost from 3 of our solar panels. And if winter nighttime temperatures are forecasted to be -22F or lower we use the house AC inverter to pump electricity to the heat tapes mounted under the batteries.

Latest News (Summer 2010)

The Porsche is doing very well, especially since I just rebuilt the rear drum brakes and set the parking brakes properly. But we continue to find that having to climb a monster hill on the way home really reduces our projected range. Instead of getting 50 miles at 55 mph the reality with lead-acid batteries is closer to 40 miles. Still, that gets us to town and back with enough left to return to town again. It's more than we need but it's also prudent not to run the batteries completely dead. I had thought about adding a tiny gasoline generator to boost battery voltage when climbing the big hill, but reviewing the cost, noise, complexity, inefficiency, pollution, etc. led me to be more creative. We tried various routes back home from Winona and found one that was less frantic speed-wise, even though the hill climb was on crushed rock. The gravel is well-graded and smooth, almost as good as pavement. And the trip is only slightly longer than the high speed, all paved, most direct route. We end up with about 5% to 10% more battery capacity left when we get home. Much better!

We are back to being a two-car family after the recycled 2001 Prius got re-recycled to a new owner this past winter. The new owner managed to fix it for less than $2500, but with aging batteries that cost another bundle, we decided to pass it on. Besides, fixing a car with eight (yes, 8!) on-board computers that prefer talking amongst themselves instead of revealing their dirty diagnostic secrets to mere mortals just seems pointless.

We bought a rebuilt 1996 Geo Metro that is not as quiet or quite as powerful, but the seats are actually more comfortable and it is certainly peppy enough, given that it has 1100 lbs. less bulk to haul around. The mileage has actually been slightly better than the Prius' so far. And we just switched to iridium plugs, along with synthetic oil, trans-axle fluid, and wheel bearing grease. It's hard to find other cars that can easily exceed 50 mpg on the highway these days, hybrid or not, especially using a blend of 10% ethanol. And this one has only one computer. So far, we're quite happy!

Latest News (Spring 2012)

With a year of driving on the Geo Metro we can now offer a year-long tank average for driving it in the frigid Upper Midwest: 40 mpg. So this combined mileage is still better than any any new car available except the Toyota Prius. Not bad for one-tenth the price! We will be using the electric Porsche more this year due to a parking area with a charging outlet where Larisa and I work once/week in Winona. It's nice to have a place to "top off the tank" while we are in town.

And we just attended a "launch party" for the 3-wheeled, pedal-charged, single-person electric commuting vehicle that Bob worked on last year. Bob (at the far right) helped with design of the power-train while a half-dozen others worked on project funding and coordination, body design and construction, chassis design and construction, and the pedal charging computer/user interface. Its unique design should help to ensure the acceptance of its patent application. We can hardly wait to see it in its road testing phase!

After investing $1000 this summer as a down payment/reservation on a new fall-of-2015, Elio Motors, 3-wheeled, 2-seat vehicle, we have continued to follow the progress of the company on Facebook and through e-mail updates. They remain on track for production to begin in the third quarter of 2015, so at some point we will be driving an 84/49 mpg gasoline vehicle. Those of you who have followed my postings on their Facebook page will have noticed me repeatedly mentioning my idea to convert the car into a low-speed electric hybrid vehicle for city driving. Using a 48-volt, 60 amp-hour, lithium battery pack weighing about 80 pounds we would be able to make our 25 mile round-trip to town at under 35 mph using home-generated (solar PV) electricity alone, even in cold weather. Or we could go faster on the highway portion of the trip using gasoline and save the electricity just for city driving. $3500 would buy the needed electric hub motor for the single rear wheel, the batteries, the battery management system, the AC charger, the DC-DC converter, and the regenerative motor controller. If the hub motor has too much drag ("cogging force") when unpowered we may refigure the components to use an off-hub motor. This may seem a lot to pay for a hybrid upgrade that doesn't reach highway speeds, but it would quickly charge directly from our PV panels, eliminating the more gas-guzzling portions of our trips. And with a base price of only $6800 we can afford to make it even more "green".

Latest News (January 2014)

Our Porsche 924 electric conversion is now for sale. We just couldn't deal with owning two cars, one for winter and long trips, and one for short 3-season commutes, especially since the Elio Motors trike, rebuilt into a hybrid, should replace both. The Elio Motors trike, prototype #4, has just been revealed at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah and it looks much more refined. The fenders, rear end, headlights, and front suspension have been greatly improved in terms of aerodynamics. The rear hatch is bigger, with a slightly wider rear end in general, rear passenger glass is bigger, and the driver's area is much more functional. At this point the projected production date is September of 2015, depending on  the availability of a government loan, so hopefully we will have an Elio to hybridize in about a year and a half or so.
Stay tuned!