Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Day Two

What a productive and enjoyable day we had. The morning class covered chapters 2 and 3 of Mike Brown's Convert It, and Mike showed a GM promotional video for the EV-1 from 1990. Then everyone was shown the safety stations in the shop and the non-technicians were trained on how to safely use the lift and other automotive tools. They were also taught safety procedures in case of battery acid exposure, eye injuries, and fire.

Over lunch Dan and Bill produced a plan for the battery layout in the van. Now we needed more detailed drawings of that -- and Mike triumphantly produced plans that he'd drawn up while back home in Turlock, based on the probable layout. He said, "If two groups come up independently with the same plan, it's probably a pretty good one." His drawings will help us arrange for fabrication of the battery boxes, and he also advised us on the thicknesses of aluminum and aluminum angle that should be used.

After lunch the work groups were let loose and there was a whirr of activity in the shop. The photos can't possibly do it justice! It was all happening at once!

Larry worked the hoist and Bill guided the batteries up onto the table and laid them out in the same configuration that they will be on the van in order to determine battery box dimensions. Afshin and Barry helped with the straightening and measuring.

Barry and
Larry developed a plan for attaching the motor to the transmission.

Peter and Lynn removed the Vanagon's transmission -- technically referred to as a "transaxle" -- under Dan's guidance. No easy job!

Dan is happily pointing out some Vanagon quirks to Bill, a former Vanagon owner himself.

Peter and Afshin worked together on the tough transmission bolts.

Paul is wrangling wires in this shot -- he and Kevin and Afshin had already
removed the fuel and emissions hoses and he was securing the wiring.

Mike continued to refine the battery measurements, using a spacer.

Mike, Bill, Frank (a teacher at the vo-tech who is kindly helping us out with some of the machining), Barry, and Kevin are listening to Larry, whose engineering background gives him an immediate grasp of the electrical components involved in the vehicle.

Speaking of which, I forgot to include a shot yesterday of the parts all laid out on their tarp. The engine has come off the left hand corner, and a big pile of (unlabeled) rags already seems to have sneaked onto the display tarp, but but we are trying to keep everything visible and accessible!

At the end of the day we debriefed, congratulated ourselves
on having gotten so much done, and made a list of supplies that will be needed. This is only part of it; there are two whiteboards this size in Bill's classroom. I teased Mike for putting an i-Mac on the list, but he really does need a computer -- his old one will no longer connect to the internet or print! He's doing what he can with overheads and a sharpie, though.

Monday, July 30, 2007


We are still waiting on a few bits of the Vanagon (electric heater components, DC-DC converter, and a Curtis "fuel" gauge) but they will be on their way soon and in the meantime there is plenty to work on. Today the class unpacked the first two shipments from EVAmerica, spread everything out on a tarp and labeled it.

There was quite a bit of discussion about the clutchless motor coupling and clutchless motor mount assembly immediately above. Mike has always left the clutch in when converting, and he's suspicious about removing it, fearing that without some inertia in the engine, pressing the accelerator pedal while the vehicle is in neutral could result in overstressing the engine and -- well, he kept using the term "blowing it up." There was much lively speculation about how the clutchless system might function safely, all of which was technically beyond me, especially because I was distracted by the blowing-up concept. I am looking forward to the resolution of this debate.
Confabulation under the van.

Meet the Students ...

Paul is an automotive technology instructor at Northern Tier Career Center in Towanda PA. He's thinking about starting an EV club at his school to teach students how to do these conversions. Given the limited amount of fossil fuels available, he says, EV technology is certainly going to be part of our future.

Barry is an automotive technology instructor at Dauphin County Technical School in Harrisburg, PA.. He lives in Schuylkill Haven, PA and commutes an hour to work each day, so a converted electric vehicle would not work for him personally! He is interested in the process, and looking forward to introducing this material to his own students.

Kevin is a student at Penn State University with three semesters to go before he graduates with a degree in energy/business/finance. He hopes to have a career in renewable energy consulting after graduation.

Afshin is an environmentalist and is trained as a mechanical engineer. He lives in the Mt. Airy area in Philadelphia, where many individuals are interested in alternative transportation. He has already converted his own car to SVO biodiesel (also known as a "grease" car, it can run on new or used vegetable oils), and wants to help a friend convert a car to electric.

Dan is an assistant professor at the Community College of Philadelphia in Transportation Technologies Management. He has worked both as an automotive technology instructor and in an autoshop. An environmentalist who loves Vanagons, he looks forward to someday living in a solar house with his own plug-in hybrid or a plug-in EV with a biodiesel hybrid for longer trips.

Larry teaches math, environmental science and physics at North Montco Technical Career Center. His professional background is as a marine engineer and he subsequently worked in the nuclear electric generation field with PECO. He says, “EV's have a place that is greatly overlooked in our society.” He points out that calling an EV 'zero-emissions' is misleading since the electricity generated by a coal-fired plant does create atmospheric emissions -- though utility plants do have lower emissions compared to individual internal combustion engines, because they're more efficient.

Lynn is a biologist by training and has been involved in environmental issues since high school. She works for the Pennsylvania Resources Council conducting environmental education efforts in schools in Philadelphia and surrounding counties. She has been interested in electric vehicles for the last couple of years and was actually considering investigating how to sponsor an EV conversion workshop herself when she found out about this one!

Peter is Lynn's son. He is entering his senior year at Masterman High School, a magnet high school in Philadelphia. He is interested in environmental issues and has done projects on biodiesel and green power for school. He loves the idea of an electric car.

We began the class today with introductions and a shop safety orientation for the non-auto professionals. Then it was onto the fun stuff: unpacking and labeling all the parts for the conversion.
Did I mention that the controller, cable and textbooks all turned out to be at the school, just not in the place we were looking for them? Whew. The incredibly helpful maintenance staff helped locate the missing shipments and we are ready to start converting tomorrow!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Mike Parker Arrives, Preparations Begin

Yesterday Bill Kirkpatrick and I drove down to pick up Mike Parker from AMTRAK's 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. It was so great to have company on the ride down and we were both excited and delighted to meet Mike in person at last. We had so much to say to each other that the ride from Philadelphia to Lansdale went really fast!

We set Mike up at the Morgan Hughes Homestead Bed & Breakfast and then brought him over to NMTCC to check out the workshops, classroom and conversion supplies. Here is Bill outside the school reviewing the directions for disarming the alarm system, since it was Saturday and the school was closed.

We got in with no difficulties and toured the welding and machine
shops, which Mike (a former precision sheet metal designer/mechanic and sometime machinist) pronounced "top-flight." We checked out the room for the workshop and Mike and Bill went over some of the plans and classroom supplies needed. Then it was time to hit the auto shop itself. I was thrilled to see my Vanagon again, and Mike and Bill were eager to dig into the conversion kit supplies and the batteries!

Some of the conversion kit items are still en route -- the battery cables, the controller, and the DC-DC converter among them. (If you're not sure what those items are, you'll learn along the way!) I was sweating a little about the controller, but then Matt reminded me that if all else fails, we can always take apart the Dodge Colt and use its controller instead. Still, I wish I'd ordered and inventoried these materials a little sooner so I had them all safely in hand now.

Bill and Mike were unflappable and assured me that no matter what, we're going to get this Vanagon rolling in ten days and have fun doing it. They can't wait to get going!

Friday, July 27, 2007

How it All Began, Part Two

Our learning about EV's took different forms. Matt got interested in the nuts and bolts (and wires and connections) and enjoyed fixing up the converted Colt. I, meanwhile, learned about the history of EV's and realized that here was an opportunity for activism and education. The movie Who Killed the Electric Car had just come out and helped kindle my conviction that we should dedicate our recently-founded enterprise Bucks County Renewables to promoting electric vehicles -- an existing technology that can meet the needs of many commuters, while reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

We couldn't bring the Colt to display at the 2006 Pennsylvania Alternative Energy Festival, but I made a movie about it to share at our booth, and I met Mike Ewall of ActionPA/Energy Justice Network, who came to speak to us about the importance of promoting renewable sources of energy to charge electric vehicles. Mike would later invite me to speak with him at a SEAC sponsored event at Ursinus College and help launch my new identity as an electric vehicle advocate.

Meanwhile, Matt and I had seen this video of the 2006 C2EC2T (Commuter Conversion Electric Car Class for Teachers) on the internet, and the idea to turn our Vanagon conversion into a teaching opportunity was born. We officially incorporated Bucks County Renewables as a non-profit, and I contacted Mike Parker and invited him to come East to teach a workshop.

Now I needed a place to host it, and within a few phone calls I had connected with Bill Kirkpatrick and Bernie Wagenseller at North Montco Technical Career Center, both of whom were enthusiastic about the prospect of hosting the class. By February we had the venue confirmed and it was official: the 2007 EV Conversion Workshop was open for registration!

Once the class begins on Monday, I'll introduce you to the students who have chosen to devote two weeks of their summers to gaining hands-on experience and theoretical instruction in EV's. Mike Parker is now en route to Philadelphia via Amtrak. Bill Kirkpatrick and I are picking him up tomorrow and then paying a visit to the auto shop at NMTCC, so I'll have some pictures of the "de-fossilized" van to post this weekend. I can't wait to meet Mike in person after so many email exchanges -- you wouldn't believe how much we've corresponded on the topic of crimping cable-to-lug tools and battery racks alone!

How It All Began

It began with a van billowing black smoke. I had just arrived at school to pick my daughters up from track practice. "Hey, did you know your van is -- " "Yes, I know," I reassured the third or fourth helpful person to point out the clouds of smoke rolling around the parking lot. "I'm just going to let it cool down a little and add some water to the engine. I'm sure I'll make it home."

But we broke down halfway instead, and my 1985 Volkswagen Vanagon was ignobly towed home, its head gaskets blown, to take up residence at the end of my driveway under a tarp. This was the third in a line of Vanagons I had owned -- all with names in their native German: der Schmetterling, die Schildkröte, and die Sprite, though the girls' friends all called die Sprite "the Peace Wagon" because it had "Peace on Earth" painted on one side in English and on the other in Arabic.

All of my Vanagons were wonderful fun to drive. All of them needed constant repair and were astoundingly expensive to fix. Die Sprite had been the oldest and least reliable of all. My husband put his foot down: "We aren't going to replace the engine! No more Vanagons! This time I mean it!" "I just had $1500 worth of brake-work done on it," I wailed. But he was adamant.

I sulked. I announced that if I couldn't have a Vanagon, the only car I wanted was a brand-new Toyota Highlander Hybrid. We could have bought three late-model Vanagons for the same price, but even that did not shake Matt's resolve. He was really tired of paying to fix my vans. Although the hybrid Highlander is of course not nearly as efficient as the Prius, I needed seven seats, and I felt good about our decision to get the most efficient seven-seater vehicle available.

But why couldn't we have a fully-electric vehicle as our second car? Our daily commute is 30 miles round trip, well within the range of contemporary battery technology. We began to talk about converting the Vanagon, but there were a few hurdles to overcome, like the fact that we don't have any automotive skills, nor a garage. When I saw an advertisement in Friends Journal for an already-converted electric vehicle, we jumped at the chance to buy it.

This EV is a 1991 Dodge Colt converted when brand-new by a fledgling EV conversion business in Florida. It belonged to Quaker environmentalists Anne and Tom Moore, passed from them to their nephew, and came to us in need of some reviving. Even with new batteries and charger, though, its 96V system does not give us 30 worry-free miles per charge. It isn't good for lead-acid batteries to be deeply discharged every time they're used. We needed a more powerful EV: an E-Vanagon.

to be continued ...