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!


Tim-n-M said...

I too have a 1985 Vanagon. I have looked several times on the web for ideas with converting minde to an EV. It's great to see you guys are doing it. I wasn't sure if my Vanagon was too heavy. When you are finished I would love to learn how you did it, and maybe attempt it myself out here in Walla Walla, WA. Good luck.

jisaacs said...

tim-n-m, we'll be happy to share what we've learned. Vanagons pose some particular design challenges for an EV, but they also have many advantages -- including being engineered to take the extra weight of the batteries without the need of modifying the springs, and plenty of room for them! Bill says we're ready to go into the electric Vanagon consulting business after this project. So keep in touch!


Unknown said...

We are on our 2nd vanagon after being married for 13years. I, the husband, understand! This van is fun to drive but needs fixing every year!

Our transmission is on its last legs and we really would like it to be an EV!

Did you keep the transmission? Hope NJ works out very well. We are in Rochester, NY and would love to convert, help in this movement. We are right in the middle of "who killed the electric car" and are very motivated.

jisaacs said...

Hi Charlie -- yup, fun to drive, needs (expensive) fixing every year, that pretty much describes our Vanagon-owning career!

The transmission stays in the conversion, though the clutch flywheel assembly goes, leaving us with a "clutchless transmission." Seems to work fine, though the existing transmission is so deafeningly noisy that we've decided to replace it with an eBayed one. Hope to be able to report soon that our EV is actually quiet!

Keep in touch, we're happy to share details from our experience! You can post comments to the blog (I get alerted whenever that happens) or email me at

Thanks for following along,


Unknown said...


Can you please send me any information on how to convert my VW vanagon of similar vintage?
I just blew the head gasket and figure this is a good time to do the conversion :)


Unknown said...

PLease send it to pete at medweb dot com

Miguel Khoury said...

Hi Jenny:

My 1988 vanagon has over 245k miles on it, runs like a dream, and drinks gas like it's nobody's business. I saw "Who killed the Electric car" last night, and now I want to convert.
Can you publish a "How To" Manual?



Anonymous said...

How far can one go in a converted vanagon between charges? I own an '84 in great condition but would love go electric...can't wait to learn more

jisaacs said...

Miguel and Anonymous, I hope the detailed posts that follow will give you a general sense of the conversion process for a Vanagon. I'm sorry the blog doesn't offer a more technical step-by-step account of the process, but I will refer you to the textbook we used for the class, Michael Brown and Shari Prange's *Convert It!*

The focus of *Convert It!* is on small cars and some of the information is a little outdated, but it gives a very detailed explanation of the conversion process assuming very little automotive expertise. The students found it handy to consult.

Meanwhile there are lots of wonderful resources online to guide you through a conversion. My favorite is hosted by Jerry Halstead and featuring a wealth of information and documentation. While the site is only infrequently updated these days owing to a new baby, a knowledgeable community is still actively posting and will be pleased to help you with technical questions.

Of course we stand ready to do so too -- meaning I will convey your question to guru Bill and have him answer it!

For those of you in the Seattle area who'd like hands-on experience with EV conversion before tackling your own project, heads up! There will be a 6-day class offered at South Seattle Commmunity College in June, taught by the above-mentioned Mike Brown & Shari Prange. There's a free information evening about the course on April 23. You can also get more info by calling (206) 764-5339 or reading more about the class where I found out about it, at

I will do a blog post specifically on What We Learned About Converting Vanagons next, I promise. Stay tuned!