Tuesday, October 23, 2007

EV Gloom

All right. This was meant to be a joyful post: over the weekend, Bill (with the kind help of his brother-in-law Steve Hood, of Elgin, Illinois) installed the repaired motor AND a rebuilt transmission into the e-van.

The new transmission (in the fabricated box it arrived in) goes into Bill's car Thursday night, after a lovely dinner with Bill & Margaret at the Porterhouse Brew Pub in Lahaska.

A peek inside the box.

By 10 a.m. on Saturday, Steve and Bill have the motor and the old transaxle off the van.

The new transmission, we anticipated, would reduce operating noise, and the rebuilt motor, of course, would actually spin (unlike the old one). And they both worked fine when I came to pick up the van on Sunday. It drives much more quietly now! Yay! BUT ... there were some hitches.

Bill emailed me that he had taken the van out for an 18.6 mile test drive and then the "fuel" gauge indicated that it needed to be charged. (This is about 25% under the range that we're hoping for.) He charged it up overnight and when we picked it up the gauge read full. I was going to drive the vehicle home and Matt had plans to head off elsewhere with the girls, but fortunately he was still behind me when I noticed that the gauge had dropped a bar after only a mile. We conferred by phone and he decided to keep following me -- a good thing, because in a couple of miles the gauge dropped another bar.

It was clear we weren't going to make it home, so we changed course and headed over to our friends at Peace Valley Lavender Farm and Bucks County Aikido to check things out. Although the van drove nicely initially (keeping up with traffic on the 611 bypass) its performance deteriorated as I drove; the voltmeter showed 80 volts in the pack and dropping as I accelerated, and by the time we crossed over Ferry Rd at 313 and hit a long hill the van was creeping along at just a couple of miles an hour. We stopped and let it rest for a bit, then Matt nursed it the rest of the way to the lavender farm, which is nestled along the shores of Lake Galena -- a picturesque place for a breakdown, anyway.

Peace Valley Lavender Farm.
The view from the farm.

At the farm Matt checked out the charger and concluded that it had been accidentally set to the wrong setting, so the batteries had not been charged up. The gauge likely reset itself to "full" at some point during the process -- it does that, he's observed, if you throw the circuit breaker off and on again.

We set the van up to charge over night at the farm (with a big thank you to farm & dojo proprietors George and Patti Lyons, who have been incredibly supportive of our EV experiments -- this is far from the first overnight charge they've generously provided us!). Then we headed home. I was pretty glum. I'm prepared to face the known disadvantages of driving an EV -- the dignified acceleration, the limited range -- but the idea that the gauge I rely on to let me know how much charge is in the batteries can't be depended on is very discouraging.

Monday evening we returned to the farm. The plan was that I would drop off Matt to train in aikido and he would come home in the van, but that was not to happen. When he checked the van to see how the charging had progressed, it appeared that it didn't finish the process: the gauge still read just under half a charge. The voltmeter, though, showed that the voltage in the pack was good, so apparently some juice had gotten in. The question was how much range did the van have?

We didn't want to risk Matt breaking down on the way home later, in the dark, so he skipped aikido and drove home immediately, with me tailing him. The e-van performed well and kept up to speed nicely, so evidently the batteries did receive a charge -- but once again, the gauge wasn't reporting this crucial information! It was hard to have confidence that it was going to make it. My heart was in my throat the whole time.

We charged it overnight again and Matt will take it out for a test spin in the middle of the day today. Seems to me that the poor range and peculiar charging patterns are the same behavior we were witnessing back in the early part of September, before the motor died. Perhaps there is a bad battery in the pack, or there's something wrong with our charger.

More trouble-shooting will need to happen before we can say for sure, and in the meantime, I'm feeling baffled and frustrated. It's kind of dispiriting (and not especially environmentally friendly or convenient) to own an EV that inspires so little confidence that it has to be followed by an escort car at all times!

So today, I am finding the notion of the plug-in hybrid a lot more attractive than I used to. I used to think it was kind of silly to use batteries to push around a big old heavy internal combustion engine, but now I'm not so sure. (And let's not forget those little luxuries that are associated with the ICE, like heat, defrost, even air conditioning for those that use it ...)

A friend (and faithful reader) has just reported from the Austin, TX Maker Faire that Mike Harvey of Harvey Coachworks was part of the team helping Cal-Cars perform their Open Source Plug-in Hybrid Conversion Demonstration. Could there be a plug-in Prius workshop in Bucks County Renewables' future? Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, thanks for following along ... even with the whiny posts.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Elastic Definitions of "Tomorrow"

It would be easy to go back to my last post on September 24 and change the sentence "I'll be posting a complete update tomorrow" to something like "I'll be posting a complete update next month" or "before 2008." Blogger technology does allow one to cover one's tracks that way.
But I have been leaving it as written, in the hopes that mounting guilt would finally prod me to post that promised account of the Energy Festival. I should know by know that guilt isn't a goad to action -- it's dead weight that only adds to inertia, or the tendency of a body at rest to remain at rest.

Like the e-van, this blog has been inert for the last month, but this week it's springing back to life upon receipt of the good news that the replacement motor has been delivered! On Thursday I'll bring a new transmission down to Bill and this weekend the two should be reunited and the e-Vanagon back on its feet -- er, wheels.

So it's time to post a few photos and that long-awaited report on the 3rd annual Pennsylvania Renewable Energy and Sustainable Living Festival in Kempton, PA. I can't deny that it was a disappointment not to be showcasing the e-Vanagon there. It was a gorgeous weekend, and Philip Jones of MAREA and the EEVC did an amazing job putting together (for the first time at the festival) a Transportation Tent featuring alternative transportation solutions. The tent featured 26 display vehicles and three days' worth of presentations and forums on alternative fuel technology.

Display vehicles included a converted Volkswagen pickup truck and 1986 Ford Escort, as well as a home-brewed plug-in hybrid Chevy S10. Production EV's were also on display; the Boyertown Museum of Historical Vehicles shared a 1919 Detroit Electric Coupe and a mid-century electric scooter, while collector Don Young brought a 1968 Mars EV and a GE Elec-Trak electric tractor from the same era.

Besides pure electrics, numerous examples of hybrid technology were showcased, including a diesel-electric school bus (one of only eight in the country) that serves the Nazareth PA school district. Penn State showed off one of the few surviving GM EV1's, which was converted by their Hybrid Hydrogen Research Program to a fuel cell-electric hybrid, while Toyota also showcased a fuel cell-electric hybrid Highlander. Several Priuses were on display thanks to fervent owners from Massachusetts, including Jesse Rudavsky -- who has driven his first-generation Prius over 322,000 miles on all original batteries, transmission, engine and motor -- and the hypermiling evangelist known as the Hobbit, who showed off his mpg-increasing mods and offered a workshop on optimizing Prius mileage.

Biofuel vehicles were also well-represented at the tent. There were several demonstrations of biodiesel brewing, and Fossil Free Fuel of Pittsburgh offered two one-day workshops during which a farm tractor and a car were converted to run on WVO.

Meanwhile, of course, dozens of other informative workshops and lectures were taking place on topics ranging from renewable energy to sustainable agriculture to green building. The vendor hall was full of displays from green businesses and nonprofits, the farmers' market did a brisk business in eggs, meat, vegetables, wool, and other products from small PA farms, Arm-of-the-Sea Theater brought its touring "Turtle Island Medicine Show" complete with masks and giant puppets, and -- unlike at most festivals -- the food was healthy, largely local/organic, and served up in compostable disposable containers! My whole family loves this festival. The setting (nestled at the foot of Hawk Mountain in Kempton, PA) could not be more beautiful. I recommend it unreservedly -- if you have a 2008 calendar, pencil in the weekend of September 20 & 21 and join us next year!

Now, a few pictures (I did a bad job of documenting anything but the electric cars, I'm afraid -- I don't know what I was thinking, guess I was too busy running around visiting our favorite exhibitors: Bogansky's Milk and Honey Farm, Sheep Shelter Farm along with our friends Grace and Natalie Carabetta, Woodsong Hollow Farm, Clothesline Organics, Hundred-Fold Farm, Joyce Moore Financial Services, The Heat Shed, 3 Sisters Center for the Healing Arts, The Farm at Coventry, Renewable Energy Solutions, and Close the Loop, to name a few!)

The Mars II Electric Car, a production vehicle manufactured in 1967 on a Renault body. Don Young bought this car in 1975 and used it to commute from school at Ursinus College in Collegeville PA to Palm PA -- he says sometimes his friends had to push it up the big hill on Route 29 to get it all the way home! Don has recently restored it to operational condition and it was great to see it rolling ahead of us during the alternative fuel vehicle parade.

Phil made up spec sheets for all the vehicles on display. Here is Don's for the Mars II. Notice that this 40 year old EV has regenerative braking -- did you think that was new technology?

This is EEVC member Al Arrison's recently completed EV conversion of a Volkswagen pick-up. I completely failed to get pictures of his gorgeous motor set-up, with all the components laid out on a control board, perhaps because I was paralyzed by envy. Soft-spoken and meticulous, Al commutes daily in his truck and he says it gives him that "EV grin" every time he drives it.

This 1986 Ford Escort, "The Olympian," lives at the Burlington County Institute of Technology and was converted by a team that featured several members of the EEVC. They dispensed with the back seat and turned it into a 144V two-seater which currently operates on an unusual dual-battery system combining LGM lead-acid batteries with lithium-ion batteries. This configuration won honors at the 2006 Tour de Sol.

Oliver Perry, President of the EEVC, shows off his EV grin as he gets behind the wheel of the Olympian.
Ken Wells, Executive Director of the Boyertown Museum of Historic Vehicles, behind the wheel of a 1919 Detroit Electric Coupe. During the school sessions on Friday I told all my student audiences that when my grandmother was in 5th grade, she rode to school every day in a car pretty much exactly like this one. She remembers my great-grandmother positively bombing along the roads of Wake Forest, Illinois in her Detroit Electric at the unheard-of speed of 35 miles per hour!
Philip Jones, the MAREA volunteer who coordinated the entire Transportation Tent display, gives a big EV grin from the passenger seat of the Detroit Electric -- he and Ken are about to lead off the alternative fuel vehicle parade. Phil did an incredible job of pulling together vehicles, presentations and workshops for the Energy Fest. Can you tell how happy he is to have it be actually happening after all the weeks of preparation and stress? (Phil's wife Kim and his kids were also present and helping out during the entire weekend, and deserve a shout-out as well.)

We trailered our 1991 Dodge Colt up to the festival and back; here's Matt getting it set on the dolly for the return trip. I remember figuring out before the e-Vanagon was converted that, theoretically, its 50-mile range ought to be able to get us all the way to Kempton without needing to recharge. Alas, we didn't get to test that theory!
My face-painted daughters grinning at the end of the weekend.

Sorry about the big hiatus, everyone, and I look forward to sharing the news that the eVan's rolling again! Meanwhile thanks are due to Dennis for motivating me to get down to updating this blog, and to all of you for following along.

PS - We had lots of great conversations with people at the Energy Fest, but if you were one of the people interested in hearing about next summer's EV conversion workshop, please email me at info@buckscountyrenewables.com to make sure you're on our mailing list. Especially if you're that guy who grew up working on a farm -- I wrote your info down on the wrong clipboard and it went home with one of the biodiesel people!