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.


Anonymous said...

Any time you want any help or instructions to do a PHEV conversion of a Prius, let me know. My goal is to put as many PHEVs on the road as possible. The conversion can be pre-done on your work bench and installed in a few hours using an engine hoist. Lets put it this way, how would you like to do an EV conversion with a car that has the motor already installed and a nice area for the batteries? I am a member of the Houston EAA.

Mike did an outstanding job at the Maker Faire.

Jim Philippi

Anonymous said...


The team at Maker Faire really made the PHEV conversion look easy, but I think it was Jim Philippi who slowed down my enthusiasm to start ordering parts (including, of course, a Prius) when he talked about High Voltage DC being the kind of thing that grabs you and fries you.

While I'm no slouch technically, this visual really caught my attention.

Do you (or Jim, if you are listening) know a resource that reviews the basics of how to avoid being fried working around High Voltage DC?


(Jim, not sure if you remember me. I'd intended to make a total pest of myself during the Faire. Despite my efforts, there was so much interesting stuff going on, I had a very hard time keeping focused on the conversion)