Thursday, April 14, 2011

Field Trip: New England Electric Automobile Association

So on Saturday I fulfilled a long-standing promise to Jesse Rudavsky of the NEEAA to pay a visit to his club, which draws members from Connecticut, Massachusetts & Rhode Island.  Jesse has traveled down to PA annually to attend the Energy Fest, where we met in 2007.  He's also joined us for the EV-ent in Macungie in the the past, so he is serious about reaching across regional borders!  A professional tractor-trailer operator, Jesse isn't fazed by driving long distances --  and being pretty up-close-and-personal with our current automotive situation, he really cares about what we all choose to drive.

Jesse remembers seeing a converted  electric pick-up truck in a parking lot when he was still in high school, and trying to hang around until the owner returned but being dragged off by his friends.  The first car he bought was a used Honda Insight, which he later traded in for a used Gen I Prius that lasted almost 345,000 miles.  A commenter at mourned Jesse's high-mileage Prius as "a very visible rolling ambassador for automotive hybrid technology"  after the accident -- totally not Jesse's fault -- that stopped its odometer permanently.  Jesse has since put 261,000 miles (and counting) on his Gen II while tirelessly advocating for hybrids to friends, family & the folks he runs into on the street.

Early on in his green-your-ride-ambassador career Jesse ran into that electric pick-up truck from his adolescence again, and this time he was able to meet its owner -- Dave Robie, long secretary of the NEEAA, who has been driving and advocating for converted EV's (trucks, scooters, and electric tractors) for at least as long as Jesse has been alive and probably longer!

Dave Robie with some pull-outs from his Fuel Saver's Guide, a downloadable, engagingly no-nonsense compendium of tips on conserving everything, from gas to domestic energy to money,  time, and effort.

Dave brought Jesse into the fold of the NEEAA and -- as Jesse's been telling me for years -- it is a great group of people, with a long-standing tradition of rotating their meetings between various geographical locations in the region.  Food is a part of their meeting culture (frequent cookouts and, in winter, big pots of chili figure in their gathering notes and reminiscences), which has built an obvious sense of community.  The meeting I went to was being held at an Earth Day event which coincided with their usual 2nd Saturday of the month get-together

so they gathered in the Bethany CT town hall for a brief business meeting and spent the rest of the afternoon showcasing the member EV's on display:

Mike Okrentz' 97 Chevy S10, vanity-plated "ELEKTRK" (sporting stylin' new graphics on the side) and Dave Cover's very sweet 87 Porsche 944 with the ultimate understated 2-letter vanity plate.

Dave's Porsche is kitted out for racing & runs on NiCad batteries -- the first I've seen deployed in an EV.  Hearing him rave about their long-lasting dependability, I asked: why don't we see more EV's utilizing this battery technology?   He explained that it's incredibly hard to get hold of NiCads -- though if you can find them, they are usually very cheap (a main source being military surplus).  Dave's ride also featured this funny magnetic sign announcing his club allegiance:

Prius modder, hypermiler, and lately "How to Kit Out Your Prius for 60+mpg RVĂ­ng" evangelist Hobbit was also present -- known and nicknamed for his always-bare feet (he brings slip-ons to wear into restaurants).

Below, his Prius car-camping exhibit: the seat folds perfectly flat, so a single futon on top & windowshades make for private and comfy sleeping.  On either side of the door in this shot you can glimpse of the styly new yellow-and-black striping that adorns Hobbit's "rolling mod laboratory."

Member Guy Maillet's vehicle was not on onsite, but he shared these photos with me; years ago, he both designed and built this vehicle as an internal combustion engine car; much more recently, he converted it to electric using forklift components.

the build

the car

the badge (yes it is actually registered as a "Maillet" with the state of CT -- now that is taking the DIY car thing to a whole new level, I loved it)

The other members present introduced themselves & their vehicles during the business meeting, so I learned that Gilles (ack I missed his last name) owns a Citi-Car and recently became the proud owner of the 1989 EV Jetta formerly belonging to the club's long-time and evidently beloved president Bob Rice, who recently suffered a severe stroke.  President Dave Oliveria, who drives a converted 98 Ford Ranger, has capably stepped into Bob's shoes and all the group has rallied to support Bob and his family, who have been forced to sell off his home and possessions in order to finance his rehabilitative care in what I am afraid is a typical example of our profoundly damaged and damaging healthcare system.   (Sigh ...)

To my disappointment member Karen Nakamura did not have her 2-wheel Piaggo Boxer moped with her.  She converted it to electric herself and it is her only vehicle and totally rad so I had to include this picture, which you can click on to link to her blog -- from which I learned that she is super-technical as well as a more than competent fabricator.   In her last update she'd just switched her setup to run on used Prius NiMH batteries, an interesting aftermarket use.

Another member present, Joe Weber, is a former EV driver who says a hybrid now suits his driving needs better, and club treasurer George Gillett is an EV fan who is prevented from owning one by the fact that he lives in a condo and does not have convenient access to overnight charging.

In addition to maintaining a lively and informative Yahoo mailing list, the NEEAA has a web page where you can see lots of other great member cars.  I cannot resist posting this one before I return to the actual events of Saturday:

this little 1979 Subaru van is so cute I cannot stand it I totally want to meet this van in person someday

After the meeting we went back outside for the rest of the (beautiful, sunny) afternoon and got a surprise visit from a relatively new EV owner in Connecticut, Ronnie Carroll of Bridgeport PA.  Ronnie's friend Nate Mays, Jr kindly helped him tow over this 1974 Pinto, which was converted years ago by a local inventor (at something like 7,000 original miles)   Check out how gorgeous and orange it is.

Ronnie says he had never seen an electric car before, but as soon as he looked at this baby he knew he wanted one, a feeling I must say I believe is captured in the photo above.  Post-conversion the Pinto spent at least 10 years in stasis, in the possession of an owner who had never figured out how to get it to work.  By the end he was threatening to strip out the EV components and soup it up with a V8 engine.  So along comes Ronnie, swaps the guy a Chevette he owned for the EV Pinto  (somewhere out there is a V8-equipped Chevette as an incidental part of this true story) and successfully brings this sweet-and-did-you-notice-orange classic back online -- with a 96-volt pack of 12-volts and I'm sure a lot of loving tinkering (he was modest about how much he had to do).  Ronnie's been  following along on the NEEAA discussion list so this was a chance for him to meet some of the members in person as they gathered around to marvel at the old, old Curtis controller and the massive DC motor -- obviously industrial and possibly out of an elevator.

Everyone shared tips with Ronnie on successfully registering/inspecting an EV and assured him it that his Pinto is a clean build and ready to go street-legal.  One more home-brewed and lovingly-restored EV is about to hit the road in Bridgeport and new connections were forged because of it -- it was all so much fun to witness. Thanks to Ronnie & Nate for making my day, and to Jesse & the NEEAA for a really enjoyable visit to New England!

Of course I was up there to plug the April 30 EV-ent down here in Macungie (heads up everybody that is practically around the corner!) but I also talked up the 21st Century Automotive Challenge in State College PA, and there was a lot of interest among NEEAA members -- in fact they immediately started tossing around the idea of renting a car-carrier and coming en masse.  I am certainly looking forward to seeing any or all of them again on May 21-23. For registration info visit this website and totally sign up!  If you go because you heard about it from me, tell Joel Anstrom I've been promoting the event up a storm because that is true.


mammonista said...

I'm a little confused (normal state for me). Whatever happened to the original electric Vanagon? As the owner of an '87 Vanagon that I've converted into a crew cab pick-up, I've toyed with the idea of furthering its evolution from turbo-diesel to all electric. I've also toyed with the idea of incorporating a smaller turbo diesel as a power source for an electric generator to charge the batteries a la Chevy Volt. But what of the plans to upgrade the original van to 144 volts? Is it still around or living in an EV museum someplace gathering electric dust?

jisaacs said...

Hi Mammonista, thanks for posting and I appreciate the theme of your blog!

I've been thinking I should put up a page giving a little summary of the history of the e-Van. The original explanatory post "What's This Blog All About?" still gets a lot of hits, but it's been almost four years since I wrote it! Thanks for the tickle on that project.

To answer your question directly -- yes, the e-Van was converted to 144v during our 2nd workshop in 2009. Since then it has lived at Saint Bill's and emerges periodically for display. Several participants in our 3/26 mini-workshop got to play with it afterwards, but I couldn't document that because our sponsors had specifically forbidden us from giving test drives as part of the class -- isn't that silly?

The most recent tweak was to rebuild the controller and upgrade it to 1000 amps. Because there always has to be a last-minute crisis before a show, that means our controller is currently in the air between Iowa and Pennsylvania and due to be delivered tomorrow night -- I hope to document the triumphant arrival of the e-Van in Macungie on Saturday morning, if not the actual install! So stay tuned!