We’ve all dreamed of owning Doc’s Delorean from ‘Back to the Future.’ We want a power source like Mr. fusion under the hood, a source of energy that uses something as benign as garbage for fuel and one that emits no carbon dioxide in return for our transportation. The idea is almost as appealing as a flux capacitor. If we can’t have flying cars in this decade at least let us realize the dream of clean transportation. It is a dream that has been trying to come to fruition for a long time now. It’s getting close.
Let’s go back in time to 1973 for a moment, to the rationing and gas lines of the first oil crisis of the United States. At the time Nelson Hellmuth was an engineer working for an aerospace firm in Torrance California. Nelson enjoyed his work but he was disillusioned with the air pollution and traffic jams of southern California. This was when his dream of owning an electric vehicle began.
“The smog I could almost get used to,” Nelson says. “But if you went to the mountains to camp out on the weekend you’d have a traffic jam coming back into the city on a Sunday night.”
Nelson felt drawn to renewable energy and healthy living. He missed the rural landscapes of his hometown Orange Park, Florida. When he returned from California he decided to combine his interests. He and his wife opened an organic food store in Orange Park called the Granary and Nelson, inspired by the second oil crisis of 1979, began working for a solar company called Morning Star.
The whole mood of the country was going renewable. Nelson was designing solar hot water heaters for commercial buildings around the nation. Jimmy Carter had put a photovoltaic array on the White House roof. The technology needed to make Nelson’s dream electric car affordable seemed right around the corner.
Then in 1987 the stock market crashed and it all went up in smoke. The price of oil declined, Ronald Reagan took down the solar panels from the White House roof and every solar company Nelson knew of went bankrupt. A few remnants of the enthusiasts banded together to form Alternative Energy Technologies LLC. The company survives to this day.
Now it was the 90’s. Nelson received a call he’d gotten many times before. Another alternative energy company was going under. But this was the opportunity he’d been waiting for. At the time there were no electric cars you could buy off the shelf like you can with the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt today. Doug Cobb, a man in Melbourne Florida whose work Nelson had been following, had created a company converting existing factory cars into electric cars.
It was a good idea but at $25,000 to $30,000 for a converted Chevy S-10 the demand just wasn’t there. Cobb had sold a few of the electric cars to utility companies but now his business was folding. Cobb called Nelson looking to sell his excess inventory. Nelson got to buy his first electric car at a steal. He paid $10,000 for a 1984 Honda Civic Wagon Cobb had converted. The Honda came with solar panels molded to the skin of the car.
Finally Nelson had a new-age vehicle to complement his clean green lifestyle. But there was a problem. Eventually the solar panels ceased to power the car as the photovoltaic cells in the molded plastic cracked under the heat of the Florida sun.
“Anytime you get a crack in a solar cell it’s bad news.” Nelson says. “That opens the circuit up.”
Being the mechanical engineer that he is Nelson fixed the problem by peeling off the molded solar panels and replacing them with traditional rigid panels. It wasn’t as sexy but it worked. Nelson designed and constructed frames that he could adjust up and down for the four photovoltaic panels he applied to the car. He could now tilt the panels up in the wintertime to absorb direct sunlight. When he was driving on the road Nelson could fold the frames down to make the roof aerodynamic.
The original Absorbed Glass Mat deep cycle batteries the Honda came with only lasted two years. Disappointed, Nelson replaced the batteries with Gel Cell deep cycle batteries. He also rebuilt the electric motor, installing new brushes to better conduct current.
“AGM batteries cost a little bit more and you can get a little more umph,” Nelson says. “Every time you draw energy out of a battery the voltage decreases. So the Absorbed Mat will hold their voltage and give you a little better acceleration. But if they’re only going to last two years they’re no use to me.”
In AGM batteries the electrolyte is in a fiberglass matt material whereas Gel Cell batteries contain lead plates with the electrolyte suspended in a gel. Nelson speculates that AGM batteries, which are typically more expensive than Gel Cell batteries, may die faster because of what they are designed to do. Quick acceleration kills electric cars.
The Gel Cell batteries Nelson replaced his AGMs with lasted 10 years. Nelson attributes this longevity not only to a superior design, but also to how he drove his electric Honda Civic. Nelson plugged his car in at every opportunity to keep his batteries charged. He never let them drain down completely. He accelerated slowly and shied away from taking the Honda up to its top speed of 75 miles an hour.
The batteries in the Honda never ran out of juice on him but his wife swore the car off after it died on her during an outing.
“She was used to accelerating quickly,” Nelson explains.
Nelson says the best way to get a sense of an electric car’s true remaining charge is to watch its voltmeter when you are accelerating. When the batteries are under load they will show you how much voltage they really contain. In this way you can use your voltmeter like a gas gauge.
If the batteries are reaching a fifty percent charge you’ll see a noticeable drop in voltage when you press the gas. That tells you its time to get them to an energy source and recharge. Nelson says an electric car’s reliable range is about half of what it’s max range is. If you’re a speed demon the batteries will deplete faster but if you’re a conservative slow driver you can go farther. If your electric car’s maximum range is supposed to be 25 miles don’t go past 12 to 15 miles without a recharge to be on the safe side.
Another way to make sure your electric car won’t kaput on you is to convert it into a hybrid. Doug Cobb did this with Nelson’s Honda before he sold it to him. To make room for the battery pack Cobb removed the factory combustion engine and installed a tiny Briggs and Stratton engine that spit out six horsepower. Cobb found it more of a nuisance than a lifesaver however and removed the backup engine from the car before he sold it to Nelson.
The easiest way to make a hybrid out of an electric vehicle is simply to tow a generator with you. Nelson has toyed with idea of putting a generator in the back of his current electric truck; the three wheeled Zap Xebra. (Pronounced Zebra.) He could run a chord from the generator to the charging outlet he’s installed in the vehicle and charge the batteries as he drove if they were running low. Nelson has driven an electric car for so long however he’s become an expert on avoiding battery depletion. He has yet to invest in a generator or install a backup combustion engine.
Nelson drives very little actually. He estimates that he puts about 5,000 miles on his vehicle per year. This may be another contributor to his 10-year battery life and the longevity of his vehicles.
He drove the ’84 Honda Civic for 13 years before he gave it away to a friend. The electric Honda is still alive and well today. All the new owner had to do was give it a paint job and connect new solar panels. Nelson says he still sees the car when the owner brings it by his business.
The reason the new owner of the Honda Civic had to buy solar panels was because Nelson kept the original set to build his own charging station. The four panels now charge his Zap Xebra when he has it parked. The Xebra has no mounted solar panels of its own. The three-wheeled mini truck is a little small to mount them, but it does have seven batteries and is still a fully electric vehicle.
Zap is a company based out of California specializing in electric cars. Nelson was able to get his Xebra at a bargain price by purchasing it from another dealership that was liquidating in Atlanta.
Like the Honda Civic the Zap Xebra came with AGM batteries which died within two years. Nelson has since replaced them with seven Gel Cell batteries he has yet to have a problem with. Because it has fewer batteries the Xebra also has a lower top speed and a shorter range of about 20 miles.
“The zap, because it has seven batteries only does 45 going downhill with a tailwind,” Nelson jokes. “It’s like a moped or a hell-of-a-fast golf cart.”
The Xebra’s original AGM batteries almost quit on him after a trip of only 16 miles.
“I had to pull over into the bike lane,” Nelson says. “I was doing about two miles per hour but I made it.”
Electric cars may still come with a lot of drawbacks but their technology is close to being perfected. The critical advance they need to become viable is an innovation in battery technology. With electric cars like the Nisan Leaf and Chevy Volt now commonplace in the mainstream market batteries are now advancing at an unprecedented rate.
“I’ve looked into putting a lithium-ion battery in the Xebra,” Nelson says. “That would increase its range to 100 miles.”
The advantage of the lithium-ion battery is that it produces more power for the space and weight it takes up in the vehicle. A lithium-ion battery pack is about a third of the weight of the Xebra’s current battery bank. The draw back to the lithium-ion battery is that it costs $5,000 and has an unproven safety record.
A Chevy Volt that received a side impact during a crash test caught fire last year after being parked for three weeks after the initial collision. Nelson’s curiosity about the new lithium-ion batteries has led him to dissect one. Inside he discovered thin sheets of metal and plastic.
“If you punch them with a pen you can poke a hole in them,” Says Nelson. “I’m sure that’s what happened to the Chevy Volt. If you damage them it will catch on fire. The lithium metal will burn and it will burn without oxygen. It’s like a flare it will burn under water.”
According to Marshall Brain, founder of How Stuff Works.com, only two or three lithium-ion battery packs per million have this severe problem. Crashes may increase the likelihood of the battery being punctured and catching fire. The lithium-ion battery also degrades quickly. They will only last two to three years after they are manufactured and high heat increase their degradation.
Obviously the technology isn’t quite there yet. Many electric car enthusiasts are excited about the concept of using hydrogen fuel cells in future vehicles. Apple submitted patents last year for a hydrogen fuel cell that would power future handheld devices.
One new technology that does seem to be creating a reliable reputation for itself is photovoltaic solar panels. Nelson has been in the business for a long while now and he has never had to replace a solar panel. Photovoltaic cells operate by knocking off electrons as sunlight passes through their crystals. Their efficiency does degrade but how quickly and how much is anyone’s guess. Nelson says a 25-watt panel that he purchased 30 years ago is still operating. The only PV cells he has ever had to replace were the ones that cracked on his Honda and those cracked because they were sheathed in malleable plastic.
Many solar panel warranties extend from 20 to 30 years. The end of the warranty does not mean the end of the PV lifecycle however. A photovoltaic roof constructed at Georgetown University, Washington D.C. in 1984 was still producing one megawatt hour of electricity per day 27 years later.
Because Nelson has never had to replace a solar cell he’s been able to build more and more intricate arrays with the ones he’s collected over the years. His four paneled charging station for his Xebra spits out 10 amps and charges his current car in about six hours. Because he never lets the batteries run down the typical charge time is closer to four hours.
If he needs a faster charge Nelson has also designed his own solar building. This array is made up of 10 200-watt PV panels. They spit out 15 amps and can charge the Xebra in even less time.
A common misconception about electric cars is that because you plug them into an outlet you’re driving without harming the environment. You have to remember that the outlet’s electricity you are using to drive your electric vehicle comes from your local power plant. If you live in a region like Orange Park, Florida and many other U.S. cities this means your electricity comes from a power plant often burning dirty fuels like coal and petrol coke. Because Nelson gets his energy from the real life Mr. Fusion, the sun, he’s able to legitimately claim to drive a clean green vehicle.
Tutorials are available on the internet for converting common cars to electric vehicles but working with so much high voltage is not a matter to be taken lightly. Nelson says the first thing to have when starting work on an electric car conversion is to bring a buddy with you who knows CPR.
“If you short yourself out there’s enough energy in there to stop your heart,” Nelson says.
Any battery pack producing 60 volts is extremely dangerous. Take precautions to ensure you don’t shock yourself while using a metal wrench by wrapping the handles of your tools in electrical tape and using rubber gloves. Nelson has been mildly shocked a few times but he has never crossed the main battery pack.
The most frightening spark came from plugging his electric vehicle into its charging station outlet. Nelson constructed a special cord using wiring from a hardware store to connect his electric vehicle to its power source.
He took an AC chord with enough copper wiring to handle a DC current. Then he cut the ends off the chord and attached two male three prong plugs to couple with the female outlets of the car and the power station.
“One of the things you’ll learn is that if you plug in high voltage DC you can get a hell of a spark,” Nelson says. “It’ll snap loudly.”
To avoid the danger of making the connection Nelson created a circuit breaker next to his Xebra’s outlet. Before he makes the connection with his power station Nelson flips off the car’s circuit breaker, attaches the plug, and flips it on. No spark.
$7,000 is about how much money Nelson estimates you would need to convert your car into an electric vehicle. He says the conversion can be finished in about a week once you’ve assembled all the parts you’ll need.
To make an electric car you will need an electric motor, a charge controller to ensure the batteries don’t overload and wiring for a cost of $4,000. A typical battery pack will cost $1,500. A 300-watt solar panel array costs $1,500. Rigid solar panels come in polycrystalline silicon and monocrystaline silicon. Polycrystaline is less expensive but less efficient. Nelson recommends using polycrystalline unless you are limited by space requirements. There is also a new photovoltaic technology in a spray-on form called amorphous silicon, but its energy conversion efficiency is low and it degrades quickly.
“You can pull the gas motor and everything out of the car in one day,” Nelson says. “A day to weld new brackets for the batteries. You can hook the batteries up in a day. The charge controller is a day. If you had all the parts and you were a mechanic with a shop you could do it in a week.”
You don’t have to convert your electric car from scratch. Nelson recommends doing some research. Find bargains on electric vehicles like he has. Some people have well-maintained used electric cars for sale. The person who bought Nelson’s ’84 Honda Civic only had to install new solar panels. If you can buy an already converted car you may not have to spend the total cost of a conversion. Sites like EV Tradin’ Post and Grassrootsev.com are filled with used electric car listings. Nelson recommends connecting with the electric auto association to get in touch with other enthusiasts for advice and guidance.
If you are lusting for the challenge of a total combustion to electric conversion than you should stick with a small lightweight car. Nelson says the Volkswagen Rabbit, Golf and Jetta are great candidates for electric conversion. Remember that the more batteries you add to the car the more power and longer range you will have.
As far as registering your electric vehicle you shouldn’t have a problem with a four wheeled vehicle. Nelson’s Honda Civic had a standard registration but he had some trouble making his Zap Xebra legal.
Because the Xebra has three wheels he was told it needed a motorcycle license. But because it also has a steering wheel it falls into a grey area the DMV has apparently yet to account for. Nelson went to three separate registration offices before he was finally able to find someone who would give him a tag.
Even though Nelson has appeared on his local FOX news network and gotten numerous stares from fellow motorists over the years gawking at his electric car no one has ever approached him to ask for help with a conversion. If anyone would like to contact Nelson for advice he says he is open to consult. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It has been stymied by technological limitations and the iron fist of big oil but the electric car refuses to die. Only we consumers can determine whether this decade is the time for the emission-free vehicle of the future to hit the road on a climate changing scale.