With every trip to the pump, converting your gas-guzzling car into an electric vehicle (EV) may sound better and better. The benefits seem obvious—freedom from rising fuel prices, the satisfaction of a do-it-yourself project, and best of all, a clean, quiet ride. But before you get totally swept away by the idea, there are some realities that you should consider—this kind of project is not for everyone.
The first reality is desire. Do you really want to take such a large step? While converting a car to run on electricity is satisfying, there is also a great deal of sweat that goes into it. To succeed, your motives must be strong and genuine. Wanting to be “green” is a good start, but there is more to it—you need the kind of passion that will sustain you through the ups and downs of a process that can be fraught with glitches. Put your desire to the test.
Depending on the “donor” vehicle, your EV conversion could cost between $8,000 and $12,000. Examine all costs before you begin and make sure the expense fits within your budget. Determine the online prices of components and, as with anything else, shop around. Keep in mind that buying products from a reputable dealer will often get you some phone help if needed. Don’t forget that you can sell the discarded parts from your donor vehicle to offset the overall project cost. If you need to buy tools or rent a work space, then you’ll need to factor in those expenses as well.
You will need basic mechanical and electrical skills to piece all the components together. Metal fabrication skills are important if you want to save money by making your own motor mount and battery rack(s), and these skills are needed for the installation of other components as well. You can purchase a prefabricated motor mount and battery racks—or hire someone to do the custom metal work for you. Welding skills may be worth learning—the more work you can take care of yourself, the lower the conversion cost will be.
As with many do-it-yourself projects, a knack for troubleshooting is critical. But if you do come up short on skills and abilities, don’t throw in the towel. Pool your resources. An EV conversion can be a great group project. Compensate for your weaknesses by teaming up with friends, family, and even folks from a local EV group.
Make sure you have basic mechanic’s tools: socket, open-end, and box-end wrenches, along with a selection of screwdrivers and common power tools. Thread taps and dies may come in handy. You will also need an engine hoist to remove the old engine and put the electric motor in its place. If you want to make your own motor mount and battery rack(s), you will need a metal saw and/or a gas cutting torch. Last but not least, you will need a work area that is secure and available for the duration of the project.
An EV conversion requires a significant time commitment. Plan on several months of weekends and evenings to complete your conversion. The table above shows an abbreviated list of what needs to happen and how long you can expect each step to take.
Turn the key, and all you’ll hear is silence. Get up to speed, and you’ll be amazed by the quiet ride. The only sound you’ll hear is the tires on the road, and a subtle whine from the running gear. Driving an EV is great fun, but it’s not without differences—slower acceleration, lower top speeds, and shorter range. Other quirks will arise, but they tend to be trivial—for example, electrical currents in an EV can interfere with AM radio reception.
Acceleration from a stop will be perky, but short-lived, in first gear. Most EV drivers start out in second gear and accelerate past 30 mph before shifting into third, then fourth gear. From there, you will gently reach top speed, which may range from 60 mph to 86 mph, depending on the number of batteries on board. Long, steep hills may be a challenge. If your top speed is too low, you may need to steer clear of high-speed roadways. Your battery pack’s capacity will limit the range that the vehicle can travel. The ideal daily range is 20 to 30 miles to avoid overdischarging the batteries, which shortens their life.
One beauty of EVs is that they require little maintenance—no more oil changes and no more trips to the shop for timing belts, water pumps, etc. The only significant maintenance requirement is the battery pack, which will require your attention on a monthly basis to keep the electrolyte level up and the terminals and battery surfaces clean. You will need to take voltage readings with a digital voltmeter regularly and, based on those readings, equalize the pack as necessary. Depending on vehicle use and battery type and care, you will also need to replace your battery pack every three to four years.
The average price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline ranged from $3.08 to $4.05 during the previous year and, while it takes a dip now and then, the overall trend has been an upward one. EVs offer you an opportunity to save money on fuel costs and declare your independence from oil by plugging in—instead of filling up at the pump. Your savings will largely depend on the source of your electricity—some folks even charge their EVs with homemade electricity from their own RE systems (see “EVs & the Environment” sidebar).
The cost of replacing the batteries every few years adds up quickly—they’re not cheap. You could spend $1,500 to $3,000 on new ones every few years. That may seem like a lot, but remember that you’re saving quite a bit of money on repairs and fuel. One visit to the repair shop to replace a timing belt on a gasoline-fueled vehicle can cost between $500 and $2,500. Even with the regular expense of battery replacement, an EV still seems to come out ahead. With ever-increasing gasoline prices, it’s a safe bet that an EV will save you money over the long haul.
Mark E. Hazen converted his Chevy S10 pickup truck to an EV and created www.evhelp.com to assist others with their conversions. He is also the author of Alternative Energy: An Introduction to Alternative and Renewable Energy Sources.
Electric Auto Association • www.eaaev.org • Listings of local EV groups