Garages, Block Heaters, and Thermal Cameras

by Ben N on January 9, 2015


In my area, we are now in the depths of winter, with the air temperature hovering right around Zero Fahrenheit, and wind-chills down to near fifty below.

Maybe it’s time I put on those snow tires.

Just kidding, I already have the snow tires on, although I only got them on about a week ago. I also worked REALLY HARD to clean out the garage. I hope my wife appreciates that. She’s the primary driver of the Prius. With no basement or other workspace, the garage is my only storage area/machine shop/electronics lab/shed/laboratory. In other words, it was a bit of work to clear out, but it’s all worth it if we can have our 2004 Prius parked inside to keep the wife happy.

Besides keeping the car out of the wind, it also keeps the snow off, prevents having to scrape the windshield, AND is convenient for plugging in the block heater! The car is equipped with a 400-watt OEM-style heater, which directly heats the aluminum block. I have a mechanical timer in the garage (plugged in through a Kill-a-Watt) that goes to an extension cord to the block-heater plug, which is near the windshield. This way, the block heater can run for an hour or two, automatically, before the car is driven in the morning.

I also recently got a thermal camera.

The other day, I took some photos of the car right after my wife got home on a trip of about 10 miles, driving freeway speeds. Surprisingly, one of the warmest things in the thermal photo was the tires themselves! Although in contact with the cold road, the friction and movement of the rubber itself creates heat! The other bright parts of the thermal photos was the windshield and windows. Being glass, they don’t insulate well, and the cabin heater would have been running the whole drive home. When I opened the door to the car, the entire interior absolutely radiated heat compared to the outside surfaces.IMG_1656

IMG_1661I parked the car in the garage and plugged in the block heater, setting the timer to run for about two and a half hours before the next time we would be using the car.

When it was time to go, I pulled the car out of the garage and took another thermal photo. (Bottom-most Image) This time, the tires themselves were cold, as was the car interior and windows, but the aluminum HOOD of the car was glowing with a steady heat. I could also see that the upper grill showed high heat as well. Although the car has a permanent lower grill block, I hadn’t gotten around to adding the temporary pipe insulation upper grill block for this winter. In the thermal image, you can see how the upper grill isn’t insulated. I’ll have to insulate that and take another thermal image to compare the results.

Block heater_IMG_1679Thermal imagery is a pretty amazing way to see the world differently, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that you should use your garage if you have one, and plug in a block heater if you can.

Til next time, stay warm, and keep your wife happy.



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Vectrix Repair Work Continues

by Ben N on December 17, 2014

Last week, I had some time available to work on the Vectrix. It was an hour or so at a time over a number of days, and frankly, I’ve been more excited about the vehicle than actually blogging about it, so here’s a whole bunch of an update all at once!

The first step was to simply start taking the Vectrix apart – removing the seat, covers, lots of plastic trim, and finally the actual battery box cover.

At that point, I removed the batteries. With no overhead crane or house available, I bolted a chain to the pack and lifted each half out, one at a time.

Next, was seeing if I could charge them. The pack was dead. It was at about 2 volts for THE ENTIRE PACK. The only good news there is that a friend of mine who knows more about batteries than I said that NiMH can survive that, whereas lithium can not. I set to work charging the batteries, but with them having such a low voltage, the “smart” NiMH chargers I was planning to use didn’t even recognize that they were hooked up to the batteries and refused to charge.

As an alternative, I dragged out my big dumb multi-voltage charger. It’s good for 12v up to 72 volts and has a selectable 5 and 10 amp output. How much current actually goes through depends on the voltage selected and the resistance of the batteries. I set the voltage and current controls to the lowest setting and connected it to the rear battery pack. After letting the batteries “soak” for a while, the pack voltage raised a bit, and didn’t immediately plummet the moment the charger was turned off. I changed the charger up one click on the voltage control a resumed charging. The battery voltage continued to climb over several hours as I monitored the pack using a “Watts-Up” DC meter, which tracks key data such as total amp-hours that have passed through it.

I checked back the next day on the rear battery pack. Overall pack voltage was about where I expected it to be, but on testing individual cells a few were still WAY too low. Uh oh. Looks like some bad cells. I still haven’t opened up either of the battery packs to their component level of three layers of cells, so I was just testing the top-most layer. But if there are bad cells in the top layer, there are likely more in the other layers…

While working on a bulk charge of the front battery pack, I set to work to see if I could get the Ford Escape Hybrid salvaged NiMH cells to work in the project. I had already individually charged them. I laid out the 5-cells-in-series sticks on the floor and started hooking them up with their original buss bars. Once I had about 125V or so, I connected them to the Vectrix’s main + and  - battery cable connections, using jumper-cables, and pre-charging the motor controller board through a resistor (a light bulb) first.

I taped up the connections, crossed my fingers, and turned the key.

Nothing happened for a moment, then all the lights on the instrument panel came on and the speedometer animated a full sweep of its arm all the way up and back to zero. After the boot-up test, trouble lights for temperature and battery stayed on, as did the “your kickstand is down” indicator.

The funny this is that this cycle ONLY has a side stand. Apparently, the center double-stand was an OPTIONAL accessory. Well, I sure would have liked to have it to safely raise the back wheel off the ground for testing. Instead, I had to use a car jack to precariously perform the same task, balancing the cycle in the air.

I could then flip up the side stand. Of course the back wheel still didn’t spin. I set the kill switch to run, and then FINALLY remembered reading in the user’s manual that you have to press the left, then the right hand-brake as a start sequence to ACTUALLY turn the motor on. “GO” finally apeared on the screen. At that point I gently twisted the throttle…. and….. it spun! Whooo Hooo! The rear wheel spun! After a few gentle low speed tests, I took it up to full speed and back. The cycle also features regenerative braking, so I twisted the throttle the other way and the wheel INSTANTLY stopped spinning. With no cycle weight pushing the wheel, the regen was amazingly effective! I also tested reverse, which worked as well. Spinning the wheel did sound a bit noisier than I thought it would. It might be time to add some oil to the planetary gearing. Unfortunately, they never designed an oil add port to this cycle – that was a later service bulletin modification!

DSC_3503The instrument panel still had error lights on it, including a “buSULt” error code. The battery meter and estimated range both read zero. I also tried plugging in the charger, which didn’t seem to like the Ford cells.

With the power on, I also checked the head-light, tail-light, turn-signals, horn, and any other electric accessory I could think of. They all worked fine. I rather like the horn – pressing it momentarily produces a soft chirp – good for alerting pedestrians in a parking lot – but holding it a moment longer produces a full-on “Outa-my-way!” blast of noise.

The next day, I managed to get the original batteries up on boxes so that they were close enough for the temperature sensor cables to plug back in. When turning the cycle on, the temperature error light finally stayed off, as did the battery error light. Seemed like that was only temporary though. I think that error light is mostly for a battery pack being out of voltage range, and I’m still manually charging the Ford cells, and am afraid they might not all be good.

At this point, I’m pretty excited that the cycle actually runs. It does look as though the only problem with it was the battery pack. With the odometer on, I can see that it has about 1000 miles on it. Plenty new in my book – and WAY too few miles to have a battery pack problem, but that’s what these NiMH Vectrix’s were notorious for.

Hmmmm. So what’s next now? I might try hot-wiring the original batteries back to the motor controller. That way I can see if the batteries work after manually charing them. That might even let me test the cycle’s built-in battery charger. I still have to figure out a few other things about the cycle that aren’t mentioned in the users manual. I DO have a Service Manual of sorts – a series of .DOCs and images downloaded as a zipped file from the internet.

I’ve also been pretty excited to see several YouTube videos showing people upgrade old Vectrix’s with lithium batteries, including using NISSAN LEAF cells, which seem to fit perfect!

So, til next time, stay charged up!


PS: The cycle also has a CANBUS connection on it. I mail-ordered an adapter cable, and hope to be able to use it to have a laptop connect to the Vectrix to check error codes, load firmware, and otherwise talk to the cycle’s computer.


Vextrix Electric Maxi-scooter!

by Ben N on December 2, 2014

A few weeks ago, I got a lead on somebody selling a Vectrix electric scooter. I had heard of them before, but didn’t know the details, so I looked them up on the web. A Vectrix is a scooter-styled electric motorcycle. Think of it as the EV version of a Honda Reflex. It does require a motorcycle license (which I already have anyways) but goes freeway speed and can carry a passenger.

That is, it WOULD, if the batteries weren’t dead.

I headed up for a several hours drive towards the Twin Cities to meet with the seller. My buddy, Ryland, lives in a city on the way, so I swung by to pick him up. With a non-functioning NiMH battery pack, it would be helpful to have a friend with to help load the cycle into the back of the truck. Ryland, who is half Lumberjack and half Viking, was the perfect guy to help. of course, it’s also nice to chat and see what his latest project is, in this case, a rocket engine made from old furnace parts. (No Joke. Look for updates on that later this winter.)

IMG_1215We finally arrived at the seller’s and got to take a look at the cycle. A 2007 model, it was in great shape and had a nice bold dark red finish. About 500 original miles on it. The seller described how the cycle had progressively less range until one day, it simply didn’t turn on. He had no experience rebuilding battery systems, and his wife wanted it out of the garage if it was just going to sit there.

We took care of the paperwork and loaded the bike into the back of the truck. By now, it had started snowing. A bit early in the season, I sill had my “all-season” radials on the truck. Once we figured out how to leave the “gated community”, (it was labyrinthian. We had to break out the GPS,) we headed out, dropping Ryland back at his house an hour or so later.

IMG_1219The rest of the ride home was a slow one. Traffic on the interstate was at about 45 mph most of the ride. Plenty of cars in the ditch the whole way home. While having several hundred pounds of non-functioning scooter in the back of the truck didn’t help my suspension, it actually WAS good for traction! Nothing like a little extra weight on the back axle of a rear-wheel drive!

I made it home uneventfully, although late at night.

The next day, I headed over to my parent’s house. My father has an insulated workshop on the back of his garage, with a DIY project of a natural gas furnace converted over to run on a small LP tank. A garage at 55 degrees and no wind is pure luxury compared to working in my dark and cramped garage with the wind whipping straight through the gaps in the wallboards.

DSC_3432I parked the cycle indoors where it would await me until I had a break in my suddenly very busy schedule.

Soooooo, just the other day now, I finally got a chance to crack open the bike and take a look. I had already viewed a number of YouTube videos about upgrading Vectix’s. (Check out YouTube username “Antiscab” for some good videos!) So, I was ready for a little disassembly with my cordless drill and a 10mm socket.

The work is pretty straight-forward. First, I removed the various rubber foot pads and floor mats, followed by a few small trim pieces. Then I removed the seat and the trunk bracket. Finally, I removed the large center cover from the cycle.

This now exposed some of the guts of the vehicle. On top is a cover which is really an air duct. Inside are two fans used to cool the battery pack as it charges. Once that was removed, I could get at the battery pack cover itself. I removed all the bolts holding it on, and then started prying at the cover. Once I got through the gasket-goo holding it on, I could see the tops of the NiMH cells and the motor controller.

DSC_3460The battery pack in a 2007 Vectrix is a 125V nominal Nickel-Metal-Hydride battery consisting of two main blocks of cells, weighing in at about 200 pounds. I put a volt meter on to test the pack. The 125V pack measured…… Two. Two volts! For the entire pack!

Yep, I think it’s safe to say that the problem is with the battery. At least this time I was working on a battery pack WITHOUT the Atlantic Ocean falling out….

DSC_3456So, I guess what’s next is to make a plan. I really don’t have any extra money kicking around to invest in an expensive new lithium pack, but here’s a few options I came up with:

1: Just make the original pack work. The scooter won’t charge because the voltage is too low for the system to boot up. I could try using a pair of small NiMH chargers I have (56V, 1A) to try charging the two halves of the pack. IF I can get some current flowing, that should get the pack up to 100 volts, which should allow the system to kick on, and then use the main charger. I would be able to connect a laptop computer, interface with the cycle, and start running diagnostics to figure out where to go from there.

2: If the original pack trouble was caused by a bad cell or two, I could disassemble the pack, find the bad cells, and replace them, then use the mostly original pack.

3: If the original pack is genuine junk, I should be able to build a new pack from NiMH cells I pulled out of a Ford Escape Hybrid battery pack. I originally planned to use these as an upgrade for my electric Kawasaki, but they might work great on the Vectrix. I already have them and am going through the very slow process of individually recharging them all. It would NOT be a high-capacity pack, but the price is right!

4: Should I want a bigger/better battery pack than I can make from those NiMH D-cells, I could put in some used Thundersky lithium cells. 40AH cells fit PERFECTLY in a Vectrix, and I know of two guys who have some cells for sale. Used cells would be significantly less expensive than new ones.

5: Shell out the big bucks for a a shiny new battery pack. This is the least likely of the options and last for a reason. Batteries are STILL expensive. Even with the ever-falling price of lithium, it’s still unlikely that I would go buy some brand-new cells. Not unless Santa is REALLY nice to me this year.

So, what’s next? Looks like I’ll start poking at the batteries and see if I can get a little charge in them, and check for bad cells. After that, I’ll likely be playing around with those NiMH sticks from the Escape Hybrid.

Stay tuned to see what happens next!




by Ben N on November 14, 2014


Just the other day, I got the latest copy of HOME POWER magazine in the mail. The cover article was about a DIY 6 Kilowatt system that is about 13 miles from my house. What I wasn’t expecting to learn from the article is how CHEAP solar can be!

I live in south-eastern Wisconsin. We are not known for great solar access, nor has the state government or utilities been particularly supportive of renewable energy. However, this article was great, because everything listed in it DIRECTLY applies to me! These articles usually have some lists of costs and components as well as solar charts.

The solar panels used on the project were from Helios, the same people from whom I got my 48V solar panel for EV charging. (Who are unfortunately now out of business. They manufactured in Milwaukee, just 30 miles from me!) The article also lists our area as having 4.52 daily average peak sun hours and being at 43.1 degrees north latitude.

Finally, the article also listed the total cost of the system, including available financial incentives. While Wisconsin has pretty minimal support for renewable energy, it does have one shining star – the Focus on Energy program. In this case, a $2,400 refund on a solar system. The one catch is that there is only so much money per year, so you have to get it before it runs out! (PS: It’s gone for 2014. But that’s OK, start a project in January!)

So, that got me thinking. What would it really take to put up a solar system to take care of me and my family?

bill_IMG_1204To start with, we need to know how much energy we already use. That’s pretty easy, just check the electric bill. Last month, we used 270Kwh. That’s less than a third of what the average American home uses, and frankly, it was a pretty good month for us. Our energy use has historically been a little higher than that, but I did also just recently refit the entire house with LED light bulbs and WAS expecting to see at least a little drop in electric use. (No joke, the other day, the power company stopped by to look at my meter, thinking it wasn’t working right!)

So, if I know how much energy I used (270 Kwh) and I know how much sun we get in my area (4.52 average peak per day,) then I can figure out how big of a system I would need to make that much energy. I thought I would run a test example based on a system exactly one-half of what the author of the article built. So, 3,000 watts (3Kw) times 4.52 (peak sun hours) times 30 (days in a month) is 3,000 x 4.52 x 30 = 406800 or 406.8 Kwh. That’s MORE than the 270 we used last month, and right around what I believe our new average will be.

I visited an online solar equipment seller and priced out 10 315 watt panels. They were right around a buck-a-watt, or $3100 for the set. Looking at grid-tie inverters in the 3Kw range, they were priced from $1500-$2000. So, for about five grand, I could have the main solar components, although I would still need cables, a disconnect, shipping, etc, which would of course add to the cost.

altE_kitWhile I was on that particular web page, I did see that they sold some solar “kits”. These include all the major components for a system, INCLUDING disconnects and the solar panel racking. One of the kits was for a 2.5KW grid-tie system using micro-inverters. The kit costs just under $6,000.

But wait! Let’s figure in what’s available for financial incentives in my area. There’s a federal tax CREDIT of %30 for solar systems (any excess on the tax bill can even be carried over to the next year!) and there’s that $2,400 refund through Focus on Energy. So….
-$1800 (30%)
-$2400 (Focus on Energy refund)
=$1800 final cost

What? Really?! I could basically never have to pay for electricity again (or burn any coal or nuclear fuel) for under two grand!?!? Yep, that’s right. Well, it does presume a few things. This would assume that I do the labor myself AND I already have an appropriate place for the panels. On top of that, I would still need to shell out some money for permits and to get an official qualified electrician to sign off on the project.

DSC_7210Keep in mind that physical space is also a major consideration for solar. You need a good sunny location, free of trees and other shadow-producers to make that kind of energy. Unfortunately, I have a narrow “double-deep” city-style lot that runs north and south, and a heavy tree-line from the neighbors. The ONLY legitimate location for solar at my house is on the roof of my garage. (The exception to that was mounting a 48V solar panel on a custom child’s playhouse to get it out of the shadow of the house!)

solar_chickenscratchings_IMG_1203The garage itself is a a little over 20-foot square. Will that many solar panels even FIT on my roof?! Those 250-watt Kyocera panels measure 66 inches high by 39 inches wide. So, a configuration of five-wide by two panels tall would be 16.25 feet wide by almost 11 feet high. 16 feet is less than the 20 foot width of the building. Running Pythagoras’ theorem on a 12/12 pitch roof of a 20′ square building comes up with a roof height of just over 14 feet. The solar panels wouldn’t just fit on the roof, they would fill it nicely, and LOOK GOOD!

So, solar power for the cost of an old used car? AND it fits on my roof? Sign me up! Even going with a 2.5K system instead of a 3K, I’d still be averaging 339 Kwh per month. Again, more energy than I used last month, although probably a little under our monthly average use. Using the slightly larger Solar World 315 watt panels would get me to right about my average energy use.

Some people like to think about things solely in terms of financial return on investment. If so, how would this theoretical solar system stack up?  Well, it would save me $40 a month on my bill. At a cost of $2000, it would pay for itself in 50 months, or just over four years. Every month after that, it’s like I’d be getting paid $40. (Although I’d still have to pay the $6 monthly meter fee!)

So, does solar energy cost a lot of money? Think again, it might not cost what you think!

Stay charged up!


PS: Am I going to run out and buy a system right now? Sadly, no. My garage is very old, and the roof faces east/west instead of north/south. I intend to rebuild it anyways, and since I will, I’ll design it specifically with a south-facing 45-degree roof. Needless to say, I won’t have a “real” solar setup until after dealing with lot lines, permits, and building plan meetings…..


Motorcycle NiMH battery pack upgrade –

by Ben N on October 29, 2014

Two weeks ago, I got started on my electric motorcycle battery pack upgrade by tearing apart a Ford Escape Hybrid battery pack.

After that, I was trying to figure out the best way to repack the cells into a size and shape appropriate for the motorcycle. Since I already had the original black plastic battery tray material from the Escape pack, I tried reusing that, cutting it to the size needed.

While working on that, I noticed a few things. One was that there are two different sizes of bus bars used in the pack. That accounts for the fact that every couple of rows of cells, there’s some additional spacing for the bolts that go through and hold the entire pack together. That means that I won’t be able to use an even spacing of the cells in my motorcycle pack design.

Also, the plastic that makes up the original battery tray is really terrible stuff. It’s brittle, smelly, and impossible to cut straight. After making a few cuts to try to create a smaller pack, I also found out that the material is less symmetrical than I thought it was. That means that bolt holes from one piece will NOT line up with those from another.

Back to the drawing board, I’ve seen cylindrical cells mounted through sheet plastic with round holes cut in it. Would this work for my project? Who knows? The only way to find out is to try it. I measured the diameter of one of the cells, and then drew that as a circle on a computer drawing program. I duplicated it 47 more times, trying to arrange it to fit inside the rough shape of the motorcycle frame. That done, I saved the file and took it over to a friend who has a laser-cutter. We put some scrap cardboard in the cutter and used it to carve the holes out of the cardboard.

I arranged the cells through the cardboard template inside a milk-crate (to hold the weight) and saw how the cells were spaced out. Overall, it looked like it should work fine, although without the cardboard templates connected to each other, the entire array was floppy and difficult to work with.

Of course, I really can’t do any EXACT work on the size and shape of the NiMH battery pack without getting good measurements of the inside of the motorcycle frame. And that’s rather hard to do with the existing Optima YellowTops. It was time for them to come out. I set to work taking off the tank, removing the top tie-downs, followed by the electric connections.

After removing the top two batteries, I noticed that I had forgotten how the middle part of the rack also supported the plate that holds the controller, main contractor, fuse, and other important components. I’ll have to support this in some other way when I get the new battery pack in. I removed the bolts going from the middle section of rack to the frame, and was able to get the middle section out.

After that, it was just a matter of disconnecting the power cables on the bottom two batteries before removing them from the frame.

At this point, I now have an electric motorcycle with NO BATTERIES in it. The only thing I can really tell you so far is that it’s considerably lighter and easier to push without battery weight.

So, what’s my next step? Hmmmm. I’m thinking that perhaps I just actually set the cells right down on the bottom of the bike frame. I don’t think it would be too hard to connect them with the bus bars to make a small pack. I could even space out the cells with just some foam or scrap wood for now. A block of cells could be strapped right down to the frame for temporary testing. The next trouble that I see is creating bus bars or cables for connecting the columns of cells together. In the Ford Escape Hybrid, the cells were only in two layers. In the cycle, it’s likely going to be 12 layers high! That’s going to mean MANY more vertical connections – ones that I don’t have bus bars from the Ford battery pack for.