Around the World in 80 Days

by Ben N on April 25, 2016

IMG_8708When I was a kid, I read in amazement as the British Gentleman Phileas Fogg made it AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS. The explorer trekked across the world with pocket-watch precision, using rail, steam, all of the modern conveniences of the late 1800′s, to complete an unimaginable journey around the world.

As I headed in to work this evening, I stopped and grabbed dinner. I paid with my Paypal card, checking my current balance on my phone.

I also looked at the newspaper. On the front of the World News section was an article about a solar-powered airplane landing on the United States mainland, on its trip around the world. Kitty Hawk was only a little over 100 years ago. Now, we aren’t too far from perpetual solar flight. Imagine a world in which a solar powered airplane just circles, day and night, broadcasting from Wi-Fi?!

Two weeks ago, SpaceX landed a rocket on it’s tail-fins just like in a Marvin the Martian cartoon.

Recently, a number of folks have criss-crossed the country setting all sorts of records on electric motorcycles.

Modern Gentleman Explorers are bringing us the future RIGHT NOW! But it’s not just Elon Musk, Bertrand Piccard, or even Terry Hershner. There’s lots of us living in the future every single day.

While I’m no pilot, I, like many of us, drive a car. Every. Single. Day.
And while I’m not crossing the country, I’m still usually driving on solar power. I charge my car at home. No, the car isn’t covered with solar panels. I don’t even have solar on my garage. I just have one solar panel on the roof of my Little Girl’s club-house! Still, it’s enough to provide 40% of the power to the car while I charge it. I’m using a small grid-tie inverter. As long as the sun shines, and I have the car plugged in, it just slurps up the solar energy. At night, (or cloudy days) my house is still 100% renewable energy powered through a program from my local, municipally-owned, co-op electric power utility. IMG_6661My car isn’t even a Tesla. Nope, it’s a heck of a lot better than that, because I can AFFORD the car I drive! I’m in the wrong tax bracket for a Model S, and the Model III is still a few years out. In the mean time, I’m pretty happy driving my renewable energy compact car.

IMG_4099I’m not the only one. Even my 5-year-old girl has a solar-powered car, that she even helped build. Unlike SpaceX, it’s NOT rocket science – just a kids PowerWheels car that’s been modified with a solar panel and an updated battery. On the other hand, I’ve NEVER had to plug it in! Even the naysayers that usually suggest that all electric cars are powered by coal get a kick out of the Barbie Solar-Powered Jeep!

It makes me wonder what will happen in the future. My Little Girl might NEVER drive a gasoline car. EVER. Who would want to, with all the extra cost of fuel and maintenance? Her first car might be an old beat-up Model III! She might not drive at all. I can’t imagine how our transportation system will change when Uber and Tesla Auto-Pilot merge. When I saw the official release of the Model III, it looked like the driver’s seat was designed so that it would act as one more passenger seat. Why have a driver’s license, when you tap your phone and a car comes right to you and picks you up!? TOTAL RECALL’s Johnny Cab isn’t that far away.

IMG_5375We are living in an amazing time. The future is happening right now. When I hopped on an electric motorcycle and rode 1276 miles AROUND Lake Michigan, without using a single drop of gas, maybe I was just living the dream of a 10 year old boy reading Jules Verne.

I wonder what Phileas Fogg would think of that?

Till next time, stay charged up!
-Ben

 

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iMiEV Heater Installation

by Ben N on February 14, 2016

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Overall, I love my little electric car, the Mitsubishi iMiEV. It’s a good, affordable, all electric commuter car.

It’s one shortcoming is that it was never designed for COLD Wisconsin winters. The heater is electric (of course!) but it heats a liquid antifreeze (coolant) which then circulates through a heater core, where a fan finally blows the heat into the car. It’s not particularly efficient and has a bit of a warm-up time. On top of that, the system only heats the coolant to around 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Most typical gas cars keep the engine coolant at 190 degrees once they are at temperature!

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The car also has the smallest battery pack of any commercially-available battery-electric car in the United States. Combine a small battery pack with an inefficient heater, and a Wisconsin winter, and it becomes a recipe for short range and a cold driver. In this screen grab, red shows energy used by the heater, and blue shows energy used to push the car down the road. When it’s really cold, range can be shortened by a third or more!

So, after reading lots of information about “Winterizing” these cars on the MyiMiEV forum, I decided to install a dedicated fuel-burning heater. The heater I chose was one already used by several of those forum members. It’s a generic version of an Espar 5kW liquid heater. My heater was roughly $500 and was purchased through Aliexpress.com. You can also find the heater through the manufacturer’s web page. It’s the 5kW 12V Gasoline version.

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So, far, I’m running the heater on E85 from my local gas station. I have a friend who makes his own ethanol from scratch, and I intend to get some pure, sustainably produced ethanol from him. Even with the heater running full blast, fuel use translates into hundreds of miles per gallon.

Mounting the heater in parallel with the original electric heating system allows me to use the electric OR liquid-fueled heater, and I can still use the car’s electric “pre-heat” feature. I intend to use the fuel burner when it’s either very cold, or when I have concerns about range, due to the electric heater otherwise sapping power.

In effect, what I am doing is using a liquid fuel for heating, to maximize battery energy for propulsion – trying to “use the right tool for the right job”!

After the heater arrived in the mail, I first rigged it up on a stand in my garage to learn what I needed to do to hook it up and test it. I also shot some thermal video of the heater running hot water into a bucket as an initial test.

Once I had a basic understanding of the heater, I started the process of the actual installation of the heater into the car.

What follows is a series of 6 videos showing step by step how I installed this heater in the car.

A big Thank You to other Mitsubishi iMiEV owners who have shared information on modifying the heater systems in their cars! I hope these videos help anyone else who is interested in hybridizing their heating system in cold climates!

I’ll add some more information here as I get more experience using this heater!

-Ben Nelson

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Free Car and More: Read the Sticker!

by Ben N on February 12, 2016

MItsubishi iMiEV window tag

I finally found what I was looking for – the official EPA/DOT window cling for a 2012 Mitsubishi iMiEV.

Since I bought my car used, it didn’t have the window sticker that describes the car’s fuel economy and several other important pieces of information. Recently, I found a photo of one from another car that was for sale. Take a look, there’s some very interesting stuff here. This is the highlights of what I noticed.

  • Best fuel economy – period. The fine print reads “The best vehicle rates 112 MPGe”. In the large print, it lists this vehicle as 112 MPGe. Why doesn’t it just say THIS IS THE BEST MPG VEHICLE!!? As in, in 2012, you could NOT buy a MORE EFFICIENT car in the United States! It’s this! Pick this one!
  • Top of the charts. The car rates 10 out of 10 on fuel economy, minimizing greenhouse gasses, and minimizing smog.
  • Pays for itself! I bought this 2012 model year car, used, in 2015 for $7,000. The tag says that it will save $9,850 in fuel over five years vs. the average vehicle. Less than five years from now, my car will have literally paid for itself! Of course, this does depend on the cost of gasoline, which is why I am tracking my odometer, cost of electricity, and average gasoline cost. That way, I will be able to calculate the actual date that my car pays for itself, not just an “on average” guess based on stock numbers.
  • Energy sources still matter. The fine print makes passing reference to where energy comes from. “Does not include emissions from generating electricity.” Traditional energy production does create pollution and CO2 production (although LESS than what a gas car would!) However, using electricity is the easiest way to switch to a renewable/sustainable energy source. I already purchase renewably-produced electricity through my power provider, and I have a small solar panel. I’m actively getting ready to install a large solar array. Once that’s installed, I will be able to create enough energy to simultaneously charge my car and power my entire house. After that, I will literally Drive for Free, Forever.
  • Emissions are bad! Notice the grim warning of “Vehicle emissions are a SIGNIFICANT cause of climate change and smog.” It reminds me of the warnings on packs of cigarettes. Most people finally agree that smoking is bad. Glad to see warnings on car as well.
  • Who’s the competition? Perhaps the oddest piece of information on this form is about the other cars in the same category. “Subcompact cars range from 10 to 112 MPGe.” What subcompact car gets TEN MILES PER GALLON!? And who would drive it!? Yipes! The tag also points out that the AVERAGE car in 2012 only got 22 MPG. I think we can do better than that, America!

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Well, those are the main things that jumped out at me. How about you? Perhaps you would love a super-efficient car that can also run on renewable power, but the Mitsubishi iMiEV just isn’t the one for you. That’s fine, there’s LOTS of other great vehicles with plugs out there. In fact, even the efficiency of the car has already been surpassed. The 2014 BMW i3 gets the equivalent of 124 miles per gallon. Even a used Chevy Volt (which you can get GREAT deals on right now) gets the equivalent of almost 100 miles per gallon, and can do the average daily commute solely on electricity, but you can still take an out of town trip in the same car.

Here’s the important thing. You could be saving $9,000 on fueling your next car. Just make sure you read the sticker.

Stay charged up,
-Ben

PS: If you don’t want to make the trip to the car lot, just check out everything you ever wanted to know about car efficiency at https://www.fueleconomy.gov/

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Fired Up! Testing the fuel heater

by Ben N on February 7, 2016

As much as I like the all electric Mitsubishi iMiEV car, it’s Achilles Heel is the heating system. The combination of a small battery pack and inefficient heater just slays winter driving range.

So, it’s time to upgrade the heating system!

Several other iMiEV owners have experimented with “parking heaters” – fuel-burning heaters to supplement the existing electric heating system. You can read about that here.)

IMG_7664I ordered the heater a couple of weeks ago and it finally showed up the other day. Inside the box was the heater itself, radiator hose, a wire harness, and more tiny hose clamps than I care to count. I spread the items out on my living room floor to see what was there, and how it would all go together. The “Made in China” documentation was NOT particularly good, but it’s pretty obvious where the radiator hose should connect. Likewise, the wire harness isn’t hard to figure out – the four pin male connector goes to the four pin female connector, etc.

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Before going through the major steps of taking the car apart, I wanted to try out the heater and see how it works. To do so, I mocked up an installation by mounting the heater and its associated parts to a wooden pallet. For fuel, I stopped by my local gas station, which sells E85 fuel. That’s 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. In the long run, I’m planning on running the heater on 100% ethanol, but it was pretty nice to have E85 so easily available locally. I bought one-fifth of a gallon, which came to a cost of 32 cents.

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To mount the mock-up, I screwed the mounting bracket to the pallet, then set the furnace onto that. Next, I began connecting the fuel line, going from the heater to the 12V fuel pump, and finally to the temporary fuel tank. For that, I drilled a 1/8″ hole into the cap of a camping fuel bottle. The rigid fuel pickup goes through the hole and down into the bottle.

I also hooked up the aluminum tubing air intake into the bottle of the heater. An air filter went on the opposite end. On the exhaust side, I installed the larger aluminum exhaust pipe.

I cut the large radiator hose into two equal pieces. Those went onto the two connections on the side of the heater, one for cold water in and the other for the hot water out. I ran both hoses to a bucket of water.

The wire harness was easy to connect. One plug went to the fuel pump, and one to the small control panel. Two other wires were obviously for 12V + and – connections. I hooked those up to a large 12V battery I had around.

IMG_7679With that, the fuel-burning boiler was ready for testing. I pressed the “Heat” button on the control panel and I could hear various sounds of the heater, but mostly, I heard the shriek of the internal water pump. Many pumps are lubricated by the fluid traveling through them, and not all pumps are “self-priming”. Just turning the heater on did NOT mean that it would be powerful enough to suck water out of the bucket. I lifted the bucket up onto a stool, to make it the same height as the heater, and moments later, I could hear the water being pumped properly, which was confirmed by a sudden steady stream of water back out the other water hose.

I had NOT yet installed the muffler, as that required cutting the exhaust pipe, and I didn’t know what length I would need to cut it to for installation in the car. So, the sound of the heater was rather loud. It sounds like a jet engine – a steady roar, rather than the putt-putt-putt of an internal combustion engine.

The fuel pump makes a little noise too. It’s a “pulse” 12V pump, which makes a steady, repeating, clicking sound. It was interesting to see the fuel pumped up from the bottle with little air bubbles in it at first, then slowly going away once the fuel fully filled the line.

IMG_7710I shot some stills and motion video with my thermal camera. The exhaust pipe does get very hot, as one might expect. The water in the bucket started off at room temperature and fairly quickly heated up. It didn’t take long until there was steam rising from the top of the bucket. The rubber radiator hose is an insulator compared to the metal components. I measured water coming out of the hose at over 170 degrees F. I believe that the heater in the iMiEV tops out at 140 degrees.

Overall, it was a great first test, and I’m fairly impressed. Next, maybe I’ll just install the muffler at the very end, so I can hear what a difference it makes WITHOUT having to yet cut the exhaust pipe. I also need to measure how much fuel I used. I started with a full bottle and ran the heater for 30 minutes, so I should easily be able to calculate a volume of fuel per hour of heating.

I’m hoping to install the heater in the car sometime later this week. I also need to make an appointment to go visit the friend who makes his own ethanol, so that I can run the heater on home-brew!

Till next time, stay fired-up!
-Ben

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Prius 12V Battery Replacement and the Ice Pick

by Ben N on January 24, 2016

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I like ice – in a glass with a drink.

So, when it was time to replace the 12V battery in our Prius, I wan’t pleased to see it frozen in place, encased in a block of solid ice….

Recently, we’ve had a spell of extra cold weather – multiple days of 0 degrees Fahrenheit, with 15 to 20 below windchills. One of those mornings, I got a panicked call from my wife – trapped at the grocery store because the Prius wouldn’t start. I ended up driving over there in the Mitsubishi iMiEV electric car and brought my jumper cables. Sure enough, the Prius was as dead as a door-nail. The dome lights wouldn’t come on, no signs of life whatsoever.

When it’s that cold, jumper cables don’t uncurl – they just stay frozen in whatever coiled up shape they were in. Likewise, it’s ill-advisable to be outdoors without thick gloves, yet the tiny plastic hooks that hold the fuse box cover on cannot be undone with hands so encumbered. (I heard once that everything on the exterior of the Space Shuttles and the Space Station is very large and easy to grasp, so that astronauts in their bulky space-suits can still fix things.)

IMG_7437Long story short, I got the Prius started, although it took a while and I was not very comfortable. Even after I got it started, I still had to clear out all the error codes and reset the computer. Why the car started OK at the house but NOT later at the grocery store, I’ll never know. The only thing that I could think of is that the car was more exposed to the wind at the store.

So, I decided it was time for a new battery. I really wanted to get something better than a stock battery, and I had heard that Optima designed a battery just for the Prius. I had always been very happy with the YellowTops I put in my motorcycle, so I decided I’d get the small Optima for the Prius. I checked online and saw that the local auto parts store had one in stock….. for $230! Sounded a little pricy to me.

I checked some other sources and eventually found that I could get the same battery on Amazon.com WITH, here’s the kicker, FREE shipping, for $150.

I figured that I wanted the weather to warm up a little before I changed the battery. I cold wait two days for the battery to show up, and the weather to warm.

So that’s why I was out in my driveway today. Time to swap out for the new battery.

In a Prius, the battery is in the far back right corner. Basically, it’s in the trunk, instead of under the hood. I figured that may have contributed to why it didn’t work. Not only was it cold, but it didn’t even get any heat when the engine was running!

IMG_7483I cleared out the trunk, folded back the cover, removed the right-rear panel that covers the battery, and got to work. To start with, the top of the battery is covered with several electrical connections that go to a few small fuses right on the battery. I unplugged those. Next was removing a plastic vent that goes over the battery. One bolt screwed that to the bottom of the car. This car is modified with an aftermarket additional lithium battery (A Hymotion L-5 Plug-in System.) Unfortunately, it just made it a little harder to get to this bolt. I had several socket extensions, and I was able to get the 10mm socket down between the Hymotion and the vent. After removing the other bolt that holds the plastic vent tube in place, I removed the vent as well.

IMG_7481With the unnecessaries out of the way, I could finally see what the problem with the battery was. It was embedded in a block of ice. OK, well, not completely covered, but it WAS sitting in a layer of ice a good two inches thick. It looked as though someone poured about a half-gallon of water around the battery, and let it freeze.

There was NO WAY that I was simply going to lift the battery out. I fetched my trouble light, 1500 watt heat gun, and an extension cord. I started experimenting with melting the ice with the heat gun. Once some started to melt, I had to figure out how to get the water out. I couldn’t really get a towel or something else absorbent easily in there. I did find a piece of vinyl tubing. After a quick check of the water to make sure that it WAS water and not battery acid or some other number or horrible liquids, I sucked on the tubing, slurping the ice-water out and spitting it into a cup. I also have a pry-bar which is a hook on one end and comes to a point on the other. I can never remember the name of this particular tool, but it sure is handy for a lot of things, including use as a large ice pick. I stabbed at the ice, chipping away with the spike, the heat gun blazing in my other hand.

IMG_7494Heat, stab, slurp, spit. Not what I usually imagine myself doing in a typical car repair.

Once enough of the ice was gone, I was able to completely disconnect the battery, release the tie-down, and pry the battery loose. With the battery removed, I had more room to work. Eventually, I was even able to get at the bolts that hold in the battery bracket. I removed that as well.

I thought it was odd that this well in the corner of the car was pretty much the lowest place of the interior of the car, yet it didn’t have a drain plug. Any time I ever looked in the spare tire well on a car, there was always a rubber plug in the bottom that could be pulled to drain the car if water got inside.

IMG_7491_w_textI looked from the bottom of the car, but couldn’t get a great view without putting it up on a jack. I felt with my hands under the car. I cold feel something rubbery, that was about the right size for a drain plug, but I couldn’t pull it out. After I had everything else removed from the battery compartment, I finally found the drain plug – which was still coated in ice. After further heat-gunning, I was finally able to pull it and drain the rest of the water.

Battery_Vent_System1How did all this ice get in by the battery!?! I have no real idea, but I do have a theory: There’s no insulation around the battery, it’s just bare car sheet metal. On the right hand side of the back seat, there’s an air vent. This takes passenger compartment air and blows it through the High Voltage battery pack, to help keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The air then goes through the output vent and exits the car right near the 12V battery. Also, that vent has a large hole in it near the battery. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s so that the 12V battery also gets some temperature conditioning. However, since it’s been so cold, I don’t think there was any reasonable amount of heat going on in the car. So, cold air would go through the battery venting, come out by the very cold corner near the 12V battery and when the air hit the very cold sheet metal, the moisture would condense out and drip to the bottom, around the battery, then freeze.

IMG_7493With everything else out of the way, installing the 12V Optima YellowTop battery was pretty straight-forward. I put it in, made all the electrical connections, bolted down the battery tie-down strap, and reinstalled the piece of plastic air-vent.

We used the Prius to go visit relatives this afternoon, and everything worked just fine.

What’s to keep this ice build-up from happening again? Not much, BUT I did leave OUT the rubber plug in the bottom of the battery well. Hopefully, this should at least allow condensation to drip out. I’ll still need to come up with some sort of solution to keep this from happening again. Although part of the problem was that the battery was old, I’m not sure how well even a YellowTop will do while encased in ice.

Perhaps I could insulate the battery – wrap in in radiant barrier? Fill the void with Great Stuff? Add 120V heat tape down around the battery? Who knows! Maybe you have a good idea about how all the ice got down by the battery, and how to keep it from happening again. If you do, let me know!

Til next time, stay charged up!
-Ben

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