Getting ready for Spring

by Ben N on April 20, 2014

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Weather in Wisconsin is weird. Last week, it was snowing. This afternoon, it was 75 degrees and I swatted my first mosquito. Go figure. Well, while I had the chance, it was time to break out the electric motorcycle for spring.

One of the many things I like about electric motorcycles is how EASY they are to winterize and to get back on the road in the spring.

Actually, the first biggest hurdle is getting everything else out of my way in the garage to physically get the bike out! After that, it’s just a matter of checking battery voltage, put a little air in the tires, and check the chain and brakes. There’s no gunked up carburetors, no oil change, no loud exhaust, no adding fresh gas.

This  year, however, I DID have a problem with the batteries!

I removed the gas tank cover to be able to access each of the four batteries, and found that they were ALL low! Where did I go wrong? Did I forget to do a good full charge before storing for the winter? I’m not sure. I put four individual chargers on for a few hours, tested the voltage, and took it for a spin around the block, and everything worked great! The worst I really had to do was top off the batteries, but still, it shows how they are aging. Oh well, it’s been about seven years now since I’ve had these batteries, which sounds about right for a set of lead-acid. Maybe I’ll have to start saving up for that replacement lithium pack…

I’ll be showing off the cycle at an Earth Day clean transportation event in two days, so I wanted to get everything ready. Besides simply making sure the bike was running, I had also created a little custom graphic for it, using the vinyl-cutter at the Milwaukee Makerspace. I created some black lettering for the cycle, and some white lettering for the Hymotion Prius.

IMG_3401IMG_3394 Speaking of other spring fun, yesterday, I attended the DRIVE SMART WISCONSIN meeting. It’s always a good time with Milwaukee area folks getting together, showing off their cars, a formal presentation, discussion, and a pot-luck lunch. Vehicles of the day included a Ford Fusion Hybrid, Nissan Leaf, Ford C-Max Energi, gen 1 Honda Insight, and every flavor of Prius. For something different, I brought along my solar-powered power-wheels. I wanted to show how it worked, and since there were no small children there to drive it, I also demonstrated how a double-jointed adult can drive the tiny solar car! (If you are on Facebook, check out the club’s Facebook page.)

(Photo by Bradlee Fons, Drive $smart Wisconsin)

In other fun, I also got to be a guest on TRANSPORT EVOLVED, the web’s #1 internet electric vehicle talk show. We talked about recent EV news including how to get a speeding ticket in an electric car. You can see the April 18th show and read show notes at http://transportevolved.com

So, the sun’s been shining. It’s that time of year to transition from 30 below zero when I can’t work on projects at all (except maybe the Ice Scooter!) to being WAY too busy to get anything done.

I hope spring is treating you well so far. So get out there, save some gas, and have some fun.

Take care,

-Ben

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So You Want a Teardrop Trailer

by Ben N on April 2, 2014

camper_kristin_ben_01 (Our Teardrop, not even completely finished yet.)

 

In case you didn’t know, a “Teardrop Trailer” is a particular style of camper that dates back to the post-war years. Articles and plans were found in POPULAR MECHANICS type magazines, and they were often built from left-over airplane aluminum.

In more recent times, Teardrop Trailers have gained popularity. Not only do they have a great retro design, but they are typically smaller and lighter than other traditional types of campers, and easy to pull with a car, instead of requiring a large truck. This also saves on fuel. (I’ve even talked to people who claim to get BETTER fuel economy pulling the trailer than without, due to aerodynamics. I believe this is true with very particular designs of teardrops, but not MOST of them.)

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In the past few days, a friend of mine talked about building one (he helped me clear-coat the inside of mine) and another person stopped by our house after seeing mine parked behind my garage. So, maybe it was time to get a little more info out to the public in general. So, here goes.

Most teardrops are 4′x8′ to no more than 6′x12′ for a very large one. They usually have either an aluminum or painted wood exterior. (Although many commercial ones are fiberglass paneled.) A key feature is that the entire inside is just a sleeping area. The galley (kitchen) is on the OUTSIDE, and accessed through a lifted hatch. Cooking is done outside the camper, using the shelves and counter in the galley to prepare and cook food. Teardrops are rigid and insulated, so they are a snap to setup and cozy and warm to sleep in. Some people might install a microwave or air-conditioner, but teardrops usually tend to be on the simple side. Many teardrops are home-built.

DSC_2386I built my own teardrop. I had never done any project like it before. In fact, it’s pretty much my first “real” D.I.Y. project. I bought a set of plans as a PDF download and then printed them out and put them in a three-ring binder for easy use while building the project. The base is a Harbor Freight 4′x8′ utility trailer with 12″ wheels.

On top of that, I built curved plywood walls, cross-spars, and a roof. I cut out the doors and installed wiring for a few 12V lights. The roof was covered with aluminum that I bought from a place that repairs semi-truck trailers. We had a really bad hail storm once with hail-stones the size of golf-balls. My wife’s car was all dinged up (as was everyone’s in our neighborhood) but the teardrop trailer was just fine.

I learned quite a bit working on the camper about electrical, using a router, and other construction skills. Here’s a few key pieces of advice I would give to anyone who wants to build their own:

  • Make it MORE than four feet wide. 4′x8′ utility trailers are affordable, but don’t offer much elbow room if two adults are in the camper. If you can weld, make your own five-foot-wide frame. If you can’t weld, spend the extra money to purchase a wider utility trailer. It’s worth it in the long-run.
  • Water-proof, water-proof, water-proof. It’s amazing how in a few years, water can work it’s ways into the tiniest cracks. Do everything possible to use EXTERIOR-GRADE materials, and really take your time and pay attention to how you caulk. I used a wood finish on the sides, which I LOVE the look of, but they haven’t faired well over time against water damage. The aluminum roof is great, but I do get some water inside the galley, due to the sealing at the hinge. I would recommend treating the galley like the exterior of the teardrop – use weatherproof and durable materials.
  • Ventilate! One advantage of the teardrop is how cozy and warm it is. It’s sealed up well and not very big, so body heat alone can keep it pretty warm on cold nights, but you need to breath in there as well! Use screen windows on BOTH doors and a 12V “Fantastic Vent”. On a hot night, open the windows and set the vent fan to draw air OUT of the trailer. It’s every bit as good as air-conditioning, but can run off a small 12V battery.
  • Avoid “Built-Ins”. This one is up to your personal preference, but I would advise to avoid built-in water tanks and ice boxes. The main reason is for simplicity. I already had a good cooler and water jug for tent camping. The teardrop plans called for building in an ice-box and mounting a water tank below the frame. To me, these just complicate things. It’s harder to clean an ice box than to just pull out a cooler and wash it out. It’s also a lot easier for me to carry my cooler into my kitchen and load it up before a trip. As for a built-in water tank, that means I have to take my entire trailer to a source of water, instead of just walking to a tap at the camp-ground and filling my three-gallon blue water jug.

Overall, a teardrop trailer isn’t hard to build, and it sure is fun to camp in. My wife and I used to camp in a tent, but hated lumpy, un-level ground. I also never liked cooking on a picnic table that rocks back and forth. One morning, I cracked an egg into a frying pan, and it slid right out because the table was SO un-level. Having a teardrop solves all those problems. You have a clean, soft, level bed, a place to lock up your food against the raccoons, and a little bit of electricity for some lighting and maybe a radio.

Yep, having a teardrop trailer is a luxury, without investing in a “Battle Bus” or other large camper that just seems like a house on wheels.

Maybe you would like to make your own teardrop. If so, here’s a few links to help you out.

Plans! A good set of plans is incredibly valuable. I bought the “Cubby” plans from Kuffel Creek. They were well worth it. http://www.kuffelcreek.com/teardrops.htm (Do NOT buy “plans” from eBay, they are pretty much all scams and rip-offs!)

One of the best things you can do while working on a project is to join a community of other people who are into the same hobby. The Teardrops and Tiny Travel Trailers web forum at http://www.tnttt.com is a great place to start. There’s lots of people who will answer any questions you have and plenty of “Build Threads” where people show off what they are making, step-by-step, as they build it.

teardrop-trailerLastly, whether you want to build or BUY a teardrop, check out what is commercially available. There’s been a boom of small teardrop manufacturers. You might find that you just want to buy (or maybe even find one used.) Even if you are building, you can get some great ideas from the commercial builders. The best high-end teardrops are made by Camp-Inn. They build gorgeous teardrops in several models and have lots of great accessories. When I was building mine, I visited them and bought a few hard to find parts from them while I was there. Check out their campers at http://www.tinycamper.com

Whether you build or buy, teardrop trailers are great campers that save fuel, are convenient, and a whole lot of fun…… As long as you don’t mind all the other campers coming over to look at your trailer….

 

PS: If you would like to see a whole bunch of teardrop trailers, and happen to be in either Wisconsin or upper Illinois, stop at the Cooler Near the Lake teardrop gathering at Wisconsin’s Kohler-Andre State Park from April 24-27, 2014!
http://www.tnttt.com/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=57806

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Towing with the Ice Scooter

by Ben N on February 15, 2014

This afternoon, I was able to get back out on the ice again. I had tested towing a sled last time, and was pretty confident that I wasn’t going to flip it over.

So, this time, I had the Little Girl and her Mother with me. I loaded the Little Girl up into the sled to take her for a ride. We got her dressed ahead of time in snow-pants, and I put her beanbag chair in the sled (styrofoam beans are great insulation!), along with a blanket. We wouldn’t be able to ruin the fun by her getting cold.

The sled pulled pretty good with her in it. One thing I wasn’t thinking about was how much “crack-the-whip” action I could get going on during turns. We had quite a bit of fun whipping her around corners on the ice.

I took it fairly slow overall, and the rear fender kept ice from getting kicked up behind the scooter. If you haven’t already, peep the video at the top of the post.

Wherever you are, and no matter how cold out it is (or not) do what you can to get outside and have some fun. I know I will!

-Ben

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Ice Scooter

by Ben N on February 12, 2014

The last few days, I’ve been working on a little winter transportation project – THE ICE SCOOTER!

This project got in my head when I saw a pair of ice skates sitting right next to a Razor brand kick scooter at the thrift store. I couldn’t help but think what a scooter might look like with an ice-skates in place of the wheels.

A few days later, I was at the Milwaukee Makerspace, and saw my old salvaged EV scooter on the hack rack. It was missing the front wheel, and the motor controller was fried, but it would make a great frame to convert to an ice scooter.

So I set to work on the project. Adding an ice skate to the front couldn’t have been easier. Just drill a hole through the skate, insert a spacer, and slide a bolt through the front fork and the skate, and then tighten it down with a nut.

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It turned out that the motor is brushless DC, which I had really never worked with before. So, I did a little reading up on the subject and then mail-ordered a generic 250 watt 24V brushless motor controller. Unfortunately, the controller used a different style of throttle than what was already on the scooter, so I had to order a replacement throttle as well.

Hooking up the motor controller was pretty straight-forward – 3 wires from the controller to the motor, and a black and red pair to the batteries. Actually, I didn’t even have the right batteries at first, so I did my bench-testing with an old printer power supply at about 28V. Once everything tested well, I reinstalled the motor in the scooter, along with the controller, and swapped out the throttle.

I wasn’t able to find anything in my garage that would work well for batteries, so I bit the bullet and spent money on a brand-new pair. The big upside is that they are exactly the right size and shape for the scooter. DSC_0369 IMG_3051I bought two 12AH SLA (sealed lead-acid) batteries. This is a style similar to what you might see inside a UPS. I put both into the scooter and wired them in series for 24V and added a fuse.

Next, I needed a deck for the scooter. Not only would it hold down and cover the batteries, but it gives the operator a place to stand as well. I took a look through my local dumpster (where I have permission to dive) and found a pair of old cabinet doors. They were about the right size to make a deck from. I cut them to size and drilled a few holes to bolt them to the scooter.

With that, I was ready to go out for a spin. I live right outside a city with several lakes. Lots of people ice fish there, and the city plows an area for people to ice skate and play hockey on. I headed out to that section and played with the scooter on the ice for a while. It was a blast! Unfortunately, the lack of traction on the smooth rear tire also made steering pretty difficult. Anything more than the gentlest of turns would make the back end fish-tail right out from under me.

Time for an upgrade.

The next day, I set to work improving the traction. I first tried making a tiny tire chain from zip-ties, but surprisingly, the space between the wheel and the frame really didn’t allow for it. Next, I decided I would instead take apart the wheel, get to the tire, and add studs to it. I only had a half-an-inch gap between the wheel and frame, so I needed something short and simple. DSC_0406DSC_0393I found that 1/2″ self-tapping sheet metal screws were just about the right size. Ones with a domed “pan-head” would minimize friction against the inner tube. I drove 24 screws, one per inch, through the tire from the inside. I then cut a short section of old bicycle inner tube to use as a liner. This makes a flexible barrier between the screws and the scooter’s inner tube. I put the inner tube back in and then reassembled the tire onto the rim and mounted the wheel back into the scooter.

For my second trip out on the lake, I decided to play it a bit safer. I put on my motorcycle jacket, because it has padding at the shoulders and elbows. After a fall on the first trip out, I quickly recalled how painful it is to fall on ice. I brought my helmet with as well.

I was really impressed with how much better the scooter worked on the ice with the tire spikes. I had plenty of fun zipping around. Steering was greatly improved, as the back wheel actually stayed under me. The brakes worked as well, now that there was some actual friction in play.

Battery life seemed pretty good. Tooling around the lake for a half hour to 45 minutes took the batteries from 12.8v each down to 12.5v.

There’s still room for improvement. I still need to wire up a real ON/OFF switch for the motor controller, and I have to charge the batteries one at a time with a 12V charger, as I don’t own a small 24V charger.

Overall, the ice scooter WORKS GREAT! It’s tons of fun and gets me  outside and moving around, instead of stuck inside with cabin fever.

’til next time, stay charged up!
-Ben

DSC_0423 DSC_0428 DSC_0424Ben on Ice Scooter GOPR0070_lookingdown GOPR0070_sunflare skate_cam tire spike

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Real-World ELECTRIC SCOOTER

by Ben N on January 27, 2014

Here in the Midwest, it seems like we’re the LAST to get EVs. That’s one of many reasons that I was excited to see FLUX MOPEDS, an EV start-up in Madison, Wisconsin.

Flux was founded by two smart guys who saw the need for some simple and clean local transportation. The Flux scooter is designed for urban areas, and has essentially the same specs (top speed, no need for motorcycle license, same parking limitations) as a gas 50cc scooter, although acceleration is better, it’s much quieter, and best of all, no gasoline is involved.

Madison is not only the capitol of Wisconsin, but also a big college town, with a large student population, nearly all of who live in a dorm, an apartment, or some other place without a garage or off-street parking. Not only can the Flux moped  charge from a standard wall outlet, the battery pack is REMOVABLE, so it’s easy to carry into an apartment for indoor charging.

I got to test ride a Flux moped before winter hit, and I have to say that it’s very likable. It behaves exactly the way you think it should – twist the throttle and go. There’s no learning curve, engine vibration, or blue smoke.

The price is good too. Retail is just under $2K. That’s almost exactly what I spent building my own electric motorcycle. With the Flux, you can just buy one and go, instead of spending an entire summer trying to build something yourself. Besides, that, they are also encouraging winter purchases with a sale right now, with a brand-new scooter going for only $1799.

I shot a video interview with one of the founders, and still need to edit it up. Look for that soon. In the mean time, check out their official product video, and visit them at: http://www.fluxmopeds.com

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