The Cow Car Rides Again!

by Ben N on June 6, 2018

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Why would anyone cover their car with COW SPOTS!? There’s gotta be a story behind that. Yes, there is. This is that story.

My first car was about what everybody’s first car should have been – small engine, manual transmission, good fuel economy, and NOT cool. It was a brown 1987 Geo Spectrum, a rebadged econobox which was actually an Isuzu sold by GM. It also had a 5-speed and got 47 miles per gallon no matter what.

I drove that car for years. Whenever something broke, I fixed it with a single 10 mm wrench I kept in the glove-box. If that didn’t work, duct tape or a bent wire coat-hanger did. I even removed the back seat so that it had more cargo space, essentially a two-seater station wagon. That allowed me the new power of doing things like picking full-size sofas off the curb.

I was pretty sad when it died. (Blown engine, WAAAAAY too many miles.)
At about the same time, my friend, Steve, had recently graduated college and was on to his first corporate Information Technologies job. So, it was time for him to trade in his old car, which was a white 1989 Chevy Spectrum, the same car as mine, but two years newer. While he was driving it to the car dealership, the hood flew up, smashing the windshield, denting the hood, and causing other damage. Fortunately, he was able to keep the car under control and safely pull over to the side of the road. He pulled some Cat-5 cable from the back of the car, lashed down the hood, turned around, and headed back to his apartment, where the car then sat for months.

That was then the time my car died. I had a car with no engine and other issues. He had one with no hood or windshield (or brakes, as those rusted up while the car sat in his parking lot.) I decided that the obvious course of action was for me to put the two cars together! I bought the car from Steve for $50. (He had put a $50 car battery in not that long before, after all…)

Then I set to work to combine the two cars. Transferring the windshield from one car to the other was probably the trickiest part. Otherwise, it was just a matter of unbolting sheet metal, swapping the hoods, replacing speakers, and just using the best of either car. By the time I was done, I had an unholy union of brown and white body parts and brown and gray interior. BUT IT RAN! This Franken-Car would keep me getting to work and classes.

Since more of the exterior was white than brown, I eventually collected a few cans of white spray paint and made the body a single color.

By this time, it was also starting to get some rust, including a few spots where you could see daylight right through the sheet metal. I set to work with some chicken wire and Bondo to seal the breaches. Of course, I had never worked with Bondo before, and was NOT skilled at it. The body-filled holes were lumpy and NOT well-feathered. If only I had some way to hide or camouflage the bad Bondo spots. Of course, I was now thinking about military camouflage, but had a white car, so the shapes and colors made my mind just jump straight to the look of a cow.
Genius! I would completely distract people for the bad Bondo job by covering the car in black cow spots!

I set to work, cutting cow spot shapes out of newspaper and taping them to the car. Two cans of Rustoleum Gloss Black later, my car looked like a cow! I washed the paint off my hands and went to my rehearsal dinner.

Yeah. I was doing this the night before my own wedding.

Obviously, I was pretty busy the rest of that weekend.

IMG_8845Then came Sunday afternoon. Most of my wife’s relatives were from upstate New York. Some of them had flown out for the wedding, and were now getting ready for the taxi back to the airport. We were all standing around, saying our good-bye’s at the hotel car-port. That’s when I had my brother pull around my car. The Cow Car.

Everyone burst out laughing and smiling, including my new bride. Looks like I married the right family. Hanging out from the hatch was a homemade “Just Married” banner which I quickly made while I still had out the black paint and stencils.

Everybody loved the Cow Car! Wherever I would go, people would smile and wave. Sometimes people would take photos. It was ANTI-Road-Rage! The car got more smiles per gallon than anything else I’d ever driven. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long. Those were never well-built cars, and about a year later, it died on me. It was a sad day when we were pulled over on the side of I-94, the radiator boiling over. As one last kick in the ribs, a car flying by had it’s window down and the passenger yelled “And it’s UGLY too!”, the only negative thing I had EVER heard anybody say about the cow car.

The cow car went to the great pasture in the sky, and I spent the next few years driving completely forgettable vehicles.
That was later cured when I converted a Geo Metro to electric.

IMG_8843 (1)Fast forward to today, and I’m now driving a Mitsubishi iMiEV electric car – the first affordable modern electric car released in the United States. Again, it’s also a very boring white economy car. Which is why I thought it was so interesting when I stumbled on a collectible scale model of the car…. with Cow Spots!
The model is called the 2012 Moo Moo Edition. I was baffled as to why there was a collectible model with such a strange paint job. I knew there were a few strange paint jobs for these cars, but COW SPOTS? I did web image searches trying to find the real world car that this model was based on, but never could.

mitsubishi_imiev_01Eventually, I tracked down the source.
Mitsubishi, besides offering some standard paint jobs, partnered with a vinyl graphics company. They were an OFFICIAL partner of Mitsubishi and offered graphics packages as add-ons to the car, just like getting branded floor mats or any other factory option. The company had a number of patterns ranging from techno to Hello Kitty. And they were all OFFICIAL offerings from Mitsubishi. I’ve seen photos of a few cars with some of these graphics (including Hello Kitty) but I have never yet located a single photo of a real-world Moo Moo Edition.

So, I set to work building one.
I already owned a Silhouette Cameo vinyl-cutter. This great machine is about the size and shape of an inkjet printer. Only instead of printing, it moves a blade on a carriage to cut vinyl, paper, and other flat materials. I took photos of my car and then overlaid the image of the Moo Moo Edition. I traced out the spots in vector software and arranged them all to fit on 12″ wide black vinyl. After having the Cameo make the cuts, I applied the spots to the car.

This time, it wasn’t me with some newspaper and a scissors. No black spray paint to wash-off before going to a rehearsal dinner. This time, the cow spots were perfect and EXACTLY matched the scale model.

In a weird twist of fate, I went from bad cars poorly Bondo’d, to electric cars, to one of the weirdest/most lovable  cars in the area, which is both extremely Japanese and extremely Wisconsin at the same time.

IMG_9070My first time out in the car, we headed to the old-fashion drive-in, The Kiltie, where people still bring their convertibles and classic cars on summer nights. We also stopped at the local comic book store, Kowabunga Comics, who immediately brought out their mascot cow head for me!

So, the Cow Car rides again! Reborn from my imagination, it’s easy to find in any parking lot, and makes me smile every time I see it. Instead of getting 47 mpg and leaking oil like crazy, this incarnation is all electric and is powered by sunlight hitting the solar panels on my garage. I’d like to say that it runs on “Re-Moo-able Energy”, but I know that will get too many groans as a pun.

Whatever you do in life, make it fun, make it interesting. Life is too short for boring cars.

-Moo.

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Ikea Solar and EV Charging

by Ben N on May 17, 2018

Yesterday was the Grand Opening of the Ikea Store in Oak Creek!

Was I there for flat pack furniture or meatballs? Nope! Although I did try the meatballs… I was there to show support for their EV Charging stations, and nearly 5,000 solar panels on the roof of the store!

This store is not particularly close to my house. In fact, it’s too far away to drive to AND return on a single charge of our Mitsubishi iMiEV electric car. Fortunately the store features three Electric Car charging stations! After hitting the road and getting close, police directed traffic from the interstate to the store. In the giant parking lot, neon-green clad lot attendants directed vehicles to the parking spaces.

IMG_8921I asked a parking attendant if he knew where the EV Charging stations were. He didn’t know, but said he’d at least try to find out for me. We parked to get out of traffic. I started unloading my wheelchair. A few minutes later, the attendant was back and told me that the stations were right up in front, next to a giant red letter E on a post. I rolled up that direction, and my wife moved the car. Unfortunately, there were cars parked at odd angles up front to intentionally block traffic from going that way. Blocking an otherwise easily accessible EV space, was parked a van, which was clearly NOT electric. Using our car’s narrow width and sharp turning radius, we squeezed past the other vehicles to make it into one of the two unoccupied spaces.

The charging stations are the Blink brand-name. Unfortunately, I’ve had bad experiences before with that brand. Some people joke that they are well-named, as they are always “on the blink”! When getting ready to plug in my car, the first thing I spotted on the display was “PILOT SIGNAL ERROR”. Uh oh. That can’t be a good sign. I’d never seen that on a public EVSE before! When I picked up the charge cord, I could feel that the end of the connector was filled with water from rain the night before. I shook it out and pressed the reset button. With that, the standard welcome logo came up on the screen.

IMG_8910Many charging stations require that you have some sort of a membership. This often includes you having a card or key fob which you swipe at the machine. For Blink, I use an app on my phone. I pulled out my smart phone and opened the app. It defaults to a map interface, and you simply select the location you are at. Unfortunately, these charging stations weren’t on the map yet! Oh well, you can always go the the web page, punch in some credit card information (whether or not you have to pay to use the station) and get a code to enter in the charging station. Alter a few minutes of one-handed typing, squinting, and punching-in the secret code, I was rewarded with a message saying “UNABLE TO CHARGE AT THIS TIME”.

Well, I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed. I had a similar experience once with another Blink brand EVSE. At that time, I called the 1-800 number and spoke with a real live human. It turned out that there was a problem with the wireless modem on the machine, and since it couldn’t communicate, it simply prevented charging. This was despite the fact that that particular machine even happened to be free to use! So, my best guess was just that although the EV Charging Stations are installed and powered up at Ikea, that the modems aren’t running yet. I MAY have been able to charge there if I had the RFID membership card, but I really can’t say for sure.

The roof of the Ikea is COVERED with solar panels. I mean COVERED! There’s nearly 5,000 photovoltaic solar panels on the roof. In fact, I had done some subcontracting work for the solar company that installed the panels. I ended up working a few days on the project. Most of that work was in February, in the cold and dark. Anything we touched was wet from the snow and slush, so all the crew at that time was wearing work-coats, insulated cover-alls, and rubber gloves OVER their winter gloves. Whoever said that working in Renewable Energy was glamorous!? Most of my work ended up being loading and unloading the crane, in the process of getting thousands of solar panels, equipment racks, and concrete blocks to the roof. The building was actually designed with specific locations on the roof for loads to be dropped for the solar installation.

cq-oak-creek-1From the roof, there’s a great view of the Oak Creek Fossil Fuel Plant. It powers the electricity for most of south-eastern Wisconsin, and does so by burning 6,000 tons of coal per day. Unfortunately, construction site regulations prohibited photography from the Ikea rooftop. I would have LOVED to get photos of the solar panels and the power plant from up there. Standing on the corner of the roof, I would have had a perfect photograph of the solar panels, the Ikea sign, and Power Plant all together in one nicely framed photo!

Back to yesterday, I was happy that it was 70 degrees and sunny. Perfect day for a Grand Opening! We headed inside and met up with a friend and her daughter, and started our way through the store.

One of the first things I did was look up. My eyes followed the support columns and beams, and I imagined the place on the outside of the building where the construction crane was setting down tons of solar panels.

The other thing that was odd was that there weren’t any big signs, photos, posters or anything else promoting the fact that there was solar on the roof! From the ground, you can’t see the solar at all! The average attendee had NO IDEA the place was one of the largest solar installations in the state. Some people might think “solar is ugly” but the fact is, much of the time it’s INVISIBLE!

It’s amazingly common for U.S. companies to “green-wash” – Use Eco-Friendly initiatives to OVERLY promote how good they are for the planet. Not so with Ikea. I took a look at their web page, and they REALLY are doing some good work with how they source their materials, how they deal with waste, and how they deal with ecological matters overall as a company. I gotta say, I was impressed! Also at the store were plenty of bike racks, Eco-Friendly preferred parking, and a bus-stop.

So, maybe not TOO many people know about the solar on the roof, and I was disappointed that the EV Charging Stations weren’t actually fully operational, but I still had a great time getting to see the store on its very first day! And I did enjoy the meatballs…

On the way back home, we topped off at a DC Quick Charger. Once home, we plugged into our own garage solar panels to get a bit of a charge before leaving for an evening event. Total mileage for the day was 113 miles on a car designed to go 62, and most of that was solar powered. We saved more than four gallons of gasoline versus an average US car.

Do you know of solar installations that folks should know about? Let’s applaud when companies are doing good. Write a letter, let the store manager know, and check in on PlugShare.

I’m glad to see new, large solar installations, and even get to help install them. Let’s all do what we can!

I know that it helps keep me Charged-Up!
Until next time,
-Ben

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DIY Electric Motor Mount

by Ben N on May 9, 2018

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Recently, I’ve been posting to YouTube some video instructions that I made about how I converted a 1996 Geo Metro to electric.

A viewer asked about how the electric motor was mounted – whether it simply bolted to the transmission, or if it was additionally supported in some other way.

Great question!

The motor IS supported! In the original design of the car, the engine and transmission are bolted together and there are three mounts that connect them to the frame (OK, unibody) of the car. One mount is on the transmission, going between the transmission and firewall. The second mount is on the far driver’s side of the transmission. The third mount connects the engine to the passenger side of the engine bay.

Because the transmission was reused for this project, it simply went back in place (after the electric motor was attached to it,) and re-used the two stock mounts.

The third mount went to the engine, so it would have to be modified to instead help support the large electric motor.

DSC_0035When working on this, I was at a friend’s house. (Tom G. You might remember him from some Electric Dodge Neon Videos we made…) One advantage of working at Tom’s house was that he had both an arc welder and a plasma-cutter. We also commonly had a group of friends coming over to work on robots and electric cars. (These groups and projects eventually lead to the founding of the Milwaukee MakerSpace.)

Having access to both tools and mentors went a long way towards me learning how to weld and otherwise gain confidence and experience working on projects.

So, when it came time to build the motor mount, I had the privilege of having a few friends help me.

First, we already had the transmission with electric motor in place, but the weight of the motor would twist the transmission a bit on its mounts. Adding a third point of contact would support the weight of the motor and keep the entire unit from being twisted. We put a jack under the motor and raised it until a short spirit level set on top of the motor indicated it was nice and level. After that we could take measurements between the mounting point on the frame and the position of the motor. A custom mounting bracket would need to be built to that custom size and shape.

DSC_0014Fortunately, we had a few tools at our disposal. For one thing, the electric motor had several bolt holes on its back end. I was also far-sighted enough to keep the bracket which originally mounted that end in the forklift from which I originally salvaged the motor. On a motor WITHOUT bolt holes on the back end, a mount can be custom built using either a cradle design supporting from below, or a ring mount that clamps around the motor.

I also found that simply placing a piece of paper over the end of the dirty/greasy/rusty motor and rubbing against it was an easy way to transfer perfect measurements of the motor and locations of the bolt holes.

DSC_0009Having the greasy paper template and measurements from in the car, I set to work free-handing a shape somewhat like a capital letter “Q”. The middle of the motor stuck out further than the plane of the mounting bolts, so I would have to cut out the center of the motor mount to allow for that. The large bushing that connects to the car was offset from the motor, so the “tail of the Q” sweeps from the motor to that point.

DSC_0066After making a tagboard template and testing it in the car, we set to work cutting the steel. We used the plasma-cutter to cut out the general shape from a piece of 1/8″ steel. We also cut the center and drilled out the bolt holes. The metal was rusty, so we made sure to first grid down a spot for the ground clamp. Likewise, we had to clean up some rust before welding the steel-surrounded rubber bushing that would mount the bracket to the frame of the car.

Once the cutting and welding was done, a coat of Rustoleum Rusty Metal Primer covered the entire “Q” with a pasty protective coating.

DSC_0069We slid the bracket into the car, drove in the bolt that held the bushing in place, jacked up the motor, and ran in two large bolts connecting the motor to the bracket.

The motor and transmission were now held properly in place with three points of contact, and in the correct position, exactly like the original engine and transmission combo.

 

For more about this DIY Electric Car Conversion project (originally built in 2008) please check out this YouTube playlist!

Until next time, stay charged-up!
-Ben

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Handi-capable Solar Mower

by Ben N on May 6, 2018

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Spring is here, and it’s time for yard work! Unfortunately, I was rather badly hurt some weeks back, including a broken wrist and multiple fractures to the leg. How was I going to do something like mow my lawn!?
Fortunately, my lawn tractor is actually pretty handi-capable!

To start with, the mower uses exclusively HAND controls! There’s no clutch pedal at all, and the tractor automatically brakes simply by reducing speed of the motor. The throttle is a hand-lever. Bracing myself against the tractor, I could climb on and drive away using just one hand and no legs!

Besides ease of use, the riding lawn mower is extremely low maintenance.
There’s no gasoline to fill, nor replacement of associated fuel filters, oil filters, air cleaners, spark plugs or anything else. The mower deck has no belts to replace. Each blade has a dedicated direct-drive electric motor, activated by just flipping a switch! To pull the tractor out of storage, all I did was check the voltage of the three 12V batteries, top off the charge, and then go ahead and mow the lawn!

IMG_8791Electric vehicles are also much cleaner (and quieter) than their gasoline counter parts. It’s especially true of small engines for lawn and garden equipment. They have been exempt from the pollution control standards we use for cars. Lawn mowers simply lack catalytic converters, charcoal canisters, and other equipment which reduce combustion emissions. Of course, if you have solar panels on your house or garage, solar-powered lawn equipment is about as green as you can get. I also like that the more the sun shines, the more I need to mow my lawn, but also the more solar power I make. Kinda fun to say “What Grows It, Mows It!”

While this tractor happens to be a 1970′s relic, there’s suddenly a huge surge in modern battery-powered electric push mowers. Just like my lawn tractor, they are quiet, low maintenance, and reliable. This new generation of electric mowers are powered by lightweight lithium batteries, the same type that power your cordless drill. In fact, tool manufacturers like Ryobi and Black and Decker are getting in on this market. Next time you are at a Home Depot, Lowes, or similar home improvement or hardware store, take a look at some of these mowers – that is, unless you LIKE spilling gasoline and adjusting spark plug gaps!

Electric tractors and mowers are quiet, powerful, and easy to use.
Finding out I can still mow my lawn, even while recovering from injury was just one more bonus!

Until next time, stay charged up!

-Ben

PS: Here’s a few battery-powered push mowers you might want to check out.

Greenworks electric push mower.
https://amzn.to/2HTAtY5

Ego Power
https://amzn.to/2jzfMC5

Ryobi
https://amzn.to/2HULSae

 

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Spring Electric Bill

by Ben N on May 3, 2018

I was pretty excited today to get my electric bill in the mail. Excited? Yes. While most people don’t ENJOY the prospect of shelling out their hard-earned cash, I installed SOLAR POWER last summer.

It’s finally turned to spring in south-eastern Wisconsin, and the weather meant that I was finally producing some decent power once again with my solar panels.

But how much power? Well, I’d have to open up my electric bill to find out! (Watch the video if you have’t already!)
(For a live current solar production od my system, please visit: https://enlighten.enphaseenergy.com/public/systems/PqBp1213167)

On my bill, the listed usage was -268 kWh. That means that my household PRODUCED 268 kilowatt-hours of energy MORE than we used! Just for reference, the average American home tends to use about 900 kWh of energy per month*. So, instead of using that much energy, we made all we needed AND EXPORTED enough power to run about 30% of a house in our neighborhood!

IMG_8547My local, publicly-owned power utility directly credits me for excess power production. I simply save that credit, and can apply it to later in the year. In the fall and winter, we’ll make less power than we use, but the stored up credits should cover it. The calculations that I have done show that we should be very close to being a NET-ZERO home on annual average use.

Since it’s been LESS than a year since I’ve installed the solar, I’m just recording all the data, but we are ON TRACK for that ZERO annual use goal!

I consider us fortunate to have a good Grid-Tie agreement with our power company. Some utilities do NOT offer as fair of a contract. (You pay retail, but the power company buys from your wholesale, etc.) For folks who might have EXTRA power production from their solar, and want some other way to use it, I suggest purchasing an electric car. Most electric cars can travel abut 4 miles per kilowatt hour. So, with our excess power production, a SECOND plug-in car at my house would have had enough power to travel just over 1,000 miles this last month!

An average U.S. passenger vehicle getting 25 mpg would have needed 40 gallons of gas to go that same distance! Current fuel prices in my area would have made that a cost $111.60! (You might save even more in your area. Check out Gas Buddy for historic and geographic fuel prices.)

That’s right, by driving a SECOND car on my SPARE electricity, I could have saved another $100 on TOP of what I’m already saving with solar!

Here’s looking forward to a great summer of solar power!

Until next time, keep positive, and stay charged up!

-Ben

*Average U.S. Electric use, National Average and by State: LINK

IMG_8540 IMG_8489 April 28 2018 screen grab

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