Solar Savings – August 2019

by Ben N on September 9, 2019

Watch the video here.

I just got my electric bill for this past month. Let’s open it up and see what it comes to!

August was relatively cool, so we didn’t use the air-conditioning much. That’s important, as what I PAY for electricity is simply the difference between how much I make with the solar and how much I use in the house.

Keeping out energy use low means we can earn a CREDIT with the power company. On opening the bill this month, we earned a $5.96 credit. That brings our total credits for the summer to $37.57.

We did have our meter fee go up recently by five dollars. I guess we can’t complain too much, as our meter fee with our local public power company is STILL less than it would be with the large for-profit power company we would otherwise have!

Our net EXPORT (overproduction) back out to our neighbors this month was 160 kWh. Last year, we overproduced 212 kWh. I think it was sunnier this same month last year.

We’ve had the solar now for just over two years. In that time, we’ve produced over 16 MEGA-WATT-HOURS of energy. At 13 cents per kWh, that’s over $2,000 worth of electricity. We paid about $6,500 for the entire system (after taxes and incentives.)

Overall, I’m very pleased with our solar.
If you are interested in solar, give a call to a professional solar installer in your area. If you’d like to install your own, it can certainly save you money and might not be as hard as you think. Start with this video of what I did to install solar at my place! Or watch the entire video playlist of what it took to build this garage! https://bit.ly/2KgQpS5

Until next time, stay charged up!
-Ben Nelson

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Wheelie Poppin’ Tractor for Junk Parade!

by Ben N on September 2, 2019

This year, I made it. I got my overpowered piece of junk electric tractor into The World’s Greatest Junk Parade!

Last year, I took this old GE Elec-Trak frame and added a forklift motor and 6 Nissan Leaf Cell Modules. The driveline was a little complicated, and I didn’t get it working in time for the parade.

Here’s the video playlist of when I built the tractor:
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLmHss3DBZUinqLnG4PfwmPNDahBeFLu1t

A few days ago, I pulled the tarp off this tractor in my backyard and looked it over to see if I could get it in the parade. I had some issues with the Open Revolt 500A motor controller. It kept giving an error code, so I swapped it out for my 300A motor controller. That one worked a little better, but I tracked the issue down to some corrosion on the DC Forklift motor. The commutator itself wasn’t in good condition, and two brushes were stuck. I freed them up and ran a commutator stone to clean up the copper. After that, it worked great! (So the issue probably WASN’T the Open Revolt at all, but I had already swapped it out!

The work we put into rebuilding Sophie’s electric ATV.

My daughter, Sophie, and I planned to exhibit in the parade. I’d drive the tractor, and she would ride her rebuilt electric ATV. The parade route is about four miles. I doubled the size of the batteries in her ATV, so I figured it would last the length of the parade route, but I had no idea for sure!

We hitched the utility trailer to the back of the 2012 Mitsubishi iMiEV electric car and loaded up the tractor and ATV. Then, we drove to Rome, Wisconsin, where the event would start.

Our tow vehicle.

When we made it to the Fireman’s park, we checked in with registration and unloaded. It was fun watching all the other floats come in. One of the best was a full-size pirate ship. (Junk for Sail!) Another was the Zombie Apocalypse Now, featuring a full-scale helicopter and the undead.

Once the parade started, we were now rolling down the streets in front of crowds of cheering beer-drinkers. The parade is basically one big excuse for a party.

When people recognized that it was a Wheelie Bar on the back of the tractor, they would holler for me to pop a wheelie. As long as there was enough space in front of me to safely do so, I could comply, and the crowds would cheer!

Sophie did a great job of staying with the flow of the parade on her ATV. Unfortunately, she was also in front of me, so when my tractor broke down, she just kept going!

My daughter during the parade.

Popping wheelies was fine, but it was actually doing a burn-out on a turn in a gravel driveway that one of the sprocket keys gave way and shut me down. (Of course, I couldn’t see what the exact problem was at the moment, just that there was a lot of chain and sprocket noise and the tractor wouldn’t move!)

I had to push the tractor to the side of the road. I caught a ride in a utility vehicle with one of the volunteers who got me up close to Sophie. After that, I was walking for the rest of the parade!

I did grab the “trunk” off the back of the tractor. It was a cardboard beer case which I was using to hold my drinks, snacks, multimeter, and tow rope – items I did’t want to leave behind. It also made an excellent prop while walking in the parade. I could mime as though I was going to hand out beers or crack jokes about how I was “out on a beer run”!

Junk Pirates

At the end of the parade, we stopped and watched some of the other floats come in, including a great family-themed Jurassic Park cart, complete with dinosaurs and the little kids in Park Ranger uniforms. Sophie had a great time, even while my legs were killing me. We grabbed lunch and a snow-cone, as all great summer events need some good festival food to go with them.

I was a little disappointed that the tractor broke down, but it sure was a blast up to that point!

We’ll be back next year, and will probably try to plan something a little bigger and more interesting, possibly a float with some friends.

Until next time, stay charged up!
-Ben Nelson

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Lithium Battery Communications

by Ben N on August 26, 2019

I just got my laptop to communicate with the Valence lithium batteries in the Ford Ranger EV pickup truck!

The truck’s instrumentation is pretty basic – just a “Miles to Go” and “Percent Charged” meter, which were designed to work with lead-acid batteries. I wanted to be able to communicate directly with the lithium batteries to make sure they were balanced and that I was getting the full state-of-charge and other information from them.

Data Connections of the Valence lithium batteries

These Valence U27-12XP batteries (specs here) contain an internal BMS and communications system. Each battery has a male and female 5-pin Tyco Amp connector on it. Those cables are daisy-chained together and connected to a BMS interface device. Normally, that device would communicate to the batteries and then connect to the vehicle to do things such as sending a CAN signal to the battery charger to turn it off when the batteries are charged.

Home-made RS-485 to USB adapter

By instead plugging in my laptop, I should be able to read data from the batteries. To do so, I got a generic RS-485 to USB adapter (https://amzn.to/2zn3S6s)
and ordered a kit of Amp SuperSeal connectors.
(https://amzn.to/2Hr3zM8)
I simply cut four short sections of 18 gauge wire and connected them between the plug and the UBS adapter. The 5V power is on the outside two pins (pin 2 & 5 on the Amp connector) and the communication signal is on the inside two pins. Pin 1 on the Amp connector is for shield and I left it unused.

The battery communication string had a terminator on the far end (from the original Smith truck battery pack.) I pulled it off and measured it. It read as a 120Ω resistor. However, I found out later that it didn’t seem to make a difference whether or not the resistor terminated the string. Here’s an article on why that it.

The software for the Valence batteries is Windows only. I have a Mac laptop, so I had to do a little work to get Windows running on it. I used Virtual Box to run a trial version of Windows 10. There are other ways to run Windows on a Mac as well, but this was free and pretty straight-forward to use. Of course, if you have a PC laptop, you can just skip this.

The main challenge was just to make sure the correct drivers were installed and permissions were granted. I had an issue at first with the USB adapter. A friend gave it to me (thanks, Eric!) but I didn’t have any documentation and Windows 7 didn’t recognize it. It ran fine on Windows 10 and identified using an FTDI chip driver. To prevent errors when the Valence software is running, permissions must be manually changed on the root folder of the software to full Administrator permissions.

At this point, I was finally able to use the software! My adapter was plugged in to the computer with RS-485 cable going to the most positive end of the battery pack, with the rest of the batteries daisy-chained together. In the Valence software, one last quirk was that there were NO COM PORTS listed in the drop-down box for which communications port to connect to. In my settings and drivers, it looked like the USB adapter associated with COM3. I had to manually type “COM3” into the drop-down and hit enter. NOW it connected! After closing and reopening the software, COM3 would stay as the selected port.

The Valence software lets the user view information about each individual battery, such as cell block voltages, state of charge, current in or out of the battery, and temperature. Users can also rename the IDs of each battery.

When I first connected, the software only connected to 24 instead of the full 26 batteries. The reason why is that two of the batteries had repeated ID numbers. I located a battery, renamed it from ID3 to ID25, and then got 25 of the 26 batteries to show up. I did the same thing for the last battery, (#4 to #26) but then the original #4 wouldn’t show up. Why? I have no idea. I did the exact same thing as the first battery with an ID change. Oh well, I’m sure I’ll figure it out…

While it’s very interesting to be able to get the data from the batteries, it’s NOT terribly useful while they are just sitting there. What WOULD be useful is seeing the detailed battery data while CHARGING and DISCHARGING. In other words, WHILE DRIVING! I have an extension cable that should reach from the back of the truck up to the passenger seat. I can put the laptop in the cab and connect to the batteries while driving. I’ll have to keep my eyes on the road, so I really won’t be able to watch the battery data as I do it. Fortunately, the software also includes a logging feature. I should be able to log the data as I go. I’ll just want to shoot some video so I can sync the data to what’s going on in the real world – accelerating, braking, going up or down that really big hill.

That’s it for now. I’ll need to play with the software a little more and get set up for doing a test drive while logging data.

Until next time, stay charged up!
-Ben

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Electric ATV Repair and Upgrade

by Ben N on August 11, 2019

Not long ago, a neighbor was cleaning out his garage. Among the things he was getting rid of was an old kids electric ATV. It was in poor condition, but looked like a fun “fixer-upper”! My daughter is also now eight-years old and has outgrown her Solar-Powered PowerWheels.

ATV, as we got it. Pretty junky.

So, a Razor brand ATV looked like a great back yard toy. It’s similar to this one: https://amzn.to/31pImtI
The ATV has a solid steel frame, real suspension, and knobby rubber tires. Unfortunately, the handlebars were unmounted (and missing the clamps), the steering and brakes were rusted solid, and the batteries were shot.

We brought home the ATV and set to work on it. I first gave the brake cable and steering column generous squirts of PB Blaster, hoping to loosen the rust. Then, I set to work removing the body, including the fake plastic engine that covers the batteries.

This is a 24V vehicle, so I found two 7AH sealed lead-acid (SLA) batteries mounted inside. They were completely dead. The wire leads were soldered in place and covered with hot glue to boot. I simply cut the wires and pulled out the batteries.

Next, I jumped two good batteries to the ATV with it up on a stand. I turned on the power and twisted the throttle. The wheels spun up! Sure enough, the only thing wrong electrically with the cycle was dead batteries. I placed an order for a new pair, but I ordered 15AH batteries instead of 7. That would give double the runtime, and they are the same batteries I have used on some other recent projects, such as the Solar Ammo Can.
https://amzn.to/2H2op4j

Once my order arrived, I put in the new batteries. One fit in place of the original two 7AH batteries, but the second was simply placed on the central frame bar and then secured in place with a number of zip ties. Not ideal, but solid enough in the moment.

I still didn’t have a good way to STEER the ATV, but I had managed to break loose the rust and get the wheels to turn. I realized that I had a pair of Vise-Grips, so I clamped those on as temporary handlebars. With that, the ATV was ridable…. sorta…

I thought I had a 24V charger around somewhere, but couldn’t find one. So, I ordered a new charger. At least that way, I could get one with the correct connector on the end to match the ATV. I also ordered some handlebar clamps.
Charger: https://amzn.to/2GXi7Ty
Clamps: https://amzn.to/2GXib5K

The handlebars were pretty easy to bolt on once I had the right clamps. Finally, the girl could really take the cycle for a ride.

She used it for a about a week like this, but the one battery was still really only temporarily mounted. Seeing how kids like to beat on their toys, I knew I’d need to mount the battery better. Yesterday, I had the time, so I took the ATV back apart to design and build battery mounts.

I cut two pieces of flat steel with a little extra room beyond the size of the batteries. That gave me space to drill holes for a bracket to go over the battery and bolt to the steel plate. I drilled holes in both plates, welded nuts to them, and then welded the plates to the cycle frame.

A coat of gray primer made the welds look great. I put the batteries in place and mounted them down. One bracket was original, just re-bent to fit the larger battery. I made the other strap from scratch by simply bending a piece of aluminum strap with a pliers, hammer, and anvil. With the batteries in place, I turned the cycle sideways and shoot it violently. The batteries stayed nice and secure. They weren’t going anywhere no matter what the kids might do to it!

The body of the ATV was also in poor condition. The color was faded and stickers were peeling off. We decided to repaint it. That meant scuffing the plastic with sandpaper (so that the paint would stick), priming it, and then giving it two coats of the girl’s choice. In this case, a “Grape” purple.

After the paint dried, reassembly was pretty straight-forward. We also want the girl to be safe. To get her to wear a helmet, we bribed her with a brand new UNICORN helmet!
https://amzn.to/2KJVS4H
I’m still working on getting her to wear shoes…..

This has been a great project. I had a lot of fun working on it, and had the girl assist me as much as she could so that she gets some experience and ownership in it as well. I was actually really happy with how the metalwork and welding turned out. I’m slowly getting away from “Duct Tape and Zip-ties” and working my way to “Fabrication”!

Anyways, the girl is having a blast with it, and so am I.

Until next time, stay charged up!
-Ben

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Electric Truck Lithium Battery Upgrade

by Ben N on August 10, 2019

Click to watch the video.

I upgraded the Electric Ford Ranger to Lithium Batteries!
The truck had Group 24 Lead-Acid batteries in the bed. The batteries pulled from the Smith electric truck are Valence brand Group 27 batteries designed as 12V replacements. So, the logical thing to do was simply pull out the lead and put in the lithium in it’s place!

Overall, it was a pretty easy upgrade. Just remove the cables, remove the old batteries, put in the new ones, and cable it back up.

(DISCLAIMER! WORKING WITH HIGH VOLTAGE DC IS DANGEROUS AND POSSESSES SIGNIFICANT SHOCK HAZARD INCLUDING DEATH. DON’T DO IT UNLESS YOU KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING!)

Lithium batteries in the back of the truck.

Replacing the batteries was pretty straight-forward. The toughest part was keeping polarity straight and making sure I didn’t have to move the batteries more than once. Going from the Group 24 size to Group 27 size meant a slightly different configuration. Not a big deal, but any change meant I really had to pay attention to polarity and make sure I had enough of the right length cables. I re-used the cables from the Smith electric truck battery pack, and had just enough of the right types without having to replace any terminals.

STILL IN THE BED
The batteries are still in the bed. The main reason for that is that I’m still experimenting and want to have full access to the batteries. This truck has a battery box, roughly the size and shape of a coffin, that runs UNDER the length of the vehicle. It’s a slightly irregular shape and would have contained the original 8V lead-acid batteries this truck was designed for. The height of the box is higher than the road clearance, so just to get it off, a person needs to lower the box while simultaneously lifting the truck!

Because of the irregular shape of the box, it’s unlikely that the Valence batteries will fit inside. Some other DIY’ers have used Nissan Leaf batteries in Ford Ranger EV upgrades, and those cell modules are only about 1.25 inches thick each. They are easy to repackage into a more custom shape, including one that would fit in the original battery box.

Valence BMS unit.

BMS
After connecting the power cables, I also daisy-chained the BMS cables from each battery to the next. They end at the BMS which I repurposed from the Smith truck battery box. But there’s a few shortcomings to this. I do NOT have any kind of an interface to the BMS to pull data from it. (No dongle, no software!) Also, the Smith battery was 24 batteries in series, and the Ranger uses 26. So, I connected the BMS to the truck, but excluding those two extra batteries.

Lastly, the BMS would have been integrated to the charger, and on the Ford, it isn’t. I’ll do bulk charging only and stay away from the top end of the battery pack.

It DOES look like the BMS WILL automatically BALANCE the batteries simply by being connected without any other changes.

WEIGHT SAVINGS
The truck did shave off a few pounds with the lithium upgrade. Each of the original Group 24 Lead-Acid batteries weighed 60 pounds. The Group 27 Valence lithium batteries weigh 43 pounds each. When swapping out the batteries, I saved about 442 pounds.

Inside the Valence batteries are cylindrical cells. Think something along the lines of 18650s. Because of this, they don’t give AS GOOD of a weight savings as some other types of lithium batteries. (On the other hand, they don’t start on fire, either!)

These batteries weigh about 2/3rds of the lead-acid equivalent while having significantly more capacity.

CAPACITY AND RANGE
The batteries are rated at 138AH capacity, and there are 26 of them. At 12.8V nominal, that’s almost 46kWh of energy! Of course, that’s if using the entire battery, and brand new. These batteries ARE used. In testing some samples, it looks like they are at about 85% capacity of new, bringing pack capacity to less than 40kWH. That’s still far more than a gen 1 Nissan Leaf!

However, I don’t guess that the truck is very efficient. It’s relatively heavy and trucks aren’t know for their aerodynamics. As a best guess, I would say it uses 400 wh/mi. But if the pack really is 40kWh, that means I might have a 100 mile range!

The truck, ready to do some long-distance joy-riding.

TEST DRIVING
After a fresh charge, I took the truck out, first taking it to a local car show. That was a blast, there was ton’s of interest in the Ranger EV, and nobody knew how Ford has ALREADY built electric trucks! (Too bad I didn’t remember to grab a photo until after the car show was over. I had quite a mob for a while!)
The rest of the day, I did errands and some other driving bringing my distance driven to 40 miles.

The next day, I went out for some joy-riding to see how far I could keep going. I tried staying not too far from home, in case my range was shorter than I thought!
I started snapping photos of the trip odometer. 65 miles was sort of a milestone. My 2012 Mitsubishi iMiEV electric car is only designed for about 60 miles per charge. I now had a 1996 electric vehicle with better range than a 2012!

I kept driving, and the truck just kept going. The “Range Remaining” gauge only goes up to 60. I believe that it works off a combination of battery voltage AND an AH counter. Unfortunately, it’s not very accurate for lithium. I used the New Generation Star Tester to track the pack voltage vs the voltage discharge chart of the Valence batteries. That seemed to give me a fairly accurate representation of available charge.
I kept driving and got 70, 80, 90, yes, even 100 miles!
After that, the voltage was dropping fast, indicating I was getting down into the last 10% of the battery.

J1772 ADAPTER
Next, I’d want to be able to do some charging in public. That would further extend my range. To do so, I built a J1772 adapter so that I could keep the truck stock, but still use modern public stations. I’ll post more about this adapter soon. (I could SWEAR I already shot a video on this!)

WHATS NEXT?
I definitely want to do some towing with the truck. Having the batteries in the bed is less than ideal, but does make it great for experimenting. Just having a battery pack this big could be useful for things like running an inverter for emergency power backups.

I still need to finish up the BMS system. It’s not integrated with the charging system yet.

It’s been fun to play around with a 20 year old factory built electric. Other than the original LACK of lithium batteries, it’s pretty modern, with regenerative brakes, electric heat and air-conditioning. The instrumentation is a bit lacking. If a person didn’t know better, they’d look at the steering wheel and dashboard and think it’s just any truck!

I’m looking forward to Ford coming out with a new all electric F-150. But who knows exactly when that will happen. Meanwhile, I’ll keep driving MY electric Ford!

Until next time, stay charged up!
-Ben


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July 2019 Electric Bill

August 8, 2019

I just got my July electric bill. Time to open it on camera so that you and I get to see what it is at the same time! In July, we finally started getting some nice summer days! (June was surprisingly rainy and cloudy!) But along with the sun was HEAT. We used our central […]

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Battery Pack Disassembly

April 18, 2019

Once we finally made it back from North Carolina, we needed to unload the batteries. While we had a forklift to LOAD the batteries, we didn’t have one at my place and had to resort to an engine hoist, furniture dollies, and finally, steel pipes. Getting 2,000 pounds of batteries off the trailer was no […]

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Removing the Batteries from the Smith Electric Truck

April 15, 2019

Well, it’s been an adventure so far…I was originally asked by my friend, Seth, to accompany him on a road trip to buy a commercial electric truck. The Copart auction had already taken place. He just had to drive 900 miles to get the truck and drag it back home. In the highlight of the […]

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June 2019 Electric Bill

July 8, 2019

I actually got my electric bill in the mail a few days ago, but wanted to save opening it on camera. Today, I broke out the camera and opened the electric bill. Here’s what I found… In June, we produced 243 kWh of energy MORE than we used! This was pretty comparable to the same […]

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Future of Transportation in Wisconsin

April 27, 2019

Yesterday, I attended a conference about the future of transportation in Wisconsin. The Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership hosted the event at “The Garage” space at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee. Unfortunately, the trip from my house, to the event and BACK, is just a little further than the available range per charge […]

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Briggs & Stratton 6-Wheel Hybrid

April 25, 2019

I was doing some work at Briggs & Stratton – an engine producer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when I stumbled on an amazing car! It’s a vintage 6-wheel hybrid! Briggs & Stratton has a great museum at their main building. It tells the history of the company and showcases its roots in automobiles all the way […]

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Electric Truck Charging Adapter

April 22, 2019

While it’s pretty cool to have a classic factory built electric truck, one thing I don’t like is it’s NON-standard charge port. So, I set out to build an adapter so that I could charge in public and more conveniently at home. The Ford Ranger EV uses an AVCON “claw” charge connection. When I first […]

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