Sunday, June 21, 2009

Drivers learn how to build their own electric cars

Oil companies probably aren't too happy about what Craig Egan did to his Jeep Wrangler.

Powered entirely by 144 volts of electricity, the Jeep doesn't need a drop of gas.

“The gas station hates me because all I do is get free air for my tires,” Egan said.

Egan is a member of a small but passionate group of enthusiasts who remove gas-guzzling engines from old cars and replace them with packs of rechargeable golf-cart batteries.

It takes time, knowledge, and at least $6,000 to build these do-it-yourself electric vehicles. But Egan, who owns an alternative energy company, has been teaching people the basics.

On Saturday, he showed schematics and PowerPoint lessons to students at an adult-education class arranged by the Northside Independent School District.

“This is technology that's coming toward us pretty fast,” said Rick Smith, who attended the daylong class.

There are obvious advantages to owning a pollution-free vehicle at a time when the United States is trying to reduce its dependence on foreign oil. Egan said it costs about 2 cents per mile to run on battery power.

The downside is that such vehicles are only good for commutes of about 30-50 miles. You can't take them on a road trip. And cool weather up to 70 degrees reduces a vehicle's range.

Safety is also an issue.

“Respect is important when it comes to electricity,” Egan said. It's also important to think about what might happen in a car accident. The heavy batteries need to be secured properly.

Egan said he just learned about a new potential risk when an elderly man called him and asked if electric cars would disrupt his pacemaker. Egan said his gut reaction was, no way. But after speaking with scientists at the Southwest Research Institute, he said, he changed his mind. The batteries create an electromagnetic field and there's no easy way to block that field. So electric cars could be unhealthful to people with pacemakers, Egan cautioned.

Egan said any vehicle can be weaned off gasoline, but light ones — such as the Volkswagen bus — are good candidates. Small pickup trucks are especially suitable because they're built to haul stuff — and batteries are heavy.

Raymond Agueros, a refrigerator repairman who attended the class, plans to try to convert his 1984 Ford Thunderbird into an electric-powered car.

At the end of the day, the small class gathered in a parking lot and took turns driving Egan's electric-powered Jeep.

As it quietly coasted in circles, the only sound was the roar of traffic on nearby Grissom Road. There was no rumble of an engine. No pollutants were emitted from a tailpipe.

In fact, the Jeep doesn't need a tailpipe.

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