Good for a million miles: A do-it-yourself electric car
He climbs into his 1994 crayon-box blue Chevy S10 truck and gives the key a single turn. The only response is the gurgling of the vacuum pump that readies the brakes. Then silence, and with a touch of the accelerator, the truck, with 160,000 miles on it, is cruising along the streets of Vineyard Haven.
It is so quiet that when stopped at an intersection, it feels as if it has been turned off. It has, in effect: there's no power going to the motor.
Until this past January, the truck was a standard five-speed gas-fueled vehicle. Then Steve (Ruzanski) Solarazza, an Island finish carpenter, rented the movie, "Who Killed the Electric Car," about the environmentally practical, cost-efficient electric car. The movie revealed how car companies produced a limited number of electric cars, then changed their minds, and reclaimed and destroyed them.
The environmentally conscious Mr. Solarazza, who built his own solar-heated, straw bale insulated home in Vineyard Haven, became intrigued with whether he could convert a vehicle from conventional to electric power, with no muffler, fan belt, timing belt, spark plugs, gas filter, exhaust pipe or clutch.
Until then, he had never been mechanically inclined. Never changed a car's oil, never replaced a car's light bulb or fuse. "He was never a car guy," says his wife, Emily Sims Solarazza.
"It's in my nature that I don't get too attached to things," Mr. Solarazza says. "If it didn't work, that wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, but I wanted to try."
He found the Chevy on Craig's list for $1,000, bought a TIG welder (tungsten inert gas), about $100 worth of tools (the rest were borrowed), $7,500 worth of parts, and batteries for $2,500. (Batteries have to be replaced every five years. The motor is good for a million miles.) The manuals and information were found online (www.evalbum), and he attended an off-Island workshop on how to convert gas-fueled cars to electric.
"There was a lot of fitting and refitting," Mr. Solarazza says. "If I had to do this again, I could do it in half the time." As it was, the truck was on the road six weeks after the project began.
"When I think of it, this was like school for me, my own little course," says Mr. Solarazza. "I spent my own money to learn how to do what was necessary to come out with a product. And then it was one step at a time."
With the help of friend Oziel Martins, the truck was put on jack stands, and the bed detached to expose the muffler, tail pipe and gas tank, all of which were removed. Crates were built into a frame under the truck bed as boundary boxes, to hold the 16 batteries that, together with the four under the hood, power the car.
"And I am a scavenger," Mr. Solarazza admits. "I like to recycle stuff. Most of the materials I got at the dump: steel bed frames and angle irons - very strong, and already painted."
Other than the trial and error planning, one of the most difficult tasks was hoisting out the old engine from under the hood. "It took all day," Ms. Solarazza remembers. "If I had to run an errand, they'd say, 'Don't go. We're close. We're almost there.' So I'd wait so I could be there to run out with the video camera. And invariably, it would get stuck. And this would go on all day."
Opening the truck's hood, one finds a hinged control board that holds the wiring for the electronic components that run the lightweight motor. Mr. Solarazza says, "It's like looking at a spaghetti factory. If you're an electronics person, it's probably pretty straightforward. But if you're not, it's really confusing." He props up the control board with a stick, and points out the motor attached to the old transmission by an adapter plate.
Mr. Martin recalls, "When I first saw the motor I thought it's so small; this will never work."
The four batteries that complete the power source to the motor are insulated with an old Land's End down jacket. Once charged, batteries heat themselves, but they require insulation during winter months.
"It's a little slower than a regular car because I don't have as many batteries in it as I could have," says Mr. Solarazza. "I mean I could have made it a hot rod. But the faster you go, the more power you use, whether it's gas or electricity."
He explains that a battery's capacity has to be developed, that it doesn't attain its maximum capacity until it's been through 35 to 50 charging cycles. As it is, he gets more than 50 miles per charge. It takes about seven hours to fully charge the batteries, about 18 kilowatt-hours, at a cost of approximately $3.35 cents, to travel 50 miles.
"Some people might say, OK, you're just taking a gas car and transferring that pollution to a power station," Mr. Solarazza says. "That may be true. But even with that, the delivery of energy is much more efficient through electricity. The fact is that the gas engine produces more heat than motion."
And yes, Mr. Solarazza believes one person can make a difference. He says, "None of us has control over everything, but you can take control over the big companies telling you that you can't have this. So there's a certain satisfaction in driving an electric vehicle."
Mr. Solarazza would be happy to assist others to convert their cars to electric. Smiling, he says, "And the only reason you would have to go to the gas station is to get air for your tires. Maybe for lottery tickets. And that's it."