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April 3, 2009

News & Features

Electric converts: Area mechanics convert gas-engine cars into all-electric vehicles

Special to NWautos

Conversion

Dave Cloud added 21 batteries to Jeff Finn's car to make it all electric. (Photo by Scott McCredie)

Let's say you decide to buy the greenest car you can find. What would your choices be?

Most aficionados -- especially in the Northwest, where a good chunk of our electricity is generated by hydropower -- would tell you that an all-electric vehicle is the most sustainably green option.

You can't yet walk into a dealer showroom and drive off in a new zero-emissions, freeway-capable, all-electric vehicle. But you can walk into somebody's garage and have your old car made into one. Three outfits in the Seattle area, as well as one in Olympia and one in Bellingham, will transform the gas-engine car of your choice (Geo Metros and Honda Civics are two of the most popular) into an electric vehicle for about $15,000.

Electric vehicle conversion companies

When Jeff Finn, a retired Microsoft software tester, decided last year that he wanted an electric vehicle, he contacted longtime electric-car builder Dave Cloud of Woodinville. A few months and $14,000 later, Cloud had transformed Finn's 2000 Chevrolet Metro into an electric vehicle that he's nicknamed "Voltrunner."

Finn logs about 600 miles per month at a cost of about $15 per month. "I have this big grin hooked over both ears every time I drive past a gas station," he says.

To transform Finn's car, Cloud first stripped out the engine, exhaust system, gas tank and other now-unnecessary baggage. After beefing up the suspension and brakes to compensate for the weight of the batteries, he crammed the lower engine compartment and the area beneath the rear seat with 21 6-volt deep-cycle lead-acid batteries weighing a total of 1,400 pounds.

The batteries power a 28-horsepower motor. Although that's less than the 55 horses of the original three-cylinder gas engine, the performance is roughly the same, due to differences in how the two power plants operate. An eight-hour charge on regular household current gives the batteries a range of about 50 miles, including freeway travel at 55 mph and negotiating Seattle's steep hills.

With no spark plugs, radiator, exhaust system, or air or oil filter to service, the car costs little to run. The only upkeep he does is topping off the water in the batteries once in a while, and he knows he'll have to replace the batteries in three or four years.

As for driving the car, Finn says it's no hot rod, but it does the job. "I keep up with all the traffic," he says. "I could set it up so that I could burn rubber all day, but that's not what I'm after. I'm after efficiency."

Finn, like many electric car owners, is an evangelist of the movement. As a member of the Seattle Electric Vehicle Association (seattleeva.org), he is often asked to demonstrate his car and its technology at schools and auto shows.

"Electric cars don't solve everything," he admits. "I'm trying to lighten my footprint and show people it's possible to do that."

Besides the reduced range of the car and the need to recharge often to keep the battery topped off, are there any other downsides to owning an electric vehicle? Finn had to think a minute. Grocery shopping takes longer, he says.

Because his car is painted neon green and says "electric" on the side, it tends to attract attention. "I joke with my wife that a 15-minute trip to the grocery store takes an hour," he says, "because people want to stop and talk about the car."

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