Do Your Own Electric Car Conversion

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The engine of this 1993 Mazda MX3 was replaced with an electric motor by students at a technical education center in Morgantown, W. Va.

Anyone who has the time, talent and resources can convert a conventional automobile to electric drive. Go with a lightweight but sturdy “donor” vehicle without power steering or an automatic transmission. Among those cars suitable for conversion, the favorite choices are Porsches, Geos and Volkswagen Jettas and Rabbits. Ford Rangers and Chevy S10s are the most popular light-truck conversions. If you do most of the work yourself and already own the donor vehicle, you can convert one for about $6,000 to $8,000.

If you have someone do the electric car conversion for you, expect to pay about $15,000 to $20,000, plus the cost of the car. For this, you’ll get a basic electric car with 30 to 50 miles of range. Its relatively inexpensive and widely available deep-cycle lead-acid batteries will need replacement every three to five years, at a cost of about $1,000 to $1,500. A freeway-capable car typically will use from 16 to 24 6-volt lead-acid batteries wired together in series to produce between 96 and 144 volts. The more volts in the car, the faster the top speed and the longer the range. Driving at increased speeds, however, reduces the maximum range of the electric vehicle.

There are multiple Web sites and discussion groups dedicated to electric car conversions, as well as a handful of small, specialized companies in the United States and Canada. The Electric Auto Association has chapters around the country and in Canada that are eager to assist new members in going electric. MOTHER EARTH NEWS offers the book Convert It, by Michael Brown and Shari Prange, and detailed plans for a gas/electric hybrid conversion using a lightweight car (see “Electric Vehicle Resources” in Drive an Electric Vehicle and Never Buy Gas Again).

Electric car conversion classes also are becoming available in some areas. Mike Parker of Modesto, Calif., teaches a course based on author Michael Brown’s conversion plans.

“You have to be a pretty darn good mechanic, but I want to teach people with shop experience how to do conversions themselves,” Parker says. “I also want to teach industrial arts teachers so they can pass on the information to students.” To that end, this summer Parker will be teaching a class of 10 to 20 students at the Turlock (Calif.) Adult School, and he says he’s looking into teaching an online class. For more information, call (209) 667-0643.

The advantages of driving a converted electric car are low operating costs, home recharging, independence from petroleum and the ability to recharge using wind or solar power. The disadvantages are battery replacement and reduced range, as well as no air conditioning, power steering, automatic transmission or power brakes.

Parker says that some communities, such as Turlock, have 120-volt outlets on downtown streetlights that are perfect for recharging electric cars. And where there aren’t public outlets, you can establish relationships with businesses to use their outdoor electrical outlets while you shop. “I personally have established an understanding with about 25 to 30 businesses to use their electrical outlets for my car,” Parker says. “As payment, I occasionally give them a few dollars.”

The cost of filling up an electric car is little more than that used to heat a pot of coffee, says Michael Hackleman, a renewable energy expert and author of the currently out-of-print book The New Electric Vehicles. “When shops and restaurants let me use their electrical outlets, I always offer them a quarter and explain that — even at 15 cents a kilowatt-hour — they make a profit every time I plug in. Electric cars aren’t going to impact their electricity bill.”

Read more: Learn more about the benefits of owning an electric vehicle in Drive an Electric Vehicle and Never Buy Gas Again.