Electric Vehicle Converts Happy to Avoid Pumps, Accept Cars' Limitations

When Ted Lowe tallies how much he has shelled out for gasoline this year, he gets a knot in his stomach.

Jan. 4--CHICAGO--When Ted Lowe tallies how much he has shelled out for gasoline this year, he gets a knot in his stomach.

"Those prices are really high," Lowe says of pump prices that have been around, and generally above, $2 per gallon for weeks.

Lowe's total for 2004: $32.

That is because his primary vehicle is a Chevrolet S-10 pickup powered by batteries and an electric motor. He uses the yellow pickup (he calls it the Tweety Truck) year-round. It has a top speed of 75 m.p.h., and the only time it needs to stop at a gas station is when the tires are low on air.

Lowe's outlay for gas would be even lower except his pickup was out of service recently for repairs to a motor mount and a squeaky clutch.

That forced him to fire up the 1988 Ford Crown Victoria he keeps in reserve and pump $7 of gas into its tank, an expenditure Lowe says "really annoyed me" because he got so little gas in return.

Lowe, a solar engineer from Wheaton, watched a friend spend $26 recently to fill his gas tank and remarked, "That's almost a year's worth for me."

Solar panels at his home generate about half the electricity he uses to charge the batteries, and Lowe says "as a source of energy, it doesn't get any better than that."

More than 10 million vehicles are registered in Illinois, but only a few dozen are electric passenger vehicles such as Lowe's that rely on rechargeable batteries to run an electric motor.

Unlike gas/electric vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius, pure electrics have no internal combustion engine to supplement the electric motor and recharge the batteries on the fly.

A key reason EVs are so scarce is that most can go only about 50 miles before the batteries run out of juice, even less in cold weather. Once drained, the batteries have to be recharged by connecting to a household or other electrical outlet, typically for at least four hours.

EV owners accept those limitations and say they get a charge out of driving a green vehicle and avoiding gas stations.

"I really get geeked up about it," says Chicagoan Peter Hartel, who drives a white Geo Metro that has golf-cart batteries where the rear seat used to be and an electric motor in place of the gas engine.

"You have to be almost single-minded about it. It becomes a question of how much blood you can squeeze from a stone."

Hartel uses his Metro for errands and short trips such as the 5-mile commute from his home on Chicago's near Northwest Side to Columbia College downtown, where he teaches cinematography.

"I'm using it as a mission-specific vehicle, and it's ideal for that," he said, adding that more drivers could survive with the limited range of an EV.

"Owning a car with almost unlimited range is silly. How often do you need that? You can rent a car for the times you need to drive to Detroit."

Auto manufacturers produced more than 5,000 EVs beginning in the mid-1990s primarily to satisfy a California mandate for zero-emission vehicles. But most were leased instead of sold and wound up back in the hands of the manufacturers. Most EVs on the road are, like Hartel's, converted from gas engines.

After California eased the requirement in 2001, automakers stopped making EVs except for small "neighborhood vehicles," citing high cost, limited range and lack of interest from consumers.

Hartel thinks automakers could attract environmentally conscious motorists if they offered batteries with greater range.

"When you can go 100 miles, you can drive out to Ikea 1/8in Schaumburg3/8, and you don't have to think about whether you can make it back," he said. "A lot of people would go for that."

But General Motors spokesman Dave Barthmuss says the GM EV1, built from 1996 to 2000, had a 100-mile range, yet only about 800 consumers were interested enough to lease one.

"The battery technology is very limited and forces people to make too many tradeoffs in their transportation lifestyle," Barthmuss said. "Electric vehicles only appeal to a very, very small minority. Every manufacturer has come to that same conclusion."

While the auto industry has backed away from EVs, about 5,000 are operating in the U.S., mainly in warm-weather states, the Electric Auto Association in San Jose, Calif., estimates. Some are tiny cars designed as EVs such as the single-seat Corbin Sparrow, but most are converted internal-combustion cars, association Chairman Ron Freund said.

A California company converted Hartel's 1994 Metro, and he bought it used for $4,900 three years ago.

His biggest expense so far: $900 to replace the lead-acid batteries.

He spends about $25 per month to charge the batteries but says his Metro is cheaper to maintain than a conventional car.

"I don't have to change oil or antifreeze or do other maintenance, so I can't complain. I just add water to the batteries and plug it in at night," Hartel said.

Lowe and Hartel found their EVs on the Internet, but Tim Moore, an industrial technology teacher, did his own conversion in 2002. It took three months to pull the gas engine from a 1994 Ford Escort wagon and install the electric hardware.

Moore relied heavily on technical advice and hands-on help from fellow members of the Fox Valley Electric Auto Association, a club that meets monthly at Triton College in River Grove and includes several electrical engineers and about a dozen EV owners.

"I needed all the help I could get," said Moore, who lives just off Electric Avenue in Hillside. "I told my wife, I have to go to the 1/8club3/8 meetings because that's how I keep the car running."

But Moore says he has racked up 19,000 miles without major repairs or expenses. By contrast, the 30,000-mile service on his wife's Mercury Villager cost about $1,000.

Moore spent $14,000 on the conversion, including $2,000 to buy the Escort, but received a $4,000 rebate from the Illinois EPA for converting a gas vehicle to electric.

He commutes 13 miles to Lincoln Middle School in Park Ridge, where he paid $500 for the installation of an outdoor electrical outlet to charge his batteries for the trip home.

Moore pays the school 45 cents per day to cover the cost of the electricity and figures he saves money if gas costs more than $1.40 a gallon.

"If it's at a dollar, I'm losing out, but at $2, I'm profiting," he said.

Illinois EV owners also save on license plates, which cost $35 every two years versus $78 annually for conventional cars, including hybrids.

But the lack of repair facilities is a drawback.

"With an electric vehicle, there's just no place to take your car. It's up to you to fix it," Hartel said.

The Fox Valley association (www.fveaa.org) provides a support network, but Hartel says he has had to solve head-scratching issues with relays that made the Metro hard to start and figure out why his car just died, a heart-stopping moment he describes as "sheer terror."

However, he has always been able to get it running and has never required a tow truck.

Hartel says another benefit of electric is that the 12 batteries, which weigh about 60 pounds each, give his tiny Metro more traction.

"It's great in the snow. I've never gotten stuck," he said.

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