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DIY electric car conversion on a budget

Converting a gas car to electric can take time but it will save money over the long haul.
1967 Karmann Ghia was converted to an all-electric car by high school students. Using old parts from forklift engines and reusing batteries can save money on converting a gas car to electric. (Eric Looney, Instagram )
July 8, 2013, 10:58 a.m.

By Malissa Stark, Special to the Chicago Tribune

While the sticker price and lease rates of new electric cars are dropping to be more competitive with gas cars, they are still more expensive.

There is a more cost-effective option than buying a new electric car: Converting an existing car to electric.

“If you have the talent and resources it’s a great project,” says Craig Van Batenburg, CEO of ACDC, a company that specializes in hybrid and electric vehicle care. It is cheaper and easier than expected.

This conversion works best on 5-speeds, and specifically on small economy pickup trucks like those made by Nissan, Mazda and Toyota. Cars with automatic transmissions are less suited for electric capabilities because the motor runs almost constantly while it is on, unlike motors in manual transmissions that shut off when the clutch is pushed in. Automatics will drain the battery much quicker.

Pickup trucks work best because there is more room for the battery packs.

If you are creative, a conversion can be done on any car, but it would require a lot more energy and money.

“The real trick is to find kits made to certain makes and models,” says Norman Smith, a member of the Electric Auto Association. Smith has done approximately fifty conversions in his twenty years of working with electric vehicles.

These conversion kits will come equipped with all the parts needed for the conversion at a higher cost. For example, Wilderness EV offers four different kits, each for different battery voltages. They recommend their 72 Volt kit for 45 to 50 mph as your top average speed. The kit comes with all the components including: adapter plate, shaft coupler, voltmeter, battery charger, and much more. It retails at $3,250 and does not include the battery.

The battery is the biggest expense for new electric cars but it doesn’t have to break your conversion budget. Buy used whenever you can to reduce the cost. Car batteries are the number one most recycled item in the United States. With 98 percent of all batteries being recycled, the auto industry advocates strongly for recycled parts as they remain efficient and cheap.

“The battery [brand new] lasts a year and a half with everyday use,” says Van Batenburg. A lead acid battery used in a conversion will need a replacement every year or so.

Reusing old parts is another way to dramatically lower conversion costs. Project Forkenswift is an online group that is dedicated to finding a cheap way to perform conversions by using old forklifts. The only parts they couldn’t get from a $700 forklift were battery cables, 6-volt deep cycle batteries, an adapter plate, motor controller, potentiometer, ammeter and shunt, and an LED battery pack gauge.

These days, Ebay and other online resources are the best for finding deals on these kinds of parts. Another option is buying a used golf cart, like the fellows at Forkenswift.

Once you have all the parts and the forklift taken apart you are ready to start the conversion. The following instructions are considerably condensed. Thorough research is needed in order to successfully complete this project. We’re providing the basic steps to give you an idea of the scope of the project.

The first thing you’ll want to do is drain all the fluids from the car into approved containers. Be sure to recycle the oil and coolant. Removing the engine and the exhaust system, which comes next, will most likely require some help. (www.fixhybrid.com is a great resource to finding reliable help.)
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