Witness to a Plug-In Conversion
By Bill Moore
Kim Adelman, the president of Plug-in Conversions Corporation, backed the white 2009 Toyota Prius out of the maintenance bay into the brisk late afternoon air, almost bringing to close a two-day adventure up the learning curve. He parked it along a line of other white fleet vehicles belonging to Omaha Public Power District, the publicly-owned utility that supplies electricity to Omaha and twelve surrounding counties. In the spare wheel well of the car and under the rear seat sat $12,500 worth of Gold Peak NiMH batteries, a Brusa charger and assorted other electronics that will, when its working 100%, give the car at least 25 miles of "Electric-First"* driving range.
But there's the rub. The car isn't 100% and much of yesterday afternoon was spent trying to figure out why.
In a pioneering program to better understand the implications plug-in vehicles will have on it service, OPPD has begun converting a few of its fleet of 18 hybrids: the first being a HyMotion A123 Prius conversion done by a dealer in Minneapolis, who has since declared bankruptcy in the wake of the plunge in car sales. That conversion utilizes lithium ion cells and essentially supplements the Prius' existing 1.3kWh battery pack. I had the opportunity to drive it a month or so ago and it worked really quite well, keeping the car in EV-mode probably 75% of the time in my short spin around my home town of Papillion, Nebraska.
Plug-in Conversion's approach is somewhat different. They are the only conversion kit manufacturer offering NiMH cells, which is what the Prius was designed around, and with which the automotive industry is comfortable. Southern California Edison's fleet of 300 Toyota RAV4 EVs have amassed more than 17 million miles on their Panasonic NiMH batteries.
Adelman and his colleagues have developed a beautifully integrated kit that utilizes all of the Toyota's current battery system and controls, except the NiMH cells themselves. In place of the cells, which Adelman takes as trade-ins, he installs a Brusa charger, the Toyota BMS, a second, smaller charger to the Prius' auxiliary 12-volt battery, a small back-up fan, and a custom molded duct that channels cooling air from the Prius' original system into the 6.3kWh Gold Peak battery pack that sits neatly in the spare tire well, secured firmly to the car's unibody by eight large bolts. Plugin Conversions even adds a pair of stronger springs to the rear wheel suspension to compensate for the additional 220-pounds of batteries and ancilliary equipment.
Aided by Carolyn Coquillette from the Luscious Garage in San Francisco, and two OPPD mechanics, the team set about converting the car on Monday morning. By late afternoon, the car's rear seats and cargo area had been stripped to the painted metal, the Toyota NiMH cells removed, the Brusa charger installed, the holes drilled for the heavy metal frame that holds the battery pack in place, and the various wiring harnesses assembled. An additional harness plug had to be FedEx'd in from California, but it arrived at 8 AM, Tuesday morning as the battery pack, using an engine hoist, was swung down into the spare tire well and bolted in place. The hole in the bumper had been drilled and the 110 Volt socket and cabling installed. This is where the car will be plugged in at night to recharge the battery pack. All that was left to do, was to install the CanBus monitor -- a task that took Coquillette and one OPPD mechanic less than half an hour.
Meanwhile, Adelman was installing new control software for the system; a task that went quickly once he'd downloaded over the Internet the latest version from a colleague in Chicago who had developed it.
Two chores remained to be done: figure out why the small, supplemental fan wasn't running on cue and make sure the charger was properly programmed. But try as he might -- despite three laptop computers, several continuity checks of the cable and plugs -- the charger wouldn't talk to the laptop. Instead of seeing a Mattrix-like cascade of data, the screen remained blank. Countless phone calls didn't help either, and time was rapidly slipping away. The trio from California had to catch a 7:45 PM departure. Adelman is slated to attend today a California Air Resources Board meeting in LA about regulating plug-in conversions.
The charger was working fine, its pair of internal cooling fans whirring merrily away, while three lights indicated it was charging the battery pack, which a voltage meter confirmed. The CanBus monitor up front was happily displaying its data, as well. The car would run fine, Kim assured Mark Nichols and Steven Anderson from OPPD. You just couldn't charge the battery until it could be properly programmed. The three men agreed that since the car was new and had not yet been placed in official service, it could sit parked for now.
So, as Coquillette temporarily stowed away the seats and other assorted parts in the back of the car and then packed her tools, Kim backed the unfinished Prius out of the garage, parked it and then drove the one-way Hertz rental -- a Pontiac Torrent SUV -- back inside the shop so his team could load up their equipment and dash to the airport.
The plan is for Adelman to fly back out sometime next week with a new charger and communication cable that he's tested in advance to finish the last 1% of the job: program the charger and get the auxiliary fan running. He is also planning to utilize a less costly charger than the high-programmable, but costly Brusa in future versions of the kit. OPPD also plans to install data loggers in both of its converted Priuses that will enable it to glean valuable performance information, which should start to yield results later this Spring.
Kim admitted to me going in that the learning curve on the very first installation of his new conversion kit would be steep, but that after this, it should go very quickly, probably taking only a day for the entire process.
Such is the often stuttering pace of progress.
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