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EV World's LIVN GRN Prius now converted into a plug-in hybrid
EV World's LIVN GRN Prius on its first official trip as a plug-in hybrid drove in largely PHEV mode a mile to a nearby Panera's bread for breakfast bagels. Note the black plug on the left rear bumper where the car is plugged in to charge the battery from the grid.

The Conversion of 'LIVN GRN'

How, after 12 years, EV World finally got plugged in.

By Bill Moore

"Mike doesn't make many mistakes," Kim Adelman told me as his chief technician, Mike Dibble, labored tirelessly at the installation of their first Hong Kong-assembled battery pack. "He usually saves them for one big one," he chuckled. He words would be prophetic.

Kim and Mike flew into Omaha this week to upgrade our public power company's plug-in Prius, giving it the ability to drive in PHEV-mode as high as 70 mph. After that, they would tackle converting EV World's personal Toyota Prius to a plug-in hybrid. It would be an adventure -- and emotional roller coaster -- from start to finish.

The story begins when Adelman called me a few weeks ago from San Diego to say that he was coming to Omaha and that he'd like to install one of his kits in our newly acquired Prius, which we'd bought last month from Autobeyours.com's Steve Woodruff. It had been totaled in a front end collision in Texas, and Woodruff had bought it as salvage from the insurance company, and restored it back to nearly-new condition.

Kim didn't have to twist my arm on this proposition; we'd get a cutting edge plug-in hybrid conversion kit and Plug In Conversions Corporation will be getting worldwide exposure through EV World.

I'd driven Adelman's own Prius last summer just a few days after he'd installed his Hybrid Engine Management module or HEM, which had been developed by the Ewert brothers in Chicago, whom he credits with allowing his kit to leap-frog his competition. Whereas most Prius plug-in kits are restricted by Toyota software code to operating in electric drive mode under 34 mph IF you drive very carefully and don't accelerate at anything close to normal speeds, PICC's kit allows you to effortless drive at highway speeds on the Toyota's Synergy Hybrid Drive electric motor alone. While the engine spins, no gasoline is burned. As long as there is sufficient charge in the Goldpeak NiMH batteries, the Prius operates like an electric car. It should also be noted that PICC is the only kit maker to utilize the same battery chemistry found in the stock Prius. Some kit makers offer lead batteries to keep down costs, while others have designed theirs around lithium ion, a chemistry PICC is also planning to offer in the near future, which should significantly reduce the weight and size of the firm's current 330-pound pack. Installed, the PICC system adds a total of 230 pounds, subtracting the stock battery pack, spare tire and jack. If we incur a flat in town, we can call for assistance. On a longer trip, we'll carry the spare and jack.

The pack that now resides in our Prius began life in Hong Kong at Goldpeak's plant. It is the first PICC pack to be assembled in overseas. After it arrived in San Diego, Dibble pre-assembled all the necessary wiring allows it to transparently interface with Toyota's energy management system. It was then crated up and shipped via FedEx to the Automotive Technology shop at Omaha's Metropolitan Community College. It arrived at the campus in South Omaha the same day Adelman and Dibble landed. The plan was for them to install their HEM module on Omaha Public Power District's PICC-converted Prius that afternoon and early the next morning, start on ours.

While I drove my wife to work, Kim and Mike drove the Prius to MCC and began removing the rear cargo decking, spare tire, side panels and rear seats. By the time I arrived half an hour later, Dibble had nearly stripped the rear cargo area of the car down to the metal. By 11 AM, the stock battery was laying on the floor, along with the plastic panels and seats. Meanwhile, a constant stream of automotive students and faculty members kept Kim busy answering questions. An Omaha World-Herald report and photographer hovered nearby asking questions and taking photos, which ended up on the front page of the paper's Money section the next day.

The conversion procedure involves reusing most of the Prius battery case in which are mounted the Brusa charger that handles the 6.1 kWh PHEV battery pack, a smaller Battery Minder charger to keep the Prius' tiny accessory battery happy, and a small fan to keep air flowing. The air from Toyota's battery air duct is re-channeled into the PICC pack using a specially-design plastic duct. The Prius' battery ventilation fan has been programmed to turn on once the battery pack reaches 70° F. The air is channeled through the three layers of 168 modules that make up the pack, and exits out slots in the rear and bottom of the pack. Kim advises that the retractable cargo deck cover be kept in place, especially in summer to help keep the pack from overheating, which would shorten its life. GoldPeak assures Adelman their modules are good for 1,500 charging cycles.

By 4:30 that afternoon, the battery was securely bolted in place, assisted by several MCC auto tech students. As I headed to pick up my wife from work, Kim and Mike opted to stay and work on the car, hoping to get it running before calling it a day. By 7 PM, he phoned to say they had run into a glitch; the car wouldn't start. Both were dog tired and decided to drive back to Papillion, where they were staying with us. Kim wasn't sure what the problem was and over pizza tried to mentally debug it with Mike. Ever-the-optimist, Adelman reassured us that they'd have the problem resolved by 10 AM the next morning.

By 11:30 AM, when I reached him by cellphone, he sounded tired and frustrated. He hadn't yet isolated the problem, but he was sure they would narrow it down. By around 1:30 PM, they thought they had. The computer control board that they used in place of Toyota's to manage the battery pack, appeared to be bad. Kim thought that replacing the faulty board would solve the problem, but he needed to get one from the Ewerts in Chicago. He had checked with UPS and they could get it to him 'same day,' but it would cost $400 in shipping charges. He and Mike had booked their return tickets for late Saturday afternoon, and it looked increasingly like he'd have to reschedule his flight. He said with conviction that he wasn't leaving until the car worked.

As I thought about his dilemma, I recalled that back in my days as an airline ticket agent -- long ago, in a galaxy far, far way -- we used to ship small packages "counter-to-counter." Maybe, the airlines still did this, I reasoned and I called United and Southwest, both with regular service from Chicago to Omaha. Both air carriers, did, in fact, offer such service for a fraction of what UPS had quoted him. With growing sense of hope, I called him with the news. If he could get the board to either carrier by 3PM, we'd have it by a little after 5 PM. I hung up and Kim called the Ewerts in Chicago, who arranged for a courier to run it out to O'Hare.

As the clock ticked, the courier called Kim from Chicago to say it didn't look like he was going to make it in time for the flight. It was raining in Chicago and traffic out towards the airport was at a crawl. Thankfully, Kim didn't tell me this until later. Instead, around 4PM he called to inform me that the package had gotten on the flight. By some "miracle" -- Kim's term -- the courier had made it in time. The package should arrive about 5:15 PM. I agreed to pick up my wife and then drive to the airport to retrieve the board. Of course, we weren't sure this would solve the problem, but it was their best guess. What they didn't realize at the time is they had a very simple way to verify their theory, but they'd completely forgotten it.

By 5:45, I pulled into the airport Quick Park and minutes later walked out of the terminal with the package in my hand. As I drove through the parking garage, heading for the exit, I called Kim to give him the good news. Half an hour later, Kim was unwrapping the box and surveying the new board. A short time later, Mike had it installed and a little before 8 PM, the car started. Problem solved.

Or so we thought. It was also about this time that Adelman realized he still had the older module he'd replaced in OPPD's car on Wednesday. He and Dibble could have used it to trouble shot the problem, but in the confusion of the moment, it had slipped both of their minds.

With the car working and everyone clearly relieved, Kim told Mike to start putting the car back together and I called my wife to say we'd be home around 9:30 PM.

It wasn't until we'd backed the Prius out of the now deserted shop and closed the garage door behind us that Kim realized the engine wasn't running; and he was getting an error code that resembled the earlier one. I don't know about Kim, but I felt a twinge in my gut. Here we were, out in the dark and the cold with the battery at 60 percent state-of-charge, not enough to limp back to Papillion. I am sure Adelman's mind was racing as the college's security guard drove up and asked if we were ready to leave. Just at that moment, Kim had a flash of inspiration. The car had worked fine at 8 PM. The only thing that had changed was that Mike had connected the HEM module. That had to be the answer. Something hadn't been connected correctly in the HEM.

The guard let us back into the garage, the Prius running in EV mode, and Kim finally succeeded in disconnecting the module after Mike had given up in frustration and I had vainly searched the shop for a screwdriver. With the HEM now disconnected, he tried starting the car again and this time it worked perfectly. In the brighter lights of the shop, Mike saw the problem. Back in San Diego, he had installed three wires in one of plugs into the HEM module backward.

It was with some irony that Kim recalled his earlier comment about Mike making few mistakes, only to occasionally make one big one. This was that BIG one!

Relieved and with the Prius running as a hybrid again, we drove in convoy -- me in our Accord, Mike in my Insight and Kim in the Prius -- seven uneventful miles back home, arriving around 10 PM. We'd promised them steaks to celebrate, so despite the late hour, I fired up the grill under the dim illumination of our patio light and set four prime ribs sizzling away. Omaha Steaks never tasted so good.

With full stomachs and rising spirits, Mike was determined to rewire the plug and at 12 midnight the four of us, plus our miniature Schnauzer 'Rascal' piled into the Prius for a spin around town in PHEV mode. The car worked flawlessly. It was four tired, but excited -- and relieved -- people who crawled under the covers well after 1 PM in the morning. We all awoke this morning to a surprise snow fall that blanketed Omaha with several inches of the white stuff; clearly an unexpected treat for our two San Diego guests, and an early harbinger of a long winter on the Plains. Or did it, instead, signal a new, fresh start? I like to think the latter.

I drove Kim and Mike to the airport this afternoon and for the first 19 miles we operated in PHEV mode, the IC engine only coming on infrequently. We motored east on I-80 towards Eppley at highway speeds on the Prius's powerful electric motor. The fuel economy display maxed out at 99.9 mpg. Kim estimated that we were probably getting 150 mpg. We'll know more precisely later this year when PICC introduces its custom PHEV display that will be integrated into the stock one on the 2004-20009 Prius. It will be touch screen-capable and show a wealth of information about the performance of the car and condition of the battery pack. For now, if I want to see this information, I'll need to plug in my Macbook laptop running in Windows XP. Kim left me with a cool Java-based program that emulates his future display.

For now though, after an emotional roller coaster ride over the last three days, I am thrilled to finally be "plugged in." I also feel extraordinarily privileged to be a part of this grand, history-making experiment and look forward to sharing -- quite unvarnished -- our experiences with EV World readers through these pages, on Twitter and on Facebook.

Here's a big thank you to PICC, Kim Adelman, Mike Dibble and the great staff and students at MCC. Together, we're pioneering the "future in motion."

Times Article Viewed: 11026
Published: 10-Oct-2009

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