420 Miles in the Red Beastie pt 1

I’ve recently returned from a fantastic electric voyage. Thanks to the vision and determination of my friend Dick Finley, I am proud to say that his electric Toyota truck, the Red Beastie, has just completed a 420 trip that took me from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington and back….no strandings, no generators used, no failures, no circling vultures…just smooth, near silent electric power up and down the I-5 freeway corridor. I must confess, that I’m still dazed after completing this EV journey, as it is something that I’ve dreamed about doing ever since I built my first EV seventeen years ago!

The plan was to make this historic trip, being the first EV to successfully travel on the I-5 freeway system between the two major West Coast port cities of Portland and Seattle, with the hip EVent, ‘Gasless in Seattle’, being our destination. Dick and I had planned on this trip for some time, and it was supposed to be the highlight of our Summer fun together with his radical long range truck. Sadly, Dick’s illness had progressed to the point where he was back in the hospital and unable to go on the trip. Dick explained to me, that it would please him if I would follow through with taking the truck up to ‘Gasless in Seattle’. He told me that even though he wouldn’t be there physically, he would be there in spirit. I wanted to postpone the trip, and told Dick that we could do it when he felt better, but at Dick’s insistence, I agreed to go ahead and make it another solo flight for me. I am grateful to Dick for entrusting me with his EV dream, and for his helping me to realize mine…I only wish I could somehow make him get better.

The weekend before the 420 mile odyssey began, I had gone to Seattle on other EV business. I decided to use the opportunity to map out the route for my upcoming EV trip. A good friend of mine, Pat Sweeney, lives in rural Tenino Washington, 105 miles North of Portland on the way to Seattle. Pat is an electrical wizard of sorts (very similar to my other EV buddy, Lee Hart) and he’s a crazed EVer who drives a Lectric Leopard. Weeks before, I had phoned Pat about the idea of taking the Red Beastie from Portland to Seattle and back to Portland, and I asked him if he wanted to be involved. Of course, I knew Pat couldn’t resist such an off the wall idea, and so we made plans to use his place near Tenino as a midpoint ‘refueling station’ where the Beastie could ‘suck amps’.

Pat is the creator of the ‘Ugly Box’ charger, a 240 vac charging device that uses no transformer, but instead, utilizes a bank of big 45 mfd. oil-filled capacitors ganged in parallel and connected in series with the 240 vac line, feeding a robust bridge rectifier. The powerful capacitor bank is controlled by a Sweeney-designed microprocessor that, for the bulk of the charging regime, connects all the caps together to slam the battery pack hard. Then, as the pack voltage nears the gassing stage, the microprocessor systematically deletes capacitors as it reduces the charge current to a gentle float level. A typical Ugly Box is capable of delivering anywhere from 15 amps to 40 amps, depending on how many capacitors are stuffed into the box, and how big the wires and rectifiers are. There are several Ugly Box chargers lurking in Pat’s shop, and these can be hooked up in parallel to deliver an even bigger charge when necessary.

When I arrived to Pat’s place the weekend before the 420 mile trip, we went out for a 10 mile spin in his electric Renault (more on this fun car later in a separate post) then returned to his well-equipped shop, where he demonstrated how the Ugly Box could slam 30 amps into the 19 big six volt batteries of his car…that’s right, there are nineteen, 71 lb. batteries in his little Lectric Leopard! As the little Renault was charging, we discussed the feasibility of charging the Red Beastie at his place by paralleling two Ugly Box chargers, providing the truck could even make the 105 mile run from my house to his, on a single charge. We figured that with a charge rate of around 40 amps, it would take up to 10 hours to ‘fill the tank’ on the Beastie. A week later, on Friday, August 22, the Beastie and I were ready to hit the road. Before getting into the details, I want to thank those who helped prepare me for the monumental trip…my wife Cheryl, Lou Tauber, Gerhard Wagner, Marshall Houston, Bruce Meland, and last but certainly not least, Dick Finley.

Earlier in the week, I had made a run to Woodburn, Oregon to address the Woodburn Chamber of Commerce and to promote the Electric Drags. On that Wednesday morning, I had driven the Beastie hard and fast on the freeway in a driving rain storm brought into Oregon by a tropical depression (it hadn’t rained here for 40 days straight). The Beastie performed well, but I didn’t feel like there was a lot left after traveling the approximately eighty mile round trip to Woodburn and back. In fact, the 80 mile trip had used 270 Ahrs of juice! The drive to Woodburn and the one I had made prior with Gerhard on the run to Hood River, were run at high speeds and a heavy foot on the throttle, but even still, the tired battery pack at the end of those runs didn’t exactly instill confidence in me about being able to make it the full 105 miles to Tenino. Still, the plan was in motion, and there was no turning back….besides, the pack of forty Trojan T-105s were still in their initial break in period and were bound to grow in capacity with each new charge/discharge cycle.

On Friday, Bruce Meland and I had gotten together early in the day to begin preparing the Beastie for its road trip. Dick had wanted to install a hard tonneau cover on the Beastie, to protect the bed-mounted batteries and to improve the truck’s aerodynamics. Per his instructions, I had ordered one weeks before and even though it was promised to be ready in time for the Seattle trip, on Friday morning it was still not in our hands. We learned that the unit I had ordered was still in the paint shop and wouldn’t be ready until the following week, but after a frustrating phone call to the wholesaler, I had convinced them to loan us a used unit until the color-matched one was ready. Bruce Meland knew that I had my hands full doing last minute preparations, so he volunteered to make a 60 mile round trip to Hillsboro and back, to go fetch the loaner tonneau cover.

Thanks to Bruce’s help, we were able to install the tonneau cover just hours before I was to leave on the trip. With the cover in place, I hoped that it would reduce the amp draw at freeway cruise speeds. With current savings in mind, I also made sure that the high pressure tires on the Beastie were indeed, filled with high pressure. A quick check revealed that the tires were inflated to 55 psi, instead of their rated 67 psi. Moments later, I had added enough air in them so that all were at 66 psi for the trip.

Later in the afternoon, Lou arrived to make sure that I was as organized as possible (tough task). He saw to it, that I had a cell phone, note pad, flash light, tool kit, and a list of contacts and phone numbers. My wife Cheryl packed my bags, ran down a check list with me, and encouraged me to have fun. Bruce and Lou helped me get the Heavy Metal Garden Tractor loaded into the bed of the Mazda, and secured it with various ropes, nylon bands, and chains. They also securely wrapped it in plastic for rain protection (good thing). My own 120 vac Ugly Box charger was crammed in the bed of the Mazda behind the tractor, along with two E-car Special variac chargers and four 12 gauge power cords, too. Gerhard had gassed up the 5 kw generator and loaded it and an extra can of gas (was he worried that I might not see to that?) into the Mazda’s already full bed.

We had planned to leave Portland by 4:00 PM, as I had wanted to make the long trip to Pat’s before it got dark so that I could see the hills in advance and adjust my driving style accordingly. I received a call from Marshall, where he told me that he would be late due to overtime at work. By 7:00, I was getting a bit nervous still waiting for Marshall to get to my house, as it was beginning to get dark outside. As it worked out, Marshall didn’t get to my house until about 8:45, after the sun had set and nighttime was upon us. I was a little upset about loosing the advantage of daylight, but on the other hand, taking off under the cover of darkness seemed to heighten the sense of adventure.

At 9:30, with Marshall right behind me in the Mazda, we finally hit the road. I had told Marshall that no amount of ‘egging me on’ could make me drive in my more typical style, as my main focus was to be able to get to Tenino on one charge. I was driving like I had an egg under my foot, and as I pulled onto the I-205 Freeway North, I kept a light throttle and simply let the 9″ motor spin up in the revs. Eventually, the Beastie had walked up to around 50 mph, still in third gear. On level stretches of highway, I tried using 4th gear, but the current jumped higher without an accompanying speed increase, so third was the gear of choice. I was very happy to see that the Beastie maintained about 50 mph with only a 112 amp draw, a substantial improvement over the 120 to 130 amp range I had seen before we added the tonneau and pumped up the tires to 66 psi.

After about five miles of light throttle cruising (50 to 55 mph in third gear), we crossed the Columbia River on the Glen Jackson Bridge, leaving Oregon and driving into Washington state. The bridge presents a pretty good climb, as it arches over the two and a half mile girth of the mighty Columbia. To keep up with the traffic flow, I shifted up into fourth gear and stepped harder on the accelerator pedal as the Kodiak controller summoned about 250 amps….ouch…not a good thing when you’re trying to conserve juice so you can travel more than a hundred miles on a single charge!

The Beastie has an Emeter on board and it proved to be an invaluable asset on this historic trip. The meter is not yet permanently mounted, but rather, is positioned ‘racer style fashion’ right in front of the driver’s face, strapped to the steering column with a nylon wire tie and a piece of soft rubber pad to avoid scratches. It is very easy to see and the access to the meter’s function switches (which were used constantly on this trip) is great. During the trip, I used the ‘A’ function religiously to keep an eye on the amp draw vs road speed. The ‘Ah’ function was also used to a great extent, as it allowed me to see how much capacity, or amp-hours was left in the battery pack. As I had pushed the Beastie to its limits on a few other trips, I had a pretty good idea of how many Ahrs were available from the battery pack. I also used the ‘T’ function which calculates how long a given current draw can be sustained. This function was especially useful during stretches of road that remained the same for a while, such as cruising on level road for miles at a time, or during a long, constant hill pulls.

The Beastie’s nearly 2500 lb. battery pack is a 120 volt series/parallel setup of forty T-105 six volt Trojans, with each battery rated at 220 ah (20 hr rate) and the whole pack being 120 volts at 440 ah (20 hr rate). At the two hour rating, the ampacity of an individual T-105 battery falls to less than 140 amps (approximately 280 amps for two batteries in parallel) giving the battery pack the capability of delivering 130+ amps continuously for a little more than two hours. Using the two hour rating, I figured that the Beastie should be capable of rolling along at 50 mph (112 average amps) for about two and a half hours. I also knew that the road to Tenino was anything but flat, and figured that I would have to stay under 200 amps on the hills, then coast down the other side as long as possible to make up for the high current usage.

As I motored along northbound on I-5, the dash lights were brightly lit and the headlights were illuminating the road nicely, thanks to a Todd DC to DC converter set to around 14 volts output. It made me think about the discussions I have had on the EV List concerning DC to DC converters vs just having a 12 volt battery, and I was glad to have a converter to keep all of the Beastie’s 12 volt accessories running the way they were intended to run. I was able to use the headlights and the ventilation fan continually, without worrying about the lights becoming dimmer as the miles past by. The trip would have been gloomy driving behind dim lights, and what a shame it would have been to have to abort the trip due to a depleted 12 volt battery! Instead, the crisp lights and gale force fresh air coming into the cab made the trip a pleasure.

Twenty miles up I-5, I was feeling pretty good about how the truck was running. The Emeter’s LED bar graph still had all four indicators lit up in green. It also said I had used 47 amp-hours (Ahrs) and at the present rate of discharge (117 amps), there was 2.1 hours left of run time. A quick bit of multiplication made me think that I would use somewhere around 240 Ahrs of juice to make it to Tenino. But as I reasoned things out, I also knew that I hadn’t encountered any real steep hills yet, and they would certainly dip into the batteries’ reserves. I decided to listen to a few tunes as I switched on the low budget stereo that had come with the truck. However, the ‘Lo Fi’ setup sounded awful, and I ended up turning it off instead. For a brief moment I was jealous thinking about how Marshall was behind me in my Mazda truck, listening to its 177 watt, twin subwoofer CD sound system. But then I realized that it was Marshall who was stuck driving an ordinary gas-powered vehicle, and it was ‘I’ who was having all the fun in Dick’s cool electric truck!

I picked up the cell phone and called Dick to give him an update from the road. It was good to hear his voice, and when I told him how well the Beastie was running, he laughed and even though I couldn’t see him, I knew he was lighting up his hospital room with that big smile of his.

Thirty-four miles into the trip as I was approaching the town of Woodland, the Beastie started to slow down as I encountered a big grade about a mile long. As I had told Marshall, I didn’t try to maintain my cruise speed and simply let the truck slow down while trying to keep the current draw to around 175 amps or less. The Ahrs started to fly by faster, and seeing the four green LED segments change to three green ones, made me a bit nervous. Cresting the grade, the truck regained its speed and then some, going even faster on the downhill side. Now with my foot barely pressing on the go pedal, the the Ahr consumption almost froze while the speed increased to somewhere around 70 mph or so. Back on level ground, the truck stabilized at around 50 mph again, and the 112 to 117 amp consumption resumed.

At forty miles, I blew past the town of Kalama with 110 Ahrs having been used, and the LED bar graph was still showing three green colored segments. In my mind I started to do quick math…2 times 40 is 80 miles, 220 Ahrs would be used…105 miles might be 280 Ahrs or so….the high speed run to Woodburn and back had used 277 Ahrs…don’t worry, I’ll make it!

After fifty-one miles, I was now coming up on the bigger cities of Longview and Kelso and the Beastie was humming along nicely. I had made it about halfway to Tenino, and had used under 140 Ahrs…right on target so far. The Emeter’s LED bar graph had changed at about forty-five miles and was now showing two orange colored segments, indicating that there was anywhere from 40% to 59% power left. Having made this trip so many times before in gas-powered cars, I remembered that there was a real steep hill several miles long coming up.

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One Response to 420 Miles in the Red Beastie pt 1

  1. Tim Junker says:

    Is it possiable to say eliminate/reduce the batteries and use a generator to power the electric motor? I was at costco the other day and noticed honda has a generator that will produce 220 at rouglhly a 1gal per hour burn rate at maximum draw. Even in LA traffic that sounds like very low consumption.

    Dont want to offend purists, just wondering.