Friday, September 4, 2009

Electric Bicycle Conversion

A student parking pass at the University of Oklahoma costs ~$200 a semester. As if that weren't bad enough, they first try to trick you into buying the nine hundred dollar reserved pass. Instead of paying "the man" $200 just so I can park in overcrowded, confusingly marked lots, I decided my money would be better spent upgrading my bicycle so I can park a few miles away and bike to class.

I knew about these electric bicycle conversion kits because a couple of CS Ph.D. students I'm friends with, Lawrence Kinchloe and Mark Woehrer, put electric conversion kits on their bicycles a couple years ago. (Hey guys! We should start a club!)

It turns out sells a low-end, but complete bicycle conversion kit for $200. (Ha! Exactly the same as I would have spent on a parking pass!) While I could have fabricated my own motor controller, and scrounged my own batteries, the complete kit is such a good deal that it didn't make sense not to just use it as-is. There's even more than what's in the picture - it also comes with a metal rack to go on the back of the bike for the batteries.

The way this thing works is there's actually a motor inside the front wheel, a big fat metal hub that makes the front wheel turn by itself. (Nothing gets changed on the back wheel - so you can still pedal it too, like a normal bike.) In theory, you can just replace the front wheel of your bicycle, put the batteries on the back and the throttle on your handlebars, and you're ready to go!

That's the idea, anyway. Of course, this is a Project, and as we all know Projects rarely go according to plan. The first problem I had was that the hub is too wide to fit between my front forks. Earl Martin would probably just have grabbed the front forks and pulled them out, but I'm not that strong. Instead, I took the scissor jack that came with my car, slipped it over the front forks, and just cranked it on out there. (Nick Johnson asks "Is that SAFE?" Come on, Nick, it's a steel frame! You could probably safely bend it into a pretzel if you wanted to.)

OK, now the hub fits - but the axle is too big to go in the notches on the end of the forks.

Not a problem for a man who owns more kinds of steel files than socks! This is a delicate operation - the axle has flat sides on it, and I want the notch just wide enough for the flat sides to fit, but not wide enough for the axle to rotate in place. When the hub motor turns the wheel, it's pushing against the axle to do so, and you don't want the axle to be able to start spinning within the forks.

Great! Front wheel fits now!

OK, now to transfer the tire from the old wheel to the new wheel. Except the tire doesn't fit. In fact, these aren't the same size at all! Did I buy the wrong size wheel? Oh, never mind. This is the same thing I went through last time I worked on this bicycle! The wheels I put on it then were narrow 26 inch, which means they have less tire material and more rim circumference than the moutain bike wheels it came with; the new wheel brings us back full circle, with smaller diameter rims under thicker tires. Means I need to buy a tire.

Off to the bicycle store!

Since the front wheel is now a different size, I decided to change the back wheel to that size too, and buy new tires for front and back. I've been meaning to replace the back wheel anyhow (between either the wheel starting out warped or my asymmetric weaving pattern, the wheel was getting ever so slightly out of round). I didn't think I needed to buy new gears though because I could just take the gears from the old wheel, right?

Oops... that's not how you remove the gear pack. (If ball bearings fall out all over the place, you're doin' it wrong.) If I read my own damn blog from last year I MIGHT have remembered that. I never was actually able to get the center portion of the hub off.

BACK to the bicycle store!

Another one hour drive. This time I came back with a gear pack. I put yellow teflon tape on the threads of the new back wheel - hopefully if I ever need to remove the new gear pack, this will keep the gear hub from getting stuck as badly as the old one did.

Then I remembered that on the second trip to the bicycle store, I forgot to return the inner tubes I bought on the first trip. The guy at the store mixed up the two sizes of 26 inch just like I did with the wheels, and sold me the skinnier, larger circumference narrow tubes when I needed the wide 26 inch tubes. These tubes don't fit in the tires I bought (there's excess tube), but by this point I'm beyond caring so I just jammed them in there anyway, kinks and all. I haven't gotten a flat yet so I guess it's OK.

I'm kind of proud of the way the throttle mount turned out. I didn't want to unwrap all my handlebar tape to slide the throttle assembly on, so I wasn't sure how I was going to mount it. Eventually I realized it would just as easily fit on a piece of 3/4 inch PVC pipe, so I mounted the throttle vertically on a piece of pipe. I knew if a convex pipe edge butted against a convex handlebar edge it would never stay in place, so I cut a half-circle indention in the side of the PVC pipe where it mates to the handlebar. The mounting feels solid and the throttle is not any harder to use in this position.

It has a key for an on/off switch. It happened to be a perfect fit for this space under the bicycle seat. While it might look a little rude if I reach between my legs to turn the key, I figure this will keep the rain off it.

I mounted the motor controller box upside down under the battery, and I made all the wire connectors come out in the space hidden between seat and the battery bag. Hopefully that will make the wiring less obvious from above. Although I'm not doing anything wrong, I don't exactly want to advertise that something strange is going on. My experience with authority has been that even harmless things will be treated with suspicion if they out of the ordinary. Besides, I don't want to give potential bicycle thieves any reason to think my bicycle is special.

Here's the completed bicycle. As long as I had to buy new tires, I thought I'd have a little fun and get ones with a red stripe. I think it's a nice effect. You can see the batteries here in the unzipped bag; it came with a block of styrofoam in the back where I assume the 3rd battery would go if this were a 36 volt kit instead of 24 volts.

On my first day riding it to class, the zipper failed on the bag where the corner of the battery meets it. The batteries, which are sealed lead acid (heavy as hell but cheaper than lithium ion), rest directly on the metal frame of the rack. There's no padding in the bag, so with every bump the batteries slam down against the rack and then up against the zipper.

Catastrophic zipper failure!

When this happened, I wasn't even sure how I would secure the batteries for the ride home. I actually have a pair of shoes that I've threaded two sets of laces into for MacGuyver emergencies. I could have taken out one set of laces to tie down the batteries and still have had the other set of laces to keep my shoes on. Wouldn't you know it but this would be the day I wore a different pair of shoes though? Darn the luck. Fortunately I had previously fixed the water bottle holder with baling wire, and there turned out to be enough when I unwrapped that to hold the batteries down.

The foam from this padded laptop bag will be just what I need to cushion the batteries. After I cut out the foam, I'll fold it in half and put it under the battery bag.

A zipper is completely off one side. How will I get back it on track? By cutting deeper into the throat of the zipper, I was able to give myself enough slack to re-thread it from the end.

Then I made the two zippers meet at the corner where the original tear happened, so I don't ever have to cross the damaged section! The amount of offset I created from rethreading the zipper on the left side happens to the same length as the stretched portion here, so everything matches up properly.

The next time I have something go wrong with the bicycle, I'll have some duct tape stowed onboard. I removed the hard cardboard center from a roll of duct tape so I could fold it up. I think I saw that trick on Instructables.

And there it is, back together and nicely padded.

Unfortunately the cheap made-in-china 24V battery charger that came with the kit died after just one use! I can use my car battery charger to recharge the batteries, but to do so I have to change the wiring on the battery pack from a 24V serial configuration to a 12V parallel configurations every time I hook up the 12V charger.

Finally done, fully charged and put back together. Despite the problems, I would say the project has gone better than I anticipated. It's lots of fun to ride and completely practical. I think if more people understood that we'd see as many electric bicycles in stores and on the road as regular ones. It still works as a bicycle, so you can rely on electrical power as much or as little as you want. For a casual rider like me, this makes me more confident about taking the bicycle out for rides because I know if I'm too out of shape to pedal any further I can still get home on battery power.