Want An Electric Car? Do It Yourself
Australian culture encourages the vision of the bronzed, sporty Aussie male who can fix anything, build anything, without instructions, and while drinking a beer. Do It Yourself! I’m afraid I don’t really fit that mould, and most Australians don’t. It is a myth perpetuated by self-serving advertisers. So, it was odd to find myself in a workshop on a Saturday learning about how to build my own electric car.
Graeme of OZDIY had invited me along as an observer to see what could be done. I sat with two other participants, revisiting my high school physics classes of over half a century ago — and, like then, not understanding all of it. Graeme is an excellent teacher. In this area, I am not the best of students. Riley and Phil had selected the cars they were going to convert and were taking the first step in learning how to do so. Graciously, they have offered to share their journeys with our readers — so you will hear more about them as time progresses.
Phil’s car is worn out mechanically, and so he has decided to replace the ICE vehicle with an electric. And young Riley tells me he can’t afford a new EV, so he will embark on a journey to build one from his Suzuki Carry — with Graeme’s help of course. [Editor’s note: EV conversions are known to be quite expensive, as David’s own reporting has shown (as well as reporting from other CleanTechnica writers). I hope young Riley won’t discover this to be true and find his ambitions to be out of reach, but as I’m sure readers will keenly point out: with a good approach, cheaper EVs are always possible. I’m curious to see how this goes. —Zach]
OZDIY started as a Suzuki spare parts supplier, with the converting of EVs as a hobby. Graeme converted his first ICEV to EV back in 2008, so he knows the field well. This car has now done 80,000 km. Last time I visited, about 12 months ago, there were a few cars in the process of conversion, there were a few ICE cars being fixed, and the workshop was oil stained and grubby — typical of any garage. Today, it was filled with partially converted cars and very clean — quite the transformation! There are a few Toyotas, including a Land Cruiser and a classic sedan — “good” Toyotas I muse.
Graeme has a large solar array on the roof of the workshop and offered me a charge. “I have plenty of power,” he says, “and it costs me nothing, help yourself.” So as my head was filled with knowledge, Tess’s battery was filled with electrons.
There is no way I can do justice to a 4-hour seminar in one article. So let me hit the high points. Graeme believes that it is good that the EV transition is fairly slow, as it saves the value of the fossil fuel cars and keeps demand for EVs at a reasonable level. He discussed various motivations for going electric — climate concerns, fuel security (most of Australia’s refined fuel comes from Singapore), freedom from the grid, being cool with a converted classic. Graeme also said he did it because he wanted the challenge. He is proud of what he has achieved with many vehicles. He sees himself as recycling cars that were built in the ’90s.
Graeme tells us that the older cars are easier to transition because they are simpler. You can convert a brand-new car, it’s just more complicated. All the “junk” has to go. Not to the tip — a lot of it can be sold. Though, I was surprised at how much could be repurposed and what you might still need. That’s why you need a well experienced expert like Graeme to guide you through the process.
There are many considerations around charging — how much range you need, balanced with the cost of more batteries, or fit out for high-speed charging. High-speed charging accessibility costs an extra $2,000–5,000. Batteries are now lighter, so you can choose to put more in, plus beef up the regenerative braking to give more range. Better to build with adequate capacity while leaving open the potential to expand in the future. Graeme suggests that you put in a larger battery box. “You don’t have to fill it up — but you may wish to in the future. Don’t forget,” he advises, “double the performance is triple the price.”
Graeme places a great emphasis on safety. He tells us that no one has been electrocuted working on an EV is Australia. You can’t use your normal spanners; you might drop one and it could fall across the terminals. He shows us the 1000-volt tools he recommends. I wonder if they will be stocking these at Supercheap Auto at any time in the future? And also high-voltage gloves. He shares the story of a customer who leaned across a battery pack and shirted it out through her bracelet. She’s okay, but she has a new tattoo on her wrist.
How long will your project take? How long is a piece of string? Graeme offers good advice when it comes to purchasing the components. If you expect to finish your project in 3–6 months, buy it all now. If it is going to take years, buy the battery last. They don’t like sitting around on a shelf. Of course, OZDIY can supply most of what you need.
Sage advice is given freely: Plan, plan, plan. “The whiteboard is your best friend” for designing the battery pack to maximise the use of the available space. Graeme also uses cardboard mockups. “Take your time, do a proper job,” he says. “Measure ten times, cut once.” And “double check your wiring before you plug it into anything.”
Graeme installs the safety cutoff switch between the seats. It’s easy to reach in case of an accident. Use it whenever you are working on the battery.
He also introduced us to the national guidelines for the installation of electric drives in motor vehicles (NCOP 14).
Graeme is a great believer in warning lights. However, just as people ignore their petrol gauge warning light, they will also ignore their battery charge warning lights and put themselves at risk of battery failure, or even a fire.
Will this be the new pastime for the Aussie backyard mechanic? “Hey, come on over and we’ll crack a few tinnies and rip out the old ICE for a recycled EV motor. There will be shrimps on the barbie afterwards.” Rippa mate! And there might even be some money in it — Graeme tells me that people are selling their early converted cars for twice what the conversion cost.