Switching to electric engines sparks interest

City company sells kits, converts motors to battery power


Photo by Vincent Aiosa

Eddie Pankow shows off the electric motor and controller that will soon be installed into this 1964 Volkswagen Beetle. Pankow, who owns Mac & Mac Electric, has a 1971 VW Karman Ghia that he converted to electric last summer. However, the commute from his home in Blaine is too far to use the electric car, so he commutes in his Jeep Cherokee.


As Greg Aanes drives away from his furniture store on East Champion Street, a father and his two young daughters pause on the sidewalk to admire Aanes’ car silently enter traffic.

There is nothing visually appealing about the silver 1986 Ford Escort wagon, save for the word “Electric” printed on the front doors. In fact, if it weren’t for those words the car would look just like any other tired vehicle in town.

But underneath the hood, this blast from the past holds the wave of the future: an electric motor.

The motor isn’t much to look at. It’s about one-fourth the size of an internal combustion engine,but it allows Aanes, 53, to commute to work and drive around Bellingham everyday.

“I hit the freeway every day and I hit 70 miles per hour,” he said.

With fuel prices reaching new thresholds each week, commuters are faced with the reality of change. And the options are plentiful: change to a more fuel-efficient vehicle, drive less, carpool more, ride a bike, move closer to work. Or change your entire motor.

At Mac & Mac Electric on Iowa Street, owner Eddie Pankow sells kits for converting internal combustion engines to electric motors. The main thrust of his motor business is for more commercial applications, from fork lifts to bathroom fans, but the car conversions are quickly becoming a viable side job — enough so that he recently hired a full-time employee to work solely on electric cars.

Three years ago, Pankow started converting cars to electric and also selling kits to enterprising mechanics so they could undertake their own conversions.

Converting to electric is nothing new for him, Pankow said. Mac & Mac Electric first started selling conversion kits in the 1970s, the last time the price of oil skyrocketed. However, as the price of fuel came back down, electric cars quickly fell out of style.

When Pankow took over the business in 2005, he decided the market conditions were just right to develop and market his own conversion kits. It took awhile for the idea of electric cars to catch on again, Pankow said, but now he gets calls from all over the country.

“It’s picking up a lot,” he said. “Last year we only sold two kits but we’ve sold four in the last month.”

For those not interested in doing all the mechanical work of removing the engine and installing the new electric motor, Mac & Mac Electric can do it for you. In fact, the shop has already converted six cars this year and is expecting more, Pankow said.

“I think most people are concerned about fuel prices,” he said, adding that electric motors are more efficient at turning raw energy into forward motion. “It’s not that electricity is that much more efficient, but the motor itself takes that raw energy and uses 92 percent of it, whereas a combustion engine only uses 15 percent of that energy. When you have an electric car, the energy consumption is about the equivalent of 30 cents per gallon.”


Batteries not included

In theory, any vehicle could be converted to a plug-in electric. However, it’s just not realistic for anything more than a lightweight commuter car.

The major limiting factor in electric cars is the batteries, which don’t come with the conversion kit, Pankow said. In order to go fast and travel long distances, electric cars need long-lasting batteries that can deliver the necessary power to accelerate.

The two main options for batteries are quite different, both in capability and price. Conventional batteries are cheap and will give you at least a 30-mile range, but they’re heavy. Lithium ion batteries, which are most commonly found in laptops, are lightweight and powerful but can cost several thousand dollars.

Weight also becomes an issue: Heavier cars require more electricity to get up and go, and adding more batteries could potentially add too much weight, not to mention costs.

“Last week I had a guy call and he wanted to convert his Chevy Suburban,” Pankow said. “Sure, you can do it but how far do you think you’re going to get moving something that heavy? Especially when you put your whole family in there and all your camping gear, you’re not going to get to the campground.”

For now, the best cars to convert are older commuter cars that are lightweight and have cheap parts, Pankow said. The most common ones seen in the shop are Volkswagen Beetles and Karman Ghias, Geo Metros and Chevy S-10 pickups. In his electric Escort, converted back in the early 1990s, Aanes has 18 deep-cycle marine batteries that pump out 108 volts and power everything from the motor to the radio. With that many batteries, though, the Escort gained more than 1,000 pounds after the conversion. And you can feel it.

The Escort is slow to accelerate up even the slightest hills and struggles to reach 50 miles per hour by the time Aanes has to merge with traffic on the freeway. But Aanes said he is content with the heavy vehicle and he never expected it to go fast anyway.


Is home within range?

One of the major drawbacks of electric cars is the limited range. Without the expensive lithium batteries, most electrics have a range of 30 to 70 miles on a single charge. This makes them great for running errands around town, but raises questions of their viability as commuter vehicles.

For example, Pankow has to use his gas-burning Jeep Cherokee to commute from his home in Blaine to the shop in Bellingham because his converted 1971 Karman Ghia can’t make the trip on one charge.

“I’d love to drive my electric more,” he said. “Either that or I’ve been thinking about moving into town lately. I can rent a room down here for the same price as commuting.”

Though most electrics have a limited range, MC Electric Vehicles in Seattle uses that as a selling point for its selection of Neighborhood Electric Vehicles. Most people don’t need the extended range of a gas car, said owner Jim Johnson, especially since half of car trips in urban areas last less than 10 minutes.

Neighborhood Electric Vehicles are lightweight cars — some save weight by using only three wheels — that are designed around the idea of shorter trips at slower speeds. As people start to rethink their driving habits, many of them are finding that these street-legal vehicles that only go 35 miles per hour can easily meet their needs, Johnson said.

“We’re selling them as fast as we can get them in,” he said, adding that it is cheaper to insure Neighborhood Electric Vehicles because they don’t travel on the freeway. “By staying at 35 miles per hour or less you’re probably not going to have a major rollover. We’ve had a lot of parents getting these for their kids because they can’t go far from home and they don’t go on the freeway.”


An electric future

Both Pankow and Aanes recognize that today’s electric cars can’t solve everyone’s driving needs. But for a large group of drivers, electric is becoming increasingly attractive.

“I don’t think it’s a fix-all,” Pankow said. “I think it’s a piece of the pie and for people who have commuter cars it’s a way to cut down on emissions. But if you want to go camping or go visit someone in another state, you’re not going to get very far in an electric car.”

For Aanes, driving an electric car is not just about reducing his carbon footprint, but saving a diminishing amount of oil for other uses, from creating new plastics to powering large earthmoving equipment.

“The last thing we need oil for is moving people around in 2,000-pound vehicles,” Aanes said, adding that electric cars are already a viable mode of transportation. “This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky idea. This isn’t the movies. This is real.”


Electric car conversion

  • Cost of conversion: $7,000 to $9,000, without batteries
  • Cost of batteries: $180 for six lead-acid batteries, up to $10,000 for lithium batteries
  • Charge time: eight hours in 120-volt outlet, three to four hours in 220-volt outlet
  • Range: 30 to 70 miles with conventional batteries
  • Common conversions: VW Beetle, VW Karman Ghia, Geo Metro, Chevy S-10
  • MPG equivalent: 30 cents per gallon.
  • Major factors: Battery capacity, weight of vehicle, battery storage space
  • Source: Mac & Mac Electric

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