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When You Need a Helping Hand
Mike Brown ©2001 Mike Brown
"I am starting an electric vehicle (EV) conversion, and I know I am going to need help with some parts of the project. Where do I find the people and shops that I need?"
This question comes to me often. I think it is because I am always writing things like, "Take your drawings to the welder," "Go to the sheetmetal shop," or "Go to the parts house and look at their motor mount catalog." It's easy for me to say things like this. After living and being in business in the same area for twenty-six years, I've built up a support network of people and shops that can do jobs for me that I can't do myself.
During this time, I have also learned to communicate properly with these folks, for several reasons. First, so that I am not wasting their time (which costs money). Second, to be sure that the part I need built or ordered is right the first time. Re-dos or re-orders cost money and time. Finally, and most important, to take advantage of their experience. The parts often come out better than they would have if my original plans had not been modified by these experienced specialists. In this article, I hope to show you how to build up your own support network.
Unless you have unlimited time, ability, and money, it is not possible to learn all the skills necessary and acquire all the equipment required to do all the work on an electric vehicle conversion yourself. Let's look at some of the help you might need to fill in the gaps in your experience.
The need for a welder comes almost immediately in the conversion. One of the first things needed is a motor mount to hold the electric motor in the place where the internal combustion (IC) engine was. The next parts you will need are battery racks, and a way to attach them to the chassis. These are important load-bearing parts, and their fabrication is best left to a professional. Learning to weld while doing the battery racks for your conversion is neither a good nor safe idea.
Another skilled person whose services you might need is a sheetmetal fabricator. This is the person to see about metal battery boxes, if you are going that route. This is also the place to get small mounting brackets and component enclosures. The skill necessary and the specialized equipment needed to do the work put most of these jobs out of the average person's reach.
A plastic fabricator is someone else you might want to get to know. My local plastic fabricator makes the polypropylene battery boxes I use. This kind of shop is also the place for any kind of covers, mounts, or ductwork that require bending plastic, or precision cuts.
If your project calls for any large parts made of fiberglass-reinforced plastic (commonly known as fiberglass), a custom fiberglass shop is a good place to go. You can get help and advice there, as well as the parts themselves.
A machine shop with a skilled machinist is necessary for any part that must be turned, milled, or drilled to precise specifications. Again, the specialized skills and expensive machinery limits the amount of machine work the average do-it-yourselfer can do.
Not everyone who is converting a car will need all of the above skilled people and their shops. There are many people who have acquired the skills and equipment to do some or all of their own welding, sheetmetal work, fiberglass, plastic fabrication, or machine work. As long as you are comfortable with the quality, appearance, and safety of the finished pieces, there is no reason not to do your own work.
With the exception of welding metal or plastic, I have accumulated the skills and machinery to do most of my own fabrication work. However, when I reach the point where it is not safe and cost effective, or the resulting product does not have the appearance I want, I turn the job over to a specialist.
There are some other people who are equally important to an EV converter's network. These people are in the automotive parts business.
The counter person at the dealership that handles the make of car you are converting is a source of information and parts that might not be available anywhere else. Some parts are only available through dealerships, because they are only made by the car's manufacturer.
The people who work at independent parts houses can open up the world of aftermarket parts to you. These are parts built by independent companies. Some are straight (but cheaper) replacements for the original manufacturers' parts, but others are modifications or upgrades. This gives you access to the more common "fast moving" parts at lower prices than at the dealership. These companies can also show you what is available in heavy-duty and special application parts that might be helpful during the conversion.
The staff of an auto wrecker, dismantler, or recycler (pick a name that suits your image of the place we used to call the junkyard) will be able to advise you on parts interchangeability. They all have books (or computer CDs) that list which parts will fit other cars from model to model in the same make. This can be helpful when trying to beef up a suspension to support the weight of the batteries.
All modern wrecking yards are part of a network with many other yards. If they don't have the part that you need, it can be located and sent to them. If your donor car is an older model, the dismantler might be your last hope for a part that was a dealer-only part that the dealer can no longer get. Even with all this "added value" service from the wrecking yard staff, the perfectly good used part will cost much less than a new part from the dealership.
Service & Repair Shops
Another useful member of your EV conversion network is an independent auto repair shop that specializes in service and repair of the make of car you have chosen as your donor car. If you already own the donor, this is probably the shop you've been taking the car to all along.
If you are shopping for a donor car, the specialty shop is a good place to start your search, since they often have or know of the type of car you are looking for with a tired or blown engine. An added bonus is that if the potential donor was one of their regulars, they will have its service history. In addition to helping you find a car to convert, they can alert you to any weak spots this car has and what the failure items are that should be checked and replaced if necessary during the conversion.
Depending on your cash vs. time ratio, skill level, or desire to do the job with your own hands, you might hire them to do some parts of the conversion. Jobs like pulling the IC engine, cleaning the engine bay and transmission, or installing the heavy-duty suspension parts might be something best left to somebody who does it for a living and has the necessary tools.
At first glance, about all an autobody repair and paint shop might be used for is a new paint job after the conversion is completed. But there is a place for the body shop in the early planning part of the conversion process, as well as doing some later construction.
Most of the body shops that deal with the late model unibody cars, in which the body and frame are all one piece, have information you can use. These shops have either books or CDs with charts and pictures showing which parts of the body/chassis are stressed load-carrying members, and which are unstressed panels.
If you were planning to sink your battery rack into a hole you cut in the floor, but that piece of floor is a stressed part of the chassis, you might have to re-think your plans. Later on during the construction phase, the body shop can advise you on how to cut that hole in the floor.
If you are using metal battery boxes, they can also tell you how to design them so they can be welded into place easily. A body shop might be a better place to have battery boxes welded in place than a conventional welding shop. Body shops are used to welding thin pieces of metal. They know what kind of metal they are welding, and which welding process to use. A body shop can also tell you what kind of compound or paint to use to cover cut surfaces to prevent rust. As you can see, there is more to a body shop than shiny paint.
Finding These Shops & People
I have given you a list of people and skills that I feel are necessary to any EV conversion project. Now let's talk about how to find them and what to look for during the search.
The way I have found most of my helpers is through referrals. I met Paul McCain of Orb Engineering, the welder that I have worked with for years, through one of my mechanics when I had a VW repair shop. My mechanic and the welder were partners in an off-road race car, and Paul did welding and fabrication to try to support the race car. When I needed the VW chassis modified for the Aztec EV, there was Paul, a welder with automotive experience.
The body shop that painted the Aztec put me in touch with a powder coating shop when I needed the Voltsrabbit battery racks painted with something that resisted battery acid. The search for these people might have been easier for me because I was in the auto repair business, but you can do a similar kind of networking.
Start with the auto repair shop you take your gas car to for service. Explain to the mechanic or owner what you are going to do and what you need, and ask for recommendations. They can tell you about the local body shops, parts houses, and wrecking yards.
The neighbor who has a race car, hot rod, or modified 4WD truck may know an automotive welder/fabricator and a machinist who work on automotive related parts. In fact, the neighbor himself might be a good source of advice, help, tools, and equipment. Anybody who has modified or customized a car or truck has had experiences that might prove helpful to you.
If there is a chapter of the Electric Auto Association (EAA) in your area, or another electric car club, join it. Many of the EAA's members have already converted cars, and are a wealth of information and resources.
The local telephone book's Yellow Pages is the next best source of the goods and services needed to do a conversion. In it, you can find a shop that services and repairs the make of car you have chosen as your donor. The ads for the auto parts houses and wrecking yards that have parts for your future EV will be there. This is also true for welders, sheetmetal and plastic fabricators, and machinists.
The process of finding out which of the shops in the ads is the right one to help you with your project can be time consuming and involved. First, read the ads. A welding shop that advertises itself as a structural welder does buildings, and may not be interested in fabricating a set of battery racks. Likewise, a shop that calls attention to its various certifications and exotic types of welding may also be uninterested.
What you are looking for is a small general fabrication shop that mentions some form of automotive work. A shop that offers portable welding in addition to shop-based work is a plus. They can fabricate the battery racks in their shop, and then bring them out to your place and weld them to the chassis of your car.
With the exception of the portable service, the same criteria apply to the sheetmetal shop, the plastic fabricator, and the machine shop. You want a small shop that is used to doing one-off jobs and custom work. A shop that is geared to doing production runs of hundreds of parts will not be interested in fabricating one set of battery boxes.
Once you have picked out some shops that might be potential suppliers, it's time to go and talk to them. You need to find out if they are interested in doing your work. Be prepared to get reactions ranging from "Gee, that sounds interesting. Let's see some drawings," to "Electric cars don't work, and I don't want to build parts for one." Try to find at least two shops of each type you need, if possible.
After you have found a shop that is willing to look at your job, learn how to communicate with them. See what they need for drawings. Will rough paper and pencil sketches with dimensions work? If more formal drawings are required, do they need to be drawn to scale in the traditional top, front, and side view format? If this kind of drawing is beyond you, see if your local high school has a drafting class that can turn your rough sketches into formal drawings.
Find out what the smallest unit of measurement is that they work to. This could be as high as 1/16 inch (1.5 mm) for the welder, and down to 0.001 inch (0.02 mm) for the machinist. Asking someone to work to smaller tolerances than they are used to will cause them frustration and cost you money.
Now take your finished drawings back to the shop. This is the time for the final design conference. Go over the drawings with the welder, for instance, and ask for input on any changes that could be made to make a part stronger or easier (and cheaper) to fabricate without affecting the basic design. Make the suggested changes at this time if possible, or go back to the drawing board if necessary.
When you are both in agreement on what is to be done, ask for a bid. When you get the bid, look it over. The total amount will probably be broken down into the amount of time required to build the part times the shop's hourly rate, plus the cost of the materials used to make it. There might be some time charged for consulting. If the people at the shop spent a lot of time helping you, pay it and consider it an educational expense.
If the price seems reasonable and the shop has been friendly and helpful through the process, accept the bid and let them get started on your parts. On the other hand, if the price seems high and the shop's attitude has been indifferent, go to another shop and get another bid. If both bids are close to each other, go with the shop that you feel most comfortable with.
Communication with the counter people at the parts house or the wrecking yard is also very important. Again, observe their reaction while you give a brief description of what you are doing. This will let you know if you want to be there, and if you will get any help.
Step up to the counter prepared to make your request. Know or have written down the year, make, model, production date, engine size (in cubic centimeters or cubic inches), and vehicle identification number (VIN). Yes, it is important to identify the engine, even though you will be removing it, because many other parts are keyed to the engine. This information will make it much easier to find the parts you need or the information you are looking for.
A few words are in order about the type of parts house you should be looking for. The big nationwide chain parts house is not where you belong with an EV project. They specialize in selling the most-used parts for late model cars to do-it-yourselfers, and don't have the time or experience to help you research interchanges or upgraded parts for your project.
The parts house you are looking for is the one that supplies the local independent repair shops. This place will have more experienced counter people, and a broader base of suppliers to draw from. They are also tied into the local automotive community, and might be able to help locate other resources for your project.
Now, a few tips on getting along with all these very important people. First, don't waste their time. Their time and skills are what they sell to make a living. Be as prepared as you can be when you go into their shop. Know enough to know what you don't know. Try to learn to speak their technical language.
If you are in a parts house and a mechanic (who is probably a regular customer of the shop) comes in looking for the parts order he phoned in earlier, tell the counter person to go ahead and help this customer first. They will both appreciate it, and you will get better help from a more relaxed counter person.
Depending on the size of their contribution to the EV project, a bag of chocolate chip cookies or a dozen donuts make a good end-of-project thank you. A big job like a set of battery racks and a motor mount that included a lot of design help, rates cookies during the project and a pizza lunch when they are finished.
You want the shops that are working with you to say to themselves, "Here comes our EV enthusiast," not "Oh, no, here comes that idiot again." Most important, when the EV is running, drive it around and show it to all of the people who helped make it happen. That might be the biggest thank you of all.
I realize that this article wasn't very technical, but I feel that the subject is one that needs attention. If you are building an EV and get stumped trying to find something, call, write, or email me. I'll try to help.
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