If I seem a little, I don’t know, incomplete to you, I think I know why. It’s because my Changli, the cheapest new car in the world, has been out of commission for a number of months. Well, it seems to have been a lot of months, because time is cruel and so very fast and winter was long and look, I just kept putting it off. I do that with so many things in my life, I realize. It’s not good. The sheer number of unfinished cars and projects sometimes makes me feel overwhelmed, like I’m sliding into an oil-soaked black hole of regret. But that’s not productive! I must crawl out, via action! And the first action means finally taking care of the battery situation of the Changli. I attempted to start that yesterday, but was stymied by a problem I probably should have expected, but didn’t. A problem that sounds almost medical, because it involves swelling.
My $930 2020 Changli Freeman ($1200 with batteries) had been an incredibly reliable little ridiculous EV for me since I got it, and I used it lots and lots. Then, last May, I encountered the problem that put it out of commission, which seemed to be due to wear in one or more of the five lead-acid 12V batteries that give the Changli its lifeforce.
When I tried to start the Changli, the in-dash voltmeter showed the expected amount, 63V, but the motor just pulsed rapidly when trying to run, sort of like how modern cars will click and pulse their dash lights when trying to start with a weak 12V battery. You can see it here:
At the time, I checked the batteries with a voltmeter and did find that at least two of them were a bit low. The batteries read 12.8, 11.7, 8, 10.6, and 15.5 volts, at least based on what I’d written on them months ago, when I checked. One of those is weirdly high, one weirdly low. All together, it comes to 58.6, just a bit below what the expected capacity would be, though I’d think it could still get things moving, but I could be wrong. I’m sure even the crude electrical management system here has some sort of checks on the voltage coming in.
Clearly, there’s something up with these batteries. I want to take them out so I can evaluate them individually, perhaps see if they’re worth trying to salvage, but more likely I’ll be replacing them entirely, hopefully with something more interesting and better than lead acid batteries, like a lithium battery pack or maybe a salvaged NiCad battery from a hybrid car like a Prius. That’s if I can’t order a small fusion reactor off Alibaba, of course.
To do any of this, I have to first remove the batteries, of course. And that’s where I hit my snag. After disconnecting the wires, I found I was unable to remove any of the batteries, which should be pretty obvious if you look at their condition:
Have these guys been hitting the gym when I haven’t been looking? Because they are swole. Oh man, every battery in here is severely bulging, to the point where they’ve deformed one another’s cases and have managed to lock themselves together into one immobile mass of plastic and nasty chemicals.
Here it is, in moving pictures:
My Changli batteries aren’t looking so great. Hm. pic.twitter.com/yUjvKhWRPo— Jason Torchinsky (@JasonTorchinsky) April 5, 2023
Compare this to a photo of the battery box from October 2021:
It’s not a full shot, but it’s the best I had here; look at the two batteries on the side there. See that little styrofoam panel in between them? It’s gone now! What happened to it? Was it just crushed between the swelling batteries? Did some chemical process dissolve it? Did it escape?
So, what causes lead acid batteries like these to bloat and swell, anyway? It seems the most common culprit is overcharging. The chemical process inside the battery creates hydrogen and oxygen, and if that is being produced in quantities that prevent adequate venting or go beyond the battery’s ability to re-absorb the chemicals (if it is in fact a recombinant battery), then pressure builds up enough to deform the plastic battery housing as it expands, like a heavy, joyless balloon.
The cell plates inside the battery could be swelling as well; without tearing the batteries open, I’m not really certain, but it barely matters because they’re all very clearly swollen as hell.
I’ve only ever used the Changli-supplied charger to charge the batteries, so I’d hope that would be putting out the proper voltage to charge them up without overcharging. Generally, I plugged the Changli back in after use, and left it plugged in. I’ve checked golf cart sites to see what the preferred procedure was for lead-acid battery-powered carts, and there’s some controversy, it seems. According to the Golf Cart Maven, whose name suggests confidence, even the major manufacturers of golf carts differ on this:
Club Car recommends that electric golf car chargers be left plugged in to the golf car during prolonged storage.
E-Z-GO recommends that electric golf car chargers remain unplugged from the golf car during prolonged storage.
Yamaha recommends completely removing the golf car batteries and storing them externally from the golf car.
So, did I cause this by leaving it plugged in? Maybe? I suppose if my charger is dumb – which it very likely is – it didn’t sense when the batteries were fully charged and just kept on going, which may have led to an overcharging situation and, as a result, these bulging batteries?
But at the same time, everything says you should charge a lead-acid EV back up after each use.
Maybe the only real answer here is that lead-acid batteries kinda suck.
So, now I need to figure out how to extract these wedged-in, stuck batteries. I’m neither tall enough nor strong enough to pick up the whole car, turn it upside down, and smack it until the batteries are free, but if I’m lucky a passing Sasquatch might be willing to help me try that. Barring that, I really don’t want to puncture the plastic cases, because then acids and gases and other unpleasantness can escape and cause all kinds of havoc.
That said, I’m not exactly sure how I can avoid it, at least for one battery? If I crowbar a battery unstuck, there’s a good chance I’ll be cracking that plastic, but once I get one out, the others should have more room, and I can likely extract the rest without harm.
Once out, I want to research some replacement options. Lithium-ion would be the dream, but they’re not cheap. Here’s a 60V lithium ion pack, but at $800, that’s almost as much as the whole car was. More affordable are these NiCad battery modules from a Prius; they’re $35 each, and each makes about 7 volts, so can I connect nine of these in series for a 63V battery pack? That should work, right?
But first, I need to get the damn things out. I suppose the next post about this will either be written with the intoxication of victory, or from a hospital bed after I manage to cause an explosion that merges human and Changli, making me the shittiest cyborg ever imagined. Wish me luck.
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