It’s sort of appropriate to be telling you about this on Halloween, because this is a story of resurrection from the dead, a Frankenstinian journey of electricity and rebirth. You may recall that my Changli, the cheapest new sorta-car in the known world, suffered a failure last year that was later proven to be due to the death of the five lead-acid batteries that gave the life-force to the Changli — batteries that, in their death throes, swelled up and bloated themselves to such a degree that they trapped themselves in the battery compartment, forcing me to take the sublimely idiotic approach of getting them out with a chainsaw, because I’m stupid, often deeply so. The path to return to motility for the Changli hasn’t been an easy one, plagued mostly by the twin demons of chemistry and procrastination. But, I’m happy to say that in the end, there was victory, and the mighty 1.1 horsepower Changli now rides again!
Part of the reason this process took so long is because – and I tell you this in the strictest confidence – we were supposed to have a battery sponsor for the Changli. We had been talking to a battery maker that dazzled me with promises of lithium-ion power and then just some sort of effective lead-acid power, but the whole process just sort of fizzled out, leaving me and the Changli feeling jilted, alone, and unwanted.
But there’s only so long you can wallow in self-pity! Lamenting what could have been isn’t getting 800 pounds of Chinese Old Man Happy Car moving again, and, besides, the last thing I want to do is prove all the haters right. Oh, there’s lots of people out there who’d love to see the me and Changli fail! And I’m not going to give them the satisfaction!
Sure, it stung when the American Dental Association (ADA) and the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) issued their first-ever joint press release to condemn my attempts to get the Changli running again, calling the project “a folly that doesn’t just waste time and resources, but fundamentally debases the human spirit,” and referring to me as a “delusional, unpleasant little troglodyte who looks like what a poorly-shaved chimpanzee would resemble if no one was willing to provide it with decent clothing” and then going on to speculate that, should I lose my life in this endeavor, “the cost to the overall worth of humanity would be less than negligible.”
Those words hurt. But they also spurred me on.
[Editor’s Note: Neither the ADA or the ACLS could be reached for comment to confirm the validity of the press release or associated quotes. These may have been made up. – JT]
Let’s recap the state of the Changli: I’d chainsawed out the batteries, reducing my lifespan considerably thanks to lead inhalation, but I got the swollen batteries out. Here’s what that looked like, if you need more horror in your Halloween:
The end result was a nice, clean battery box to work with, though:
My, that looks fantastic! You could eat off that battery tray, but I sure as hell wouldn’t recommend it! While I’m here, I should inspect the condition of the main battery wiring, just to be safe:
Just as I thought: it’s in superb condition. No notes! I re-spliced and added some new tape, but looks like I hardly needed to, right? Glad that’s all still top-notch.
So, now I just need to stuff that battery compartment with some electron-filled batteries. I wanted to do this quick and cheap, but I also did not want to get complete garbage. With that in mind, I went to Wal-Mart to see what was available. There were some small lawn equipment batteries that were tempting because they’d all have fit well in the battery box, but I’m not sure those would have had the endurance I wanted.
Really, conventional car batteries aren’t the best choice here, as they’re designed to kick out a burst of power when starting, then spend the rest of the time getting gently recharged by the alternator. I wanted something more suited to continual power delivery. Fortunately, even at a place like Wal-Mart, there’s a reasonable answer for this problem, even in the lower-tech lead-acid battery space: marine batteries.
The key difference in marine batteries versus car batteries is that marine batteries are designed for more continual power draw because boats will operate lights and pumps and stereos and harpoon gun targeting systems and other equipment directly from the battery in ways that cars just don’t. From Napa Auto Parts:
…their job continues after firing things up. These [Marine] batteries need to provide enough juice to keep the lights running, the gauges functioning and any pumps or other boat accessories fully operational. This means that they must offer a long draw-down on power before emptying out.
Marine batteries have thicker lead plates inside to facilitate this longer power delivery, and should be better about being depleted and recharged over and over. Also, the price wasn’t really any different than the car batteries, so I think we have a winner.
I found five roughly-matching marine batteries at my local store, so I grabbed them all. The marine batteries also had another significant advantage over car batteries: they had better terminals:
In addition to the usual soft-metal post that gets clamped like a regular battery (why are these the standard? They’re pretty crappy. We should look into that in another story) these also had threaded posts that were roughly the right size to fit the Changli’s original terminal wires, as you can see above. They also came with the proper nuts, stored on a plastic positive terminal cover that looked like a face, laughing maniacally:
The one drawback of these marine batteries is that they are significantly larger than the original batteries, so the battery box can only fit three:
As a result, I had to re-locate the remaining two to the rear floor, behind the battery box:
There’s still legroom, but these batteries do eat up a good chunk of floor space:
Those are my kid Otto’s legs there. It works, but I think I can improve the experience if I make a little battery cover with drink holders or something, to make it all seem intentional and perhaps even add a touch of luxury to the humble Changli.
The batteries need to be wired up in series so the voltages of the batteries add up to the needed 60V; David wasn’t confident that this would all work, predicting the release of Magic Smoke:
What a dick, right? Thanks for the confidence, David! Jeez.
Anyway, I wired the batteries up, using wire from an old outdoor extension cord that’s probably too thin and I should change it out, but I really was being impatient.
Well, joke’s on you, David! It worked! No magic smoke! Sure, Otto told me the wires got a bit hot while we were driving, but the damn thing is alive again! [Ed Note: I do think some thicker-gauge wire would go a long way for you, Torch. -DT].
I’m delighted. I realize this is hardly a heroic fix, it’s just swapping out batteries, but I’m thrilled all the sitting didn’t cause more things to go wrong, and this all just makes me more dazzled by the improbable fundamental non-crappiness of the Changli.
It was still filthy and leaf-covered, so I vacuumed out all the spiderwebs and washed off the accumulated pine needles and squirrel-stashed acorns and leaf litter, and behold, the Changli was looking as smart and together as the finest $1,200 Chinese semi-legal EV you can imagine.
Otto and I took the Changli out into town to pick up some food as I evaluated the performance, which felt pretty much the same as I remembered, which makes sense: It’s the same voltage, and even if these batteries have more amps to give, they’ll only give what the motor demands, and since it’s the same motor, it’s about the same.
I did notice the battery charge indicator seems to vary a lot more than it used to. It drops precipitously under load, and then recovers when you’re off the go-pedal. The voltage reading seems right; it was about at 60 when I first tried it, before I recharged any of the batteries, and was around 65V after a full recharge, which is about what it usually was before.
I think where I may see an improvement is in range. These batteries are just physically bigger, with more materials and chemicals inside to convert to electrons, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a nice bump in range. The original batteries gave the Changli a maximum tested range of about 27 miles. I need to perform a full range test with the new batteries, but I bet I can hit, oh, 35? I bet that’s possible! Is 40 too much to dream for? I need a whole afternoon to test this out, so I can drive around in a loop until I deplete the battery. Maybe we can do a livestream head-to-head range challenge with David’s $2,000 Nissan Leaf? We’ll keep you updated.
The important thing is that the Changli is back, and I couldn’t be happier. Eventually, I’d still like to try to do some real upgrades to this beast, but for now, I’ll start the benchmarking and testing process for these common store-shelf batteries.
The Changli is back, bitches.