It's electric
Engineer reworks car to run on electricity

CONYERS - Erik Bigelow's red convertible, a 1992 Volkswagen Cabriolet, is as unassuming as any car that is on the road today until he turns the ignition and nothing happens.

"Hop in," Bigelow said as he shifted the car's gears in reverse and backed out of his driveway in Decatur. There's no engine noise at all except for the sound of a vacuum pump he installed to activate the car's brakes.

Bigelow, a design engineer at the Conyers-based Lithonia Lighting, a subsidiary of Acuity Brands Lighting, retrofitted his Volkswagen to run on electricity. Sixteen golf cart batteries power a forklift engine that enables Bigelow to hum along at 100 amps.

Though the car is a hobby for Bigelow, it also functions as the second car for he and his wife, Sarah. He said they use it mostly to run errands, but when Sarah needed the couple's Honda Fit for a trip to Chattanooga, Bigelow had to use the electric car to commute to work from Decatur to Conyers.

Bigelow said he had no problems, and the car quickly became a conversation piece among his co-workers on Lester Road.

"They think it's pretty cool," he said. "I work with a really neat group of folks, mostly engineers, and most engineers like things that are built."

Bigelow got interested in electric cars after seeing a display of one at a sustainable living fair in Austin, Texas, three years ago. The Austin Area Electric Vehicle Association showed different cars converted to run on electricity.

He soon ordered a kit from California and has been hooked ever since.

The electric Volkswagen can go just about 55 mph and with good care can drive 40 miles between recharging.

The producers of the kit claimed a person could convert their car to electricity in 40 hours, at which Bigelow shook his head.

"If you had someone who had done it before, or someone who could give you advice, you could probably get it done in a weekend," he said.

Bigelow said he has invested about $8,000 into the car and admits up front it is manufactured from old technology. There's more efficient - and expensive - batteries on the market today, and the acid batteries he uses in the Cabriolet have a shorter life if they are drained completely and recharged over time.

He believes the technology is advanced enough to make a feasible electric car on a wide scale. Bigelow said with the instability of gas prices experienced earlier this year and the trouble U.S. car makers are facing now, motorists may be ready to dump the pump and grab the plug.

"People think it's interesting, and especially when they see that we're not really in control of the gas supply," he said. "(Gasoline) is so fundamental to both our way of life and economy, but we have literally no control over our gas supply. People get interested in electric cars because it's kind of a game changer."

For the one time he took his car to work, he was able to plug up the car at work to recharge. The car uses a basic household plug, a heavier duty plug mounted where the gas cap was is a future project, and he said it draws very little power in the time it takes recharge, about four hours.

Bigelow said he is seeking permission from the company to charge his electric car more often which will allow him to leave his gas-powered car at home.

"They haven't said no, yet," he said.

Jay Jones can be reached at jay.jones@rockdalecitizen.com.