By By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts, Boston Globe
Once he started commuting from Acton to Lowell each day for school, David Harrington would cringe at the soaring gas prices.
But now the 23-year-old drives by gas stations with a smug look on his face.
“I laugh at it,’’ said the University of Massachusetts Lowell junior who converted his 1996 Honda Civic into a wallet-friendly, fully electric car. “I may stop off to use the window washers.’’
Harrington took on the daunting project in 2007, after being turned off by prices at the pump. He was looking for a challenge, and thought that an electric car would help him with commuting costs.
He purchased the Honda for $650, invested $5,000 in conversion equipment, and spent three years perfecting his design. Since then, he said, he has saved thousands of dollars in gasoline. His first legal ride was in December 2008, though he was not done with upgrades until May 2009.
“I did it because I love projects and it seemed to be a challenging one to try,’’ said Harrington, who plugs in his battery pack at the charging station in front of the university’s Center for Electric Car and Energy Conversion. “I’m the only student that drives one of these.’’
But one faculty member said the fact that he drives an electric car is not what is so impressive; it’s the do-it-yourself conversion. The project required serious mechanical and electrical skills, but also a certain amount of courage to pull apart a car and rebuild it, said Craig Armiento, professor and chairman of the department of electrical and computer engineering at UMass-Lowell.
“This is not a trivial exercise,’’ Armiento said. “This is a project that takes a special student willing to take the extra time. There are very few students who could pull this off. We hope David will inspire some others to take on a project like this.’’
Harrington, a computer engineering student, purchased the Honda specifically for the conversion. After taking out the gasoline engine, he found a large, high-powered electric motor and hooked it up to the original automatic transmission. He also added a controller for the motor and a converter that provides power for the lights, windows and wipers.
“It works similar to a regular car, but instead of gas, it has a large DC electric motor,’’ he said.
In the trunk, there is a bank of 12 golf-cart batteries; they weigh 760 pounds and provide 16 kilowatts of power to the motor.
Fully charged, the battery pack will operate the car for about 30 miles, allowing a maximum speed of about 55 miles per hour. Recharging takes about six hours, Harrington said. The battery pack can be plugged into any electrical outlet, but will charge faster if he has access to a 220-volt outlet, often available in homes for clothes dryers and other large appliances.