The Ebike Alternative

Anyone who has been following my blog will know that I’ve been saying that I want to convert my mountain bike to electric during the coming winter months. I did a lot of research on electric bikes, which also includes scooters, as far as legal description goes. The ebike industry, as a whole, has a lot in common with the digital camera industry, in that the promises that are made, as far as performance goes, does not always match with reality.

The reality is, that battery technology is the one biggest factor that drives the ebike industry, and there are many ways to fudge numbers, in order to make one bike/battery look better than the other. While it’s true that we’ve made great strides in developing new batteries, that last longer, and give better overall performance. That fact certainly comes at a hefty price.

The current battery of choice that’s driving the ebike industry uses lithium, in one form or another, to create, smaller, lighter, but more powerful batteries. Up to this point, lead acid batteries were used, with some success. However, one of the biggest drawbacks of lead acid batteries is their weight. When it comes to ebikes, the heavier the bike is, the less efficient it will be in the use of the available on-board battery power.

So, anyone considering buying an ebike must make a choice. Will it be a less expensive bike, powered by lead acid batteries, or a more expensive ride, powered by lithium batteries? That choice is very simple for people who just don’t have at least one thousand dollars to spare, which is a category I fall firmly into.

In trying to get around some of the costs of owning an ebike that might fit my requirements, I thought that building the bike myself would be a money saving option, and I do like to build things. There are all kinds of ‘kits’ available, which are designed as a means of converting a regular bicycle into an ebike. However, once I really got into figuring out what I would need for a complete ebike conversion. I found that it was still going to be pretty close to one grand for the conversion. This is not acceptable.

Recently, I started looking at what it might cost to buy a used ebike, which was actually built as an ebike, and not someone else’s conversion. I should mention here that this is very dangerous territory. The battery/batteries of an ebike are the most important, and most expensive components and it is not always easy to tell how good a used battery is, unless you happen to have all the correct test equipment.

Just taking an ebike for a ride to test it out is not enough to determine the condition of a used battery. Batteries degrade with both age, and number of recharge cycles, and will lose a certain amount of performance over time. Also, there are many other factors that will degrade batteries prematurely, such as freezing, leaving them at discharge over long periods, improper charging etc. So, it’s very difficult to tell if a used battery is worth what you are paying for it.

But, if you are brave, or feeling a bit lucky, you can delve into the possibility of a used ebike. It’s a real gamble though, especially if you buy from a private person, with no warranty.

Knowing all this, I felt compelled to skim through the ads for used ebikes. I wasn’t all that confident that I would find any real possibilities, partly due to the fact that I live in a fairly remote area, and ebikes are much more common in larger cities. I would have to factor cost of gas into anything that required me to drive a long distance, in order to pick it up.

Also, I’ve always maintained that I live life very much through ‘gut’ feelings, and the faith that life will take me where I need to go, whether that be seen as good or bad. My ‘gut’ told me to check the used ads, so I did.

After about a week of watching the ads, I spotted someone selling a couple of older electric bicycles. This was a retired couple, who had used the bikes sparingly, while they travelled around in their RV. I really liked the looks of these ebikes. They looked a bit like a classic moped, which is a similar bike with a small combustion engine.

It struck me, right away, that this might be just what I was looking for. They mentioned that the batteries were ‘new’, and they were only asking $175. each for the bikes. As far as ebikes go, this seemed like a steal to me. However, like I said, the cost of gas to pick it up, which was about 200km away, would have to be factored into any deals made.

So, after taking some time to consider everything, I made the decision to go for it. It was really foggy the morning I headed out on the highway at 6:30am. I told the seller I would be at their place by 9am, so I had to leave that early. I felt that these bikes would probably sell quickly, so I wanted to get first crack at them. The fog slowed me down a bit, but I arrived right on time.

When I got there, they already had the bikes out on the driveway. Both bikes were exactly the same, visually. The older couple both came out to greet me, and we talked for a while. I started to check over the bikes a bit first, and then I took one down the road for a ride. It seemed to work not too bad, and I knew that the battery was not fully charged, because there was a battery meter on the dashboard, also, the man had told me about it not being fully charged yet.

At this point, I did have some concerns about the bike not being powerful enough for what I wanted to use it for. But, being realistic, they were older ebikes, and if I wanted a newer, more powerful model, it was gonna cost me a lot more than I would have to part with for one of these.

I was feeling some, unrealistic, disappointment, but I wasn’t totally put off. I continued to inspect the other bike, and then I took that one for a ride. There was definitely a difference in the second one. It was less responsive, and intermittent. It made some noises too, so I then concentrated my inspection on the first bike I had tried.

While I was riding the first bike, I had noticed that one of the pedals was damaged, and appeared to be crooked, as if someone had dropped the bike over on that side. I pointed this out, and the man brought some tools out to try and fix it. I could see that it was cross-threaded, and would probably need to be replaced, so I had one item that I could use to lower the price.

After talking to them a bit more about their experiences with the bikes, the man mentioned that he had purchased the batteries four years ago. That sent a definite red flag up. The ad said that the batteries were new. When I questioned him about it, he said that the batteries are new, because they haven’t used the bikes very much since he installed them. However, I was not impressed with this at all. I knew that the batteries could very well be either much diminished, or completely useless after four years, even if they hadn’t used them much.

Frankly, I was starting to think that I had driven there for nothing now. Buying the bike at this point would be a huge risk, knowing that the batteries were four years old. However, I continued to consider the deal, since a new set of these type of batteries was around $150, cheap, as far as ebike batteries go. If I could get the price down a bit, it might still be worth it to me.

The haggling started. After pointing out the apparent problems I had found, I start out by saying that the best I could do on this particular bike would be $120. The lady, who was obviously the one I would be dealing with when it came to money, about fell off her seat. Of course, these are typical ploys when price haggling, and it did not affect me in any way. I knew my offer was low ball, and I fully expected to pay more.

I continued to point out the fact that the batteries were four years old, and that I would probably have to replace them at a cost of $150. The lady countered with a price of $165., down ten dollars from their asking price of $175. With the unknown condition of the batteries, I was not going to pay that much, even though, in hindsight, it was probably worth it.

At that point, I was really ready to walk away, even though I was pissed for having driven all that way, and come away empty handed. It did play on my mind that I had come all this way, and that I had spent that money on gas to get there, so I countered with my final offer of $140. At first, the lady appeared to completely reject it, but the man showed a bit of interest, so I knew I was close to making a deal. I let them stew for a bit, and, reluctantly, the lady agreed.

So, I loaded up the bike, and headed home. I wasn’t thrilled with the deal, since I was concerned about the condition of the batteries, but I was confident that I had paid what it was worth, not knowing that. Also, reality was telling me that this is the best I could do, without spending a whole lot more money. So, if I wanted an electric bike, this was my best shot.

Here’s what I bought;

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As you can see, physically, it’s in real nice shape. I liked the looks of it from when I first saw it. It has a real heavy duty frame, unlike a converted regular bike would have. It also has amenities, like turn signals, headlight, tail light, a volt meter, and speedometer on the dash, horn, front fork suspension, and a nice little cargo box on the back.

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I cleaned it up a bit before I took these photos, but it wasn’t really all that dirty. Check out those heavy duty front and rear tires, which have almost no wear on them. The rims are also heavier than an average bicycle too. It has heavy caliper front brakes, which, also, have very little wear, and some kind of internal rear drum brakes.

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Here you can see the dashboard, with voltmeter, speedometer, and indicator lights for turn signals, and power on.

As far as the batteries go, that was the first thing I concentrated on checking, when I first got the bike home. I’m still in the checking mode, because I don’t have all the required electronic equipment to check them properly, but my initial findings are encouraging. The batteries, of which there are three, appear in good condition, and they are of the AGM variety, which is also encouraging. My experience with AGM batteries is, that they can take a lot more abuse than non-AGM batteries. They can also last longer. So far, all indications are, that the batteries will be up to the task, for a while at least.

I’m bringing all three batteries up to full charge, separately, with a 12 volt smart charger. There are three of these 12 volt batteries in the bike, making this a 36 volt electric bike. The charger that came with the bike charges them all at once, but I decided to do them separately, so that I know each battery is getting charged properly. The older original charger, may or may not, have faults not yet determined.

I even got the original owners manual with the bike, and a small cargo basket that fits onto the front. I got a set of keys, one for starting power, one for locking the battery into the bike, and one for that little cargo trunk on the rear.

After having it home here for a while, and being able to check things that I couldn’t do before I bought it, I’m now quite happy with this purchase. That’s not to say that it will be able to do everything I wanted an ebike to do for me, but I think, under the circumstances, I got a pretty good deal. Only time will tell if I will be satisfied enough to keep this ebike, in order to lessen my need for expensive gas for the truck, and also to do a little exploring on.

Update

I have now completed the testing of the batteries and have found that the batteries are, indeed, good to go.  There really is no way of determining how many charge cycles these batteries have been through but, for now, they are reaching, and maintaining full charge.  I will probably buy a second set of batteries, at some point, to increase my range.  Load testing will be done on the road, when I can get there.  This is also a very important test of the batteries.

As far as speed goes, I got the speedometer to around 32kph.  This is just fine for me.  I’m not really interested in getting anywhere fast.  Of course, speed will increase going downhill, and decrease going up hill, with pedaling required on steeper grades, which is also just fine with me.

The laws regarding ebikes, here in Ontario, require that a certified bicycle helmet be worn, for any ages.  Unlike regular bicycle laws, which allow those over 18 years old to go helmetless, if desired.  Other than that, all bicycle laws apply to ebikes as well.  Unless prohibited by local by-laws, ebikes can be ridden anywhere regular bicycles can be ridden.  No license, or insurance are required for ebikes under 500 watts, but I’m not sure how enforceable this law is, since it can hardly be determine, visually, if an ebike is over 500 watts.  I feel that this is one of those laws that will not be enforced unless the rider happens to be stopped for another infraction and, at that point, it’s determined that the ebike is over 500 watts.

However, I don’t believe there is any such restriction on battery powered mobility scooters, so there seems to be somewhat of a contradiction here.  Some of those types of scooters fly at break-neck speeds, so I’m sure that they are over the 500 watt level.  But, it should be noted here, mobility scooters are meant for those who have a ‘diagnosed’ need for them.  That is to say, technically, you can’t ride a mobility scooter as a means of transportation, if it has not been determined, by a doctor, that this is necessary.

Also, I have noticed many of these ebikes, mostly of the scooter variety, around town here, and some of them are, obviously, over the 500 watt level, but they don’t have license plates on them.  So, I think it’s fair to say that, while it may, technically, be against the law to ride an ebike which is over the 500 watt level, it seems to be happening anyways.  Like I said, if you get pulled over for an unrelated infraction, it may become an issue, the same as the mobilitiy scooters.  If you don’t have any ‘diagnosed’ health issues, and you get pulled over for an unrelated infraction, it might become an issue that you were not eligible to be riding one.

Anyway, I just like to know all the facts, not that I will follow them 100%, but it’s nice to know.  Not having a helmet on is an easy to spot infraction, so I have ordered a nice red helmet to, somewhat, match the bike.

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It may not be exactly the same red as the bike, but it’s close enough. I can’t really take the bike out, for any kind of distance, without having the helmet, so that test will have to wait until the helmet arrives. I’ll post another update when that happens.

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