Eco-modding: the car of tomorrow tomorrow (literally)

I remember when I first heard about car modification.  I was watching the movie Clerks, and heard the customer ask about Mini Trucker Magazine.  I was boggled, what was a mini-truck anyway?  It turns out, there is a wide world of people who love their cars, and people who can improve their cars one piece at a time.

Today, a group of men and women have updated the whole concept with a sustainability twist in Ecomodding.  Ecomodders tinker with and change their cars with an eye for fuel economy instead of speed.

Ecomodders are known for starting with small cars – think Toyota Camry or Geo Metro. The process normally starts with some improvements to aerodynamics, then perhaps a conversion to run on plug-in electricity along with gas.  From there, the sky is the limit.  Perhaps a home ethanol still.

The best thing about it is that anyone with a little bit of either experience or brains can start this hobby with a handful of tools, so owning a sustainable car is not limited to those who can afford the price tag on a new Prius.

I’ve got a 10 year old Ford Escort.  It does well on gas, but I’m certain I could do better.   And I don’t mind (at all) it looking like an art-car.  I wonder where is a good place to start?

1975 Honda Civic met the 1975 U.S. Clean Air Act standards without a catalytic converter and it got 40 mpg.


Trading off my TV

We unplugged our TV a couple of years ago.  I wish I could say it was because of some mighty and noble reason, but really I just hated the cable company (Comcast is evil).  Since then I’ve been happier without the TV, but I have moments like today when I really want to turn something on just to watch.  I need some justification.

So – here goes – why it’s best to go without a TV – one item at a time.

1) Pro Wrestling – Go watch this at a bar.  First, your watching it with a crowd cheering things on – much more fun.  Second, the types of bars that put wrestling on the screen have the most interesting types of people in them.  (The first goes for most other sports, the second may just be wrestling.)

2) The Daily Show and Colbert Report are on line anyway, at any time I want to see them, with fewer commercials.

3) News – I really don’t miss CNN or Fox.  I especially don’t miss the coverage of Tom Cruise, Lady Gaga, and whatever woman just killed her baby.  Checking the news online lets me avoid those.

4) Soaps aren’t even on anymore.

5) Reality TV – none of us really ever needed to watch that in the first place.  The only ones I miss are Deadliest Catch and Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe – and I can get those at the library.

6) MTV and VH-1 don’t play music videos anymore, you can only get those online unless they are top-10 pop videos.

Places to go for TV:

1) Sports – bars

2) News – Dairy Queen, Super Gyros or any restaurant of that caliber.  It’s likely Fox or Headline News covering how a dingo ate someone’s baby.

3) HGTV– my doctor’s office.  They’ll never notice if someone is hanging out for an extra hour to learn about drywall.

4) Big events – Oscars, Superbowl – Someone is going to have a party and if not, cook food and take it over to a friends house, announcing that they are having the party.

5) Cat-sit (or dog-sit) for friends – they have TV.

Things I still miss:

Univision’s Sabado Gigante (sigh)

Driving on into the sunset

I have a car that gets about 30 mpg, which I thought was pretty good for a ten-year-old American car.  There are folks out there who put that number to shame, they are called hypermilers.

What sets them aside of the rest of us, the merely thrifty?  I do the basics – keep my tires inflated right, keep my engine tuned up and running well, I don’t drive aggressively, etc.  These folks take driving much more seriously and engage in a set of behaviors aimed at boosting mileage as high as possible – doubling it or possibly reaching the Holy Grail of 100 mpg.  Warning: some of these driving behaviors are extreme, and I would certainly not attempt them.

Hypermiling ideas.

Don’t speed – really, drive far below the speed limit

Drive a stick

Draft behind trucks (I really don’t recommend this one)

Don’t ever break unless its an emergency (same as the one above)

Weight loss: Don’t carry extra loads, possibly even rip out your back seat

Aerodynamics: Rip the luggage rack off your car and rip off anything else that is getting in the way of the wind, add aerodynamic doo-dads (below) if necessary

Aerodynamic tail from Wired Magazine’s Hypermiling page makes me want some sheet metal and duct tape – the paint is optional.

Stopping: turn your engine off at a traffic light

Accelerate slowly after stops

Purchase high performance after-market car parts

Avoid braking: coast and glide, slow naturally if possible

Ridge riding with a wheel along the white line to the right of the road to reduce friction

Pulse-and-glide:  Accelerate into turns and coast out

Always know your mpg

For lots more ideas and resources, visit Ecotrekker’s Ultimate Guide to Hypermiling

This all looks like a fun and interesting hobby, and we can learn a lot from the hypermilers.  Still, we shouldn’t have to engage in life-threatening behavior in order to get a decent mpg.  The auto industry has known how to increase mileage for years – adopting many of the innovations the hypermilers do: less weight, more aerodynamics, certain types of parts.  The Automotive X Prize is offering large-money prizes for production ready high mpg vehicles.  Real change – for everyone.

Efficiency: The #2 Goal

We need to make an energy transition.  We are locked into using growing amounts of dirty fossil fuels in increasingly growing quantities.  The top solution for this is conservation (using less): unplug your electronic photo frame which costs $9/year to operate, don’t fly,turn down your thermostat.  That, however, is a hard sell – and most people don’t want to change their lifestyles.  So that leads us to #2 – efficient energy use.

An efficient system is one that gets more work out of the same (or lesser) amount of energy.  The perfect example of this is the compact fluorescent lightbulb.  Less electricity is used by the bulb, but more light comes out – because less is lost as heat.  (If you want to see energy lost as heat, just try to change an incandescent bulb with your bear hands – or play with an Easy Bake Oven, where the lightbulb makes the heat.)

Our world has been very inefficient about energy.  Oil and coal have been cheap, so no one has had any reason to spend a lot of money engineering new products.


We have a lot of room to gain efficiency with our cars.  The internal combustion is only about 10-25% efficient.  That means that out of every dollar you put into you are in gas, you only get out 25 cents worth of movement.  The rest is degraded into unusable forms of energy like heat, friction, and engine inefficiencies.

Image from Green Car Congress

Some of these problems are inexpensive to change – better tire design, lighter cars (of that 25%, most moves the car and less moves you). and aerodynamic designs.  American car and heavy equipment makers are working on advanced combustion and exhaust energy recovery.


Your home is an energy machine that is certainly running very inefficiently.  After you go through the house and figure out what you can unplug – the next step is to make it a more efficient machine.  (Best unplug – sorry – the beer fridge.)  Over half energy is used by heating and cooling (see below) and that is were most of the easiest fixes are.  You can do your own home energy audit, or pay someone else to do it.  Here are instructions.

Image from the US Dept. of Energy

Only after that should you look at the more expensive changes such as buying new equipment.  It’s not perfect, but the Energy Star labeling program is a good guide here.

The important thing to hold in mind here is that you are trying to get more work out of your existing systems for less money (or, if the system is really losing money, to replace it).  Often, people think that energy efficiency improvement always means buying expensive new items.  It doesn’t.  For the most part it means tinkering with what you already have.

An additional benefit of efficiency, is that since you use less energy for what you are already doing, you can continue existing energy use for high-value activities.  This lessens drastic changes that many foresee as part of our energy transition.  But only if we, as a society, create and enable these sustainability changes as soon as possible.

But remember: efficiency has to be #2.  Conservation – or reduction of use – has much better potential for all of us.

Image from Motifake

Then and now – the more things don’t change . . .

“In a 1977 speech on energy policy, I observed that, ‘Although many Americans refuse to believe it, there is a serious and continuing energy problem in this country.'” – Lee H. Hamilton

Twenty-five years later, my textbook was published with that quote.  Thirty-fiver years later I write this blog.  Nothing has changed, at least not in terms of creating a societal solution for our “serious and continuing energy problem.”

Why not? Cost certainly has to be a major reason – we Americans have always been reluctant to pay taxes.  Our inability to measure costs in the long term, instead of just next week, feeds into that.  We read an article by Derek Jensen, who accused us of sitting around and hoping that someone will show up with some magic solution.  Both of these are very true.

However –

I believe the major obstacle to solving our energy problem is that we view it primarily as a technical problem, when the solution lay in the realm of human systems.

We can build wind turbines that float in the middle of the North Sea.  We can design expensive new green houses (which buyers may not be able to afford, or where keeping old homes working may be preferable.)   We develop expensive niche technologies that everyday people may never experience.

No wonder going green costs to much!  This is how we measure the cost!

Certainly, reformulating our gasoline blend may save us money and  miles per gallon.  However, to create real change, we must change the way people think.  Here are some ideas:

1) In 1977, Carter put on a sweater and told the American public to tough it out.  In 2012, fashion designers could make sweaters so stylish we all want to wear them.

Sweater by Ullvana on Etsy.

2) In 1979, Carter put solar panels on the White House.  In 2012, towns and homeowner associations could approve installment of solar panels, so residents have the option of installing them.

Jimmy Carter, “The President’s Proposed Energy Policy.” 18 April 1977. Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. XXXXIII, No. 14, May 1, 1977, pp. 418-420.

3) In 1973 and 1978, the Oil Crises caused Americans to flock to gas-sipping Japanese cars – and firmly set Toyota, Honda, and Nissan as major players in the American market.  Today, we could create compact car parking spaces – close and convenient – to reward people who do the right thing.

And that’s not quite what I meant. 

And those are just the small ones.  Here are some big ones – I’m not writing too much about them now, because these are a list of future topics.

4) We could learn to love to live in dense communities again, driven by the many personal benefits of vibrant communities.

5) Public transportation for the rest of us.  This includes Amtrak.

6) Grants, loans, and subsidies to make old homes energy efficient and add value.

7) Programs that show renters and landlords what they can do to save energy – and give the necessary materials for leak sealing, weatherizing windows, hot water heater wraps, and duct and pipe protection.

8) Full bike society includes not just bike lanes, but secure storage and shower rooms at work / school.

9) This includes bike classes for kids as soon as they no longer need training wheels.

10) Local food systems save trans-national and international shipping.

11) Government education that spreads information about the most cost-effective changes a household or neighborhood can make – e.g. solar water heating instead of solar electrical generation.

12) Making it easy to buy sustainable energy from your electric company.  (It took me three years to find BlueStar, my current provider.)

13) Walking school buses

14) Community gardens

15) Block parties (yes, I’m serious)

16) Individual subsidies for negawatts

17) Community-wide sustainable energy purchasing agreements (like businesses do)

18) I could go on, I will go on, in another post . . .