Monday, September 26, 2011

The CNG Project

Introduction to a New Ongoing Series

After months of planning and parts sourcing I am finally at the point where I am ready to begin a new project. This will be the conversion of my Lexus to CNG.  As you may or may not know, CNG stands for compressed natural gas. When I am done with this project I will be able to run the engine on either gasoline or CNG. The engine will be able to switch back and forth between the two whenever necessary.
The car being converted.
The reasons for doing this conversion are many. Some of these things are related to the advantages that CNG provides over gasoline; I have written on this subject before. On the practical side, CNG at the local station where I live goes for about $1.25 per gallon compared to the September 2011 price of gasoline at $3.52 per gallon. Obviously CNG is cheaper but more than that the price is also stable so a year from now it will be about the same, and if some crack pot dictator in the Middle East goes on a terror the price of natural gas will probably still be about the same.

The cost of the conversion is obviously steep if it is to be done correctly. Many people out there are doing conversions incorrectly and bragging that they can do it for between $1000 and $1500 dollars for the parts, and then mix in some free labor performed by themselves and they think they are good to go. The problem is they are using inferior systems with inferior parts. They will say that it doesn’t matter as long as the system works. The problem is that they usually end up with a system that will make their engine run but it will never run right. They will have problems with check engine lights coming on all of time, or the vehicle will lack power so badly that it’s almost not even drivable.
CNG fuel regulator, reduces the pressure from
3600 psi before sending it to the injectors.
A good conversion should not compromise performance in any way, shape, or form. Engine power should be about the same whether running on gasoline or CNG. Fuel economy should be the same on both fuels as well, and you should never have to deal with a check engine light coming on when the vehicle runs on CNG. The check engine light illuminating is an indication that something in the way the engine is running is not right. A quality CNG kit and conversion should allow the engine to run exactly as the engineers intended except on natural gas instead of gasoline. Some of the fly-by-night companies out there that are selling bogus CNG hardware will actually tell you that you should buy a cheap code reader in order to erase codes as they pop up.

Another thing that is important to know about CNG conversion is that these systems run at very high pressure, up to 3600 psi. In order to do the conversion in a way that is safe some training is required. Certain safety standards exist in order to keep these systems safe and it is important that these standards are followed closely by the individual performing the retrofit. I am a certified CNG fuel system inspector so I know the standard and obviously I intend to adhere strictly to the code.


So what kind of cost savings will I see and how long will it take to recoup my costs? To fill the CNG tank on my car it will take about $9.00. This fill will give me about 180 miles before the tank must be filled again. This means that I will be spending about $.04 per mile. To run the car on gasoline it costs about $.13 per mile. If I drive the car 15,000 miles per year which is fairly average for the run of the mill car in the U.S. and if gas prices stay the same, I will recoup my cost in about 2.8 years. If gas goes back up to $4.15 per gallon like it was here back in 2008, I will recover the cost in about two years. If I drive more miles per year I will recover the cost sooner, and if gas goes to something never seen before, then there is no telling how fast I will recover the cost.

Saving money on gas is only one of the reasons that I am doing this. I am also doing this for purposes related to research and some things that I have going on related to my occupation as a college auto instructor. The last reason is I am doing this for fun. Most car guys spend money building some kind of custom 4X4 or restoring classic cars and such. I am kind of a geek as well as a car guy, so I am spending time and money building an alternative fuel vehicle.

The Hardware

The car is a 2007 Lexus ES300. This is kind of just a regular midsize sedan with 3 liter V6. The reason that I chose this car is because I got a good deal on it. I was looking for a midsize Honda or Toyota sedan to do this conversion. Since Lexus is built by Toyota the car that I am using will be just fine. The ES300 is actually just a fancy Camry so I pretty much got what I originally set out to get. Being a sedan and having a trunk is important because that is where the tank will go. You could really put the tank just about anywhere inside the vehicle that you want. You could even put it on the roof if you really wanted to.
The electronic control unit that runs the CNG system
The CNG fuel system parts come from Technocarb. This is a company out British Columbia Canada. They make several different kits from parts that are of Italian origin. I have friends that are into CNG conversions that have had very good luck with hardware from Technocarb. The kit is a multiport injection setup which is the most effective. A separate injector will feed each individual intake port which makes for more precise air/fuel metering. Some of the cheap junky kits use what is called a fumigation setup. This just floods the entire intake manifold with natural gas and it is not very precise.

CNG injectors. One set of three for each side of the engine.
The kit from Technocarb will require tuning and customization once it is hooked up in the vehicle. This is one of the things that makes the Technocarb setup nice. Software and a laptop computer are required to interface with the CNG computer to dial it in and make the vehicle run nicely. This also makes the Technocarb kit the kind of thing that someone without any knowledge of fuel control systems would not want to install themselves.

The CNG tank is the most expensive part of the conversion. A few different style tanks are available, but some are not practical for use in a normal sedan because they can be too heavy. The market for CNG tanks is also flooded with all sorts of used tanks pulled from wrecked vehicles and other places. Some of the used ones are good and some are not. Every tank has an expiration date on it and once that date passes the expiration date, the tank cannot be used again. Many of these expired tanks are out there on the used tank market. Some of the used tanks might be damaged as well, so buying a used tank is not ideal.

I purchased a new type 3 tank from a company in Calgary, Canada called Dynetek. The type 3 tank is very light because it is made of mostly carbon composite. Besides being very light and durable, the tank is also a 3600 psi tank. Running the system at 3600 psi is ideal because it increases the range of the vehicle. Many of the older used tanks are only 3000 psi tanks. This new tank from Dynetek is also a 20 year tank. That means that I will be able to use it until 2031. Many new tanks are only good for 15 years.
The CNG tank. This tank holds about 7.5 gasoline gallon equivalent.

What Now

Over the next few weeks or months, depending on what happens with my schedule, I will be installing these parts in the vehicle and hooking everything up. As I go through it I will take pictures and make some notes. Periodically I will write a bit about how the project is going and the things that I have learned. Once it is all finished we will know how it all works out, and I intend to test things such as real world fuel economy as well as power output on gasoline compared to power output on CNG. This should be fun and interesting.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Best Cars Ever: Toyota Corolla

Another Entry in the Ongoing List of Amazing Cars
1968 Toyota Corolla
In 1968 Toyota introduced a new car to the U.S. market that like other cars in the Toyota line up used a version of the word “crown” for its name. Toyota first came to the United States in 1958 and the first sedan they had to offer the American market was called the Crown. This car didn’t sell very well and after a few years was discontinued. The Next sedan released in the U.S. was the Corona. This is the Latin word for crown. This car sold very well and in 1968 Toyota introduced the Corolla which derives its name from the Latin word for small crown. The Corolla was essentially a smaller version of the popular Crown.

2000 Toyota Corolla
 Today the Corolla is the longest running “import” sedan sold in the United States (the longest running model from an import company sold in the U.S. is the Toyota Land Cruiser which came to the U.S. on the first boat from Japan when Toyota arrived on our shores in 1958). Globally the Corolla has sold more units than any other car ever, including the old Volkswagen Bug. Estimates show that a Corolla is sold somewhere in the world every 40 seconds. Nearly 40 million units have been sold world wide since it was first introduced.

The Corolla has been used as a basis for many different cars. The Geo/Chevy Prizm, the Chevy Nova from the 80’s, the Toyota Matrix, the Pontiac Vibe, and the Scion xD have all come from the Corolla. The Corolla has been sold in rear wheel drive, front wheel drive, and 4 wheel drive configurations. Over the year there were 4 door sedans, 2 door coupes, and 3 and 5 door hatchbacks, there was even a few different station wagons. The only configuration that has not changed over the years is that the engine has always had 4 cylinders. The current Corolla is the 10th generation and is always found in list of the top 10 best selling cars in the U.S.

Popularity and manufacturing longevity do not make this car great; the thing that really makes it great is that it is so darned reliable. Not very many cars come close to matching the reliability of the Corolla, no other model in the Toyota lineup can claim to be better built than the Corolla. Anyone who has ever owned one of these cars knows exactly how it is, and probably has a story about how amazingly trusty their Corolla was or is. Some of them become very ugly and beat up but they still run well and they still drive solidly down the road. It’s one thing to have a car go hundreds of thousands of miles with the original engine and transmission, but it’s another thing to be able to remain a solid ride despite some rust, dents, and faded paint.

The Corolla is not offensive to look at, but it has never been anything special in its form. The car has never been slow compared to other cars in its class, but it has never been a sports car either, although there have been some models that were rather sporty. Back in the late eighties there was a rear wheel drive coupe version referred to as the GT-S that was sold for a few years despite the fact that all other models were switched to a front wheel drive layout several years earlier. These old GT-S coupes are still highly sought after by some Toyota enthusiasts. There was also a model referred to as the FX-16 that was a sporty hot hatch, which is interesting because this was back in the days before there was really such a thing as a hot hatch.

1986 Corolla GT-S

1987 Corolla FX16

For most people out there things such as looks or sportiness are not the least bit important when their car is broken down on the side of the road. The car that doesn’t leave you stranded is the car that you have a hard time learning to hate. People who don’t like the Corolla will always comment on their dislike of superficial things such as looks or they will claim that the car is not fun to drive. What car in the same class as the Corolla can be classified as a driver's car? Is the Corolla some what plain? Perhaps but it is at least as good if not better than any other car in it's class when it comes to aesthetics? Also, there is nothing wrong with viewing a car as an appliance, or a simple tool of transportation. To most people, that's all a car is anyway.

2011 Corolla
Two words that sum up the reason for calling the Corolla one of the greatest cars ever are, “time tested.” After these many decades the Corolla has proven itself to be reliable, solid, safe, and efficient transportation, getting people from point A to point B without any fuss. This is the kind of reputation that many auto manufacturers wish they had for their transportation offerings, such status cannot be purchased by any corporation. The Corolla is solidly one of the best cars ever… no pun intended. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Latest Line on Brake Linings

For all of you that are adventurous enough to do a little work on your own car. One of the things that you might have tried, or may be willing to try is replacing your own brake pads. In many cases the hardest part of replacing your brake pads comes during that moment that you are standing at the parts counter at your friendly neighborhood auto parts store. After they look up your parts based on make and model, they will usually ask you what kind of pads you prefer.

You might answer this question by telling them that you want the new kind of pads. Of course this goes without saying. What they are referring to is the composition of the friction material used in the pad. Not all pads are equal, and just because they fit on your car doesn’t mean that they are the best thing for it. Your choices are usually semi-metallic, organic, or ceramic, but there are a few more choices for some makes and models.

Semi-metallic pads are the cheapest, and last a long time. They are composed of a material that contains ground up bits of metal. Semi-metallic pads used to be the most commonly used pads but they have some drawbacks. The biggest drawback is that semi-metallic pads are much more likely than the others to develop a squealing noise. This might be just a minor chirp as the wheels come to a stop or it could be a major howl that emanates the instant the brake pedal is touched. Either way it can be very annoying. Semi-metallic pads are also harder on brake rotors and have more of a tendency to wear the rotors down.

Organic pads are made from materials that are usually carbon based. Sometimes they are referred to as synthetic pads. They are a very common pad of choice for smaller vehicles because of they way they wear. Organic pads used to use asbestos as a primary component in the friction material. Asbestos was very good at withstanding the heat, and providing nice smooth braking feel, but it is a known carcinogen and was fazed out decades ago.

A common component in organic brake pads today is Kevlar. Organic pads are good because they are very quiet compared to semi-metallics and they are easier on the rotors. The biggest problem with organic pads is that they wear much faster than any of the others. Sometimes organic pads can be worn out in as little as 20,000 miles. They do not take abuse very well. They also produce a fair amount of break dust that will build up on your bling rims.

The third type of pad and the one that might be the best is the ceramic brake pad. These pads are composed of a material that is made up of ceramic fibers, copper, and bonding agents. These pads last a long time, dissipate heat very well, and don’t produce very much dust that accumulates on the wheels. They are also very quiet, or at least it would seem so to humans. The vibration of the pads in the calipers that becomes the noise that we hear, vibrates at a frequency that human ears cannot hear. If the noise can’t be heard, is it really making a noise? Do the dogs in the neighborhood appreciate all of this noise?

The biggest problem with ceramic pads is that they are expensive. Often times they will be 3 times more expensive than semi-metallic or organic pads. A normal set of semi-metallic pads might run $15 to $20, where as a set of ceramic pads for the same vehicle might be $50 or $60. Considering how much better ceramic pads are, the cost should not be prohibitive. Remember we are talking about a very important system on your vehicle. The difference between $15 and $50 is not the same as the difference between $100 and $300 dollars so spending three times more on brake pads is not as painful on the wallet.

The other things that you usually get with the more expensive pads are things such as new shims, and new anti-rattle clips and springs. Replacing this hardware is a good idea even though it may not be totally necessary. Both of these things will help to keep the pads quiet.

Ceramic brake pads can be hard on brake rotors but considering brake rotors are getting much cheaper to replace, the amount that pads wear down the rotors, doesn’t matter as much anyway.

Disc brake quiet applied to the back of the pad and not to the friction
surface on the bottom.
Another type of pad that is out there but maybe not so common is the full metallic type. Metallic pads are made from pulverized metal particles formed into a block and attached to a steel plate. These are very tough but they are only effective when the brakes get hot and they make a tremendous amount of noise. These are probably best suited to using on a race car rather then on the family minivan (not that you could even get any that would fit your minivan).

If you find yourself in the parts store buying brake pads and they ask you which ones you want. Go for the ceramic first, the organic second, and if neither one of those are available don’t bother with the semi-metallic and just go to another store. When they try to sell you the small packets of goo that goes on the pads, it’s not a bad idea. Just don’t put the goo on the friction surface of the pad, it’s supposed to go on the steel backing plate of the pad. This helps the pads to keep from vibrating in the calipers which causes a squealing sound. Never be afraid to spend a little extra when doing your brakes, in the end it will likely be worth it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Says One Thing, but It’s Really Something Else

With the global economy being what it is, every car on the road is made up of bits and pieces that come from all sorts of companies all over the world. Many cars are exactly the same under the skin because they are made in the same factory by the same company. Sometimes these cars carry nameplates that that are part of the same corporate family. Sometimes one vehicle platform may carry nameplates from two or three different corporations. Through some joint operating agreement all companies sell slightly different versions of the same vehicle.

The biggest reason for doing this is to save money. R&D of any new product is very expensive and time consuming. Many times they will use this “badge engineering” to produce vehicles that appeal to different demographic groups. Sometimes one manufacturer will lack expertise in one area so they outsource the design or development of a particular model to another company that is really strong in that area.
The following is a list of some of the major manufacturers and the makes that fall directly under their corporate umbrella:

General Motors builds Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and GMC. In the last few years they have gotten rid of Pontiac, Saturn, Hummer, and Oldsmobile.

Ford builds Lincoln, and Mercury was done away with earlier this year.

Chrysler, Dodge, and Ram are currently owned by Fiat of Italy, before that they were owned by Mercedes. Look for Fiats rebadged as Dodges on the US market soon. Fiat also owns Ferrari so if we are really lucky maybe we could get a Dodge with a Ferrari engine in it. Don't hold your breath.

Toyota builds Lexus and Scion

Lexus ES350 (top), and the Toyota Camry (bottom) are the same car
with different headlights, taillights, and trim.

Honda builds Acura

Nissan is owned by Renault and also builds Infiniti

Hyundai owns Kia

BMW builds Mini and Rolls-Royce

Mercedes builds the Smart

Volkswagen builds Bentley and Bugatti

The following list of cars are unique in that each pair are all the same vehicle but sold under completely different nameplates that are not necessarily connected at the corporate level. Some of these are current models and some of them are from the past. Some of these pairs result from big agreements, and some of them were the result of a one time contract. This list is not complete but it’s pretty close.

Car                              What it actually is
Chrysler Crossfire        Mercedes SLK
Honda Passport           Isuzu Rodeo
Chevrolet/Geo Prizm    Toyota Corolla
Pontiac Vibe                Toyota Matrix
Saab 9-3                     Chevrolet Malibu with a turbo
Isuzu Oasis                  Honda Odyssey
Volkswagen Routan     Dodge Caravan
Acura SLX                  Isuzu Trooper
Mazda6                       Ford Fusion
Dodge Sprinter            Mercedes Transporter
Eagle Talon                 Mitsubishi Eclipse
Suzuki Equator            Nissan Frontier
Mazda2                       Ford Fiesta
Isuzu Ascender            Chevrolet Trail Blazer
Mazda Tribute             Ford Escape
Mercury Villager          Nissan Quest
Saab 9-2x                   Subaru Impreza
Chevy/Geo Tracker     Suzuki Sidekick
Geo Storm                   Isuzu Impulse
Geo Metro                  Suzuki Swift
Saab 9-7x                   Chevrolet Trail Blazer
Mitsubishi Raider         Dodge Dakota
Mazda B series            Ford Ranger
Chrysler Crossfire (top), and the Mercedes SLK (bottom) are the same vehicle.