Goin' Electric

With a gasoline-free delivery vehicle, Decal Impressions has chopped its energy bills.

The gas gauge on Decal Impressions’ delivery vehicle, a 1994 Toyota pickup, reads "E," yet shop owner Bryan Vielhauer cruises at 35 mph through Cincinnati streets. "The fastest I’ve gone is 75 mph," says Vielhauer, "Fast enough to get a ticket in any state in the Union."

His pickup requires no gasoline, no motor oil, and no coolant, yet runs nearly all deliveries for Vielhauer’s digital print and screenprint shop. An electric motor operates the vehicle, which drives as smooth as any standard transmission truck and as quietly as a hybrid.

The truck’s electric rebirth has been Vielhauer’s solution to swelling gas prices, and has helped decrease the carbon footprint that Decal Impressions (www.decalimpressions.com), a six-person print operation based in Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine neighborhood, is leaving behind.

Exhaust exhaustion
"I got really aggravated one day when I filled up my car and it was $70," Vielhauer says. "I could remember filling that same car with $30." That day, he recalls, he momentarily contemplated driving the 12 miles to work in a golf cart. Once he arrived at his shop, he looked around: "The UV-curing unit has huge motors with high RPMs," he says, "Electric motors have enough power to move cars."

With that thought in mind, Vielhauer-a longtime auto enthusiast-began planning an electric car to run Decal Impressions’ deliveries. He first turned to his operations manager, who had an industrial background and by May 2007 the pair had ironed out a concept for mating a motor and drive speed.

Vielhauer had spread the word about his plans when a friend called about a beat-up pickup at a junkyard. "It was a piece of junk," Vielhauer says, "It had no motor, was beat up all around, and looked like it had been in water a few times." It was perfect.

While the dents and dings on the truck body were being addressed, Vielhauer and team worked on the motor in the garage adjacent to Decal Impressions. "Basically, we replaced the internal combustion motor with a series-wound DC motor," Vielhauer says. Because the electric motor uses considerably less engine compartment space, he custom-welded brackets and then mated the new engine to the transmission.

When the shop took time off in mid-December of last year, the crew really made strides, and completed the electric Toyota on December 17. It was ready for its inaugural test run. "We had made a preflight checklist of things to do before we drive," says Vielhauer, "but as soon as we saw the wheels turn we forgot about the checklist." He drove the truck around the block, sensibly, and put eight miles on the engine that day.

Today, the electric engine has 2200 miles on it, with a few more added during the interview for this column. Vielhauer’s electric motor is not a long-distance runner; the truck can run about 61 miles before losing power. If it does, though, it doesn’t simply stop, like a gas-powered engine without gas, but rather "goes really slow," he says-"I’ve creeped home in it a couple of times."

And the battery’s energy is monitored: Three specialized gauges on the truck’s interior monitor the amperage draw, the voltage, and an estimated state of charge. Typically a full charge requires eight to 14 hours of plugged-in time, though Vielhauer has a plug both at home and at Decal Impressions, so the truck can be charged when not in use.

In the works
Before going electric, Decal Impressions spent approximately $200 a month on gas for deliveries. Today, the shop’s cost for delivery "fuel" is about $20 a month in electricity charges. Vielhauer decreased Decal Impressions’ gas consumption from nearly 23 gallons per week to between two and four.

But Vielhauer’s "electric dreams" don’t end there. He’s created a side business for retrofitting former gasoline-powered vehicles into electric-powered ones: the Over-the-Rhine Electric Motor Company (OTREMC, www.otrelectriccar.com). Although no contracts have been inked as of this writing, Vielhauer is ironing out the performance and cost expectations with potential customers, which he says could include the City of Cincinnati as well as the surrounding county. He’s even turned the Decal Impressions delivery truck into a rolling promotion for OTREMC-a blue vinyl wrap now adorns the exterior of the previously red truck. The wrap, designed by Decal Impressions’ art director, was done on Ritrama media using the shop’s Mimaki JV3 printer.

How long the pickup holds up is the "million-dollar question," Vielhauer says. The electric-motor company suggests changing the motor’s brushes after 80,000 miles-and without gas, exhaust, oil changes, or coolant top-offs, that’s a long set of green miles. "This industry is a huge environmental detriment," says Vielhauer, "and that troubles me. I want to help that."

Former assistant editor of The Big Picture magazine, Angela Prues is a freelance writer based in Cincinnati.

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