Friday, June 17, 2016

Track Riding: My First Full Season

A few years ago, after several track days on the FZ6, I realized that track riding was really what I wanted to do on a motorcycle. The next summer, I bought a bike that was up to the task and I’ve never looked back. Here are a few thoughts on my first full season of riding track days between September 2015 and May 2016.

Tours are fun. Group rides can be a blast. The longer I ride though, the more riding on the street seems like a roll of the dice; a wager with the hazards that exist there. Like all bets, there is a good chance that you’ll be on the losing end at some point. My personal view of this problem is severe. I have been a party to, or witnessed directly at least ten or more motorcycle accidents. The majority of these totaled the bike and four of which were serious enough to involve a hospital stay. Within my circle of riding friends I've heard of many more. The formal numbers don’t lie: The Institute for Highway Safety’s latest figures from 2014 indicate that motorcycle deaths accounted for 13 percent of all vehicle fatalities. When you consider that motorcycles account for only three percent of registered vehicles in the US, this number seems even more staggering. 

Safety aside, the full range of a performance motorcycle simply cannot be experienced at legal road speeds. The desire to push a superbike to the level which they are designed to perform will quickly have you doubling, even tripling posted limits. The two official “riding awards” I have received as the result of said doubling could have landed me in the slammer and impounded my ride. Thankfully, both officers saw fit to let me gingerly cruise on, scolded, tail tucked between my legs. The financial consequence of these tickets seriously changed my outlook. If I am to enjoy my bike as it was meant to be enjoyed, it isn’t going to be on the street. It can’t be on the street.

For these reasons, I made the concerted choice to take my yearly bonus from work and stash it away, earmarked for track use only. I was determined to create a full schedule and stick to it. Locally we have several tracks and organizations that put together track events, and choosing who I would ride with over an entire season all at once was great fun. I was like a kid in a candy store. I picked five different places within driving distance from Tucson: Muscleman Honda Circuit, Arroyo Seco Raceway, Arizona Motorsports Park, Inde Motorsports Ranch, and the crown jewel of my schedule-Chuckwalla Valley Raceway. I wanted to experience a variety of courses and try and develop the skills that are important to going fast at each one. 

I signed up for a September Musselman track day first as an “appetizer” for the season to come. It’s a great little track designed primarily for kart racing, so the layout is tight for motorcycles. Speeds tend to be slower, though it demands accurate braking and cornering. Within two laps of the circuit I suspected that something wasn’t right. The front end felt vague in the corners. I was having to really muscle the bike around the track. While I was loving the engine of my new Daytona, I wasn’t feeling the sharp handling that the bike is so famous for. Not a total loss though. Within a week, I had the bike over to Evan Steel Performance for basic suspension setup. We set the sag, dialed in the compression and rebound for a more sport-focused ride. This would turn out to be the best $30 I’ve ever spent in my riding career. Not only did it transform the bike, but I learned a thing or two about setting spring preload that I’ll use over and over again and can help other riders with.

My next outing would be at Arroyo Seco Raceway in November with a couple friends. It’s about a four hour haul to Deming New Mexico to get to the track, but well worth the effort as I would find out. This would also be the first of many events that would test my groveling skills. With no method of transporting the bike of my own I encountered the first reality of getting serious about the sport: begging for a trailer. Lucky for us I was able to borrow a 18 foot double-axle trailer from work. Far too much trailer for the job of hauling three bikes as we found out, but beggars can’t be choosers… Riding Arroyo Seco for the first time was incredible. Being a ASMA race weekend, the open track day was my first ever experience riding with racers tuning and practicing for their upcoming qualifiers. Traffic was fast! For the first half of the day, I felt like a speed bump waiting to get rolled over. The Daytona was feeling great though, and after several conversations with a few of the seasoned Arroyo racers my lines tightened up and I was able to hold my own. As much fun as the track is, the overall experience was really cool. I enjoyed seeing some seriously fast guys rip around that place and got my first taste of the life club racers lead. Honestly, I don’t know how these guys afford it. Most pits had multiple bikes on stands, stacks of tires and generators roaring away in the background. The scene is one of camaraderie and trash-talk. Competition and genuine support for each other in what can be a sport that is unforgiving of mistakes.

I took December off but was back at it in January in Phoenix at Arizona Motorsports Park. Another friend volunteered to trailer my bike up, so I would be all alone for the drive up from Tucson. I arrived an hour ahead of the rig and secured a prime pit location, trackside in the shade of the carport. I was feeling saucy as I had just purchased a new Dianese leather race suit, and was eager to try it out. The fit of the new suit was incredibly tight, but I was assured by the sales person that it would give with time. I was also feeling good because the last track day at Arroyo had gone so well, and it felt like my riding was getting somewhere. I was itching to get out there on this new playground and see what I could do. The pace in “B Group” was no joke. If I was to ride mid-pack I would have to step up my game. I have been told that the best way to improve at anything is to find someone better than you to emulate. As it turned out, that day I was pulling up the rear in my group, so I had a bunch of choices. I decided that I would focus on two things: being more aggressive in the braking zone and trying to run a bit more radius in the corners for more speed. Again, as the day progressed, I felt my lap times improving and my lean angles getting deeper. Pictures proved that I was mere inches from scraping my brand new knee pucks.

I spent the entire month of March jonesing for another track fix, but was saving my dinero for what was almost guaranteed to be an epic event. I’d worked out a ride to Chuckwalla Valley Raceway in southern California just outside Joshua Tree National Park. I had seen and heard of this place in countless magazines and videos. It is a legendary desert destination for track riders. I was beyond stoked that I would get my chance to rip through the famous “Bowl,” a 10 degree banked sweeper that I was told you could accelerate through and slingshot out of. Again, the trip proved worth the wait. We arrived the day before we were to ride, so we had plenty of time to let the speed culture out there soak in. As I looked around, I wondered what the next day would bring when I saw the huge semi trucks of the race teams there for practice. I would be on track riding next to these pros. After a windy (and somewhat sleepless) night in the paddock we attended the rider’s meeting and set up for a session-free day of unlimited, balls to the wall plowing around the circuit. My first few laps were tentative as I got comfortable with the layout and let my tires come up to temperature. I remember thinking how enormous the 2.68 mile course felt and the odd sensation of feeling the suspension load up as you round the Bowl, giving you far more traction than you would have around the same turn if it was flat. I continued to make lap after lap, and no one was telling me to haul it in for the next group to come out! It was awesome! I must have swung 20 laps in that first hour before my arms were so trashed I couldn’t crank on the bars any longer. I pulled it in to the pits with a classic shit-eating grin plastered on my face. The day continued to get better and better until the wind picked up and the dust rolled in. The storm came in suddenly and in moments riders were packing up and taking cover. We had been told that this was a common occurrence here, and that if we were to choose to stay out on track as the sand was blown onto the surface that you would maintain traction. This seemed impossible, but not wanting to lose any precious time at this temple of speed, I headed back out for a few recon laps. Apart from what was blowing up into my helmet, I wasn’t bothered much by the sand. It was visibly filling in the cracks in the asphalt, and still wafting across the race line in waves but my tires still stuck. My lap times continued to get faster and faster until I felt confident to ride without hesitation. By this time most of the locals had packed up for good and headed home. I had this unbelievable, albeit dusty, track mostly to myself! The wind began to die off around three o’clock that afternoon, and the sky cleared of sand for some of the best riding I have done to date on a motorcycle. At the end of the day, I spoke to the track photographer who said he was surprised to hear a single bike out braving the elements as the sun was going down. Luckily, he was able to hike out to the first corner and take two of my favorite photos ever.

My next event was just a few weeks later at Inde Motorsports Ranch outside of Willcox, Arizona. This track, although perhaps not as well known as Chuckwalla, is quickly becoming a must-experience destination for both riders and drivers in the Southwest. Inde is unique in that it is a members-only road course; a country club for the moto-inclined. The track, the facility, and the surrounding desert landscape is truly second to none. Any opportunity to ride Inde is a “drop everything and go” situation. I was pleased to hear that one of the largest racing organizations would be putting on another track day/race day weekend out there, and I registered as soon as I could and started looking around for another trailer to borrow. I’d ridden Inde twice before on the FZ6, so I knew the track and felt reasonably comfortable from the start. What I didn’t plan on was the crowd. The vibe was fast and aggressive from the beginning of the first session, and got more intense as the day wore on perhaps due to the impending races that afternoon. I noted to myself how much more comfortable I was in those conditions than just a few months earlier surrounded by club racers at Arroyo Seco. This was B Group though, and most of the riders who would be on the grid later were running A Group. Bikes were crashing out almost every session that Sunday, causing big delays in the schedule. I rode only four twenty minute sessions before the last checkered flag called us in. Somewhat disappointed in the amount of time on the circuit, we packed up our (borrowed) trailer and found a place to watch the races before heading home.

As luck would have it, I was able to get back out to Inde again for a private day of riding just a few weeks later. With just myself and my host out there, this time I was able to make some real progress. I had the time and the space to work on technique an body position that I hadn’t gotten before, and my lap times showed that I had improved greatly through the season. I set a personal goal to break 2:25 there. A fairly soft goal, but one that I surely would not have been able to achieve on the FZ6 a few years earlier. I ran a 2:24.5 as measured by a less than accurate GPS app. Although I can’t be certain, I’m feel that my laps were probably quicker than that. Next time I’ll mount a transponder and get an official time.

A few of us decided to take advantage of Arroyo Seco’s reasonable rental rates and do a private track day with instruction from Roger Heemsbergen, track owner and all around fast guy. Arroyo is interesting in it’s layout. The eastern half has 11 tightly linked corners, and the western half is formed by two straights with one lengthy sweeper called the Carousel. Because it’s so fast at one end and technical at the other, I find Arroyo Seco to be the most Challenging of the tracks I ride, but also the place where I tend to learn the most. On two occasions while following a faster rider during my first track day there, I came close to tucking the front and balling up a brand new bike. I’m glad that lesson didn’t come with a painful blow to the wallet, or worse. I did manage, entirely by accident to scrape my knee puck on the tightest corner of the course: the “Bus Stop.” In the moment, the foreign sound and transmitted vibration through my leg scared me a little. Then as I stood the bike up out of the turn I thought to myself, “That’s it?” All I needed to do was change my foot position on the peg and stick my knee out farther. Sometimes the most obvious answer to a problem is the simplest one. Roger’s critique of my riding at the end of this last day of my 2015/2016 season was that I’m doing it all pretty well. Body position looks good, braking’s fine, lines are where they should be. I’m just not pushing it hard enough. 

I’ll have to wait until September of this year to push it again. But looking back now on this past season, I have nothing but good things to think about. This year will probably be my year of most consecutive improvements, as there will be fewer and fewer bad habits to break and new techniques to incorporate from here on out. Where am I going with all this? The short answer is, I’m not sure. I would like to get to a point where riding in A Group wouldn’t pose a big problem for me. I would also like to try racing sometime, although I am realistic about the cost in both money and time. I'd honestly be happy with exactly the same number of track days next season and letting the gains come naturally. I'm already practicing my groveling technique in preparation. 

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Onward & Upward

It's been well over a year since my last post. Guess I've been too busy, what with all the riding I've been doing. It's been a fantastic year putting in some big miles on the trusty FZ6, and on my new ride, a 2013 Triumph Daytona 675.

I absolutely stalked the Daytona for over a year before I was able to pull the trigger and bring her home. I participated in a Triumph demo day in October of 2014 and decided then and there that this was the bike for me.

Here she is next to a '13 Speed Triple I dubbed the "Snot Rocket." That thing was a wheelie monster. I had trouble controlling the throttle even on the tame, guided demo ride we were led on. As fun as I knew it could be, and even more practical in some respects; it was the little supersport that would haunt me.

The Daytona was and is nothing like the FZ. At the time, it felt so foreign to me. Actually the feeling was more bizarre than foreign. You sat on top of the machine, rather than "in" it. It felt tiny by comparison to my Yamaha. You could see over the front of the fairing past the front tire, because the riding position is so aggressive. The handling was so twitchy. The bike was impossibly narrow. Where were they hiding the engine in this thing?

Ah. The engine. This triple, that sounded like no other engine I had ever heard and which delivered power so sweetly was the drug to which I would become a fiend. Even after such a small taste of what it could do, I was sold. I had fallen for her. But how to make it happen?

I watched and waited. Surprisingly, the demo bike didn't sell. It sat on the showroom floor for two more months through the holidays, then four, then six. I watched the price drop on the dealer listing on Craigslist. Clearly no one else felt the love I was feeling for this pale British lass. The price dropped again. I worried that someone from out of town would see it online and it would be cheap enough to make the trip to the 'Ol Pueblo and scoop her up. I would have to act.

And act I did. In July 2015 I traded in the FZ6 and paid asking price for the Daytona, knowing the dealer had reached rock-bottom. No haggling is a good thing, and I got a screaming deal on a demo bike with 63 miles on the clock.

Out with the old, in with the new. The FZ had about 25,000 miles when I traded her in. What a great bike. I'd be lying if I didn't admit that sometimes I wish she was still in the stable. Yamaha built a true, do it all machine with the FZ6, and I am sure that I could put 75,000 more trouble-free miles on that engine and chassis. 

After putting around 3,000 miles on the 675, I am convinced I made the right choice. I knew I wanted a bike primarily for the track. This is where my efforts have been focused more and more, and I had been gearing up for more track time in other ways as well. I just needed the right tool for the job. I also knew that to buy a larger displacement bike would be a big mistake. My experience with liter bikes has been that the added weight and power can actually hinder your progress as a noob. Best to stay in my comfort zone and master the middleweight. Though there is certainly no lack of power coming from the three cylinder mill. With the Daytona's sharp handling, light weight and ample torque, a skilled rider (not me at this point!) could hang with the big bikes if the pack was mixed.

My first track experience on this ride was at Musselman Honda Circuit this past October. While it was a fun night out, something just felt wrong. I took the D675 over to Evan Steel Performance for a suspension check up. Man! I was struggling against a set up that was way, way out for my body weight and riding style. Got her dialed in, and headed out to Arroyo Seco Raceway in November to see what the new settings would do. The difference was like night and day! I finally was able to feel the handling that the Daytona is so famous for. This little skinny bike that feels so squirrelly around town suddenly came into it's own. It became more planted the more you leaned over into the corners. It snapped back to vertical when getting back on the throttle. Woohoo! As my confidence in the bike and in myself increased throughout the day, I stopped getting passed. I should probably rephrase this. I became a more worthy obstacle to the other, more experienced riders that day. 

The hook has been firmly set now and I want more. I have felt the rush of the throttle fully open on the straights and impossibly hard breaking into the turns. I know that the bike has more to give and that I'm the limiting factor. There will be many more track days in 2016. Of that I am sure.

Arroyo Seco, November 14, 2015

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Riding, 10,000 Miles Later

After clocking over 10,000 miles in the saddle of my FZ6, I am still thoroughly in love with riding. I have not had many experiences in life that remain exciting after the break in period, so I'm psyched to see where this goes next...

You Meet the Most Interesting People on a Sportbike

I joined a riding group I found on Meetup last year. Honestly, my expectations of finding like minded friends that ride and share my sensibilities was low. It's a huge group. 650+ enthusiasts, and my distinctly liberal um, mindful er, unique attitude about the world in general places me somewhere on the outskirts. I have been surprised to find there all kinds of  folks  in the group and I have thoroughly enjoyed riding with them. Besides, once helmets are on, and you're off and riding, there isn't any question what we are here to do. At that point, it's just the ride, and we certainly have our love for that in common.

I'd be lying to say that I am not a competitive rider. Mainly the competition exists with myself. I just want to be the most skilled person I can be at this thing. This is for my enjoyment of the sport as much as for my own safety. However, I cannot deal with squidliness.

From Urban Dictionary: "Squid"

A young motorcyclist who overestimates his abilities, boasts of his riding skills when in reality he has none. Squid bikes are usually decorated with chrome and various anodized bits. Rear tyres are too wide for their own good, swingarm extended. Really slow in the corners, and sudden bursts of acceleration when a straight appears. Squids wear no protection, deeming themselves invincible. This fact compounds intself with the fact that they engage in 'extreem riding'--performing wheelies and stoppies in public areas. Squids wreck alot. Derived from 'squirly kid' 

You have all seen these guys. Riding overly loud, aggressive bikes in tank tops and flip-flops. No helmet. Revving at the lights to let everyone know they are boldly existing in your presence. It gives me great pleasure to say adios and drop a squid when the road starts winding. However, squids do two things well: pad the statistics for everyone else, and make highly entertaining YouTube videos. 

I have met some truly skilled riders through the group-the people you gravitate to when you want to learn a lot about bikes and who are willing to share their knowledge to help a new guy out. There are some members that have been riding for 50 years (!) or more who have raced, traveled incredible distances, and who have lived through periods of motorcycling "technology" that thankfully are history now. Their help is key when choosing the right tires, bleeding your brake lines, or figuring out the best way to clean your chain. The fast guys, I mean the really fast guys, the front of the "A group," are often in their late forties or early fifties. They've been around, and their focus is sharp. 

So much of sport riding is unnatural. Staying off the brakes, deep lean angles, keeping calm and simply staying on your line require training to overcome your body's instinct to resist. This is the part of motorcycling that is at once glorious and frustrating as hell. Having someone around that can say "yeah, that's a little freaky." is valuable enough.

My First Little Tour

I got some saddlebags and took off for a couple of days last month. All I can say now about touring is-I get it. I finally get it. I am now able to pardon those guys on big touring bikes. It's tough to avoid all the cliches here, but heading out on unexplored two-lane is so good. I have always liked to drive, and never mind taking on a long day behind the wheel of a car, so I guess this is a natural progression. Sure there are limitations to big miles-the comfort of the machine (about three hours before butt-burn sets in) and the weather. You're in it, for good or bad. But then, you can always stop and get a cup of coffee and chat up the locals, and that's a great thing in itself. There are so many riders out there that someone is bound to ask you about your bike and start recounting their own tales of cycles past. If you're on the road for three hours, take a break, and get back on for three, that's a solid day of riding. I am truly impressed with people that log 8 or 12 hours in the saddle. Never mind the Baja 1000 riders that tear-ass through the desert for 12, 16 or even 18 hours at a time. See Dust to Glory and racer Johnny Campbell if you want to take a look at a truly hardcore rider. 

Johnny Campbell, Baja 1000 Footage

New roads present new challenges as well. My little trip offered up a bit of mountain asphalt unlike I have had a chance to ride before or since. For that stretch of highway 191 (formerly hwy. 666), my style was forced to adapt, and I gained a new technique for the quiver (even though I almost puckered a hole in my drawers while learning it). Most of the riding I have done after this experience has seemed "easy" by comparison. Now I sit around and dream about new terrain.

Updating the Stable

As the footage from the link suggests, I am ready to get dirty. I never thought much on off-road motorcycles. In fact, I would say that I have taken issue with them over the years. I believed that riding in the dirt meant carrying all of your gear to some remote wilderness just to tear up the landscape with knobby rubber. This just seemed so at odds with my "quiet travel in the woods" thing I've had going for so long. Then I met some dirt riders that changed my opinion of all that. There is a seriously large group of conscious "adventure" motorcyclists that use their bikes to get out there further, and to see more than you ever could on foot or on a bicycle. Hell, it's even the fashionable, trendy new thing in the world of motorcycles. Almost every manufacturer now has some version of the adventure bike, or they have one in the works. 

I've had the good fortune to take a few track days on the FZ as well. Nothing can catapult your skills forward like riding at the track. You focus all of your technique, knowledge and physical strength on the singular goal of making that lap time just a bit smaller each time around. The result of this effort for even a few hours at the track is more confidence and control on the street... And a huge desire for more and better bike! As I found with every other sport-there's always a sharper tool for the toolbox. 

My problem is, I want the best, and I can't afford it. No way, no how. So I will wait patiently, save a few bills here and there, and wait for something good to pop up on the used market. 

The Fizzer

My Yamaha FZ6. I couldn't imagine starting on anything else. Lots of people buy a 600cc bike right out of the gate and blow it. They can be plenty intimidating-they have all the speed and power to get you into big trouble really quick. I chose to ride with absolute respect for the bike for about the first 1000 miles, and I think this was key to not eating guardrail during the learning stage. I took as much time as I needed to learn the brakes, the throttle (it's temperamental!), and most importantly the chassis and suspension. This bike, more than a pure-bred supersport requires careful turn-in and throttle control in corners to keep the chassis stable and maintain all the grip you can from the tires. A more expensive bike might not have taught me how this is done. I then took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course (advanced), which should be a requirement for all riders IMHO.

All in though, she's a great machine. Comfortable on longer rides, a killer engine (derived from the Yamaha R6), and good looks beyond it's price-point. It is also great to know there exists a huge amount of support for this bike worldwide; they were bestsellers in Europe and Asia before they ever arrived in the states. Though you don't see them everyday on the road here, riders of the FZ line share in the common belief that this bike is something special among motorcycles: A bike that is at home chewing up the miles on tour, and sporty enough to keep a smile on your face at the track or slicing up the canyons.

What's next?

More of the same, please. Short rides, long rides, track days, touring. Good friends to share in the addiction. And maybe a new steed in the barn sometime soon?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

What You Don't Know Can Hurt You

My little scooter was beginning to feel like a liability. I had been told that these Chinese imports were good for about 10,000 miles at best, and I was rounding 6,000. Time to figure something else out.

I want to say thank you to the universe for what happened next. I found a buyer for my scoot within a day of posting my Craigslist ad, and he was willing to pay $1000. Since I had purchased it the year before for $1200, I was beyond stoked. It was a win-win for both of us. I had done some upgrades to the bike, and it was actually running really well. I felt confident that this kid would see some good mileage before the 10k mark... I even told him about the high probability of engine failure around this time. Chalk that up to my impeccable sales technique.

I sold my scooter with no idea of a replacement vehicle. All I knew was that I wanted to step up to a motorcycle. My childhood dream of owning one had been revived. I would do it this time. I would find out what this was all about, even if I had no idea how it was going to happen. Sometimes you have to just lean back and let the world take care of you.

I searched Craigslist and eBay, all of the local ads and CycleTrader once I had cash in hand. Nothing solid panned out. I just didn't have the cash to get a quality ride. I feared more time wrenching on a less-than-reliable bike than actual time in the saddle. Then I remembered a former client of ours in Sierra Vista, about an hour and a half away. A rabid motorcycle enthusiast, and former MotoGP racer, he had a cadre of bikes filling his garage. His four-wheeled vehicles were relegated to the drive outside, where they baked in the unforgiving Arizona sun. I recalled the beautiful Yamaha sitting idly in a dark corner. It seemed tiny compared to the 1000cc super-sports on stands receiving loving upgrades and maintenance. I remembered the off-hand comment that it was for sale, and for me, at a good price.

It took one call to find out that the price he had in mind was indeed a good one. It was just above half of current value for that year. I knew that he was meticulous about maintaining his stable of cycles, so I bought it, without a test-ride over the phone.

2006 Yamaha FZ6
And so began my new obsession. And the realization that riding a motorcycle is not something that you learn to do, and then relegate the skill to habit much like driving a car. Riding is a life-long learning process. Even veteran riders of 25 or 30 years will say so. You will be adding to your riding skill set until you retire from it altogether. If you are idiot enough to think that motorcycling is a simple thing to learn, and that you've got it figured out after a month or so on the pegs, then you are almost guaranteed a lesson in "what you don't know can hurt you." For as much fun and exhilaration that a motorcycle can offer, they can be scary vehicles even when alone on the road.

That being said, I have never had such a good time on two wheels. Even my daily commute has taken on a new meaning. I thought this after buying the scooter, and thought that it couldn't get any better. I constantly wonder why more people don't take the plunge and buy a bike.

Perhaps most of us want to be disengaged from the drive, taking and making phone calls, listening to music and even watching movies while on the road. It's wrong and unsafe, but our cars have become more living room than automobile. I find it ironic that the very thing that makes riding more unsafe: apathetic drivers, is what keeps most of us off motorcycles in the first place.

With a healthy respect for my bike's speed and power, I am psyched to immerse myself in this entirely new world. It goes deeper than I thought it would, viewing it from the outside.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

"I can get 80 miles to the gallon on this hog."

Six months of scooter commutin' later, and I have learned a few things. Mostly maintenance things. The riding itself gets to be a pretty normal part of everyday life in less time than you'd think, and what you are left with is the wrenching. Taking your scoot into the shop is outrageously expensive. Hourly rates for labor rival what you'd pay to get your car fixed. $60 to change a belt? $75 for an oil change? Yeah... not so much.

My BMS, unfortunately, is plagued by a weak charging system. I have not found that this is a common problem for scooters in general, or for this particular make. I guess I just got one with a factory defect. My answer to this has been the purchase of three batteries; one wet cell, and two AGMs (Absorbed Glass Mat).

The first battery, a standard lead-acid unit purchased at a local scooter shop, lasted all of a few days before discharging beyond the point of no return. This really pissed me off, because I made an effort to listen to all that the mechanic at the shop had to say about prepping and installing it, mainly because I assumed that scooter batteries were special somehow. I should have just trusted my instincts. I mean, batteries have been a big part of my life... I soon learned the hard way that you can't return a battery that you destroyed based on poor advice.

Next, I got wise and looked around for the best, most maintenance free unit I could find. The Motobatt 9 amp-hour AGM battery seemed like a great deal for the money, so I pulled the trigger online and waited a few days for it to ship. One of the big selling points for me was that it came fully charged, so I wouldn't have to worry that I would get into a charging deficit pattern right away. There's no denying that it's a great battery. I noticed right away the quick starting and how much stronger the engine seemed to run. I also noticed a big jump in the fuel economy as well, if you can believe that you can actually improve on excellent. Lots of power on take-off, bright headlights, etc. It was like a whole new beast. In about a week though, I started seeing the familiar pattern of harder starting, and sluggishness off the line. The volt meter was going down slowly. Frustration. Anger. Disillusionment.

I rode the scoot to the hardware store and picked up a motorcycle battery charger. Sometimes the universe just rubs your nose in it. The bike was dead when I got back out to the parking lot. I spent 15 minutes struggling to kick start the engine on this little stub of a crank arm, placed conveniently underneath the body-work, which scraped most of the skin off my ankle. I am sure that if I had been looking at myself from outside of the situation, I would have laughed 'til my sides hurt.

Turns out the charger was money well spent. It not only tops off a declining charge, but will "condition" a weakened battery to help it hold on to a little more energy. Good stuff. Whenever I would see the voltage begin to drop, I could remove the battery and take it inside to charge overnight and be good to go in the morning. Not the ideal, hands-off relationship to have with a vehicle, but this arrangement is getting me to work and back without too much trouble.

I bought another AGM just to be on the safe side and have a back-up. I'm not the smartest guy, but I have to say, I have my moments. This was such a good idea. Now, I rotate the two good batts on and off the charger, which is more or less working full time. I don't wait for things to get bad before swapping them, either. It feels almost luxurious.

It should be said, and I will include this for the benefit of any scooter newbies out there that might happen onto this post, that if your ride's battery is slowly working it's way downhill, it's not all your fault. I did learn something interesting about both motorcycles and scooters, and their electrical systems. Just like in your car, the grounding system is the chassis or frame of the bike. If you park it on the kick-stand, you are making a great connection to ground right there. The power from the battery will eventually drain out through this point. Finding out about this was a real "a-ha!" moment for me. Of course! How could I not have realized this? So now, I park the scoot with it's stand on a piece of cardboard, rolled up newspaper, anything to try and slow down that constant leeching of e-juice.

This has helped me to some degree, but I still don't get the charging that the scooter requires in the 12 or so miles from home to work each day. On weekends with it just sitting, I am lucky if there's enough power to kick it over on Monday morning. You are probably asking yourself, why don't you just fix the root problem? My short answer would be: time and money. How much do I want to invest in something that I probably will wind up selling in the near future anyway. A bigger bike is calling, and I should off-load the scooter while it still has relatively few miles on the clock. The ad will read, " 150cc Scooter, Low Miles, Extra Battery."

Monday, April 11, 2011

How To Ride a Scooter in Traffic and Not Get Killed

I finally broke down and bought the ultimate in cheap transportation. This was an important investment in my wife's sanity... She had been driving me to work each day, sometimes as early as 4:30AM, then coming back to the house for a few extra hours of shut-eye before her day began. As my hours got earlier, there was to be no convincing her to get up at 3:15. That just isn't good husbandship (husbandry?). The thought of buying another car, insurance policy, and the additional gas per week just seemed excessive. So, onward into the realm of geeky, buzzy excitement: scooterdom.

My first few rides were not as shaky as you may have thought. Years on a mountain bike have honed my sense of balance on two wheels. It helps that the BMC that I bought is only 150cc's. Not the smallest scooter you can buy, but certainly one with predictable power and reasonable size. In no time I was cruising along at 45 miles-an-hour, leaning into turns, and, well, that's mostly it. That's about all the fun you can have on a scooter, unless you take your clothes off. I guess that's the point. Gets you where you need to go relatively fast and on the cheap.

So all riding skills aside, it seems the meat of staying alive on one of these things in traffic is being aware of where the potential hazards are to you, before they make it to you. I don't think I'm ever going to "lay it down," or "go over the bars" without the help of another vehicle. I am learning everyday the meaning of defensive riding, and it is this: assume everyone driving a car is an asshole. I have learned this well riding a bike in the city, but nothing hammers the point home like an extra 20mph or so. This may seem terribly obvious, but you would be surprised how invisible you become to other motorists without that steel box around your body. So far, knock on wood, I have been lucky enough to merely observe this foolishness, rather than be directly involved in it.

The absolute worst time to be on the road for me is any time after about 7:00AM. Joe Car Commuter has spent an extra five minutes drinking coffee or hugging up on the kids, only to take his lateness out on the rest of us. The tailgating and extreme driving in general is enough to convince me that commuting is a blood sport. If you are inclined to do as I did and brave the fray out there, here are a few tips:

1) Be aware of any erratic driving within eye-shot. This includes any swerving you may witness due to texting, applying lipstick, or diaper-changing.
2) Leave enough of a following distance to land a 747 within. Any questions, see tip #1.
3) Learn to use the throttle, not necessarily the brakes to avoid trouble. Sometimes the bastards won't leave you alone. A car can't hit what it can't catch.
4) Stay out of the automobile's blind spot. They already can't see you as it is, they don't need any more help.
5) Find the most mellow route to and from your destination. My trip to work is mostly on a street with bike lanes almost as big as the ones designated for cars. Good stuff.

I think that scooters and bikes are the wave of the future for American cities. I would like to see as many scooters packing the roadways as you see in Hanoi or Tokyo, Rome or Milan. We just need to eliminate the stigma. Embrace the dorkyness. Then maybe we can start to downsize the rest of our lives in a more efficient, simpler way...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Care and Feeding of Your Off-Grid PV System

Welcome to the exciting world of off the grid living. Self-sufficiency, freedom from the utility company, and the use of renewable resources for power are now in your grasp. However, with these benefits come new responsibilities. This guide will help make these responsibilities more clear to you, and hopefully create a better understanding of your new system.

Flow of Electricity in the System

Seems simple enough, right? Panels make electricity, which charges batteries, which runs your home. This is true, but there are a few other things you should know.

First, the PV modules (as they are known in the industry) create direct current, or DC power. This power must be managed in a way that the rest of the equipment downstream can handle. To accomplish this, the modules are wired in series (positive to negative) strings to create the correct voltage and amperage to connect to the rest of the system. Each series string is through a disconnect, typically a breaker, most likely found in a DC Combiner Box. This disconnect offers a readily accessible place for you or a technician to “turn off” one or more strings in the event that service is needed at the array. The disconnect also protects the system in case there is ever damage to the modules which could cause dangerous electrical currents to flow within the equipment.

Second, the power flowing out of the DC Combiner reaches a Charge Controller, which regulates the amount of power that enters the storage batteries, and prevents them from being overcharged. The Charge Controller does much more than this, however. This sophisticated device actually manages the overall energy harvest from the array of modules through variable charging algorithms. Another way of saying this: the Charge Controller can actually change the way that it charges the batteries depending on conditions affecting the modules. So when a cloud passes over the array, it can alter it’s charging strategy to yield the highest amount of power from the modules. It also is responsible in some ways for the overall health of the battery bank. The Charge Controller can not only limit power into the batteries, it can provide for timed overcharging of them. This is known as equalization, and is important for battery maintenance. More on that later. The Charge Controller, as you can see, is very much the brain of an off-grid system.

Third, power from the Charge Controller moves into the battery bank, the storehouse of energy. As important as they are, batteries are essentially quite dumb. They react chemically to an electric charge, and are able to reverse that process to release this charge. Each battery within the bank produces roughly 6 volts, and are wired in series to reach higher voltages to connect to the rest of the system, in much the same way as the array of modules. For a 24V nominal system, a minimum of 4 batteries must be wired in series to operate the rest of the equipment. To achieve greater depth of storage, more groups of 4 are added with parallel connections (negative to negative, positive to positive).

Fourth, power is removed from the batteries by the Inverter whenever you turn something on in your house. If a Charge Controller is the brain within the system, the Inverter is most like the heart. It is designed to do the hard work of converting DC electricity from the array and batteries into AC electricity to power lights and appliances, and do this 24 hours a day for life. The inverter also performs double-duty as a battery charger whenever you feed power back through it with your generator. Although not as smart as the Charge Controller, Inverters can sense when this power is available, and will connect to it automatically with an internal transfer switch.

Finally, power from the Inverter makes it’s way into your house wiring through it’s main service panel, where it is distributed among all of the lights, computers and other toys connected through outlets.

Array Maintenance

One of the beautiful things about photovoltaic power is that there isn’t much to do to keep modules running. They will sit on your roof or in your yard and continuously provide electricity day after day without complaint. Typical productive lifespan for PV modules is 30 years, although older panels have been found to be producing viable power for much longer. In fact, most manufacturers of PV modules warranty their power output at 80% nameplate rating over a period of 25 years. That means that a 200 watt module with this warranty would still be making 160 watts after a quarter century! This is not to say there aren’t a few things that you can do to help them make a little extra power here and there.

Rinsing off the dust and dirt that accumulates on the faces of modules does help keep them performing at their best. Heavy soiling can cause as much as a 10% reduction in module efficiency. Choosing a time to wash the array that is neither to hot or too cold is important, so that there is no risk of shattering the glass through heat-shock.

Seasonally adjusting the array can boost power output by as much as 15% if performed religiously throughout the year. Consult a sun-path chart for your latitude to determine the optimum seasonal angles for your location. In the desert southwest, summer angles are usually no more than 25 degrees from flat, and winter angles no more than 45 degrees. Adjusting array angle can be a difficult task, best accomplished with more than one person at hand. Take caution to be careful of wiring between modules, and loosen module wiring clips when necessary. It is very important to realize that the array can never truly be “turned off,” as the panels will continue to output power unless completely shaded.

DC Combiner Box

Be especially mindful of the dangerous voltages and currents within this box. Do not allow children or animals to play around this area. Do not remove the box cover unless there is significant reason to do so.

Battery Maintenance

Batteries are the least glamorous and most time consuming part of your new solar system. They are the “necessary evil” that all off-gridders must endure. They’re big, stinky (just wait!), heavy and generally cantankerous. Think in-laws wired in series and you’ve got it. For all of their faults, there just isn’t anything else quite as good or efficient at delivering back what you put into them. Did I mention expensive? So, to protect our investment, we must take good care of them while they are with us. From Alan Sindelar, President, Positive Energy in Sante Fe, New Mexico: “Respect your batteries, for they are thy storehouse, and thy gold shall be quickly turned to lead.”

The first order of battery maintenance is ritual watering. Make sure to keep all cells topped off as often as you can. Most people realize how much water their bank will use after a year or so, but it doesn’t hurt to check. This amount will change over time. Newer batteries use less water than older ones, similar to oil used in a newer car versus an older one. Purchase a few large containers of distilled water and keep them by the batteries. Do not fill batteries with any other type of water. I have often used a small funnel and a little 6oz. Dixie Cup to carefully fill the cells. Each cell will have a “neck” that reaches down into the compartment. Your goal is to fill until the water is about ¼ inch below the bottom of this neck. This is difficult to see without a flashlight, or some strong overhead lighting. Try not to over-fill the cells, as this will reduce the concentration of the electrolyte in the batteries, reducing their efficiency. Not to mention, making a big mess that can be painful to clean up. When there is a spill, use baking soda to neutralize the acid. It is a good idea to have some on hand near the bank just in case. It can also be rubbed into skin and clothing to prevent burns. Eventually, the batteries will develop some corrosion on their terminals. A heavy wire brush will remove most of this along with a mixture of water and baking soda.

Applying an equalization charge regularly can help prolong the life of your batteries. This is a sustained high current charge designed to knock the build-up of sulfur off the lead plates inside each battery and back into the electrolyte where it can dissolve back into the solution. Equalization is activated through two sources: the Charge Controller, and the Inverter. You will need to tell each device to begin the cycle. If you are attempting to equalize with solar alone, you will want to minimize your electrical usage in the house to send the most available power to the batteries. If equalizing through the Inverter, you will need to connect and start the generator. Equalizing with both sources is recommended, as this increase in power to the batteries will guarantee the completion of the cycle within the allotted time. Battery manufacturers recommend different intervals for equalization, but a good rule of thumb is once quarterly. Newer batteries will not require equalization as often, older batteries a little more often. Before performing an equalization charge, it is good practice to check water levels in the cells. During the cycle, the batteries will use more water than normal.

A few other notes about your batteries: They like to be about the same temperature that you do. This is ideally 70 degrees or so as often as possible. You can insulate the building that the batteries are housed in, or build an insulated box around them. This second idea is often a better one since the power shed is a multi-use building for most. The box will prevent anything being dropped onto the batteries, or set upon them by accident. It’s all fun and games until a rake becomes welded to a few battery terminals, as well as energized. Also, be mindful if cables are to be disconnected for any reason. Insulate the handles of any tools you will use with electrical tape before you go to work.


This is the real workhorse of your system. Surprisingly, there is little maintenance to be performed. Some models have a dust filter for their fan which will get dirty and impede the flow of air into the unit. Otherwise, there are no user serviceable parts within the inverter.

Most manufacturers include some kind of control device for programming and monitoring of the inverter. Consult the owner’s manual to learn how to navigate through the menus of your particular device. Do not fear accidentally changing important settings that could cause harm to your batteries or the rest of the system. If you reach a menu item that could lower performance of the system or worse, typically the parameter will require the entry of a password to make a change. Lesser functions often require you to press “OK” after making a change to be sure that you know you are making it. There is great information to be had from these devices. Lifetime kilowatt hours produced, diagnostic tools, current output stats, and more can be found with just a few pushed buttons. Another important function provided here is the ability to limit the amount of power flowing through the inverter’s AC to DC charger to the batteries. This will allow you to change the amperage input if you ever decide to connect a different generator to the system. Larger gensets will need to be current limited to around 20 amps AC, as the charger can only handle so much power. Give this some consideration before you buy that 20kW Kohler. You’ll really only be able to send about 2400W to the batteries, and then pass through a bit more to the house.

Final Thoughts

Living off the grid puts you in a much more direct relationship with energy. You must be conscious that your system was designed with a certain load (usage) estimate in mind. Adding appliances and plug-in devices in the future must be done with caution. Let your monitoring device be your guide. Seasonal changes specific to your site will affect the system’s output as well. Awareness of when storms will likely pass through can give you a heads-up for decreased power availability. Above all, you must maintain a good relationship with your installer, or develop one with an accredited local solar technician. This is the person you will want to be able to call at 10:00 PM for advice when your system crashes suddenly.

While owning and maintaining an off-grid PV system may seem challenging at first, you will be surprised how quickly all of this becomes routine. Most of my clients report that after a few years of life off the grid, they feel pride in their ability to understand how the system works, and happy that they accepted the responsibility. Good luck with solar, and welcome to the club!