Electric bicycles can be a clean and green method of transportation, and building your own ebike is not only possible, but is also affordable. Micah Toll, the author of a popular DIY electric bike conversion book offers us 6 tips for getting started with building your own electric bike.
There's absolutely nothing wrong with using a conventional manually-pedaled bicycle, as they're fun, inexpensive, simple to work on and maintain, and about as low-carbon of a transportation option as you can get. But an electric bicycle offers some advantages over a standard bicycle, including speed and convenience, and require significantly less effort to get from one place to another. However, before you lay out a big chunk of cash on a readymade ebike, consider doing a DIY electric bike conversion.
I've previously covered Micah Toll's electric bike conversion video course, but because he's now going to have his ebike book printed as an actual physical book, I asked him if he could offer us some insight into why building your own ebike is not only possible, but is also desirable.
Q: Why do you think people are switching to commuting with an ebike?
Toll: I've actually seen a wide variety of people switching to ebikes for many different reasons. A large group consists of college students and young professionals, especially those living in cities, who use ebikes as an alternative to buying a car or relying on public transportation. The main benefits for this group include being able to commute on their own schedule, not paying for a car, insurance, parking or a yearly bus pass, and being able to beat traffic in crowded cities. I also see a lot of eco-conscious adults in cities and suburbs who use an ebike as a second vehicle, allowing them to leave their car in the garage for many of their 'around the town' trips that don't really require a 3,000lb gas guzzling machine. Lastly, there are many people who would like to get into cycling, but due to their age or previous injuries, haven't been able to succeed. With an ebike, they can get back on two wheels and have total control over how much they are pedaling and how much the motor is assisting them.
Q: What are the benefits of building a DIY ebike versus buying a retail ebike?
Toll: The two main benefits are price and custom specifications; you can save a lot of money and get the exact speed, range, power and other parameters that you are looking for. By not buying a retail ebike, you aren't paying for all the R&D, markup and overhead that goes into selling those bikes. Instead, you can buy the same parts online for much less than the cost of retail ebikes with those same parts. Because you are buying the parts yourself, you can cherry pick from among hundreds of different types of batteries, motors and speed controllers to get the exact specifications you are looking for.
You can also start with a much better quality bike. Ebike manufacturers often skimp on the quality of the bicycle frame and components to make the whole package more affordable. Since a DIYer is already saving a lot of money, he or she can either use a bicycle they already have, or put some of those savings into a better quality bicycle.
Q: What does an ebike conversion involve?
Toll: To convert any standard bicycle into an ebike, four parts need to be installed: the battery, controller, motor and throttle. Most ebike parts come packaged together with those four crucial parts (though many come with accessories for things like regenerative braking, cruise control, etc), and everything is designed to attach easily to the bicycle. The battery and controller simple bolt onto the frame or bicycle rack using the supplied hardware. The motor is encased in the hub of a wheel, so you simply replace one of your bicycle's wheels with the new hubmotor. Finally, the throttle just slides over the end of your handlebar. People are always surprised by how simple the actual conversion process is. The hard part is probably choosing from all the ebike kits and parts out there, making sure you get exactly what you're looking for.
Q: How does the cost of converting an electric bike compare with buying one from a retailer?
Toll: This really depends on the specs you want for your bike. I'll give you an example from my 'daily driver' ebike. I wanted to build something with performance similar to the Picycle, a $6,000 ebike. That ebike goes 30 mph with an electric range of 30 miles. I converted my bike with the same motor used in the Picycle, similar lithium batteries and controller, yet it cost me only $700. Granted it doesn't have some of the bells and whistles, like the frowny-face frame, cell phone charger or wifi connectivity, but if I really wanted it, I could probably use the $5,700 I saved to work on those features. Another example: I built my wife's folding ebike for $340 (not including the bike), using a 24V lithium battery and 250 watt motor. A retail ebike with the same parts would be in the $1,000-$1,500 range, depending on the company.
Q: What are some things to consider before starting a DIY ebike project?
Toll: The biggest considerations are how you intend to use the ebike and what specific performance metrics are you aiming for, in terms of speed, range, power, etc. If you'll be using your ebike as a daily commuter on flat roads, you can go with a smaller motor but may want to increase the size of the battery to give you better commuting range. If you want to ride off road, on trails or in a hilly city, you'll want a bigger motor and more powerful controller. Faster ebikes require higher voltage batteries, and ebikes that tow heavy loads require torquey motors. At first it can be a little overwhelming when you start looking at all the different options available. That's why I dedicated many chapters in my book to understand the different ebike parts and planning out a custom ebike build for your specific needs.
Q: What are the best frames and models of bikes to use for an ebike conversion?
Toll: You need a bicycle with a decently meaty frame at the dropouts (the part that holds the wheels). Nearly any mountain bike, 20-inch folding bicycle or cruiser is great, and most road bikes too. Bicycles that are pushing the limits of lightweight frames, especially carbon fiber bikes, are not a good choice. Basically, if you can picture the bike in the Tour de France, it's not a good fit. Cheaper department store bicycles are actually a great option, since they usually use steel frames and aren't worried about weight savings, which actually makes the frame stronger.
Toll is currently running a very humble Kickstarter campaign (with only an $800 goal) to underwrite the costs of printing his DIY electric bike conversion ebook as a physical book (you know, the kind made from actual paper, not electrons). If you'd like to grab a copy for yourself, or get some expert help on an ebike conversion, Toll is offering backers of the campaign some very useful perks, such as a how-to video series and even one-on-one coaching to help you through the conversion process.