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I take my twins to preschool by car, and I'd like to switch to doing it by bike.

There's a hill, and we're heavy, and I'm not in great shape, so it's hard. I've done it a few times, but I always collapse when I get home, and I certainly don't have the energy to do it twice (drop-off + pick-up). I take a while to recover. It takes a lot longer, too.

I also would like to always bike to the grocery store and other errands, but they are within the range of the preschool, so let's focus on that one for now.

I'm looking at electric-assist bikes as a way to overcome the hurdle and starting doing this trip by bike (almost) every time. I've seen bolt-on hub-motor systems for as little as $300, and Big Dummy + Stoke Monkey setups for $3000+.

Data:

The bike + trailer + me + passengers weigh 430 lbs. There's a 230' climb on the way there, and 110' climb on the way back. I can drive it in 4 minutes but biking takes 20 minutes.

How much motor (and how much battery) do I need to invest in?

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+1 great question - wish I could up-vote it again. –  Gary.Ray Oct 14 '10 at 17:54
4  
I may get booed for this, but have you considered that the best way to handle this is to upgrade the motor you already have? Keep doing this for a couple of weeks and you will get stronger. How long have you been doing this every day? If it's been less than a week, keep at it -- it will get easier, and you should see improvement rapidly. –  Neil Fein Oct 14 '10 at 18:29
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Also, do you have decent hill-climbing gearing on your bike? If not, that's another option to look at. –  Neil Fein Oct 14 '10 at 18:30
    
My lowest gearing is 36T front, 34T rear, with a 175mm crank and 26" wheels. (Single chainring, for simplicity.) That's close to the lower limit, where I can't easily maintain balance or pedal smoothly. –  Jay Bazuzi Oct 21 '10 at 21:04
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2 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

A highly trained competitive cyclist can ride at ~ 350-400 watts of power output for a 2 hour ride. So adding a 400 watt electric assist motor is roughly equivalent to adding a competitive cyclist 'stoker' to your rig. The speed and battery size make a big difference but here are some rules of thumb:

  • Some motors are measured in horsepower, rather than watts. 1/2 horsepower is roughly equal to 400 watts for this use.

  • A 400-watt motor will usually be sufficient for the average rider. Your rig is a little heavier, so you might want to go with higher watts.

  • On a typical 400 watt rig, two 12-volt, 12 amp-hour batteries will take an average rider 10 miles at 15 mph or up a hill that's 800 feet tall.

  • To go faster (assuming you haven't maxed out the watts) or further, you need to increase the battery - range is proportional, so twice the battery size = twice the range at the same speed.

There are companies like Convergence Tech that sell kits for motors in the 1 horsepower range that are pretty easy to add to an existing bike if you are mechanically inclined. That range is probably more than sufficient for your needs.

Be aware that some areas limit the top speed or the available power for electric or gas-assisted bicycles. I've seen speed limits of 25-30 mph and power limits as low as 500 watts. You will want to check with your local road or transportation department to make sure you comply with local regulations.

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This is an oldie, but a good question. Many would-be electric cyclist get a lot of misinformation from corporate marketing, insurance companies, governments, etc.. Because ebike technology is in its relative infancy (compared to say gas engine vehicles like a motorcycle) a lot has been learned in the last 5 years!

I ride a very similar to setup to what the original poster mentioned (Big Dummy Electric Bicycle) and have been riding it for over a year now to/from work as well as a half a dozen longer trips of 100km+ with total weight up towards that 400lbs mark you mentioned.

Now Gary has given you some good information regarding total power output but not more specifics regarding voltage/amperage/windings/etc. The total power output will very likely be regulated by local laws to just slightly lower than what is reasonable for your application. That's just how it works today in most of the world for uninsured vehicles.

So your choice in motor is more about how you use the maximum power output rather than selecting the power output. When a motor is manufactured a specific number of coils/turns of wire are wrapped around each pole in the motor of the appropriate thickness. By varying the number of turns and thickness of wire the same motor design can result in higher speeds or lower speeds. Most manufacturers will produce several common variations for targeting 20", 26" and 29" wheels.

When I setup my ebike, I bought the "high speed" motor winding. This is capable of propelling the bike up to 50km/h with a 26" tire. Please note this will exceed the legal limit everywhere I know of in North America, so off road use only. I have a limiter built into my 'Cycle Analyst' ebike computer which can then tone it down to the the legal limit for daily commutes (In Canada that's 32km/h 500W). The high speed motor scores high on the 'cool points' when you show it off to your friends, but you'll soon change your mind and wish you got the lower speed winding for daily efficiency.

The lower speed windings generally trade off speed for torque and/or thermal capacity (thicker wires - less likely to burn out on long uphill pulls). Also travelling at lower speeds will conserve battery power and allow you to make longer trips on the same battery. Wind resistance is not a linear force on your bike. For example on my bike maintaining 32km/h will take twice the power of maintaining 24 km/h, likewise maintaining 48-50km/h will take four times the power output (also exceeding most legal limitations). When hauling kids for a 4 minute 'drive', a steady pace of 20-24km/h is probably great.

So the related question here to motor selection is battery selection. Again you'll have a total capacity expressed as AH (amp-hours) which is the number of hours the battery would sustain a 1 amp draw. But equally important here is the voltage for the overall system. The most popular voltages are 24, 36 and 48 volts. 24 volts are usually under powered kits for heavily restricted European countries but is not really suitable for your application. 36v and 48v will be your primary choices. The voltage will be directly proportional to your maximum capable speed. Again I went with 48v when I built my ebike because its very 'cool' to show off the speed/torque. However, if I went with 36v system with a motor designed to max out at 32km/h at 36v I would have been more happy in the longer run from a practical viewpoint. That is because given the same size/weight of battery, a 36v battery will likely contain at least 25% more capacity (AH) as the 48v. This equates to longer run times or more distance between charges.

Again for practical use commuting with kids/trailers, you will be more interested in running a consistent reliable slightly slower electric bicycle than a 'hot rod' which burns through battery juice. So I would recommend a 36v motor/battery combination designed to just meet the maximum legal power output limits (Watts) for your local laws.


For the electric-assist nay-sayers out there, I believe bicycles will make a big come back in north america during the next few decades as practical devices (not just sport). Bicycles are efficient, small and user maintainable in many cases. Electric assist enables us to do more with a bike within a reasonable amount of time. Not everyone can afford to triple their commute times each day. I do recommend to everyone to improve their health, but most people need to move 400lbs around daily today and in a reasonable amount of time similar to driving. Electric assist does that. Plus electric assist bicycling is a "gateway drug" to other forms of bicycling! You'll find many people who own an electric assist bicycle also own other bikes for other less practical uses.

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