The Solar Powered Car

We took another full step into island life this month when our car caught something we call "Island Car Syndrome", or ICS. Well, we didn't make up that term, we stole borrowed it from Women Who Live on Rocks - that link is an entertaining read if you have a few minutes. We believe not only that ICS is real, but that it is a virus, a very contagious virus.

Here's how it happened: unbeknownst to us, our friends from Minnesota had some unspecified car problems, and had an appointment to see "the doctor" the next day. (You see where I'm going with this?) On that day, before they went to "the doctor" we parked next to their car and we're pretty confident that's when our car caught the bug. Three days later (see??? typical virus!), our power windows would go up but verrrrry slowly, as in "only roll up one window at a time" if you want it to finish today.

The poor thing got ICS, call the doctor!

Shortly thereafter, while leaving the beach with family visitors Dave & Eileen, the engine wouldn't start. This has only happened once in the year we owned the car and that was just a loose battery cable (a very well-known and mild case of ICS which we promptly cured). So we checked the obvious, but this time with no luck. We got a jump from some nice Connecticut tourists we'd met and headed out. At times while driving, the tachometer would drop to zero even though the engine was still running, albeit strangely, haltingly. But the tach popped back up again as we carried on, taking backroads because we thought they would be "better to be broke down on".

Lurching and heaving at times, lights blinking, engine groaning as we drove over the steep ridge, but lo and behold, we made it all the way! Dave and I immediately checked the electrical system. It became clear the alternator was not working (the alternator should be putting out enough voltage to run the car and charge the battery - it was doing neither). Just FYI, a bad alternator doesn't get solved just by jumping the battery and starting the car. The electrical power for everything (the engine spark, the computer, the lights etc.) needs to come from somewhere and when there is no alternator, the battery provides this power as it's voltage drops lower and lower. When it drops low enough everything shuts off while you're driving down the road, so that's not so great.

Bad Alternator! Bad Boy!

We needed a new alternator, easy enough, right? Flashing back in time a year or so, I remembered walking into the one store I'd seen that said "Auto Parts" in big bold letters on the front window. It was immediately obvious that this wasn't the case. "You don't have auto parts?", I asked. "No, just tires." the lady replied. I didn't bother telling her she should take down the sign that said "Auto Parts", but I did log it in my head that this island has no auto parts store. So here we are with a bad alternator and no auto parts store in sight. Now we weren't the first people to need car parts here, not by a long shot, so we started asking around.

The new normal at our house

It seems the method that works is to call the Advance Auto Parts store just across the water over on the mainland of PR. You tell them you are in Vieques and for 10 bucks they will put it on the plane to come over the next day. You just go down and pick it up at the tiny airport. Excellent, so I hopped online to see what they had. I found the alternator, set that store across the water as "my store", found an online coupon to save me $47, and hit the order button. I was a little suspicious that the $10 "to put it on the plane" was now $27 but I figured I was still ahead by 30 bucks after my coupon.

Long story short, I wasn't ordering the part from 18 miles away over the water, I was ordering the part from Atlanta Georgia, from a distribution warehouse. I saved a few bucks but six days later, I'm still waiting on the part, and the tracking info is about as useful as a football bat.

So what's an island boy to do? I have a battery that needs a charge but no alternator with which to charge it. I had no battery charger either - I left my favorite "Battery Tender" charger with my son in Colorado. Dave suggested we hook it up to the solar power system - what a great idea! But I didn't want to disconnect all those cables I'd so carefully built up when I put that thing together. "Just use jumper cables to connect it", he said. Wow, this guy is good! So that's what we did, and before long we had a charged battery again. Kansas pragmatism meets island ingenuity, and just like that we have a solar powered car! (sort of - it still needs gas)

Gimme some juice!

Well, Dave & Eileen had to head back to the states while we waited (and continue to wait) for the part to come. In the meantime we received a dinner invite from some very kind Massachusetts kneedeepers who were here on vacation. "I'm sorry, we can't do that - our car isn't working right.", was my sad reply. They were on the far side of town from us and there were many roads between here and there that were not "good to be broken down on". Besides, I needed to be here for that part that was going to show up today, LOL!

We were able to make the short distance to our favorite Friday night happy-hour spot without a lot of stress because it was such a short drive. Of course the car subject came up, and I noted that you can't just jump the battery to start the car and have it keep running. So we and our friends devised a plan to drive down the road with a jumper cable umbilical between the two cars. It's buddy breathing in an island car sort of way. With our wide roads and lack of potholes, what could go wrong? Ok we didn't actually try it, but we'll keep it in the bag of tricks for later.

Like this, only side-by-side. And hoods down plus duct tape - safety first!

Two days later, another dinner invite from the Massachusetts crew and we were determined to make it happen this time (and not just because one of them is a chef, but that didn't hurt!). I figured out a new plan. I'd de-cable one of the solar batteries and put it in the car. When we got there, I'd hook it up to the car battery with jumper cables, charging from one battery to the other while we enjoyed our evening. And that's what we did - we had a delicious supper from local ingredients, tropical drinks, and we all got to know each other. It was a lovely evening and when we left, we took off the jumper cables, threw it all in the back and drove home - perfect!

So here we are with a (partially) solar-powered car while we wait and wait for this part to come from the states. It really doesn't matter - we are happy solving problems with what we have, where we are. We had the opportunity to challenge our creativity a little bit (and don't think we didn't talk about putting a solar panel on the roof of the car either!). I just hope we don't give island car syndrome to any of our other friends' cars!

Imagine this on the roof of the car, just imagine it!

TODAY'S SPECIAL: "Today Won't Be The Day", by Branan Logan. We'll get this car back to normal one day, but today won't be the day.

Now, I know there are kneedeepers out there with some great car rigging stories - bring 'em to a world-wide audience by commenting below!

LONG OVERDUE UPDATE: We did finally get an alternator by calling over to mainland PR. He knew what I needed, and put it on the plane the same day! I called in the morning, it got on the plane, I picked it up and the airport, and replaced it by 4pm. The next day a good friend was going over there so he took back my old one for the core return fee. Finally, when the one eventually came in the mail (it did finally come) I refused delivery and had them send it back. Life is good.


  1. Perry on March 4, 2019 at 10:24 am

    Last summer, my son’s car had the “alternator problem”. He uses the car to commute to Colorado State, here in Fort Collins. We replaced it as a father/son project – he ordered the part and turned the wrenches, while I “advised.” This isn’t rocket surgery.

    Since the AdvanceAuto warehouse is only 60 miles overland in Denver, the solution wasn’t as exciting. The “life support” consisted of a small regulated power supply (13.8v 5A) connected at night. And no night driving.

    Caution – you may have also flattened your battery. Lead-acid doesn’t like to go below 12 volts. (Readers may recall that I have off-grid power on a houseboat on Lake Powell – trust me on this.) An “Island Test” would be to run your headlights until the voltage drops to 12.0. Do the math and see if you have enough amp-hours for Vieques. Maybe order that battery now and you’ll have it by Memorial Day.

    • Norm Pyle on March 4, 2019 at 1:52 pm

      It’s funny, I haven’t replaced an alternator since I was a teenager but I guess now I have a car that’s about as good as what I had as a teenager! As for the battery, the lowest voltage I saw on it was 12.2V but it likely went lower while driving. It is acting normal, taking a full charge, and running the car normally when we drive it for a few miles at a time. If it’s damaged, that’s one rare thing I can get here, a new battery. I can also have one sent over from Advance Auto in a day (if I do it right!). So in true island style, I’ll just drive it until I have the next problem.

      • Perry on March 5, 2019 at 12:47 pm

        I like your “island test” better. A marginal battery can be life-threatening in a North Dakota winter. On the island, it’s just another day at the beach.

  2. Betty on March 4, 2019 at 12:19 pm

    It is good that Dave was there. But I am sure that you would have figured it out eventually. Any how, good island story. Keep um coming.

    • Norm Pyle on March 4, 2019 at 1:52 pm

      Ah yes, I would have figured it out in another several days. I’m not untrainable, just slow.

  3. Kirby Collings on March 5, 2019 at 12:27 am

    Just let me know next time and I’ll drop by Advance Auto and bring you what you need!

    • Norm Pyle on March 5, 2019 at 8:39 am

      Great plan!

    • Lou Probasco on May 31, 2019 at 6:26 am

      The USPS 12 x 12 x 6″ flat paks $18.95 up to 70 lb- arrives in about 3 days!

  4. [email protected] on May 27, 2019 at 4:30 pm

    Bicycle Its more fun

    • Norm Pyle on May 27, 2019 at 7:35 pm

      We rode bikes everywhere the first couple of months we lived here. The problem was that we couldn’t fully enjoy the island that way. There are a couple of main roads that we wouldn’t be caught dead on (because we’d be caught dead on them!). Hilly, curvy, and filled with random horses – they’re hazardous. So for safety sake and the total island experience, we got a car.

  5. Lou Probasco on May 31, 2019 at 6:25 am

    I have ICS on my Expedition, Joe hooked up one of the cigarette lighter solar mini5/10v? charger panels I purchased at Harbor Freight and we leave it plugged in on the dash. It seems to keep battery charged.

    • Norm Pyle on May 31, 2019 at 3:32 pm

      You also have a solar powered car! Island ingenuity is also a virus. 🙂

  6. Sq on December 28, 2019 at 3:40 am

    Hey norm, it’s Steve q, been too long and I’m catching up on your adventure. My thought on solar car was you better patent it before Elon does????. Hope life continues well. Sq

    • Norm on December 28, 2019 at 7:33 am

      Elon would probably use those fancy Lithium Ion batteries he’s so proud of. Such a snob! We’re lead-acid and proud of it! 🙂

      • Sq on December 28, 2019 at 2:45 pm

        Good to hear from u buddy. Glad you’re still writing well. That’s funny about lead acid batteries. The tried and true works. That said I hope the car hasn’t given u much trouble recently. I have a 1995 Saturn sl2 that would make a great island car!

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