By JOHN FLOWERS
WEYBRIDGE — Nine-year-old Matt Ouellette was scoping out his grandfather’s barn at Weybridge Farms last year when he spotted something quite ordinary, but quite interesting. It was an old, discarded lawnmower.
In it he saw some great potential.
“I thought I’d convert it into a solar car,” Matt, a third grader at Weybridge Elementary, said.
Matt decided to enlist his dad, Dean Ouellette, to help him put his idea into motion. Dean was just the guy to do it. He is a master electrician who has a side business called “Solar Wind Solutions,” through which he helps homeowners tap into renewable energy.
Dean knew his son’s idea had merit, but explained to him that the internal combustion engine in the old lawnmower wouldn’t fit the bill.
“We went on a mission to find something that would work,” Dean said.
They spent several months hunting through various junkyards and scrap heaps for the components for Matt’s solar car. Bit by bit, the pieces fell into place — a fractured pedal-car frame, some lawn tractor tires, strips of metal, a bicycle chain, and, finally, the key component: A DC motor. Dean explained that a DC, or direct current, motor is required to process electricity from the solar panels that must be affixed atop of the little car. The father-son duo wanted to stay away from expensive/unwieldy batteries as a means of storing solar power aboard the buggy.
Earlier this year, the Ouellettes brought their salvaged accessories to Weybridge Farms to do the final assembly. They welded together the pedal-car frame, put on the wheels, attached the chain and motor, and fashioned a metal frame on which to place solar panels.
The family had easy — though perhaps awkward — access to panels. Dean “borrows” two 32-inch-by-60-inch solar panels from atop the family home every time they want to fire up the new car. At $800 each, he’s very careful when handling the delicate devices.
Once installed, the solar panels send power to the DC motor, which is equipped with a switch that allows the driver to go forward, backward and stop.
“The motor likes to run at 120 volts,” Dean said, though it makes do on the approximately 72 volts generated by the two panels. It’s enough power to propel the little car (with the diminutive Matt) at a brisk walking pace. They conducted a brief experiment hooking the car up to four solar panels, which really put some zip into the motor, but Dean noted the small vehicle would not be able to support such a panel load, along with a passenger.
“We can’t mount four (panels) on it,” Dean said.
Matt likes taking the car for the occasional spin around his family’s backyard off Snake Mountain Road. He got a chance to show off the vehicle during a pretty impressive show-and-tell session earlier this spring at Weybridge Elementary. Matt showed his classmates the ropes during a demonstration outside of the school. A lot of other kids watched keenly from inside the school as Matt put the car through its paces.
Indeed, the car has proven to be an educational tool as well as an interesting mode of transportation. Dean said his son has become increasingly plugged into renewable energy information through television and other media.
“It has kind of sparked his interest,” Dean said.
Matt said he likes the car and drives it when it’s sunny and when his dad is able to wrestle the solar panels from the house.
Dean, in his job, has dealt mainly with the application of solar power to homes. This has been his first “moving” project.
“It’s been a learning process for me, too,” he said.