Electric tractors hit Canadian fields with a whir

Two California-built all-electric tractors are coming to the Canadian market this year. While the biggest is only 40 horsepower, these are serious tractors that may foretell the future of farm equipment.

The tractors are built by Solectrac, owned by inventor Steve Heckeroth, who has been doing electric conversions on cars, trucks, race cars and tractors for 25 years.

There are many reasons to take electric equipment seriously, three of the main factors being simplicity, energy efficiency and longevity.

“The electric motor has only one moving part, unlike small diesel engines, which have over 300 moving parts,” Heckeroth said.

Make no mistake, Solectrac tractors are not halfway compromise hybrids but true electric machines that get their power from the sun or the grid, whichever is closest. And they perform real work.

Neither tractor uses hydraulics. Instead, Heckeroth uses electric linear actuators. The ones he installs provide 1,000 pounds of dynamic load and 3,000 lb. static loads.

“We use linear actuators because they are 20 times more efficient than hydraulics and require no toxic fluids,” Heckeroth said.

The eUtility and eFarmer are two-wheel drive only, but Solectrac engineers are working on compact four-wheel drive electric tractors, which should be available later this year. Each tractor carries a price tag of US$40,000. Because production numbers are still limited, both tractors are available on a first to deposit basis. One e-tractor has already been sold and delivered to a farmer in Ontario.

The eUtility is a 40 h.p. yard tractor that accepts all Category One 540 r.p.m. p.t.o. implements on the rear three-point hitch, except those requiring hydraulics. An optional hydraulic pump can be installed for $3,000 for legacy implements that require hydraulics. For that price, a dedicated electricity believer might instead consider converting the implement to electric.

If the eUtility looks vaguely like a New Holland, there’s a reason.

“The eUtility is actually a converted new 1950s Ford tractor that is made in a factory in India that was taken over after the British were kicked out in 1948,” Heckeroth said.

“I am able to buy only the parts I need and then add the motor, controller, batteries, etc. I had to go to India because it’s one of the few places that still makes geared transmissions. These transmissions work the best for electric tractors. Gear reduction is necessary to keep the motor in the most efficient range of about 2,000 r.p.m. It has four gears with a high and low range, which covers everything from creep to 25 m.p.h.

The eFarmer is the other all-electric tractor built by the Solectrac company. This 30 h.p. tractor is designed specifically for vegetable farmers. Both Solectrac units employ electric linear actuators instead of hydraulics. | Solectrac photo

“Before finding new warranted transaxles in India, I used to convert old Yanmar tractors. I built an electric tractor for NH in 1995.”

On his eUtility, a single 30 kWh onboard battery pack provides five to eight hours of run time, depending on loads.

The tractor can carry two battery packs. The Level 2 quick charge gives an 80 percent charge for one pack in three hours. Two packs can receive a full charge overnight.

The integrated battery management system protects the batteries during charging and discharging. Batteries are expected to last about 10 years, depending on the number of operating cycles and depth of discharge.

Exchangeable battery packs are available to keep the tractor running through the full work day. These smaller 20 kWh packs can be mounted on the rear hitch to balance the weight of the optional front loader or carried in the optional front loader to balance the weight of heavy implements mounted on the rear hitch.

The optional $5,000 front-end loader, which uses linear actuators in place of hydraulics, can lift 1,000 lb.

The eUtility can be ordered with either 12 or 18 inches of ground clearance, said Heckeroth. The 12-inch option creates a lower centre of gravity for work on steep slopes. The standard 18-inch clearance is stable only on gentle slopes and is intended for high clearance work such as row crops.

“The 20 kWh eFarmer combines clean, quiet versatility with high visibility for organic and row crop farms at a fraction of the cost of diesel fuel tractors,” said Heckeroth, who is an electrical engineer.

When they buy an eUtility tractor from Solectrac, farmers get a brand new tractor, not a re-build. This was the first Solectrac prototype, based on a new tractor chassis built in India. Steve Heckeroth, background, brought his first eUtility and eFarmer tractors to the University of Nebraska’s Nebraska Tractor Test facility to verify and document its performance. Nebraska gave the project an overwhelming thumbs up. | Solectrac photo

The 30 h.p. eFarmer is basically just a tube frame with the necessary components attached. Reminiscent of the old lightweight aircraft of the 1930s and 1940s, a simple joystick controls steering, speed and brakes. Heckeroth said this gives the operator better navigation when working in row crops.

“The eFarmer front and rear wheel track can be adjusted from 44 inches to 68 inches on centre in four-inch increments for working on beds from 30 inches to 48 inches,” he said.

“It has a standard 18-inch ground clearance, only suitable for gentle slopes. It’s mainly for high clearance row crop operations.”

For standard equipment, the eFarmer has a front hitch for the optional $1,000 low lift loader bucket or reaper. This hitch is capable of lifting, moving and dumping 1,000 lb. There’s also a mid-hitch that holds a tool carrier for cultivating row crops with complete forward visibility of the rows. The rear hitch accepts all Category 1, 540 r.p.m. p.t.o. implements. Like the bigger eUtility, an optional hydraulic pump can be installed for $3,000 for legacy implements that require hydraulics.

Although it was developed in California, the eFarmer can be fitted with a snow blower.

The onboard battery pack gives three to six hours of run time depending on load. However, that’s a pretty short workday, so for longer runs the optional exchangeable battery pack quickly connects to the front, middle or rear three-point hitch locations. The eFarmer has a three-hour quick charge for a single battery pack, or the overnight slow charge for two packs. Batteries are protected during charge and discharge.

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