In Praise of Pedals

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Humans put pedal-powered devices to work around the world — grinding, pumping, purifying, washing, charging, and more. Let’s cycle through the history of these diverse and intriguing innovations.

Ever since eco-awareness surged in the ‘70s, bicycles have earned recognition as the backbone of a surprising — and growing — global array of pedal-powered machines that provide far more than climate-friendly transportation. Constructed by do-it-yourselfers, NGOs, and commercial enterprises, today’s pedal-powered systems drive fractional-horsepower devices such as pumps, water purifiers, blenders, grain grinders, winnowers, washing machines, TVs, tools, charging stations for phones and laptops, and more. 

These bike-inspired, human-powered machines are serving basic needs in economically and culturally diverse locations across the planet. They offer a more robust alternative for operating hand-powered appliances (e.g., grain grinders); a climate-friendly mechanical alternative to grid-sourced power; and a source of electricity when no other option is available.  

Examples of this renaissance of pedal-power are appearing on almost every continent, with machines working on small farms and in gardens, kitchens, workshops, music festivals, conferences, prisons, suburban homes, city parks, and remote villages and homesteads.  

Over 50 Years of Pedal-Powered Devices

My fascination with pedal-power technologies has led me to experiment with several Rube Goldberg-like creations over the past 50 years or so. It began as an infatuation with my first bicycle and the thrill of those first wobbly boyhood rides in suburban Long Island, New York. 

That affection endured into my first years as a cash-poor college student, dreaming up entrepreneurial ways to generate income while enjoying my daily bike commutes to campus. Bicycles and making money were on my mind when I attended a 1971 Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado, where, after encountering Buckminster Fuller and enjoying a particularly good smoothie from a conference concessionaire, I had an epiphany that would lead to an enduring occupation with bicycle/pedal powered machines: 

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If I could channel some of Fuller’s genius for design and hack a bicycle to power a blender, I could launch a pop-up business, blending and selling smoothies at outdoor events! It wouldn’t require access to electricity (frequently a challenge at outdoor venues) and the machine’s unique, kinetic and whimsical visage would boost the concession stand’s attraction to customers.

Returning to campus, I sketched out plans, conferred with a few crafty acquaintances, borrowed tools and garage space, and shopped second hand stores for used blenders. In three months, the Bicycle Blender was born and quickly engaged. I began pedaling and selling fruit smoothies at fairs and special events, to the delight of onlookers.  Schoolteachers requested demonstrations for their students, Mother Earth News bought rights to the plans, and local newspapers and radio stations reported about the machine.  After graduation, my wife-to-be and I traveled to Oregon and Washington in our home built camper with the Bicycle Blender mounted on the front bumper, pedaling smoothies at summer festivals until a literal bump-in-the-road crumpled the machine beyond repair.  

In 1978, I wrote to Rodale Resources (publishers of Prevention magazine and Organic Gardening) about my bicycle blender and inquired about their “EnergyCycle,”  a prototype pedal-power system designed with the flexibility to drive a variety of devices.  Rodale’s enthusiastic reply included an offer to ship me one of their earlier prototypes to evaluate at the off-grid, forty-acre homestead where my wife and I had just moved. By altering gears and transmission couplings, I adapted the machine to power a table saw, water pump, grain mill, coffee grinder, drill, and sewing machine. Although the EnergyCycle was manufactured and marketed only for a brief time, the prototype they sent me continues to function at my Seattle-area home, where it last powered a crusher-destemmer for winemaking. 

In the years following the EnergyCycle evaluation on our homestead, our family grew and moved, and I pursued a career that sidelined my pedal power interests and activities. In the mid-90’s, in search of a creative diversion from my consulting business, I resurrected my old inventions, started brainstorming, and created the Shave Ice Pedaler™ — a machine that delights children and adults as it simultaneously shaves ice for snow-cones, twirls a beach umbrella adorned with colorful spinning windsocks, inflates balloons, and powers LED lights. A zoetrope replaces the ice-shaver unit when wanted. The machine has been featured at a children's museum, airport fly-ins, birthday parties, Earth Day festivals, and corporate picnics. 

The advancement of pedal power technology and its worldwide proliferation over the past five decades excites and humbles me. While I still dabble in adapting devices to run off Rodale’s EnergyCycle or my Shave Ice Pedaler, I’m now concentrating on bringing more public awareness to the global renaissance of pedal-power and its potential to improve lives, promote health, and provide a climate-friendly option for energizing an array of devices.   

Pedal-Powered Appliances in the 21st Century 

While the Shave Ice Pedaler serves up whimsical visual entertainment and sweet treats for children, the Bicycle Blender and Rodale’s Energy Cycle are historical precursors of this decade’s more seriously purposed pedal-powered devices — those that are intentionally designed and used for one or more of the following purposes:  

  1. to satisfy a human need (e.g.; access to water, food processing, communications, entertainment), especially where access to power is unaffordable, unavailable or, at best, unreliable; 
  2. to more effectively power a device originally intended to be operated by hand; 
  3. for commercial/marketing purposes, especially at events where the unique quality of the devices generally attracts a crowd; 
  4. for STEM education in schools; 
  5. for the health benefits of exercise; and/or 
  6. to counter environmental degradation by providing a cleaner, greener alternative to powering appliances with petroleum products or non-renewable grid electricity.

Mechanical vs. Electrical

Pedal-powered machines typically fall into one of two categories: they transfer power from the pedals directly to the end-use appliance either mechanically, via belts, gears, or chains; or electrically, via a generator that feeds electricity into an end-use device. In both cases, as with other renewable energy setups, energy output can be magnified by combining two or more pedal-power systems together.  Similarly, storage may be incorporated into a pedal powered system to amplify, extend and/or smooth out the energy produced. Typically, that accessory is a flywheel in mechanical drives or batteries in electric generator systems. 

It is far more efficient and less physically demanding to pedal power an appliance (e.g., blender or grain grinder) mechanically than electrically. This is primarily because of incremental power losses as electricity flows through a generator, inverter (if present), battery, and an appliance’s electric motor. Each part consumes a portion of a pedaler’s energy before it arrives at its point-of-use. No such “middlemen” take a cut of a pedaler’s exertions in mechanical drive systems. This efficiency differential explains why most pedal-powered blenders are designed to be mechanically, rather than electrically, driven. 

While pedaling to generate electricity for motorized appliances may be impractical, the energy it produces will easily satisfy the power requirements of the ubiquitous and growing array of low-voltage consumer electronics (e.g., mobile phones, laptops, LEDs) used worldwide.

Do-it-yourself and Commercial Pedal Power Systems

A plethora of products and information is available for anyone interested in getting a pedal-powered system to integrate into their home, shop, garden, school, business or community. Complete systems include both a pedal-drive unit and an end-use device/appliance. 

Complete turnkey systems can be bought online for several popular appliances (e.g., blenders, laptop/phone chargers). Alternatively, an abundance of free and/or low-cost plans, kits, parts, and instructional videos are available for accomplished or aspiring DIYers. 

Pedal-drive units may differ considerably from each other in design, materials, functionality, and cost. Some incorporate an adaptor that enables a standard bicycle to serve as the primary drive component; others use a recumbent or exercise-bike; while some craft a purpose-built pedaler from recycled parts and/or steel tubing.    

While dozens of types and styles of end-use appliances can be effectively pedal powered, each must be selected or modified to sync with the pedal drive unit. 

The following are examples of several real-world pedal-powered systems providing mechanical and electrical energy to a range of appliances.  

Mechanically Powered Devices

Blenders

Instead of plugging in to the grid, many blender-centric suburban smoothie lovers, STEM educators, fundraisers and microbusiness owners are hopping on cycles to mechanically blend their concoctions with pedal power. They all have their own reasons for choosing pedal over plug-in power and can be found in such diverse locations as India, New York City, England, Africa, or a small village in Guatemala.

As a former bicycle blender owner-builder, I can attest to how effectively such blenders can liquify soft fruits, as I was able to easily churn out fruit smoothies for hours at festivals. However, they are not quite up to the task of blending ice, nuts, or other hard foods. The limitation is human: the power output of a human on a bicycle typically ranges from about 0.1 to 0.3 horsepower (about 74–245 watts); whereas powerful ice-crunching-capable electric blenders can deliver more than two horsepower (equivalent to 1500 watts).     

Grain Grinders

Pedaling a grain grinder to mill wheat, corn and other grains into flour is less physically demanding and more productive than a hand-powered grinder and free from the utility-dependent downsides of a grid-powered electric mill.

Non-profit organizations, university students, and talented local inventors have introduced pedal powered mills to residents in remote Indian, African, and Central American villages and small farms where access to the electric grid is non-existent or marginal. In North America, some contemporary homesteaders, preppers, and devotees of self-reliance have built or purchased equipment to pedal power their grinders, taking comfort in knowing they can stock their pantries with fresh flour regardless of grid power availability.

Most of the units combine commercially available hand-powered mills that have been adapted (by the manufacturer or user) to accept a chain, drive belt, or gear from a bicycle, exercise bike, or custom cycle that has been somewhat modified. 

If already in possession of a manual grain grinder and a bicycle or exercise bike, online plans and videos are available to guide a determined DIYer’s construction of a pedal powered mill. Below are examples of DIY units designed for energizing a couple of popular mills.

Elisa Rathje and family at www.appleturnover.tv on Salt Spring Island, B.C. designed and built an adaptor and modified her old bicycle to energize a Country Living Mill for fresh flour.  “With whole grains in the pantry, we know we can mill what we need to make sourdough or pasta or baked goods. There’s both convenience and serenity in being just a bit more self-reliant.”

Alternatively, at least one reputable grain mill manufacturer offers an easy-to-assemble bicycle kit to adapt one of their grinders (GrainMaker® Model No. 99) to a standard 26-inch wheel bicycle.  Assembly and use of this option is explained and demonstrated on YouTube by an Allegheny Mountains homesteader in West Virginia who states “In 2021, we began homesteading on 40+ acres in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia. We are following our dream of becoming much more self-reliant and taking back control of where our food comes from while connecting with the land and animals that provide for us.”

Water Pumps

Bicycles harnessed to mechanically energize water pumps are transforming hundreds of lives in rural Mozambique, Uganda, and Guatemala, and watering lawns and gardens for eco-conscious suburbanites and homesteaders in the U.S. and Canada. 

Users employ a variety of bike and pump types (e.g., centrifugal, piston/reciprocating, rope) to draw water from wells, ponds, rain collection tanks and other sources. Individual performance reports vary from as low as two gallons per minute pumped from a ground-level rain to 10 gallons per minute from a 100-foot deep well. The spread in outputs is a function of variable elements unique to each situation, including depth and distance of water source, pump type and size, pedaler strength, and gearing and design of the bicycle component.

Except for units engineered and manufactured by a few NGOs for humanitarian purposes, Do-it-Yourselfers dominate the pedal-powered-water-pump space. As of January, 2024, few (if any) turnkey pedal-pump systems appear to be in commercial production and available for purchase. However, as with bike blenders and pedal-powered generators, business-minded pedal-power innovators may soon recognize a market emerging for a polished, well-engineered machine. Until then, aspiring water-pump-pedalers will find ample videos, plans, components, and guidance online to facilitate DIY assembly of their own units.       

Electrically Powered Devices

While pedaling to generate electricity for powering most motor-driven devices is impractical or impossible, pedal powered generators have earned a global following for their unique attributes in powering and/or charging consumer electronics.

People charging their phones with pedal-powered chargers.
In Sydney, Australia attendees at conferences, parks, and outdoor events may now find a pedal powered energy hub to charge their phones or laptops while socializing. The company that manufactures these polished all-in-one units combine wooden desktops and seats with stationary and recumbent bike components and provide an energy display screen to engage and educate users. – Photo courtesy of Rock the Bike

They will effectively energize mobile phones, laptops, LED lighting systems, and battery chargers, regardless of the availability of grid-power, gas/diesel generators or other stand-alone systems. They are relatively portable, affordable, and available. Many plans and instructions for DIY systems using new and used bikes and parts are online, as are ads for over a dozen manufacturers selling complete units or essential components. The surprising range of users and applications is exemplified by these two users:

  • In a remote, mountainous area of Venezuela, a mission preschool pastor relies on a commercial pedal-generator to maintain cell phones and Internet connection when grid power goes down (daily) and the solar-battery-backup system fails due to long strings of overcast days. 
  • The lights and electronic devices in a New England (USA) off-grid cabin rely on a $100 DIY bicycle generator cobbled together from an old Murray exercise bike and the guts of a discarded hoverboard. The area is heavily forested and unsuitable for solar panels. An average pedaler can sustain an output of four to six amps at approximately 13 volts, the “normal output” of a single 100 watt solar panel.   

Future of Pedal Power

The prospects for innovation and greater proliferation of  pedal power devices appears to be trending steadily upward as new and existing businesses invest in the space, technology advances, and consumer awareness and demand for pedal power devices grows. 

·       On a global scale, dozens of small and large businesses have entered the pedal-power sector, offering whole systems, rental equipment, kits, parts, plans, and consulting services

·        Research and development by Do-It-Yourselfers, commercial enterprises, NGOs, engineering societies, and universities continue to integrate transformative technologies with low-tech into these human-powered machines.  Exciting examples are:  demonstrations of collective power (up to 100 cyclists) generating electricity that is fed back into the grid, and advanced mechanical and battery energy-storage systems enabling an array of new applications for pedal-power.

·       Consumer awareness of pedal power capabilities is increasing with more frequent  public exposure to these unique devices as they are publicized by media coverage and showcased at conferences, concerts, festivals, gyms, and educational venues (e.g., museums, schools, STEM events).  

This growing awareness of the capability and availability of pedal-power systems will feed a market demand from consumers desiring  a reliable, fossil-fuel-free backup power source for energizing lights, laptops, and phones in case of a power outage, not to mention greater self-sufficiency and a reduction in one’s carbon footprint.

SIDEBAR: Pedal Power Through the Pages

The Human Powered Home: Tamara Dean’s 2008 book (on Amazon) is a must-read for anyone interested in the science, history, or making of pedal-powered devices. Topical overviews, coupled with detailed plans and photos for a variety of devices, provide an engaging introduction to the concept and execution of incorporating pedal-power into daily life. 

Engineering For Change: This NGO’s website contains articles featuring a pedal-powered corn sheller, knife sharpener, phone charger, water filter, latrine pump, blender and other appliances. The website is dedicated to preparing, educating, and activating “the international technical workforce to improve the quality of life of people and the planet”.  The NGO itself was founded jointly by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and other leading engineering societies.

Appropedia: Designs and guides for over fifty machines are found on the pedal-power category page for this green-living wiki. Since 2006, it has provided a platform for individuals and organizations to come together and find, create, and improve scalable and adaptable solutions to lighten our ecological footprint in developed countries and explore low-cost technologies for use in the developing world. Maya Pedal: Since 2011, this NGO has been building pedal-powered machines in a developing part of the world where electricity is prohibitively expensive or difficult to access. In Guatemala, Maya Pedal has hosted workshops staffed by locals and international volunteers. They repair and sell used bikes and build pedal-powered water pumps, grinders, threshers, tile makers, nut shellers, washing machines, and blenders.

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Ron Johnston-Rodriguez
Ron Johnston-Rodriguez
Ron Johnston-Rodriguez is a retired non-profit executive, business consultant, and kayak outfitter with a passion for paddle sports and advocacy for waterways in the Northwest. He has served as a citizen scientist/lake monitor for four years; is credited with pioneering electric vehicle adoption in Washington; and spent several years as a tree-planter and wildland firefighter. His articles have been published in New Shelter, tourism websites, and in small community newspapers in the West.
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