Electroluminescent Gills

I'm in the process of doing the electroluminescent (EL) gills modification as described in the DIY articles by Mines Better.  I'm a sucker for a bargain so when I saw that Silicon Valley Compucycle (SVC) had electroluminescent strips for only $8.99, I ordered a couple.  One for each side of the car, naturally.

Removing the Gills from the Car

Conceptually: very easy.  Reality: frustrating as hell.  The general idea is to partially remove the wheel well lining and move it out of the way to gain access to the back side of the gills and release the retention clips. 

Begin by cranking the wheel to one side to give better access to the rear of the wheel well.  You can get to the gills without removing the wheel, but if you're inclined, go ahead and remove it since it will make things more comfortable when you're trying to remove the stubborn gill clips. Take off the mud guard by removing the two screws and one bolt.  Then move your way up the lining and remove two more screws.  At this point you should be able to move the lining out of the way enough to get your hand inside the wheel well.

Carefully remove the soft foam water barrier that stands vertically and then you'll be able to see the back of the gill.  The six (6) retention clips are difficult to manipulate through the wheel well despite my nimble arms and hands.  I found it best to use a right-angle screwdriver to remove as many of the clips as possible and then squeeze the remaining ones with a small pair of needle nose pliers.  Be patient, yell some expletives if it helps, but don't get irritated and break the clips.  In reality, six clips are probably gross overkill so don't sweat it if you do manage to break one.

Preparing the Gills

If you haven't already removed the clips from the gills, do so now because it will make this step easier.  Now remove the stock black plastic inserts that are in the gilll slits.  They are held in by plastic tabs that pass through them and then melted into place.  Just pick away the flattened "ears" with a knife blade and the inserts will pop out easily.

Now it is your decision to install some sort of perforated metal behind the slits or just leave them open.  I considered using expanded metal (gutter guard) material like John.  It looks nice, but gutter guard can rust and I want this to have a long, maintenance-free life.  So I used standard aluminum screening which not only is rustproof, but also easier to bend and shape to the profile of the gills.  If this doesn't suit you, check with your local foundry for some aluminum or stainless steel expanded metal.  Another option is to drill lots of holes in a uniform pattern in the stock black plastic inserts.  They do provide some mechanical support but I'm just not fond of the appearance.

I started by tacking the screen in place with high-temperature hot glue.  Make no mistake about it, it is going to look sloppy from behind, but as you can see, it looks immaculate from the visible side.  Notice I installed the screen at a 45° angle so it looks more like a diamond pattern rather than a boring bunch of squares.

Attaching the EL Strips

So far so good.  But here's where my plan went wrong.  The EL strips from SVC aren't so well-suited for this.  I soon found that the material would not bend to the shape I needed, and I ended up damaging it.  I was working on it late on a Sunday night and I was ready to finish things up and get it installed.  I tried to salvage it by stripping off the stiff, clear lamination and soldering new leads to it, but unfortunately one of the electrodes is very narrow and has a tendency to peel away with the lamination.  I'm usually pretty good at "saving" money by exponentially increasing the difficulty and time expended, so this was a humbling experience.  Oh well, I guess I'll drive around with no gills on the car until I can get some proper EL pieces from BeingSeen's kit offering.  At the time of this writing, kit #2 was $92.00, which includes two inverters so the left and right gills can be operated independently with the directional flashers.  That seems like a lot of money, but for the effort involved, it's worth it to get a tried-and-true product designed for the application.  I tried to cheap out and got burned.  I may wire up the surviving EL strip in the trunk since the stock lamp doesn't illuminate the trunk very well.

Anyway, when the new EL strips arrive, here's what I'm going to do. Carefully tack the EL strips into place with hot glue, and then fully seal them in with silicone or urethane.  The EL material is waterproof, but I don't want excess water getting behind the gills that might cause a buildup of road filth or find its way to the electrical connections, possibly causing them to corrode over time.

Wiring it Up

Here's where you choose how your EL gills will operate.  Some possible options:
  1. switched (on/off) - an easy method, but not very satisfying in my opinion
         - wire 12VDC to one terminal of a SPST switch and the other terminal to the inverter
         - the EL strips on both sides of the car can be fed from a single inverter
  2. flash with directionals - probably easier to do than #1 (no wires to route into the cabin), and serves a useful purpose
         - wire the left flasher (white wire) to one inverter and the right flasher (blue wire) to the other inverter
  3. selectable on/off/flashing - versatile, but still surprisingly easy to accomplish
         - this is the method I chose, see below for the wiring diagram I devised.
  4. alternate on/off/flashing - a variant of theme #3 above
         - keep one slit in each gill on all the time, while the other slit flashes with the directionals (I'd recommend
            making the slits nearer the doors constant on, and those closer to the front of the car flashing)
         - requires 3 inverters

The DPDT center-off switch lets us choose between three states:
  1. on - using switched 12V so it shuts off when the key is taken out of the ignition1
  2. off
  3. flashing - blinks in conjunction with the directional flashers
It's pretty simple.  If you don't like schematics, the diagram to the right shows how to wire the switch.

Routing the wires
Look up through the wheel well (toward the door's hinge) and locate the large grommet where factory wiring passes into the cabin.  Tape the wire around a straightened copper clothes hanger and punch through the grommet.  Then reach into the car and under the dash to retrieve the wire.

For my wiring method, all you need to do is run one dual-conductor wire (i.e. speaker wire) through the driver's side grommet and another through the passenger side.  One conductor goes from that side's flasher to the switch.  The other conductor goes from the switch to the input of the inverter.  By the way, the wire doesn't need to be heavy gauge.  We're drawing very little current; in the tens of milliamps.  18ga is good and I wouldn't hesitate to use 20ga.

The inverter can be mounted in the compartment above the wheel well, as shown in the photo left.  I used a combination of hot glue and urethane (use silicone if you don't have urethane).  The urethane provides the long term holding power, and the hot glue tacks it in place to let you go do something more useful for the 24 hours it takes the urethane to cure.

The two photos below show how the wires pass through the chassis.  I would've preferred to attach the ground wire to an existing chassis bolt elsewhere, but I couldn't find a good candidate inside the wheel well.  If you drill a hole like I did, it's a good idea to seal over it with urethane to prevent water from entering and causing rust.

Switched 12V
The photos below illustrate where to obtain switched 12V under the dash.  By no means is this the only place you could get it, but this wiring harness is within a few inches of a good location to mount the switch neatly under the dash (see the next section).  It's in a tight spot so I recommend using an insulation displacement wire tap as shown in the third photo.  If instead you were to cut it, you might have a hard time getting a good crimp connection back on it.

locating switched 12V

opposite side of connector
showing the wire we want

tapping into wire to get
switched 12V

Mounting the switch
Locate the metal tab under the dash (near the steering column) pictured to the right.  The hole is large enough to accommodate a wide range of toggle switches.

For a really polished installation, order one of the OEM switches that mounts in the radio bezel or the driver's-side vent trim.  Double-check, I'm not sure if any are DPDT.  I'd rather the switch be out of the way, plus it's cheaper and easier.  After the initial novelty wears off, it will be set to work with the flashers 99% of the time, anyway.

switch location
1Of course you can use constant 12V if you'd like to be able to leave the gills on without the key, just don't forget to turn them off and get the pleasant surprise of a dead battery when you get into your car to go to work the next morning.  In reality, electroluminescent material draws very little current since it's pretty much the electrical equivalent of a capacitor.  I measured a miniscule 30mA (0.36W) steady-state from the inverter and 5ft EL strip I bought from SVC.

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Written by Jason M. Neal - Revised Jan 3, 2004
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