Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Generator Game

You light up our lives - our sexy red generator.

What about power and water?

Living in a metal box seals us off nicely from the elements, but also from a power and water supply. Lighting, heating, refrigeration, power for electrical appliances and water are all everyday aspects of life which we could no longer take for granted, in fact, we didn’t have them at all!

We knew from the very start that an electrical generator would be an essential purchase for the actual building for our new home, as well as a back-up in the future whenever our own energy production might not be sufficient. Royal Wolf adapt their containers to be powered by generators, via caravan-type power connections at either end, so we now needed one as soon as possible. Fortunately, an Energy Consultant (Greg Hoskins) who we had met with to plan our new home’s energy requirements contacted us with a very good deal on a Honda EU30is Inverter*, available for a limited time for under $5000 including GST.
Already included in our over-all budget for the house build, we jumped at this opportunity and were delighted to find that not only was it compact, easy to operate and a rather sexy red, but also extremely quiet to run. The last thing we wanted was for its motor to shatter the silence of our rural idyll (or anyone else’s, for that matter). Once installed outside in Rose’s former bantam house (complete with angled corrugated iron roof to keep out the weather and an access hatch – originally for reaching eggs but now for switches) its running sound was muffled to a soft, background growl.

At present, we only run the generator for a few hours each evening; while cooking, dining and then relaxing afterwards with a book, some music, or carefully-rationed computer time. (Our PCs battery endurance time is currently rubbish and will need addressing at some point, to avoid so much reliance on the generator). Our remote connection to the internet comes via the magic of a telecom T-stick which, as surprisingly as our cell phone coverage, works perfectly well inside a metal box in the middle of the country.
When the generator is not running, lighting comes from the various LED torches we have scattered around, (but can often never be found when they’re really needed) two of which are suction-cupped above our pillows as adjustable reading lamps.

As mentioned before, the container has a heat pump installed at either end, but so far we have rarely used them. Getting the dust and spider-webs blown out of a long-disused Delongi gas heater, we can keep our entire 40 foot-long space comfortably warm without having to use any electricity.
Cooking is all done on a gas-powered camp stove, meaning that Rose is now even more of a master in the art of one-pot cooking. For those quick to accuse me of not pulling my weight in this department: you’re probably right. But, as has been the case for the past ten years, the commute back from Wellington would result in us eating at a ridiculously late hour if I was to cook the evening meal. And besides, Rose is a Chef of unparalleled skill, whereas I have only recently mastered poaching an egg.
A much-smaller, stand-up gas hob accommodates our stove-top espresso maker – there’s no reason why we can’t still be civilised!

Refrigeration could have been our biggest problem (many thanks to all of you who kindly offered us fridge and freezer space!) – Obviously we couldn’t run the generator 24/7 just to keep our wine chilled! The ever-resourceful Rose came to the rescue by tracking down a gas-powered fridge-freezer on Trade Me. Designed for use in yachts and in camping situations, they can be connected to exactly the same kind of gas cylinder which our heater uses. I still struggle with the fact that the same gas we us for heating and cooking can also be used for refrigeration, but it works perfectly. A pilot light at the back produces just enough warmth to make the top of the fridge Juno’s favourite sleeping spot. The only concern was the fact that the system uses up oxygen, and comes with a strong warning never to install the fridge in a sleeping area. We have little choice in this matter, but with our bed at the opposite end of the container, the cat’s access window constantly open and the other three always ajar; there have been no cases of oxygen starvation so far.

Water was initially an issue. On the same day that the new owners were due to move in, I was guiltily filling every plastic bottle which we had from our former home’s outside tap. Completely on edge, I suffered heart palpitations every time I thought I heard a car slow down - in case they had decided to arrive early. Just picture it: what could I possibly say to make that scenario less embarrassing? So my final view of our beloved villa was a furtive glance over my shoulder as I scuttled back to the car with the last arm- load of water bottles, before high-tailing it over our cattle stop and vanishing from 168 Woodside Road’s life forever.
Simply put, we had no drinking water at all except what we bought, and it’s astonishing how quickly you go through it – like water, actually. Our shipping container also has a fitting for a water pipe, and this is where, (not for the first time), the boundless generosity of our friend, neighbour and former owner of our land – Roger Barton – came to the fore. This man and his remarkable family deserve a blog entry all to themselves and will certainly get one, in the near future. On this occasion, completely unbidden, Roger offered to connect us to his farm’s water supply – specifically a nearby stock trough. Because stock doesn’t graze this part of our land anymore the water is clean and far tastier than the town supply we used to drink, coming straight from the Stonestead stream in the foothills of the Tararuas.
We’ve come to appreciate how vital a water supply is to farming, and the generosity of this gift cannot be underestimated – just so that we can have water when we turn our tap on.

Daylight saving came to a close at the end of our first week in the container. Gloomily contemplating the sudden darkness outside the train window as I travelled home on a cold, wet Monday evening, I began to have doubts about this whole idea. Cycling along a treacherous gravel road - something else which had become harder since we’ve moved to the unsealed side of the railway track - I was feeling pretty down by the time I reached our driveway. At least, I was until I saw the lights of the container through the trees, and heard the gentle throb of the generator. Opening the door, a wave of warmth from the heater and delicious cooking smells washed over me. Inside, a picture of domestic contentedness awaited; a smiling Rose, dozing cats and music playing on the stereo. It will be a long haul, I reflected, but I think we can make it.

The livestock equivalent of the office water cooler - now our delicious water supply.

* A link giving more technical information for those interested

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Poultry in motion

Henry: a prince among roosters

Rose writes about ending up in the coop

Meet Henry, he’s the most beautiful gentleman rooster you are ever likely to meet. He’s the boss of our current coven of 6 mostly black ‘girls, Gladys, Desdemona, Henrietta, Hermione, Jezebel, and one un-named (because we were going to eat her but haven’t!)
We started 10 years ago with a rag tag bunch of chickens who were gifted to us (thanks Remi and Nichole) when we moved to the Wairarapa, and keeping chickens seemed de rigueur for the lifestyle we were leading. I fell in love with their wonderful language, behaviour and soft feathers. There is nothing like stroking feathers - soft, warm and strong. And I’m sure there is a book to be written on the meaning of chicken language, they are so expressive when communicating with each other.

We started with four and over the years have kept roosters (Russell Crow was the first) and their offspring, giving away a few, managing to decapitate and eat a few and all the while having a group of two-legged bug-eaters, egg-layers and fascinating entertainers. They had made themselves completely at home at our previous property, wandering the grounds and frequently popping into the neighbouring paddock when it suited them. They could always be relied upon to assist when we were digging holes or gardening with daring forays under the swing of a grubber or shovel for a revealed bug or worm.

The current bunch which numbered ten needed to be shifted, when the time came, from our home to the new block. We left this until the last minute, as I still needed to construct the hen house for them to shift into, having sold the old one to the new owners of our house. I had also promised four girls to stay behind.
The night came when we would move them. Some had taken to roosting in the large Totara tree in front of the house while we had been so busy shifting. We collected together boxes and lined them with pea straw. I had done a recce to see where the tree dwellers were roosting while it was still light and we returned in darkness to ‘chicken nap!’ The girls and Henry from the henhouse were easy. Chickens can’t see in the dark and tend to hunker down, so were easy to collect and box up - protesting all the while. The tree-dwellers were another story, but accomplished with little fuss, generally by me climbing a ladder to reach the branches they were perching on, while Al steadied it and shone the torch. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find one hen who had moved from her location in the tree between my initial scout and the final collection!
We drove the packaged chickens back to the new, semi-completed house and installed them on their new perch under the cover of darkness - but there was still one in a tree!
We had left three behind in the original henhouse for the new owners and assumed the tree-dweller would be the fourth. The only problem was that they were all over-keen on roosting in trees at night, and needed to be re-trained in the way of the henhouse. This involves laying eggs and roosting in there at night, so they could be shut in and kept safe from cats and other predators. I’m not sure why they had chosen an arboreal lifestyle, maybe the house was too small for the numbers, or maybe the hen hierarchy, clear-cut to chickens but an eternal mystery to humans, had led them to alienate themselves.

The following morning, knowing that one girl needed to be moved from the tree to the hen-house I left in darkness. Just as dawn was breaking, I found her as high up as possible in the tree. Teetering on the top-most rung of the ladder in near darkness, while pulling down on a branch to reach her, I did wonder about the wisdom of such an action - picturing myself crumpled on the ground with an indignant chicken on my chest! Managing to lift her claws and having her sit on my hand while I descended the ladder, I realised that this was Jezebel (my favourite) and debated long and hard about leaving her behind. She really is the most beautiful girl, black with iridescent aubergine-edged feathers, dark legs and a lovely little face. I went back and forward to the hen house, put her on the perch, but in the end, just couldn’t do it - so chicken-napped her back to the new block on the promise that I would take one of the others to replace her later - yeah right!

So there you have it - one rooster and six girls, regular eggs and endless entertainment. Henry and his coven seem to have taken in their stride the endless changes of livestock which occasionally share their new paddock - and continue to wander about as if they own the place!

The author of this entry watches over her flock

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Three dog nights

How do you sleep in a container?

Moving, despite the fact that we’d been storing non-essential belongings and furniture for weeks, was a rushed and back-breaking affair. Countless trips were made up and down the road, the car straining to pull trailer-loads of detritus from our 25 years together, sometimes with me sprawled across the top trying to keep it all in place.
Perhaps we seriously underestimated the time and work involved (a good test of whether you are a hoarder or not is to shift house) but what made this move so gruelling is that we had previously always moved to larger home, whereas this time we had taken a radical step in the opposite direction. At times it felt like trying to store a bouncy castle without letting the air out first.
It will probably seem incredible to us in months to come, but we couldn’t wait to leave the cosy villa take occupancy of our container. To enable us to give our previous house the damn good cleaning which we’d promised ourselves and the new owners, we moved out almost a week before the settlement date, returning each night for more shifting and domestic chores (and showers!) Pioneering excitement probably played a part as well, and at the end of a long and tiring Saturday, we were finally, cosily ensconced in our new home, looking forward to the deep and peaceful sleep which we were certain we deserved.
Keen to inject a sense of normality, we got fish and chips and a movie (my portable, battery-driven DVD player might be the single most useful thing I own) and settled down to relax. Alas, it wasn’t to be - despite herself, neither settling down or relaxing were going to play any part in Rose’s agenda. The problem, as is often the case, was the cats. Squeezing our belongings from our 9 room house into a forty foot container is one thing, but transplanting three cats is another. Beyond the feline aversion to any kind of change, they had been used to a room of their own if they felt like it, and were now suddenly, literally thrust in each other’s faces. Juno, our long-haired, former-SPCA princess, has inexplicably hated her brother Ed almost from first sight. Ed is the calmest, gentlest cat you will ever meet, but we suspect he isn’t sometimes above some form of subtle winding-up where Juno is involved. She hissed and growled in a scarily possessed manner whenever he came anywhere near, which somehow seemed to leave Ed completely unimpressed, and this was a sound that we were to hear all through the evening, and night. Monty, the most recent addition, was a ginger, ex- ‘pet shop boy’ and through some deficiency in his upbringing seemed to spend most of his life either very worried or very scared. He now looked determined to spend the rest of his days under our bed

And so Rose worried about them , and was constantly up and down, checking on them, trying to coax Monty into the open whenever he peeked out of his foxhole, (who responded to this attention by bolting straight back under the bed), and keep the peace between a furious Juno and an oblivious Ed.
The movie was abandoned, and gradually so was sleep, as three unsettled cats performed an endless cycle of hiding and growling, while their mother fretted and stumbled about in the dark calling their names. At some point in the wee hours Rose decided to take Ed and sit patiently outside with him. Although unmoved by his sister’s ire, he seemed most upset by his new outdoor environment, so Rose held him until his trembling and quiet growling finally subsided, and he began to tentatively explore. Leaving the door open, as it was a balmy night and Ed might need to come back in a hurry, she returned to bed with the satisfaction of a job well done. We both heaved a contented sigh before finally falling asleep; but unfortunately, neither of us were to know that an enormous gust of wind was shortly to appear from nowhere. Roaring out of the Tauherenikau valley, it slammed our heavy metal door closed with a resounding boom which instantly evaporated our last ragged traces of sleep and nearly sent us rocketing under the bed to cower with the cats. Dawn couldn’t come soon enough after that.

The following night was met with the unspoken resolution that it was going to be better than the last one. The cats seemed to be settling quickly; even Monty was now spending more time on top of the bed than underneath it, whenever he was inside. We found elevated ‘nests’ for Juno - lessening the chances of she and her brothers encountering each other - and decided to leave one of the windows permanently open as a ‘cat door’, allowing them to come and go at will.
Lying in bed we soon became aware that the promised southerly had arrived, and it was going to be a bad one. Wind and rain lashed the front of the container, but as enormous as some of those wind blasts were, we knew that everything was secure and our big metal box wasn’t going anywhere. At least we thought we were secure, until finally there came a loud crash from outside. Immediately fearing it might be the box which we housed our life-giving generator in, I braved the howling elements to check. By torchlight I couldn’t find anything wrong, so returned to bed and we did our best to sleep through the remainder of the storm. Getting up at some point near dawn to use the portaloo, Rose immediately identified the source of the crash we’d heard – the large, dark-green cabin had been blown right over, and was lying on its back. Kept at the opposite end of the container to the generator, I had been completely oblivious to the portaloo’s plight when I had checked earlier. Fortunately it could have been a lot worse. A broken toilet roll holder was all the portaloo suffered, there were no spillage issues and a biohazard warning didn’t need to be issued.

Third time lucky, we thought, as the third night arrived. The storm had passed and despite the series of unfortunate nocturnal events, the cats were becoming more at home each day. All three of them now slept on the bed with us, and the container was beginning to feel rather cosy.
We actually did enjoy good night’s sleep this time, until an occurrence some time before dawn which we still don’t understand. We were woken by one of the cats mewling strangely in the dark, before an enormous crash sent the panicked felines literally bouncing off the walls while Rose and I scrambled for the nearest torch. Flicking it on, we found a destroyed chair and the laptop lying on the floor, with all three cats once again hiding under the bed. Theories involving a visit from a neighbourhood cat, a possum or even a poltergeist were briefly popular, but died down because of a complete absence of any of them.
We might never know what happened, but with the portaloo now securely fastened down and container doors firmly shut, all five of us have slept peacefully since then.


Rose demonstrates the art of sleeping around the cats

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Wiping the grid off your place

Why Off-Grid?

When we purchased our 8 acres of beautiful farmland, the first thing we had to consider was running services to our new house site. This is a perfectly standard process for new homes in our area. Even in our previous neighbourhood, far closer to Greytown itself, independent tank water and a septic tank were essential for new builds.
As far as electricity is concerned, power lines run right to the end of our road, but connecting to them presented some difficulties.

Our nearest transformer, with which we would connect to the national grid, required an upgrade for us to be able to access it. This upgrade was quoted at $4640 plus GST. I say ‘nearest’ transformer, as it was still a little way down the road from our property entrance, and just to run cabling that far was going to cost us another $7988 plus GST.
To actually run the cabling the remaining 150 (approx) metres to our actual house site was going to cost somewhere between $7-10,000 plus GST.
This might seem to fair price to pay for living where we want to, with all mod cons, but the final sticking point was this: the expensive transformer upgrade which we would pay for would then allow a couple of neighbouring blocks to connect to it, at no cost to themselves. As much as we are very happy to help neighbours out where-ever we can , this was a step too far, as was even contemplating trying to share costs with these future new arrivals.

The other alternative was to buy our own transformer, which could then be positioned closer to our entrance way. This would cost us $8188 plus GST, plus $1800 to run cabling to our gate, and then the same cost as in the first scenario to continue on to our house site.
Very expensive, but that wasn’t the worst part. Our transformer, which we were expected to pay for, would actually still be owned by Powerco and our future neighbours could still connect to it at no cost to themselves.

By this stage you might be starting to see why connecting to the national grid was losing it’s appeal. In both cases we would be spending upwards of $18000 dollars for the privilege of paying a power bill every month. Even worse, Powerco’s justification for still owning the transformer which we would have to pay for - that they would maintain it when necessary – is no longer a certainty. As of 2013, power companies will no longer be obliged to service lines which are less profitable for their organisations, and that means rural areas with scant density of houses as opposed to a typically well populated suburb.
So we could have actually ended up not only paying for a transformer, but the continual upkeep of it and lines which we will never actually own. Oh, and paying actual power usage, of course.

We had already decided to build an ecologically responsible house, now producing our own clean, independent energy began to seem like a logical extension of this. The quote for installing a solar powered energy system, using solar panels and photo-voltaic batteries came in at almost twice what the conventional national grid solution had, but this barely made us flinch. Although initially much more expensive, not having to pay increasingly outrageous power bills to profit-driven, overseas owned suppliers will mean that eventually our own, sustainable system will pay for itself. It will also mean shift in our attitude towards power usage, but this can only be a good thing – and it’s likely to be an attitude which is already well-ingrained by the time we leave our generator-driven tin box!

Friday, 15 April 2011

Containing Ourselves

Why a shipping container?

 In our last house, a lovingly renovated 1910 villa, we had three bedrooms, a study, a huge bathroom, two living rooms, an expansive kitchen and a dining room. A large deck extended almost completely around the house, increasing our over-all living area whenever the weather was good, which was often.  We often joked that we could avoid each other all day by moving from room to room, while each of our three cats could have a bed all to themselves when they felt like it.  Two and a half acres of land, some of it planted in fruit trees and gardens meant that we all had equal chance of avoiding each other outside, too.

Three weeks ago we crammed ourselves, the cats, and as many essential belongings as we could fit into a forty foot long by eight feet wide shipping container, which could possibly be our home for the remainder of this year.
The villa had been sold to a lovely young family who were eager to move in, so finding a new home was a given.  Making a half hearted attempt to locate rental accommodation in Greytown only seemed to highlight the disadvantages of this solution.
Rose’s beloved rooster (Henry) and his harem would need to be relocated and housed on our new block of land, placing them 6 or 7 kilometres away.  As much as I was sure I would be able to pop in and feed them on my way to and from the railway station each day, we both knew it wouldn’t really work. For a start, it wasn’t actually on my way, requiring a detour of a couple of kilometres each way along a soon-to-be-dark gravel road.

Continuing with the animals theme, Rose also worried about introducing Ed, Juno and Monty to life in town, where they would have to contend with feline territorial disputes, dogs, constant traffic and any number of new hazards.  Living all of their lives (almost) in rural seclusion, they had been sheltered from the world and were probably supremely unprepared for suburban living.
Rose’s compassion for her animals, whether they be feathered, furred or scaled, is immeasurable, and it’s one of the reasons why I love her so much.
More pragmatically, renting a property in town was also expensive, putting a bigger drain on our already stretched budget than we were comfortable with.
The solution beginning to emerge from this sea of ‘rather-nots’ was to live on the land we now owned.  The cats and chickens would be happy, and so Rose would be happy and so – I’m sure you get the picture by now.  Rose was keen to take an active part in the project management of the build, so the advantages of being ‘on-site’ go without saying.

The next step then, was to organise temporary accommodation. Aspiring to emulate the poor, displaced building site gypsies seen miserably holding their lives and sanity together on various Grand Designs episodes, we investigated the availability of caravans.  I already had some familiarity with this, my parents having to resort to living in one for a few months when our family home was being finished, back in 1976.   As children, I think my sister and I found it fun, but I know it depressed my father to the extent that his health briefly deteriorated.  I’m certain he never imagined that decades later, Rose and I might actually choose to do the same thing. 

But first, we took what I was convinced would be a pointless detour. Rose insisted that we visit a company in Petone called Royal Wolf, who hire out modified shipping containers of all descriptions.  Searching on-line, she had discovered that they also convert them for use as temporary accommodation.  I was extremely sceptical, right up to the point when the owner opened up one of these metal behemoths for us to take a look inside.  Unsurprisingly, it was a big, empty space, but we immediately saw this as a virtue.  We could move our own furniture in there - our bed, a sofa, bookcase, dining table – and it could be very homely.  Four windows and two doors had been added, giving the container more the look of a metal cabin, with a kitchen unit at one end, two heat pumps, an array of ceiling lights and several phone sockets and power points running along one wall.  Appropriate fittings outside took a power cable from a generator, and a connection to a water supply.  And, it was only $130 per week to hire, considerably less than even the cheapest Greytown rental property.
To my surprise, we left feeling enthusiastic; our only resistance to taking the plunge was concern that it might be a step too far in the direction of weirdness.  Surely a caravan was a more practical solution, and we should explore that first?

After locating an available caravan for hire, it turned out to be the complete reverse of our Royal Wolf experience.  I arrived convinced this was the best, most sensible solution, and we left shortly afterwards still shuddering with horror. It took spending a few minutes in a grimy aluminium bubble, its 70’s dark-brown wooden panelling sticky with decades of nicotine, sweat and the misery of rainy family holidays, to convince us that we’d go mad in there within a week.

I’ll never know if Royal Wolf were surprised when Rose called them back to tell them that we’d love to hire one of their containers for several months.  It seems more likely that they had spotted us as people who often ‘step in the direction of weirdness’ a mile off, and knew we'd be back.

Just like home: The rare sight of Rose relaxing and the far more common one of Ed hogging the heater.


Wednesday, 13 April 2011

View with a Room

Looking Northwest, towards the mouth of the Tauherenikau valley

It’s 7am on a crisp April morning. The sun has just begun to climb a pale, cloudless sky, and is throwing long, bright emerald paths between the trees on the dewy grass. I’m sitting on a bench placed in one of these sunlit corridors, looking Northeast towards the Waiohine valley and the Tararua foothills.

Apart from the quiet munching of breakfasting sheep in the neighbouring paddock, and the occasional rotor-blade whirr of passing native pigeons, it is peaceful enough for my pen scratching on paper to be the only audible sound.
Behind me, at the boundary of the stand of native trees which I’m writing in, sits a white, forty foot long by nine and half foot high shipping container. Atypically, this one has four windows, two on either side, and two doors at the front. At either end, a heat pump has been fitted. Inside, Rose sleeps peacefully around no less than three cats, Ed, Juno and Monty, who are all parked badly on top of our bed.

This container is going to be our home for the next few months, possibly the remainder of this year, as we wait for our new house to be built. Wait is probably too passive a term, as Rose is very keen to be involved in the build as much as possible, which is one of our major reasons for living on site and not kilometres away in a cosy, fully-serviced house in Greytown.
This Blog is going to about living at the base of the Tararua range without relying on the National Grid, using our own generator for electricity only when we need it, and the many ways we learn to cope without a phone line, town water supply, hot water or even connection to a sewerage system. Hopefully, it will be as non-sanctimonious as possible (we aren’t on any crusade here), and light-hearted – even in the darkest, dampest, coldest depths of the Wairarapa winter.

But we’ll be thinking outside of the box, too. After all, the whole purpose of this self-imposed exile is to enable us to design and build the best house we possibly can. To make it as cohesive as possible with a beautiful and sometimes extreme environment, using the best and most-affordable sustainable energy solutions available. To get the ‘E" word out of the way early – it will be an eco-home. Completely off-grid, so therefore designed to be powered by the sun and heated by solar energy in summer and a wetback woodburner in winter, with it’s own water supply and sewerage system.
So our current, self-contained lifestyle not only allows us to live on-site during the build, but serves as an introduction to living independently of corporately-owned and supplied services.

As to why we’ve chosen this future lifestyle, when you take yourself right back to nothing it can be a little scary but you suddenly open yourself up to opportunities which weren’t available to you before. We are both independently minded people, and so being able to generate and conserve our own energy, draw upon our own water supply and dispose of our own waste responsibly, appeals to us. The environment we’ve chosen to live in is naturally abundant in solar energy and, if we choose to take this step in the future - wind power, so it seems wasteful not to utilise it. These are reasonably self-serving reasons, but are all underscored by a sense of responsibility to the environment at large. We have an opportunity to lessen our impact on the country’s beleaguered energy resources - the continued supply of which seems less certain every day, by choosing not to draw upon them. We can also control and even re-use our own waste, reducing it’s interaction with the ecosystem in ways which conventional sewerage, waste water disposal and refuse collection processes can’t. I suspect flicking a switch, turning a tap or flushing a toilet will never be done by us with quite the same level of nonchalance again.

To quote Kevin McLeod, who’s fault all this is:
"A sustainable way of life means not a diminution of choices but a change – it can be measured not in terms of standard of living but quality of life".

Special thanks to Peter for the name of this blog.  All other excruciating puns are purely my fault.