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


  1. Do you have hand crank torches or use batteries? (Plenty of hand-crank items, eg torches and radios, around.)

  2. Hi Jamas,
    Good point! We're just using batteries at the moment (some of them rechargeable). We've also just started a spreadsheet to see how our energy usage (batteries included) is working out, cost-wise. If it's not as well as we'd hoped - hand cranking may be a good option.

  3. Trying not to overly press my point, but I got some of the hand squeeze ones and am impressed with them. Looking at Trademe, get 5 for $25 (inc ship), and a couple of squeezes is all you need for hours!
    (Hey, let me know a postal address, and I'll send 'em to ya! Put my money where my mouth is...)

  4. That's too good an offer to let pass, Jamas.
    We're at PO Box 160, Greytown. Many, many thanks - and let me know what I can do for you in return!

  5. After some annoyances with the mail, now in the post to you!