Friday, 20 May 2011

Eco Worriers

Monty's permanently vexed expression makes him the perfect 'poster boy' for this entry

Speed wobbles are inevitable on our headlong flight into energy self-sufficiency, and our resolve is already being tested

Writing these entries has been useful not only in keeping others informed of our progress and sustainable living options available, but also keeping myself ‘in the know’. Rose’s mighty powers of project management can sometimes lull me into stepping too far back from things, confident that it’s all in the best hands and there’s little left for me to do. But this time I need to have a full understanding of the processes involved – for obvious reasons involving divisions of ‘labour’, decision-making and shared responsibility. We’ve always joked that the ‘apportioning of blame’ is the crucial first step in disaster control – and it can hardly be my fault if I’m not involved. (Actually, that’s not true – have I learned nothing in my life?) Being fully informed also enables me to write about our adventure here, and hopefully sound as if I know what I’m talking about.
Writing can also be cathartic. I like to think that Rose and I are both positive by nature, and so this blog will focus on the more exciting, enjoyable and hopefully humorous aspects of living in our box, and building our off-grid home. But I also want to present an honest and balanced account of what we are attempting, so it’s only fair to admit that sometimes we are scared.
This entry comes with a warning: it might not be the happiest one I’ve ever written, but at least it might make me feel better.

Living off-grid and producing our own clean energy sounds noble and if in some in small way might inspire others to try something similar, then it is. But as I’ve mentioned before, it is also initially very expensive; at least twice the cost of connecting to the grid. We’ve made our peace with this, confident that we will save both money and a tiny fraction of the planet in the long term, but in the short term it means diverting cash from our actual house build. Solar panels, photovoltaic panels and batteries, a power inverter converting AC to DC - sometimes relatively new technology is expensive, requiring constant maintenance and periodic replacement. And even after all this; we will hardly have power to burn. Two minute showers and being forced to regulate when we can use certain appliances will become part of our daily regime. We are prepared for this adjustment in the way we live, or like to think we are, but it’s harder to happily make sacrifices when it actually costs you more to do so. It’s going to be difficult enough to realise our dream home on our budget, without our ‘energy solution system’ gobbling more and more of our funds.
OK, that’s better, and even as I write this it occurs to me that I’m probably wrong to make a distinction between the two, living sustainably means that your home is an energy solution. There we are, this is working already – I’m feeling better and Kevin McLeod would be proud.

The next worry is a connected one (literally), but has been resolved and deserves an entry of its own, probably because people don’t think about this subject enough. Did you know that in designing a septic system allowances have to be made for a human being producing 180 litres of ‘waste water’ per day? Installing a self-contained waste disposal system is an absolute given when you live in the country. We used a septic tank system in our last home for a decade, and found it extremely efficient. The catch is that our beautiful block of land becomes very damp in the wetter months. Factors involving land contours and soil type means that the ground becomes water-logged in the lower parts of our property. Or house is sited on one of the driest areas (we’re not silly) but unfortunately the local council still insist upon a secondary aerated system to avoid the very unpleasant consequences of a standard unit failing because of excess ground water. Not only is this more expensive, but requires a pump which needs to run constantly to aerate the waste.
Producing our own largely solar generated electricity, this would be a constant draw on our power which we would find impossible to maintain. Literally finding ourselves up that famous creek without a paddle, the answer has materialised, thanks to a combination of Rose’s diligence, a very clued-up consultant, a failed Australian company and humble legless creatures found in everyone’s garden. More on this later, but suffice to say that it is an ingenious system using 95% less electricity than other set-ups and relying upon completely natural and staggeringly efficient natural processes. So, at this point, I can again write our own happy ending to this one.

The last issue might be more of a cosmetic one, but is still unresolved. Our future ‘life-style choice’ has also meant that we have had to be thorough in choosing the most energy efficient appliances we can find to populate our new home. In truth this challenge has been fun, acquainting ourselves with energy star ratings, LED lighting and the insidious gratuity of digital time displays. This has started well, but we seem to have come unstuck with the heart of the heart of the home – the kitchen stove. We have been reliably advised to forego an electric one because of its draw on our power reserves, and look at a gas or wood-fired option instead.
Initial forays have revealed that gas stoves are regarded as a thing of the past, and are a little more difficult to source. We won’t give up easily, but once again our sustainable energy choice is causing more difficulty, and probably money than if we were simply paying power bills like everyone else. And even if we do decide to choose this option we are starting to question becoming too reliant on natural gas. It’s a necessary evil while we live in our container, but ultimately probably as much of an affront to the conservation of natural resources as anything else we’re trying to avoid.
Rose had aspirations towards one day owning an Aga-style wood burner stove, and I must admit the ‘steam-punk aesthetics’ of these metal behemoths appeal to me. These same aesthetics don’t really compliment the sleek, modern kitchen which we are currently having designed (more on this later, too) however, and would probably look as cohesive as a steam locomotive engine pulling a Japanese bullet train. Then there’s the hassle of lighting the stove, the impracticality of using it on hot summer nights and, as always, the cost – which is comparable to the price of a Japanese bullet train.

So, will the lure of a sexy, inexpensive electric stove cause us to rethink our whole off-grid master plan? Will we shackle ourselves to a power company for the sake of a shacklock?
There’s no elegant solution to this last quandary as yet, but I’m sure we’ll find one. No-one said this was going to be easy, but we’re determined to hold the line.

From the inside of a dark box, you can still glimpse a rainbow

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