Friday, 10 August 2012

Half yearly report: Working on Sunshine

What is living off-grid actually like? It’s time for a six monthly check-up.

Our hard-working solar panels - sipping the light fantastic.

When I last posted on this blog, back in March, I thought the story of The Crate Outdoors was over. Not for us, obviously, but for anyone who might have found the trials and minor tribulations of our camping and building experience worth reading about.

So I drew a curtain on our ‘year of living ludicrously’ with our solar/wetback hot water system finally connected, banishing the heating water on the stovetop for dishes and laundry and showering at work to the past. Our brand new house was a home at last.
With only the prospect of arguing over paint colours, hanging curtains and saving for carpet stretching ahead, I concluded this could only be of interest to ourselves; after all - everyone usually has enough of their own painting and decorating without having to read about someone else’s.

But I’m now briefly re-opening The Crate Outdoors, for two reasons. The last six months have seem more progress inside than either of us really expected and most importantly, people still ask what it’s like to live off-grid.
Now in the depths of winter, surely the most challenging circumstances for a lifestyle dependent upon sunlight, this seems the perfect time to give an honest account.

I’ll begin with the hot water system: We couldn’t be happier – the sun warms our water during the day and the wood burner’s wetback system warms it at night. It’s difficult to imagine a time when this arrangement won’t be able to supply us with continuous hot water. Perhaps a series of warm but overcast days in summer might pose a challenge when it’s too warm for a fire but too dull for much solar gain, but even then the efficiency of our solar tubes and the capacity of our tank will probably see us through.
The gentle gushing sound as the fire reaches the temperature required to send hot water to the radiators in the hallway and bathroom is a source of great satisfaction, and no longer frightens the cats.

The array of solar tubes on the right heats our water by day,
and our wood burner fire takes over that duty at night.
Wood consumption is high, but the combination of fallen branches on our own property, generous neighbours and a dead Kahikatea tree which we had felled have kept us well supplied.

Our off grid electrical system is predictably challenged at this time of year. At the height of summer, (such as it was this year), we were generating in excess of 200 amps – a mighty load which kept our batteries happily fizzing with more power than we could really use. This is a good time for the washing machine, vacuum cleaner, electric toothbrush, hair dryer and toaster – all at once.

Currently giving a volt reading, this monitor helps us keep track of how are batteries are doing -
staying constantly aware of our power situation is all part of living off-grid.
In winter, our amps are rarely in the positives which in itself isn’t a problem, but if it falls below -300 then we need to run our generator (possibly our greatest asset last year) to top the batteries up again. This takes a couple of hours, and mean we have to refrain from using any electrical appliances while ‘little red’ chugs away in the power shed. Since the end of June we’ve had to do this on less than ten occasions. It’s a mild inconvenience and a negligible amount of petrol, but the process does make us even more boring about the weather forecast than most. A series of cloudy days means the generator, a row of suns and the panels get to do their work.

'Little red' used to power our container, but now this little generator
tops up our batteries when the sun hasn't got his hat on. 
To be brutally honest we do miss our electric blankets at times, but that is definitely one luxury this lifestyle has banished to the past. Fortunately the house is gloriously warm. With double glazing and insulation has come the realisation that we’ve probably never lived in a warm house before – and certainly not one with real right angles.

Next: Decor, decks, drapery and division of labour...

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