Saturday, 9 February 2013

Current Understanding

The less technically minded of us look away now - after twelve months of drawing
power from the sun we can dodge the issue no longer - and will now attempt to explain
how our off-grid system works.

Being off-grid is a funny old thing. Most people own a TV but I’d hazard a guess that only a small fraction of us could convincingly explain how one works. Similarly, we know that our household electricity comes from sunlight, collected by panels on our roof and stored in batteries in our power shed, but when interested people ask for more detail we begin to feel a responsibility to be better informed. Another good reason for increasing our understanding is the other side of no longer being beholden to a power company: we are now responsible for our own system’s monitoring and maintenance.
So, without using circuit diagrams or scale models, here is what we know (don’t worry, to our shame this shouldn’t take long).

 In the beginning, there is light, - harvested and converted into an electrical
current by our solar panels.
 Our solar panels are photovoltaic, which means ‘direct conversion of light to electricity’. They consist of an array of solar cells containing a semiconductor wafer (usually silicon). This has a positive charge on one side and negative on the other. When light energy strikes the solar cell, electrons are knocked loose and captured in the form of an electric current. Now I’m going to strain for credibility by invoking the name of history’s greatest pop scientist: in 1905 Albert Einstein described the photo-electric effect which photovoltaic technology is based on, for which he won a Nobel Prize in physics.

The charge from our panels is stored in these twelve batteries –
the heart of our power system.
Electricity in the form of direct current is then transferred to a bank of twelve deep cycle batteries in our custom-built power shed.
(Before reaching these, the current first passes through the charge controller, which does exactly as the name suggests and prevents the batteries overcharging. It also logs system performance data).
Deep cycle means the batteries are designed to be able to discharge a significant (deep) amount of their capacity and then recover it again as they receive new charge (cycle).
The batteries are the lead acid variety which store electrical power (893 ‘Amp-hours’ each - one Amp delivered for one hour equals one Amp-hour) in chemical form.
Sulphuric acid reacting with compounds of lead on positive plates inside results in the liberation of electrons – in other words, the current which flows into our home. We’re almost there – but not quite.

 Not much to look at, but without the charge controller (centre) and inverter (right)
we’d never be able to use the electricity stored in the batteries
As mentioned before, the electricity we receive from our panels is direct current (DC) and needs to be converted to alternating current (AC) for household usage. This is performed by our inverter/charger. The first part of its function gives us high voltage AC from low voltage DC by using an oscillator which causes the stored current from our batteries to repeatedly switch direction, and an amplifier to increase its voltage.
And so the transformation from sunlight to reading light is completed!
The ‘charger’ part of its function comes into play whenever we need to charge our batteries using ‘Little Red’ - our small petrol generator (Honda EU30 3kW). Once our only source of power before we moved into the house, Little Red produces an AC current, which then passes through a wave rectifier to be converted back to DC for storage in our batteries.

To make sure that our batteries enjoy a long healthy life they need to be constantly monitored to ensure they never discharge more than half their capacity. So in winter, when sunlight can be scarce, we need to charge them with our generator if the gauge display approaches -300 that is: 300 amp hours removed.
Once a month, we also equalise the batteries. This means running the generator for a couple of hours to standardise their performance and ability receive charge equally. If we look after our batteries, they’ll look after us (for ten years or so, anyway).
This technology combines to meet our ‘power budget’ of 4.5 kilowatts per day: less than half that of an average grid-dependant home but still easily achievable with electricity-saving lights and appliances, and a general power-conserving outlook.

To re-cap, here's a diagram:

Sacrifices are minor and gains have been considerable in terms of independence and an opportunity to lessen our personal impact on the environment. One of the cardinal rules of this blog has been to never preach or gloat, but I can’t resist mentioning the fact that Greytown suffered a major power outage lasting most of a day at the end of last year, and we were utterly oblivious to it!

Like Superman, we draw our mighty power from Earth’s yellow Sun.


Friday, 31 August 2012

Half yearly report 2: The inside story

Bare walls, floors and windows often have a habit of staying that way for a long time, but code of compliance can be a wonderful motivator.

Curtains, carpet, cat - just like a real home!
We’re often asked, now that we’re living in a house that we’ve designed ourselves, if we wish we’d done anything differently. Perhaps it’s a testament to our limited imaginations or perhaps through pure dumb luck we seem to have got it right, but the honest answer would have to be ‘no’. Insulation in some of the inside walls for sound dampening would have been nice, but was beyond our budget at the time. And that’s about it.

Final sign off for our code of compliance was one of those experiences involving local body representatives with clipboards which encouraged us to move away from towns and cities in the first place, but also a necessary evil if we ever come to sell, or alter certain financial arrangements.
As mentioned elsewhere, we covered as many walls with undercoat as we possibly could, which went some way to removing the plaster dust which still coated everything. But after a thorough examination the decree from the council was, not too surprisingly, a ‘Fail’. The uncovered and frankly dangerous deck and front step was a ‘fair cop’, and I could even see the point of more insulation in the roof space. But rodent-proofing a tiny cavity in an interior wall and a suggestion to finish painting our bedroom made my fingers clench as they snapped an imaginary clipboard.

Missed a bit...
Covering the deck rapidly became the focus of several weekends in a row, and once we got our customary scuffle over working methods and division of labour out of the way, progress was steady, and reasonably smooth. Rose was full time on the drop saw, while I hammered, taking a little while to get back into that state of Zen where the nail and not the timber is hit squarely every time, sinking through the wood with the minimum of blows.

The trouble with my usually being the one to take the photographs
is that it often looks as if Rose does all the work herself!
The resulting expanse of timber could probably serve as a runway for light aircraft, final sign off from the council was granted soon afterwards, and the deck will probably become our main living space when summer arrives again. Unfortunately it also seems to be the chicken’s main living space when we aren’t there, and the state they leave it in has convinced us that a run will be one of our next projects.

Rose begins a long walk across the completed deck.

Meanwhile, a special deal on carpet encouraged us to take the plunge earlier than expected and our bedrooms and office are now considerably cosier as a result. Mention of the office prompts to give the feature wall an honorary mention. We’ve been a little subdued in our colour choices so far, and I rebelled against this by painting one entire side of the office the most cheerful shade of my favourite, and Rose’s least favourite, colour I could find. The resulting juicy vista of orange nourishes my soul and makes the whole room glow as if it’s on fire when the rosy light from a sunset pours through the window.
To Rose’s chagrin, it has met with universal approval from everyone who’s seen it and now even she is coming around.

Orange alert!
Rose takes up the story of the curtains, a feature which really she is entirely responsible for and one enriches our habitat no end:
I have a wonderful friend called Helen, one of many Helen’s in my life but this one makes curtains and blinds professionally.
With me helping her with a few of her jobs she was happy to assist me in making the curtains and blinds for the house. Now this was something that had taken years to complete at Woodside Road!
I had fallen in love with a fabric from one of our French suppliers and was allowed to bring in a whole roll with one of the shipments. The living room needed about 23 metres and with Helen’s advice on the type of heading we set too and stitched up a storm. The result is a swathe of beautiful black/grey and white striped curtains that despite double glazing definitely make a difference to the warmth in the room and really make the space cosy.

Ed admires the Living room curtains.
The office blind fabric was something I had fallen in love with even before we had started building and having bought the fabric it travelled around in the car with me for many months before being made into the wonderful roman blind. The laugh is that the type of sheep on the fabric appear every so often next door in John’s paddock! Who’d have thought!

The view from the window is usually almost identical to this curtain fabric.

The bedrooms continue to be a work in progress.

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...

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Packing Crate

Now that the plumbing is complete and we can shower in our own home for the first time in almost a year, The Crate Outdoors has reached its natural conclusion

Our little house on the prairie
All that remains now is painting, decorating, choosing carpets, hanging curtains – not the kind of thing which is going to rivet anyone to their computer screens – so we’ll spare you that and bow out while things are hopefully still reasonably interesting.

Just like a real laundry...
This blog first appeared almost exactly 11 months ago – on April 13, 2011. We had sold our house, bought 8 acres of land, parked a shipping container on it, and squeezed ourselves, three cats and the barest minimum of furniture inside.
The economy seemed to be at an all-time low, we both had the spectre of restructuring hanging over us at work and our only concession to modern living was a little generator which gave us light for a few hours each night.

...and a real bathroom!
We may need to grow something in front of this window, though...
 Then we made things really hard for ourselves. We decided to design our house to use off-grid technology for our electricity and hot water, and a waste-water system which most people hadn’t even heard of. At times the amount of money being spent seemed matched only by the amount of time we took sourcing and trying to understand these new systems.
But we blindly embarked on probably the biggest project of our entire lives with an unjustifiable confidence that if we stayed positive, everything would work out. And in an outcome which would have frustrated the drama-highlighting makers of Grand Designs – it seems that is exactly what has happened.
Not only that, but to our, and most people’s surprise – it was fun. Despite two snow storms, an attack by a flying warratah and swapping a luxurious bathroom for a portaloo and showering at work; we had the time of our lives.

Juno watches the portaloo disappear
But this ‘last post’ is not intended to be self-congratulatory in any way – instead, it is a dedication and thank you to all those magnificent people who helped get us here.
Before we begin our ‘role of honour’ – we especially want to thank everyone who’s ever taken the time to look in on this blog, particularly all those who’ve offered encouragement like Michelle, Zebby cat, Jean, Jamas and Kimberley. The Crate Outdoors would have been a pointless exercise if no-one had wanted to read it; so we sincerely hope that there’s been something to enjoy, intrigue or perhaps even encourage you to try something similar yourselves. All the very best in any endeavours of your own – you’ve been a wonderful audience.

Some poppy seeds we accidentally spilt while living in the container
now mark the site of our original home: The Crate Outdoors.
Roll credits…

Dean Lysaght
Builder extraordinaire. Meticulous, scrupulously honest and incredibly hard-working, the fact that Dean has now left the building trade is a colossal loss and hopefully no reflection upon ourselves. We wouldn’t be here without you, Deano!

Greg Hoskins
Hoskins Energy Systems Ltd
Greg and his team light up our lives – harnessing the suns rays to bring us free illumination and power – on time and on budget. No more reading by torch-light or sneakily charging appliances on the train.

Mich Lockyer
Eco Plumber, raconteur and friend to cats - his own experiences of living off-grid made Mich perfect for this job. We might have held each other up towards the end, but the first hot shower convinced Rose and I instantly that he truly is the Mich the wonder-Plumber.

Tim Grindlay
Capital Precut Solutions Ltd
Tim took our design, dodgy measurements and all, and turned it into a workable set of plans. For an encore, he submitted them to council and gained consent, providing the checkered flag for our build. Capital Precut also supplied the framing for our home – they were invaluable in these critical early stages.

Graham McClymont
GT Environmental Services.
Graham recommended the Biolytix Worm Farm to us, possibly the only system which which could fulfill our unique requirements. He then gained consent for this previously unseen-in-the-Wairarapa system and expertly installed it.

Royal Wolf Trading (NZ) Ltd
These wonderful people supplied the Crate Outdoors - our nine-month home, and then they let us hang onto it for a little while longer until we moved into our house, last Christmas. We still feel a little nostalgic twinge when we look at the empty spot where the Shipping Container used to stand.

Pam Colenso
Bank of New Zealand
Our wonderful Bank Manager. This experience wouldn’t have been anywhere near as pleasant if the woman loaning us all that money hadn’t been so generous with her time and genuinely supportive of what we were doing. She made a potentially stressful process a pleasure.

Pope and Gray Contractors Ltd
The best digging and drainage company ever. Word has it their digger drivers compete in competitions where they have to pour a cup of tea with their enormous machines. Having seen them in action I can well believe it.

Piet and Gerda Lanser
Piet’s Tiling Ltd
The ‘Sailing Dutchman’ and his lovely wife did a magnificent job tiling our shower, bathroom and laundry. They also saved us from the consequences of a rash decision to try and complete the work ourselves.

The Barton and Sklener families
The boundless generosity of these wonderful neighbours probably saved our lives. Water, the occasional hot shower, terrific company and an appreciation of rugby all came from our association with these warm-hearted Woodsidians. A sense of community which we’ve always lacked in our previous homes is due to them.

Chris and Christine Pitt
Magpie extraordinaire, Chris just happened to have a container sitting in his yard when we were looking for somewhere to store our belongings. Christine actually folded and delivered our washing when we borrowed her washing machine once, and Chris mowed our entire block of land for us before we moved onto it. Generous doesn’t even begin to cover it.

X-Cell Stopping
Our previous experience of trying to find someone skilled, reliable and available in this crucial discipline was a pretty miserable one. Lance and his team were enthusiastic, professional and did a world-class job in record time. If you find a Plasterer as good as this – marry them!

Helen Pomeroy
Fairview Windows and Doors
We’ve lost count of how many times we altered the specifications for our doors and windows, but Helen probably hasn’t. Infinitely patient and helpful; when the time finally arrived for the joinery to be delivered – it was perfect.

McEntee Event Hire
At a time when almost every portaloo in the country was badly needed by quake –stricken Christchurch, Anne and Di managed to find one for us. We can’t say we’re unhappy to see it go – but it was a total necessity and we’ll always be grateful.

Steve Ruscoe
Our friend Steve designed our kitchen in his own time and also sourced our interior doors for us. We had the benefit of his skill and experience in our last home, and it was reassuring to have him help us with this one, too.

Jason Ramsay
Ramze Demo Ltd
One of the first things people remark on when they see our house is the floor. Jason and his team salvaged the boards from an abandoned factory in Palmerston North and was a delight to deal with (even when he doubted our car’s ability to get it all home).

Colin Harrison
Harnell Floor Sanding
The beautifying which Colin achieved is the main reason why our floor is remarked on. He also did the floors in our last home and we doubt there’s anyone better.

Trimform Joinery Ltd
Our last kitchen left big shoes to fill, but Lawrence, Steve, Grant and Marty managed to come up with something which means we’ll never miss it – and continued the great work with our laundry.

Wairarapa Heating and Tiling
Dave and Jeremy helped us come up with the best woodburner/wetback solution for our home – we’ll be even more grateful when winter arrives.

Joanna Rix
The Dominion Post
The ever-smiling Your Weekend editor gave me the opportunity to write three articles about our build, allowing us access to the enormous combined audience of three Saturday papers. Being very briefly recognisable to strangers has been an interesting experience, but always enjoyable when they wanted to talk about the build. And special thanks to Loren Dougan, who’s photography made the articles beautiful to look at, if not to actually read.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Plumb Jam

The end of February had been our projected date for enjoying our first hot shower and banishing the portaloo – but fate seemed to be conspiring against us.

A bathroom basin and tap is probably a small thing to most people
– but this sight brought great joy in our household!
Having our  plumbing completed is something we’ve been looking forward to fr quite sometime.  As we explained last year, the Christmas break meant that we lost our Plumbers services for quite a few weeks.  That was fine because we had  a number of things to do before water could be connected.

On a rare sunny day between two wet rainy ones, Mich installs the solar tubes
or our hot water system – not a job to be done in bad weather
 The temperature in our water tank was already beginning to climb as Mich finished.
“The sun will probably bugger off now” he suggested.  And naturally – it did.
No shower that night, then.
 The kitchen needed to be installed for a start, but we made the decision to polish our floors first, so this didn’t happen until towards the end of January.  Our bathroom and laundry needed to be tiled and the shower installed – all which happened roughly when it needed to.  We then experienced a delay with our fireplace hearth – the final thing to be completed before the plumber could return – as he was also installing our fireplace and wetback system.
The different components for our chimney – at this point I realised it might
be bigger than expected…
 Mich places the nose cone on ‘Apollo 11’.  This mighty structure
needs the height so that it will draw properly
 When the hearth was finally put down it wasn’t straight – and had o be taken up and redone!  Finally there was the great water tank leak – not a major source of delay but still hardly ideal.
Having lost our window with the plumber due to hold-ups which weren’t his fault, we were obliged to wait until he became available again – but the arrival of March seeing us still boiling water on the stove for dishes and paying for a portaloo used up the last of our patience.
A phone call during which frank views were exchanged ensued, and to our immense relief the cavalry arrived a couple of days later. The prospect of that first shower moves ever closer!

 Rose and Mich fix the handles onto the brand new fireplace – the rude arrival
of autumn means that we’re going to be needing this sooner than expected!

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Brushman's holiday

When is two week’s off not two weeks off – when you spend it with a brush and roller in your hand...

Scaffolding and dust cloths everywhere – Ed wonders why we even bother to tidy up.
It’s been a while since Rose and I took a proper holiday, and after spending most of the Xmas and New Year period at work we were keen to take some time off while the possibility of some sun still existed.  For the next year at least, time off work will only mean that we’ll be working at home instead –or ‘on home’ might be more apt.  It’s safe to say that we won’t be stuck for ways of filling our weekends for the foreseeable future. 

The office becomes the door painting production line.
Walls, skirting boards, ceilings, window and door frames all need to be painted, so this was the perfect opportunity to focus on this time-consuming but rewarding job.  Sealing the acres of plaster board forming our interior surfaces is a job best done as soon as possible, and it is satisfying to see how a careful paint job can turn MDF framing into something resembling crafted timber.  Countless metres of masking tape have been used around our many doors and windows, and the long hours spent balancing on a lofty plank or crouching in doorframes are paying dividends. No-one, human or feline, has yet managed to step in paint tray or kick over a paint tin – so that’s a good result in my book.

Our guest room is more or less finished – it seems to meet someone’s approval, anyway.
Our laundry is also installed.  Built by the same company who did our kitchen,
it was actually cheaper than a kitset – and has a consistent look with our kitchen.
The promise of our Plumber finally returning meant that we needed to concentrate on the walls behind the soon-to-be-installed radiators and the chimney breast (or ‘monolith’ as we refer to this freestanding structure which also houses our hot water cylinder).
The infamous leaking water tank was also attended to – the manufacturers arriving promptly with many apologies and the promise of replacing the lost water.  The fault was detected speedily – it seems that a rogue rock somewhere in the shingle which the tank rested on may have punctured its base when the weight of the water bore down on it.  It does happen, apparently, even if this is the first time in 18 years!

True to their word, 18,500 litres of water is delivered to replace the tank-full which was lost.
Ironically, the following night saw some of the heaviest rainfall in the Wairarapa in years!

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The new 'Black'

(Well dark grey, actually) Be bold, be daring. This is how to dramatically alter the appearance of your entire home, in just a few hours!

Dawn reveals a distinctly different- looking south face.
The south-facing side of our home was always designed as a heat retaining shield against winter’s icy ravages. Featuring just one window and our front door (well, two doors including the cat’s entrance), it is the ‘un-showy face’ which we want present to the world – or the roadside, at least.

Hmmm, it's quite dark isn't it..?
As a contrast to the other three exterior faces, this wall is clad in an often commercially-used fibre-cement facade called titan panel. It’s durable, has an attractive ‘negative detailing’ between the boards, and its natural colour is a pale sort of cream.

No going back now!
It had always been our intention to eventually paint this wall the same dark grey as we have used on our roof, not just for weather protection and consistency in our colour scheme, but also to help the house recede into the landscape when seen from the road.
We always wanted to make as little visual impact on our surroundings as possible, something which an expanse of pale cream was never going to achieve!  The darker colour will hopefully help retain interior heat as well - this coming winter will be the test.

This shot hopefully illustrates how the darker colour will enable the house to
merge into the landscape a little more. (yes, we know we've missed the top bit -
that's what this weekend is for!)