Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"It feels like our little house has lost its virginity"

newly erected solar array seen through incomplete pergola

We've been living in our tiny strawbale for around 11 weeks now and up until 4 days ago we were living without electricity. You see, it was going to cost us $50,000 to connect to the grid. We were still living in Sydney when we learned this and it made us nervous. Off-grid solar? It just seemed so risky, so extreme but the 50 grand price tag helped push us through the anxiety to a place of calm acceptance. Then we moved down here and it seemed like every second person we met lived off-grid and no their batteries hadn't exploded and many of them had fridges and washing machines and tv's. All of a sudden, off-grid seemed totally banal. But in the flurry of building and getting the place in some semblance of liveability, electricity dropped down the priority list. 

Life without electricity hasn't really been that hard. But even while I say that, I'm aware that it was not so hard because we had access to electricity and could charge things up at friends' houses and at our workplaces. I don't want to get all pious "electricity, who needs it?" because that would be nauseatingly disingenuous, but it is possible to live a good life for a time without it. We got used to early nights in bed reading by headlamp, the noisy gas light and the fragrant flickering light of the many beeswax and mandarin candles we were burning. We read a lot and had very limited screen time. All good things really. But we started to yearn for music, especially as Oscy's favourite toy for a while there was a little synthesiser that played terrible versions of "Let It Be" and "Jingle Bells". Horrifyingly, the kids seemed to view this music as necessary soundtrack to their play so they'd be jumping on the trampoline or playing in the sandpit with this heinous elevator music playing all around them. Annie and I would laugh in desperation at the ridiculousness of our situation. No music but this!

Needless to say, music was the second thing we turned on, after a light, once our system was up and going. In the last four days we've been revelling in many old and new favourites so the bird and frog song on our land is now punctuated by The Decemberists, First Aid Kit, Hem, Poor Moon, Gillian Welch, Neko Case, Mumford and Sons, The National... All our old friends. Annie was so overwhelmed with joy to be hearing the Decemberists for the first time in our little house that she cried real live tears of happiness.

Will you check out that brightness?!
Most people we spoke to with off grid systems bought the components themselves but we "cheated" a little and got a custom made pre-wired system. Yes it is more expensive to do it this way. But for us science dunces, it felt like the right way to go. We spoke with Phillip at Living Power about what our power needs were - a light, a lamp, laptop, mobile phone charger, small fridge, Magimix food processor, stereo, sewing machine and he designed a 1.2kw system to meet our needs. We're still getting our heads around how to work with the system. For example, we can't let the batteries run below 70% capacity too often or else their life will be shortened. Given they are expensive and pretty nasty chemical wise, we need to prolong their life as long as possible. So we're monitoring and assessing, though we have a sneaking suspicion that Phillip is pretty good at what he does, and he has been extremely obliging and helpful, patiently answering all our (probably silly) millions of questions. 

A 1.2 kw system is not really very big. So there's a little bit of a careful balancing act at play whereby on sunny days the system gets  much more power than it can store so we need to think through our energy usage and balance it out across the day. It's amazing how even on a cloudy day we get a lot of energy. Yesterday was a semi-cloudy, little bit rainy, little bit sunny kind of a day and when we checked the batteries at sunset, they were at 102% capacity. Yeah I know, how is that possible? I'd already charged the phone and computer and the fridge had been running all day. So it showed us how much energy can be derived from a bitsa day like that. In fact, the cloudy day with a bit of blue sky can be better for solar gain as the cloud magnifies the light. How interesting is that? Tomorrow is forecast to be a partly cloudy day so I'm getting reunited with the Magimix - mushroom pate, sweet potato humous and coriander, parsley pesto anyone? 

Afternoon of solar installation, again yes, the unfinished pergola

It took three days to install. Bruno our electrician thought it would take two. But our 45 degree pitch strikes again! If you want a super-easy, super cheap build go the skillion roof but if you want cute sleeping lofts and maximum solar gain go the 45-degree pitch. Bruno told us that the 45-degree pitch, while a total bastard to work on, is optimal for capturing winter sun. Lesser pitched roofs will capture too much sun in Summer and not enough in Winter. 

We felt strange in those first couple of days of installation. Annie said she felt like our house had lost it's virginity. The beautiful galvanised roof was being covered in technology and the rough handmade walls inside were being technologised as well. In some ways we felt like we were being greedy. Electricity: did we really need it? Maybe we should do without it a bit longer? But on the final day of installation I was overcome by a really strange sensation as I pondered the fact that we would, very soon, be living off the grid. I felt all weird and nearly started crying as I contemplated the fact of getting energy from the sun. I know, I know solar power, its not new or profound. But in that moment it was something about knowing exactly where our electricity was from, that it is now and forever from the sun, and feeling so good about it, that I was practically moved to tears. 

(The cost of our solar system was $7,200 and the installation was around $1,000.)


  1. Yah!!! So excited for you! And no, you are sooo not being greedy. A gal needs to cook and sew and listen to 2 of my faves Gillian Welch and Mumford & Sons {you guys have goooood taste in music - do you also like Natalie Merchant? She's gorgeous!}. xx
    PS Thanks to you, Annie, for a lovely day of creating yesterday. the kids had a blast x

  2. Well if you say so, the house may have lost it's 'precious gift' but it's looking hot! Hotness = more sustainable attribute than vestal virginry any way you look at it. Wee solar system sounds perfect. Maybe you can have low-fi Fridays or something where you're all acoustic mandy candles as a tribute to days of yore? Anyway, congratulations beautiful family, is all so lovely. Ness x

  3. Wow, what a monumental moment for you to have your solar system put on! I'm sure you will master how to best manage your batteries and power needs in no time. Our solar system is a tiny one too, only 1kW, but it produces more power than what we use, and we're not particularly frugal. As we were lucky to get in on the high feed-in tariff the NSW gov had up for grabs a while back, we're still getting about $400 a year payment from our electricity company a year, rather than a bill! Hope you can enjoy cranking up that music real often xxx


  4. Thanks all. We soon got over our reservations and embraced the powered life - music, a little fridge and a bright quiet light have been the main drawcards. Unfortunately I killed our inverter a week ago so we've had to revert to the non-powered life again. Reversion is hard. Especially as it was all going so well and we were barely drawing on the stored power in the batteries. However, everything should be sorted again very soon. We looks forward to life with power again. Much love xx