Remember those dreaded words in red ink, the final warning if you haven’t paid your bills for more than three months? Well, we’ve written our own notice of disconnection, and we are loving every minute of it, including the many challenges, writes Victoria Mendoza Fritz.
“Hi everyone. We’ve decided to live off grid. Goodbye to light and water bills, sudden power interruptions, etc…”
Living off grid is not for the faint of heart. It entails sacrifice; awareness raised two levels higher than the typical zombie state, and a measure of bravado that you are the master of your own convenience-fitted destiny. No more lifelines to the utility giants. You’re on your own.
Doing this takes meticulous planning over time. Honestly, as with everything else, necessity was the mother of invention in our case. My husband wanted to build our home far from the road, deep within our property. This entailed being about 1,800 feet from the town grid, which would have cost us a fortune to connect to. Being an engineer, he proceeded to design an independently functioning home.
LET THERE BE LIGHT
People in the United States have this mistaken notion that off grid means no electricity. Guests from Phoenix were coming over to stay at our house, and were warned by friends that there would be no electricity. That is entirely possible. After all, off grid simply means not connected to the utility line. So the arrangement could be anywhere from a dinner by candlelight and drawing water from a well arrangement to our sophisticated setup.
Our journey to the light, literally, started at the point of basic necessities. We determined our basic requirements. We would need a refrigerator/freezer, a washing machine, lights, TV, computers, a coffee maker and a water kettle. Here is where sacrifice comes in. Other heat generating equipment had to be given up because they consumed too much energy. Hair dryers were a no-brainer (I never use one), but we had a considerable argument over the dishwasher and clothes dryer, before I finally agreed.
Hot water is a must, but that was going to be addressed by another energy source; more on that later.
From this list, my engineer husband computed the daily consumption in terms of kilowatt-hours, and determined how many solar panels and storage batteries we would need. At present, we have 21 panels, laid out at a 45- degree angle on our roof. According to my husband, this angle is meant to maximize sun exposure, given that our location on the globe is at a 45 degrees to the sun. Go figure. I am not an engineer.
The energy collected is stored in batteries, and then channeled into the house through an inverter. You need to be constantly aware of sun incidence. It dips pretty low in November and December, at which time you might need to cut down on use, or attach a diesel-run generator as back up, to re-charge the batteries. You also have to be checking the data panel everyday. Sometimes, due to moisture or other reasons, the system can trip and switch off, ceasing the crucial energy collection during daylight hours.
In our year of living off grid, we’ve only been at a critically low level during the weeklong spell of overcast skies around Thanksgiving. We didn’t have the backup generator yet, so we resorted to using gas lamps for three days, and kept the TV and computers off. Since installing a genset, we haven’t had to use it, ironically. Still, it’s always good to have backup.
During summer, when the sun shines for more than 12 hours a day, the system provides enough energy to power even a window type air conditioner. We are always mindful of our use though, switching of all unnecessary lights, and not leaving the TV idly on during the day, just for sound accompaniment.
The scariest part of independent living is being on your own. Like leaving the nest for the first time, you’ve got only your wits about you to stay afloat. No more incessant calls to Meralco to repair the line and “be quick about it!” Now is the time to hone your problem solving skills. Planning is key in any new endeavor. We gathered the sun incidence averages for a year, and quickly saw that November and December would be critical. Our three days of darkness in November were caused by two converging factors. We missed a full day of collection during a sunny day because, busy as we were with our guests, we didn’t notice that the system had tripped again. Second, there was an unusual spell of overcast skies for about six days straight. Having decided that you will go solar, learn as much as you can about the system from your supplier. When something arises, don’t panic. Just go back to the manual, and see if there is a DIY solution (like simply turning on the switch when it trips). In the worst- case scenario, you can call your supplier.
At first glance, it looks like the situation could be an engine for personal growth, at the very least. You learn something new, and how to stand on your own, utilities-wise. But the real advantage of this setup lies in being independent not only of the solutions an entity like Meralco can provide, but also of the problems it creates.
In the recent weather disturbance in the United States east coast, a massive snowstorm dumped several inches of snow unseasonably early, in late October, when the leaves where still on the trees. The trees became so heavy; they toppled over and brought down power lines, cutting off electricity in millions of homes. In such a scenario, ours would have been the only house in the area with light.
In this country with its perennial brown-outs (power outages in our Quezon City home are perpetually caused by a truck ramming onto a post on J.P. Rizal Ave., which is all the way across Katipunan Road in the next barangay, but which shares our area designation of Vice Grid 42), being off grid would make you the envy of your neighborhood.
After all these discourses on the finer points of living by solar power, let’s get down to the nitty gritty and talk about cost. I attended a presentation by some environmental science students of the Ateneo de Manila University in April last year, and the price per watt for solar panels hovered around $2.80. I believe it has done a nose-dive in the past year, to about a third of the price. And it just keeps getting better!
RAIN, RAIN, COME MY WAY
Rain, rain come and stay, go away another day
Imagine wanting the rain to come. Even in the Philippines, where we are sometimes in dire need of rain, we always wish for a bright sunny day. In our Wisconsin home, which relies on rain water, there are days when I am just about ready to perform the Ifugao rain dance.
Our rain catchment system begins on the roof. The gutters on our roof direct the water to an underground tank. The tank is built five feet below ground to keep it from freezing in the winter.
From here, it courses through a filter before being pumped into our home. For drinking water, we have an stand-up filter beside our kitchen sink, where we pour in water by the jug for an additional layer of hygiene. This gadget from France is designed to filter out 99.999% of the undesirable particles from the water. Again, that’s according to my husband, and I just have to take his word for it.
The complete structural plan of our property consists of the main house, an attached covered porch, and an adjoining zen center. The main house and the zen center are equal in size, with the covered porch connecting the two. In Wisconsin, with its harsh Midwestern winters, the critical period for water supply is the snow-covered months of December to February. No rainfall is expected at this time. Even then, the surface area of the three roofs combined should generate enough rainwater to fill our tanks all year round.
However, as with everything human, in 2011 the construction didn’t play out as planned. In June, the contractor had finished only the main house. My husband decided to take on the herculean task of finishing the porch and building the zen center from the ground up; this, without any heavy machinery (that’s another story altogether). With significant help from a neighbor, and some help from his daughter and me, we built the adjoining structures, but by end of October we were still short of installing the roofs and gutters. It was time to halt the construction effort for the winter. By end of November, we procured the delivery of a truckload of water, to get us through the winter months.
Starting in spring we hope to complete the remaining construction, and have enough water in our tanks by next winter.
“IT’S HOTTER THAN HELL IN HERE”
It’s not a movie line. It’s what my husband utters whenever he enters our bedroom upstairs.
The heart of our home is a wood-burning stove, an Aga from England, designed for cooking and baking, and to provide heat and hot water. We are now the official distributor of this type of stove in the United States. Since it is an impractical method to use in the Philippines, allow me to discuss only the salient points, to show how it ties up with the rest of the energy sources in the Wisconsin house which lead to a complete system.
The Aga is fitted with two large hot plates on top, for cooking. We have logs cut into the proper size for our oven. The desired species are oak and cherry wood. These varieties burn efficiently and don’t create much soot. In the morning, we load on wood, and wait about half an hour for the plates to reach the desired temperature for cooking.
The stove is connected to pipes that run through the entire house, the dining and living rooms on the first floor, and the two bedrooms and a bath upstairs. So while the eggs and bacon are sizzling, the excess heat starts to run through the house and escape through strategically located vents.
At the same time, the heat goes through coils that rise up to our bedroom and wrap around a small water tank, to produce hot water. The stove’s chimney also goes through our bedroom, to release smoke through the roof. With all the heat going through my room – the vent, the tank for hot water and the chimney, the temperature easily rises to heat wave levels, even in the dead of winter.
The solution of course is to open the window, which I previously considered unthinkable until I was actually doing it myself. We would leave the window wide open until the temperature would go down to a more comfortable level, and then leave a crack open until morning.
Since this is not recommended for the Philippine setting, there is no need to discuss cost.
With electricity, water and heat sufficiently supplied throughout the year, our Wisconsin house is just like any other home in the area, with all the requisite comforts.
The guests from Phoenix were pleasantly surprised to find a typical American home with all the normal conveniences, and they made plans to visit again. Their appreciation gave my husband immense satisfaction.
Beyond a pat on the back, it gives us immense joy to live in harmony with the days and the seasons. When the rain pours, we have water; when the sun shines, we have light. The wood from our land provides our heat. From spring to fall, we plant and harvest, and in winter rely on preserved fruits and vegetables for some of our food.
Sun, water, earth. That’s communing with nature to the power of three.
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