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More Volts, Igor!

Well, more amps, anyway.

Today I've been shopping for parts for the new battery hookup. Our battery bank is 20 Sonnenschein Powerfit Telecom 104Ah deep-cycle batteries, currently bussed together in the kitchen, driving a 600W invertor and 12v lighting and cigar-lighter type sockets mounted on standard house-wiring blanking plates.

The next move is to put the batteries out in the shed, connect them with 16mm2 wire to the 12v fuseboard in the kitchen, and with 6mm2 cable to the 240v consumer unit. We have a new 6000W invertor, which will deliver peaks of 12kW, so will draw 1000A for a few moments, and deliver 25A at 240v: enough to run a microwave oven or similar cooking appliance, for example, or even enough to run my circular saw or MiG welder.

I'm planning to use earth-blocks to assemble a bus, with 20 connections to each bus through 40A automotive fuses, each leading to a tail connected to a single battery. Big fat lugs on the central earth-block will go to the invertor, and a smaller connection to the 4-way fusebox (pinched out of an old car) that connects to the house 12v board and the solar array. Some day it will also connect to a windmill, but that is another project.

I'm going to need to take the invertor apart, as it currently has 13A sockets on it, and wire on an IEC309 32A socket, so I can connect to the consumer unit.

From the solar-array side there will also be a connection to a dumpload (12v immersion heater) in the house, to stop the batteries over-charging. This is going to be a bigger problem when we put up a windmill, which will be the next job. The solar array has provided all the power we could want during the summer, but when winter comes, we'll want something else.

All this so my wife can have toast in the morning...

Still Alive

It's been a long time since I posted. I have been out of work in the recession, and we moved in long before we were ready. Just in time for the big freeze of December 2009.

We are still alive, and now I am working again, I have the money to spend on getting the house sorted out. (I just don't have the time.) The house is still off-grid, although we needed some assistance from a generator over the winter, and it appears my batteries survived the lean times before I could afford more input. Which pleases me: they are 12-year-old AGMs, and they have run pretty flat for 18 months. Nevertheless, they seem to have about 80% of the capacity they were sold with.

The most recent upgrade was to our solar panels: from 160w PV to 640w PV, and from the roof to a wooden frame in the garden, facing due south and tilted to the noonday Sun at the equinoxes. It might seem surprising, given we live in Ireland, but solar PV seems to be the best way of obtaining electricity.

I have been trying to construct windmills using wood: several working versions have flown, but all have been destroyed by Connaught storms. Irish weather 5; muddyfarm 0. :-(

Other off-grid adventures have included rainwater collection and purification: our water is collected in three 1100litre plastic tanks, then pumped out with 12v submersible pumps (from a camping store) and through a filter and a UV steriliser. At the moment the pumps and steriliser are controlled by a manually operated switch, but I have a 220 litre header tank and a 160 litre hot water cylinder waiting for me to plumb up at the weekend. The header tank has a float switch.

Heating comes from a wood-burning range made by Waterford Stanley a very long time ago. At the moment it operates five radiators using a 12v central heating pump we got from our local boatbuilder. It should provide hot water by next week. For now hot water comes by putting a big pot on the range, and showers consist of a 12v bilge-pump in a big bucket wired to a pull-switch, and with a shower-head on the end.

We have a camping (tub) washing machine and a spinner, and our 600W cheap-and-nasty invertor will just about run them. We tried flushing the toilet using water from clothes-washing, but the lint blocked up the cistern valve. So there is a cartridge filter on order, and a little header tank with another float switch. Our corner of Ireland gets plenty of rain, but in summer the rain stops for weeks at a time. Which is nice, but not if we run out of water.

We are planting about 1/5 acre of willow every year, in the hopes of being self-sufficient in wood. But other than that, and growing vegetables in the garden, our land has just been rented to the neighbours for cattle grazing. Living in the cottage has been the priority -- the land is a project for the future.

I have lots of pictures and diagrams on the computer at home, and they should be appearing here and on our 'blog over the next few weeks.

I feel the last 15 months have taught me a lot about off-grid living!

'Twas the Night Before Christmas...

...and all through the house
Not a creature was stirring
Not even a ...



We are in the house, a little sooner than we would have liked.
We arrived just in time to experience the most severe winter weather we have met since coming to Ireland. We spent our last few days huddled around a wood-burning stove, while the temperature outsice fell to -10oC.
Now things have warmed up a bit, and we have running water, flushing toilets, you know, the comforts of home.
Central heating and a windmill are the next priorities.
There will be more postings -- with pictures even -- now we're settling in.

Services: the Wet Stuff

As mentioned in the previous posting, our friendly local council have a group water scheme. They charge €2000 to connect, but you have to do all the digging and plumbing yourself.

When we lived in Galway, local council water schemes had disappointing drawbacks, which mean that my wife the microbiologist will insist on a UV steriliser anyway. Given that, and how cheap filters are, we started to think about rainwater collection.

The current cottage has a roofed floor area of 52 square metres, and we're planning to add another 40 square metres of permitted extension. So we will be collecting rainwater from 92 square metres. Each millimetre of rain falling on a square metre gives one litre of rainwater.

If you look out of our back door, you can see Knock Airport in the distance, and like all airports, they have good weather records. Here are rainfall figures for Knock Airport.

The annual rainfall is 831mm, which gives an annual rain on the roof of 76,452 litres, or a daily average of 209.32 litres. The dryest month is June, which has a monthly rainfall of 53mm, or 4,876 litres, which is 162.5 litres per day.

I would be surprised if we use more than 100 litres per day.

We've found a source of 12v water parts: chandlers. Boats use 12v, and unlike caravans, tend to spend long periods with no mains connection. Certainly they'll stock a 12v submersible pump, and hopefully a 12v UV steriliser. If they don't have the latter, I can get a mains UV steriliser and rip the guts out of a 12v strip light to power the UV lamp.

For site water, initially I'll replace the front gutter and pipe the water into a plastic bin. It'll be clean enough for making mortar.

You'll be Seeing More of Us

For the last few months I've been contracting about 120 miles away from the farm. With a new baby in December, we've not had so much time. My contract ended at the end of June, so I'm about a bit more now.

We're renting a house that is much closer, and moving in the next few weeks, and then I'll be able to work on things full time.

Meanwhile, we have electricity at the site, but it's 12v only and charge regulation means connecting the solar panels directly, and putting a meter on the battery. When the voltage exceeds 13.6v, we disconnect it again.

We've cleared the trees, bushes and undergrowth from around the cottage, and cut off the big stems of ivy. The back door can be closed, the locks on the front door are changed, the windows are no longer boarded up, and there's a postbox so people can write us letters.

We even have a potato patch, although it needs some weeding.

I'm currently working on pricing up the building materials we need; badgering the council into compliance; a solution to the fresh water problem that doesn't include paying the council €2000; and a charge regulator to allow us to put all 8 solar panels on the roof and keep the batteries charged even when we are not there.

And in answer to requests made elsewhere, there will be pictures.
We have a plan for services. We ordered 160w of solar cells online, which should arrive next week. There is an average of 3 1/2 hours of sunshine a day in this country, and given they are monocrystalline cells, we might get 120w on average during sunshine, depending on the angle of the sun. That is just under 3kWh per week, which ought to be enough while we are living in a caravan at weekends.

They cost us about €500, which at €0.20 per kWh from ESB means they'd pay back in about 16 years. I think of them as backup charging for the batteries, not as our main source of power.

However, to store that much power, and not discharge the batteries more than 30% (because deep discharges are not good for batteries) we need to have 10kW of storage. Our batteries are 12v and 100Ah nominal, so we'll need about 8 1/3 batteries on site to minimise wear. Unfortunately we can only transport them one or two at a time, to avoid overloading the car: they weigh 40kg (90lb) each, and our more economical car has a payload of only 370kg (830lbs) -- me plus seven batteries, or my family plus 100kg of luggage plus two batteries.

There are 20 to transport, and once there is reliable charging up there, they'll be moved. Hopefully that'll be next weekend.

I need to build a shunt regulator for them; and some wiring to connect to the 7-way connector on the caravan. I already have the wiring to connect the invertor to the trailer 240v connector.

Windmills and watermills can come later, when I can watch them for a few days after they go up and make sure they are not doing anything bad.

Oh, and the caravan is levelled, the one broken window in the cottage boarded up and the front door lock changed.

We have keys!

Winter Wonderland

We went back for the first time this year. For our new daughter, it was the first time ever -- but she wasn't impressed. Since the land is about 90 metres (300 feet) above sea level, the whole place was covered in snow. Even the roads.

We looked at a cheap caravan nearby, and bought it: the nice sellers towed it onto the site and we used the Samurai to push it through the mud to the back door of the cottage.

That took most of the day, and we had no water, no light, and no bedding. We came home again. But now we have a cooker, beds, and a loo, so we can go up for whole weekend visits and actually get things done.

The next jobs are to secure the site, get the first deep-cycle batteries onsite and find some way to get them charged. Although it's not an obvious choice, that might turn out to be solar, since our electricity needs will be modest and solar is low-maintenance.

Oh, and we need to get the vegetables planted, do something about the hedgerow, and start planning and marking out the groundworks.

The groundworks will be the start of the build, and before we can do that, we need to jump through another couple of bureaucratic hoops. But it won't be long now.

Energy Independence Plans

Part of our plan is to be energy independent: preferably in transport, certainly in our home. It's not just for financial reasons: energy security is about more than finance.

ElectricityCollapse )

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Transport is a bigger issue. One of our cars has a biodiesel-compatible engine, (the one I bought the batteries for, that now does 60mpg) but although we might have enough land to grow all our transport fuel, we could be growing food for humans to eat. Ethically, we find that one a bit of a teaser. But with our eyes on increasing the number of options, we'll be converting the other one to (bio)diesel soon, even if it carries on running on dino-diesel after conversion.

Perhaps we'll grow the vegetable oil and sell it as vegetable oil.

Buying the Farm -- The Story So Far

Three years ago, when we decided to come here, we thought about what it was that we wanted: a lifeboat. What we decided we wanted was:-

- enough land to become energy and food independent, if we had to be (we guessed between 3 and 8 acres, depending on quality)
- something we could afford while living debt-free
- a civilised, English speaking country
- somewhere less susceptible to the vagaries of climate change
- somewhere with a low population density
- somewhere walking/cycling distance from the nearest market town

What we got was:-

- nearly 16 good acres of Connaught (which hasn't been properly farmed for 40 years), between 80m and 95m (260ft and 310ft) above sea level
- a cottage in need of extension and renovation, but with the planning permission to do so
- market town about 3 miles away
- for about €95,000
- and a lot of work ahead

Our timeline has been something like this:-

- sometime in the 1970s: Owner of "Muddy Farm" retires and moves into the nearby town.
- July 2005: we decide to finish doing the house, pay off as much of the mortgage as possible, and leave
- November 2005: our first "fact-finding" visit over here, spent visiting Irish people and looking at houses
- June 2006: following the sale of my job to an American arms manufacturer, we sell up and cross the Irish sea for good
- November 2006: we first see the place that our boy christened "Muddy Farm".
- April 2007: we offered "subject to planning permission"
- June 2007: first planning application
- September 2007: first planning application rejected, for bizarre reasons
- March 2008: we withdraw our appeal and re-draft the application, inserting an unnecessary "water treatment system"
- July 2008: new application received, seller starts political agitation to get it sorted
- September 2008 (three weeks ago): planning granted
- September 2008 (next week): completion, and we find out if there are keys or if we have to change the locks

In the meantime, I am contracting (IT development) in Munster, so we're only going to be working on it at weekends for now. If I get renewed, I'll pay someone to do the building work. If I don't, I'll do it myself.