Living with solar power… a year on

Having completed just over a year of being off grid, I really think we have this licked now! Not really knowing what the climate would be like across a whole year meant we had to try and anticipate what we would need to get through winter.

We have three decent sized solar panels, a 2000 watt inverter, charge controller and six big batteries to store the energy in here.   We replaced the ancient system that was here when we moved in as it was just 1 x 100 watt panel, very old batteries and a 150 watt inverter!  What we have now gives us enough electricity to run the compost loo fan 24 hours a day, for charging phones, the toothbrush, battery packs, running the WiFi and the radio / speaker. We can also run the computer when I work in the day as long as it’s not really cloudy. We have to be careful how many things we have going at once, so try to stagger the usage.  On bad winter days we turn the wifi off for most of the day so we can have it on in the evening for a few hours – running the compost loo fan is way more important than having wifi!!  We added a wind turbine last autumn to try and boost the power on cloudy days and overnight – I wouldn’t say it’s been a roaring success, but it helps to maintain the batteries rather than add to the stored power.

We can have lights on, but they’re quite a drain on the power even though they’re LED, so we have a couple of solar lights that we charge up outside during the day, and another we can charge on the usb in the day, which is a great light in the evening.  Worse case scenario, we always have a stock of candles. It all comes down to finding other ways of achieving your goals, and prioritising what’s most important.  We can use the light in the bathroom in the evening as it’s not on constantly, but we do find these days that our eyes don’t like bright artificial lights!

On cloudy days we really limit our usage. We both have battery packs that we can charge up on sunny days to use on cloudy days so we don’t need to draw on the power, and we have the all important back up petrol generator so I can work in bad weather.

But it’s funny how quickly we’ve got used to living like this! It just takes a little juggling and organisation, but we do it now without really having to think about it!

In the kitchen though, I didn’t want to be beholden to having sunshine to be able to cook, wash etc, so opted for as few electrical items as possible. I did bring my food processor, but this has been resigned to the back of the cupboard as it will only work on the generator – it’s too powerful for the solar on start up.  I can use it if I really need to, but its a bit of a pain to turn on the generator, run a lead into the house just to blitz something for 30 seconds!  I have a spiralizer and have just treated myself to a pull cord mini chopper / processor, and I have to say it’s brilliant!  But other than those, everything is just done the old fashioned way by hand with a wooden spoon or knife – it actually feels like real cooking again!

We have a fridge with a small freezer, which runs on butane gas – we go through a gas bottle every 3-4 weeks, which costs about 13 euros, so an effective way to run a fridge.  We have a small camping oven with two gas rings, which is ok for cooking on – this also runs on gas, and a gas bottle lasts 6 weeks, so pretty efficient.  I simply avoid cooking things that take hours – lots of dishes that take 20-30 minutes works well on so many fronts!  For most of the summer it’s too hot to eat anything other than salads anyway! Our hot water is on gas too – in the summer a gas bottle lasts nearly 3 months – all you want are cold showers when the temperature doesn’t drop under 26 degrees at night and averages 36 in the day!  In the winter we get 6-8 weeks on a gas bottle.  So we average 2 gas bottles a month – about 26 euros – I wish my gas bill in the UK had been that low!

I’ve got the clothes washing down to a fine art now.  I have a small hand crank washing machine in the house for clothes and a larger one outside that Rog built for duvets, towels etc.  When we got here there was an old fashioned sink outside with a washboard (you can actually still buy these new here!). Rog has done it up, added a pipe to drain away the water etc and this is brilliant for getting really dirty work clothes clean.  Now that the weather has gone back to normal at last, the washing dries in no time outside, and with the afternoon breeze it doesn’t need ironing – in fact, I haven’t ironed a single thing since we moved to Spain! It’s been a revelation!

We weighed up putting in a bigger solar system so we could run things like a fridge, but the cost was pretty steep – it would only break even after ten years compared to what we spend on gas, and at that point, parts of the solar system would need replacing, so not a cost effective option.

We bought a decent generator when we moved here – being able to work to earn a few bob is essential, but we also use this for some of Rogers’ power tools for doing jobs outside – there are times when you just need to use beefy tools for some jobs!  We bought a rechargeable drill with a spare battery pack, so one on and the spare charged up as a back up, and this does for most jobs.

Our only source of heating for the winter is the wood burning stove, but as our house is tiny this pretty much heats the whole house.  We have a fan that sits on top of the stove to maximise output, and this is powered solely by the heat from the fire – an excellent purchase! We tend to only use this in the evening – if it’s cold in the day it’s warm clothes and move around (difficult when I’m teaching, so out of view I have a hot water bottle and a blanket!).

We don’t have air conditioning here – some people think we’re crazy to live in Spain without it, but the house stays pretty cool in the summer, and we do have a tiny fan just to keep the air moving in the day. We found last year that we opened all the windows in May and they stayed open until September! We have mosquito nets up at all the windows to stop the critters otherwise leaving them open just wouldn’t be an option!

We use strimmers outside for weed control, a rotavator and of course the wood chipper, and these all run on petrol. As they aren’t in constant daily use they don’t cost us much at all – we rotavate a couple of times a year, strim every couple of months in autumn and winter but more often in the summer (almost a constant job like the forth bridge!) and wood chip maybe 6 – 8 times a year.

Back in the UK we never gave a second thought to using gas and electric – just turn it on, and the direct debit goes out each month.  Now we have to be more careful, and prioritise what jobs to do and what to use, but it’s really no problem at all.  I would imagine that living off solar in colder or cloudier climates would be harder and more of a challenge.

I can honestly say that with the set up we have, living off the grid is pretty easy and less of a compromise than I ever thought it would be.

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