And holding my own in an off-grid geekathon
It is a time of momentous change in Vale das Estrelas.
After more than 23 years of living in this valley, Franz the Bavarian baker and his wife Erne bounced up the dirt track and over the hill for one last time.
In the car they bought new all those years ago, they left the house they built and the systems they installed and lovingly maintained to head home to family in Germany.
Daniel the American denialist swung down that same road, fresh from the signing ceremony, for his big new adventure in off the grid living…the latest of the international dispossessed to join our little cult.
We have um novo vizinho – a new neighbour – who stepped into a fully furnished house replete with beer steins and a gigantic leather-bound German encyclopaedia set.
They left everything – just like the German seller of our house did when she left – from cutlery to a caravan and from lounge chairs to lead acid batteries.
But the difference was Franz also left some instructions on how to survive.
It’s all helping us work out where the water comes from and where it goes, how to heat it and treat it, and how to live for the 300 days a year when the sun shines…and the 65 days when it does not.
And Daniel took a little diversion to Spain to pick up his secret weapon Alvaro. I can tell you now: everyone needs an Alvaro.
I’ve said many times before that adapting to off grid living has been a steep learning curve and an even steeper spending curve.
Our house was empty for 18 months before we moved in, the seller was long gone…and she didn’t leave an instruction manual.
And I was clueless.
I broke most things and spent months fighting the fires of broken boilers, mashed machinery, and burned out batteries.
Only now am I thinking about getting ahead of that curve and trying to solve problems before they happen.
With solar power comes great responsibility and becoming the intermediary between Daniel and an eternal life of dry-taps and darkness has reminded me just how much we’ve learned in the last 12 months.
It seems I can now hold my own in an off-the-grid-geekathon lasting entire afternoons, and that’s where Alvaro comes in.
Daniel impulsively fell in love with the idea of off grid living, but could pretty quickly fall out of love with a full systems failure, and so he picked up his Chilean-Californian-British engineering pal in Spain and dragged him here to be his technical representative.
This is what Daniel messaged me this morning: “It’s so Fg great to get water both hot and cold and incidentals like electricity including actually light !!! For free. It’s precisely like the song…” And he sent a link to Money for Nothing.”
To avoid Dire Straits, his Brother in Arms and I are bonding over buffer tanks, arguing over amp hours and pondering pumps and pipe-runs to give Daniel an idea of what to spend money on now and what to leave until later.
In other words trying to get ahead of the curve and fix it before it all breaks.
New solar panels are a must as is a greater level of automation – it’s like two stroke engines and American 4 inch wooden beams: the engines need a petrol/oil mix and 4inch beams are not 4 inches.
They are things that other people somehow just know, and that you don’t know you need to know until you really need to know them.
Firstly in broken Portuguese and then in translated German (with thanks to Ola and Merete), I did a full technical run through with Franz before he left.
Ingenious doesn’t even approach it, but complicated certainly does: when you design an off grid system and then tweak it with additions and adaptations as the years go by, it develops its own personality…which is usually slightly cantankerous.
Things work because they always have done and everything is there for a reason – if it ain’t broke, etc.
Removing something small for aesthetic reasons can have a butterfly effect that collapses a whole smoothly-running machine into house of cards chaos that you might not know about until it tumbles.
Personally I can’t see Daniel the globetrotting international laser trader with advanced ADHD turning each of his solar panels about 30 degrees three times a day to follow the sun.
Even Alvaro has been battling to get his head around the maze of pipes, valves and power cables in our geek-off hours of intervention.
The water comes from a well, the pump can run off solar or the generator but needs to be plugged into the right socket…and if it’s left on it will not only flood the wood shed, but will also destroy the battery bank.
We pulled out the wrong plug and the toilet wouldn’t flush; I consulted my notes and there were gaps, but thankfully so far not unsurmountable ones.
The 3,000 litre tank is full when the dial says “150” (!?), the home-made quartz sand filter barrel needs to be run backwards once a year, but doesn’t take out sediment in the winter.
Water can also come from the lake, but that pump needs the diesel generator on and for the two right hand fuses to be flicked up; but the generator needs water for its leaking radiator and its fuel comes from a distant barrel linked by a pipe which needs to be turned on.
I’m not even going to explain how the water can be heated by bottled gas when the vacuum tubes don’t get enough sun, or the difference between a squared and a smooth sin wave which the two separate transformers supply.
Franz and Erne are amazing people. They moved here more than 20 years ago when off-grid technology was much more clunky and everything was far more difficult.
In typical fashion the night before the signing Franz came over in a panic with a biscuit tin full of cash.
He explained that the radiator leak in the generator was getting worse and that we should give Daniel the money to repair it and then post them the change. We made an executive decision to refuse his kind offer.
I mean, what could possibly go wrong, right?
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