The solar system is ancient and mysterious...and we’ve had to replace the batteries.
A Swedish/Portuguese diplomat and a British foreign correspondent walk into the Portuguese countryside and ask for a glass of wine and a new life. What could possibly go wrong?
Quite a lot it seems. So where do I start? The view from our house over the rolling Alentejo hills is amazing, the coastline is magnificent, the place is a perfect hideaway from COVID-19, we have a fabulous new horse/dog called Garfunkel (who Simon currently gets on with, but even the most harmonious partnerships sometimes don't last) and the weather has been great so far, but there is a little reality gap between the romantic idea of off-grid living and the daily challenge of living it!
There's the magic of how water comes out of taps, how the lights stay on in the evening, and what happens when a toilet cistern develops a little leak. The answer to the last question is that the entire off-grid system comes crashing down...
The problem is my wife Ana and I don't have an instruction manual.
The German woman who built the house with her husband and sold it and 7 hectares of land to us, didn't leave us any handover notes...nor is she keen to chat. She told a lot to Radi - our German neighbour who used to help her around the house and kept an eye on the place before we arrived. He kept the fruit trees alive, stopped us getting fined for having fire-risk long grass too close to the house, and helped us find the borehole (on the opposite hill) and how to turn it on, while advising us how to keep the solar power system operating. And this is where the current trouble lies...
We have a little house next to our solar panel array where 12, large, red plastic-cased cells of lead-acid battery live and gurgle up gas - hydrogen apparently (no matches in the battery house). Topping acid batteries up with water requires care. The burns on my hands attest to the clue being in the title. (The hands have taken something of a hammering...literally...and a screwing, drilling, cutting and slicing come to think of it). There are dials and electricity meters like the ones in real houses, mazes of cables (many of them dangerous), an inverter, some fuze boxes (most caked in soot and oil from the generator) and the battery level meter...my current adversary.
For the last two weeks I have been in a daily battle with a small box which has three colours of lights. Green? Rarely seen. Yellow? That's the short-term target. Red? Normal. Flashing red? Every morning. One small flashing red bar is the only thing keeping us in light, internet, device charging...and even water which needs to be pumped from the borehole into the tank, and then pumped from the tank into the guesthouse which is currently occupied.
When the sun shines we can make it through the day and the evening too; when it's shrouded in cloud the lights go out.
Oh yes, we have been careful. The dishwasher was the first thing we stopped using. Then it was the oven - we ration oven use, but thankfully have gas for the hobs. Then it was the coffee maker. Then the washing machine. Currently it's pretty much everything, as the weather forecast is cloud and rain.
I couldn't understand it - the small red light aggressively flashing at me every morning, a string of sunny days and still no charge. A couple of expert visits, brought the realisation that these old batteries are probably on their last legs, and the quotes for new ones come with a long and loud intake of breath: "that's gonna cost ya." But at least we had the generator. I fired it up with the expectation of being able to take a chunk out of the laundry mountain within the hour, but nothing. Flashing red light. Another expert visit, another long and loud intake of breath. The generator is broken. We then borrowed one from a kind neighbour - it was also broken - and these are big heavy things...we don't have a trailer, or a car big enough to transport them. We've met a few people, but don't want to keep asking for help...
And then I saw a little electricity meter spinning. It was off and on, but mostly on. It's labelled bomba - pump. And it was sucking the life out of the batteries. Then the water ran out in the guesthouse. The two things were connected...
After weeks of poking and pondering, reading and wondering, thinking and investigating - and asking everyone who dropped by - I've just about pieced together how the system works. One leaking toilet cistern in the guesthouse was slowly draining all the water from the tank, and with the house being on slightly higher ground, the old electric pump pulling water from the tank to the house was draining our battery...and it may not recover.
Yesterday we hired a generator and have a week's grace; today my battle with the red flashing light has renewed vigour and high expectations; tomorrow we take our generator in to see if it can be brought back to life (once the municipality travel ban brought in for the Halloween/All Souls Day weekend is lifted). We have quotes for new batteries with large numbers at the bottom. As I write, the sun is poking through the clouds...maybe we've got this...oh hang on, it's gone in again.
Thanks for reading our first little update...and now comes the request for help!
- Do you live off the grid?
- Do you know anyone who's tried this before?
- And succeeded?
- What's your green manure of choice?
- And your favourite carpentry tool?
Oh, and please follow our progress on FB Vale das Estrelas and on Insta @Vale_das_Estrelas
It's a steep learning curve, but we think we can make this work...
You can also visit Al's website to see some of the reporting and Virtual Reality film making he has done for the BBC