Harnessing sunshine

When planning to move to the bush back in the late 1970s, the main company I knew where one could get items essential for the alternative life, like a manual stone mill for grinding flour, was Self-Sufficiency Supplies, then in Newcastle. It was run by Brian England.

Amazingly, that company is still going, based in Kempsey, and with Brian still at the helm. The world has at last caught up with Brian’s vision, and his company is renowned, as their signs say, as ‘Solar Experts’.

I’d written several Owner Builder Magazine stories where Self-Sufficiency Supplies had installed the solar electricity systems and heard nothing but praise for Brian and team. He is also the winner of the 2015 National Solar Installation Award and was inducted into the Solar Hall of Fame in 2016.

So naturally it was Brian I called for my first step in making my new home as self-sufficient as possible.

My north-facing roof could fit 16 panels, a 4KW system, grid-connected for the time being.

Once a safe path was devised across and along my unsupported bullnose verandah roof, team members Jamie Metcalf and Sean Paterson erected the support frames.

It was afternoon and the day had well and truly heated up by the time Sean installed the first panel. He’d already spent far too much time inside my overly hot roof space helping run the cables, but seemed to always wear a smile regardless.

It was late in the day as he carried the last panels up to Jamie.

For the whole day electrician Dave Aulsebrook had been working below on what looked like complicated wiring.

Brian England was there to supervise and be consulted on any curly issues; he says that each team member is pretty much a ‘jack of all trades’.

Finally my neat control board on the verandah was complete, ready to be programmed and set to work, converting sunlight into power.

Those of you who have read The Woman on the Mountain know I was on stand alone solar for 20 years, so it has felt weird and wasteful not to be doing that.

Whilst I am still grid-connected, using it as backup, my electricity supplier, Powershop, will give me about 12.8 c per KW I feed in. Check Powershop out if you haven’t already, top marks for flexibiilty in buying and pricing and communication as well as green credentials… and mention my name please if you switch! (Enova are good but had said they couldn’t supply here.)

After a long and hot day, my smiling Solar Experts had set my system up, checked it out and explained the manuals. They packed their gear, ready to drive back the several hours to Kempsey.

Remote living

Being independent of the electricity grid, as I have been for eighteen years, is great. Not that, remotely sited as my place is, there was any choice.

And my solar system, designed and installed by Dave Bartley of then-Sunrise Solar back in 1994, has been trouble-free.

Dave tells me that my BP batteries have lasted longer than any other he knows, but I have looked after them and been very careful not to run them lower than recommended.

However, on my return from Mudgee, although the regulator was on ‘Float’, so it reckoned the batteries were fully charged, the inverter kept shutting down. This meant no 240-volt AC power. On checking, one battery is lower in specific gravity than the others.

So the panels are still doing their job, but perhaps my batteries are feeling their age. Doctor Dave (now Somapower) will make the long trip to come and diagnose the problem this week. I fear the remedy will be expensive!

However, I have been saved from having to leave home in the interim by my Gypsy Camper’s two panels and my small travelling inverter.

It’s parked close by the house, so I use the laptop inside (where the mobile phone works) until the battery is nearly flat then put it to sleep and take it into the camper to recharge. Many of my computer accessories run off a USB plug to the laptop.

Fortunately I have a hand-operated juicer and a small transistor radio, and the house fridge and halogen lights are separately wired for 24 volts, and still working — but I could have gone to candles and used Gypsy’s fridge. No TV, iron, vacuum cleaner or music system, though… I think I’ll survive.

The reason I need to be near the mobile is that the satellite broadband appears to have been damaged by an electrical storm about a month ago and I can now only connect to the internet and email using my phone as a modem via my laptop. The phone only works if connected to the verandah or car aerial.

The delay in service is that you need a 4WD to get here and apparently even these remote satellite installations do not often require that. Luckily Dr Dave’s offsider has one.

So at present I am doubly penalised for living as and where I do. But doubly rewarded for having bought my Gypsy camper; in fact I am living here as if on the road!

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Sunshower power

Tropical storms, fruit splitting, grass growing faster than the wallabies’ appetites, ground squelching underfoot, leeches on the march as soon as I leave the verandah… this is not how summer is supposed to be here.

I am confined to the cabin and the verandah most of the time, and can only peer through the veil of rain at the wallabies keeping the roses stripped. They seem to have lost their taste for oregano, so it’s racing to bloom and seed before they attack it again.

I don’t mind the rain so much, as I must work at the computer every day. So I need power.

And, despite all the rain, I get it. The odd weather creates lots of sunshowers, and while there may be lumps of moss growing on the solar setup, the sunpower keeps charging the batteries.

Convenient magic!