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Off Grid Progress October 2019

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In the latest installment in our journey to living off grid and sustainably in South Africa – our big solar system arrives, and we get water.

Powered Up Solar System

This month, we finished paying off our 5kW solar system, it arrived and we had it installed. We were very lucky to find a great deal on a pre-order. Several months ago I’d spotted a great deal on a solar system kit. A local South African company, Solar Advice, had offered a full kit at a deep discount, in exchange for a set deposit upfront and the willingness to wait the estimated 2 or so months for the kits to be shipped to SA.

They were really obliging when I contacted them, agreeing to let us pay the kit off over several months and to take out some of the solar panels to make the kit a bit more affordable for us. We can always add more panels as we go.

The kit consists of a 5kw UFO lithium ion battery, a 5kw Sunforce hybrid inverter, a complete pitched roof solar mounting kit for the panels, cables and breakers, and 3 x 330 watt JA solar panels (the original kit had 6). Altogether it came in at around R60,850.00. Absolute bargain for a quality kit!

Not Plug And Play 🙁

Upon installation, we found out that the inverter needed some updates to be installed that had been sent from the manufacturer. This immediately proved tricky for us, since the software is Windows based and neither Russ (Mac) or I (Chromebook) have Windows. Our neighbourhood friend, builder and solar installer Tristan generously lent us his laptop. Unfortunately it was a bit on the old side, which meant it struggled with connecting and running the updates.

Weeks passed and the system still wasn’t working properly. Solar Advice finally put us in direct Whatsapp chat with one of the manufacturing engineers in China to discuss the issues. We eventually established that 3 solar panels wasn’t providing enough juice to power the system. It is a big system, and while scalable, it’s not really designed to run that small.

Solar Advice shipped us another panel, which unfortunately broke during transit. So they had to ship another one. That one arrived in Cape Town whole, and Russ was able to bring it as soon as he had a weekend without any bookings. Bless them, since Solar Advice had sold us the system with 3 panels and said it’d be fine, they didn’t charge us for the extra panel.

It was quite the run around trying to get this done, with numerous calls to Solar Advice and their local installer. I had so hoped we’d have it installed and boom, have power! Especially after my weeks of darkness. Each new setback and delay was another blow to morale.

Finally, we had the panel, and our installer was able to come back again to connect it. And voila! The system started working normally! Phone! Fridge! Light! Yay!

In the meantime, Russ had been going back and forth with Flexopower. They’d sent us a new cable, but the pin broke again within a few days.

They wanted us to pay shipping to send the Flexopower back to them to examine it, a process that would take weeks.

Frustrated, and obviously worrying for me stuck without power, Russ did his best to sort the mess out. Eventually, they received our unit, tested it, confirmed it faulty, and sent us a new one. It arrived just in time for the big system to be up and running. Hah. Murphy, and all that.

Lithium444-Flexopower-1024x660

WATER IS LIFE

In September we’d gotten a 2,500l Rototank rainwater collection tank. But there were a few steps needed prior to hooking it up to our new gutter off the afdak (undercover veranda).

Harvesting rainwater was going to be a game changer. Up to now, we’ve had to collect potable (drinkable) water from the Tradouw Spring about 20 minutes drive from our place. While it tastes delicious, we really needed a water source on the farmstead itself.

The river water isn’t drinkable, and while there are lots of waterfalls around, they aren’t a practical primary source of water, since they’re largely dependent on heavy rainfall to flow cleanly, and they all require a bit of a hike to reach (not ideal for lugging large water containers back).

To start, we needed to shore up the shower floor to prevent the water from overflowing onto the ground where we wanted to place the tank. To this end, our neighbour Roger came in to teach me how to make a basic sand and cement mix to build with rocks.

Then we compacted the ground with sand and stone to make sure the water tank would be sitting on a flat, even and hard surface. Long term, if the ground sinks or shifts and causes the tank to shift, the weight of the water could crack the tank, so this was an important step. Ideally you should lay a concrete foundation, but we’re working in a budget.

Once the ground was sufficiently compacted we put the tank in place. Next was addings all the fancy bells and whistles to ensure our drinking water is as clean as possible. 

Our Rainwater Tank System

  1. A leaf catcher is attached to the gutter, which separates out the large debris and leaves coming off the roof. 
  2. Next, the water enters the “First Flush”, a large tube designed to catch the initial roof run off, while the rain is essentially washing the roof clean. Once the tube is full, a floating ball blocks the pipe and the water coming down the gutter is finally diverted to the rainwater tank itself. After each rain, we open the tap at the bottom of the First Flush to empty the tube ready for the next rain. 
  3. Lastly, an automatic tank cleaner that works off vacuum pressure replaces the standard overflow pipe. Ordinarily, when the tank is full, the water pours out of a pipe at the top of the tank, meaning you’re losing the freshest water to overflow. With this clever little gadget, there is a pipe installed along the bottom of the tank, which then sucks in water from the bottom (where any sediment that’s managed to get in would naturally have settled). So that is pushed out the tank when it is full and fresh water is coming in via the top. So as long as the tank is getting full enough to overflow a few times a year, you’re cleaning the tank out with no effort! Win.

And we are in business! Unfortunately, the afdak gutter isn’t very high. We were *just* able to get enough of a degree for the water to flow into the tank, but it definitely would be better from a higher angle. Still, it works! We had rain the week after installation, and again the week after that – filling the tank to overflowing in just those two downpours! Since then, the tank has stayed fairly full and overflowed with every rain we’ve had, despite daily use. Fresh, clean, free water right there! Yay!

IN CASE OF ZOMBIES

We now have a shower and toilet, a sink with running water in the kitchen, drinking water, and power. Comfort levels are up by 1000. And what a relief for Russ, knowing the basics are covered for me while he has to be away for work.

During his next visit, we decided to spend some time on a fun weekend project hanging up the garden tools. Of course I had to get a photo of myself using power tools like a boss, haha! Then Russ took over to do the higher hooks 😉

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