Going Off Grid

This has been a long process starting some years ago and culminating with going fully off grid in June 2015. My wife and I have a lodge – www.dreamlodge.co.za which has 3 cottages we built to be off grid, all have solar water heaters, 2 have candles and paraffin lamps for lighting and the other has solar PV (12V running a few lights), gas fridge (an antique), a gas stove, and a wood stove for heating.

Since the beginning of 2015 we started taking our house off grid as well so as to finally say goodbye to utility power.

We already had a 300l solar geyser which we had used for years, and a gas stove and oven for summer and a wood burning stove for winter:

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Generator

The first step was to get a generator for when everything goes pear shaped (sun doesn’t shine etc). So I was hunting around for a reasonable priced genny. I then came across this advertised secondhand, and couldn’t resist it!

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I didn’t know anything about these type of engines when I bought it, but figured it out over time. They are very simple with very few moving parts and will run on a variety of fuels including diesel, veg oil, old engine oil and various blends of all of these.

Apart from reconditioning the head, the engine was working. It also took some time to figure out the the packet of brushes I got amongst all of the other spares, were actually supposed to be inside the generator, so once they were in I had lights!

Reconditioned head and new OEM Lister head gasket :

Eventually the copper head gasket turned out to be a problem as it leaks a bit of coolant from between the copper sheets, but I have a more modern gasket on order to replace it.

Generator Room

Now I had to build a room for the genny to live in, and for the PV panels to live on top. The old bathroom/kitchen on the original house had the main distribution board where the Eskom feed can in so that was the obvious place:

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I removed the rusted old roof, and broke down some walls for a new door. Then I built a concrete block to mount the generator on:

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And finally install the genny. Note the electric light!

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Solar Panels

So now the genny was working, next was to get the solar up and running. I built a frame for the PV panels from angle iron on the roof of the generator room. The best fit for the roof was 6x300W panels:

Frame:

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Panels:

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And finally, hook the genny, panels and some batteries together:

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Currently I have a 6KVA JSM Power inverter/charger to charge the batteries from the generator and supply the 220VAC for the house, 1800W of panels into a Microcare 60A MPPT charge controller. At that stage there were 4x 150Ah Trojan T1275 batteries in series to give 48V, which I have since increased to 8 batteries.

The generator is now installed at the other end of the room and I am busy with a waste heat water heating system which I will describe when it is complete. The cooling for the engine is by thermosiphon through a 150 litre water tank. After you have run the generator for about  one hour, you end up with 150l of water at 50 degrees celcius. This water I would like to circulate through radiators in the house for winter heating.

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In total we have the following free energy/energy saving gizmos:

Water pumping:

Wind pump – 6ft Climax

Solar pump – Watermax OB with 200W of panels

700W 220V pump connected to house inverter (failsafe for when the other 2 don’t work)

Water heating:

Main house : 300l Sun tank high pressure flat panel indirect geyser

3 Cottages : 3x 150l low pressure tube geysers (various suppliers)

Big kettle on the wood or gas stove….

House heating:

Wood fire

Blanket

Extra jersey : :)

Cottage heating:

Wood burning fireplace x2

Wood burning oven x1

Cooking:

Smeg 5 plate gas stove & oven

Jewel wood burning cast iron stove

Braai :D(barbeque)

Lighting:

House – 220V LEDs throughout

Cottages:  Candles and paraffin lamps x 2

12V solar setup – 50W panel and 2x 100Ah batteries 12V LEDs and 12V flourescents (LED is much better than flourescent so these will be replaced soon)

Cooling:

Bosch AA+ rated 220V fridge

Chest freezer 220V

Power

1800W of solar panels

5KW of generator.

Lifestyle Changes

So 8 months down the track we have not had to change much. Power usage is modified so that all of the high power drawing appliances run during the day. So for instance we still run a standard top loading washing machine, we just wash in cold water. Power tools are no problem, since you rarely use them for a long time continuously. The microwave oven can only be run during the day. The electric toaster is also no problem, as it draws about 1000W, but only for 3 minutes.

The fridge and freezer are on a timer so they only run during daylight hours. We have an electrical outlet on the same timer circuit with which we charge all cellphones, tablets etc during the day. It makes no sense to charge batteries from other batteries.

Because the cycle depth of the batteries is inversely proportional to their lifespan, I try to keep the batteries as fully charged as possible. I have set the inverter to kick out if the batteries drop to 50%, but this has only happened once. I run the generator from time to time keep the batteries topped up, like on cloudy days or if I am doing a lot of welding for instance. The odd bit diesel is currently our only power expense so it has been very worthwhile going this route. It was expensive to install, but now power is essentially for free!

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Silvopasture and land reclamation

I am fairly sure that Silvopasture is the correct term for what we are doing, but it could also be termed land reclamation, or agroforestry perhaps? There were two stages to the process, firstly getting rid of the invasive alien trees on the farm, and then re-establishing the natural trees to improve the grazing potential.

Invasive Tree Removal

When we moved to this farm there was a lot of black wattle and blue gum (eucalytus) trees which are invasive in South Africa. They have a use in that they provide firewood and wood for other purposes like fence poles etc, but the ground underneath is degraded and the grazing quality severely depleted. Blue gums transpire a huge amount of water and depress the water table around them, drying out the ground, and black wattles form dense stands with almost no vegetation growth underneath.

Many years were spend cutting out the invasive species (providing a lot of warm winter fires in the process), and eventually the farm was clear of them. It is a long and laborious process to remove the trees, and a good chainsaw is essential.

For blue gums the trees need to be cut down and the stumps poisoned. Fortunately the seeds only seem to last in the soil for about two seasons, so the trees stop regrowing from seeds after a while. It stands to reason then, if you are trying to remove these trees, to get rid of the large, seed producing trees first, and then tackle the smaller ones.

Black wattles are more difficult. It is not generally necessary to poison the stumps of the larger trees, as they die when they are cut down. Small saplings are very resilient though and will regrow unless they are poisoned. Once a stand of wattles has been cut down, the sunlight on the ground causes all of the seeds on the ground to germinate like a carpet. I also noticed that after a grass fire it also induced the seeds to germinate en masse. To get rid of these, I applied a number of approaches.

  1. Wait until it has rained and the ground is soft and then pull them out by hand.
  2. Spray them with a poison
  3. Graze them

The third option works in winter, as the wattles are one of the few plants that are still green so our goats eat them quite readily. In summer though they find more palatable food as the wattles are quite high in tannin.

Ultimately it was the continual application of all 3 methods over a few years that eventually eradicated them.  The picture below is of the last few that I cut out last year, with the wattle saplings coming up again amongst some taaibos and wild asparagus (katbos). These will unfortunately have to be poisoned as this is right next to our lucerne field, so there is no way we will persuade our goats to chew on tannin filled wattle rather than sweet lucerne!

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This picture is across our fence line. In the foreground you can see the cleared land with the stumps of the cut out trees. In the background is our neighbours land which is still infested with the invasives. It is a bit irksome as they continue to drop seeds over the fence which I have to keep under control.

When I stood under that big blue gum in the picture, I had no idea which way it would fall when cut, so I ring barked it rather than being squashed by a 30m tree!

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Planting of Beneficial Trees

Once the invasive tree species were removed, the land was still degraded, and very poor for grazing. Also all of the stumps made it impossible to get in with the tractor to plough it and plant pasture. Some research on the internet brought me to the concept of silvopasture where trees and livestock are farmed together.

But which trees to plant? The answer was actually quite obvious when I noticed that indigenous acacia karroo (sweet thorn) trees were starting to come up where the invasive trees had been removed.

Sweet thorn has a number of benefits:

  1. It is a pioneer plant that readily establishes itself in degraded areas, needing no watering or any attention at all really.
  2. It is nitrogen fixing and improves the soil around it.
  3. They shade the ground and allow grasses and other plants to grow.
  4. The leaves and pods are nutritious and high in protein and are readily grazed by goats.
  5. It has thorns so it is not grazed to destruction by goats.
  6. It is part of the natural succession of trees in this area, so once the acacias are established, white stinkwoods, wait a bit trees, wild olives and other trees start to grow as well as seeds are brought by birds from nearby.

We have some areas of natural bush which act as seed banks for a great variety of indigenous trees. Below are white stinkwoods and wild olives.

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From observing the natural areas on and around the farm, it seemed to me that a tree spacing of about 10 meters was about optimal spacing for the acacias. At that spacing they don’t shade the ground too densely and allow other plants to thrive beneath them. Wider spaced than that and you don’t see the benefit of ground shading, and closer than that they start to form a thicket and inhibit plant growth.

Below is a winter picture of about 2 year old acacias starting to establish themselves amongst the blue gum stumps.

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This is the same tree one year later in summer:

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Eventually the idea is to end up with this. Large trees, grazed up to as far as the goat can reach, as well as nutritious grasses and other plants underneath. This is also a winter picture so the grass and other vegetation has been grazed short.

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Transplanting of Trees

During summer the acacia karroo seedlings come up underneath the larger trees in great numbers so all you need to do is dig out the small ones, and re plant them. Note that they have a very deep taproot which grows very quickly, so once the seedling has more than two or three compound leaves, the root will be too deep and you will likely snap it off and kill the tree. The seedling below is probably about as big as you can transplant. Here are the steps:

Find and dig out the seeding, this one actually came up in our vegetable patch, then dig a small hole, loosening up the soil to as deep as possible so the roots can establish, and replant the tree. A bit of shade around the seedling helps, but otherwise it is as easy as that!

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After about 4 years the trees should be about 2-3 metres high.

Acacia Karroo as an invasive species

In some areas, acacia karroo is itself considered an invasive species. This is generally in cattle areas as it is not grazed by cattle, but goats love it, so bush encroachment will not occur. Goats can actually be used to clean up areas suffering from bush encroachment.

Some more info on Acacias:

Acacia Karroo in the Karoo

Acacia Karroo

Boergoat Lambing Season

Our boer goats are lambing currently, the picture below is a new born being cleaned by her mother. A healthy kid should be up and standing within 10 minutes, and drinking on its mother within 30-60 minutes.

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A one day old kid with its mother.

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So far about two thirds of the kids have been born male, we were speculating whether that had something to do with the severe drought that has affected us, which only broke about three weeks ago.

 

Black Eyed Peas

Today we planted a field of Black eyed peas.  Originally I had planned to plant maize for fodder on that field but the Guinea Fowl made short work of the germinating seeds. Guinea fowl are ruthlessly efficient when it comes to eating maize seeds. As soon as the seed germinates and pushes up the first tubular leaf, the bird pulls on the leaf to get the seed out of the ground, they then eat the seed, spit out the leaf and then turn their beady eye on the next sprout. They operate like a seed drill in reverse, walking along the rows and causing havoc! This is what it looks like, plant pulled out, seed eaten, crop ruined.

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I had mixed in some black eyed peas with the maize when I planted it, and it also germinate quickly, but with the added advantage that the cursed guinea fowl didn’t eat it. So to save the crop, Sam and I resowed the whole field with the peas. They should germinate in a week and will hopefully provide a nice high protein fodder for the goats.

Black Eyed Peas are also known as Cow Peas and apparently, even after the beans are harvested there is a net nitrogen gain in the soil. Cow peas as a cover crop

Nutritionally they are also very good for humans! Here are some growing in our veggie patch. Cow Pea and Sorghum Biscuits are apparently very nutritious

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Sowing is quite straight forward. I had already disced the field over, so it was just a matter of hand broadcasting the seeds (scattering them everywhere). and then discing again and simultaneously dragging the soil with tyres to cover over the seeds. The seeds were bought from a local supermarket as ‘Black Eyed Beans’, a product of Botswana. I would guess that the seeds are all covered between 1 and 5cm deep. Here’s the resultant field.

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And the disc harrow and tyres.

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Germinating

Here you can see that a guinea fowl tried to dig out the bean, but failed, the plant survives! Good. I don’t mind sharing, but greedy birds shouldn’t eat everything!

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More information

Cultivating Cowpeas