Power and cooking on an off-grid homestead
by Dani of Eco Footprint South Africa
My husband, RMan, and I decided that instead of the insurance companies getting richer and our investment getting smaller, we would withdraw what we were allowed from his various policies, and invest that money in a plot of land. We traveled miles and miles trying to find a piece of land we could afford but eventually in 2008 we found it, and it was close enough to the town we lived in but far enough from the crowds.
Naturally, once we had the land, we wanted to visit our investment but B&Bs were costing us the earth. So we bought a second hand caravan. That turned out to be too small for the whole family to visit at the same time, so we decided to build something small. Building something from scratch! Heaven! We started building in 2009, but it was only after we sold our townhouse and moved onto the building site in July 2012 that the build became serious. Hectic, but oh, so worthwhile.
I convinced RMan that we should build in as eco-friendly a way as possible. This is a passion of mine and was also partly motivated in order to show our children that life could be comfortable without having to excessively harm the planet. One of the decisions we made was that we would not be tied to the electrical grid and that we would investigate wind turbines and solar power.
Luckily for us a neighbour had installed a turbine, so we could see first-hand how it worked. Even though the smallholding is in a windy area, the performance wasn’t great (totally dependent on the sometimes gusting wind) and the power output was very erratic and jerky. So solar power it was.
Solar power is not dependent solely on sunshine (energy is produced from UV rays) so power continues to be produced even on cloudy days, albeit in a smaller quantity. We have even noticed that a small charge still comes into the charge controller on those full moon nights.
We have seven 140-watt, 12-volt solar panels, a 1000 Cotek watt Inverter, and an 80-Amp Outback charge controller. These feed six 2-volt 1166 AH batteries. In hindsight we should have purchased 24 rather than 12 volt panels and at least a 2000-watt Inverter, but we are managing to make do with what we have. The panels produce roughly 5 KwH/day which is perfect. Being able to run a chest freezer would be ideal, but we’ll hopefully sort that out before next summer.
Living off-grid teaches you to prioritize, such as what appliances you can honestly not live without and which are unnecessary luxuries. Using the power produced from our solar panels, we run a fridge/freezer combo, watch TV and our ‘pay to view’ channel, lights, a PC and printer, a laptop, and charge our cell phones.
I have a bunch of manual kitchen appliances which work more than adequately. These include a hand operated whisk, antique coffee and herb grinders, a food processor, a juice squeezer, and onion, garlic, and food choppers. A normal broom, dustpan, and mop complete the list. We also have a 6500-watt petrol driven generator, and this is used once a week for the washing machine and whenever RMan needs to run power tools that draw more than 800 watts.
I do not have, and do not miss, an iron (yay, no more ironing – ever), heaters, air conditioners, a kettle, food processors, a coffee machine, a geyser, a vacuum cleaner, an electric stove, or a fax machine. However, we subscribe to ‘fax to e-mail’ when it’s required.
For cooking, I have a small 2-plate gas stove from our old caravan, a gorgeous state of the art wood burning stove in winter, and my solar oven, which I use more in summer but which also works on those sunny winter’s days. Initially I converted an old Coleman cooler box into a solar oven and was blown away that a cooler box with just a piece of toughened glass on top could reach temperatures of 105–110°C! However, I noticed that the plastic inner insulated sides of the oven were beginning to bubble, and the thought that toxic fumes were entering the food prevented me from continuing with that.
So I purchased a Sun Cook solar oven from Nuno in Portugal. I loved it so much that I got the distribution rights for South Africa – putting my money where my mouth is, so to speak. There appears to be a resistance to using the sun’s rays to cook food, so with that in mind I wrote an “Introduction to Solar Cooking” that is available to download free from my blog. Also, to assist those who are thinking of purchasing a solar oven, I wrote “Free from the Sun”, a cookbook that demonstrates that 99% of your favourite family recipes can be cooked in a solar oven.
Basically, the only dishes which you can’t make are things like pies because there’s too much fat in the pastry to allow the oven to cook it to a crisp. But bread and biscuits bake perfectly and roasts (they won’t crisp but will brown), stews, vegetables, pasta, beans, and lentils are a breeze. I have even preserved and sun-dried tomatoes in it. Food produced by a solar oven is more tender than cooking it any other way and it also uses far less water. Moisture is provided by the food itself and all the goodness and flavour is retained within the cooking vessel and not lost through steam, as in normal stove top cooking or dry oven roasting.
Living on our smallholding, and producing more than we can happily eat, has led me to investigate solar dehydrating. I purchased an instruction e-book from Amazon and all the required materials and am now waiting on RMan to find his creative moment and put it together for me.
Living off-grid has given us a freedom that is hard to explain. It has also shown us what we can do without and still be more than comfortable. All those supposed ‘time saving’ gadgets available today don’t seem to have made spare time for anyone and have just resulted in people being more and more rushed. With all my manual kitchen appliances I now have the time to think whilst I work.
And finally, there is less white noise in our lives – warm starlit summers evenings or cold, crisp winter nights spent stargazing are quiet. We go to bed with the songs of the bullfrogs in our grey water pond, and waken in the morning to the deafening sound of bird song. We can even hear the birds’ wings flapping above us as they fly overhead. That lack of intrusive constant background noise has given us clarity, sanity and a wonderful calmness within our lives.
Our son-in-law, daughter and grandson are so impressed with what we have achieved that they have purchased their own piece of land nearby. They plan to move there and build their own home in order to live a more sensitive life – one which is less demanding on this planet and its resources. Could life be any better?
Dani has been married for 32 years to RMan, and is mum to two kids, DD and RSon, and Nana to her precious grandson, Mkid. She and RMan live on their off-grid smallholding in South Africa where they grow their own food, harvest energy and water, and contend with the occasional cobra or giant spider! Dani is also the author of ‘Free from the Sun – a Solar Oven Cook Book‘. To find out more please visit her at her blog Eco Footprint ~ South Africa.
Dani also wanted to state that she does not consider herself an expert and whatever information she gives you in this post is through what she have learned through trial and error. Please contact an expert if you are interested in doing something similar.
Week 1 Chicken Tractors with Liz from Eight Acres
Week 2 Gardening on a Budget with Elaine from A Woman of the Soil
Week 3 Off-Grid Living with Dani from Eco Footprint ~ South Africa
Week 4 Building a Permanent Chicken Coop with Staci from Life at Cobble Hill Farm
Week 5 Making Your Own Country Wines with Ben from Ben’s Adventures in Wine Making
Week 6 Self-Sufficient Goat Keeping with Leigh from 5 Acres & A Dream