Monday, July 4, 2011

Off The Grid?

THERE has been a lot of talk at the Billabong lately about buying a bush block and throwing up a house. Somewhere in Gippsland would be nice, especially near the Gippsland Lakes, a location that boasts the additional advantage of being relatively close to the trout streams and bonza camping spots of the High Country’s foothills, which lie just to the north. Then again, bits of country between Ensay and Omeo, while further from the sea, are breathtakingly beautiful, and it is a relatively short and easy drive from there to the upper reaches of the Snowy River, which looks at the moment like something transplanted from Canada. Starved of water and all but ruined half a century ago by the Snowy Mountain Scheme, it is almost back to its old self, thanks to all this beautiful rain. It is wide, fast-flowing and alive with riotous stretches of white water. Along the banks there are stands of white cypress – native pine, if you will. If you bumped into Sgt Preston of the Yukon in full Mounties regalia it would come as only a mild surprise.

Whatever the final location, there is the matter of comfort to consider. Decades ago, after Jim Cairns’ 1976 hippy fest at Bredbo, the Professor put a lot of labour into the construction of some friends’ attempt to build a dwelling that went well with cheesecloth and brown rice. One of those companions is now a chartered accountant and another bought his daughter a BMW to mark her twenty-first birthday, so no guesswork is required to understand that, after a year or so, the simple and quiet life became far too simple and much too quiet. Candles, open fires and hand-pumped pressure lamps were enough in those days, which was probably just as well. Given the prevalence of higher consciousness on the property – bonging on from brekkie to beertime --  a red-eyed ratbag with hands full of live wires was the last thing the district nurse would have wished to see.

These days, well let us just say that comfort flows from a three-point plug. If you have a wicked back there are few joys to match the pleasure of sinking into a burbling hot tub, so the property-to-be will need to be wired. This is where our PM is making things needlessly complicated, as she and her predecessor have done to so many other issues. If the carbon tax goes ahead and Bob Brown, the Richelieu of Risdon, gets to shut down the LaTrobe Valley power stations, electricity will become even more expensive. It is a sad thing to consider that the mains power our grandparents took for granted is now becoming a dubious commodity, but there you have it. Primitivism is the new progress, and the punitive charges Gillard & Co intend to impose on modern life will be the offerings at its altar.

So what to do? As a general rule of thumb you can count on spending at least $10,000 to march a row of power poles from road to roost, with the odds being that the final sum will be much, much larger than that. Even then there would be no guarantees, no solid expectation that the latest green whim would not jack up the tariff once again. God only knows how business owners are coping, not that anyone in Gillard’s coven of incompetents seems to care.

After this morning’s golf, and perhaps inspired by his four-stroke victory, Dr Yowie came up with a seemingly bright idea: Why not buy a generator? Gillard is promising that there will be no tax on petrol, although whether this dispensation applies also to diesel and LPG is, like our PM, shrouded in confusion. The Yowie’s specialty is, or was, medicine, so while his science training has equipped him with better than a Bunyip’s grasp of voltages and amps and watts, he concedes he is no authority.

How big a generator would be needed to run, say, a fridge, a few lights, a TV/VCR, computer, stereo and the odd power tool? Oh, and the hot tub, of course. If such a system could be made to work there would be the satisfaction of knowing that, every time you flicked a switch, there would be absolutely nothing Gillard or the Greens could do to crimp your enjoyment of Mr Edison’s inventions. Even better would be the immense satisfaction of knowing that the very policies intended to reduce carbon emissions were, at least in one instance, achieving the exact opposite.

Any advice from readers versed in these matters would be much appreciated. 

UPDATE: Many thanks, readers, for the suggestions and explanations. When the right oasis turns up in the property listings, the avenues of inquiry opened up by the comments will be very helpful.


  1. Get a large diesel generator and make biofuel to run it. There's plenty of info on the net. Biofuel also has the advantage that it still pumps out CO2.

    Look into a solar/wind generating setup also for when the sun & wind are being productive. The advantage on a small scale is that you can store the energy in banks of deep cycle batteries and use the output from solar & wind to top them up. Run the output from the batteries through an inverter and you then have 240V AC. For the lighting circuit just run the 12V DC from the batteries to efficient 12V downlights. Depending on cash reserves you can get quite a self sustainable system going. It will be costly though.

    Keep writing, I thoroughly enjoy your musings.


  2. Dear Professor,

    While your question regarding the relative attributes of different gen-sets might be best answered by the helpful staff of any purveyors of same, I do have some understanding of the stretch of country between Omeo and Bairnsdale.

    My forebears established a beef run just south of Ensay back in the mid 1800's, at a place called Reedy Flat. This enterprise staggered on through drought and beef market slumps until around 1980, when my uncle decided it wasn't worth the candle and sold off the remaining parcels of land to his neighbours.

    But not before various moleskin-clad predecessors lived their lives there. Three brothers from the farm went off to WW1, one getting it in the neck at The Nek as part of the 8LH's futile yet celebrated action there.

    The two remaining brothers returned in 1919, and laboured on (both wifeless) into the late 60's, when they were joined by my city-bred uncle. One Gt-uncle was a regular at the Ensay pub through the 20's and 30's, where he became rather taken with a visiting Irish barmaid called Cushla, a name he managed to inflict on my mum and which she still bears with pride.

    In 2005 I took my two WA-born sons and my younger brother on a protracted camping trip throughout Victoria, including a couple of nights camped at the easement of the old house in Reedy Flat. Truly a wonderful spot, though a bit tempramental like much of the "wide brown".


  3. Now although this Meerkat claims no expertise in Electrical Engineering, by virtue of his burrow being along the Hawkesbury, he also knows other Meerkats up the wilder McDonald river and St Albans area, he has heard much discussion on how, when you can't get grid power, you can integrate a generator.
    In summary a fellow in St Albans when presented with quote for mains power of 30K decided go it alone and here is what he did.

    Generator: Must be quality, must be diesel and well silenced, they start at about $2500. KVA is decided by what follows.
    Good Electrician: must be able to visit from time to time.
    12 Volt lighting: all on separate circuits to the 240 volt lighting so generator minimizes it's running time.
    A Good Quality UPS: Uninterrupted Power Supply this protects electrical goods that have micro circuits in them from dying on you by carefully controlling the power also this device can signal your generator to start without any intervention by you. Not that cheap but from about $1500.

    If above UPS is too much: bank of truck batteries and you use your 12 volt all time with a DC/AC converter to your water pump so you fill a sink or flush the loo, however when you need 240V e.g. run the washing machine, you manually start the generator. I strongly suggest as a Network Engineer if you go this route buy a quality small UPS for computing equipment at least $350.

    Decide the size of generator with help of a sparky based on the last factors, Water Heating, Refrigeration, general heating and how you use it. There are quite few permutations and combinations.
    If a typical weekend at the bilabong requires 3 frozen sides beef and all 15 members the Nude School Girls Go-Go club in the Spa, along with them all drying their hair with separate blow dryers; you could get away with a smaller generator, supposing you accepted 3 trout in the cold section of the fridge along with just one member of the go-go club in spa, provided she was prepared to dry her hair in front of the combustion heater.

  4. A billabong just to the north of Cairns is required to have a backup power supply due to easily interrupted power supply. It is very well served by a simple to operate, if moderately expensive Honda EM65is petrol generator. 6.5 kW is well in excess of most household requirements. It has excellent fuel consumption, is easy to start and is well silenced. Installation of the required changeover switch is a snap for any licensed electrician, expect no more than a few hundred dollars for that part. I too am looking forward to evenings of well illuminated carbon dioxide indulgence.

    As an aside Professor, you may be interested to know that this bunyip follower sent a rather cross email to his UWA VC recently to express dissatisfaction at recent comments. I will keep you informed of the response if any.

  5. The chances that a carbon tax will not include fuel, of all types, is on par with your chances at the lottery. Generally consumption of all fuels used for transport, heating, and power generation will be included. Petrol-chemical feedstocks may be excluded initially, but probably not in the long run.

    An alternative could be 'micro-hydro':


  6. At least 8kva - start up load on items like pumps (assuming you're not on scheme water either, so need to capture and pump rainwater) is ~6 times more than running load. Use bottled gas for water heating and cooking (when you don't feel like starting a wood fire).
    If its a diesel generator set, get an electric start. If its a diesel generator DO NOT get one of the cheap Chinese ones on eBay, you will definitely regret it. Just smile nicely as you hand over an extra ~$2500 compared to a petrol one. Or work out how long it would take to repay the extra, given that diesel fuel costs more than petrol.
    This advice is based on our living in a place with no scheme water, no reticulated gas, and occasional power outages. Plus we sell generators and have to work out what people need.

  7. Good luck, Prof.

    A friend has powered his home, some 1.5 km from the mains, using most of your methods of generation.

    You mention a connection cost of $10,000, but surely that is per pole? His quote for connection to the grid was over $100,000.

    Now, my friend in a multi-millionaire and yet he still complains of the battery (they have a shortish life span) and diesel costs. A small domestic wind generator and solar panels supplement the diesel generator but for any serious consumption, the diesel must run. 5kW is an absolute minimum ( 2 electric radiators!).

    In this part of Australia we are busy fighting off the execrable wind "farms" with their huge destruction of the environment, health problems (google Waubra Foundation), slashing of land values, and hyper-expensive electricity ( benefiting Italian and other European investments, as well as some very "interesting" ones at home).

    Incidentally, the methods used by wind companies to inveigle their way into communities
    is shocking. They silence land lessees with horrendous financial penalties, and try the same silencing of neighbours affected by noise. The prats suggest the "family" is present to hear the money offers, knowing full well the pressure children can apply to parents. These are the class of people you would not have sup with your dogs let alone decent company.

    It is a disgrace that the once lucky country cannot supply cheap electricity any more, and with Gillard and Brown at the helm we are headed for the Spanish and Californian experience.

  8. My little place on the Gippsland Lakes - no mains power available - has a solar system which cost about $20,000, which is enough to run lights, TV, computer et cetera. For The Professor's girl friends who require a hair dryer or anything with an element - or when the sun don't shine - it would be wise to add a Honda generator which plugs into the solar.
    Refridgerator, hot water are powered through gas bottles.
    Keep up the exceptional work, Professor.

  9. I like the biofuel(aka 'shine) suggestion.You could always cook up a few extra gallons to help keep those Go-Go Club girls in a mellow mood.