Hidden amongst a forest of macrocarpa and eucalypt trees is a house built unlike any other. For ten years this home has created its own supply of warmth and electricity – and it’s just one off-grid feature challenging our dependency on fossil fuels.
“Our current society is mining our finite resources at an exponentially increasing rate. There is only one place where that ends up and that’s with no resources left,” said Murray Grimwood, journalist and environmentalist. “We decided that there was no point in preaching a negative trip with no answers so the valid response was to demonstrate what can be done.”
In 2004 Murray and his partner of 33 years, Jennie built their dream off-grid home in Dunedin, New Zealand. Since then they have shared their knowledge with sustainability and environmental groups, as well as over 70 wwoofers, including myself.
“We want to show people that going off-grid can be done with very little money and by using recyclable materials – while still being comfortable and fun.”
Using trees grown from their forest, materials sourced from a scrap yard, two solar panels, a micro hydro wheel, a refurbished wood burning stove, homemade LED lighting and anything they could recycle; three generations of the Grimwood family built a home that runs on just 12V – opposed to the average house that’s run on 230V.
With a TV, stereo, telephone, two computers, printer, scanner and internet connection, you may ask how they power all these modern commodities with such a reduced amount of energy. The simple answer is that the average person uses too much while Murray and Jennie manage with less, but with more efficiency.
“Those who live happily off-grid just keep an eye on their volt metres and say ‘oh we can’t use that tonight, maybe tomorrow’. We’re so used to it now, we don’t even think about it.”
Murray and Jennie use simple tricks to make sure their house is as efficient as possible; like closing curtains when it’s cloudy, opening certain windows to circulate air and using the wood stove to cook. More permanent features of the house were also designed with efficiency in mind.
Their fridge is 12 volt and top-loading, its main body exposed to the outside where the shade and night air keep it cool. The walls are made of metal sheets with polystyrene insulation in between. This is cheap, light and one of the best ways to keep heat inside a house. The floor is smoothened concrete which acts like a battery when exposed to sunlight – it will gradually release heat captured from the sun until it’s recharged the following day.
After two weeks living with Murray and Jenny, going off-grid had put me into a more energy conscious mind-set. I would routinely open my curtains in the morning, use my computer sparingly and turn my mobile phone off when I didn’t need it. This mentality appears to be one that I share with a growing number of people, whether it’s for economic or environmental reasons.
In Queensland, Australia, so many homes have installed solar panels that the energy companies have reported a loss while there are currently between 75,000 – 100,000 in the UK living off-grid and over a million in America.
There is, of course, some added effort in making the switch off-grid. Not being signed up with a power company does mean that responsibility falls upon the homeowner to maintain their energy system, but Murray suggests that being a ‘generalist’ will solve any issues in an off-grid home.
It seems sound advice considering I saw him approach several issues during my stay – issues that stumped me, but which Murray took in his stride. These included fixing a circuit board, replacing a broken motor and chain sawing an entire tree that a storm had blown down.
Murray,Jennie anbd most people who go off-grid have to think a bit more when it comes to running their house. However, it’s not an impossible mission and by planning ahead there isn’t much more to be done than an ordinary rural home.
“I think of it as a chess game,” said Murray. “With everything I ask; is this long term resilient or not? Is this long term sustainable or not? If it’s not, then why am I doing it? If it is, then how can I make it better?”
Whether it’s using a bath as a raised vegetable bed, homemade worm farms, using an old car as a chicken coop or building their own two story house, it’s clear that Murray and Jennie have no limitations with their approach to sustainability. Being off-grid is their environmental thinking come true.
“Going off-grid is not the total answer to everything, but it’s part of a package that includes reducing your consumption, recycling and adapting,” said Murray. “The aim is to be resilient and if we keep pursuing that – we can’t be too far off.”