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Following up from our last report where we shared our directions and dreamings to find ‘Alegria’, we were now in a position to evaluate what we had done, move in and setup our new self-sustainable home.
The house looked great. It was built by a young couple with a family who lived in a caravan while the home was being built. The initial construction was done with quality and commitment because they were making it their home. But due to a financial blowout the final stages of construction were not of the highest quality, including some key sustainable elements such as the solar power, generator and heating system. For this reason, the couple had to eventually sell their dream.
At this time (if you recall from our previous report) we were two city folk choosing a sustainable option with no prior experience. Naively we thought that the sun would shine and all would be fine, literally!
In the analogy of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we began this process at the very lowest level focused on solving basic survival needs: air, warmth, water, food and shelter.
The first need, air, was not an issue and abundant; fresh and cool (0°C) and hot (45°C)! We moved into Alegria in September (Lunar Moon), which in the Southern Hemisphere is late winter moving into spring with snow sprinkled on the front lawn.
This leads into the next basic need: warmth. Our house had large vaulted ceilings and massive glass windows, all un-insulated. The floor was not complete and was only one layer of particle board, which is the layer that is used before the timber floor is laid over it and has very low insulation properties. The only form of heating was a slow combustion stove downstairs and we were not familiar with the type of wood on the property or a chainsaw!! So we got red gum wood delivered for $100 per cubic metre and this only lasted about two weeks. Our first winter year was hard. The reverse happened in summer with extreme heat and once it entered the house we had very long and hot nights.
We replaced the aluminum windows with double glazed windows, insulated the ground floor with foam, laid a timber floor over the existing particle floor, installed full length heavy drapes over all of the windows, collected, chopped and split our own wood from fallen timber, and learned how to use a chainsaw and a splitting axe.
Next was water--starting with cold water. Coming from the city our only exposure to water was when restrictions were in place during the 10 year drought; not restrictive at all unless you had a lawn! So here we are with 2 x 25,000 litre water tanks connected to the house with a pressure pump running off the solar system. We suddenly started to take notice of the rain cycles and noted each year when our major three to four dumps of rain would occur. We also became very aware of how long of a shower we could take. In our first year we were down to 1/3 of our capacity before the end of the summer rains arrived in February (Galactic Moon)--and this was with only two of us in the house. From our roof area we needed at least 200 mm of rain to fill our tanks for the following year.
Every new roof space was connected to either house water tanks or a 15,000 litre fire tank. Two new water tanks of 25,000 litres each were installed plus a 5,000 litre tank for watering the gardens. This was filled by pumping up from the dam and gravity feed hoses for the gardens. The one and only bonus of the accident with my truck running in to a full water tank was that the guy who came to replace it was able to fix the old one (this is one of the benefits of having fiberglass tanks). Also using permaculture principles we set up large and small swales on the property to direct the water to the fruit trees and the two dams for watering our gardens in summer.
We inherited a fire with a water jacket behind which connected up to our solar hot water service and storage tank on the roof. The theory was that in winter with the fire going and not a lot of sun, the fire would handle the hot water. Not so. We developed a rating system for shower temperature from 1 - 10; 10 being the hottest. Showers using this system were mostly rated 4 during winter and then there was the issue of the pump stopping just as you were getting into your shower. A variety of ‘clowns’ came and thought out a variety of solutions that never worked over a two year period. Eventually we found that the previous owner had purchased a flow water pump instead of a pressure pump and the water wasn’t getting to the supply tank on the roof – two years of cold showers!!!
During this process they replaced the pressure valve on my solar system and successfully blew a hole in my hot water tank (replacement $2,500). My final solution was to have the solar primary heat source supplemented by the water jacket on the fire; and an instant gas heater if the temperature doesn’t make 60°C before reaching the shower. YES!!! Finally, we were guaranteed hot showers.
Through this process we learned that a main key to alternative living is to have reliable backup systems for everything.
We wanted to grow as much food as possible; a big statement. Our land is hard clay and quartz rock and nothing grows very well except eucalyptus and wattle trees. Therefore our solution was to make raised gardens and compost. With our vegetables this worked well but we didn’t know the cycles for the area and the land. Planting from seed was all we knew and the success rate of seeds directly into the soil was extremely low. Next we tried seedlings and all the varieties of vegetables that we saw in the supermarket, not realizing that the bulk were imported from inter-state or overseas and were not capable of growing in our climate. So our first year was a disaster. But as luck would have it, within the range of vegetables were maybe five that withstood the harsh environment, grew and self-seeded the following year.
So the second year was looking great and then we had our summer; the sun was so hot it burnt the leaves on the vegetables even with the water sprinkler system on. So in the third year we had shade cloth made for the gardens to stop the sun burning them and this final year we didn’t need them at all.
On the orchard experiment, we had taken a permaculture course and their advice was to spread the trees around your house to assist with harvesting and also to increase the success rate with regards to soil types and moisture. This theory may be great if you have town water supply and hoses. We would spend up to two hours a night watering our trees by hand in the first year and the success rate was only about 50%. So in the third year we created an orchard at the back of the house removing half the Eucalyptus trees and leaving the balance as shade to create our own orchard food forest. The advantages of this were that we had only to get water from the dam to one location which made the process much easier. Also the fenced area allowed the chickens to groom the area and an added advantage; keeping out the kangaroos!
I have spoken about the windows and floors as part of creating warmth and the need to insulate to cater for all types of weather and extremes. Improvement in our house included a balcony, double glazing, drapes/curtains, carport to protect the cars in the summer, straw bale chicken coop and a large 15m x 7m roof for all the trailers and excavator. Also we needed warmer clothing to accommodate this environment. In our case we needed woolen undergarments to cater for winter with work boots all the time. Heavy duty tradesmen clothing worked best for around the house work. Our city clothing has slowly been replaced with practical outdoor clothing.
So in summary the main lessons we learned in our first four years at Alegria:
Always have resilience and backup systems for the basics: water and warmth.
Never buy essential equipment on Ebay! We found that water pumps, used for say fire fighting, need to be reliable when a life threatening situation occurs. (meaning that the pumps must actually start!). Often the Ebay products were stated “unused” or “new” when they were in fact factory seconds. We learned to save and then buy a known name, like Honda, which could be serviced locally. Fire/water pumps, chainsaws and trailers are but a few of the finer quality equipment necessary.
Carefully watch the seasons and how your plants do. Watch which ones perform best on what location. Use your own good quality compost.
Having a source of income at the start is essential for funding the necessary outlay of setting up the infrastructure such as solar panels, hot water, drinking water, heating, housing, roads, shelter and clothing.
Trust and enjoy the transition.