The lessons learnt from 30 years of off-grid independence

As we head towards a future where the uptake of energy storage will be as rapid as that of rebated PV panel installations, it’s interesting to look at the history of the early adopters.  People like Colin Ball, a renewable energy pioneer from South Australia who has used wind and solar to power his energy efficient home for 30 years.  He charts his journey here.
Plenty of warning given
Back in 1984 I attended a seminar sponsored by the Engineers Society of South Australia about global warming. An oceanology scientist spoke broadly about rising sea levels, but could not be very specific and wanted increased funding to collect more data before he could commit to drawing any conclusions. Engineers spoke about seawalls and robust constructions to combat the scientist’s predictions but again weren’t specific.
Only the insurance industry spokesperson showed any real animation about warming futures, for after all economics is not science but determined by emotion, as any casual observation about ‘market sentiment’ will tell you. The insurance folk weren’t waiting for the science to come in; any future developments along vulnerable coastlines were going to attract higher premiums come hell…and high water.
I was convinced long before Al Gore’s epiphany. An earlier inconvenient truth moment had occurred with the Club of Rome’s ‘Limits to Growth’ systems analysis and computer modelling report in 1972, which was largely ignored by governments around the world. The environmental movement propelled by the ‘energy crisis’ in the early 1970’s was the real eye-opening moment for me, as well as thousands of others.
Even then climate change was emerging to be the game changer, as the engineers’ seminar response to this well illustrated. The greenhouse effect was not rocket science really, horticulturists after all had been applying it for quite a long time. What was new was that it had become understood that anthropocentric-induced Co2 and other gases produced by the burning of fossil fuels, was green-housing our planet Earth. There has always been plenty of warning.
This introduction gives a few things away.
Yes, I’m a so-called ‘baby boomer’ and part of a cohort that became one of the early adopters of permaculture, the great Aussie concept devised by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in 1978. I discovered and immersed myself in the permaculture world in the early 1980’s and, for me, it was one way personally and socially to do something positive.
Permaculture is a whole system design process, based on ethics and guided by principles of ecology and the scientific discipline of holistic understanding. It is an antithesis to reductionism and stultifying economic rationalism or as heterodox political economy terms it, neoliberalism.

Quinta in South Australia, the Ball family home.
Quinta in South Australia, the Ball family home.

I was a co-founder of the Permaculture Association of South Australia in 1984 and I became a back-to-the-lander, despite my suburban Adelaide roots. After moving to the Clare Valley to build a mudbrick dwelling with recycled building materials, I attempt to develop a sustainable system with energy, water and food producing self-sufficiency.
My family calls our seven acre property on the western slopes of Leasingham, Quinta. We pilfered this from Spanish and Portuguese meaning amongst other things, a villa or country farmhouse with vineyard, and Australianised it into country home and garden. There are plenty of vineyards all over the place around here. We are just down the Horrocks Highway from Watervale, its town entrance sign proclaiming it the ‘Home of Fine Riesling’. Not a bad place to be if you want to find a nice drop!
The development of Quinta
So, what have we achieved in the past thirty years or so?
Our house and shedding collect water from ever-diminishing rainfall into tanks (40,000 gallons), direct runoff into swales and into the ground and use low pressure water reticulation except to pump to head and in the garden.
Greywater goes to the orchard. We have a composting toilet – an owner-built clivus minimus – solar hot water, slow combustion wood heating, a Stanley wood stove/oven with a hot water jacket, compost everything, run Australorp chooks and have a micro-irrigated organic vegetable garden, fruit and nut trees.
Energy generation, storage and consumption
Our energy plans started small, mainly due to our original house budget being a mere $45k. Sounds amazing these days, but we made our own mudbricks and managed to construct a solid four bedroom, two-storey dwelling and fit it out.
Our off-grid solar system began in 1991 with six solar PV panels, and 6 x 2 volt batteries, a Trace square sinewave inverter and controller electronics, as well as a backup petrol generator and a refurbished Dunlite 750 watt wind turbine. This is pre WW2 technology, very good but problematic. More on that later.
We had good advice but still made the mistake of installing a 12 volt inverter, falsely believing that the future would go that way with lighting and electrical implements. Wrong. Squarewave inversion does not handle modern electronic implements and 240 volt is the go and has to be to operate just about everything electrical especially power tools essential to the rural DIY-er like us.
This system ran the basics, lights and power but no fridge. We used my parent’s pre WW2 wooden ice chest saved by my incessant penchant to keep old stuff ‘cos it might come in handy one day’. And it works a treat…just add ice. (In the late 90’s it was replaced by a second hand gas fridge. Such luxury!)
Our technology supplier was Kym Atkinson from Natural Technologies in Prospect. Kym had bought the business from the Village Community Cooperative which had set it up as the first solar photovoltaic and small scale wind turbine consultant and supplier in South Australia in 1984. The guy behind the VCC was Sandy Pulsford who, after the sale, went on to set up his own business called Solaris in Kilburn, becoming the second supplier in SA.
Both remained so until the greater popularisation of solar in the late 90’s, and especially the 2000’s when government rebates arrived and every person and their dog seemed to want to get involved. Where were they when Sandy and Kym were breaking the ground for years against all odds? No mythical ‘magic of the market’ here. Says something for the small amount of ‘go-for’ South Aussies who supported the concepts of sustainability, and Sandy and Kym at that time. I know privately that at times they could have chucked it in, but thankfully didn’t. Good on Kym and Sandy for hanging in there. They still are, even now with greater competition and lousy government policy.
Another key player was Chas Martin, an environmental and political activist and builder. Chas was prepared to work with owner builders like myself and piloted the framing and construction of our house using recycled Jarrah posts from the docks at Port Adelaide. Later he did the same when recycled doors and windows were installed, many featuring leadlight features from Adelaide demolition sites. Chas also supervised the composting toilet installation, which is a our version of the famous clivus multrum concept.
Significantly, Chas was also an advocate of wind power and restored a Dunlite 4 Blade 750 watt Wind Lighting Plant for our project. He refurbished the gearbox, fabricated new blades, adapted a recycled 3-legged windmill tower, installed the tower, raised the turbine and wired it into the electronics set up by Kym. All this was done in 1995. The unit had a 12 volt generator and a heat dump was installed to shed excess power – this was because this turbine worked brilliantly, often far outstripping the PV input and was a sight to behold.
Unfortunately it had other issues. To manually furl the blades out, a wire cable descended from the head assembly to a lever at hand level. By 2003 this wore out and broke, and having failed to source a ladder to the tower I couldn’t repair this before a particularly severe winter battered the blades to pieces. Eventually, a crane came in and down came the Dunlite, but it had served magnificently for eight years, had the simplicity of an FJ Holden and even though decommissioned it is still viable for future refurbishment.
Moving into the 21st Century
In 2004, I asked Sandy Pulsford to upgrade the system by installing a 24 volt, 2.5 Kw Trace Xantex true sinewave Inverter/Charger, double the battery storage to 12x2volts, and add another two panels to the array and move to a 400 watt AirX wind turbine. PV sizing was increasing and the two additions were larger wattages. The original inverter was able to be on sold by Sandy to a shack owner.
I should point out here that the panels were mounted on an adjustable frame upon a recycled garden shed to the east of the house and the batteries and inverter were inside the shed, which we call Solar Shed #1. Power ran underground into the house. A bit later I had power undergrounded and run up to a 40 x 20ft shed. All trenching was done by hand of course!
Solar Shed #1
Solar Shed #1

The AirX was an unfortunate experiment. It mounted onto the old tower OK, but never really seemed to do much in terms of electricity production. The input could only be read on an amp meter as the electronic system could not be adapted to take record. The Dunlite would often surge to over 20 amps, sometimes over 30 whereas the AirX rarely could reach 5 in a strong breeze.
This came to a tragic end when the tower came down in some exceptional gust one sunny day and the torpedo shaped AirX nose-dived into terra firma. Coming up the road and not seeing the familiar old mast was an ominous feeling and finding it fallen was devastating. The failure though was not in the old strong galvanised steel construction but in a modern high tensile bolt which had sheered from the foot of the tower attaching it to the concrete footing.
I contacted Sandy and arranged for a new tower and being exceptionally optimistic ordered a second AirX. The first was to be assessed for damage and to see if it was viable for reinstallation as they’re encased in space age robust metal alloys. Sandy deemed it working and a new tilting twin tower was installed to carry both of them. 800 watts, you beauty!
Alas not. The nose-dived unit failed to produce and the second one performed as its predecessor had – hardly at all! More lessons for the boy from the ‘burbs.
So, in 2008 taking advantage of the outgoing Howard government’s generous solar rebate offer on off grid PV – the only thing Howard ever did to please me – we undertook a major retrofit. I built a purpose built solar shed, Solar Shed #2, locating it to the north east of the house. More trenching of course, running back to Solar #1 and over to the nearby wind tower. This shed has a 70 degree roof slope and, thanks to little Johnny, six new 165 watt BP modules went onto a rail support on the roof. We purchased two further BP 80 watt panels to cover the roof as the existing eight panels were also transferred onto Solar #2.
Solar #2 has two rooms. One is for the electronics – a new Plasmatronics PL60 controller and the Trace inverter and the other for batteries and storage. I engaged Kym to undertake this retrofit and a very able subby, Glenn Hall from Inman Valley, did the installation. The solar revolution was now in full swing and technicians were in short supply, but Kym as an early entrant in the game had good contacts.
Things picked up electrically wise, maybe about 2kw, but still we ran a gas fridge, having purchased a new Electolux 224 litre unit in 2003. These things are damned expensive.
Then another crisis ensued. The summer of 2008 was a stinker. We don’t run air conditioning and spent time at the beach on the Yorkes. When checking the batteries I was unnerved to discover that significant evaporation had caused them to dehydrate to the tune of about two litres each. This was near catastrophic as charge holding was significantly compromised, as was battery viability. Ah, why didn’t I stay in the suburbs?
In early 2009 I contacted Kym and he put me onto the best technician around. Terry Thrum, an ex RAAF electrical engineer with a passion for all things electrically renewable, solar and wind. Terry advised that the batteries amazingly could be resurrected but only with long and deep recharging which could not be done onsite. Terry took them away to see what he could do. Meanwhile Kym suggested on dummie-proofing my system and recommended 12 new maintenance free Sonneschein A960 batteries.
Terry rang me with some good news that my old batteries had recovered and that he could on-sell them to the De-Tong Ling Buddhist Retreat on Kangaroo Island for a few thousand and a bit. So far, so good.
We got the Sonnescheins. They’re really good.
In 2013 my brother in law bought a house with intent to demolish it and develop the block in Dover Gardens in Adelaide. Did I want the solar panels on the roof? Erm…yes. So four second hand PV panels came up and onto the old Solar Shed #1 frame, newly placed on ground level in front of Solar Shed #2. Terry did the installation. This added another .5kw or thereabouts.
Looking to the future
My advice? You can never have enough power generation. What I haven’t mentioned is, even though off grid is fantastic and liberating, the downside of small systems is the human factor of consumption. Each new upgrade seems to have a corresponding human response to turn more stuff on.
Consequently blackouts, particularly after cloudy periods, are not uncommon. It’s hard to constrain the washing machine. And the PV’s are doing it all, as the AirX’s lazily turn around, constantly on holiday, and not contributing much. They’ve gotta go.
The next move has been made by Terry who has discovered how to repair non-working PS’s. Yes, it seems they fail, although my originals from 1991 are still performing well. He has 3 x BP 3150 OS (150 watts) available and they await a new frame and installation. That’s another 600 watts coming. They will need a frame, so our kid’s old aluminium trampoline structure will be converted by Watervale Engineering’s Scott Camileeri. Will the inverter handle this? Terry thinks he has it sussed.
And that’s not the end of it. Terry dabbles in all sorts. He thinks that Chinese wind turbines have good engineering but poor electronics. There are quite a few failed small scale units laying around. He is putting his aeronautical nous onto this conundrum and hopes to come up with a unique hybrid solution of Chinese engineering and electronic knowhow of good Aussie technology. Failing this, we are interested in a SOMA wind turbine, 400 watt or 1Kw. This may be prohibited by the cost of a new tower and a bigger inverter. Time will tell.
What I’ve learned since 1984
Alternative off grid energy systems work, are empowering (no pun), challenging and highly enjoyable, and the freedom and independence from erratic government policy interference and corporate dominance cannot be overstated. Ours has been a unique, though confronting journey over thirty years.
Nowadays the technology is mainstreamed and, as usual, the marketeers claim to know all, but I would say that anyone with the will and determination to work through it all can develop their own energy independence if they are prepared to ask questions, read about stuff and find the right people.
Of course most in this multi complex industry are fair dinkum and off the shelf systems are well proven, but like most good things, a bit of recycling and thinking out of the square can go a long way.

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