Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Taking the first Steps to Off Grid Living

This piece First appeared in The Herald on 24 March 2015

Load shedding makes us all angry. We are frustrated with Eskom. We are disillusioned with the slow progress with the building of new power stations. We are suspicious of dodgy deals with the Russians to build nuclear reactors. Many of us are investing emotion and passion in this negativity, but my family and I are rather investing my energy in doing what we can to move away from the gird in whatever small steps we can. I am speaking about this because I see that much of the discussion about “off grid living” generally comes from one of two extreme positions. Firstly there’s the guy that is living in his 1974 Volkswagen camper, who powers his whole existence from a wind turbine he built by re-wiring an old desk fan he found by the roadside. He doesn't need to cook; because he eats all his food raw and he avoids hot water because “everybody knows” that washing is part of a grand Illuminati conspiracy. The second extreme position is that of the billionaire in Houghton who builds a state of the art solar panel system bigger than my house. It tracks the movements of the sun by means of clever engineering and software developed by the SKA project. The power is stored in batteries just like the ones on the Mars rover. The whole system does cost about the same as a cabinet minister’s annual salary, but comfortably runs his air conditioning, 90 inch TV’s, heated pools and a mini ice rink.
DIY Solar panel installation taking shape - December 2014
Caught between these two extremes, most of us simply give up and rather focus on wording clever status updates that ridicule Eskom executives. But I am here to tell you that there is hope. There is real and immediate action that you and I can take toward moving off grid.
You see, I have just recently installed an off grid power and water system at our little farm just outside Port Elizabeth, and you know what? It didn't cost me an arm and a leg. In fact it cost me round about the same as what it would have cost me to get water and electricity brought to the farm by the municipality. Hear what I am saying! The cost of installing a system that will generate free solar electricity and clean running water in perpetuity is the same as what the grid would have charged me just for the privilege of being connected to them and being billed by them with ever increasing rates regardless of the reliability of their supply. Of course there will be some on-going costs, but there won’t be load shedding, there won’t be the mindless standing in queues at the “customer care” centre, there won’t be the lying awake at night with the guilt of knowing that I am pumping huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere every time I switch on the lights.
You may not think that my situation on the farm is relevant to everyone reading this, but what I want to tell you, is that solar panels and rainwater tanks are only part of the story. There are two important aspects to consider.
Firstly, we must re-think what it is that we have become dependent on the grid for, remembering of course that the idea of a “gird” dealing with our electricity, water supply, sewerage disposal, telephone and internet is all reasonably recent. There is no reason we can’t step away gradually from the grid, in the same way as we slipped slowly into the habit of becoming dependent on it. Do we need to use so much? Do we need the air-conditioning? Do we need the heater? Do we need the ninety Inch TV? Do we need the welder in the garage or the toaster in the kitchen? Do we need to plant our garden full of plants that have beautiful flowers but that will die without the quantities of water they evolved to become accustomed to in the swamps of the Amazon? There are thousands of actions we can take today to consume less energy and water and to produce less waste.
Secondly, after we have taken the obvious step of consuming less, we must do what we can to diversify our consumption and waste. What I am saying is, it may cost the same to cook on gas, but it is unlikely that the gas supply will run out at the same time as the electricity supply grid. What about rain water? You may not have enough storage to make you independent of the municipal system, but you may have enough to be able to use the municipal system as a backup and not a primary supply. Even just to irrigate your garden would be a step in the right direction. Cooking and heating with firewood is not a bad idea, in fact it’s fun and romantic. What about processing some of your waste in a compost heap, grey water system or septic tank? What about heating your house with sunlight and cooling it with wind?
What I am talking about is migrating off grid in small steps. First by consuming less, then by transitioning into a hybrid situation, where each time the grid goes down it is less  and less of a disaster to you and your family.
There are things we can do. We are not helpless and doing these things makes us feel a lot better than when we are bitching about Eskom. Don’t you think?

Tim Hewitt-Coleman 20150218

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Comparing the Husqvarna 440e with the Stihl Ms 250

This is the one that got stolen
Husqvarna 440e

40.9 cc 1.8 kW 4.4 kg

Paid R3400.00 incl vat in March 2014

This the one I bought yesterday.

Stihl MS 250

45.4 cc 2.3 kw 4.6 kg

Paid R3900.00 incl vat in March 2015

I am already enjoying the MS 250 quite a bit more than the 440e. Make no mistake, I really enjoyed the Husqvarna. It gave me many hours of pleasure clearing bush, felling small trees, cutting fire wood and fence poles. The MS 250 is more powerful though and the additional weight is not really  noticeable. I suppose it is an unfair comparison, I should be comparing the  45 cc Husqvarna with the MS 250. The truth though, in my part of the world, is that the Husqvarna is a more expensive machine. Right now the new 440e sells for R600.00 more than the MS250. So the expectation is that the more expensive technology should at least be able to compare, even if it is a slightly lower spec.

My experience with the two beautiful machines is as follows:

The 440 e has more features. It has a fuel gauge of sorts. It has a button you press a few times to prime the carburettor with fuel. The choke and on off switch has a simple easy action. It also has a tool-less chain tensioning mechanism. It has very easy to use clips that allow access to the air filter and the spark plugs. My experience was though that I struggled to start the 440e when I first got it. I would slug away at in and exhaust myself before I began even to do any cutting. With time though I learned a very specific routine: Two pulls with the choke closed, then one with the choke open. Starts every time. the other problem I had in the beginning was with the chain coming off. I think I was fiddling with the tension setting too much and had it too slack. But for whatever reason I had to replace two chains before I got the hang of it.

Its very early days, but I can see that the MS 250 is less tiring to use. Even though it is a bit heavier, progress is faster and it less of a battle to do the kind of bush clearing that I am doing. The start is quite easy, but maybe its just because I am now used to the idea of fiddling with the choke. I also find that the safety brake is not as sensitive as with the 440e, where I would very often have to unlock.I presume because it is a little more powerful, the blade does not get pinched quite as quickly. In the bush clearing that I am doing it is not always easy to see which side to cut from, so pinching happens and it can really slow me down. If the MS 250 does use more fuel, it is still almost next to nothing. I cut for about 3 hours today and still hardly made a dent in the 5 l of fuel that I bought.

So I hope this comparison helps, but really you cant go wrong with either machine. But, if forced to choose between the Husqvarna 440e and the Stihl MS250, I would have to go with the Stihl.