DAVID: Sometimes you have to spend more money, but sometimes surprisingly you don’t. The flooring was one good example, we looked at supposedly Australian prefab floors, and when asked a bit further, we found out that, yes the Timber was from a forest from halfway between here and Sydney, but it was logged, shipped to China, manufactured into this veneer type floor with toxic chemicals. Then they would ship it back to Australia to be sold as an Australian product for not that much less than if it was grown in a sustainable way, milled and produced locally. That was quite surprising, but it took a lot of research to actually work that out. The funny thing was that the salesperson of the Chinese product justified it by saying, “well in Australia we just can’t compete because we have to pay workers comp, superannuation and things like that.” He didn’t seem to have a problem with the Chinese workers not having it!
LISA: We went out to the mill here, they’ve got a showroom, so we could choose what timber we wanted, and I said to David, “all of the workers have got ear muffs on, and they look like they’ve got some health and safety in place!” It’s not just about the environmental side, it’s also about the social responsibilities.
COULD YOU GIVE US AN INTRODUCTION TO THE HOUSE?
DAVID: … the electricity is a good place to start, that was my baby, I really wanted to live in a house which was not connected to the grid, but still wanted to be able to do anything which you could do in a normal house. One of my main motivations for that is that the fossil fuel industry argues that solar power can never replace the base load requirement at night, and therefore, that it’s a joke. Now I have to say, that’s actually not true, so let’s do it!
DAVID: My brother owns a solar business in Queensland, and the big thing that’s been missing is the battery storage for night time. The Solar Panel PV panels are really cheap, and plug into normal appliances, but what do you do at night? The current common battery technology is lead acid batteries and they take up a lot of space, they’re expensive, they’re not particularly good for the environment, and so while they solve some problems, they actually create some of their own. The next step is lithium ion batteries, which power phones and lots of other portable devices, but you can’t get the scale, that technology has still got a bit of a way to go. My brothers’ company was moving towards it, and had produced a product that he reckoned could solve this problem.
DAVID: The other thing is usually when people go off grid, they use gas for as many things as they can, for cooking, for heating, for hot water, but part of this project was the commitment to no fossil fuels, so we didn’t have the option of gas. It was unique to try to have an off-grid system that doesn’t have any compromises, but also doesn’t use gas, and therefore we had lots of unknowns. It was a real experiment. In the beginning, we felt that there were too many unknowns. The house was going to have all new appliances, so it was difficult to calculate the load. My brother also kept changing the battery system every couple of months when new things would come out. So we decided that we’d have a grid connection, just to act as a backup charger, that was always part of the plan. Anyway, there were some problems, which we won’t detail, with actually getting that grid connection, so when it came time to move into the house, we didn’t have it!
(You were forced to live the experiment?)
LISA: Basically, yes!
DAVID: We were obviously quite nervous about that, but we have just been amazed by how the system is over capacity if anything. We’ve probably never gone below 50% of our battery capacity. In the beginning, it was quite funny, we did what we did in the last house, turned lights off when you’re not using them and did whatever you could do to minimise power, and somehow we realised that weren’t even touching the thing, we didn’t have to do that anymore!
YOU DIDN’T HAVE TO MAKE ANY DRASTIC LIFESTYLE CHANGES WHEN MOVING INTO THE HOUSE TO COMPENSATE FOR THE NEW SYSTEM?
DAVID: We spent an inordinate amount of time looking for the most energy-efficient appliances. In the last house, we didn’t have a dishwasher and we had a gas stove. But here we have the induction stove which can cook things really fast, but it pulls a massive amount of electricity to be able to do that, we were nervous that it was ever going to work… but it’s completely fine!
LISA: Norman, from Morrison Electrics, helped with the induction stove, the fridge, and the oven, the television as well.
DAVID: The problem was that most appliance manufacturers talked about appliances being efficient or not, in terms of overall energy use, but there was a lot more to it for us because if an appliance was efficient for a long time, but actually drew a lot of energy at certain points in time, then that was going to overload the system. So we needed to find appliances that were efficient AND didn’t monopolize the power, Norman, was able to do that research. Because this is such a new thing, manufacturers don’t see the need to even provide you with that information.
DAVID: Another system that my brother had put in, kept tripping out because certain appliances would take 2.5 kilowatts and if a few of them were turning on at the same time, then bam, it had overloaded. We were nervous about that, but in the end, it worked really well and we don’t even think about that anymore.
LISA: It’s amazing.
DAVID: One of the things that we did which helped was that we knew 3 kilowatts of generation would be enough for us, as long as the sun was shining, that would charge the batteries and get us through the night. But if the sun wasn’t shining then it wouldn’t be enough, so we doubled the capacity and put 6 kilowatts on the roof, which doesn’t actually add a whole lot of expense, but what it does is in those little bits of sun that you get between the clouds on a bad day, that quickly charges the batteries up.
LISA: It takes 2 hours to get back to 100%.
DAVID: That would be a fully drained system, which we’ve never had. It’s an hour usually if we’re down half way. So hopefully in winter when we get those black days, those shorter days, we still won’t have a problem with the battery storage which we’ve got because we actually only put in half of what we thought we might need.
LISA: We’ve got the data, so when you hear people on the radio saying that it’s not possible, yes, it is possible.
DAVID: With the water system, there are two systems, we have the drinking water, and then there’s the grey water. This was never going to be water independent because to do that you need to have a massive tank, and we don’t have the area here for it. So it always had to be a system that was connected to the mains.
LISA: So we’re on town water at the moment for drinking, but we use the grey water system with the plants.
DAVID: It was designed to be something that you never thought about, you use rain water until the tank was empty and then automatically switches over, and you don’t actually have to go and turn it on or off or anything.
DAVID: The grey water system is something which will rely on all of the houses being built because it relies on running water down to the pond, which will be used to filter the water cycle back again. All that we have at the moment is a storm water tank which takes all of the water off of the roof and that serves as outdoor gardening water. Reiner put a lot of thought into re-usage and that’s something that other people just weren’t dong. Other people were doing storage and you had people filling buckets from their washing machine and putting that on the garden, but this is a proper water recycling system designed here, and I think that when it all comes together it will certainly lower our water usage.
DAVID: Hot water was the biggest challenge because solar hot water systems are great, but in our other house we had one, and if you have two days of rainy weather then you need to turn the booster on, otherwise you’d have cold showers. We knew that was never going to be an option here, because if the water has gone cold because there’s no sun, the batteries will be low, so we can’t use an electrical booster, and we won’t have gas, so what are we going to do? So again, we just doubled the solar connectors, and we put in a bigger hot water system than we’d actually need. There was a little bit of extra expense, but not a lot, and it’s never been cold. We’ve never noticed the temperature of the hot water system being anything other than scolding hot! Last week we had probably 4/5 days of cloudy weather, and the people in our old house found that their hot water system ran out, but ours was scolding hot!
DAVID: Again, it was a difficult one to work out, because I knew that it was going to be a potential problem, and I went looking for solutions, and everyone kept explaining, well you just have to have some kind of booster. I would tell them, “well, we can’t! It’s physically not an option”. With that one parameter gone, it changes the whole equation for everything. Eventually, I did find a guy who was kind of doing a similar thing. He was an engineer and he’d done all of these calculations to do with thermal lofts and sun angles. I got some great information from him which convinced me that this was the system that we needed.
LISA: So we got a bigger tank, and we angled the collectors for the winter sun.
DAVID: The temperature control is a big one because if you’ve got a solar battery system, then heating is a lot of power, and cooling is a lot of power. So obviously it’s better to build a house which doesn’t need either of those, and this is where Reiner’s brilliance comes in…
LISA: The design is amazing!
DAVID: We were always horrified with the way that construction of houses was going in Queensland. They build these closed up, concrete houses with hardly any windows, and then they pay to heat them with electricity. It just seems bizarre that you wouldn’t use the natural sun and environment.
DAVID: When the morning sun comes in, with the double glazed glass everywhere, it will just heat this whole house up. Sometimes that would be bad, but that’s why with the doors and window, it allows you to get the ventilation through too. In summer time, the high louvres and everything were just left open, even when you lock the house up, so you’re getting this beautiful breeze coming through the whole time. It’s really well insulated as well, so it never really got hot. We installed this amazing fan, a real state of the art, low energy fan, which can move the air around this whole room… we’ve run it TWICE over summer, because it just didn’t get hot.
LISA: Reiner calls it driving this house, so you’ve got to drive the louvres. It’s never dropped below 21.9, that’s the coldest that it’s ever been in here, and it’s never got above 29. No heating, and no air conditioning. Just purely design!
DAVID: Reiner was very passionate about the acoustic insulation between different parts of the house, in being able to have a large stereo in one bedroom and not impacting on anybody else, or someone having a party down here, and someone else being able to go to sleep upstairs. We really weren’t concerned about that and in some ways we didn’t actually do everything he would have liked to have done, but it is pretty amazing the way that it is all insulated. It is good because when our son comes home from Uni. He has the Xbox going at 11pm at night until 2am and our bedroom is right above the TV and the lounge… and we don’t hear it! This sound system is painfully loud if you turn it up!
LISA: When you close everything up, you don’t hear the outside noise coming in either. It makes a huge difference, and that’s mainly the double glazing as well as the insulation in the walls.
ENERGY MANAGEMENT SYSTEM
DAVID: The energy management system sends everything back from the house, to a server, and we access it from a panel on our iPad. Because it’s an off-grid system, we don’t ever get to see how much energy we could be producing because we only see what we’re using. If you have a look, you can see where the cooking happened, when you come and open the fridge and make breakfast. The funny thing is on one of those bars there, is Lisa turning the kettle on. I can see exactly when that happens. I can look at that from work!
DAVID: We thought that we’d use it more, but because everything is running so well, we haven’t needed to. But for example, you can turn your fridge off remotely, which you’re fine to do for say 5 hours or so without causing any problems. But why bother, when you don’t need to.
LISA: When you haven’t gone below 50%!
DAVID: This is another part of what is evolving, the software isn’t quite there yet, and in a few years time it’ll probably be a lot more sophisticated. I can log into my brothers’ house, and see his system, he uses a massive amount of electricity compared to what we use. They’re in this great palatial place which is fully air-conditioned, reverse cycle air-conditioned. If he see’s that things have been left on, then he can just shut down the air-conditioning system from work.
DAVID: The whole idea is in the system controlling itself, so it knows which things are non-essential. There’s also a proximity sensor, so it knows when someone’s in the house. It can have items on a non-essential circuit, so that when you leave the house, it will automatically turn off everything that you don’t need, the standby’s for stereos, and stuff. People are used to running around and flicking all of these switches off, but it can do all of that. Say for example that your batteries are going to run out, and you’ll be in the dark soon. You have the ability for the energy management system to say well, I’m going to shut the fridge off, but let’s have the lights until the last possible bit of battery left. It can take care of that.
THE HOUSE IN A GARDEN CONCEPT?
LISA: We’re supposed to have vertical gardens, and I suppose that in every house build, it’s often the thing that gets finished last, the garden and the landscaping. It’s often where the money runs out, and that’s what’s happened with us. We just said that we’ll take it slowly, so we’re not sure how that will effect the whole house because the house is quite light. Having the green walls is supposed to influence the thermal qualities and make things cooler in summer and warmer in winter. So we’re yet to live that out.
DAVID: I love the idea of being able to walk out and pick some food to have for dinner or some fruit for breakfast. So we’re really focused on planting those types of plants.
LISA: It’s going to take a few years to get established. The whole garden concept and gardening in pots is wonderful because you don’t have as much of a problem with the weeds and the whole environment encroaching on the grass. The pots that we did buy are from Melbourne and the whole idea is that they’re self-watering.
DAVID: The whole idea is that you water them once a week, and then they water themselves. The pots have a reservoir at the bottom and hold the water. So the roots grow down through the soil and get the water from the reservoir. But keeping that reservoir at the right level automatically doesn’t exist yet, so we’re waiting on that. We still walk around once a week and hand water the pots.
LISA: The other thing is that we’ve got the chickens! They’re free range around the house! The chickens are part of the garden concept, environmental thing, they eat the scraps. We used to have a composter, but we haven’t got around to doing that yet. It is community titled, so Reiner’s idea was not to have any pets, any cats or dogs, in terms of being environmentally sustainable. But the chickens gained special dispensation on the community title because we justified their environmental contribution. The nice thing is that the school next door also has chickens, and little Lambs, so you can stand in the shower, open the window and hear them, it’s really nice.
THE HOUSE IS SUITABLE FOR DUST MITES?
LISA: Both of our children have anaphylaxis and are allergic to dust mites, and I’m allergic to dust mites. So with the anaphylaxis part, it was a really high priority to have a dust mite free house. We did that by not putting any carpets, it’s amazing how much dust collects on the enamel floor. Originally Reiner wanted concrete floors down here, with heating running through it, water heating. But we felt that we didn’t need it here, we’ve lived just down the road and we knew how cold it gets. It does occasionally get down to naught degrees, but we knew that it would be pretty rare. That’s why we went for the wooden floor. We did look at cork too.
THE LOCATION AND CONVENIENCE?
LISA: We can walk to the beach, or ride our bikes. We walk to work, or ride our bikes, or David rides his electric skateboard.
DAVID: I’ve got an electric bike too! Which everybody laughs at because I love to cycle. I race a couple of kilometres, but there’s something about wearing work clothes and having to go over the hill in the heat of the day, it just wasn’t appealing. It would put me off of climbing the hill and coming home for afternoon tea. So I got this bike, with an electric hub motor. You can’t even tell that its electric, and I just soft peddle over the hill. It was a great idea, and it doesn’t cost anything to run because it’s charged on the system here. We’ve also got a solar system at the office too, so we’re covered there too.
LISA: Generally, maybe once a week you’d use the car just to go shopping for the bigger shops. But David’s idea with the electric bike was to take a backpack for small shopping trips. In terms of a spot to live, the jetty is really popular. It’s really a nice little community. It’s very quiet here. There are lots of units around us, but it’s still very very quiet. It’s a diverse community too because the cost of a house on the hill would be about 10 times the cost of a unit next door, you wouldn’t find that in a city, that diverse a mix so close to each other. But everybody’s quiet and friendly.
DO YOU EXPERIENCE INTEREST FROM THE LOCAL COMMUNITY?
DAVID: A lot of our friends who want to come round and see how it all works. There’s a lot of interest in being energy independent and they want to see that side of it. We have a constant stream at weekends, people who drive past and see the sign out the front. Lots of people stop to have a look. For me I wanted to show people that you could do this, so I like that people are interested.
DAVID: The school kids come down here, and the teachers said that they all wanted to know “what that thing was that was being built?” We said that we’d have them over one day, take them up onto the roof and show them what it’s all about. The school that the kids went to, the Steiner School, would also like to bring their children out and show them.
LISA: Even just the solar panels and the batteries, the energy management system, would be great for them to see.
DAVID: Our older son brought a stream of his friends through, and it was interesting because at school they had learnt about induction cooking and how it’s more energy efficient, but none of them had actually seen one. They understood the science of it. I’d never even heard of it really. I remember it was about a year ago, he got onto Wikipedia and was explaining it all to me!
LISA: Anyone who had done physics gets really excited about the induction stove!
COULD ANYBODY LIVE IN A CITY OF HOPE HOME?
DAVID: Yes. I think that because this house doesn’t require the heating and cooling, and that we went to all of the detail in getting the best that we possibly could out of the system, anyone could move into this house.
DAVID: Building a house like this, yes, you can make it for anybody. Trying to retrofit an old house is probably a bit more a challenge. Reiner has done over 90% of the hard work. The main thing that we brought to it was the energy system. I don’t really think that there was anyone in Coffs doing lithium battery systems that were going to work here. In 5 years, just about everyone will have them.
LAST THOUGHTS ON YOUR NEW HOME?
DAVID: Everything that we were at all concerned about, has just worked, so that’s a nice surprise!
LISA: Reiner’s objective to have exquisite living in a sustainable house has been achieved. We can have everything and not have to compromise our living requirements at all. In fact for us, it’s better than our old house. The whole thermal comfort has really surprised me. It’s been amazing.