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HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Could You Live Off-the-Grid? Part VIII – Surfing (the Web) in Hawaii November 19, 2009

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HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
By Kelly Moran

Could You Live Off-the-Grid? Part VIII – Surfing (the Web) in Hawaii

Internet access is the biggest challenge for an off-the-grid user. Without telephone “land-lines” for DSL, or CATV cables for high-speed connectivity, you will have to accept a somewhat slower service. And when you’re off the grid, speed is very much a function of money.

The least expensive option is to get internet access from a cell-phone provider, which will sell you a small modem to plug into your computer’s USB port, and a “plan” that’s scaled by hours of usage. If you go with the same carrier as for your phone, there may be a discount; but in general, adding internet access will approximately double your monthly cell-phone bill. Internet speed over a cellular network is faster than dial-up; but unless your land is close to multiple cell-phone towers, that speed will not be much faster than dial-up.

If you don’t need to be on-line frequently or for long stretches of time, cell phone connectivity is a bargain – and there’s a big bonus in going this route: When you travel, you’ll never have to look for – or pay for – a “wi-fi hotspot.”  This is very convenient in airports, and will save you money in hotels where high-speed internet, whether wired or wireless, is a pricy extra on your bill.

In short, wherever you can get cell phone service, anywhere in the country, you can also do your emailing, and browse the Web. But for your home-based computer, away from urban centers, you may find it frustratingly slow. And only one computer at a time can get on line that way: you can’t connect a “router” (see below) to a cell phone modem.

For that, you need something different. There are local companies on the Big Island that offer internet access through microwave antennas. Their monthly fees are higher than for cell phone connectivity, and you may have to buy (rather than lease) the antenna. But microwave speeds are higher than cell phone speeds. To get microwave services, however, your house must be on a direct line-of-sight with one of their antenna towers. A technician will have to go out to your place to verify that you can, in fact, get on their network.

From most places on the island, however, it is much easier to see the sky than to see a tower. So, a satellite internet service, such as StarBand, may be easier to obtain. The speed of satellite connectivity does not equal but it does approach that of DSL or cable, close enough that most users will not feel frustrated. Monthly fees are comparable to those for microwave service: but the initial cost may be higher, since you will probably have to buy the antenna. And that antenna will be bigger than the antenna for satellite TV, because it not only has to receive signals, it has to transmit them too. The dish and its installation may cost as much as $2,000.

Besides higher speeds, though, the big advantage of going with either a microwave or a satellite connection is that you can use a wireless router to set up a private “local-area network” (LAN), through which anyone in a 50-100-foot radius can log on, do email or surf the Web. That is, you can get on line not only from your desk but from your lanai, bedroom, back yard . . . from pretty much wherever you wish.

There is a great sense of satisfaction in knowing, as you browse the Web, talk on your cell phone, contemplate your solar panels, and drink your rainwater . . . that you are unfettered, bound by no wires to the matrix of utilities in which everyone else resides. Off-the-grid you are, as nearly as possible, independent and free.

At this off-the-grid house, the small dish on the roof is for television reception. The big dish - bigger because it has to transmit as well as receive - is for internet service, and rests on the ground. Both dishes face the southeastern sky.

At this off-the-grid house, the small dish on the roof is for television reception. The big dish - bigger because it has to transmit as well as receive - is for internet service, and rests on the ground. Both dishes face the southeastern sky.

This concludes my eight-part series about living off-the-grid. With all of these options for water, electricity and telecommunications, there is no need to give up any modern conveniences. You can live off-the-grid here.

But the question I originally posed was “Could you . . . ?” And the answer boils down to this: You certainly could – but only if you are willing to do for yourself what others have always done for you, and will accept responsibility for things you have previously taken for granted.

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HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Could You Live Off-the-Grid? Part VII: Staying In Touch November 10, 2009

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HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
By Kelly Moran

Could You Live Off-the-Grid? Part VII: Staying In Touch

Once you have secured water and electricity, and can keep the temperature comfortable in your off-the-grid house, you can start thinking about what most people also consider key ingredients of civilized life: telephone, television and internet.

Obviously, you can not have a “land-line” if you are off the grid. But you may already have a cellular phone, and market research shows that more and more people – in younger demographics, especially – are now using their cell phone as their only phone.

All the major carriers (e.g. Verizon, AT&T, etc.) are here on the Big Island. Their coverage areas overlap, and reception is generally very good. If you are contemplating buying a particular piece of land, you will want to make and receive a cell-phone call while you’re checking the place out. There are only a few “dead” zones on the island, most noticeably at the bottom of the three gulches along the Hamakua Coast; but it’s not likely that you’ll be living down there.

Cell phones are very reliable, and there are many (some folks would say “too many”) choices of equipment. You can have anything from a simple voice-only phone to a phone with a camera – even a video camera – to something like a Blackberry that gives you almost as much power as a laptop computer, to do email and browse the Web (about which, more next time). A client of mine, who needs to constantly hack down ginger and other weeds around his stream, found it necessary – after a little mishap – to get a cell phone that is waterproof!

The only disadvantage to having a cell phone as your only phone is that you don’t get listed in local telephone directories – they are published by the land-line phone companies – though you could, if your business needs the exposure, buy a listing in one of the “yellow-pages” directories and include your cell phone number there. Otherwise, if someone wants to phone you, they will need to know your number already, or acquire it some other way – perhaps by a “Google” search.

Satellite TV is very popular in Hawaii, even where cable TV is available and convenient. Both Dish Network and DirecTV  are offered here, and their rates are competitive. The only technical requirement is that the bowl-shaped antenna must be able to “see” its affiliated satellite(s) in the southeastern sky, with no hills or trees blocking the way. Typically, it’s about two feet in diameter, and doesn’t weigh much, so it is usually mounted right on the house (or can be pole mounted, cemented in the ground).

TV Satellite: Roof Mounted

TV Satellite: Roof Mounted

TV Satellite: Pole Mounted, Cemented in Ground

TV Satellite: Pole Mounted, Cemented in Ground

Like cable services, most satellite services include a digital video recorder (DVR) for recording programs to watch at your convenience. This is especially useful in Hawaii, because we are two hours behind the West Coast and five hours behind the East Coast (three and six, respectively, in the months when the Mainland observes Daylight Saving Time – which Hawaii does not).

Time-specific programs, like sports events, may have ended by the time you are ready to see them, and local broadcasts of national programming, such as PBS documentaries, may not be shown on the same day and time as on Mainland stations.

There are some downsides to satellite TV. Your choice of channels may be limited, compared to cable programming; and although light rain won’t interfere, a really big storm can interrupt your TV reception. Also, since any electronic equipment may fail unexpectedly, you may want to consider getting a DVR that allows you to back up recorded programs on an external hard-disk drive.

TV is passive; the Internet is interactive. I’ll cover internet options next time.

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HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Could You Live Off-the-Grid? Part VI – Winter Wood-Working October 29, 2009

Posted by Kelly Moran in : Could You Live Off-the-Grid?, HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND, Moving to Hawaii , 1 comment so far

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
By Kelly Moran

Could You Live Off-the-Grid?  Part VI – Winter Wood-Working

          Nighttime winter temperatures along the coasts, here, can get down to 60° F.  Add the cooling effect of clouds and rain, and on the eastern side, at least, you can expect nights in the 50s. As you get above sea level, anywhere, ambient temperature falls 3° F for every 1,000 feet up, so many places here are downright chilly in the winter: Volcano, at 4,000 feet, gets frost!

          But homes in Hawaii don’t have furnaces, and few if any are insulated against cold (or hot) weather.  Other than wrapping yourself in heavy clothes, if you want to stay warm indoors, you’ll have to generate heat, and the easiest way is to burn wood.

          You could soak all day in a wood-fired hot tub, but more likely you’d want to sit around the house near a modern wood stove or fireplace that’s engineered to send a lot of heat into the room, instead of up the chimney.  They’re are sold in specialty stores in Hilo and Kona, and can be ordered through home-improvement stores, too.  You must get a commercial model, and not build one yourself, because it has to meet strict local construction codes, and the building-inspectors here are very finicky about anything that could be a fire-hazard.

          What isn’t widely available, however, is wood.  You won’t see cords of firewood stacked outside supermarkets and garden supply stores, as you do on the mainland.  (A true cord, by the way, is four feet wide, four feet high, and eight feet long.)  Sometimes, a classified ad in one of the local papers will offer firewood.  Just make sure that the pieces are cut small enough to fit in your firebox.

          You could, of course, go out and cut your own firewood.  Unless you have an especially dense stand of trees on your land, that you really don’t want to keep, you probably will have to go elsewhere.  Obviously, you can not go logging in Hawaii’s forest reserves or parks; and until you’ve lived here a while, you probably will not know or hear about neighborhood trees that have to be cut due to land-clearing, hazard-removal, and so on.

          You should certainly consider cutting weed-trees, though.  Many property owners – maybe you, too? – have thickets of rose-apple or waiawi that they’d like to get rid of.  Waiawi (“vy-vee”) is strawberry guava, an especially hard wood that burns hot; but the trunks are not especially thick, and hence not easily split by hand.

          A client of mine purchased a house whose long driveway was lined with tall cedars and pines.  These exotics were probably intended to be harvested as Christmas trees, but had not been cut in time, so they stood over 50 feet tall, deeply shading the driveway, and blocking half the view from the house.  He had them professionally cut down.  The branches and leaves were ground up into mulch, which was piled up near his garden; and the logs were cut to fit in his fireplace.  Citing the old adage that you get warm first from the exercise and then again from burning the wood, he now spends an hour or two each autumn and winter month with an axe, maul and wedge, happily splitting those logs.

Getting a pro to cut your fire-logs frees you up to split and burn them.

Getting a pro to cut your fire-logs frees you up to split and burn them.

          He doesn’t use a chain-saw, however.  In the popular imagination, you aren’t really living off-the-grid if you don’t have a chain-saw.  But you probably won’t need one; and unless you are already experienced in operating one, or have someone who can teach you to use it carefully, you probably should not get one.  The ease with which a chain-saw cuts through wood makes it a very compelling tool, especially for inexperienced users who are all too likely to take on a challenge they can’t meet, or in some other way get into an accident.  Moreover, it’s a tool that requires a lot of
care: ensuring that the cutting-edges are sharp, keeping both the engine and the chain properly lubricated, etc.  Like installing electrical circuits or plumbing, cutting wood with a chain-saw is a task best left to experts.

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HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Getting Into Hot Water October 27, 2009

Posted by Kelly Moran in : Could You Live Off-the-Grid?, HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND, Moving to Hawaii, Resources , 1 comment so far

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
By Kelly Moran

Could You Live Off-the-Grid?  Part V – Getting Into Hot Water

          You probably don’t want to live anywhere without hot water.  But fortunately, that’s the easiest convenience to have, off-the grid.  In our warm and sunny climate (sunny enough, even in Hilo), a simple black plastic water-bag on the roof will give you hot showers from afternoon through early evening.

          Utility executives know this.  They also know that heating water with electricity is terribly wasteful and inefficient; and that they may never get approval to build another power-plant here if they don’t help to hold down demand.  So the Hawaii Electric Light Co. (HELCO) is offering households huge incentives to replace electric water heaters with solar water-heaters.

          You can’t go wrong with solar.  Ideally, you should have a broad southern exposure, but almost any place with open sky views should be sufficient to generate heat from the sun.  You will, however, need a tank, and some backup heat source (propane or electricity) to keep the tank’s temperature constant.

          For an attractive alternative, consider an “on-demand” water heater, in which a small propane burner fires up only when you open a hot-water tap.  There’s no tank (a cost-saving in itself), and though the heater may have a pilot-light, it isn’t burning a lot of gas to maintain a high temperature when you aren’t using hot water.  These systems are very inexpensive, and easily installed by any plumber.  Just be sure the burner is vented, for safety, to the outdoors.

tankless

          You could also combine a solar water-heater with a slightly more costly version of the on-demand heater, which has a temperature-sensor built in.  It can then raise up to full hot-water temperature the water that’s already warm from the sun.

          Those solutions are excellent for showers and small tub baths.  As for a resort-size, Jacuzzi-type hot tub, big enough for two or more people, you will need sufficient electricity to run the “jets.”  But a more important consideration is that heating such a large volume of water takes a lot of energy – quite likely more than can be heated by the sun in single a day.  But there are other ways to heat a big tub of water, especially if you’d like your hot-tub experience to be naturalistic.

          In old plantation days, a Japanese farm worker would build a bathhouse, separate from his home, with a wood-fired furo inside.  He’d lay a brick-and-mortar firepit and chimney, set a sheet of copper over the firepit, and make a tub out of redwood (and a redwood grille, to keep from sitting down on the hot metal).  An hour or so after starting the fire, the tub water would be hot enough to soak in.  Traditional bathhouses have drains in the floor, because the Japanese always wash and rinse themselves off first, and only then get into the tub.

          Many years ago, I lived in a house near Hilo that had exactly that sort of backyard bathhouse with a brick-firebox and copper-sheet furo.  I would jokingly compare the experience to the cartoon image of missionaries being cooked in a cannibal’s cauldron.

    Fortunately, there is a modern alternative.  It’s called a “snorkel stove” (www.snorkel.com) – an aluminum firebox that sits in one part of the tub, separated from the bathers, for safety, by a wooden screen.  Since it takes up about one-person’s-worth of space, the tub has to be slightly bigger than you might otherwise need.

hot-tubs 

          Having a separate bathhouse makes the experience seem special, somehow; and since the tub isn’t in your regular bathroom, it’s more relaxing and more attractive, especially if you share the tub with family or guests.  You’ll probably want to site the bathhouse close to your home, though, and in rainy places, link the two structures with a covered walkway.

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HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Could You Live Off-the-Grid? Part IV October 16, 2009

Posted by Kelly Moran in : Big Island Hawaii, Could You Live Off-the-Grid?, HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND, Moving to Hawaii, Resources , add a comment

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
By Kelly Moran

Could You Live Off-the-Grid? Part IV

AC vs. DC

Every electric motor and light bulb in an ordinary house runs on alternating current (AC). And though your cell phone or laptop computer runs on direct current (DC), you keep them charged up with a little transformer you plug into an AC outlet, that “transforms” AC into DC.

No matter how you (or the utilities) generate power, whether from fuel, wind, hydro, or the sun, it starts out as DC and must be changed – or, more accurately, “inverted” – to AC. That’s done through (what else?) an “inverter” that sits between your batteries and the breaker-box for the house’s electrical outlets. The inverter also keeps the electricity from fluctuating, so your power is as consistently smooth as it would be from the grid.

You could skip the inverter, and have an all-DC house. There are DC versions of most appliances, including TVs and refrigerators; and when people here started living off the grid, in the 1960s and ’70s, home-sized inverters were not commonplace; so going entirely DC was the only way they could have modern conveniences. But DC appliances are not cheap, and you won’t find them in local stores. Making an all-DC house also forces you to site all the components of your system, including the outlets, very close together, because (unlike alternating current) direct current loses strength if it has to run through more than about 50 feet of wire. So, to live off the grid, you need batteries and an inverter, too. The fact is: we live in an AC world.

You need batteries. Here, the first five (of sixteen) 24-volt batteries are being installed in a household system. An inverter (not shown) turns the batteries' DC power into AC.

You need batteries. Here, the first five (of sixteen) 24-volt batteries are being installed in a household system. An inverter (not shown) turns the batteries' DC power into AC.

Go Gas

As for cooking, you will have to forget about an electric stove – you can not possibly generate enough power for that. Get a gas stove, and make sure the installer sets up all the burners for propane (instead of natural gas, which is not sold in Hawaii).

Propane is easily obtained. Tanks range in capacity from backyard-grill-size, to four-foot-tall cylinders, to horizontal giants. You can take the smaller ones into town to be refilled, or pay an additional but small monthly fee (less than $10) to have a gas company driver deliver fresh tanks and/or refill them at your home.

There are, by the way, refrigerators that run on propane. They are more expensive and slightly less efficient than electric refrigerators, but if your generating capacity is limited, and you’re getting propane anyway, for cooking or heating water (which I’ll cover next time), you may want to at least check and see if a propane refrigerator will suit your needs. It is, in any case, one more way to stay off-the-grid.

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HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND: Could You Live Off-the-Grid? Part III: Here Comes the Sun October 13, 2009

Posted by Kelly Moran in : Big Island Hawaii, Could You Live Off-the-Grid?, HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND, Moving to Hawaii, Updates , add a comment

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND

By Kelly Moran

Could You Live Off-the-Grid?  Part III: Here Comes the Sun

          Turning sunshine into electricity is the most popular way to generate your own power, here, although two conditions must be met.  First, you really have to have a good view of the sun all day: no trees or hills shadowing the house.  And second, you have to have dough: the initial investment is high, and likely to remain so for the near future.  A “family-of-four” will probably need a system costing $30-40,000, including batteries and control equipment. 

          But electricity from the Hawaii Electric Light Co. (HELCO) costs more than 30 cents per kilowatt-hour, pushing utility bills up into thousands of dollars a year, and the rates will only go higher.  So, a solar system should break even in ten years or less.  Moreover, the price of photovoltaic panels is slowly coming down, while their electrical efficiency keeps going up.  And there are no ongoing costs: once the system is in place, your electricity is free, and your batteries get charged up every day!

          Two recent technological developments make solar increasingly attractive. The newest photovoltaic collectors aren’t like heavy picture-frames, with glass on top.  They’re lightweight, flexible sheets of plastic that are available either as shingles or as peel-and-stick strips that lie flat, between the ridges of standing-seam metal roofs.   And these new materials are more sensitive to ultraviolet light than the glass panels are, so they keep on making electricity even on cloudy days, when there isn’t as much “visible” light.

Two ways to Capture Sunlight:

"Building-integrated photovoltaic" (BIPV) panels adhere directly to a standing-seam metal roof.

"Building-integrated photovoltaic" (BIPV) panels adhere directly to a standing-seam metal roof.

Framed-glass photovoltaic panels are mounted on a carport.

Framed-glass photovoltaic panels are mounted on a carport.

          If your land is close to an existing utility pole, the Hawaii Electric Light Co. (HELCO) may accept whatever electricity you generate and, in effect, store it for you in its grid.  But hey! – this is about living off the grid.  And that means storing your electricity in batteries.

          The right kind of batteries for home-size power-plants are similar to car batteries, but larger and heavier, with higher electrical capacity (24- or 48-volt, instead of 12).  And their installation has to meet building codes (e.g., you can’t put them in the crawl-space under the house).

          To keep your system operating at peak efficiency, you will have to take on some responsibilities that have traditionally been shouldered by the utilities.  Though you don’t have power-poles to climb, or high-tension wires to string, you will have to perform some regular maintenance tasks, the equivalent of those that utilities ordinarily do, and the cost of which they bundle into their monthly bill.

          So, for example, you must ensure that the fluid in your batteries is at the proper level, by topping them off with distilled water, once a month.  And as soon as you do that, it’s a good idea to run your backup generator for at least an hour or two, not only to help your batteries stay fully charged, but also to keep the generator itself in top running condition, so it’s always ready in case of emergency.

          Go solar, and you also ride the wave of the future.  If we in Hawaii are ever going to free ourselves from imported petroleum fuels, we will have to generate more and more of our electricity from the sun.

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HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND: Could You Live Off-the-Grid Part II: (Electric) Power to the People September 25, 2009

Posted by Kelly Moran in : Big Island Hawaii, Could You Live Off-the-Grid?, HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND, Resources, Updates , add a comment

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND
By Kelly Moran

Could You Live Off-the-Grid Part II: (Electric) Power to the People

In my discussion of catching rainwater, last time, I neglected to mention that in some places it’s possible to draw water from a well, especially if your land is near to places where Hawaii County draws its water. But finding a reliable and sufficient source of water underground is not easy, and on the drier, western side of the island, wells have to be drilled very, very deep. So, you may get lucky. Or not. And the cost of drilling could exceed the cost of a catchment tank. Besides, a well needs a pump – and that means you need electricity.

There are four ways that people here generate their own electricity: fuel, wind, hydro, and solar. I’ll cover the first three now, and discuss solar next time.

A stream this big could genereate electricity, but only if the water level drops 40 feet or more from the intake point down to the turbine.
A stream this big could genereate electricity, but only if the water level drops 40 feet or more from the intake point down to the turbine.

 

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HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND – Could You Live Off-the-Grid? September 21, 2009

Posted by Kelly Moran in : Big Island Hawaii, Could You Live Off-the-Grid?, HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND, Moving to Hawaii , 6comments

HERE ON THE BIG ISLAND

By Kelly Moran

Could You Live Off-the-Grid?

          Notice, please, the question is “Could you . . . ?”
You certainly can live where none or only some of the Big Island’s commercial services – water, electricity, telephone, television, internet – are piped into your home for a monthly fee.

          And you don’t have to rough-it to live off-the-grid.  You can enjoy a thoroughly up-to-date lifestyle, with all the accoutrements of a modern home, without being a customer of any commercial utility.  In this and the next few blogs, I’ll tell you about the challenges and the strategies of acquiring for yourself the necessities of life here on the Big Island.

          Water comes first, of course.  Hawaii County has an extensive water system of wells, pumps, pipelines and meters, with high quality and modest rates.  But where 40 or more inches of rain fall every year, you can reliably collect your own water from the gutters on your roof.  Rain is (shall we say) especially abundant in Hilo and Puna; so even in neighborhoods, there, where County water is easily available, some homeowners choose to use catchment tanks.

IMG_1893
This house, though only seven miles from downtown Hilo, is entirely off the grid. The water tank – a metal frame lined with plastic – is in the foreground. The roof also has photovoltaic panels for generating electricity.

 

          A so-called “family of four” should have at least a 10,000 gallon tank, which is generally a cylinder about twelve feet in diameter and eight feet high. Although some old redwood tanks are still in use, and are aesthetically quite pleasing, they are rarely if ever built nowadays.  More common – and actually better, because they do not decompose – are tanks made of sheet metal and lined with tough plastic liners (very much like above-ground swimming pools), or tanks made of ferro-concrete (in which cement, sprayed onto a metal “rebar” frame, hardens into concrete).  The latter is more expensive but will last much longer. Also, since rainwater is naturally slightly acidic, contact with the slightly alkaline concrete tends to neutralize the “ph” of stored water.

           Once you have water in the tank, you still have to pipe it into the house.  You’ll want some kind of filtration, because dirt and dust, or fragments of leaves, always wash down from the gutters; and though they generally settle to the bottom of the tank, little bits of stuff do sometimes get into the house’s supply line.  But particulates like that are easily intercepted with simple filters which, like their smaller under-the-sink cousins, are typically replaced once or twice a year.

          Getting that supply to flow inside the house’s plumbing, however, requires constant pressure in the pipes.  Standard household water pressure is 40 pounds per square inch (psi).  If your tank can be sited at least 40 feet higher than the highest faucet in the house, gravity will supply enough pressure.  But unless your land is a steep hillside, that won’t be an easy setup.  Besides, it’s much easier to site the tank close enough to the house to take the runoff from the roof.

          So the force that pushes water through the plumbing typically comes from a pump and a special tank which, together, maintain constant pressure.  To have that you’ll need electricity, which I’ll tell you about next time.

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