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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Solar Panels in and Working, The Next Step is ...

As part of the installation of Solar Panels we had monitoring hardware installed. One transmitter is attached to measure our power usage and another to measure our generation. Both these send data to a receiver attached to a spare port on our ADSL line. Efergy who supply these units provide a free service which records all the data. As well as online graphs you can download various reports for analysis.

Step 1 was to change some household practices. The Dishwasher and the Washing Machine now only operate during the day after we are generating power. We are also looking at some of our refrigeration equipment to see if we can alter their operating times.

Step 2 was the assessment of our overall usage to see if our generator was big enough to run the house - it was. The Solar Panel installer will now fit a cutover switch to our meter board which allows us to plug our generator directly into the house. Rather than numerous extension cords snaking through the paddock and into the house a single heavy duty cable will run from the new (yet to be built) generator house. It will be positioned out of earshot but still close. Setup and changeover will be minutes. And the dismantling just as quick.

Each year we use our generator at least 3 or four times when power goes out. The last time was after the East Coast Low cut power for 3 days. We expect our country service quality to degrade in coming years when the state government sells off the service. The small investment in a quick changeover facility will make life just that little bit simpler.

Step 3 is the assessment of Time of Usage (TOU). Now that we have some usage history we were able to plug data from Peak, Off peak and Shoulder usage into a spread sheet and compare the cost of TOU to our current contract. Based on these numbers a changeover to TOU will give us a 14% additional saving on our quarterly bill.

Step 4 was to get the supplier to change us to TOU and then go to the Sales department and get a 12 month contract which would give us another 18% discount on the TOU rates. This has to be renewed every 12 months (calendar marked) and the bills paid on time and in full.

One warning here. Make sure you keep track of your conversations and write down the call reference numbers. We were able to eliminate a $66 changeover fee because in one call the operator said the fee was only applicable for meter configuration and not for the reading.

According to our spread sheet we have reduced our quarterly bill by a whopping 57%. A pay back period of 2.9 years on our Solar Panel investment.

The electricity supplier doesn't spell out all these discounts. It was only due to our solar installer that we were able to find out about and take advantage of the various configuration discounts.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Sprouted Grain Bread or Our Version of Essene Bread

We have been experimenting with sprouted grain bread.  There are quite a few variables to assess but slowly we are getting a clearer picture. Making a solid loaf seems beyond our skills at the moment and therefore we are sticking to making a flat bread to use with cheeses, dips and smoked Salmon.

First attempt in the oven

First up only three grains are involved Wheat, Rye and Buckwheat. The Wheat and Rye are dead easy to sprout but not so the Buckwheat. Maybe it isn't of sprouting quality. We tried a different source alongside the original and found the original worked fine. It just seems it needs more than one decent wash each day.

At first we limited the sprouting to just the tiniest of white shoots but further reading suggested that getting some green sprouts to appear may be better. The sprouting goes for about 4 days now.

Wheat Sprouts

We use a Champion Juicer to mill the sprouted grain into a coarse slop then pat it out onto a flat tray.

Champion Juicer

Quinoa doesn't really mash up

Usually we make two variations. One is the 100% sprouted slop and the second is the slop with a sourdough starter added 24 hours earlier which gives a acidity flavour. But in the quest for perfection we now stuck with nothing else but the ground sprouts.

Broadening the horizons we added Spelt grain to the mix with disastrous results. It had too many broken grains. The Quinoa worked fine but the Millet and Sesame seeds failed. Both Mung beans and Lentils had no trouble. At the moment the trial was about which seeds were easiest to sprout. Later we will try to assess overall flavour with various mixes. Although when you think about it the more variation the merrier.

Mung Sprouts

Lentil Sprouts

Along the way someone said it was best not to heat the mix above 120 F (48.8C). Although the 150 C baking provided a luscious caramelly  crisp biscuit we persevered with the low temperature in the Nara dryer while baking some in the 150 C oven for comparative testing.

Baking Tray

The Nara dryer was adjusted to stay below the 48.8 C. The first batch was spread too thin and we ended with the biscuit breaking up when it was removed from the tray.

Drying Tray

The crumbed version made a good topping for soups and stews and even salads


In the next test a much thicker layer was applied, about 10-12 mm thick and only used the dryer. This worked really well and it didn't matter whether it was directly on the tray or on Baking paper. The direct to tray dried in under 24 hours and the Baking paper solution took just a few extra hours. We also added about 10% by weight of Olive Oil. This resulted in the final biscuit not sticking to the cooking surface.

Using Baking Paper on a drying tray - 10-12 mm thick

Final result

The final bread/biscuit is dry and keeps well. We didn't use any sourdough starter either.  It doesn't have that nutty caramel flavour of the oven baked version but it at least retains all its goodness. Using the dryer is cheaper than running the oven for six or more hours and burning is not risked. The flavour is hard to describe but probably dried sprouts is most applicable. It goes well with cheeses and other toppings.

If you want to avoid traditional breads this is a pretty good alternative, relatively easy to make and versatile. And they say sprouted grains are extremely nutrient rich.







Saturday, June 20, 2015

Fancy, Tasty, Healthy Chocolate

In an attempt to improve the firmness of the chocolate we make and also add more flavour a few changes were made to the recipe.

The recipe is 3 x Coconut Oil, 1 x Honey, 7 x Cocoa Powder

We replaced one of the Coconut Oils with Cocoa Butter - good result i.e. more flavour and firmness.

Then instead of one type of Cocoa Powder we used one third Raw Cocoa which is lighter in colour but supposedly healthier and a third each of two other brands for more darkness.

Then came the discovery of the century. A big smattering of our own home made peanut butter made from roasted raw peanuts run through the Champion Juicer. At a rough guess about 2 to 3 measures. But by all means make it up yourself. Wow, what a combination. Be prepared to get fat.

See the posts on making the chocolate chocolate.

Remember not to skimp on the quality of either the Coconut Oil or the Cocoa.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

We finally invested in Solar Panels but what a Pain

We finally made the move to install solar panels hoping that it would be a simple process which didn't require us to spend days/weeks becoming familiar with the technology in order to make a decision.

Well it turned out to be a long drawn out saga and we did in fact have to learn all the details about solar panels and their installation.

Thinking it would be easy we selected three suppliers for quotations. We chose the three big electricity companies thinking that they would know what to do and be reputable. But not so. Only two responded. Neither was willing to attend the site without payment to perform the pricing. It was all done over the telephone. One supplier did this from a call centre in India. The other did it within the country but didn't respond to any follow up questions. They also turned out to have the poorest record of service with only 63% of customers NOT experiencing problems.

We then broadened the search criteria and invited another half a dozen or more companies to tender including a local electrician who came recommended. Three of these visited. As quotes came to hand we became further immersed in detail and potential issues. Rural installations have more limitations than suburban installations.

We found companies quoted on all manner of possible systems. And offerings were based on either our usage or the largest permissible system. Only three companies were concerned with the limitations of cable length and voltage rise which dictated the size of the final system. Most companies left it up to us to organise the new meter installation.

Some companies said we needed angling brackets others said we didn't. Some said 3KW was all we needed and said 5KW. As a general rule almost no one was concerned with optimisation.

We read all about panels and inverters and at least knew which were the best and most reliable brands.

The local electrician who visited spent 2 hours with us measuring and answering questions. He only dealt with the best quality materials. Over the ensuing couple of weeks we saw he and his crew in action on another site repairing water damaged pumping equipment and were impressed. Mentally we had chosen him and were hoping his pricing wouldn't be over the top.

His final proposed system was 3KW. Limited by the rather high voltage we have on this site. The pricing by our electrician was 10% below the nearest contender. He also included surge protection because of the voltage. And to assist us in measuring both our usage and our generation a pair of wireless monitors are included along with access to an web based analysis tool.

After many weeks of research, talking and comparing we were lucky enough to be hit by a rainbow. A local supplier/installer, prepared to visit, talk and build a relationship, be a one stop shop, came with a personal recommendation, demonstrated skills, designed a system for this site and nailed the whole deal home with an attractive quote.



Preparedness Tested Part 3

Water.

If you don't have easy access to water:

  •  it is impossible to flush the toilet. And it isn't much easier using buckets.
  • When your face is covered with sawdust from hours of chainsaw work (even with protective gear) you want to wash it off
  • Chain sawing is thirsty work you need to drink a lot to keep functioning for the long term.
  • At night you are crusty, wet and tired and desperately need a hot shower.
The house pressure system is the first appliance we connect to the generator.

Power

We have had our 7.5 KW generator for over 20 years. It has paid for itself many times over both in making blackouts comfortable and also in saving the contents of refrigerators and freezers. Apart from major storm damage even short period blackouts are annoying as they seem to happen just on dusk.

Not everyone can justify owning a model this large but even a small unit can provide some essential services.

Fuel

We keep 8 x 20 litre drums of fuel for our various engines. Petrol is 20 kilometres away if the road isn't blocked. Complacency lead us to only have just under three drums remaining full. Luck was with us and we were able to survive easily for 3 days without external power.

We now refill any empty containers as soon as possible. It is also a lot easier to carry two containers in the car rather than 6 or 8.

Fuel also means the accruements i.e.Chain and bar oil, 2 stroke oil and engine oil.

Telephone

Most people have replaced their Telstra issued handset with a cordless multi handset model. These require electricity to function. We couldn't contact some of our neighbours because they didn't have the old handset. We keep both connected. The batteries at the exchange kept the service functioning for about 30 hours.

Lighting

When Aldi had a special on LED wand torches we bought several. They are incredible. The battery life on LED is many hours and reading by them is like reading in daylight. Having them distributed in key locations for quick access. They come with a folding hook for hanging and a magnetic plate to stick on the refrigerator in the kitchen for night meal preparation. We also keep a standard lamp with two led globes for general night lighting.

Cooking

When we renovated the kitchen more than 10 years ago we opted for a gas stove. But if you have a BBQ it works also. Just make sure you always keep a spare gas bottle.

Our coffee is made with a small espresso machine from freshly ground beans. Well made coffee makes a good start to the day. As a backup we keep a small amount of ground coffee frozen and also we have kept our old plunger and a stove top infuser as backup. Luckily we had plenty of milk on hand. These small things just make life a little more normal and pleasant.

Heating

A fireplace or slow combustion heater can't be beaten.

Maintenance

Our bitumen driveway has a badly damaged section which needs major rework. The cause was a blocked drain. The drain was blocked because we had become lazy and didn't complete our annual clean up of this vital drain.

Emergency Exit

It just so happens we are in the process of replacing our aging front boundary fence. The new addition will be another gate into the neighbours property for yet another exit.

Summary

Overall we survived very well. Ran a little low on fuel and couldn't run away for two days but we had plenty of food, water and warmth. Being able to take care of ourselves without calling on emergency services allowed others in need to be taken care of sooner.

We have learnt to be more disciplined about adhering to preparedness plans.

Most of all we found that it didn't take much to make life comfortable in that period. Because we were not in crisis we were able to check with neighbours to make sure they were unhurt and not in need. Life went on pretty much as normal but with a few changed priorities.

There is always an upside to every disaster. The local economy is thriving with the hardware stores and produce stores selling out of everything from fencing materials to chainsaws. People are restocking freezers and pantries. Tradesman are inundated with work. Best if the storm hadn't happened but always accept the positives.

All we need to do now after securing all the boundaries is to commence clearing away the 40 odd trees lying horizontally. No need to worry about firewood for some time.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Preparedness Tested Part 2

On Tuesday morning we woke up to no power. The rain had eased and so had the wind. Jean went to let out the chickens and I went about setting up the generator with extension cords to the house - it takes about 20 minutes at most. She came back to let me know a number of Eucalypt trees in The Nuttery had toppled over the fox exclusion fence.

Rather than do a full evaluation of the property I had some coffee and set about clearing the Nuttery fence to make sure the chickens were protected. It only took a few hours to cut away the foliage and trunks and re-erect the fence.

The following day and just by chance we found the chickens were not secure at all. Down in the gulley of The Nuttery there had been a wash out through the boundary. Come on in predators. Another couple of hours work to repair.

Rule: Make a complete inspection of the property before you start.

How fortunate that on the previous Friday we succumbed to a special on chainsaws at the produce store and purchased a light weight quality saw to use beside our big boy saw. We would need the big boy for the large trunks but wielding it at shoulder height to trim foliage is a real muscle killer.

Rule: Always have the appropriate sized tools.

Now with the chickens secure I wandered on down our driveway to inspect the damage. Of the four trees down over the driveway only one presented a serious problem. It was the second largest tree on the property with a metre thick trunk dead centre across the driveway. The huge canopy would have to be trimmed gradually to prevent the trunk from swivelling. It took two days to cut a path for a vehicle.



We had an alternative route out but it was 4WD access only and had more than 6 trees across it. There was also another 4WD access point through next door's property but it was impassable with 4 massive trees blocking the gateway.




Rule: Have multiple points of access to the property but don't assume they won't all fail. There needs to be a backup plan for that failure.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Preparedness Tested Part 1

The Williams River had flood warnings issued well in advance of the rainfall but a strange thing happened many if not most farmers were caught out including ourselves. We all recalled the 2007 East Coast Low and the river peaking at it's highest level. And then moved cattle and horses accordingly.

Well that didn't work because the river rose an additional 3 metres higher than before. All those ridges that remained above the 2007 water level now sat 2 metres below the water line. And it all happened very quickly i.e. no second chances.

On Monday night I moved the cattle on our work place farm off the river into what was deemed a secure paddock. On Tuesday morning we could no longer access that property. Being a cautious worrier about these things and watching the river spread I contacted the neighbour to that property and was able to get the cattle released into the highest ground. I found out later it was only with an hour to spare.

Some farmers were lucky and their animals floated down stream and survived but most others were not.

So what happened here. We all suffered the same bias. We did not allow for the event to be any worse than our existing memories. We also believed the rate of rise would be the same.

New rule for preparedness. Assume the very worst.

When we finally made it across the river to the work property we could see this silage had floated from beneath the tree line in the distance to higher ground with no damage.

Two days after the flood