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Living off-grid in the UK:
A Wonderful Challenge

Off-grid living has its challenges and one of these is being able to have a cost-effective solution for energy. Add in a self-build project and running a business to the mix and you could say Debbie and her husband David were crazy! But there is something so endearing about the simplicity of off-grid living.

Written by Debbie:

It was 10 years ago that we went off-grid. We were renting a stable yard and living in a mobile home on site, powered by a generator. We’re the type of people that would rather live in a field than a town, but running a generator wasn’t always ideal as it’s expensive, noisy and polluting.  Unfortunately, it’s just what we had to do with the circumstances.

couple living offgrid

We lived in a caravan there for 4 years. We always knew it was short term so it wasn’t worth connecting to the grid at a cost of £55,000! It’s a shame our landlord didn’t know about Solar Plants and the off-grid solar solutions available, as he could have easily had a permanent power supply. Our landlord had always been clear that he wanted to build on the land eventually, so we needed to find somewhere permanent to live that could house our family and our 10 horses, and where we could run our therapeutic horsemanship centre.

Long-term security is the end goal, but we just didn’t have enough money to buy something already built. Particularly as it was just after the bank crash and the British banks weren’t lending any money, so it was difficult to get a loan.

I remember sitting one Sunday afternoon just questioning what on earth we were going to do. We eventually got out the Yellow Pages and wrote letters to all the local farmers in the area, around 40-50 letters in total. Outlining the money we had, we asked if we could buy some of their land. We got only one reply, but that’s all you need – it turned out to be some land we were already interested in and it’s the place that we call home today!

We bought the field without planning permission but as we’d actually looked at this bit of land previously, we knew we had a pretty good chance of getting planning passed.

The people we bought the land off were really supportive of our plans and helpful throughout the purchase process. To point out, people are really helpful within the community and will often support you when you least expect it. We bought the land in September and immediately put in our planning application, which went through quickly. In the following February, we moved in, living in a caravan in the corner of the field with the horses close by.

We began building the house ourselves, with the help of specialist trades. We could never afford to pay somebody to build the house for us so we have to do it as much as possible ourselves. It’s also a good opportunity to live with the building; to get used to it and see what more you want from it. We knew there was an electricity pole at the gateway so we thought it would be fine to connect to the grid. However, it turned out to be the wrong sort of electricity – high voltage for the adjoining rail line. (It is actually where the great train robbery took place!) It would cost £35,000 to connect to the mains, which at the time, was out of the question. For this reason, we began looking at other options.

We originally had a generator, but it just costs so much money to run that we never actually ran it properly. We once ran it for two weeks and it cost us £500! We purchased a smaller one, but it couldn’t provide enough power for all our needs.

55kva generator

We run a not for profit organisation called Horses Helping People, which bring horses and people together to improve the person’s mental, physical and emotional well being. In fact, our patron is the Radio presenter Ken Bruce. Building the centre has been a real community venture – if Ken goes on a celebrity game show he will raise funds for us – one of our stables is from the game show Pointless!

We had a really good boost for the business within the first year! We were nominated to go on a TV programme, called UK Construction Squad: Operation Home Front on Channel 5. Ex-servicemen came in for a week (similar to DIY SOS) and built more facilities for us, showing how valuable their skills are to the community. The business was quickly evolving but we just never had the money for solar panels. It was really affecting the business from moving forward because we had no power during the day, meaning that we couldn’t do any of our admin tasks, heat rooms up efficiently or put lighting on if we wanted to run after school sessions.

We first heard about Solar Plants from a forum that we’re members of. We find word of mouth is often the best place to find trusted people and companies. We’d previously had quotes from 3 other solar installation companies and we had chosen the one that we felt happiest with. However, it was really expensive, so at the time we couldn’t go ahead with it. We even considered the idea, ‘maybe we could do this ourselves to really keep the costs down’, but it’s such a risk doing electrical things yourself.

When I came across Solar Plants, I had a look on their website and decided to get in touch. There was something different about Solar Plants, I had a good feeling about them from the start. The dedicated off-grid section on the website really showed us that they had experts who would understand our particular circumstances. When we got around to chatting with Ian at Solar Plants, he explained that in order to get a really good understanding of what we needed, he could come round and have a chat to us and then give us a completely clear quote. Two of the companies that we originally got quotes from were the typical ‘slick salesman’ but what we liked about Solar Plants was that we were chatting with the off-grid technical engineer from the word ‘go’, so he knew exactly what he was talking about and he knew exactly what we needed. It gave me so much confidence in Solar Plants and seeing photos from other installations and the charity work that Solar Plants did, we just had absolute faith in them.

Ian and Scott from Solar Plants were here for about 5 days in total and they were brilliant. We have had various workmen here over the years and most are fine, but Ian and Scott were just so unobtrusive and friendly and worked so hard during all weather conditions. Nothing was ever too much trouble, if we had a question, – and I am one for asking a lot of questions – they were so good, they didn’t ever make me feel silly for any of the questions I asked.

Building our off-grid house is still an ongoing process, we haven’t given ourselves an end date as we don’t want to be disappointed if it isn’t completed by a certain time. Because the house is so insulated we don’t need the heating on, in fact, we had a lot of snow last year and the house was still 65 degrees Fahrenheit! We’ve also tried to incorporate a lot of eco-friendly products and materials for the house because yes, it’s better for the environment but it’s also just got such a nice feel about it. Although we don’t have a lot of money we like to spend the extra on things like natural paint and other eco-friendly materials. Another part of our eco-friendly and off-grid living is our compost toilets – it’s the ultimate in taking responsibility for your own waste products, which can be used for fertiliser and compost! It’s also a more eco-friendly way to live as it’s not wasting water.

The centre is open 5 days a week and each of those days we’ve got a mix of one to one clients and groups. We never seem to have time to actually ride the horses – we have been so busy with building the house and running the business! We’ve ridden all our lives, but as long as we have the horses around us we’re happy. We don’t rescue the horses as such but they all have their own stories behind how they came here.

Sushi is our most recent horse, he came here in November last year. Sushi was a European champion and he’s now retired. We have another horse, Lexus who is 25, who came from the same family. She had been a top competition horse and had taught the whole family to ride, so they felt she deserved a decent retirement. However, she missed having a job to do and would watch the younger horses working as if she wasn’t ready to do nothing. She is a wise old lady and her old owner asked if there was anything she could do at Horses Helping People. She arrived here and immediately seemed to know what was needed – she is brilliant with the clients. She’s an American Quarter Horse, born in Texas. Because she has settled in here so well, they asked if we would have Sushi as well.

It’s easy to think because horses don’t talk they don’t understand us but we truly believe that the horses know more than most people give them credit for, and certainly know how we’re feeling. They particularly understand energy and human personalities which is why they do such a good job here. Dave and I are from a riding background, but actually the most therapeutic benefits we can have from horses are spending time in their calming presence and building up a trusting partnership with them.

People of all ages come here, people with learning disabilities, mental health problems and severe anxiety. We do mindfulness with the horses too which is a way of getting our busy human brains to focus on the here and now, rather than worrying about the past, or worrying about the future which is something a lot of people struggle with. Horses are brilliant at it because they’re prey animals so they have to be totally in the moment to be aware if a predator is coming. In the mindfulness sessions we include breathing exercises and meditation with the horses – they’re really zen horses! The stables have got low partitions either side, so we will can have a circle of chairs in an empty stable with horses in stables either side and we will do the meditation there, the horses will often put their heads over and join in with the process.

We did some sessions with young carers last year and they said what a difference it made to coping with anxiety, and their support workers noticed how the young people started to engage more with the support workers, meaning the support workers could do their job better because the young carers felt able to talk to them and share their worries.

This is Lucky the sheep, she also has a story behind how she came to us! We have a border collie, Finn, who was bought when we first moved here for our son, Morgan. The day we went to pick up the puppy, within a couple of hours he was very poorly because he had consumed something on the farm he came from which he shouldn’t have! It was really awful, especially because our son had been so excited about getting the puppy. Luckily he did pull through but our friends at the farm felt so bad about what had happened they gave us compensation in way of Lucky the sheep!

A lot of people went through the journey with us of how Horses for Help came about, but there are people that work with us now that don’t know about the background. When they hear about everything we had to do – they’re often very surprised!

We can’t thank Solar Plants enough, particularly Ian and Scott, for our new off-grid solar panel system.

Off-grid engineer, Ian, explains more about the system:

Product Breakdown:
1 x victron 5 Kva inverter charger
1 x victron 250V/80A smart solar charge controller
12 x LG 360Wp (all black) solar panels
12 x renosol ground mounted tubs (recyclable)
1 x victron CCGX colour monitor
1 x off grid 4G internet hub
Live web based monitoring via the victron VRM portal

Debbie and David needed a reliable, expandable off grid supply without installing solar panels on their new build roof and something in keeping with their environmentally sensitive lifestyle.

We decided to build their own little power station in their new purpose built 10ft x 6ft shed. The battery bank and inverters were installed inside with the solar panels installed in recyclable ground mounted tubs nearby outside

To reduce the area of ground for installation we decided to use LG’s 360 Wp panels, installing 3 rows of 4 panels, which are able to charge their 10 kwhr BYD Lithium batteries daily with just a few hours intermittent daylight via the powerful (99% efficient) solar charge controller.

The whole system is monitored online, so that the whole family can monitor the system from anywhere on a PC or smart phone, and I can access the system remotely from Solar Plants HQ to monitor the systems efficiency and provide firmware updates/ assistance where necessary- this is possible due to the unique “off grid 4G internet hub” that we install at all of our off grid sites, enabling us to provide 24/7 cover in the most remote of areas.

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