We lost our home in summer bushfires. Now we’re going underground and off the grid
We lost our house and just about everything in it during the horrific fire season of 2019/20.
Ours had the dubious distinction of being one of the very first houses to be lost on that terrible day that ushered in the Black Summer, and which brought with it scenes that would appall a nation – indeed the world – who had seen fires regularly and thought themselves accustomed to such phenomena.
It was a beautiful house in a spectacular rural location, at the bottom of a valley, beside a creek that had never stopped running in any of the locals’ memory, and in a semi-rainforest habitat that was thought to be immune – or at least resistant – to fire.
The creek stopped several months before the fires raged, and the habitat proved to be anything but resistant to the conflagration. Much of it will not grow back in our lifetime, if ever.
It may have been a beautiful house, but it had its shortcomings – especially in light of our growing awareness of, and push towards sustainability. I won’t dwell on the loss and the emotional impact it had on us, as this is not a story of loss and grief. Rather I use the destruction to set the context for our journey back.
As I write this, we have begun the rebuild of our new home, but it is far from complete, and all I can show in pictures is a concrete slab . . . hardly a very interesting image!
So, what are we building, and why is it of interest to a community interested in “One Step Off the Grid”? It’s because we are taking that step, off the grid.
Long before the Black Summer of 2019/20, we had discussed what we would do if we lost our beautiful home in a bushfire. We had decided we’d like to stay in the same community, and that we’d build a house that was more suited to our lifestyle and our ambitions, not the least of which was to tread more lightly on the planet.
We made two very important decisions in our deliberations. Decisions that enabled us to move very quickly when nature dealt us its cruel blow.
Firstly, we had decided to be as off-grid as was practical to be.
There is no town water and sewerage where we live, so those aspects were a no-brainer really – other than to consider the strategies of harvesting, storing and supplying water to the house and gardens and then our options for disposing of it when used.
Due to state government regulations we aren’t permitted to use treated wastewater in the way I would like, so we ended up with a worm-bed septic system and have to be content with knowing that the castings are only able to be of benefit to a small ‘forest’ of non-edible natives we will plant in the dispersion zone.
However, on the power side of the off-grid objective, we are able to fully realise our ambitions.
The decision to go off-grid is driven by several observations and analyses. Firstly, the cost of connecting the grid to the new house site is roughly equivalent to installing a fully off-grid power plant.
Secondly, nobody can guarantee me that the daily supply cost (poles and wires) will not continue to climb, and climb, and climb over time as it has done in the past, and that excess (exported) energy tariffs will continue to pay for those charges.
Thirdly, where we live, we are subject to regular outages, brownouts, and surging supply. Some blackouts only last 30 seconds, while others last days or weeks, and all of them are attributable to the stability of the grid itself.
I will come back to the proposed power system and its design shortly, for it is very strongly influenced by the next big decision we made in our lifestyle decision.
You see, we had also decided to build an earth-sheltered home – in common parlance, an ‘underground’ home. The primary motivation for this move was thermal stability, though I have to be honest and say that the significant protection from bushfire is no small amount of icing on the very lovely cake!