3 Steps to Electricity Independence in Romania

Though living off-the-grid is tempting it probably isn’t as ecological as you may think it is. Electricity is an infrastructure that is best provided through collaborative systems instead of independent ones. It is unfortunate that so much of it is generated with an unnecessarily high ecological price – which is good enough reason to want to do it better on your own.

Being off the grid isn’t necessarily a smart financial choice either (at the present) because a completely independent system is still so expensive that it may never really repay itself (taking into consideration your level of consumption and price of grid electricity). Living off-the-grid is morally better but necessarily financially better.

Step 1: On The Grid

There are enough challenges and expenses when building a new house. Getting off-the-grid doesn’t need to be a top priority. If you are building a home and can connect to the grid then consider starting connected to the grid. You can design your home so that eventually it may be completely off-the-grid but you don’t need to implement it right away. You can designate places for photovoltaic panels, for wires, for batteries, converters, etc. but you don’t have to install them right from the start.

If, like us, you are building your own home then you will need a reliable source of electricity during construction. If you don’t have a grid-connection then you may need to bring a generator on site instead.

Step2: Self Generated

The next step, when you are ready for it is to start generating your own electricity. You should start with the natural resource that is most available to you. In the area of Cluj the leading sources are probably sun and water (if you’ve got running water on your property with enough altitude difference to generate the needed flow). If you are living in the mountains you may also have wind power available to you, yet it seems that commercial wind-powered generators are prohibitively expensive. In addition to the generating source (such as solar panels) you will need converters to convert and regulate your source current into 120v so it is compatible with all of your existing appliances.

It’s comfortable to do this while still connected to the grid because your self-generated electricity is backed- by the grid electricity (though you will need a grid-tie system to connect to the grid). If, for example, you rely on solar power then on cloudy days you still have all the power you need from the grid. If you generate more electricity then you consume then there is a good chance that your electric company will buy it from you. So in the end you may still be benefiting from grid-electricity but your bill will be zero or the electric company may pay you.

An efficient electric generating system and a low consumption home can generate a monthly revenue for you – so you may want to consider staying in this configuration and not going off the grid.

Step3: Off The Grid

To go completely off the grid you need to add to your electrical system a battery array. Batteries store energy when it is generated and make it available when it isn’t. If, for example, you rely on solar power then you will need batteries to supply you with electricity during the night when your solar panels are not providing you with electricity. Good batteries (that will work for 20 years) are initially very expensive to install. You may need additional converters to integrate them into your system and you need to be careful and monitor their use when your sources are not generating electricity¬† (more on that in a separate post).

When you go off the grid you are completely on your own so regardless of any expenses (and potential losses) involved in doing so, make sure you are ready to be on your own (for example, in our house we are planning heating and hot-water systems that can operate at least basically when there is a power-out).

What does Ecological mean in Romania?

We just got back from a meeting at the school of architecture in Cluj. It was a good meeting with some followups to look forward to. But we did meet with some skepticism – “ecological building is a fashionable thing” … I agree that there is a lot of fashion in ecological building – even intellectual/academic fashion. I couldn’t possible put it better then George Carlin did:
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But, I also think it’s important to be able to discern between the bullshit and the real shit. Ecological building should have direct impact on quality of life – otherwise it really is a fashionable indulgence. So I thought to take this opportunity to share some of the things I consider to be ecological in the context of building a rural house in Romania.

Warmer

My general impression of homes in Romania (actually Israel too!) has been that they are cold in winter (public spaces are generally much warmer then homes I have visited). This is a combination of poorly insulated homes and fairly expensive fuel resources.

In cities gas is the primary source of heating energy – it is very expensive and building-blocks built of concrete are poor heat containers. We are struggling to keep our gas costs under control and can just manage to keep the apartment at 19-2o degrees celsius.

Village homes are usually poorly insulated (despite super thick mud-brick walls) and even though firewood is relatively cheap, it is expensive when you live on what you can grow … and you can’t grow money. So those that do have fire-wood used sparingly – again, just enough to keep out the cold.

Hemp is said to be one of the best insulating construction materials. This means that the same quantity of fire-wood that a village home uses ine year to just-barely keep the cold out can be sufficient for keeping the same house comfortably warm for 2 years (if not more!).

Better Air

I’ve mentioned before that almost every apartment or house I’ve visited in Romania suffers from humidity problems. Humidity is locked inside the house and it’s walls (you have to see it to believe it – water running down the windows and accumulating in pools on the window-sills). It turns into mildew which leads to respiratory problems.

Hemp is also said to be a healthy building material. It creates a permeable wall that absorbs excess moisture on the inside and releases it on the outside. It does this without any insulation or sheathing materials. It is a natural quality of a properly built and well ventilated hemp-masonry house.

Self Grown Homes

Romania used to be a major supplier of hemp-fiber – which means that the land here is good for it. As a rule of thumb one hectare of land yields enough crop to build a house. Oh and hemp requires no herbicides or pesticides, kills weeds and renews the land in which it grows. Oh and it is said to have huge potential in world markets for zillions of applications. Oh and its seeds can be used for food and oils which are magically healthy.

Almost every Romanian farm has vast farm lands – which means that most Romanian farmers can potentially grow the hemp they need to build/rebuild their homes.

Simple to Build

Hemp masonry is poured around a wooden frame – which a small group of people with basic coordination and tools can build in a week or two. Romania is gifted with vast amounts of excellent and afforable wood.

Hemp building requires the most rudimentary frame building skills – many framing complications involving insulation and sheathing are completely obsolete do to the nature of hemp construction.

Bringing the Toilet Home

Our new friends, Ina and Sabine, eloquently described the challenge of reviving the image of village homes in Romania “Bringing the toilet – a freezing outdoor shack with a hole in the ground – indoors”. The ecological implications of technologies (they are so simple – that calling them technologies, though true, can be misleading) such as dry-compost make this easy and afforable to do. Running water is used to evacuate waste from the home and then a simpleto-install and super-easy-to-maintain mechanical system separates water and waste and converts the waste into dry and usable compost. So much cheaper and easier then digging a hole in the groun and installing a sceptic tank that needs chemicals, can demand unpleasant maintenance to run and a periodic evacuation service.

So, All Fashion Aside …

We are still beginners when it comes to ecological building – but we are committed to this path. We have a very limited budget to create our home. A limited budget comes bearing gifts of simplicity – complicated, expensive indulgent technologies are just not an option. Ecological means simple solutions, many of which are do-it-yourself (or do-it-with-your-friends), based on and respectful of natural available resources.

That’s it, direct simple things that come together to make life good.

A Sustainability Confession

The more we dig our hands into the endless details of creating a sustainable home the more I realize that it isn’t really sustainable. How is that possible?

No matter how you do the math the most sustainable and cost-effective way to generate electricity is together, not every house for itself. Given our very low electricity bills and the high costs of the cheapest of available green-electric solutions (hydro and solar) – I doubt we will offset the costs in our lifetime. The same holds true for running water and I am guessing for most of the other infrastructures we take for granted in day-to-day life. There’s a reason we live on shared infrastructures – it’s the best way to do it.

At the heart of my preference for an independent sustainable home is an uncomforting thought about togetherness. I simply don’t trust the huge “we” mechanism to continue facilitating food, warmth and shelter. I don’t trust “we” to facilitate the growth and supply of healthy, nutritious and non-poisonous food. I don’t trust “we” to supply me with consistent and affordable eletricity or gas.

I don’t trust the “social we” because it is dominated by corrupt motivations (that come in many flavors – some raw and in your face, others subtle and devious). I don’t trust the “intellectual we” because it is ignorant towards so much freely available knowledge on how to do things better.

I belong to a miniscule percentile of people on the planet who can indulge in not trusting “we” to do a good job, and to do so from a warm apartment with food on my table. But I have also seen, over recent years, how those things are slipping away. I saw that unless I do something about it I am heading towards a point in time in which I will be to cold and hungry too indulge in criticizing “we”.

So I decided to do something about it. I have come to Romania where there are plenty of natural resources with which I believe I can do much better then “we” seems to be doing. It would be wonderful if we could meet with a few other like-hearted people with whom we might be able to create a better “we”. But when I say sustainable I am being selfish … I am building my own little Noah’s ark because I don’t want to feel like I am drowning anymore.