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).

2 NGO’s and a Peasant Meeting

Last week we met with two inspiring organizations with whom we hope to collaborate in the process of creating our home here in Romania.

Habitat for Humanity Cluj

The first meeting with with Habitat for Humanity Cluj (English website, Romanian website) who’s mission is to provide decent housing where currently housing conditions are very poor. Here in Romanian they have a few house templates that they can build in a few weeks. They organize volunteers from around the world to come and partake in a quick and efficient building process. They also provide home owners with a  zero-interest loan at very small monthly payments (over as long as 20 years) to fund the costs of construction materials.

Our hopes are to both gain from their building experience here in Romania and to offer a shared learning opportunity on the benefits of building with hemp. We believe that hemp-lime construction can be a wonderful alternative with the benefits of simpler construction, better housing (insulation, air quality, durability) and ecological. A win for the organization, for residents of their houses and for the planet.

Eco Ruralis

Our second meeting was with EcoRuralis (English website, Romanian Website) who’s mission is to support traditional Romanian peasants (who represent ~50% of Romanian population) in the face of external forces of industrialization and commercialization (mostly originating from the EU) that threaten their survival and prosperity.

I realize that mission statement may sound petty and remote to non-Romanians so let me give you an example. It is now absurdly illegal for Romanian peasants to sell their traditionally developed and evolved seeds (over hundreds of years). Legal and commercial standards are pushing to replace traditional seeds with genetically modified industrial seeds. Such measures, together with beaurocratic hurdles required to selling their crops in local markets threaten not only their existence but an entire tradition of agrictultural knowledge.

A Peasant Meeting

EcoRuralis were extremely pleasant and generous with us. We immediately signed up as members and over the weekend they invited us to a member-meeting which took place in Calimenste (a 6 hour bus ride south of Cluj-Napoca). Not only were we welcomed in no-questions-asked, they also covered all the expenses in getting to and partaking in the meeting. We had a wonderful time and met inspiring people.

It is so exciting  and comforting to know that we have access to everything we need (from knowledge to seeds) to create up our own farm. Though we are currently focused on the construction aspect of our home we are also on our way to becoming peasants and taking up healthy traditional farming.

Another interesting shared interest is hemp-construction. Hemp was once a popular crop here in Romania and we hope it will be again. Everyone was very curious to hear more about hemp construction. We can’t wait to invite them all to see when the house is actually built and then to be our guests and experience what a wonderful quality-of-life it can afford.

Everyone was so kind and so generous. With some translation help I said to them that after almost 40 years of life I am for the first time beginning to feel I am at home.

Learning from Passivhaus Building

The people of Green Building Store (UK) have generously produced and published a freely available online movie about some of the challenges they faced in a Passivhaus construction project in the UK. Though I am wary of taking on the Passivhaus standard as is (reservations I’ve written about in posts about Passivehaus and Rural Studio) I am also trying to be careful not to pour the baby out with the water. There is a lot of common sense in Passivhaus and much of it is excellently communicated in this movie. You can view all the parts here or possibly start with this embedded video and then continue to each consequent part:

So, with much curiosity and interest I watched the movie (reviewing some of the chapters numerous times) and made some notes of things that I hope to incorporate into our building process. This list does not include the core-issues of Passivhaus construction (insulation, minimal thermal bridging, air-tightness, ventilation and passive solar gain) which deserve careful context and consideration – especially when it comes to hemp-lime construction which introduces unique qualities to both the construction process and the resulting structure.

Design & Details

It is invaluable to spend time designing and paying attention to details before the actual construction process. Construction is an established process and skill which carries with it a taken-for-granted attitude. Professionals have a way of doing things and will prefer to do things the way they’re used to doing them – which may lead to cutting corners in design and to on-site improvisation.

This can be destructive in a project where new standards of building, new materials and new techniques are involved. Taking the time to plan things in advance, to drawing diagrams & making calculations creates a thoughtful path towards a desirable result. Of course it is inevitable that unforeseen challenges will arise during construction and that some changes and improvisation will be required – in which case a plan gives some indication of how far you’ve deviated and what you need to do to get back on track.

Special attention should be given to details. I’ve been working on a wall-to-floor detail for weeks – compiling all the information and knowledge I have come across, reconsidering it in the context of hemp-construction, our house design, minimizing costs, minimizing the use of concrete and relying on locally available materials. There is no ready-made template for what we are doing, there are many options to choose from, there are many considerationt to incorporate. We could take the easy path and hire foundation contractors and let them do their thing – but that would lead away from the kind of warm, pleasant, ecological and efficient house we hope to live in and bring us to the standard cold and humid house that contractors have been building in Romania for may years.

Team Work

A typical construction process tends isolate and compartmentalize knowledge and skills. We would consult with an architect to design our house. Then we would pass the plans to an structural engineer who would need to figure out how to support our house. Then we would pass the architectural and structural engineering plans to a heating engineer who will try to provide an adequate heating solution within the existing constraints.

This kind of approach can lead to an inefficient process and an inefficient house. A good engineer can provide a structural solution to meet almost any need – but at what price? How much extra work, materials, construction effort and waste may be required to implement the engineered solution? Similarly a heating engineer can theoretically heat any space – the question is how expensive and complicated will the system be and how much energy will it consume? This is a brute force approach.

We are trying to put together a team that will work together during all phases of the project. We’d like everyone to be there to provide input at every stage of the project. We’d like the architect to provide input on choosing good land and on siting of the house on it. We’d like the structural engineer to make suggestions on architectural decisions that may lead to simpler and more efficient construction using less materials. We’d like a heating-engineer to review the size of our spaces and to make suggestion that may improve the energy-efficiency of the house.

It takes integrated and out-of-the-box thinking to create the kind of integration that leads to a house that facilitates an “eco” existence.

Opening Details

I have been wondering about how to go about properly insulating openinsg like windows and doors. The movie offered some very useful tips about these issues and these are the ones I noted:

  • Windows should be placed at the center (depth) of the wall.
  • Windows should open inwards – placing the thicker part of the frame on the outside for better insulation.
  • Special sealing tape (such as Pro Clima Contega FC) should be applied between the rough structural opening and the internal wall and then covered by the the internal render.
  • Special sealing tape (such as Pro Clima Tescon) should be applied between the window frame and the rough structural openings.
  • A concrete slab should not extend to the door opening to prevent heat loss through it.
  • The door opening slab requires an insulated and weather resistant material (such as fiberglass).

A big thank you to the people at Green Building Company. This movie has been very educative and helpful.

Choosing Land

We are going to buy land – a special piece of land where we will make a home. What should we look for when buying land? At first we didn’t know how to begin answering this question. But by now we have a better idea of what we want and we put together this list of wishes we hope to balance together:

  • Designation: land that is designated for both construction and agriculture – the majority of which is for agriculture. Sometimes there is one part of the land where the house is built and the agricultural lands are separated. We are looking for land that is a combination of both. In Romanian this is called “intravilan” – land that is “inside the village” – meaning the housing area. We have plans for additional structures on the house – including a birthing center.
  • Orientation: North-South orientation – with a view in the south. That way we can enjoy both the view and passive-solar energy by having south facing windows (the north wall will be fairly closed to insulate from cold winds. It is preferable that the house can be placed in such a way that the entrance is from either the south, east or west (as the north is an uninviting fron).
  • Fertile Land: We want land that is easy to cultivate for diverse crops. Preferrably without stones, comfortable summer climate (not too cold so we can grow crops like wheat which suffer from cold weather) and ground that is not too acidic or salty.
  • Water Table: We expect to pump our water from a well. The water table should be between 4 and 10 meters. A water table that is too high can damage house foundations. A water table that is too low can be more difficult to pump and is more likely to dry up in dry seasons.
  • Flowing Water: Hydro-electricity is one of the most reliable and affordable green-electricity solutions. We hope to find land with running water with enough head to generate eletricity.
  • Near Water: If there isn’t running water on the property then we would like to live within walking distance from a body of water.
  • Proportions: We prefer land that is well proportioned – not too elongated. It should also be at least 50 meters wide to accommodate the potential length of our house (15-20 meters) with additional space on both sides (10-15 meters on every side).
  • Accessible: We prefer a town that is accessible by public transportation (bus or train) to and from a near city. Our land should be within a short driving distance from the town – preferrably even a short walking distance of ~ 20 minutes.

There are also a few things we know to look out for. Thanksfully this list it small and we hope it stays that way:

  • Altitude: If the area is prone to be flooding then our land should be located at a higher altitude so that water can easily flow away from and not accumulate on it.
  • Quiet: The land should not be situated on a main road.