Washing My Clothes for Free: Off Grid Living and the Problems with Solar

When I first decided to live off grid I have to admit I knew nothing about solar or wind energy or how much power a washing machine, or many other appliances used. I’m sure this is true for many people who live ‘on grid’ today  like I used to do. I suppose it is still true even if they, (like my mother) have a new fan dangled ‘Smart Metre’ given to them

Smart Metre issued by an Electricity Company

by their energy company in a bid to help them to become more aware of how much energy they are consuming in their home.  I use the word ‘consume’ because that is what on grid living entails….consumption, but I will strongly suggest that the consumption usually is linked with the monetary value of what is being used and many people are clueless as to how much power they need everyday in their lives for normal run of the mill modern living, or what this consumption is doing to the environment. This point was brought home to me on one of my previous and frequent trips to the ‘Lavanderia’ or laundrette to wash my clothes.  Above all the modern money slotted giant commercial washing machines were pictures of a group of Spanish ladies at the communal wash tank in the town known as the old ‘lavandera‘.

The old communal ‘Lavandera’ in Spain where women did the weekly washing together

They were all together laughing and smiling with their wash boards and soap in a sort of scrub a dub camaraderie of strenuous arm exercising womanhood. The sheer effort of getting the clothes clean has been replaced by modern technology (thank god!) but with it a blind sense of environmentalism has emerged.  Oh let’s buy a wash ball and not use those horrible detergents.  Let’s buy a detergent that is concentrated and uses 35 percent less packaging.  Let’s put on our machines in clueless solidarity of how much power we need.  Let’s dash and look at our ‘Smart Metre’ but really have no idea what it means in real terms.  Before you think I’m being overly critical, I was that person.

For many years before I switched to off grid living had the standard front loading washing machine that can be found in many British and European homes and the same lack of awareness about how much energy it actually took to run it.   Indeed what I didn’t have was the basic skill of asking myself some VERY important questions.  I, like many other people went to buy a washing machine and blindly just looked at rainbow colours of  the A, B and C ratings together with the name brand and price tag and this went into my consumer consumption based decision.  Oh how life changed for me when I lived off grid.  Let me tell you it took a few ‘mistakes’ to finally have the full knowledge of how I can successfully run my washing machine off my solar system.  Before you quoff at me, or tell me that you have been running your washing machine for years off your own solar off grid system, I want to tell you mine cost way less that 800 Euros and uses golf

golf cart battery
Golf Cart Battery

cart batteries and was installed by an amateur not some professional solar energy company that added several figures to the original quote.  Yes, I am not kidding!  I run my washing machine off those batteries that power the golfing fanatics about the greenery in their finest coloured polo shirts and best golfing shoes that probably cost more than my system.  Furthermore, this ‘amateur’ solar installation has been a source of endless hours of research, adding and taking away until the perfect combination has been found to run a washing machine completely for free and in fact my whole house, mod cons and all.  Can you say the same?  If you can, let’s exchange email addresses or something because I’m always on the look out for other real off grid enthusiasts to connect with.  Have I finished learning?  Absolutely not is my answer.  Could I teach you a few things?  I’m not sure, read on to judge.

Mistake #1

When I first moved into my house I didn’t know very much about inverters, if you have no idea what an inverter is it’s basically an electrical device that comes in many shapes, sizes, power capacities and different qualities and prices. It’s basic function is to convert the direct current from the solar panels to an electrical frequency that is found in all

sine wave inverter
An example of an inverter

household appliances.  The thing is, is that you can buy an inverter pretty cheaply but the stability of the electrical supply can be very inconsistent and so it is important to opt for SINE wave.  This gives the most stable form of electricity which is needed to operate sensitive electronics.  As most modern washing machines have ‘sensitive electronics’ these days it’s a must.  In the early days, I had a 1000 watt SINE wave inverter that I bought from a German manufacturer (avoid Chinese hardware at all costs!!! A different blog post but my TV, and radio blew up).  The washing machine would not run on this inverter even on a cold wash because the start up power of most electrical devices is usually three times or more the stated output.  Unfortunately, as a previous blind consumer of energy I didn’t have this knowledge until I did some reading around on a few forums, mostly where the Australians hang out.

Mistake #2

As a bit of a clueless female, apart from looking at the ‘rainbow’ colours of energy use,

European Energy Rating Label 

the price tags and brands I knew how to operate the thing…open door, put in clothes, add detergent, press buttons in a particular order, but..I was completely oblivious to the fact that although the washing machine had a 300 watt motor it needed three times that amount of power to actually get itself going and quite a bit of power to finish the cycle.  More than the batteries could withstand. Additionally, not having any mains or on grid water supply if the water pressure is a bit dubious the machine won’t function correctly and will give you constant error messages.  Additionally if you add a water pump to boost pressure you then have to also factor this in on the energy supply and what the inverter can handle.  Of course any attempt to use anything other than a freezing cold wash resulted in in instant dismissal from the inverter and the Solar controler shut itself off to protect the batteries from being drained continuously.

Mistake #3

Accepting that my inverter was sufficient in all other areas of my life, think internet, tv, lights, music, lap top, phone charging etc (and not having 400 euros or more at the time to spend on a higher capacity SINE wave one) I came to the conclusion that I could just try running the washing machine off my generator.  Great temporary solution I thought. I mean, this wasn’t a long term thing as I didn’t want to consume anything but  as with modern life I must arrive at my place of work in clean clothes and look like I don’t live like an off grid hippy in my free time.  In the beginning all was going well.  I put my washing machine in my shed, which consequently is the lowest point in the house and so the water pressure is amazing and I didn’t need to use a water pump to boost the pressure.  Hah!  Mistake number 2 is now solved, how optimistic I was.  I began washing clothes and felt happy about the temporary solution.  Long term I needed more batteries and a bigger inverter.  Hey temporarily I  was in washing bliss like those ladies surrounding the ancient town tank.  I mopped my brow thanking the stars I didn’t have to hand wash anything or keep driving miles to the laundrette to look at all those women who could hang around in pinny’s all day chatting while they hand scrubbed their knickers and bras to whitish brilliance.  No, I happily did a few loads in the comfort of my home before my washing machine refused to operate or co-operate anymore.  Being fairly new and under guarantee I went back to the shop with my complaint and showed them the warranty, the assistant was sympathetic but flatly refused to replace it.  No, two technicians would drive all the way out to the mountains, collect it, see what the problem was, fix it if possible and return it to me.  If it couldn’t be fixed then I would get a new one.

A few weeks went by and in the meantime I spent my washing time looking at the smiling pinny wearing women of days gone by wondering if I should buy an antique wash board and just accept my fate.  Then, I received a telephone call from a very perplexed technician.  My washing machine had been in their workshop for the last 3 weeks.  Everyone from the repair company had brought their washing in to work and used my machine to wash their pants and socks without any problems.  As far as they were concerned my machine was working perfectly. I recounted my problem, in some detail.  Then, as if I had said Ali Baba’s magic words ‘Abra ca dabra’ the technician asked what power source I had been using.  Well, an un-environmentally petrol powered generator I thought, before answering simply.  The suggestion came back that although most generators have inbuilt ‘AVR’ Automatic Voltage Regulator the washing machine being modern and sensitive probably needed at least a SINE wave generator.  I put the phone down and sighed.  No way on earth was I going to spend the extra cash upgrading what was for the most part a perfectly good back up solution to living off grid.  Yes there were times I needed a generator (now not so much as I have a wind and solar combined system – another post needed to explain how it works in tandem but it gives me plenty of power) .  I sat on my steps, phone in hand and just put my head in my hands.  Grrrr!  Who said off grid living was easy.  I thought back to my regular normal home in the United Kingdom and had a romantic fantasy that it was better.  Then I remembered the dread of the post deliveries every morning with the endless bills falling on the mat and running off to work on a caffeine drink before needing to sit in endless traffic in order to pay for it all.  Instead, I poured myself a 5 year old wine that cost me less than 1.50 for a bottle and looked at the mountains.  Ok, I’m going to have to look a the smiling pinny brigade looking so perfect in their solidarity of soap.

Mistake #4

Not one to be defeated for long I began to think about those ‘BrewCrew’ types that emerged in the 1990’s.  You may remember the time, they all wanted to live in vans, perfect their dreads with bee’s wax and sing along to the Levellers, pop along for their annual holiday to Glastonbury and eat a few hash cakes occasionally while talking about socialism and Marxist ideology.  I wanted that lifestyle, but, I couldn’t afford it.  At the time I couldn’t even afford to pay to learn to drive, or catch the bus to work let alone fund a van and kit it out and have the luxury of living without an address.  The sad thing was I wasn’t even unemployed but still living hand to mouth and dreading the bills falling on the mat –  I digress.   I began thinking about options for van or boat living.  I started looking at those camping style washing machines you can buy.  They are based

twin tub camping washing machine
Camping Twin Tub Washing Machine

on the old ‘twin tub’ technology but are sort of white shiny plastic lightweight versions designed to be pulled out, used and put away somewhere out of site…a bit like a ‘smart metre’

I searched endlessly on Amazon and Ebay and read endless reviews and write ups.  This seemed the answer to my situation because they were less than 120 euros with delivery and this would buy me some time to improve my solar system but still arrive to work like a modern well groomed woman.  Machine arrived – well in truth I had to collect it as couriers in Spain have an aversion to delivering anywhere that involves a trip out of a town or a city.  I was overjoyed.  I plugged it in and immediately began testing it out.  I did my first load, second, third, fourth and so on.  Things appeared to be going well, except for the fact I couldn’t use the washing drum and the spinner drum at the same time.  Once the blind overjoyed feeling of a small win – ‘Yay I have clean clothes’ had dulled down a little I began to question why I couldn’t use both washer and spinner together.  After all, when I tried it on the generator both were possible but on the solar system it was a complete no go due to my inverter.  I soon worked out that my blind consumer ways were persisting and  that I  had assumed because it said ‘camping’ and looked a bit flimsy and didn’t have sensitive electronics It was going to be more efficient than my automatic machine.   Eventually, after careful inspection, consideration and comparison I realised that this little camping machine for boat, camper and caravan enthusiasts used more power and water than my automatic washing machine.  I chided myself and now I only use it for those big bulky blankets that won’t fit in my standard machine.

Solution #1

By the time I began to question my constant blindness to power usage I had saved enough money to buy a couple of extra solar panels which are very cheap in Spain really.   These were then placed strategically in different areas, one to catch the first morning sun, one to catch the late morning sun and the others were already in place to catch the sun that was present most of the day.  Next, I added a couple more batteries and a small wind turbine before buying a new inverter from Croatia.  This was a 3000 watt SINE wave inverter with a 7000 watt tolerance for appliance start up power and was ridiculously cheap – less than a 150 euros.  A year and a half later it’s still working well and I’m happy with the purchase, ( another blog post will follow as to how I now have TWO inverters one high powered 3000 watt and one lower powered 1000 watt that I can switch between at will).  What you have to appreciate is that the big inverter, just to be on to convert the electricity to AC current for appliances uses as much power as a television and the internet, this is before I switch on a light or do anything else.  So, this is the reason that I have still kept the small inverter which uses next to nothing power wise and I can switch between the two especially on short winter days or where we are having cloudy rainy days.  As stated previously, this 1000 watt inverter is sufficient for most of the things for modern living.

Solution #2

During the main part of the day – usually somewhere between 12 and 3 in the afternoon, depending what time of year we are in, the solar panels generate way more electricity than I am using.  Sometimes, if I have had the small inverter on or been at work this means that the batteries are full by this time and I have a surplus of electricity.  This is the optimal time to put on the automatic washing machine.  The power it needs comes directly from the solar panels without touching any of the power from the batteries.  When I can’t be at home during this time I have a timer switch that allows the machine to operate during this time.

Solution #3

To wash your clothes on any kind of hot wash takes so much electricity power that I can not even begin to explain how much power is used.  The solution in place to this is put a big BLACK plastic water tank on the roof and fill it manually via a water pump.  Thus the water pressure is pretty good (no pump needed- see mistake #2) and the tank being black and in the sun all day warms up to a lovely 30 something degrees.  Of course, as stated in solution number 2 the washing machine is going on in the middle of the day when the sun has had a chance to warm it up.  Therefore, the water is pretty warm already and requires less energy to wash anything at a warmer temperature.

To sum up, the rain falls from the sky and i collected from the roof and terrace areas via guttering and goes into a ‘water deposit’.  The water is then pumped manually via an electronic pump into a black tank.  The sun warms the water and also charges the batteries.  During the middle of the day there is usually more electricity produced than what is being stored in the batteries so this is the perfect time to put on the automatic washing machine.  This machine being an A plus machine uses on average 5 litres of water for a washing and 5 litres for rinsing.  It also means that the new 3000 watt Croatian bought inverter can cope with the start up power of the washing machine, the full washing cycle and it is SINE wave so it doesn’t disrupt the sensitive electronics.  The water pressure issue is resolved because the tank that feeds the machine is on the roof automatic washing machineand has the capacity to more than cope with 10 litres of water needed to wash the clothes.  The power needed to increase the water temperature isn’t too much of an issue because the water holding tank is black and in the direct sunshine for a few hours before the washing machine goes on.  Of course, the water doesn’t get as hot as it does in the summer, but then again winter is a very short affair here.

If you would like to experience real off grid living yourself or come and look at the system installed in the farm or the separate system in Dolly the Vintage Caravan why not send me a message and reserve Dolly for a couple of nights.  Experience what it is really like to wash in rain water, turn on lights from energy powered by the sun and sleep in soft clean sheets washed by a modern washing machine that is operated for free!

Bedroom 2 - Copy
Dolly the Vintage Caravan Bedroom

Published by Somewhere Over the Olive Tree

Prolific second hand shopper, rubbish rumager and upcycler, that sees beauty where non exists. From Dolly the Vintage Caravan to Dream Catchers I find inspiration and creativity where it is practically non existent to most people's eyes. My creativity comes from an intention of reducing waste and helping the planet by reusing things people throw away. I have refurbished my whole home from 'rubbish' to demonstrate what can actually be achieved with a little imagination, patience and maybe a glass or two of whiskey. I also adore the simple things in life like looking at the mountains, playing with my dogs, cooking, sewing and dancing. You can find out more on SOMEWHERE OVER THE OLIVE TREE on Facebook

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