Living off the grid at Mas del Encanto

Living off the grid at Mas del Encanto

Mas del Encanto is 100% of the grid. This means we are not connected to mains power (the electricity grid), mains water (the water grid) or other networks like gas or sewer. This was a conscious choice; we didn’t want to depend on other people for our comfort and we were tired of all the monthly bills… So when we started looking for a property to buy, we knew we wanted one far enough from villages to not be connected to the grid.

However, we didn’t want to change our lifestyle too much – we certainly didn’t want to lose any of the comfort we were so used to. This page is about how we set up the house and its systems – it’s a work in progress and we might want to change certain details in the future. If you’re contemplating doing something similar or if you’re just curious, don’t hesitate to contact us!

ELECTRICITY

We live on solar electricity. We have twelve solar panels (polycrystalline) that are connected to a charge controler; this makes sure the energy collected by the solar panels is stored into the batteries. We have 24 2-volts batteries, which makes for a total of 48 volts. Our (8kVA) inverter converts what’s coming out of the batteries into a voltage suitable for use (230 volt, in our case).
The whole system is hooked up to a generator (9kW continuous power / 12kW peak power), that will take over automatically in case the batteries are running low – it also charges the batteries if possible.

If this sounds like Gobbledegook to you, don’t worry, you’re not alone. The main thing is that we’ve got plenty of power to go around; and if we don’t, the generator will make sure we don’t have anything to worry about. In theory, the batteries are big enough to provide us with electricity for three days when it’s too cloudy for the solar panels to collect sunlight.
When we moved from the city to our little corner of paradise, we made a list of all the appliances we had or we wanted to get once we lived here. We make sure we get energy-efficient appliances (for instance, we sold our old fridge in Amsterdam and got an A+++ fridge here in Spain) and that way, we didn’t have to make big lifestyle changes when we moved here; although we sold the dryer in the Netherlands and didn’t get one here in Spain… things dry much better outside on the line on sunny, windy days (we get those year round).

Before the big house was finished, we lived in the maset (the renovated donkey stable a few terraces down), which is off the grid as well. It has its separate solar system, which is not as big as the one up here; it’s tiny, but still plenty to work a fridge, laptops and phones, light and sometimes an incubator 🙂

On the whole, we didn’t make big changes when we moved off the grid. Although I have to say we were always a bit conscious of our electricity bill, so we were never big consumers. Now we don’t get any bills anymore, and that feels great.

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WATER

When we moved here, we a diviner came to our land and indicated the best spot to dig a borehole – which we did, and it’s fantastic. That being said, we were never presented with other options, and knowing what I know now, we might not do the borehole again; some of our friends and neighbours have had bad experiences with them (getting salty / silty water, the borehole collapsing, water being struck 100 meter lower than predicted which cost thousands of extra euros,…) and it’s a lot of hassle to get approved for running a bed & breakfast on. In this area, we get more than enough annual rainfall to live off – and since we’ve got a big roof over our heads, a few gigantic tanks might have been all it takes. Now, the rainwater will go to a natural swimming pool / water catchment pond / irrigation (work in progress, planned for the winter of 2017-2018). A third option would have been to get water delivered to our house – not the most ecological solution, but probably the cheapest and the least complicated now we’re running a B&B.

Ah well, back to the borehole. We’ve got a 4500 liter tank, which is the big blue thing on the picture above… since taking that photo, we’ve hid the tank inside a stone building, to protect it from the sun. A level control checks on the water level in the tank continuously; it will make sure that the tank is always full. It’s on a time switch, so it makes sure the water only gets pumped up between 11 and 14h, to make the most use of the sun.
We have several filters before and after the tank; we also have a pressure pump between the tank and the house, to make sure we get a good stream of water instead of just a drizzle.
We’ve had the water tested multiple times already (in different seasons, from different places) and mostly it’s just great. It is certainly potable, and it’s full of minerals; we get a bit of extra limescale which is annoying (but nothing a lemon scrub can’t fix) but apart from that, we love having water from our own borehole. It’s 140m deep, which means the water comes from an underground stream that is unaffected by chemicals used in local agriculture (it also helps that we’re a bit higher up, not many chemicals being used there).

 

However, we still provide our guests with bottled water – drinking water from our borehole is our choice, but we understand not everybody likes that idea.

HEATING & HOT WATER

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The inertia tank that will soon heat our whole house

At the moment I’m writing this, our hot water still gets heated by a gas boiler. However, this is a temporary measure; in February 2017, our wood stove was installed… as soon as everything is connected (we’re currently waiting for the chimney to be delivered), we’ll be able to heat the house on wood alone.

 

The wood stove is connected to a 500L water tank downstairs – which means the fire heats the water in the tank. This hot water goes to the radiators, and a heat coil in the tank makes sure we get hot water for the tap and showers. We’re still keeping the gas boiler for backup though – and to use in summer. Our experience is that we use a lot less hot water in summer though; for a while we were contemplating the acquisition of a solar boiler to heat water in summer – but we soon realised this would not be worth the investment for now.

GREY WATER

It’s such a waste when water just goes down the drain after use and doesn’t get used again… which is why we really wanted a grey / black water system. We’ve had to make a lot of concessions there, mostly for financial reasons; having a fully functional grey water system (where water from the shower is used for the toilet, and water from said toilet is used to water the plants with) would require so many more pipes, a few pumps and a lot of paperwork… So we settled for a simplified version: water from the upstairs bathroom gets reused in the big planter downstairs. Which at this time is not operational yet, as we don’t have any trees in the planter yet… Hopefully in the spring of 2017.

SEWAGE

This is another concession we had to make.
In the maset (the tiny house we lived in before the big house was finished), we had a composting toilet; it felt great to know that our body waste would be used (in a few years) to fertilise our trees with. Even more, we never had to flush it.
However, we decided not to do this in the big house; partly for financial reasons (our first composting toilet was DIY, but a “real” composting toilet is not cheap), partly to simplify things when it came to permits and stuff. After having lived with a composting toilet for a little while, I still feel a little pang inside every time I flush my real toilet.
Waste from our toilets goes into two different septic tanks with overflow.

INTERNET

The internet is the only thing we kind of cheat with – we’re online, so we’re technically on a network. We get our internet with radio waves, the antenna is in Horta de Sant Joan (which is the village we have the best line of sight to… but there’s other villages with antennae). It’s fantastic; most of the time our internet is faster than what we were used to in Amsterdam. Sometimes however (usually on Sundays or holidays), too many tourists in the area try to post the pictures of their fantastic weekend in Matarraña, and the network gets a bit too crowded and slow… Everything goes back to normal on Monday mornings though.

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Permaculture basics

I’ve been wanting to write an introductory post to permaculture for months now. There are thousands of articles online about it already, probably even more on “agroforestry” or “regenerative agriculture” and other techniques which are closely related or seen by some as an integral part of agriculture. I’m writing this as a tiny introduction, so in future posts I can write more about this; I would love to share specific techniques or ideas I’m experimenting with, write about the social aspects of permaculture or talk more about off-grid lifestyle… so consider this a bit of a background story.

Permaculture is a set of design principles and techniques that aim at producing, cultivating and using things in a sustainable way, all the while working with nature instead of against it. To me, it’s mainly a way to minimise input (work, money and materials) while maximising the output. It can be put into practice in very small spaces (an apartment balcony for instance) to very large scale (big farms). Permaculture mimics patterns and features from nature: growing different plants together so they can help each other, creating systems including several elements at the same time, accounting for wind direction and sun inclination, and many more.

A lot of people practise permaculture without knowing it or without wanting to call it that. To some, it has a hippie or extremely green connotation (especially when words and expressions like “holistic”, “care for to the earth” or “synergy” are used). It’s taught at university in many countries; used as a way to re-green desert or depleted pieces of land; a growing number of people are using permaculture (or aspects of it) at home in order to provide for their family or community. There are astonishing examples of what it can do on large scale, the only downside being that it takes quite some time and effort to set up – the average permaculture property will take 5 to 7 years to start producing enough to get some return on investment.

Permaculture is not new or innovative; it mainly assembles techniques and ideas that have been around for a long time. And as the permaculture movement grows, new inventions pop up from time to time as well.

How do we implement permaculture at Mas del Encanto?

Every permaculture project starts off with a design. I made a first draft for our property as a homework assignment for my permaculture design course; we’ve made a few changes since then, but the main thing is still the same. I divided our property into zones, zone 1 being the zone closest to the house, where we’d spend most time and have the things we’d spend most time around; zone 1 being the wilderness zone, where we wouldn’t touch the forest.
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The first permaculture design for our property, there’s the different coloured zones and a few buildings and ponds

Then there’s soil; you can’t keep animals, grow vegetables or produce fruit when your soil is no good. At this moment we’re getting manure from our neighbours’ horses, but some time in the future we hope our own animals will produce enough to add to our compost and build up rich soil. We make sure we rotate plants (& animals) on our land so the soil gets richer season after season, instead of being depleted and needing lots of fertiliser like in traditional agriculture.
We also don’t use chemical pesticides; we use specific plants to deter certain pests and we try to attract the right animals to our land, which will feed on the “bad bugs” and make sure our veggies survive.
The terraces to the east of our finca (the barranco or dry river) are being turned into a so-called food forest or forest garden. We’ve planted many fruit and nut trees already, there are some berry bushes in between them and we’ll keep adding vegetables and edible plants, while at the same time working to make the soil better. We select the plants carefully so they will be able to help each other; for instance there’s legumes that put nitrogen in the soil, trees provide support for climbing plants (beans and tomatoes for now, hopefully grape- and other vines in the future), and the big leaves of pumpkin, squash and zucchini plants provide shade on the ground so the soil doesn’t get baked by the sun. We plant certain flowers to attract pollinating insects, and plant other plants to keep pests and flies away from our vegetables.
Chickpeas looking pretty

Chickpeas looking pretty tasty

Chickens are very important in most permaculture designs; with little input, they have a lot of output. Our chickens take care of bugs and weeds, and in exchange they give us daily eggs and a lot of poo (fertiliser) – and occasionally we’ll get to eat one of the surplus roosters. Although or chickens have a set run for now, we built them a mobile chicken coop so in the spring and the fall, we can drive them to different areas of our land to “clean up” the area: eat the weeds, scratch up the soil, get the whole thing ready for planting. We plan to implement more animals as working elements in our design; we’ll need grazers to keep the grass short, maybe one day some goats to eat weeds and make us cheese, and (who knows) a pony so we won’t need a tractor… There are plans for beehives, an insect hotel and maybe a bit of vermiculture (worm composting). So many plans, we’ll need quite a lot of time to implement them all!
Hills & trenches

Hills & trenches (with mustard and beans)

The way you manage waterflow on your property to minimise costs and effort but maximise the outcome (irrigation), is a very important aspect of permaculture. We started on waterworks here and there on our land; we made trenches around many trees to catch more water when it rains, dug canals in the barranco so the waterflow gets redirected to a pond, and all the rainwater from the roof of our house goes to one point where one day, we’d like to have a natural swimming pool. Hopefully this fall we’ll get to rent a digger to do some landscaping around the house as well.
We know we have many, many more years to come before we can get our little farm to its full potential – but we have so many inspiring examples, challenging ideas and so much time before us that we’re very much looking forward to the potential results.

A few videos for further watching

http://www.geofflawtononline.com/ – Geoff Lawton has tons and tons of videos on all things permaculture. You only need to register (it’s free) to watch them.

Green Gold, a fascinating and eye-opening documentary by John D. Liu about re-greening deserts around the world. Worth sitting down for. It’s also got a very positive message to oppose the defeatism of global warming…

A Farm for the Future, a fascinating documentary by Rebecca Hosking about farming in the UK. It not only explains what’s wrong with relying on fossil fuels and synthetic fertilisers, but it also talks about the many alternatives. The images around minute 25:00 show exactly what the problem is with plowing and killing the soil, these are things that cannot be unseen. And as a bonus, it features the late Patrick Whitefield.

What (not) to expect when building an off-grid house in Matarranya

There’s one universal truth: when you have a house of your own, it’s never truly finished. There’s always something to tweak, reparations to be made, maintenance to be done or (if you have a big property and even bigger plans) buildings to be added… but on the grand scheme of things, we could say that our house is now as good as finished. The upstairs (our private area) still needs a lot of work (painting, decorating, installing a shower) and downstairs (the guest area) some minor things (Axel is finishing the tiling of the breakfast room balcony as we speak, other things will be done in fall or next spring).

These days, we’re showing people around the house on a regular base – guests, neighbours, volunteers, people interested in doing a similar project, or just random people fascinated by what we’re doing here. And since we get a lot of recurring questions, I thought it a good idea to put them “on paper” for everybody to read…
Some of the things in this list are things we experienced first hand – others are things we were warned about and were able to do differently in our house. And I’d like to add a question to fellow Matarranya expats here: if there’s anything you feel is missing or anything you’d like to add, feel free to write me / or to comment, here or on Facebook.

1. Budget

You came to Matarranya with a certain budget in mind, and it’s great if that budget allows you to build your dream home in the hills. Sometimes, people don’t think of everything that should be included in the budget though…

  • There are many steps towards a house – permits, assessments, notary costs, more permits, more analysis,… Each step will cost you money.
  • Where do you get your water from? Drilling a well can be costly – and don’t forget to think of the water deposit, different filters (we still need to do something about the amount of limescale, or it’s going to kill our appliances – not to mention our pump), maybe a pressure pump if your water deposit isn’t way above your bathroom (or your shower will be a very sad thing indeed). We’ve also got a system that makes sure the deposito is filled (but doesn’t overflow) on sunny days (we’ve got a solar powered pump), or even on not so sunny days when it’s almost empty – using the generator.
  • What will you do with your land? If you’re not planning to live on it, you’ll probably have a local farmer taking care of it (in exchange for the harvest). If you’re planning on working it yourself (harvesting olives or almonds, setting up a vegetable garden, maybe planting more fruit trees), it’s going to cost money – getting tools and machinery, seeds and plants. Maybe you’ll even want some animals; they will need housing (which might need planning permission) and feeding.
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Our very cool chicken tractor (the chickshaw)… did not come free.

2. Learning from other people’s stories

There are now dozens of people (people on their own, couples, families and communities) who have relocated here to work on their dream; go out, contact them, visit their project, talk to them, listen to them. And I mean really listen to them; almost everybody has stories – good stories, bad stories, funny stories. Of course some people are more pessimistic in nature and emphasise (or exaggerate) the bad stuff – and others are so upbeat they won’t tell you about their bad stuff. It’s easy to listen and think “That would never happen to me” – there’s always two sides to every story, but at least hearing those stories help you create an image of what might happen. You can learn so much from other people’s experiences; the stories from people around here helped us, loads. And they still do!

3. The local community

The success of your adventure depends on several factors – the people helping you achieve your dream is a very big factor.
Coming from a big city and a very automated society, we had to get used to village life here; getting to know many villagers has proven to be one of the keys to success. Go to the local shops, pay your ayuntamiento (the town hall) a visit when you have questions; people here are incredibly nice and are usually more than happy to help. Also, every village seems to have one or two people who know everything going on there; ask for their advice when looking for e.g. a place to rent, people to help out with the work, places to visit,… From the start, we just said hello to everybody we met in the street; now we get a call the day before hunters pass our land (great to know when to keep our dogs and chickens locked up), the older villagers will tell us stories about what happened on and around our finca in the old days, and we feel as accepted in the local community as a foreigner only speaking broken Spanish can be.

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Last year’s Santa Agueda celebration

4. The language barrier

Of course, all of this only works if you learn Spanish. We took classes before we got here so we could at least go to the shop or order food at the restaurants; coming here, we took a dictionary everywhere we went (especially convenient at said restaurants). Around here, very few people speak English (or French); they are incredibly nice though, and help us out with grammar and we still learn new words every single day. I learned all about food with Inma, the butcher in Cretas who would share recipes for the meat I’d buy there; our neighbour Enrique shows us how he tends his garden and his fruit trees whenever we have questions (and we learned the names of most vegetables and fruit from him); I learned all about body parts in Spanish doing yoga at Kurkum farm. It would have been much easier to try and speak English and use body language to get around in the area – but we wouldn’t have learned as much, and not made the same social connections.

If you’re not ready to learn Spanish (or you’re just having a hard time), make sure you have a person by your side who’s really on your side when doing important things. For instance, when I broke my knee in my second week here, I could have used somebody to translate my pain during my first few doctor’s visits; it could have saved me the 3 months of “rest” I shouldn’t have taken with this kind of injury, and the months of revalidation that followed. We could also have brought in a native speaker on our side to point out ambiguities when signing contracts; we might not have changed anything about them, but at least we’d be more secure about signing them (and be warned about the consequences).

5. Choose the people you work with

When you’re building a house, you will spend a whole lot of time with the people involved in the project. One person you can’t do without, is the architect. There are plenty of them in the area; some speak perfect English and others don’t, some are all about natural building while others are more into modern architecture; some see your project as a work of art they want to share with the world, while others see themselves as a tool to be used by the client and doing their bidding. What’s important, is that you find the architect that’s just right for you; someone who will listen to your dream and take it to another level. Preferably a higher one.

The same procedure applies to people you’ll be working with while building your house. So far we’ve been incredibly lucky with most of the people we’ve worked with – it feels good working with local people and locally made stuff. Most of them take a real pride in their work and did (or are doing) an amazing job; I guess it’s no fun to bump into people at the village fiesta if you’ve done a lousy job at their house 🙂

Work in progress

Work in progress

6. Pay attention to the details

There are some particularities about the Spanish culture (or nature), that are slightly different from many other countries; I thought I’d list a few…

  • It was logical for our architect & builder to place the windows on the inside of the walls. In Belgium & Holland, you’ll place them in the middle, so you have a window sill outside AND inside…
  • Standard beds are smaller in Spain than they are in many other countries. You can still find king size beds (or at least, beds that are 2 meters long) in many specialised shops though. Take into account that when your architect designs the bedrooms, he’ll probably put a 1m40 x 1m90 bed in the design (and make the room look bigger than it actually is)
  • Ever wondered why traditional Spanish houses don’t have big windows? You’d need a very big overhang (all around) to keep the sun out in the heath of summer… For instance our bedroom has a 2m covered balcony in front of the sliding door / window, but we still get sun inside (from the side) until about 11 o’clock on the longest days of the year (and it only gets worse after that, as the sun is slowly getting lower).
    Our living room windows are a lot smaller – but as they have a smaller overhang as well, we’re getting full sun through those windows until about 14h in the middle of summer. Which makes the living room the hottest room in the house; usually by midday, it’s hotter inside than outside. Curtains help to a certain degree; the sun will still be on the windows and the heat will still get in, but part of it would be stopped if you leave the curtains drawn when the sun is out. We’re planning to have outside shades installed – probably a project for next spring though.
    Big windows can be annoying in winter as well; the sun will come in almost horizontally, and even in winter the sun can be pretty harsh. Last winter, I struggled to find a good spot to work where the sun would not be in my eyes nor on my computer screen. Thankfully, curtains would solve that.
  • Our beautiful fake wooden floor (in one of the guest bathrooms)

    Our beautiful fake wooden floor (in one of the guest bathrooms)

    At first, we really wanted a wooden floor; since good quality wood is not from here, you can either go for the fake stuff (we have wood-looking tiles, and so happy with them!), or pay a lot more money to get imported wood, or just go for a different quality (and I don’t mean better). Also, due to the huge differences in temperature and humidity, wood will expand and shrink a lot more here than it would in places with a more constant climate.

  • There are technical differences as well – I’m not a technical person so I’m not going into that now, but I’ve been led to understand that you need a different kind of solar panels here than what’s recommended in the Netherlands, a heat pump would not provide the same benefits (and be more expensive) here than in the north, and some techniques that are very common in other countries are barely used here (and vice versa). I’ve heard stories where people absolutely wanted a certain (technical) element in their system, but local people messed up the installation as they had no idea how to do it.
    For more technical stuff, please talk to my husband 🙂

7. A Sound System

One of the things that can make or break your comfort living off the grid, is the presence of a good system. 4 things are most important here:

  • Water – having a reliable source of good water is indispensable. Many people around here dig a well – this can be very expensive, and some are not too lucky with the water coming out (some people in a neighbouring village have water that’s saltier than the sea). If you want a well, make sure you have it dug at the perfect spot by a reliable company; if they had to twice as deep as expected to find water, the owner will need to pay for the thousands of euros worth of extra work…  Some people around here don’t bother with a well or mains water, but just collect rainwater from the roof and / or get water brought in by water tank trucks (or go fill a tank at the village themselves). Do some research and talk to neighbours before taking decisions.
  • Electricity – we have seen awesome off-grid electrical systems, and we have seen very lousy (and overpriced) ones. We are over the moon with our system so far; it works on solar power mainly – but if something happens and the batteries can’t provide enough, the generator kicks in automatically. Also, we made sure we could do several things at the same time – the dishwasher, washing machine and (electrical) oven can all be on while I’m vacuuming without the whole system failing. We have made very few concessions; although I rarely use a hair dryer and don’t care much for an electrical water heater, which are the kind of things that take the most electricity (especially in winter, when there are less sun hours), we made sure our guests will be able to use those if needed.
    Take a look at other people’s systems and talk to a few knowledgable people (I don’t mean the guy selling you his system) before planning your own; don’t rush into ordering a system that might not cover all your needs.
  • Heating & cooling – obviously, there is more work to be done in our house when it comes to cooling; we’ll need outside shades for a fair lot of windows to keep the sun out, we might install some fans in the ceiling at some point as well. Having air conditioning makes no sense to us; if my house were really really cool in the middle of summer, I wouldn’t be able to cope with even moderate heat when going out.
    Many people living off the grid around here seem to struggle with keeping the house warm in winter; big rooms with high ceilings feel nice and airy in the summer, but it’s a lot of extra room to heat up on colder days.
  • Internet and phone connection – to some this is an afterthought, but if you have an internet job like me it’s important. Off-grid houses around here usually have their internet either from satellite or through radio waves; which one is better for you depends on your line of sight (for radio waves you need to be able to catch the antenna in a neighbouring village). Same goes for phone reception; we made sure before buying we had perfect reception on most of our land, but if you don’t a reception booster could help… Again, talk to your neighbours and with other people facing similar challenges.
That should do the trick...

That should do the trick…

8. Start a business

Ah, the joys of starting a business in Spain. To some, it makes sense as it’s a way to get into the social security system and to get VAT back, sometimes there’s even talk of a grant you could get for starting something new that’s beneficial to the area; however, you might not get all the VAT back, I haven’t heard of anyone ever really getting money from that grant and there is a lot more paperwork.
It can also a lot of money, depending on the type of business you are going for. You can’t do without an accountant and those are not cheap; if you start a S.L. or similar, there are notary costs involved as well. Depending on the type of business you might have to meet all kinds of requirements (for instance for a B&B, we need to have chlorinated water, somebody needs to certify your well produces enough water for the amount of guests you’re allowed and things will generally get checked more thoroughly). If you choose to be self-employed, there are the autonomo payments which can be very high. And last but not least, you might not be allowed to officially start your business before all requirements are met, which means it takes a long long time before you can start reaping any benefits.
So if your main reason to come and live here is to start a business, do go ahead and good luck; if having a business would just be a way for you to make things cheaper, please do your calculations before diving into it head first.

9. The project and building permit

I am still not 100% certain how a project is supposed to go around here, but this is what I know for sure… Building a house (or more, that’s why it’s called a project) is something that takes many steps. From the moment you agree on the plans with your architect to the moment you have an officially registered house, it will take many years – nothing you can do about that, it’s a slow process.
From the start of the project and the moment you’ll be able to live in your house, a lot of time will pass as well; it is very advisable to think first about the life you’ll live while you wait – most people start out renting a house in the village, but I’ve talked to many people who would rather have lived in a caravan, a yurt or a temporary building on their land in the years they spent waiting. Nothing compares to living on your own land, spending zero on rent / electricity / gas / whatever (unless you count the occasional bottle if you’re cooking on gas) and just being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want it.
Between the day the architect told us the whole project was ready to go into the building permit process (January 2014) and the day we did get said building permit (February 2015) it seemed like so much time passed – and although the foundations were dug in March 2015 and the builder put the last hand to a last detail in May 2016, we’re still waiting for the architect, the builder and the surveyor to come together and sign the “final de obra”, meaning that the house is ready. We know that when we have that final de obra, it will still take years for our house to be registered; as we’re living completely off the grid and no house has been here before, officials will have to come and check if everything has been done meeting the necessary requirements, the architect will have to compose a completely new book of plans and technical stuff (including many small changes the builders have made during construction), and hopefully in a year or 2-3 we’ll be able to go to the notary to sign the enormous amount of paperwork involved… and we’ll have a fully regulated house.

Rain in the mountains - beats a picture of me doing paperwork

Rain in the mountains – beats a picture of me doing paperwork

10. Mañana, mañana… the cultural differences

Most people back in the North would laugh at our ambitious plans – ah yes, but you’re going to Spain and it’s “mañana, mañana” over there. Has that turned out to be true? Well… yes and no.
Our experience working with local professionals is that if you make an appointment, they’ll be there; they might be a bit later (it’s very normal here to be stuck in traffic behind a tractor or a flock of sheep), but “la hora es la hora”. Often though,  appointments are not made for an exact time, but for a certain timeframe like”after I brought the children to school” or “before lunch”. Which might be difficult for people from a time-oriented society (like us!) to understand at first, but you get used to it very quickly; the trick is not to fill your time with waiting for people – but do your own thing until people show up.  One exception to this whole “showing up” thing turned out to be our project manager, who is a total sweetheart but gets so caught up in talking to people about their projects, that he will totally forget about the next appointment he made and either turn up hours late, or not turn up at all (and forget to cancel)… which made for many, many lost mornings / afternoons / full days waiting for him to show up. But since most of his clients know that after meeting him once or twice, apparently that’s ok.
People here do get their priorities straight though; they might tell you they will continue work tomorrow but if their child gets sick or if there’s an urgent job at another client’s place, who can blame them for changing their plans? Also, as soon as it rains, the whole area just hits pause – many roads (to off-grid properties) are difficult to drive on after a rainfall, and also going out in the rain is messy and not convenient. Social gatherings get cancelled, orders get delayed and many people don’t work when it rains… Rain is not a very regular happening here though, so that as well is something you get used to very quickly.

We look back very fondly on the time spent living in the maset..

We look back very fondly on the time spent living in the maset..

What would we have done differently? We regret nothing – but in hindsight, we would probably not have been this impatient to start a business (the B&B) and build the big house – we would have renovated the maset, invested more in tools, machinery and animal shelters / storage / workshops, and get everything else started before starting the big construction project. In the mean time, we would probably have had the time to think about the “whole thing” (the bungalows we’d like to build all around), so we’d have applied for a building permit including everything at once.
Living off the grid in a modest house is actually much more comfortable than we could ever imagine – and the best thing is, once you’ve got a vegetable garden going and some chickens free ranging around your house, living here costs next to nothing (at least, compared to living in a big city). And as I said, nothing compares to living on your own land – when everything fails, things are going sour, projects take too long to be finished, your olive trees failed to produce anything and the fox just ate all of your chickens… You’re still living in one of the most beautiful places on earth. On your own land. Doing whatever you like, whenever you want to do it.

Foggy weather and solar power

This one goes out to all those who think that Spain is all about sunny beaches. And sunny mountains, and olive trees turning their leaves towards the sun. And barbecues in the sun, and eating fig pancakes in the sun. Sun-dried tomatoes, and suntans. Hold on to your hats: winter has come.

The almond field in the mist

The almond field in the mist

We’re having a few foggy days here in Matarranya – cold and misty on Monday, it got somewhat better on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then everything turned white again on Thursday. It’s Saturday night now, and we’re hoping for a few hours of clear sky (= sun) tomorrow, but looking at the weather forecast we shouldn’t really expect too much out of it.

Of course most areas in the world have fog from time to time – the experience is slightly different over here.
First of all, as fog doesn’t occur too much here (it’s usually too windy for the clouds to stay in one spot), people put stuff on hold until after it’s gone: harvesting olives (they’re all wet anyway), hiking and biking, even going out (we went to the bar yesterday, on Friday night, and hardly saw anybody; mostly other expats).
We also notice internet is a bit slower than usual; we’ve gotten so used to good and reliable internet, that we forget that it’s all satellite and radio waves, instead of glass fiber like in the north.
Olives in the mist

Olives in the mist

What it does affect the most though, is electricity. We get our energy from solar panels, and fog = hardly any solar energy. Hardly, but some: to our surprise, the batteries charged 2kW yesterday (a full day of fog) and 1,8kW so far today (not a ray of sun), just from daylight. Those numbers might mean nothing to most people, but we’re quite happy with them 🙂

We’ve been amazed at our solar energy system so far. Technically not “ours”, as we’re renting the house, but we’re planning on having a similar system with the same amount of solar panels and battery so this is kind of a general rehearsal. On Thursday, there was a tiny bit of sun for an hour or two and in that small amount of time, I managed to do the laundry, have the dishwasher on and the batteries got fully charged.
We have a backup generator in case the batteries are out of juice, so we haven’t been too careful with electricity – we still charge our laptops, put on lights when we’re in a room, and the fridge has been on non-stop (and it’s not even an A+++ energy-saving fridge :-)). The fireplace has been on for heath (it’s not that cold yet, and the house is very well insulated), and we’re cooking on gas.
However, the batteries are still going strong… we’re expecting to be ok until at least tomorrow. Two of our Workaway volunteers are leaving us then, so I’d like to do some laundry and vacuum cleaning. In case of no sun this means we’ll put on the generator – which will also fill up the batteries, so we’d be good for another 3 days of mist.
Before coming here, I would have thought of “waiting for the sun” as an inconvenience. However on the one hand it’s not really necessary to wait (we could just as well turn on the generator), and on the other hand it’s quite relaxing: I could start vacuuming the house, but since unfortunately there’s not much power left in the batteries, so I’ll put cleaning off until tomorrow and write something on my blog without feeling lazy or remorseful. I think I’m starting to get used to the Spanish way of life; “mañana” is a word you could use when it’s just too hot to do hard work, but can be applied when sitting in front of the fireplace with a laptop and a cat as well.
When we tell people we’re going off the grid (with solar power, water from a borehole and veggies from the garden), many look at us like we’ve said we’re going “into the wild” with just a tent and a bottle of water to go dancing with the grizzlies; however we’re happy to report that so far, we haven’t felt like we would lose need to compromise when it comes to comfort. Not ever, not once. Not even after 6 days of fog, with more on their way 🙂
Mist at "Mas del Caballero"

Mist at “Mas del Caballero”