So I am just shy of being a week in now, and I am more and more settling into my new life with the old lady, the Event Horizon. Even after that short period of time, there are important lessons I have learned; first and foremost being that all resources a limited, and sometimes, replenishing them takes effort and is not easy.
In settled life, the issue of basic resources is not one we tend to think about much on a daily basis. If you have an appliance, you plug it into a wall socket, and the supply of electricity is both stable and essentially unlimited. You just use it, and get send a bill at the end of the month. If you are thirsty or want to take a shower, you just turn on the tap, and there is an unlimited supply of clean, fresh and potable water. If you are cold, you turn on the gas/oil heater, and warmth is again instant and pretty much unlimited. I never really thought about those things much, because I took them for granted, and them being always available in unlimited amounts was both expected and “normal”. It was all just a matter of money – so long as I was able to pay the bills, the basic utilities were guaranteed and always readily available. However, things are very different when you live out on the road, and, like me, you live and park wild and don’t avail of campsites.
The first thing I had to consider – because it was both an immediate need, and a severely limited resource – was how I powered my devices and appliances. My basic setup ( which I installed myself post-purchase ) is a battery bank totalling a capacity of 180Ah, which I keep charged by two roof-mounted solar panels with a combined output of 360W in direct sunlight. The loads that draw off the battery consist of all my lights ( which are still old-style filament bulbs, I haven’t switched to LEDs yet ), the water pump, the fridge, two 12V cigarette lighter sockets, plus two 2.1A USB sockets which I use to keep my portable devices charged. Everything else – hob, oven, water heater etc – runs off LPG gas.
My entire system is bare bones, without any fancy gimmicks – I do not use a charge controller ( it burned out on me when I first installed the panels ), and my load circuit is connected straight to the battery bank ( via a suitable fuse box of course ). I keep track of charge levels via a simple multimeter, which I have connected to the batteries. No fancy computers, panels, controllers etc; this is all down to micro-management and taking responsibility for what the hell I am doing on a daily basis.
A capacity of 180Ah is, at first glance, more than enough for anyone; however, the first thing I learned is that, if you are off-grid and rely solely on solar panels, you do not want to actually run the battery down by any substantial degree. That’s because actually re-charging a battery from solar takes a long time, especially if you are dealing with overcast and bad weather; it is much better to keep the batteries topped up in the first place. I do this with a dual approach – firstly I keep a trickle charge going from the panels to the batteries by taking advantage of ambient daylight. I leave the panels connected most of the day in overcast conditions, carefully monitoring the voltage across the terminals. The ideal potential difference with panels connected is a steady 13.8V – 14V, and you really shouldn’t exceed 15V – 16V for any length of time. Ideally a charge controller takes care of this, but in my case I do it manually. Somewhat counterintuitively, I don’t leave the panels connected for too long in direct sunlight – rather, I prefer to keep the trickle going from ambient light.
The second thing I do is very carefully limiting the amount of power I draw from the battery, meaning I limit and manage my usage. Power, for me, is now a precious resource, so I use electric lights only when absolutely necessary; I take advantage of the humble old candle instead, which I find to be much more atmospheric anyway. The crucial thing here is of course to treat open flames with respect, and take proper fire safety precautions; this should go without saying. Likewise, I very carefully manage how I keep my devices charged. Before I embarked on this adventure, I have invested in a good quality tablet computer – this provides me with Internet access via the mobile phone network, a camera, and a way to keep myself organised, and keep running this blog. This way, instead of having to use multiple devices, I have just one tablet computer, which I have chosen specifically for being very power efficient. Usually, a single charge would last me 3-4 days, but again, I do not run the battery completely down; instead I keep it charged up as much as possible on a daily basis. This works well for me, and avoids huge amounts being drawn from my leisure batteries in any one go.
In addition to the main roof-mounted solar panels, I also have a portable lantern which has a small panel built in, as well as a small portable panel to keep a power bank charged, which I simply put onto my dashboard :
The dashboard panel provides a permanent trickle charge to a small power bank, which I use to “carry around” power with me; it charges my mobile phone, and can be used as an emergency backup to charge up the tablet. The solar lantern charges itself from ambient daylight, and augments my candles at night – as a result, I actually hardly ever use the main lights in my campervan !
The upshot is this – when you are out on the road, power is a precious resource that needs to be collected, stored, managed, and used in smart ways. It is no longer as simple as just plugging something into a wall socket, and not worry about it again. On the other hand, once managed correctly, it is also a resource that is completely free – daylight happens every day without fail, and it is form of pure energy which is free to harvest and use. You just need to know how to do it ! Since I took the Event Horizon out on the roads, I have been completely off-grid, without ever dropping my main charge levels below 85% – and this is in the middle of winter ! It’s all just a matter of being mindful of what you use, and taking responsibility for your actions. I do not feel that I am making any kind of sacrifice to comfort here – in fact, I am more comfortable than ever before, because I use precisely what I need, without wasting anything. There is something very special about being able to do this. The only regret I have now is that I have spent so many years wasting huge amounts of money on Big Energy, when free power was readily available all around me, without me even realising ! In my original blueprints, I had planned to also install a small wind turbine onto the camper, but I now find that I do not actually need this, and it would just add extra weight onto my chassis.
After electricity, this was the next most immediate need. The Event Horizon has a fresh water tank with a capacity of 120l, which I had fully topped up when I took off a week ago. Only today, six days later, did I run out of water; this gives me an average daily usage of about 20l a day, which covers everything from cooking to personal hygiene. Personally I am of the opinion that even this is still a ridiculously large amount, even though I know of course that it is just a tiny fraction of what I would have used in my settled life. I will certainly strife to reduce this further.
The big question is of course, where do you get this water from if you are off-grid and don’t use campsites ? This was a source of considerable worry for me, because, until yesterday afternoon, I had no idea what the answer was going to be. I was prepared to break one of my most fundamental principles, and take water from someone’s house. Eventually the answer came pretty much by accident – I was driving down a narrow back road, and came across a stone structure next to the road; I had seen this before, so I was curious as to what it actually was, so I stopped to investigate. And lo and behold, what I found was a fresh water stream coming from a spring ! So here is my local fresh water source ? Of course, I would not drink that water straight out of the stream, but then again, I would not drink any water from my taps, as the camper is old and I doubt very much that any of the lines or the main tank have ever been cleaned. Hence, I always thoroughly boil everything I ingest anyway, or stick to bottled water. Getting the water into the tank required a little bit of elbow grease, but my son Dwayne was ready and willing to help :
Once again, having water in the tank is one thing, but the trick is then to make it last; I do this by very carefully managing my usage. I never waste a drop – when I boil a batch in the kettle, and there is anything left over, I keep it in a thermos. I keep showers as short as possible, and keep the amount I use for dishwashing to the absolute minimum. And so on.
Once all is said and done, the life of a nomadic van dweller is about efficient use of scarce resources; I think twice every time I turn on a light, or open a tap – do I really need to do that right now ? What will the consequences of this action be – later today, tomorrow, next week ? Basic resources being limited for me means I need to be a lot more mindful of how I live life, every single moment of every day; wastefulness is quite simply no longer an option. I need to take responsibility for my actions. I come to realise now that this awareness is something that we lack as settled people – when you live in a house, and are connected to the grid, you live under the illusion that everything is unlimited. The problem with this is that everyone else is under the same illusion, and the compound effect is that we end up with a society that is hugely wasteful. We burn through our fossil fuels at an ever increasing rate, and diminish our supply of fresh water likewise; we never think about this, because when we open a tap or turn on that switch, these things are just there. We have removed ourselves from the source, and chosen instead to exist in a state where we are blissfully oblivious of the impact our actions have on the world around us.
So this is my first lesson learned out on the roads – resources are limited, at times hard to replace, and need to be made use of wisely and sparingly. Wastefulness is simply not an option anymore; mindfulness is what it is all about.
Stay tuned for my next blog post, to follow soon ?