Tag Archives: living off-grid

Equalization

It’s that time of the month again.   The Bearded One’s back is out (for the first time in his life), he’s in bed and has been for days (moving all those damn lava rocks),

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so for the first time since we moved here a year ago and got the solar system up and working last fall, the monthly battery equalization is all up to me.

“I haven’t pushed the button myself,” he says as he explains to me – how Tom explained to him – how to start our new electric-start, gasoline-powered generator. Our old FOUR-pull start, propane-powered generator is for sale, and I’m handling that, too ($700 on Craigslist).

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We are too old to yank that rope four times out to here. The Bearded One will be 60 in September. I’m not far behind him.

I laugh.  I haven’t laughed much today. The Bearded One has never actually started the new generator. I will be the first. This is funny because I never was able to start the old generator. I have to start this new one today because we have to have it on to equalize the solar batteries. A dreaded procedure we usually do together.

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Tom wrote us a lengthy (but at our reading level) manual called “Care and Maintenance of Your Solar System”. It includes this: Equalization is a process that charges a battery with higher than normal voltage to dissolve scale and electrolyte buildup on the internal battery plates to keep them clean and functional so the voltage in each battery cell is comparable with its peers (equalized!) which makes them perform better and last longer.

The Bearded One is in charge of maintaining and starting the generator, and carefully putting the distilled water in the batteries (touch two terminals at once and it’s all over), and I am the electronics panel person, because it looks like a computer and the Bearded One is computer illiterate. Tom almost always ends up having to help us with that screen. It just doesn’t work like it’s supposed to.

“Living off-grid requires healthy bodies,” I say, riffing on a previous discussion where I panicked about my planned trip to the mainland  to help with the birth of our grandchild in less than three weeks.

I couldn’t leave the Bearded One like this. Our own water and electricity operation requires some effort almost every day – hauling propane and ethanol-free gas, checking the catchment tanks, checking the battery water level and the monthly equalization,

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not to mention the unexpected events like the battery meltdown at the end of December, or the generator not charging the batteries, or the accursed monitor not working properly. How, just 10 days from now, is he going to be able to handle all that, plus the cooking and cleaning? He can barely make it to the bathroom. At least now he doesn’t need the crutches to get there. The happy ending to that dilemma is that our son, aka His Majesty, who still lives on the island, agreed to be on call — even to moving in here if need be – so that I can go.

“Healthy bodies,” agrees the Bearded One, “and a handyman.” He is reassuring me that we can always call Tom or Bruce. Living off-grid does create a community.

“I’ll figure it,” I say. And then, as I leave the house with the generator instruction manual, a flashlight, a gallon jug of distilled water and a turkey baster,

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I stop and run upstairs to make sure Nala is inside. Open batteries full of hydrochloric acid don’t mix with curious cats.

The day the Bearded One’s back gave out, Tom and His Majesty were up here installing the reed ceiling over the heat insulation panels. It turned out nice, like Gilligan’s Island.

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The Bearded One hasn’t even been up the stairs to see it yet. He’s moved into the den, and Nala thinks he’s mad at her because he won’t go outside or bend over to pet her.

There she is, on the shelf in the tool area. We meow to each other.

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This week hasn’t been all work and no play. On Thursday, swimming at Pohoiki with my buddy NeNe, the water was way calm, almost like a lake. There were hardly any waves, but dozens of paddle boarders and swimmers and snorklers. And kids out of school. Lots of Hawaiian locals, but also a handful of us local haoles and some happas (mixed race). All the usuals that know us were telling us there was a school of spinner dolphins out there. Big smiles and pointing. Previously, I’ve only seen these leaping dolphins from the shore, and way out. They were close in today. So I swam out! And just 10 feet away, sleak gray dolphins, maybe 30 in all, in a lovely formation, two by two, then a few singles, leaping up and down, circled this group of us.

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Several people had goggles and one woman offered to share. Two kids were goggling next to me and told me all about the little baby, just a foot long, that was flanked and shielded by the others, but giving the elder dolphins some trouble. I didn’t see the baby, but the kids, a boy and a girl, had and told me.  Everyone was treading water quietly, respectfully as we watched. I loved the people around me as much as the dolphins.

On the way home I stopped to get propane, filling one 4-gallon tank I had with me and buying two additional for our stove, fridge and hot water. We sold our 9-gallon tanks on Craigslist yesterday. Heavy things. The Bearded One always loaded and unloaded those.

Okay, so here I am, by myself in front of our electrical system (four US Battery L16 410-amp hour 6-volt flooded lead acid batteries wired in series to create a 24 volt electrical system), and our new generator (Generac 7500 Watts).

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I fill a 2-gallon gas can from a full 4-gallon can (which is hard to lift and angle and I’m selling our 4-gallon cans asap).

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Then I angle the gas nozzle into the generator hole, previously located and upcapped, and pull back on the little lever so the gas burps out. And out. Two gallons is enough. It just has to run an hour to equalize.

Fuel petcock switched to the left, check.

Choke switched to the left, check.

Press START. Vrooooooom! She starts, then gets sluggish and I race around and switch the choke off, and the generator is on. Whoop! No pull rope at all.

Next to the battery box. Take off the plywood siding (takes me 10 minutes of loosening C-clamps this first time). Carefully remove spring-loaded battery caps from 4 green box batteries. Shine flashlight into batteries and see water level. Use turkey baster to fill them up. Wipe sweat from brow.

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Then go mess with the monitor. Can’t get clear screen. Check instructions again. Try to clear the screen by turning off Battery Disconnect Switch. Nothing happens. Do this several times. Still not working. Sweat.

I turn off the generator and trudge inside. Sweat and tears, but no blood. “It won’t work!” I say.

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The Bearded One says, “You did great. You started the generator! You filled the batteries. You are such an island babe.”

“True,” I say. It was pretty sweet. No man is an island. “I’ll go call Tom.”

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Ten Glugs

The Bearded One is all soaped up in the shower when the generator runs out of gas. I know because I am sitting by the lantern in kitchen with our son, His Majesty, and the electric fan stops. Then I hear the Bearded One whistle for help. “Oh no!” I cry. I spring into action.

This is a clear “Mom” overreaction to the generator stopping, and His Majesty lets me know. “Sheesh, Mom. Calm down.” He is yoga man, but he is also a naturally calm soul whose chill presence in the kitchen at Kalani has gotten him promoted to trainer already. He gets up and turns on his headlamp. “I’ll go fill it up.”

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“Thank you!!”

He pats me on the shoulder, says, “It’s okay, really,” and walks through the dining room, which no longer houses our inflatable bed, but is full of solar panels

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which we’d hoped to install today, but Tropical Storm Wali has been bearing down on us all week, the tin roof’s wet and too dangerous to walk on, and tonight the rain is supposed to be torrential.

The Bearded One has been preparing for the storm all week, including building a rain-proof box for the solar batteries. He loves storms. Lately, it’s just been hot and humid. The storm was due at 6pm. It’s 7:30 now. The Bearded One gave up and got into the shower.

I run to the bathroom to let him know help is on the way. I am a bit frantic, I admit. This week, on top of the storm preparations and the solar panel delivery, our tiny electrical system died, so we had no running water in the house for a couple of days until Tom told us how to hook the pump directly to the second generator. For those days, we hauled water from the decrepit old open catchment tank (new one due to be delivered this week) to flush the toilet

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and drove the 2 miles to Tom’s for a shower. I heated potable water on our propane stove for washing dishes. Living off-grid means learning your own infrastructure really well, hauling in drinking water (8+ pounds per gallon…), monitoring the propane supply, and the ethanol-free gas for the generator, and it’s still a bit overwhelming to me.

“How are you doing?” I ask my sudsy sweetie.

“Tell His Majesty that from the small gas can, the generator takes just ten glugs, and then it’s almost full.” His mind is still under the house, where he was juggling fuel cans and engines and electrical wiring all day with His Majesty while Tom installed the fourth window upstairs.

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I spent the afternoon cooking a spaghetti casserole while Tom’s dog Rufus watched me from the lanai and waited for the drippings.

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All of us took timeouts to check the radar on the computer to see how the storm was materializing. Up to 12 inches, some said, but it seemed to be dissipating. Still there was plenty of flood risk, which energized the Bearded One. Our house is kind of down in a hole.

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“Once the lava is saturated,” he said to me with absolute earnestness, “all hell will break loose!”

“Got it,” I say, race to the storage room window which is right above the generator, shout “Just 10 glugs!” His Majesty shouts, “Okay!” and the generator is going again in minutes. He comes in and we resume our conversation in front of the fan, which is a lifesaver with no breezes and humidity that turns cardboard limp as tissue. This is the tropics.

Rain drops begin to plunk and then pound on the tin roof. His Majesty’s eyes flicker under his headlamp and he smiles. “I love that sound,” he says.

“Here it comes!” shouts the Bearded One from the bathroom.

We laugh. “He is so funny,” I say.

His Majesty agrees. “His timing is great.” Then he gets his guitar and walks out to the dark lanai. It’s 7:40 and we’re heading to bed before too long. No TV, no lamps. The Bearded One sits on the lanai, too, listening to the rain and the guitar music and even plays some himself. It’s been a long time since he’s touched a guitar. I can feel his happiness.

When the rain stops, we listen to the ocean, which is extra loud, crashing into the lava cliffs of the Puna coast less than a mile away. “Concussive,” he says, giddy. “Want to go to the ocean? See if we can get blasted?”

I say to the boys, “Probably time to go shut down that generator. Save the gas.”

“Almost ready, my sweets,” says the Bearded One. “Just one more glug.”

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