LIFE without electricity bills sounds pretty enticing to most people, so it’s no surprise going off the grid seems to be gaining ground across the state.
While self-sufficient living by independently sourcing water and power is a necessity in some remote areas, it’s a lifestyle choice in others — with the bonus of giving bills the flick.
But the buzz around off-the-grid living and other sustainable methods is building closer to town, too, as urban residents and big builders explore ways to employ green technology.
DISCONNECT TO RECONNECT
City-dweller Natalie Jensen and her family built an off-the-grid house in Gembrook, in Melbourne’s outer southeast, five years ago and it’s been a back-to-nature retreat on weekends and school holidays ever since.
Though already interested in sustainability, the family chose total self-sufficiency when hooking up to the grid would have meant clearing more than 1ha of their bush block.
“It didn’t sit with us,” Ms Jensen said. “We had the room and we wanted to be low impact.”
Opting for off-grid living saw the family set up a 3kW solar system, enough to run three days without sun, and a diesel generator kicks in if needed. Two water tanks can collect
86,000 litres, while a worm farm septic tank system does not require emptying or power and doubles as compost.
The solar system has capacity for another 2kW to be added. But the family is comfortable with a woodfire fuelled by fallen timber in winter and double insulation removed the need for airconditioning in summer.
The only real maintenance is to wash the solar panels. “It’s probably less than $100 a year for upkeep of the house.”
And they’ve never paid a bill.
Ms Jensen said the property was a place to enjoy nature with minimal impact. “For the kids, too, we wanted a place to have that awareness of all the decisions we make every day about using water and power.”
“You can lose the awareness of that impact and the footprint you have when you’re in the city.”
The agent explained how the experience had inspired them to expand to a larger property and explore new methods, particularly for growing food.
The family’s property at 890 Beenak East Rd, Gembrook, is for sale with Bell Real Estate and has a price guide of $785,000-$860,000.
Bell Real Estate agent Samantha Scott said more residents in the region were becoming confident about the prospect of self-sufficient living.
While other off-the-grid homes had sold in the area, this was the most comfortable and technologically advanced.
The property’s sustainable features had been key to the significant interest it had attracted
so far. “Everyone has loved fact that it’s off-grid,” she said.
TOP TECH DRIVING INTEREST
Elsewhere in the state, solar power advancements have boosted the popularity of off-grid living.
Biggin & Scott Daylesford director Michael DeVincentis said sustainable technology was fledgling in the region 25 years ago but now equipment and advice were readily available. “When you’re on a large farm or bush block, the cost of bringing power in is quite high and with the advent now of really good systems it can sometimes be cheaper to be off-grid,” he said.
“It’s people thinking about the environment and wanting to be self-sufficient, too.”
The $1.1 million sale of a property at 91B Lynchs Rd, Daylesford, set a new price benchmark for sustainable homes last July.
“It was built on a lot of sustainable principles,” he said. “The building itself had a lot of recycled materials in it.
“They had a marvellous off-grid system there, one of best I’d seen.”
Mr DeVincentis said the agency was selling a scenic 24ha block of land at 29 Archibald Rd, Newlyn, and would recommend potential buyers consider an off-grid system for the site.
Sustainable design specialist Steffen Welsch, director of Steffen Welsch Architects, said more people wanted off-grid and semi off-grid solutions.
“There’s definitely been a growing trend for sustainable design more broadly over the past 10 years. And over the past three or so years, more people from inner-Melbourne have been inquiring about off-grid and semi off-grid designs.”
Data from realestate.com.au shows a significant lift in the number of sales of properties that mentioned “off-the-grid” in their description. In 2015, just 14 were sold and by 2017 the number reached 44 sales.
The specialist noted that sustainability was often not people’s primary motivation for reducing their carbon footprint.
“They want freedom. If it’s a scorching hot day, they don’t want to turn on the airconditioner and have to worry about a blackout.”
A number of off-grid homes were in suburbs like Northcote and Preston where block sizes were bigger, according to Mr Welsch.
He recommended doing a thorough check before buying a sustainable home. “Things like batteries and solar panels can degrade over time, so it’d be wise to have an electrician look at them,” he said.
“You also need to investigate your surroundings. Look at planning permits, and consider what developments could happen around the property. You don’t want to have sun one day and none the next.”
A NEW NO-BILLS HOME
Developer Mirvac is also active in the sustainable living space, creating a “house with no bills” that is designed to rely on solar and battery energy.
It will select a family to live in the Cheltenham house for a year.
The experiment would help deliver energy bill-free homes to the mass market, Mirvac general manager Elysa Anderson said.
“The costs associated with these technologies have been decreasing over the last few years, meaning the capital cost is becoming more affordable.
“The prototype house is a real-world example of how best practice energy efficiency is being tested so that we can find ways to bring it to people across Australia.”