My solar life

| 15th January 2014
Andy enjoys the sunshine outside 'The Shack' - while solar panels charge up the batteries. Photo: Solar Events.
Andy enjoys the sunshine outside 'The Shack' - while solar panels charge up the batteries. Photo: Solar Events.
Andy Hope has been working with solar power for over 25 years and pioneered renewable energy at festivals. He talks to The Ecologist about his passion for sustainability and his self-built, off grid home - 'The Shack' ...
More and more people are wanting to run site lighting and production facilities as well at outdoor events without the noise and smell of a diesel generator in the background.

The Ecologist: What the story of your home 'The Shack'?

Andy Hope: I've lived in a caravan in this particular Somerset field for six years, but in 2011 I decided to add an extension to my small living space.

I considered several options including straw bale, a second hand garden shed and even an rammed-earth in old tyres structure known as an 'earth shelter'.

But after thinking long and hard about the quickest and cheapest method I decided to use a dozen old exterior doors that I got free from a local double glazing company. I wanted something that was strong, light and quick to assemble.

I also needed to connect my caravan to it, space station style - so that when I went away to events I could just pull in the connecting plank, take down the walls and ceiling of the connecting hallway, leaving the shack locked up ready for my return.

So how did you do it?

Well basically, I made a strong square base from some old railway sleepers then screwed the doors on to them all the way round to form the basic shape.

After that it was just a matter of adding a pitched roof with lots of insulation in the ceiling - salvaged 3 inch thick polystyrene sheets from a local demolition company - and a woodburning stove I fashioned from an old gas bottle.

I now have a cosy space that is big enough to have guests for dinner but small enough to be warm in 20 minutes even on a frosty morning. And it's not like it cost a lot - the whole Shack cost me less than £1,000 to build and furnish!

And you are totally solar powered?

Yes - I power the Shack with various solar panels that charge a battery bank, then an inverter that turns 12 volt DC battery power into 240 volt AC mains type power. I also have a solar array mounted on my van roof with a battery bank / inverter system inside to give me a mobile power capability in the winter.

I don't have a great deal of electrical requirements, half a dozen LED lightbulbs, a laptop, mobile phone and my spindryer! Which brings me onto another do it yourself passion of mine ... the Hobo Laundry.

OK, what's this Hobo Laundry?

I've never enjoyed having to travel to a laundrette, spending large amounts of money and sitting waiting for the machines to finish. So a couple of years ago I decided, as an experiment, to see if I could do all my washing the traditional way.

I bought an old zinc bath to sit over a small wood fire, various Victorian washing dollies and a mangle. So now I spend a few hours a week heating water, podging my washing, and mangling the bits without buttons - having learnt the hard way that mangling clothing with buttons leaves them, well ... mangled.

Then it's off to my spindryer which runs quite happily off solar power. I made a simple drying rack out of some hazel sticks I got from the hedge behind the caravan and that sits over the woodburner on pulleys - just in case it's raining outside.

More and more people are wanting to run site lighting and production facilities as well at outdoor events without the noise and smell of a diesel generator in the background.

And it's quite an efficient way of drying and airing the clothes. It's also very energetic and I have developed a real respect for the washer persons of bygone eras who must have had impressive arm muscles after many years spent at the dolly tub.

However it's another thing I don't need to rely on someone else for. And it's a very satisfying and surprisingly pleasurable activity, especially on a sunny day!

That's how you keep your clothes clean - but how do you keep yourself clean in a muddy field?

For personal washing I'm blessed with a large sauna that my son and I built 7 years ago on a trailer - it uses wood for heating and can sit 10 people. It heats water as well - a system of copper pipes in the hot cabin makes enough water to have a hot shower every 15 minutes in the changing room at the end.

So it's not just a way of keep clean, it's also a great to get really nice and warm on a cold day!

And if it's not indiscreet to ask ... your toilet arrangements?

I've built a fine compost loo with a lovely view, made from some scrap bits of wood and an old tin box. It is very pleasant to use and, contrary to what you might think it doesn't smell at all.

I actually emptied it the other day after nearly 3 years of continuous use and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was full of rich friable compost. I put the lot into an old barrel and sealed the lid - and after six months I'll put it all onto my vegetable garden.

Now, you also run your own solar powered business ...

Yes, I earn my living by providing solar power at festivals with my company Event Solar, which I've been doing since 1988. I've got a massive system of batteries, solar panels and inverters mainly mounted on and inside a twelve and a half ton truck.

That's big enough to power my custom built 10kW PA (which is big enough to use on a main stage or large tented venue) as well as supplying electricity for a host of other uses around the site, like production facilities or site lighting.

For many years I was a partner in the Croissant Neuf venue - seen at Glastonbury Festival and loads of other events around the UK.

More and more people are wanting to run site lighting and production facilities as well at outdoor events without the noise and smell of a diesel generator in the background. And, these days, solar power can pretty much do anything that is needed!

How do you manage to run your business from a wooden shack in a field?

Isn't modern technology wonderful ... a phone, a laptop and a printer is all I need to run the office side of my business very effectively - for any practical work.

I have a large Luton van parked behind my caravan which is my workshop. In this live my work benches and tools plus my welder which I run - very economically and only when I need to - from a 10kW diesel generator bought second hand from a hire company.

I have the ability to fashion and fabricate just about anything I need for my business in either wood or steel - and all in my own time in a field tucked away behind an old barn.

Do you think this off-grid lifestyle could take off in a much bigger way?

I love it - living so close to nature, hearing the owls at night and the rain on the roof and I guess that for me it is idyllic ... and I think it could work for a lot of other people too.

Of course to take it on you have to have that extra little bit of imagination and a serious desire to try something that departs from the accepted ethos. You know what I mean ... the whole bricks and mortar economy, the mortgage, the work-all-hours to stand still type reality that we are supposed to buy into as good citizens of the global economy.

My lifestyle is not one that everyone would immediately take to. But my ongoing 'experiment' is living proof that, with a small investment and some hard work and ingenuity, it is possible to live with a very small carbon footprint and minimal impact upon the environment.

So yes, as the mainstream economy runs of steam and loses it's ability to give people the things they want and have come to expect, I really do think it has the potential to get much, much bigger.

So you really are 'living your dream'?

I suppose I am. For as far back as I can remember I have always been fascinated about creating and fixing things - tree houses, boots, green houses, gardens, trailers, mechanics, furniture, food etc... and for the past 25 years I have been building solar powered equipment to use at festivals and other events.

My dad was a carpenter and my mum a dressmaker - they would have a go at making anything, a skill which was quite common in the fifties when I was a child but which now, sadly, seems to be disappearing.

I learnt from them the skills, patience and value of 'doing it yourself' that has lead me to where I am today - owner of the largest travelling solar powered PA and lighting system in the UK and proud resident of 'The Shack', a 144 square foot off grid house in a quiet field in Somerset.

And just how does it get better than that?



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