Off grid preparation

Winter off grid can be tough. We’ve been weathering the ‘beast from the east’, and so far everyone is bearing up well. The horses have been tucked up in their stables with hay most of the time, only venturing out to have a roll in the snow before retreating again. Our hens are similarly unimpressed, although they have decided to keep on laying eggs despite the conditions. We were warned about this weather for a good week before it happened, so there was plenty of time to prepare, and on the whole we got everything ready in time. Here are our top off grid bad weather preparation tips:

1 – Water supplies

We made sure to have one outside tap really well insulated, so that we could keep the animals well supplied. Just in case, we flled plastic feed bags with straw and tied them over and around the pipe and tap, and this did the trick. Like other things off grid, having a resilient setup is key, which usually means more than one supply. Despite our rainwater tanks being part of the strawbale barn their outlet pipes did freeze so they’ll need proper lagging, although the insulated pump box did its part. We also kept a 1000 litre tank full of water and it’s tap buried in straw as a backup for watering the horses and hens.

Frozen pond at Lackan Cottage Farm

The hens water has been freezing over repeatedly during the day, so it needs checking, and we’ve also been putting water out for the wild birds, who often can’t find a water source.

2 – Animals

Normally our prevailing wind is from the south west, but this week it has been blasting in from the north east, so we moved the hen house and shelter. This put the door on the sheltered side and the hens were all the happier for it. Their shelter is made from half an IBC container, and lets them eat under cover, which they appreciate in this weather.

Chickens in the snow at Lackan Cottage Farm

The horses have been tucked up inside eating hay most of the time, only venturing out to stretch their legs and have a roll in between snow showers.

Rain the horse

3 – Off grid power & heat

Snow is a blessing and a curse if you are off grid and have solar panels. The snow on the ground reflects a lot of light, so they tend to produce more electricity. That is, once you get the snow off them. Usually we have to clear them once a day with a brush, and that is enough to keep them clear for the day. Also remember that in low temperatures, your solar controller may well receive a higher current than usual and this can be enough to upset them, so keep an eye out for over voltage. It’s been a very windy week too, so even in the midst of the blizzards we’ve had plenty of power. Enough in fact to heat the water in Birch Cottage and keep it nice and warm.

We’re fortunate to have a full woodstore, and have had the range lit constantly since the start of the cold weather. It is far easier to keep the temperatures topped up than have the space cool right down and have to start from cold.

Off grid solar pv

4 – Buildings

I have to confess to having been a bit worried about the strawbale roundhouse in the snow, as it already has a fairly heavy roof, and six inches of snow adds considerably more. So far though, it has stayed up, and doesn’t show any signs of moving under the extra weight. We did consider snow load when building, but on a 6m diameter roof, there is likely to be well over a tonne of snow up there, so its important to size timbers accordingly.

Strawbale barn off grid at Lackan Cottage Farm

The polytunnels, especially the big one also come under a lot of strain with the snow weight, and we’ve been using a long handled brush to persuade the worst of the snow off them before it stretches the plastic. Back in 2013, there were a number of building collapses – generally agricultural barns – around this way, mainly because of underspecified timber, so we’ve been conscious of this in anything we’ve built.

Frozen pond at Lackan Cottage Farm

So the main things to consider if you want to be resilient in poor weather conditions, even if you aren’t off grid are:

Backup – have more than one source of water (tanks, gravity fed,pumped); power (solar, wind); heat (wood stove, solar thermal, power dump such as immersion)

Preparedness – Water pipes need to be buried sufficiently deep to get below the frost line, which may be lower than it has been previously. If above ground, insulate them with considerably more than you think is necessary.
Have your fuel supply handy for the fire, preferably a woodstore that is accessible from the house, and ensure you’ve a plentiful supply of properly dried wood.
If you need to keep panels etc clear, make sure the equipment you need is to hand and isn’t going to get buried by snow. If you don’t need it often, store under the panels so its there when you need it.