Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Decade with solar power

We’ve been meaning to write a blog looking back on the first ten years of living with solar power. We had intended saying how satisfying it was, to look in the “Electricity Bills” file and see nothing there, and to tell how smoothly everything has gone. These things still apply, but we do have to report that we did have a significant glitch late last year.

Our solar system is about 40m from the house (to get more sun exposure). Our batteries and inverter are located under the panels and are not well protected from the elements. This arrangement is not the best, for a number of reasons.

Although we have a keypad in the kitchen which gives us data readouts from the inverter we still have to go up the back to check specific gravity levels occasionally and top up the batteries with water. We probably don’t do this as often as we should because of distance (out of sight, out of mind)

Also the batteries would perform better (and probably last longer) if they were kept at a more constant temperature. In their present location, prevailing air temperatures vary from around zero in winter to close to 50 degrees in mid-summer (in full sun).

However the biggest disadvantage is that water could get into the system and cause damage. We found this out in November when someone accidentally left the lid of the inverter “weatherproof” box open. We won’t name names, but Andrew’s red complexion is not a result of sunburn. One morning we awoke to find ourselves without power. There had been some drizzle overnight and this had upset the inverter. Nothing we tried, would convince it to get over being a little damp, so we called on our friend, Jerry from Solarquip in Healesville.

Jerry came to the rescue that afternoon with a spare inverter (we were extremely lucky he was free and had a spare inverter on hand). After a quick “medical” he determined some specialist work was needed. We took the machine down to the manufacturer, Selectronics (conveniently located about 30 min away) and left it with them. As it turned out, it wasn’t too expensive and our system was back to normal not long after.

However, this event and our experience over the decade have highlighted a few important points. When buying a solar system, do not just select the supplier on price. Consider whether they are a reputable company that is likely to be around in decades to come and whether they will provide backup and service when needed. There is also an advantage in using a locally manufactured inverter. By the way Solarquip installs systems all over Melbourne and in some regional areas. See their website at for more information

Housing the inverter and batteries in a building attached to the house is more secure, guarantees protection from the elements and is more convenient. We are planning to do this in the near future for these reasons.

Solar Power doesn’t need a lot of maintenance or management and is very reliable. Our system is fairly small as it was originally envisaged that it would serve the needs of 2 adults. As it turned out we have had an average of 5-6 people using the system over the decade, so we have stretched it to its capacity and it has performed admirably (only failing through our carelessness). Mind you, we do have to be mindful of our energy use in winter and do have a petrol generator as a back-up (We plan to change this in the near future).

We have no regrets about going solar and having no electricity bills for ten years is very satisfying!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Behind the scenes of a Photography Exhibition

Midway through last year our daughter Sally, was invited to exhibit some of her photography in the gallery at Yering Station Winery. Sally is quite an accomplished nature photographer and has worked in the field as a hobby for around 10 years. As you would know, cameras, tripods, mounting equipment, and other accessories soon add up to a substantial investment. To recoup some of this money Sally has sold many of her images as photo gift cards at local markets.

This exposure (no pun intended) lead to her work being published in local newspapers and one small exhibition. An invitation to mount a major exhibition at a well known gallery was quite a thrill. With some trepidation she accepted and assumed, with many months to prepare, everything would run smoothly.

Of course there was no rush, Sally already had most of the images needed in her portfolio, and all that was required was arranging for them to be printed, getting frames organised and typing up background notes about herself and each work. The gallery had asked that the photos be mounted in rustic recycled timber frames as they fitted the exhibition’s theme (events during and after Black Saturday) and would sit beautifully with the old barn type decor of the hanging space. Heather and I were happy to get to work and build and stain the frames. So the weeks went by, life’s events occupied time and then suddenly there was the realisation that there were only 5 weeks to the installation date.

We had built timber frames before, but had always had trouble with our old mitre saw- its angles were never accurate. As there were around 40 frames needed, we decided to upgrade our equipment. After a search we settled on a very impressive Bosch Mitre Saw which would also be very helpful with all the timber work we needed in the house and our other building projects.

We had plenty of old timber scavenged when people were cleaning out their properties, so we carefully picked our way through the collection, choosing bits with suitably attractive grain & knot holes. (Bits that had “character” as Heather would say.). A week later 40 frames were ready for the next stage.

While this was going on Sally went through her portfolio selecting around 40 images that were suitable. It took several trips to the photographic shop to get them printed. Some had to be printed more than once to get the most suitable size and others had to be repeated because of faulty processing. Of these Sally chose 37 photos to include in the exhibition. They were all given suitable titles and priced. If only that was all that was required, but of course the real work was just about to begin.

Although Sally usually does her own mat board (the background card around the photo) we talked her into getting them professionally done. This would not only be quicker, but it would take some of the pressure off her shoulders (or so we thought at the time). The frame shop were very good in that they went through each image and made helpful suggestions as to the best colour for the mat board and because of the quantity, were prepared to give Sally a substantial discount on the cost. However, that was when we learned an important lesson in making frames. Our frames all differed slightly in size, due to the varying length of each piece of recycled timber. As a result, each mat board had to be individually measured and cut, hence no bulk discount available. We will know better next time.

We usually get our glass cut by a local glazier. We left the frames with them (in the knowledge that all frames were different) and picked up the glass the next day. Things were going well (or so it seemed).
When we had all the glass and mat board at home, we did a match up exercise to make sure every frame had mat board and glass that fitted. That was when we discovered that 7 mat boards had been cut wrongly and 3 glass sheets were too long. Back we went to the frame shop and the glazier. Both businesses were very good. They happily replaced the faulty material and did a few extra jobs free of charge. Still the delays were raising stress levels somewhat.

The staining process took some time to get going. We started using some old stains we had used before, but these were not dark enough. We bought some black stain to mix up our own colour and started experimenting on off-cuts. Eventually we hit on a mix that seemed to work well on the various timbers used for the frames. Whilst Sally cut the foam board backing that held the mat board in place we did the final sanding and staining of each frame.

Our lounge room was starting to resemble a small factory with piles of empty frames and glass sheets, folders of photos, piles of mat board and tools and equipment spread around. The next tasks were cleaning the glass (removing every single fingerprint and mark), attaching the photos to the mat board, fitting them into the frames with the foam backing board and screwing on the turnbuckles which held everything in place. We soon learned that black mat was very “unforgiving” in that it immediately showed up the tiniest mark or stray piece of sawdust. Each frame had to be meticulously vacuumed and checked.

Then Sally taped up the backs giving each frame a very professional finish. Finally ‘D’ screws were inserted in each side, the hanging wire was attached and an individual i.d. sticker attached. Of course these last few tasks did not go completely smoothly; largely as a result of the irregular sized frames. As a particular piece of glass and a particular mat board would fit an individual frame, each had an identification number. Occasionally numbers would disappear leading to cries of “I cannot find the glass for this frame” etc. Another problem that sometimes occurred was the discovery of a stray fingerprint on the glass (on the inside of course) after everything had been put together.

The final step was to transport the 37 works over our rough dirt road to the highway and then to Yering Station. Unlike our usual driving manner we took this trip with great care at every pothole to limit the chance of a potential disaster. We arrived at the gallery with everything intact and helped Savaad (the gallery manager) sort out and hang the work. Everything was now ready for the official opening on Friday.

The Opening

We were expecting around 40 guests for Sal’s official opening of the exhibition, but the numbers were a bit rubbery as not everyone RSVP’d. In addition people moved between the three exhibitions that occupied the gallery spaces so around 100 people would have come through on the night. Although the weather turned out a bit stormy, the night went off without a hitch and a great time was had by all.

It was only on the night that we realised that the arrangement of Sal’s work on the walls, told the story of Black Saturday. As visitors ascended the stairwell they were confronted by the dramatic images of the fire and the burnt landscape. Once they circulated around the upper floor they would have been heartened by the photos of regeneration and return of life. The positive comments and feedback was overwhelming and Sally was thrilled with the support of so many people.
The exhibition is to be well publicised in the local media. The Lilydale Leader took photos on the installation day and interviewed Sally. Healesville Mountain Views paper did an interview on the morning of the opening. Remarkably, during the photo shoot, two of the fire fighters featured in one of the exhibition photos arrived to see the exhibition. There was quite a bit of emotion as Sally was reunited with these two brave ladies for the first time since the fires.

And then Celeste from Yarra Ranges & Valley Magazine came to the opening to write up an article about the three exhibitions. Hopefully the two newspaper articles should be in print next week and the magazine article will appear in the autumn edition (out in March).

We have learned a lot from this experience- mainly related to frame size and setting up more efficient processes for getting everything done. If we are involved in helping with another exhibition we will certainly be doing things differently. We have also learned that putting on an exhibition is much more than just selecting a few photographs and mounting them (especially if you are making the frames yourself). It is a huge undertaking with many complexities, but after seeing the final stunning result it is certainly worth the effort. Your work is brilliant Sally and what a fantastic journey it has been for you!

If you are interested in catching a glimpse of the exhibition, it is in Matt’s Bar at Yering Station Winery, Yarra Glen, is free and runs from Feb 4 to March 20, 2011.
All our family made it to the exhibition

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Our Latest WOOFERS

Last week two young Swedish WOOFERS visited Tenderbreak. Their trip was partly a study tour, and partly a brief backpacking holiday and they were keen to find out more about Permaculture.  They had already visited quite a few properties around Melbourne and surprised us when they commented that they thought our public transport system was pretty efficient compared to Sweden’s.
Back home, Erikka works for a non-profit organisation that combines rehab programmes with professional gardening and wood work and Maria is a volunteer at a children's gardening project. They had both studied horticulture in Sweden and were now travelling on a grant, to learn more. Unfortunately due to busy schedules they were only able to spend one night with us but it was a very enjoyable evening.

Erikka and Maria are easy going lovely people and it was a real pleasure meeting them and spending the evening together. Thankyou both for sharing your journey with us and we hope you can return at some stage in the future.
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