Sustainable Mexico, an overview…

Sustainable Mexico? Is there such a thing? You bet! And as environmental protections, governmental programs, and NGO’s  are coming online at a rapid pace, I thought I’d create a blog that explores the various ways that we can all participate.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s buzz out to 80,000 feet for an overview.

First of all, let me ask if you are any of the following:

Are you a volunteer, looking for the right spot to make use of your fine energies. Do you want to meet others operating at the same frequency; working hard, having fun, doing right by the planet.

Are you an experienced Wwoofer, looking to take it to the next level. Maybe you’ve got a bit of money saved. Maybe not. Either way, Are you looking for some good soil and, hopefully, some good community, where you can sink your teeth in deeper? Plant some roots?

Are you a seasoned farm hand or CSA worker, looking to homestead or start your own business?

Are you looking for intentional community to join, or thinking of banding together with friends to buy some land and forming one?

Are you a farm family, facing yet another harsh northern winter; stacking wood, canning veggies, worrying about heating oil contracts, thinking that there must be another, better way…

Well, if you’re any of the above, or anything like it, then this blog is a place to share ideas, options, and stories of what you think about, struggle with, and strive for.

My disclosure: I’m not an expert with pat answers to the above. I have enough experience with setting up solar photovoltaics systems to give specific advice and recommendations on that. My wife and I have an off grid working ranch, campground, and sustainability education center in mexico (www.ranchosolymar.com) and have enough knowledge of animal care (specifically goats & chickens), food production, managing water resources, and running businesses, to have some good, solid, practical advice to offer on those fronts as well. But really, there are plenty of other informational sites where one can find advanced farming and off-grid living knowledge. Instead, with this blog, we’ll be exploring topics that we considered vital to our basic decision making process, but which we’ve been unable to find to be well considered elsewhere. We’ll also be getting postings from time to time from some of the volunteers that have helped us at our ranch, to get their perspective, to find out what works and what doesn’t. Hopefully we will  be drilling down more deeply into specific sustainability topics as the blog it evolves, hopefully offering some fresh perspectives and some useful advice!

General Topics This Blog Will be Covering:

  1. Consider Moving toward the tropics! One theme we’ll be revisiting frequently is the role of LATITUDE in the pursuit of sustainable living. One of my growing pet obsessions is the idea that living north or south of 35 degrees latitude presents inherent physical challenges, that, in many ways, simply don’t make good , common, practical sense. It’s all a matter of energy, really. The energy is takes to prepare for and survive winters (heat energy, and also “life” energy) can be put to much better use if one is living closer to the equator. By moving south (although this could be “north”, of course, if you’re located in the southern hemisphere. For simplicity here, I’ll be using “south” as the general catch all direction for considering a move) you can automatically liberate much of your life energy for other pursuits – pleasure and/or leisure time being not insignificant! There’s also a very basic baseline of security to be had by leaving winter behind.
  1. The costs and benefits of having animal “partners”. On this topic we’ll bounce around a bit; from the responsibility and expense of animal husbandry, to the practical benefits and shear joy of life with animals, we’ll explore many of the considerations that having animals “brings to the table”.
  1. “Farming Photons”: A general discussion of the use of renewables, particularly solar, as well as the practical considerations; costs, benefits, off-grid vs grid tie, siting, general equipment recommendations, and other specific information. (see “Our Solar Story” below for the first post on this…)
  1. Defining your goals and figuring out how to make them profitable: Having both run & sold successful businesses, Holly and I have spent a lifetime developing tools & strategies for defining and promoting one’s own niche market. Whether you are growing veggies, raising animals, or producing a value added product, we’ll explore some simple techniques for figuring out what “makes you sing” and how to turn it into a profitable business.
  1. Crossing Borders: We’ll look at both the literal implications of seeking out a sustainable life across the border, (in our case Mexico, but much of this discussion can apply to any cross border situation) but also the more metaphysical aspect of re-mapping one’s own life. What are the possible challenges and benefits of breaking out of your old, often worn out, geographical paradigms??? (see “Secret Sustainability South of the Border” for more on this…)
  1. Stories of sustainability: Stories can entertain as well as instruct. We’ve got a growing collection and would love to hear yours!

So, there you have it. It is my intention, above all, to make this blog a useful sounding board for your own pursuit of sustainability. Working toward true sustainability can and should be a joyful, fulfilling, lifelong experience. The hours will be long, and we’ll each have our own path to follow, but we’ll also have much commonality to share and helpful wisdom to impart. I hope that you’ll participate and make this blog part of your own virtual homesteading community – a place to cultivate, share and learn from!

Our Solar Story; one couple’s journey in search of solar living…

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Me wrapping up the array install. The home made racking system saved $ and functions well, but ended up being a major pain to install

Note: the following post describes, step by step, how my wife & I went from total solar neophytes, to living completely off grid and harnessing the power of the sun for its help with much of the daily work and comfortable lifestyle we enjoy here in Mexico. I’ve included a fair amount of techno speak for those who, as I once was, are craving the empowerment of understanding and implementing solar, but are struggling though some of the initial phases. Readers are encouraged to post questions or comments about the systems or processes described here in that all questions, no matter how basic, may be of some help to others that follow…

The first couple of winters visiting the property we had purchased near Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast of Mexico (2005-2007), my wife Holly & I were still in the process of securing title, and thus reluctant to put any money into infrastructure improvements. The modest, one bedroom mexican ranch house we occupied had one existing 15 watt solar panel direct wired to a 12v marine battery and running one long string of 12v incandescent lights when we bought it. Despite twelve hour days of cloudless skies, we had, at best, an hour of light once the sun went down. For refrigeration we parked our faithful old pickup truck camper next to the house and used the onboard dometic gas refrigerator. Around that time I had launched and was chairing a municipal energy commission back in the states, and was growing increasingly interested in sustainability in general, and solar in particular.

By the second winter, we hand carried down three Sunsei 17w panels and I began learning about charge controllers, inverters, and the always dreaded “voltage drop”. At that early stage of learning, it took quite a while to figure out that voltage drop inherent with using the existing #12AWG house wiring for 12v, combined with a tired old marine starting battery, far too small solar panel array, and energy sucking incandescent bulbs, were all conspiring to keep us literally “in the dark”.

“Poco a poco” (little by little) is a favorite expression of our mexican neighbors, and poco a poco it was learning the ins and outs of solar. Around the second year in, a mexican neighbor told me he knew of someone with some panels, and soon four Sharp 175‘s, of unknown origins, were purchased for a good price, and stored safe & sound in our rickety goat shed. Using the SEI guide “Photovoltaics Design & Installation Manual” plus help from Lee Consavage, an engineer friend, and other input from online chat groups such as Arizona Wind & Sun, I began designing our first real PV system. Finally, after stumbling int the dark – literally – we were well on our way to a brighter future! On the next trip SOB (south of the border), Holly and brought down in our carry-on luggage an Outback MX60 Charge Controller, a 1000watt Go-Power inverter, and miscellaneous fuse blocks and cable connections. Three sweaty days later, much of which was spent crouching gingerly atop spanish roof tiles, drilling holes through cement walls, and making numerous, nervous, electrical decisions well above my pay grade, I flipped the switch, and lo-and-behold, “the miracle of the ranch” had finally occurred! Truly; seeing that little green light go on for the first time, hearing the gentle hum of the inverter, and realizing that we were now sucking power, real power, 120v power sufficient to run ample lights, a small 7cubic foot refrigerator, blender for margueritas, play music, and charge computers, right out of the sky, right out of the either, felt as close to something miraculous as I expect I’ll ever experience!

Since those early days, we have upgraded our batteries from the original 4 trojan T 105’s and now have 8 Trojan L-16’s for over 700amp hrs @ 24volts DC, plus a larger, 1500watt Xantrex inverter to run a heavier duty washing machine than we had originally. Still, even with the larger battery capacity, we rely on a small, portable gen set to top off the batteries from time to time in extended periods of rain during the summer months.

A note on inverters: 1500watts with a 2000peak load capacity seems to be the break point providing enough amperage to run a decent size washing machine and virtually any home power tool except a welder. Pure sign wave inverters run quieter and provide cleaner power, while the more economical modified inverters tend to hum, both the unit itself, as well as through stereos and certain other electronics. We have also experienced two appliances that wouldn’t run at all on the Xantrex modified sine wave inverter; a yogurt maker, and also a dehydrator which actually burned out as a result.

Fast forward another year from building the original house system, and I had completed my NABSEP coursework from the AltE learning center in Hudson Massachusetts, and I was ready to take on much more significant solar project. By this time Holly and I had also expanded our vision for the ranch to include an off-grid campground, solar water pumping & heating, and various other projects. In the fall of 2009 we both sold our companies (I had been a commercial architectural photographer and Holly had a financial planning firm) and we committed ourselves to the dream of living and promoting sustainability full time. Currently we rent out our house in New England most of the year and we’re forging ahead with creating a broader scope, regional, sustainability center. Our ongoing projects include building with stone, compressed earth block, & other local material, organic farming & gardening, goat cheese production, composting, tree planting, water recycling, biofuels experimentation, and numerous other initiatives.

In the winter of 2009/2010 we learned to mix mud for adobe, and with much help from visiting family & friends, and our mexican neighbors, we built the campground bath house and solar shed which houses showers, bathrooms, a laundry room, a workroom, the 2.4kw solar array, an Outback 3600w pure sine wave inverter, sixteen Trojan L16 batteries for 700amp/hrs at 48volts, and the balance of the electrical system. Our campground “Camping Sol y Mar” (Camping Sun & Sea) is, as far as we know, the first completely off grid campground with RV hookup sights in the americas, if not the world. This winter are building on a new backpacker bunkhouse, and with that in place will begin hosting workshops and work exchange Volunteers.

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putting the finishig touches on the campground bath house and solar array instal.

The entire project has been a huge learning curve but we have an increasingly steady stream of adventure campers and wonderful volunteer work exchange participants using the facilities. In addition to the solar which produces up to 15kw per day (enough to budget 2kw for each of the 5 hookup sites – sized for small to mid-sized campers – plus a couple more kw for a modest sized cheese cooler for Holly’s goat cheese making operation, the building also boasts solar hot water showers, and grey & black water recycling systems. The increasingly “edible” campground also features an herb spiral, rapidly growing fruit trees (see “Eat This Campground! post below) and a natural wood fired pizza oven coming online soon Thank you Katy & Alex, our amazing summer caretakers this year! ).

Finished 2.4kw system inside adobe bath house at campground. i decided against using a battery enclosure due to having plenty of open air venting and to help keep temperatures as low as possible.

I wish I could say it’s been easy and smooth getting this far. Sometimes it feels as though every step is a battle. Attempting to cut costs, I opted for creating my own array racking. Big mistake! The thousand dollars saved cost me countless hours piecing together a custom aluminum framework on a completely uneven roof made from timber milled with a chain saws and machetes. Simple tools like a drill bit and bolts long enough to through-bolt the 6” timbers all had to be brought down from the states as needed. After my experience of working atop spanish tiles on our home system, I opted to leave off having tiles under the bath house array, and instead lay down a roofing of clear polycarbonate laminate. Constructing this, and making it all waterproof and structural enough for potential hurricane force wind loading turned out to be incredibly tedious, and much more of a project that I had ever bargained for. Still, the roof works really well, in that it provides nice passive daylight to the workroom below where the rest of the system is housed, as well as the fact that the laminate stays perfectly cool under the panels, even on the hottest of days.

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long view of campground and finished bath house with land scaping starting to come in…

Yet another error I made was the purchase of the Outback FX inverter rather than GV model. The FX series won’t accept the voltage vagaries of supplemental charging from generator backup (a subtle distinction missed by both myself, and the sales agent that recommended the FX unit for my specific application). Outback was kind enough to supply me with a replacement board to convert the FX model since bringing the inverter back to the states for replacement was impossible. Still the changeover meant dismantling the guts of the system after it had been already been completed.

Occasionally my wife and I ask ourselves, “if we had it all to do over, would we simply have tied in to the power lines less than 100 yards away?” That definitely would have been the easier, less expensive route to take. But

then we realize that if we’d wanted easy, we would’ve been better off just staying in the states. Rancho Sol y Mar increasingly is our home now anyway. A crazy, inventor friend of ours just finished building us a fuel alcohol still, so tackling renewable transportation is the next learning curve looming. We also have 100‘s of fruit & coconut trees planted, a small, first crop of corn coming up, and loving, productive, adorable animals on all sides, Our dream of 100% independent living is increasingly becoming a reality. We realize we’re a little crazy, and a more normal life would be easier, however were strapped in now, and taking the ride. I guess that as long as the sun keeps shining, we’ll be here in Mexico seeking to sustain ourselves and others from it!

View of campground and Mayto Beach.


campground, summer 2012

secret sustainability south of the border

View of beautiful Mayto Beach from the first hill.
Rancho Sol y Mar (www.ranchosolymar.com)

Thinking of moving off the grid? Starting an organic farm or CSA? Are you part of a group considering pooling resources and homesteading together?

Well, shhhh-h-h-h, come closer, I’ve got a few well guarded secrets I can share with you…

Secreto Numero Uno: get your hippi ass south of the border! Be it Mexico, Costa Rica, Columbia, or wherever, there are many reasons that you should consider the southern option. The reasons? Listen in:

Reason #1: Two to Three growing seasons. Yes, you can find extended growing in the southern U.S., but 1000 miles south of Texas you really do get an entire second or even third season. What’s not to love about growing outdoors, year round!

Reason #2: The cost of land & living. Land is cheaper (well maybe not Costa Rica anymore), but equally important for the long haul is that property taxes are nearly zero. On our one hundred acres we pay a whopping $200 a year. Tell me that doesn’t help with the bottom line! And while some things like farm & solar equipment are expensive there, once you have property you are allowed a one time exemption to bring a moving van’s worth of “household goods” into Mexico without import taxes. Also, the cost of ongoing basic staple goods is roughly half what one pays in the U.S.

Reason #3: Save energy and reduce your carbon footprint: So how much of your precious time and energy do you want to spend every year preparing for the coming winter? 30%? 40% 50% or even higher??? Well how does 0% sound as an option for you? If you are situated in Mexico or further south, the cost of winter is a thing of the past. And then there are the ethics and nuisance factors of winter heating to consider. How much of your life’s energy, not to mention the planet’s carbon resources, do you really want to spend on heating you home, or even, in extremes climes, avoiding the possibility of freezing to death?

Reason #4: Less Regulation: Face it amigos, you just can’t fart in the U.S. anymore without a permit! Seriously, come south of the border and you’ll discover a sense of freedom you would never have dreamed of. Whether you plan to sell in a farmer’s market such as one of the three or four thriving ones in Puerto Vallarta alone, or if you’re planning a CSA, selling to restaurant’s, simply just growing for yourself, you can count on minimal regulation once you’ve crossed the border and made your way south.

Reason #5: Security in the face of what lies ahead. Really, you ask? Is he really suggesting that life in Mexico can be more secure than life here in the good olde U.S.A.??? Well, yes, actually, I am. As for the narco violence, there are a few simple, common sense rules to be followed such as staying out of the areas of drug production or major transport corridors. The vast majority of the violence I hear about is limited to three or four states, and even with that, it’s the narcos and cops getting perforated, not tourists, travelers, or organic veggie farmers. (I could go on and on about this subject, but will save that for another post…). So what do I mean by security for what lies ahead? Well, the way I see it, if the energy infrastructure gets disrupted for one of any number of reasons (troubles in the middle east, peak oil, climate change) then simply surviving, let alone thriving anywhere north of 30 – 40 degrees north latitude could get really expensive if not downright impossible. Personally, I’d rather build my life’s dream infrastructure in a place with great public transport, and where access to cheap energy is a bonus, not a necessity!

Reason #6: Sun, sun, sun… Viva El Sol! And boy do we have plenty of it. We make our electricity with it, heat & pump water with it, cook with it, and even sterilize with it. Yes, of course there’s sun in Arizona, but 1000+ miles south, it get’s even better. Just one of our photovoltaic systems alone, a mere 2.4kw array, produces close to 15kw on a sunny day. Sweet! So come on down and start farming those photons…

Reason #7: Affordable Help. Let’s face it, you can’t, or don’t want do, do it all yourself. At 200 – 300 pesos a day ($15-$25 U.S.), it’s possible to get excellent, flexible help as you need it. We always make sure to pay above the going rate, and we have gotten terrific, reliable help for all the special projects that inevitably pop up! For one longer term employee we pay all the required social security taxes and withholdings, and, all told, including accounting & filing fees, the extra cost still comes out to only around $1000 per year, (not counting the wages paid). Get the help you need at truly affordable prices!

Reason #8: Quality of Life. Having shuttled back and forth, splitting parts of the year between the two worlds for nearly a decade now, I can with some authority that QOL south of the border is, in general, superior. Yes there are issues with sanitation, schooling, crime and such, but over all life there is really sweet. The Mexican people are, on the whole, far more open, warm and friendly to strangers than has been my experience in the northern countries, and the pace of life, much more focused on friends and family, is more relaxed, and even festive, than north of the line.

Secreto Numero Dos: The really good news is that if you’re still not convinced, there’s a secret spot I can tell you about where you can come dip your toe in the water (literally) and try the idea on first before plunging in. You, our new amigos are cordially invited to come spend some time with us in beautiful Mayto! Our off grid goat ranch + sustainability center has a campground where you can beat the winter and hang out for a while. We also have work exchange programs, internships, and even the possibility of homesteading or other longer term involvement. Check us out! http://www.ranchosolymar.com