Frank McClintock emigrated to Portugal in ’87 and bought a small piece of very isolated land in the southern Alentejo with a couple of wooden buildings on it. It had no access or any other infrastructure. The idea was to turn it into a small eco-lodge, and this has now been achieved. Here is a short essay on how things are done at Paradise in Portugal.
Obviously, whatever anyone else does is none of our concern, but someone might find it useful to learn how we’ve done it from our 36 years of experience.
To many people living off-grid is baffling and they know nothing about it. It is a closed-book and, while sounding good, is best left to some “misguided souls” while “the rest of us get on with the real world”.
To most people it signifies a system that doesn’t work well and has basic limitations, but the Quinta shows that not only is it a practical way of life but that it is beneficial to the planet and an affordable long-term solution to the challenge of living in a secluded location. It has proved itself exceptionally cost effective during the last few years as the State’s utility bills have soared while ours have remained more stable. In general, off-grid living becomes daily more cost-effective and our running costs decrease while those businesses dependent upon the State see their costs rise.
The infrastructure was expensive to install for the various systems, but now that it’s done, they are cheap to run and easy enough to maintain.
As a ball-park figure, in 2022 the Quinta’s total utility bills, (electricity, water, gas, waste management, heating, phone and internet, including all fuel and maintenance), came in at under €12,000 inc. IVA. This for an average of 25 people on the premises for eight months of the year and 5 for the remaining four months.
The various systems have taken many forms over the years as I’ve built the Quinta, and those installed now benefit from my years of mistakes and the many dead-ends I found when trying to make the Quinta operate efficiently. However, with the occasional light-bulb moment and flash of inspiration we now have robust, workable, cost-effective and reliable systems that require as little on-going maintenance as possible.
Because we operate for the most part for paying customers, we need systems that operate smoothly and efficiently with little or no “down-time”, so every system has a back-up.
The electricity is made through photovoltaic arrays backed up with a 3-phase genny, the water is heated through solar panels backed up with a gas powered “zero-loss” boiler, there is not one water-pump but two, (and both running off different power supplies), there are two dishwashers, two washing machines, two fridges, two washing machines etc etc. In this way, should the inevitable happen at any time and a machine or system have a glitch or breakdown, the Quinta is still operational while the problem is fixed with little or no inconvenience to the Quinta’s guests.
First and foremost, the Quinta is not on the grid, so we make all our electricity ourselves.
The Quinta is run 90% by the sun and we keep the place as ecological as possible with an extremely low carbon footprint. We have a “mixed” system, i.e. solar and generator, (genny). This is by far the most practical, robust and economical system.
In an average year, at present, we have a total electricity and water maintenance and running cost of €6,000, (inc. IVA but not including depreciation of infrastructure).
This cost will obviously rise in the future when one looks at the present state of the world, but it’s a far cry from the recent price rises for State-supplied utilities, and the doubling of our solar input during the winter of ’22-’23 has seen a marked and noticeable reduction in the Quinta’s use of the 3-phase genny.
Again, the vast majority of the electricity we use, including that for our water supply, is produced by photovoltaic arrays which are backed up by the 3-phase genny running a couple of hours a day on half-price agricultural diesel. Agricultural diesel is supplied whenever necessary by a local supplier typically within 48 hours. There is a 1,000 lt tank that usually lasts between three and five months.
The technical aspects are as follows …
The electricity supplied to the buildings is to the normal European standard of 230 volts. This electricity is stored in twenty-four 2 volt batteries, (life expectancy 15 years), wired in series to produce 48 volts which is then inverted by a Sunny Island invertor to supply 230 volts, 50 Hz. The batteries can produce 1,450 amps per hour for 100 hours thus with a maximum capacity of 69 kilowatts.
The Sunny Island invertor can produce 8 kilowatts for 30 minutes or 6 kilowatts continuous. This is backed up by a Sunny Boy Direct Invertor mounted on the rotating photovoltaic array that produces 3.6 kilowatts and another on the roof of the office that produces 4 Kw. This is added to the 6 continuous; thus the system produces 13.6 kilowatts of continuous power – way more than is ever demanded of it, but should you decide that you need more, a third, fourth etc etc Sunny Boy Direct Invertor can be added. At present there is no need.
During the day there is very little or no power normally taken from the batteries as the Invertors provide power direct from the photovoltaic arrays, thus saving the batteries to supply power only when the photovoltaic arrays are not functional, i.e. on cloudy days or at night.
The Sunny Island Invertor is an intelligent system that is programmed to monitor the batteries constantly and thus prolong their life. For example, should the batteries ever be at 80% of their capacity for 3 hours, the genny will start up automatically to keep them topped up, and the same will happen should they be at 70% capacity for 2 hours or at 60% for 1 hour or 50% for 20 minutes etc etc. This actually happens very rarely, but does occur sometimes during the winter if it’s cloudy for several consecutive days when we’re shut and therefore have little necessity of the genny.
The generator is 3-phase, capable of 21 kilowatts; again, way more than is ever demanded of it. There is also a “Phase-regulator” installed which equalizes the phases when the genny is running, thus making the genny run more efficiently and prolonging its life. The genny starts automatically if needed, but can also be started manually on a timer situated in various indoor places, i.e. next door to the dishwashers, in the laundry, etc.
There are four photovoltaic arrays; one fixed, (that only powers the solar pump), another fixed, (supplying power to the main system), another fixed, again supplying power to the main system,) and the last rotating, (once again supplying power to the main system).
The first one that’s fixed, (above), charges the batteries full time through an MPPT, (Maximum Power Point Tracking), charger.
The second one that’s fixed is on the roof. That and the rotating array both work with a solar on-grid inverter that injects up to 7 Kw directly into the main system; any surplus is directed to charge the batteries.
The batteries are checked twice per year and re-filled with distilled water should this be needed.
The 3-phase system has a socket in the workshop and another for the 3-phase dishwasher.
The basic outline of the system is that the majority of the photovoltaic arrays charge the batteries during the day whenever the sun is shining on them, and the power stored in the batteries is changed from 48 volts to 230 volts by the Sunny Island Invertor.
Whenever the genny is used to power the 3-phase dishwasher, power is also generated as a free by-product both to charge the batteries and to pump water to the Charca, (the water tank), should this be needed.
Thus, by putting on a load in the 3-phase dishwasher after dinner we also charge the batteries last thing at night so that there is always enough power to get us through to the next day. (In actuality, the batteries have enough power stored in them to enable the Quinta to run normally with no lack of power for 2-3 days, but you get the picture.) The 3-phase dishwasher can do a load in 20 minutes, so a couple of loads done during dinner is usually sufficient – any extras are loaded into the normal dishwasher for cleaning with the breakfast detritus during the morning when the sun is shining. This normal dishwasher does a load in 3 hours, but basically costs nothing to run.
In this way, while any use is made of the 3-phase dishwasher, we are also charging the batteries and pumping water at no extra cost and any use of the normal dishwasher during the day incurs no costs for the Quinta. Both dishwashers have hot water fed to them from the solar system, thus avoiding the need for them to use electricity to heat the water.
This system, (feeding water pre-heated by the sun into the machines), is also used with the clothes-washing machines, and this saves, literally, thousands of euros every year. It is a constant source of amazement to me why this simple money-saving idea is not used elsewhere. Before we installed this pre-heat system, anytime we put on a load of washing the machines automatically started the generator in order that they had enough power to heat the water; now we have the system in place, both washing machines are working multiple times during the day simply on the power supplied direct from the sun with no need for the genny to start.
Finally, there is an electric fence that switches on automatically every night to deter the Wild Boar from partying in the garden. These animals can do a great deal of damage in a single night so this preventative measure is one that I suggest any countryside owner should install.
Water-feed and heating
We are lucky enough to be situated beside a large lake so we pump water to the Charca at the top of the hill by a solar pump, from where it comes down the hill again, (giving us our pressure of 2 bar). This solar pump is operational any time that the sun is shining on the pump’s photovoltaic array and is completely autonomous of our main electricity supply.
It is backed up by the 3-phase pump running off the genny when needed. By having two pumps operating off two separate power supplies, the water-feed system is rendered both more robust and cheaper to run, i.e. we hardly ever use the 3-phase pump during the winter as, with no irrigation, we use far less water.
Water pumped up to the Charca falls into it from a height of 3 mts, thus aerating it and inhibiting algae growth. There are also several types of fish in the Charca to prohibit any mosquito problem.
The Charca level is checked first thing every morning with a phone-mounted camera app, and the fish fed every couple of days. The Charca’s overflow is allowed to run back to the lake through the garden.
Once the main feed comes down towards the house it is passed through three types of filtration, firstly a solid mesh, followed by an advanced, self-cleaning Backwash Filter before finally passing by an Ultra-violet bulb which thoroughly cleans it so that it’s fit for human consumption. There is, finally, one more filter for any water entering the dishwashers as these are pernickety machines and demand special treatment if we are to avoid expensive visits from the Miele engineers. Once a year the whole system is flushed with a chlorine solution which cleans all remaining pipe-work.
Water that is solely intended for garden use bypasses the last two of these filtration systems but has instead a series of solid mesh filters which are cleaned once a week on average. This cleaning takes 15 minutes.
Hot water is primarily made with solar panels, and this system is backed up by a “Zero-loss” boiler. The vast majority of the time there is no need for the Zero-loss boiler to function at all, but with the Quinta full in inclement weather it is essential. The boiler is fueled by propane gas fed off the same feed as supplies the gas cooker in the kitchen. One 45kg propane bottle lasts on average three weeks, thus giving us a gas bill of approx. €2,000 per annum. There are two bottles always linked up and should one ever become empty the system automatically switches to the second bottle and a warning signal is generated thus ensuring that the empty bottle is replaced with a full one.
There is storage of 1,500 lts of piping-hot water.
We re-use if possible and re-cycle if not, so there’s very little rubbish that is actually going to landfill. Anytime we’re going out to pick things up we take any rubbish out. We re-use any food waste, (either dogs, chickens or compost), and re-cycle bottles, cardboard and plastic. We can’t be bothered with tins having been cut too many times to make it attractive.
As far as possible we re-use all the water we take from the lake, and as the Quinta sits directly above its own water-feed it is of course vital that our wastewater is cleaned and disposed of efficiently. As the Quinta is on clay all waste water is led through extensive soak-aways that water the garden.
The first line in the Quinta’s wastewater management is that all wastewater is divided into several different “runs” and areas to avoid saturation at any point.
The dirtiest water is, in fact, not human waste but the wastewater from the washing machines. With the chemicals that are an important part of the cleaning process, this wastewater cannot be re-used, so it has its own dedicated soak-away set apart from any other wastewater system. There are adverts constantly promoting chemical-free methods of washing materials, but we’ve yet to find one that works efficiently enough.
The wastewater from the kitchen also has some detergent in it but is far less chemically-laden and can be re-used in the garden once the oils and fats have been extracted. This is done with the Fat-trap situated outside the kitchen which is cleaned twice per year, an operation which takes on average an hour. After the fat-trap this wastewater is piped along a soak-away ditch through the garden. This pipework has several rodding points for any cleaning that has to take place; I typically check that everything is running as it should once per year.
The main wastewater from the bathrooms is divided into grey-water, (water from sinks, showers and baths), and black-water, (water containing human waste).
Black-water goes into a septic tank with three divisions before entering a soak-away, while grey-water bypasses the septic tank and flows straight to a soak-away. The Quinta’s black water is divided into 2 separate septic tanks and 2 soak-aways, (with each division in each septic tank having a man-hole access point), one running west and one east.
As with most of the Quinta’s management systems, both septic tanks are far larger than needed, but this has the advantage that they only need emptying once every fifteen years. I have emptied them twice since I built them, and both times it has been unnecessary. However, I prefer to err on the side of caution in this respect; the last thing I need is a problem with sewage when guests are present.
Due to a large, wildlife-attracting Chinese Banyan tree we have to have an expanded soak-away system for one wastewater system. This is comprised of a separate, large, holding tank between the septic tank and the soak-away so that no roots can find their way into the pipework coming from either the septic tank or the grey-water feed.
I cannot stress insulation and efficient air-flow enough when it comes to heating during the winter or cooling during the summer. Having said that – and wishing to repeat it over and over again to make it sink in - we heat with two Heat-recuperators.
One is small and heats just the main customer-only dining room, and is usually only used during some days in April, May and October – bearing in mind that we’re closed November to March.
The other is a different beast altogether as it is far larger, and the heat produced is piped to seven different rooms – basically the whole of the Quinta used during the winter. Thus one fire keeps the whole place warm.
There is also one guest room that has a small but efficient Wood-burning Stove. All other guest rooms are heated with portable gas burners should this be necessary – which, with climate change, is becoming increasingly rare.
The wood necessary to feed the Heat-recuperators and Wood Burner comes for the most part from the Quinta’s own land and therefore costs nothing apart from a little petrol, chain saw blades, some sweat and a little time – it’s a decent-enough way of keeping occupied during the winter and working off the excesses of the summer. Every third year or so we buy in about €500 worth of dried Ash or Oak should this be necessary.
Irrigating the garden
There are 21 automatic irrigation “runs” present throughout the garden totaling approx. 100 separate sprinklers and drip-feeds. These runs are programmed individually so that every run can turn on at a different time in order that they always have enough pressure for every sprinkler involved in that run to operate efficiently. The various runs are checked once a week to make sure they’re always operating efficiently and that no sprinklers have become clogged or are broken.
The Quinta has a satellite system installed using Starlink. This is the fastest available system and we have a large wifi capability installed so it is available in all rooms, the Shala, the Yurt and throughout the garden.
If anyone wants to pick Frank's brains about this, or is interested in buying the quinta, you can get in touch via www.paradiseinportugal.com.