Humans of Solar: Tony Waites

28 Sep, 2021

We speak with everyday Tasmanians who are living off sunshine.

by Tony Waites

I won’t lie. It’s a bit scary going off-grid. But I find that exciting, a challenge. Part of it is wanting to have minimal impact. Part of it is asking if it’s possible. And the rest is just stubbornness!

My wife Anna is Swedish and we have five kids; all but one were born in Sweden where we lived for seven years. Living in Sweden, it’s very cold obviously but their inside living is comfortable because they have excellent insulation. Then we came back to Australia and were struck by how cold the housing can be. Somewhere along the line I heard about straw bale houses and I’ve been dreaming of building one ever since. 

Well, our straw bale house is under construction, due to be finished in October or November.

We have a plantation of Californian Redwoods and I had to thin it out, so I ended up with all this timber. I had it milled and all the house has been built with timber from here, on site. Everything started snowballing. I met a guy down the road growing barley, so I managed to get straw bales from him. We got a builder in to put the frame up. It’s a big chunky structure with all the straw bales around the outside. We’re building the rest of it ourselves. I don’t have any real skills, I’m just saying, ‘I believe in myself and I’ll have a bash!’

It’s passive solar design with 500mm thick walls, triple glazed windows, an insulated slab.

When it came to the energy side of things, well, we have a plant nursery here with solar panels. It’s on the grid, but just to help with the load during the day.

I like to do what I can, but not in a way that’s ridiculously uneconomical. It has to have balance. So I compared putting in the solar batteries with the cost of power poles to our build, and it was comparable. We put as much solar as we could on the roof, and invested as much as we could afford into batteries. It may not be enough but it’s going to be close. In Tassie, half the year we’re going to have so much power that we could be mining bitcoin or something! It’s just going to be three months in the dead of winter when we’ll have those days where you’ve had a week of rain and we’ll be under threat of not having enough power.

But that’s when it comes back to our focus: making choices based on what you have, not what you want. If I had to live in the middle of winter and it’s 17-degrees at its worst, I can survive in that. I can put a jumper on! I’m willing to make those kinds of compromises.

Lots of people think we’re crazy, but I haven’t ever woken up and thought, gee I wish I wasn’t doing this. The house is already a member of the family. We’re making mistakes and compromising as we work out how to solve all the problems. But it’s such a rewarding experience and we have a real connection to it.

You could say that the kids have been brainwashed from an early age, but they are invested in it too. Tomas helped me with the 700 straw bales in the walls and the render. Martin helped too, and he’s written a program to predict our usage and production, based on the weather. If you know in advance that you’ve got a week of crappy weather coming up, you can prepare and conserve energy in the battery. I’m really proud of what he’s done with it so far.

And the girls, their connection is dreaming of living in it! When we first put the frame and roof up, Sofia was asking when we could move in. I said, well, we could move in now! So we spent about a week in sleeping bags under the roof, open to the outdoors.

That’s what it’s all about really. Connection with family and a consciousness of our impact on the environment.