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Accidental off-gridders enjoying life in France

Losing their jobs in France turned out to have a happy ending for Dutch couple Fred and Marijke Andriessen, who have since lived off-grid for nearly two decades.

Mr Andriessen said: “We moved to France in 1986 to manage a holiday park and worked there for 10 years. But the park closed in 1996, at which point the house we had been living in became due for demolition.

“We didn’t want to move back to Holland so we started house-hunting and found this beautiful house on a hill with wonderful views of the Pic St-Loup, near Montpellier.

 “It was perfect for us as we didn’t have much money and we could only afford it because it was unfinished.”

Undaunted by the work the property needed, they moved in and rolled up their sleeves. “Back then, we just had candles and petrol lamps. Then we got a propane gas fridge.”

From the moment they bought the house, in Vacquières, they knew they could never afford to connect it to the electricity grid.

“EDF wanted almost as much as we paid for the house. It was out of the question. We always planned to do it ourselves.”

They started with an electric generator, which ran on heating fuel. “But it wasn’t great because every morning, before we even had a shower, we had to start it in order to pump water from the well to heat it with a gas water heater.”

A chance meeting with a BP Solar specialist proved to be a game-changer. “He gave us information about solar panels, and that was good, as we wanted to stop using oil.

“But because the roof of our house is orientated east/west, we placed the panels on a veranda sticking out in front of our facade, and this works well.

“The panels also protect the house from rain, wind and sun. We bought a transformer so we can use the electricity for ordinary appliances but it was very basic and it fused often.”

They bought a more robust inverter – which transforms a direct current produced by solar panels into an alternating current used by modern appliances – a few years later and now they have almost 100% constant solar electricity.

“We store electricity in batteries but during long periods of cloud and storms, the batteries run flat and I have to start the generator. But that happens very rarely.

“The panels supply our needs plus the needs of the 60m² gîte we have built. The gîte gives us an income.”

They are self-sufficient when it comes to sewerage too, as they have a septic tank. “Three years ago, when we applied for planning permission to extend the house, we were obliged to update the septic tank, so now we have an up-to-date system with a champ d’épandage (leach field) where practically clean waste water (produced by anaerobic digestion in the septic tank) can go back into the ground.”

The extension was part of a plan to remain in their house permanently. They extended the ground floor so that they could sleep downstairs.

“We’d like to stay here as we grow old, and while we were doing the work we also put 12 extra solar panels on the new south-facing roof of the extension, and we bought a heat pump for our water supply, which has reduced our need for propane.”

The only connections they have to the outside world are for a phone and internet.

“The house is remote so we have to take our rubbish to the bins in the nearby town.

“But we separate and compost as much as possible, and take metal to the déchètterie. I recycle a lot. I keep things that might be handy for DIY and see if I find a use for them.”

Even during last summer’s long heatwave, their well remained in service. “We even had enough to refill our small swimming pool from time to time. We originally filled it with rainwater, which we
collect throughout the winter.

“We can store up to six cubic metres, but we are not allowed to use all of it. We always have to keep three cubic metres available for the firefighters in case they should ever have to come out.”

Mr Andriessen said he thought that it probably costs more than if they were connected to mains services.

“It’s not only the cost of buying equipment, but also the maintenance costs are higher.

“If you are connected to EDF and generate your own solar or wind power, it might be different because you don’t need batteries or an inverter.”

For anyone connected to the grid, spare electricity from solar panels can be fed back into the system. If the solar panels are not producing enough, the house will use electricity from the grid.

“The batteries only last about 10 years, and are expensive,” he said. “Also, the generator only works for about 100,000 hours and then has to be replaced – which means a big investment of up to €7,000.

“And you have to be able to maintain all this yourself – change oil, change filters, etc. If I ask a technician to come, it costs a fortune.”

Because the house is on a hill, their land is dry and not suitable for growing vegetables.

“We don’t have a kitchen garden because it would take so much water, and we don’t want to run the well dry.

“We do grow tomatoes. So just when the shops are full of them and they are cheap, we have a glut.

“We also have 40 olive trees and we make olive oil which is wonderful. We have to make enough to last for at least two to three years, because our olive trees don’t always give a good harvest year after year.”

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