Could you live off-grid?

In a world where the weeks seem to fly by, I’m pretty envious of anyone who can write a weekly blog and always manage to make it interesting and informative. Chris at Fernglade Farm is one of those people. Chris lives in Victoria about 100 km northwest of me and importantly, lives off-grid.

“For about a month either side of the winter solstice, my mind reflects upon the deficiencies of the off grid solar power system here. Don’t get me wrong, I love solar energy as it is a great source of electricity. It just happens to be subject to some deficiencies which generally show up at this time of year.”

Last week’s blog saw Chris adding another five solar panels to his system, making thirty in all. He made some important points about off-grid solar and solar in general.

  • Electricity storage batteries perform better and longer if they don’t go much below 70% charge.
  • If they get too low, they don’t always effectively power the things they’re meant to power (I assume that means not enough oomph).
  • The further you have to run electric cables from solar panels to the house (assuming they’re situated somewhere other than on the roof of the house they’re powering), the thicker/heavier the cable has to be to overcome heat losses.
  • Therefore, filling up the desert (aka Central Australia) with solar panels is going to be a difficult and expensive task, because the power has to be transported long distances to where it’s needed (and the high temperatures usually found in deserts reduce the output of the panels).
  • Location is ultra-important; the panels have to face the sun for optimum performance. That means north in our part of the world.
  • Cloudy winter weather can be a problem…..you need to get enough power to use, plus  enough to keep the batteries optimally charged.
  • Chris aims to use about 7-8 kWh per day, that’s very low compared with about three times that for an average household.

So I considered my own usage. I’m still grid-connected, but would like to get off it. The battery cost is the main problem.

My electricity provider, United Energy, maintains a very useful internet site, called Energy Easy, where I can register and log in to see my power usage—hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and yearly. Below is a partial screen shot of the page. This sort of information has only become available since the changeover to smart meters.

The dark orange vertical bars above the line show how much power I took from the grid at the particular time. The lighter orange bars underneath the line show the excess power from the solar panels which went back to the grid. The difference between that and what the panels actually produced is what went from the panels straight into the house (that happens preferentially, before any excess is exported to the grid). That’s not shown on the graph. I can get that from the inverter readout and a bit of subtraction.

The line at the top, joining the little circles, is supposed to represent the average daily use for a household in my suburb. I get the actual figures by mousing over the relevant parts on the graph.

So on Monday June 5, I took 2.6 kWh from the grid and sent 2.4 kWh back to the grid (for which the retailer paid me the princely sum of 8 cents per kWh—and from July 1 it’s due to go down to 5 cents!). But the average use for other households was 16.9 kWh.

Working it all out, with my present lifestyle, I might be able to get away with an off-grid system that would need to provide at least 5-7 kWh of power per day and preferably a bit more. That’s a lifestyle with no air-conditioning in summer and no electric heating in winter (I have a wood fire) and no water heating (I have bottled gas). And my panels aren’t optimally placed—I don’t have a north-facing roof section; there are 8 panels facing east and 12 facing west.

So if people think that by going solar they can continue with their present energy-hungry lifestyles, then they may be in for a shock. Either they’ll need more solar panels than will fit on the average optimum-facing roof, a huge battery backup, or a combination of both.

The other important fact about solar systems is that they aren’t sustainable long-term. Solar panels are currently manufactured using the energy from fossil fuels; so are the batteries used to store the excess power. That’s not saying anything about the resources needed either, or whether we’re all going to be running electric cars as well as household appliances. If the batteries are going to be Li-ion type, is there enough lithium in the world to make all the batteries required? Where is it located? Are the countries where it’s located going to be willing to share it, or will they want to keep it for themselves? It has to be mined and processed—again using fossil fuels. To be truly sustainable, an energy source needs to provide enough energy and of a suitable type, to reproduce itself, plus enough additional energy to run the sort of society we want.

Solar energy is only a means of getting away from coal-fired electricity in the short term. It won’t be part of a long-term future. For the same reasons, neither will wind power.

Even in the short-term, assuming you had the money to install a solar-powered off-grid system, could you live off it? Probably yes….but not the way most of us want to live today.

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16 Responses to “Could you live off-grid?”

  1. karencheah Says:

    This is a timely post as we’re also checking out how much we need to save before we can afford solar + battery. But it seems that the cost of battery is still quite prohibitive. You have 8+12 panels but may I know the total capacity? I would love to hear updates of your ‘getting off the grid’ journey.

    Like

    • foodnstuff Says:

      Hi Karen, I haven’t really gone into battery cost at all because I know I’m not going to be able to afford it. Maybe when they get a bit cheaper…

      My system is 3.9 kW…..20 x 195 watt panels. It is great in summer….makes between 20 and 30 kWh on a good sunny day and most of that goes back to the grid. This time of year it’s very small as you can see by the graphs.

      How’s that chook house project going?

      Like

      • karencheah Says:

        So 3.9kW doesn’t even quite cover your very low usage in winter.

        Chook palace had to go on standby as we had to net the apple trees that the structure was going to contain and the net and branches (and fruits) were in the way of ‘construction’. But I’ve just harvested all the apples last weekend and have removed the nets and we will start again shortly. Before that, we’ve put up more than half the star pickets. In the process, we broke a few hammers! But we’re now equipped with a proper mallet. Can’t wait for it to be completed and have chooks again! We will get there…we must!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. narf7 Says:

    Living incredibly simply and learning to live with a LOT less is going to be the answer. Researching low to no technology solutions for our modern problems often involves just taking a gander at how we used to live and adapting our lifestyles to some of those solutions. We don’t bother vacuuming our house now. No point with two fur machines constantly shedding, so I sweep the floor whenever it’s needed. I get exercise, I don’t use external energy (other than my own) and the job gets done. It might take a bit longer and a bit more fandangling to get the job done but we have lost so many of the joys in the “processes” now with instant gratification at a cost to our mental and physical health, we could do well by looking retrospectively at how to solve a lot of our problems. Grinding your grain with a whopping great stone? Yeah, I would completely do that. If it’s a matter of necessity, we are going to have to learn to do without and adapt sooner rather than later. We keep trying to integrate less technological processes in our lives and it’s amazing how quickly you become used to these processes. Forcing us to take stock of what we do and how we do it is vital to a sustainable outcome and we are going to do whatever it takes. I am currently looking at making a couple of PET bottle glasshouses on our property for starting seeds early and for growing more food (anything that stops the possum invaders is AOK by moi!) I got the plans from a free PDF put out by a Scottish school. Researching answers to our problems (online) will likely be a thing of the past if the powers that be can make the internet a “Paid only” thing (they have been trying to do this ever since the concept was created…) so I am trying to find out as much as I can about going backwards and enjoying bucking the trend to the max.

    Liked by 1 person

    • foodnstuff Says:

      Loved your reply, Fran. Those of us who can live off the smell of an oily rag will be at a huge advantage when oily rags are all there is! In a way I’m glad I don’t have lots of money otherwise I might be tempted to spend it on all manner of useless rubbish like those I see around me. (My neighbour earns >100K a year and has every useless thing that opens and shuts AND brags about it as well grrr!).

      I would love to go off grid just to stick it up my retailer who gives me 8 cents for my unused power and then sells it back to me (and everyone else) for 25 cents!

      What you’re doing isn’t ‘going backwards’, it’s taking responsibility for your own life, something most people have forgotten how to do.

      Liked by 2 people

      • narf7 Says:

        My sister is the same as your neighbour. She and her partner earn (between them) about $150 000 a year and spend it on dining out and goodness only knows what. We live on less than 5 times that amount quite comfortably including feeding two heifer dogs a raw steak diet and a cast of thousands in the chook department (although we are giving most of them away as I type this). Give a man an oily rag and he has at least a Molotov cocktail for a day! 😉 Seriously though, knowing how to do things yourself is one of the most empowering feelings in the world. I would rather be poor and able than rich and a parasite needing a cast of thousands to keep me in the custom that I have become accustomed to! I, also would LOVE to go off grid. We seriously need to pull some moola out of a hat and get some solar panels (our roof faces due north) and at least one wind turbine. Turbines are coming down in price now so are at least an achievable outcome for people like us. I keep reading about how we should all “get solar” etc. and it makes me twitch because where on earth are people like Steve and I going to find the cash for that?! I keep downloading articles for “How to make your own wind turbine using a car alternator” etc. but at the end of the day unless I manage to wangle myself into a TAFE “small engines” class, I am never going to know how to make something like that.

        My grandmother taught me that there was true power in knowing how to do things for yourself. She headed out here on her own as a 10 pound pom to escape a life of poverty in the U.K. and she met my Scottish grandfather (one of 8 children also from a poor family) and worked incredibly hard to make a decent home for her kids. She had herb and vegetable gardens and grew everything from cuttings. I learned from her and my mum despite not thinking I was learning. Its amazing what you learn by just being present, even if you aren’t paying attention. I SO wish my mum was still alive so that I could share fridge wickers with her. She was on the right track with her bits and bobs raised beds she made out of everything (including the kitchen sink!) but adding a wicking component would have made her hot and dry garden use a tonne less water in the summer.

        The internet has given me the ability to research and find SO much about living simply and doing as much as we can ourselves. I have a true passion for this kind of life and get a real kick out of living frugally and simply. A lot of people just don’t get what we do so I tend not to talk much about the more “alternative” ways that we do things but sometimes I meet someone who just gets it. I have a lady in our current course at TAFE who is a Seventh Day Adventist and she really appreciates living simply and from the land so it’s a breath of fresh air to share ideas with her. She gave me a gorgeous bar of soap yesterday that she had made in her crock pot. She had never made soap before but decided to “give it a go” and it turned out brilliantly. I think you have to have the will to press on to reduce your carbon footprint and find creative ways to do so. People keep thinking that you have to look ahead and use technology to forge the way but often, the simplest and best solutions have already been created. I live in hope of finding a grain mill in a thrift shop or in a garage sale and one day I will add a treddle sewing machine to my list of glorious finds. I have a spinning wheel and am going to learn how to spin this year (there is a group of spinners about 5km away from where we live so I really have no excuse) and I want to make our own clothing so that I can bypass the poor bastards doing it tough in Bangladesh and stop polluting the waterways with man made fabrics. Every year I think of more ways to reduce the damage to the environment and every year I learn more about gardening, usually by accident as I watch what nature is doing in Sanctuary as she is now 4 years old and there are some seriously good things happening in there. I noticed that the grass that grows in the middle of the garden beds on the slope is truly magnificent. It’s Bezials favourite grass to snack on (he and Earl graze like cows 😉 ) and I just keep heaping manure and bags of foraged oval grass onto the beds and they are starting to change into halfway decent soil.

        There is something magnificent about learning what our real place is when it comes to nature and learning to work with nature, rather than considering ourselves to be the top of the chain and thus kings of it all. People are so depressed these days and mental illness is rife. A lot of this comes from people not living like they should be living. Whats the purpose of working in a office for someone all day if you really don’t get job satisfaction and your life is ticking away and all you are doing is taking your hard earned pay and handing it over to everyone else to do everything for you? There IS a better way but it comes at a cost in labour, time and energy and it’s not easy but it IS incredibly satisfying.

        I often wish that at least one of us could get a job so that we could push forward a few projects like wind turbines etc. The truth of the matter is that as over 50 year olds, we are on the heap. I have chosen to ignore societies “insights” into aging etc. and just keep on keeping on. Bugger society! It’s people like you who share what you are learning that truly give society it’s worth. Forming a community of people who share ideas is worth SO much more than any amount of technological advancement. The real power of the internet is in allowing us to find each other and learn from each other and research and find more people who share ideas, concepts and how-to’s that empower people to learn to work with nature to live a decent life that benefits everyone/everything. I know I am idealistic but I think that you need a degree of idealism to push forwards in a world that appears to have gone mad with consumerism. Oops…sorry about the size of this reply! I think I got on my soap box or high horse there 😉 I truely feel passionate about our cause and knowing that you understand what we are doing makes me truly happy. Meeting you online was one of those epiphany moments that steered me into making some seriously big changes in my/our lives and I will always be hanging around on the fringes doing everything that I can to share the truth about what I have learned. We might not agree on everything but that’s what makes this community truly interesting. Everyone has different ideas and combined, it makes our online community a truly rich place to traverse and we can pick and choose what we feel will give us the best chance of customising our particular situations and lives wherever we are in the world.

        Obviously a lot of what I read on U.S. blogs is completely not going to work here. I seriously envy the amount of rain that they get in the U.K. but the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, right up till you managed to get over there and suddenly the grass appears to have croaked! It’s all in your perspective and your ability to put your head down and just “do it!” Thank you so much for sharing what you do Bev. You truly are an inspiration to a lot of people 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

        • foodnstuff Says:

          Loved your comment, Fran and don’t apologise for the length….it makes up for your long blog posts of the past, which I miss now you aren’t doing them. 😦

          I don’t think I’ve ever said….and I should have done….that you are an inspiration to me too; you do so much more, in different ways, than I do. I spend far too much on new stuff at places like Bunnings, when I should be re-cycling and up-cycling much more, like you and Steve do. Between us, I hope we’re making a difference in some small way.

          Liked by 1 person

          • narf7 Says:

            I believe we are Bev. The other day one of my lecturers at TAFE tried to broadside one of the other students (who hasn’t done their overdue Documentary yet) to do his documentary on me and what we are doing here on Serendipity Farm. I knew the kid really didn’t have any interest at all in doing that so I guided him to do something that he actually gave a damn about but I realised that the lecturer must have been learning something about what we have been sharing on Facebook to think that our story was worth sharing on film so we must have made an impact with him at least. I just want to show people that it doesn’t take money to move forwards into sustainability. I am sure that there are a tonne of very frustrated people living on the borderlines of poverty who think that the only way that they can be sustainable is to have more money to do so because the label “sustainable” usually comes with a stiff price tag. You only have to look at anything labeled “Organic” or “Permaculture” or “Hipster” or “Artisan” to see what I am talking about. The prices are SO much more than those of similar generic mass produced items and where people with a bit of disposable income to spare can afford to take the moral high ground and look down on the plebs that still support the mass destruction of the environment through their purchases, if you are on the bones of your arse, there often isn’t a choice. You buy the cheapest and you suck it up that you are screwing up the environment because there simply isn’t any other option. You are forced to be stuck with that label because you don’t have the money to make that moral choice. I want to show people that you can bypass a HUGE amount of that fiscal treadmill to destruction by doing things yourself. By taking things that other people consider are garbage and by doing the hard yards to learn how to turn that ‘garbage’ into something that serves your purpose. You step off that treadmill and you save stuff from going into landfill and you get a serious sense of personal self worth and accomplishment in the process. If you can’t afford the $280 wicking beds at Bunnings, you can buy a degassed fridge from the tip shop for sweet buggery-bollocks all and STILL arrive at the same outcome. It might not be as aesthetically pleasing but there are always swings and roundabouts in your conquest of consumerism and if you are willing to go a little bit further, the internet will show you how to make your fridge wicker beautiful. It’s really up to you how far you want to do down the sustainability track and how willing you are to do the hard yards to research your problem and think your way to a more sustainable solution. It’s also amazing how incredibly empowering learning how to work things out for yourself becomes. I am seriously considering taking one of those short adult learning courses at night time in “small engines” to learn about how to fix the buggers so that I can then adapt an alternator and make my own sodding wind turbines. I don’t care if they look like something out of Mad Max, so long as they work! I was only thinking this morning how much I have changed since we lived in the city. Our ideals and our habits are completely different and we do things so very differently now and all because we decided to take our actions and make sure that they were the most sustainable way of doing things possible.

            I love learning about sustainability but whenever I attend events I end up with hipster cringe because of the amount of wankers that come out of the woodwork. I seriously believe that every crank that stands up to make some kind of ridiculous statement makes the sustainable network look like a mob of crackpots! Much like veganism appears to consist of a mass of starving lunatics wielding placards to save cockroaches, the high moral ground that a lot of people take when they decide to make their opinion heard at sustainablity events borders on point scoring rather than anything that is of any worth to anyone to be honest. It makes me twitch and cringe and I usually leave these events with bugger all new information and a desire to never attend one ever again so goodness only knows what is happening to newcomers who have just decided to step tentatively into sustainablity.

            I know some really lovely people who are making it their lifes passion to share what they are learning with other people. They tend to be too busy helping and “doing” to attend these sustainability events and the ones that stand up and berate everyone else for not being as sustainable as they are tend to be the “know-it-alls” who really should just bugger off and let the grassroots folk who know what they are talking about get a few words in edgewise!

            Education is easy to get but you now have to sift through the “pay me” stuff that hipsters have started to generate all over the place. I consider hipsters to be the kids of Silicon Valley Entrepreneurs who want to travel the world enjoying themselves while someone else pays them to do it. There is always a trade off and no-one can have it all.

            Anyway, another LONG reply I know 😉 I keep thinking I need to post a blog post and am thinking about making a short documentary about what we are doing here and how lovely it is in our district with Steve. I will get him to star in it as I HATE my voice and am not all that fussed about appearing on camera and he is a natural (albeit a scruffy one 😉 ) so he can be my “voice” and I will just head off filming around the district and will see if I can find anything “pretty” going on in Sanctuary (my garlic is up!) and Narnia (there are chillies that are still alive in there) to film. Even if I just do closeups of the pretties so you don’t have to see the mud and the prancing dogs 😉 I love sharing. I love learning and I love that I can connect with people like you online and that together, we can make a difference, even if it is only in a small way. Every drop counts. People forget that, but every drop counts and if you only help one person, you have done “something” to further the cause. If I hadn’t found your blog, I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now. I wouldn’t have stepped off the treadmill and I wouldn’t question my ethics etc. quite as much as I do when I read your posts. You strengthen my ideals and you give me pause for thought. I don’t always agree with everything that you say or post but knowing you makes my life incredibly rich and sometimes you post a blog post that I turn into a PDF and that I actually use to further what we are doing here. You got through to me and I am passing it on. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Chris Says:

    I often think of ideas like this, but don’t believe high-tech solutions are necessarily the answer. They are prone to needing maintenance as they age, and will eventually need replacing altogether. I think if you don’t have the option of grid power, then solar makes perfect sense. If you have grid power available however, it’s better to pay for a fraction of the infrastructure and use it.

    Then find other cheaper ways, to avoid using electricity. Like gravity fed water, instead of using a water pump, if you’re on rainwater. If you’re on municipal water, that doesn’t require pumping, install a compost toilet, to avoid paying for water to flush the toilet. And plan to use your grey water on your garden – because you’re using it twice, but only paying for the same amount, once.

    To answer your question though, I don’t believe we can go off grid. We have a septic system which requires 24/7 running capacity, which chews up a lot of electricity. Although I’m doing research to find out what other options we can try, once our trusty septic dies.

    I’ve been thinking lately, we need to learn to adapt before things get any worse.

    Like

    • foodnstuff Says:

      I agree, Chris, that high-tech solutions aren’t the answer. My solar panels are probably the only really high tech thing I have and I put them on to save money on power bills, not with any belief that they will be the future. They would have been almost paid off by now if my retailer hadn’t discovered they were paying the wrong feed-in tariff.

      We would have had to have a septic system here too, but I didn’t want the type that just sits there mouldering away, overflowing onto the ground, because the native bush plants wouldn’t have liked the nutrients and it has to be pumped out regularly. We were recommended to get the sort it sounds like you have….an aeration system with a pump that runs 24/7 and still pumps nutrient rich water out over the ground somewhere. My neighbour has one of those and he has had numerous problems with it. He pumps the overflow onto his lawn (we don’t have any lawn) and he tells me it grows a foot a week! That’s why we went for a RotaLoo composting toilet. It was much cheaper, too.

      With the size of your land, I wonder why you don’t build some sort of composting toilet outside somewhere, at least to use during the daytime……that would save a bit of water needed to flush the indoor loo and would give you extra nutrients to use on the garden.

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  4. Chris Says:

    Hi foodnstuff,

    Many thanks for the kind words and I am genuinely touched by them. I also hope that I am entertaining you as well? I have a lot of fun writing the blog as well as doing all of the other things around here. Plus the antics of the many birds and animals that live here are always entertaining even when they are occasionally destroying fruit trees.

    Your summary of the situation with off grid solar power was excellent. And I must commend you with your low usage of electricity as it is very commendable and also an excellent thing for the environment. As narf7 pointed out, it is best not to use in the first place.

    I don’t generally talk dollars, but recently people have been asking me pointed questions about those. So you may be interested to know that the sealed lead acid gel batteries set me back about $11,000 and they store about 30kWh of electricity. As a comparison, I read an anecdotal account in the most recent Earth Garden magazine that the Tesla power walls will cost about $12,000 and my understanding is that they only hold about maybe 7kWh (but they also have an inverter which cost me another $3,000). None of this stuff makes any economic sense and I reckon I pay about $0.80 per kW of electricity used. Some people enjoy overseas holidays, but I’ve talked so much rubbish over the years about sustainability and the environment that I decided to take the plunge. It is also important to note that the grid is very intermittent in rural areas (from what I gather from talking with other people).

    How long will all of it will last is a bit like the problem of how long is a piece of string? What I do know is that the more you use batteries in particular the shorter period of time that they will last. I met a guy who is still running batteries which were purchased in the 70’s, but of course he looks after them and is very careful with them. People keep telling me that battery technology is improving all of the time, but whilst that may be true, the reality is that batteries are a very old technology and even in the late 19th century, telegraph stations were using the most beautiful looking nickel-iron batteries stored in clear glass jars.

    I am currently considering opening the farm for Melbourne sustainable house day in September (I’m not 100% sure of the date) so if you are travelling past, please feel free to drop by and say hello.

    Your electricity usage is certainly within the realms of off grid which does you a real credit. Also, some of the panels here are free standing slightly to one side of the sunny orchard (there is also a shady orchard here for the apple, pear and nut trees), so that is a possibility for you to consider. I made up the free standing mounts for less than $100 of steel.

    Cheers

    Chris

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    • foodnstuff Says:

      Hi Chris, good to hear from you. I would really love to come and see the farm but the distance puts me off. Especially as I’d have to find a back way round to avoid going through the centre of Melbourne. I can continue to enjoy seeing it through your blog.

      Thanks for the info re battery size and cost…I’ve never really gone into it in any detail. The Tesla Powerwall is just a hyped up gimmick IMO and I wouldn’t even consider it. Am I right in thinking it is still grid connected in some way? Must look that up.

      Anyway, at my age (early 70’s), it probably isn’t worth going off grid as long as I can keep power use reasonably low. Only if the grid was regularly failing (which it will do eventually), would I consider it. By then I might have won the lottery! Or batteries will be better and cheaper.

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  5. Chris Says:

    Hi foodnstuff,

    No worries, it is a huge trip isn’t it? I don’t travel that much anymore either. Even the ferry across the bay from Queenscliff is a massive journey. Glad to read that you are enjoying the blog!

    The thing with them is that they operate like a very large and chunky uninterruptable power supply that some people have on their computers. You and I would probably be OK with 7kWh of storage, but most people would struggle reducing their usage so as to accommodate that level of storage. You have to remember that I have seen a day when the 5kW of solar panels only generated about 0.4kWh – for the entire day.

    I reckon you are on the money with not using much in the first place because even if electricity prices apparently increase 20% for some states as of 1st July, then a 20% increase is not much – if you’re not using much in the first place. ;-)!

    I’m not sure that I’d bet the farm that batteries will be cheaper any time soon. Oh well. And anyway, as far as I see the future, we’re going back to renewables anyway, whether we like it or not! ;-)!

    Someone above mentioned septic systems too, and I have an AA worm farm installed (they’re up your part of the world) and I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you are on an incline, the system requires no power whatsoever as it is a completely natural process and all of the plumbing looks absolutely as per peoples expectations inside the house. There certainly is no need for an alarm in the system. Many years ago I put together a fun and cheesy Mike and Mal Leyland Brothers style video of the system as it is installed here. It is very cheesy, anyway, the worm farm people loved it and they have it up on their website which I’m really happy about.

    Cheers

    Chris

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    • foodnstuff Says:

      Hi Chris, I don’t know the AA system…..I’ll try and find the site and the video. I remember now, you used to put videos of the farm up on the permaculture website; I think that’s how I found your blog.

      Like

  6. Chris Says:

    Hi foodnstuff,

    Oops! I meant A & A worm farms…

    Like

    • foodnstuff Says:

      Thanks Chris, I checked them out. I like the system. They’re not far from me. I might give them a call. I’d be interested if they could convert my RotaLoo to a worm system.

      Like

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