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  Appliances Off Grid

If you do not have mains water and electricity, you're going to have problems

Occasionally and, it is occasional, we get asked about installing appliances in what is referred to as "off-grid".

What that means is that the water, drainage or electricity supplies are not on normal mains supplies and this can affect washing machines, dishwashers and fridge freezers mostly although cookers, ovens and just about any appliance can be caused issues by not having mains supplies.

Scrap washing macine in a field in ScotlandWe see this not just half way up a mountain in Wales or Scotland but also where products are installed on boats, eco building projects and many other exotic installation locations or circumstances.

With manufacturers moving more and more toward electronic methods of control the problem has gotten progressively worse. We say "moving" but it more a case of being forced down that route due to energy and water use requirements as, to achieve the efficiency levels demanded these days by legislation and consumers, this is the only option.

The problem is, it makes off grid installation almost impossible.

  Electricity Supply

The problem with electrical supplies to an appliance with electronics in it is that it has to be relatively stable and this is often the first big probelm with off mains use.

When you get a self generated supply, often from solar or wind power generation, you have not got the stable delivery that you would expect from the grid supply and this can cause issues. Of course there can be issues with electricity from the grid as well but the instances of that are rare in reality whereas with self generated power the instances of an inconsistent supply are common.

We're no experts in the area by any stretch but we have been told that there are a number of reasons for this but the largest that we were given was the quality of the systems used, which did not really come as a shock but, we have been told that to get a supply that is close to grid mains costs a lot more than a basic supply by an order of magnitude and hence why many installations of off grid power that we see an issue with have a problem in this regard. How true that is we really don't know, you would have to speak to your supplier or installer if this is an issue you face.

Now manufacturers being as tight as they are, produce machines that will operate across Europe for the European market and they will not drift outside those specifications very much, if at all.

The reason is that it's too difficult to do so and, prohibitively expensive as well. 

So sure, someone could get around the problem if they really wanted but the machine that did so would appeal to a very small audience and be much more expensive. A very small niche product that would likely carry a massive premium for the feature so, it just isn't worth the bother for the very few that would need this and, would be willing to pay for it.

Just think of the cost to design an appliance such as a washing machine or dishwasher that would "just work" under any conditions with any electrical supply you fed it.

However you have to also understand that manufacturers and designers from components through to finished products work to specifications. Where you get a non-compliant off grid supply, what specifications do they work and design to?

In short, they wouldn't even know where to begin as there is no point of reference to do so.

It is a nigh on impossible task.

  Issues With A Bad Electrical Supply

When installed on a non-mains electrical supply you run the risk of interference that will mess up the electronics and make the machine do all manners of strange things. 

Asides which, if the power spikes you will either blow components up or get an "over voltage" error being displayed. The reason is that the components were not designed to work at voltages above 240 Volts, the highest in Europe.

If the voltage falls below the minimum, which is usually about 220 Volts, the lowest in Europe, then you can get an under voltage error thrown up or the machine simply won't work at all.

If the frequency of the supply is wrong then all manners of strange can follow. Pumps not running, running too fast, electronics confused, motors that stutter or even burn out and more besides.

But, in a good many cases, the appliance just won't work. Period.

Under new EU rules the voltages across Europe are now supposed to be harmonised and as follows:

The new "harmonised voltage limits" in Europe are now: 230V -10% +6% (i.e. 207.0 V-243.8 V)

Most of Europe (the former 220V nominal countries), and 230V -6% +10% (i.e. 216.2 V - 253.0 V) in UK (former 240V nominal)

The reality is that even many power supply companies supplying power off the grid can and appear to not comply with this which can cause a lot of problems. For example we have seen several manufacturers with issues of performance and, we believe, even fire risk because their appliances are built to conform to the EU standard but the UK supply does not meet that requirement and is supplying outside this.

Just think how that will go when you are not on mains grid power.

  Off Mains Water Supply

Again, due to electronics being used and increasingly more smart filling technology to reduce the water and therefore energy use on modern appliances almost all washing machines and dishwashers have a fill timeout function.

What happens is that the appliances need a minimum inbound water pressure which is almost universally a 1.0 Bar minimum as this is the minimum flow rate that can be accepted. The reason is that this minimum pressure ensures that the machine will fill up in a reasonable time and that it can detect that there is a water supply present.

Any less and it won't know that there's a water connection. The electronics are fooled in a way into thinking that there is no supply.

Both washing machines and dishwashers do this by reading the pressure sensor that detects the water level in the tank several times a second usually as there really is not other cost effective, accurate and reliable way to do it.

This makes connections to natural well sources and the likes in rural dwellings where mains water is not available very difficult to design for if not impossible as the pressures can vary so much, not only from installation to installation but even on a single installation the water pressure is liable not to be constant or consistent.

Again, yes, the problem could be gotten around but for 99.99999% of people this is not an issue and you face the same issues that you would for electricity supplies. It is too much trouble, involves extra components and software for a very, very small number of products. Again, very niche and really not commercially viable to do.

  Issues With A Bad Water Supply

On washing machines and dishwashers you will get a fill time out error and the machine will halt with many models not being able to continue so you get locked in this cycle of filling a bit, then stopping.

If it does get past that then the machine will take a lot longer to complete any program as remember that most will fill and drain at least three or four times at least on every program. In some low water pressure installations (even in city flats etc) it was not unusual to get washing machines taking seven hours or more to complete a program as the fill time was in excess of thirty minutes.

Of course you can install a pump to boost the pressure although, we are led to believe that this may be technically illegal under water bylaws unless you follow the rules and it can also be expensive. You can also have the supply looked at and modified in a bid to increase water pressure but, again this is likely to prove expensive. All would apply to both mains supplies and off mains supplies where your water pressure is low.

However, the point being made is that the manufacturers of washing machines and dishwashers etc can do absolutely nothing to remedy this for you.

  Drainage

There aren't too many issues with drainage, at least for the scope of this article but, if you are off grid and using a septic tank or such then do remember that you will need to use suitable detergents so that they don't wreck your tank.

Whatever you do though, do not drain it to a land drain.

That's very bad news as it causes pollution and we believe, illegal. If you are caught doing that by WRAS or someone, expect a hefty fine for it.

  Off Mains Installations

If you are off mains or off grid at all you will have to check and make sure that any appliance that you buy is suitable to work under those conditions as, most won't be.

If you do not make this abundantly clear up front to the retailer that you are buying from then you will not be covered by the old "fit for purpose" chestnut as, you didn't specify what the purpose was. So, be very, very clear about exactly what you need the machine to do before you hand over the cash for it.

Whatever you do, don't just buy a machine online and just expect it to work under any of the above conditions without checking first.

Our strong advice is to discuss your requirements before buying at length with the retailer and, if possible, the technical support team of the manufacturer, if you can get them, as while they may be brutally honest and not tell you what you want to hear, you will get the truth without any fluffy sales pitch going on telling you it will all be okay when, it probably won't be.

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Clive Waller
WRAS
Are you sure WRAS (what used to be water board by-laws) apply to private water supplies?


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