How to make a small fortune on Mallorca

Start with a large one and buy an old finca!

I know. It’s an old joke, but there’s some truth in it (assuming you had any kind of fortune to start with – and we certainly didn’t).

This time last year we had to have our roof renewed and buy new gates. We’d hoped that we wouldn’t be spending any more large amounts of money for a long while. But in recent weeks our solar-powered electricity system has been requiring an increasing amount of generator back-up. Every evening we were having to run the generator for an hour or so to prevent it kicking in on auto-start during the night, because of the power drain caused by the fridge/freezer.

Eventually The Boss decided to switch off the auto-start before we went to bed: we really didn’t want the generator bursting into life in the wee small hours and startling the local sheep (or, of course, our neighbours in the valley). Although running our solar power system is ecologically sound, generators aren’t: diesel is horrible stuff and it’s expensive.

Winter draws on

With winter ahead (and The Boss not keen on going out late at night to traipse down the field to the power house in bad weather), we knew it was time to replace our solar polar batteries. A few years ago we were told that we’d be lucky if they lasted five years; they managed nine. Once again we’ve had to shelve any dreams of a holiday, to spend the equivalent of several holidays on replacing our old batteries with a set that will hopefully last at least a decade.

Out with the old and exhausted . . .

Out with the old and exhausted . . .

Thanks to our finca, we’ll never have a large or even a small fortune, but we do have the good fortune to have a reliable and consistent electricity supply now and a sturdy roof over our heads – and, having seen the TV coverage of the heartbreaking devastation in the Philippines, we’re counting our blessings, if not our banknotes.

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Five go with us into the winter – part one

Many people who know Mallorca for its long hot dry summers are surprised to hear that the island can be rather damp and chilly during the winter. Where we live in the countryside, we often wake up to a sea mist in the valley, which cloaks everything in a heavy dew. It does look truly spectacular some mornings, but there is the downside of the resulting dampness.

A misty morning in the valley

A misty morning in the valley

How we laughed (in an ironic fashion), when we read one of the first Christmas cards we received after moving here: “Bet you’ll be having Christmas dinner in your shorts!”.  At the time, we had no electricity and only a butane heater to keep us warm (and increasingly damp).

Winter wonder island

With the benefit of time and experience, we have learnt to enjoy the positive aspects of winter here. Whatever the weather – and it can be very bright and sunny in winter – the island is still naturally beautiful, and there’s no better time to do some serious walking in Mallorca.

But getting through the worst of the weather is made far easier with the help of our five winter essentials – the first of which is:

The generator  

When The Boss said he was buying a Lombardini, I don’t think I was listening properly. I thought he’d said a Lamborghini – and that maybe he’d won the lottery.

Said Lombardini – a beefy red number – is the diesel generator that acts as a back-up to our solar energy system, when there’s not enough sun to fuel it, or our energy requirements demand extra support. For much of the year, it’s little used. In winter, it’s an essential piece of kit.

The generator is cleverly rigged up so that it starts automatically when the battery levels fall below a certain point, then runs for about one hour before switching itself off. There’s also a system that prevents it starting automatically before 9am and stops it at 10pm. We chose these times so as not to disturb others living in the valley – although they all have generators too, so are probably oblivious to the distant low rumbling noise that is a facet of rural life in places like Mallorca.

A switch in time

We can also switch it on and off manually, using a switch within the house – even though the generator itself is housed in a small outbuilding halfway down our field. That’s particularly useful during the times when we want to use electric heaters in the early morning or in the evenings, when there’s no sun on the solar panels – and we don’t fancy going outside in the cold!

Although a Lamborghini would be a lot more exciting, when it comes to functionality, the Lombardini has to be the machine for me. And, unlike the flashy Italian sports car, it only uses one litre of diesel an hour . . .

Power to the people

Shocked by the size of the bill we’d received from a local electrician – for what had seemed to be a very basic check of our finca wiring (and his sustained electric shock into the bargain) – we decided to use a different company to undertake the major work of installing additional switches, sockets and wiring for our future electricity supply.

We’d been determined to use Mallorcan labour for any major jobs around the place but, when our two new electricians eventually arrived with their toolboxes and huge reels of cable, we discovered they were actually Argentinian. No matter; they were also efficient, tidy and seemingly shock-proof – unlike our previous electrician. We were happy to leave them to get on with the job, while we solved the problem of sourcing some electricity.

Easy . . . or watt?

GESA didn’t want to know us: we were too far away from the nearest mains source for it to be viable to connect our property.  Like most of our neighbours, we would be getting our power from the sun, via a solar energy system, with a generator for back-up. Now, doesn’t that sound easy?

Knowing nothing at all about the subject, we placed ourselves at the mercy of a company specialising in these things. All we had to do was give them a list of our electrical appliances and a rough idea of usage, then they came up with a solution.

That solution involved 16 solar panels, 21 batteries, an invertor and – of course – a decent-sized generator.  All except the solar panels would be housed in the little casita we had built without previous permission, but had had legalized (at considerable cost). The panels themselves were to be mounted on a rack, cemented into a base.  What we gave no thought to at that time was where we’d actually put what would end up looking like a sunbathing version of the Angel of the North . . .

5 things to know when buying a rural property in Mallorca (Part 3)

If you’re reading this blog for the first time, welcome. You’ll find the other three things to know about (water supply, waste water disposal, and disposal of rubbish) on the previous two posts. This last part focuses on electricity and gas – two essentials.  We lived for eight months with limited electricity: no usable plug sockets and only two hours of lighting a night (if the sun had shone), courtesy of a small rooftop solar panel. I’m not sorry we did it, as it has made us more careful about using electricity – and it was quite romantic in its own way. But I’ll always remember the day when the electrician who was completing the installation declared that we finally had power. So will he: I went up to him and gave him a big smacking kiss on the cheek . . .

You’ve got the power?

Our bank of solar panels – a sight that took some getting used to!

Rural properties are often too far from a GESA sub-station to make it viable to be connected to mains electricity. That was the case with our finca. So we had to seek an alternative. We decided against wind turbines (too noisy for our liking) and opted for solar power. After all, Mallorca has 300 days of sunshine a year, so it’s a plentiful resource here.

If you’re looking at a rural property with no existing power supply, the first step in deciding what type and size of solar power system you need is to make a list of everything electrical that you’re likely to use. Armed with this information, a specialist in solar power will be able to work out the specifications for a system tailored to your needs.  A system basically comprises solar panels, batteries (charged by the sun) and an invertor. You’ll also need a generator, for those occasions when the sun doesn’t contribute enough to keep it all going, and a tank to hold the diesel that fuels it. As you’ll have gathered by now, all of these things (except the panels) will need to be housed somewhere secure and weather-proof; in our case, it’s an outbuilding.

So, there is a considerable upfront outlay, but at least you won’t be receiving electricity bills from GESA. And if you’re careful with your electricity usage, you can keep generator running costs down.

My top tips:

  • Don’t underestimate your electricity requirements. It’s cheaper to have the correct sized system installed at the outset.
  • Buy the best panels and batteries you can afford.
  • Talk to at least two solar power companies and compare their prices and specifications. Ask about the life expectancy of the individual components. Our first invertor caught fire and had to be replaced.
  • If you have to build something in which to store the system components, make sure you have planning permission (one day I’ll tell you the sorry tale of our own building)
  • Be sure that you’ll be happy with the siting of the panels. Our engineer’s first suggestion would have completely blocked our view of the valley, so we opted for a different site. As it happens, we don’t think the first location would have been as good anyway.
  • If possible, spend some time with someone else who has a solar power system so you can learn from their experiences.
  • Once the system is installed and up and running, turn it all off in the event of a thunderstorm close by. Our second invertor was struck by lightning just a few weeks after it was installed!

Going for gas

A trip to the gas depot for refills

You won’t find mains gas in the Mallorcan countryside, but almost everyone uses butano to power their oven and hob, and water heaters (although solar-powered water heaters are increasingly popular). In towns and villages, you’ll often see the orange gas canisters being delivered by truck, but don’t expect that service to be available in rural areas. Instead, you’ll need to go to  the nearest Repsol butano depot with your empty canister(s), which will be exchanged for full ones at a cost (currently) of 16,50 euros a canister. If the property has no existing canisters (which should be left behind when the current occupiers leave), you’ll need to head to a Repsol office to get the necessary paperwork. You cannot just turn up empty-handed and buy a canister of gas.

It is possible in some circumstances to have a large butano tank installed on your property, but there are certain conditions that must be met for this service to be available. Speak to a Repsol office if you are interested. It certainly saves lugging the containers around (the standard size holds 12,5 kg of butano).

My top tips:

  • Check the rubber hoses that connect the gas to the appliances – they have a limited life (an expiry date is printed on the hose) and it can be dangerous not to replace them. The efficient householder will make a diary note so that replacing out-of-date hoses isn’t overlooked.
  • Get yourself a sack barrow to manouevre the canisters about. They’re pretty heavy.
  • Save the hassle, and find an alternative, eg solar-powered water heating and electric oven/hob.

I always cooked with gas in the UK, but my Smeg oven (bought here) is very unreliable temperature-wise. Could it be the gas, I wonder?