The rise of the ‘low-bills’ lifestyle
WHILE some take pride in expensive bathrooms and kitchens, there's a new breed of homeowner showing off solar panels, water tanks and stormwater systems.
When Sydney resident Michael Mobbs decided to go off-grid in 1996 he was probably the first person living in a major city in Australia to do it, and many people thought it was "a bit weird".
But rising electricity prices and power outages seem to have changed people's attitudes, with more now interested in the "low bills" lifestyle.
Back in 1996 when Mr Mobbs decided to undertake a three-month kitchen and bathroom renovation to hook up a new water, sewer and solar system - the project was treated as a bit of a luxury.
"In the early days, the people who were interested in my house were early adopters and surprisingly wealthy," he told news.com.au.
"So (having a solar system) was a bit like having a Porsche or something, but now it's seen as essential to good design and people see it as part of the package.
"It's not just about having a nice kitchen bench, it's also about having solar panels or efficient lighting."
Part of the attraction is being able to live a "low bills" lifestyle.
Mr Mobbs, who runs a blog showing others how to become more sustainable, said his water and electricity bills cost him less than $300 a year and had stayed that low for more than 20 years.
"This is a low bills way of life. If you spend $20,000 you can save $2000-$3000 in energy and water bills."
Sydey's Newtown resident Kylie Ahern was inspired by Mr Mobbs to renovate her home towards living off-grid and said she thought people had become more open to the idea in the past 15 or 16 years.
"I think it's less about being a greenie, hippy thing," Ms Ahern said.
"A greener lifestyle is about having a less expensive lifestyle."
Ms Ahern is recording her home's transformation on a blog. Work will include installing a water tank to collect rainwater, solar panels, batteries and a greywater system to reuse water from the kitchen to flush the toilet.
She is also installing a stormwater retention pit, which is essentially a pond to collect water so that it doesn't get flushed down stormwater drains.
The greywater system costs about $1500-$2000 and the water tank is less than $2000. A solar system with battery is about $25,000 to $30,000.
"It's cheaper than a really expensive kitchen fitout and cheaper than an average kitchen renovation," she said.
"I would rather be off-grid than have a really expensive kitchen or car.
"You make choices with your spending every day."
Ms Ahern believes people are turning to things like solar because of concerns about rising electricity prices, and she generally had a great reaction when she told people what she was doing.
"They want to know how I do it, they love it and they all want to do it too. And it's not just people living in Newtown, it's anyone I speak to."
Even conservative radio announcer Alan Jones is embracing the trend, interviewing Ms Ahern on his 2GB show a number of times.
"He loves it and thinks it is a disgrace that we are flushing drinkable water," she said. "We should use water tanks and I haven't heard anyone say it's a flight of fancy.
"Everyone needs to use natural resources better because we are a dry country, we don't always have a lot of rain.
"It's not a left or right issue.
"There is always something we can do and making choices particularly around water and how much plastic you consume, it starts there."
Many of these practices are already quite common in rural areas but the rise of off-grid living in cities seems to be part of a broader trend towards cheaper, more sustainable living generally.
Many are now embracing a zero-waste lifestyle, where people buy package-free goods at bulk food shops, minimise food waste through composting and make their own products to avoid plastic.
Others are reducing their grocery spend to just $42 a week for a family of four, through online shopping, careful planning and cooking in bulk.
Even more extreme are the people who go dumpster diving for food to avoid contributing to excessive waste as well as to save money.
Businesses are jumping on the trend too.
Home builders like Metricon have started to offer solar and battery storage as part of their house packages. Interest in solar and batteries in general has also rocketed.
"Inquiries have probably doubled in the last three months and sales are probably three to four times what they were last year," LG Chem Australia and Pacific business manager Jamie Allen told news.com.au.
LG Chem installed the new solar and battery system at Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's Point Piper mansion, and is now offering inverters to help maintain electricity supply during outages.
Mr Allen said inverters had been introduced to meet market demand as they help people to go off-grid by providing a power boost in the event of a blackout, getting power-hungry appliances like large fridges started again.
Mr Allen said in 2014-15 only about 100 or 150 batteries were installed across Australia and they were mostly lead acid systems. Installations had since grow by four times that rate every year, and more than 90 per cent were now lithium-ion based, like the Telsa Powerwall.
Last year a report from solar installer Sunlease said more than 6750 solar systems with batteries were installed.
Mr Mobbs said solar systems used to be considered a bit of a status symbol but this had changed over time.
"People wanted to be first, yes, there was a status to it but it's also got a deeper dimension as well, a sense of pride," he said.
"People feel like it's the right thing to do, like buying clothing that pays workers a fair wage.
"It's about having good, consistent electricity, but also about saving money. People are getting it now."