Friday, January 3, 2014

Getting into hot water

As anyone who has read the TripAdvisor reviews will know, when we took over Manicou River, hot showers were something of a myth. While technically possible – the previous owners had installed a lo-tech but effective system of heat-absorbing black pipes on the roof of each cottage – the problem was that most of the guests get up early and come back late in the afternoon after a long day’s hiking and want to have a nice shower exactly at the times when the sun is not shining and therefore the water is not warm.

Probably around half the guests didn’t care – "The whether is hot, a cold shower is just what I need!" Others told us it was the only thing standing between them and their perfect holiday.

When we first arrived, we assumed that solar hot water heaters would be the obvious solution. We even pre-ordered some from China before our purchase of the property was even finalised thinking we were so clever to be planning ahead and getting such a good deal on new Chinese technology. Unfortunately that shipment went the way of so many things bound for Dominica and ended up lost in a port in the Dominican Republic, never to be heard of again.

On further research, we learnt that because of their unique hexagonal design the roof shape of our cottages is not suitable for attaching solar water heaters. (We also learnt that the small, light-weight Chinese models we had tried to buy would never have stood up to Caribbean weather conditions). Next we thought of putting the solar heaters on top of the shed or a bespoke structure but the distance between our cottages means that the length of pipe needed to distribute water between them would allow too much loss of heat along the way.

We started thinking that because our electricity is free and renewable, maybe small electric water heaters would be the way to go. We also wanted to continue to make use of the black piping because it is very effective when the sun does shine. Someone recommended we look at shower-head heaters – small but powerful heating elements that sit directly above the shower-head to heat the water as it passes through.
Developed specifically for the Caribbean and manufactured mostly in Puerto Rico, these small on-demand heaters are designed for warm climates where the ground water temperature is relatively high.  When switched on, they work instantly to raise the water temperature by about 10 degrees C. This is perfect for our water that is already coming from the roof at approximately 24 C, even in the evenings. If our guests choose to shower between around 9am and 4pm on a sunny day, the water will be pretty hot already. During other times, they just have to flip a switch and their shower comes instantly warm. Don't expect a piping hot douse – we still need to use our electricity conservatively – but this is a hot country, refreshingly warm is just the thing to wash off the days sea salt and sweat.

So many simple things that we take for granted elsewhere become complicated by Manicou River’s unique combination of location, design and self-sufficiency. But we are very happy when we find a solution that brings extra comfort to our guests (and us!) despite these challenges.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Down to the river


Every morning after breakfast Patrick and I walk the dogs down to the river. It’s one of our favourite moments of the day. The rich, tropical greenery and ancient mango trees make the riverside such a beautiful, peaceful part of the property.

We decided to create a cool and quiet place for our guests to spend the day when they just want to relax and stay close to home.

Our brief to Conrad, our head gardener, was to use only local wood and reclaimed materials. Other than that we left it up to his creativity.

Conrad is not a master builder. But he is a native of the Kalinago tribe and learnt how to build structures in the traditional way from his grandfather.

Over several weeks he gathered fallen wood and cut small trees from our land until he had enough straight wood to build the frame. Making use of standing trees and natural rock formations, he crafted a small pavilion, stone BBQ and wooden deck overlooking the river. Some reclaimed galvanised tin for the roof finished it off.

The result is something that looks like it has grown out of the land and has always been there. It’s hard to remember that the space was once just a pile of rocks between the trees.


Then of course we had to have a little party with our team to test it out.



Good job Conrad.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Our beautiful laundrette

One of the great things about having solar power is that we can now do our own laundry here at Manicou River.

We have a Frigidaire Twin Tub washing machine (anyone remember those? My Mum had one when I was a kid in Australia). While they are a little more labour intensive – clothes have to be moved from the wash tub to the spin tub – they are extremely water and energy efficient, which is important for us.

Doing our own laundry means being in control of the products we use and how the laundry is dried. We use Nellie’s All Natural Laundry Soda. We have to import it from the US but we think it is worth it for how kind it is to both our laundry and the environment. It also cleans beautifully without the need for any softener or bleach.

Our laundry is always air-dried, whenever possible in the sun on our wonderful 75ft pulley clothesline strung out among the trees. Sunshine is such a great natural cleanser and disinfectant. When it rains, we hang laundry in the breeze under the shelter of our house to dry. 

The result is beautifully clean, soft sheets and towels laundered the old-fashioned way, like your grandma used to.

Of course, if we wanted to be really Dominican, we would take our clothes down to the river and beat them against the rocks like many of our neighbours still do.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Solar panels for goats

The structure to hold our 15 solar panels is 18ftx20ft. We chose to locate it at the top of the property where we get the most hours of sun and it can do double-duty as a water catchment surface. High up is the best location for water tanks so gravity does all the work in creating great shower pressure without the need to pump.








The only problem with choosing a site at the top of the property is that all the materials have to be carried up there. The road on our land goes up to about 290ft above sea level.   The highest point of the land where this structure is going, is another 150ft above that. So our dedicated tireless team have been carrying sand, cement and timber up the hill for the past 2 weeks to get the foundations and support structure in place. Their stamina, strength and good nature in the face of this task is amazing (think of the huffing and blowing you get if you ask someone to deliver a package to a walk-up apartment in NYC or London).



Mr Nicholson recommended making the supports in concrete rather than wood to lessen any lateral movement from high winds that may put stress on the panels. Once the nine concrete pillars were cast the next task was to build the wooden roof frame and add the galvanized roofing material which will catch the water.



The structure follows the natural slope of the land and is about 5-6ft off the ground. This is the optimal height to get the most sun but still be low enough for the trees to break some of the force of high winds, should we be hit by a hurricane. 





We like to get the most out off all materials we bring onto the land so in addition holding the solar panels and capturing rainwater, we think this structure will also serve a wonderful purpose in the near future as our goat house.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Let there be light.



When we took over Manicou River, we knew we had the bones of something very special. 9.5 acres of wooded mountainside, 500ft of spring-fed river-front and the most spectacular sea views we could ever hope for. The octagonal wooden cottages were beautifully constructed and kitchens and bathrooms well designed. But we knew there were some things missing. The most obvious of which was electricity.

Guests have been coming to Manicou River to enjoy the spectacular views and be close to nature. The place is so beautiful that most of them have been willing to rough it a little without simple comforts such as refrigeration and hot showers. We felt that if we did things right we could add a bit more comfort and luxury and still stay true to the nature experience that is the magic of Manicou River. It only took a bit of surveying of our guests to find out that they enthusiastically agreed.

And so our first major project in the development of the resort began with the plan to introduce 100% off-grid alternative energy to Manicou River.
Manicou River, perched on the mountainside.

Designing and installing an efficient and reliable solar system is a complex process. We started by working with our very talented and tireless local electrical engineer Glenn Alexander to wire each cottage and install low-energy lighting and a 110v power socket. As  a temporary measure, we have been running a generator for a few hours each evening so our guests can have some light to cook by and to charge mobile phones and cameras.

For phase two we are working with off-grid systems veteran Jeff Clearwater. Jeff came to stay with us for a week in May. Before arriving he worked with us to create a detailed ‘load sheet’ to calculate exactly how much power we would need at what times of the day. While here at Manicou, working closely with our gardener Conrad, he spent two days making a detailed survey of the property. This involved observing the movement of the sun throughout the day, measuring distances and drops and surveying the river for hydro electric potential. 

Jeff and Conrad survey the land.

Armed with all this information he helped us to design a two-stage system which will start with solar and have the option to add hydro in the future as we expand.

While all the components for this system are making their way to us by sea from New York, our local construction team, lead by master builder Mr Nicholson, are hard at work constructing the ‘power shed’ to house the batteries and transformers and the roof structure at the top of the property to hold 25 solar panels.


We have our fingers crossed for good weather so they can have all the construction complete by 25th June when Jeff arrives for the installation.