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By Charlene Yared-West

This family is living 99% off the grid in suburban Johannesburg. Here is how they do it…

Marc Desfontaines and his wife Marcelle live with their two children in a beautiful family home in Johannesburg. There is nothing unusual about its appearance; it is aesthetically pleasing, spacious, and comfortable… but there is more to it than meets the eye. The Desfontaines household is 99% off the grid, 99% green.

The Desfontaine Family Background:

Desfontaines runs the Heating Balancing Cooling (HBC) Group and, since starting the company in 2008, he knew he needed to find a site to build a home that would be in line with the philosophy of his business and lower his carbon footprint.

Desfontaines Green house

While studying law at the then-Rand Afrikaans University (RAU), Desfontaines would tend to his neighborhood’s gardens for pocket money. His interest in trees and greening was ignited through these odd jobs, and he joined the Arboricultural Society in Johannesburg. This led him to start a tree business with a group of like-minded individuals; Urban Forest Recycling is a well-known organization in Johannesburg today.

He sold his shares in the business in 2008 and started a solar company that eventually merged into the HBC Group, a company that focuses on renewable energy solutions for homes and businesses. “My love for trees seemed to be a stepping stone to even greater things – and led me to start two businesses one after the other, which both focused on preserving the earth and caring for our environment,” he says. “I also realised the way I lived had to be transformed into a more eco-conscious lifestyle – and the requirement I had set for this venture was to do my best to live off the grid… for good!

5 Ways The Desfontaine Family Suggests To Live Green In The Suburbs:

1) Build Your House Over Water:


The couple spent months looking for the perfect site for a home that would receive an abundance of sunshine so that solar radiation could be harvested. They managed to find a stand with a big swimming pool on the property, which they kept but transformed into a water storage facility under the new house.

It took about a year for us to build our new home over the swimming pool, which stores about 300 000 litres of water, which is replenished by the rain and which supplies all of our household water needs,” says Desfontaines.

2) Remember That Living Green & Aesthetics Can Go Hand in Hand:

“As a specialist in green design and technology, I worked really closely with the architects who took on the building project. They were able to incorporate the green infrastructure I wanted and still managed to make it a luxurious space for us to live in – and that was my aim. I did not want to compromise our living standards by going

3) Become Self Reliant With Regards To Water and Electricity:

“It was an education for the architects to understand and implement our off-the-grid needs. It was just a logical extension of our company, HBC, and made sound financial sense. Living off the grid also impacts your independence and your level of sustainable living, so you are not reliant on outside sources for heat, water, and electricity.”


The Desfontaines family currently uses a “gridtied system”, which is a solar panel system tied to the main electricity lines. “The gridtied system uses all of the available energy provided by the solar collectors and then uses Eskom’s electricity to top up the rest – that is, any additional energy that may be needed from the national grid,” explains Desfontaines.

At night we plug into the national grid, but if you’ve trained all staff members and family properly, as we have, everyone knows and understands the importance of using the solar energy during the sunshine hours for household appliances such as pool pumps, irons, washing machines, and dishwashers. By doing so, we maximize our investment in the solar system and only occasionally dip into main electricity lines. We hope to be completely off the grid by 2016.

4) Lay Down Green Supporting Infrastructure:

According to Desfontaines, it is important to lay down the infrastructure in a new home build – even if the technology cannot be afforded

The beauty is that later, as and when you can afford it, the green technology can be easily installed, because of the existing infrastructure you have laid down,” he says.

5) Re-Assess What You Define As An Asset:


Desfontaines’ wife, a banker, also feels passionate about their being conscious energy users.

Living off the grid the way we do has made my family more responsible and aware of resource constraints. We need to recognize resources that are in abundance, and those which are in short supply and which pollute the environment. We should be very uncomfortable in our current ways of life, as they are not sustainable. We need to relook at our budgets and refocus our spending to be less instantaneous and more sustainable.

Our ecosystem has to support this too, though – i.e. banks need to relook at how they assess assets that support longevity and sustainability. It is not good enough anymore to just know how to value bricks and mortar. If one looks at Europe, there are myriad ways in which to build a house to promote sustainability; materials are often non-standard, and loans/investments have different profiles and require different structures.

If this is a way we want to live and what we want to teach our children and theirs, then we, individually, need to make the change, but, institutionally, we also need to adopt different attitudes and methods,” she says.

Further Tips For Living Green:

langley kirkwood

If you can’t live completely off the grid, here are some suggestions which will help to lower your carbon footprint and keep some cash in your pocket,” says Desfontaines:

  • Consider installing conducting and piping to allocated roof space in your home for the installation of solar panels when your budget allows.
  • Do your best to install LED lighting, as it is cost-effective.
  • Ensure that the roof, windows, and doors have proper insulation.
  • Include the installation of wood fireplaces for heating in winter.
  • Convert your electric stoves to gas.
  • Use the heat from the sun to warm your domestic hot water.
  • Find alternative sources of water and harvest your own rainwater.
  • Plant a veggie garden.
  • Use a geyser blanket, which will save you about 10%-15% in energy usage.

Green Ideas:


Solar Savings – Do The Maths!

50% of your energy usage on your electricity bill goes to pay for heating. If you have an R1 000 electricity bills per month, about R500 of that goes towards heating. If you pay for a solar geyser, you can save up to 80% of R500, which means you save R400 off your monthly bill. Multiply that by 12 months, and you’re saving R4 800 per year,” says Desfontaines.

Now, if you install a good solar geyser for about R20 000, which is the going rate, you will pay it back over five years; that’s if you were paying R4 800 per year on electric water heating. It’s important to note that every year electricity costs increase. If you are using a solar geyser, your savings are massive and that is impressive to anyone. You do the maths!


Guest Writer

This post has been curated by a Longevity Live editor for the website.

The content in this editorial is for general information only and is not intended to provide medical or other professional advice. For more information on your medical condition and treatment options, speak to your healthcare professional.