Details of my Off-grid Plan

Jenny takes a trip
Jenny takes a trip

Oki doki folks! Jenny here. Hello out there once more!

Continuing on from my previous article, which can be found here, I shall now home in on some finer details beginning with choice of van, and energy sources, both for powering the van and for power in the van.

Van:  I already discussed in the pre-mentioned article my reasons for choosing a van/minibus to live off-grid in…..but now how do I go about deciding, which van (from this point forward meaning minibus as well as van) to use? Does it matter? Well, from my research I have learnt that yes, indeed it does matter! Especially if, like me, one hopes to use USVO (Used Straight Vegetable Oil) as the fuel – more on USVO specifically in a moment.

  • To use USVO, I need to ensure my van runs on diesel.
  • Ensuring less vandalism/other bother, I would like an inconspicuous-coloured/shaped van; I am thinking white/navy blue/black/dark green will be fine.
  • The van needs to be able to undergo a one-tank conversion to be able to run on the higher viscosity USVO or already have the conversion upon buying; van pumps suitable for this are: Bosch Diesel Kiki, Nippon Denso, Doowon and Zexel. Two-tank conversions work with a greater variety of vehicles, still using diesel at the beginning and end of a drive to warm up the vegetable oil and prepare the diesel tank to be at-the-ready for the next drive… but I would like to avoid using ANY diesel…I am fortunate I do not yet have a vehicle and so do not have to fear discovering that the vehicle is not suitable for one-tank conversion.
  • I am flexible regarding the length and height of the van; seems most practical and flexible to me though that it is not higher than the maximum height of a vehicle allowed into various public places such as car parks – although if I loved everything else about the van or caravan I would not let this prevent me from purchasing it; the times I would use car parks, for example, would be rare.
  • To remain as earth-friendly as possible and to avoid needing even larger sums of money, I would like a second-hand vehicle. Decreasing the chance of being swindled, I can research the source from where I’ll be purchasing the vehicle and search for good or bad references. I think it will be worthwhile taking the vehicle to the mechanics for a check-over before purchasing.

From what I understand, the below webpage lists the car & van manufacturers/models that are suitable for the one-tan conversion (I just need to Google each of them now to see which are vans and which are cars! Hehee. Please check messages below this article in one week to find the results of my findings) https://www.dieselveg.com/Vehicle%20List.htm . With dieselveg.com the one-tank conversion costs just over £1000.


Vegetable oil (peanut, hemp, rapeseed, olive, sunflower…any others too) burns much more cleanly than fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide is still emitted but this simply replaces the carbon dioxide that the plant used to grow the oil would remove in photosynthesis. The term ‘straight’ in this acronym simply refers to the vegetable oil not being mixed with others fuel types. I would like to use ‘used vegetable oil’ from restaurants and other catering outlets, who, I have read, are happy to give it away for free as they currently have to pay to have it collected and burnt (cannot be put down sinks as will cause sewage blockages). For example, in the US, 300 million gallons/year of waste vegetable oil ends up in landfill sites/sewage systems. Now, I am not pretending that the amount of waste oil produced by catering outlets is sufficient for all societies across the world to use….even if the world dramatically reduces its reliance upon cars….unless they are going to be practically eradicated (but this is not something I am particularly advocating). It is not sufficient. However, it seems only logical to me to make use of this otherwise wasted oil first before beginning with firsthand oil.

I can collect the oil directly from a willing catering outlet; however, the oil needs to be clean; not with bits of food nor even water in it! Heheee. Some restaurants will do this, but often I will need to be able to filter it myself. There are contraptions that I could buy to do this…However, I do not plan to be so short of money that I will be unable to afford the on average £1 extra per week that is needed to purchase pre-filtered USVO from organisations such as www.goldenfuels.com and www.vegoilmotoring.com. On the lowimpact.org forum, Forum people kindly informed me that an average van usually guzzles a maximum of one gallon per 30 miles. Let’s say that I would actually drive my van a luxurious maximum of 10 miles per week – meaning I’d need only 1/3 gallon of USVO, this is just over 1 litre.

Just to clarify one thing that I was not sure of before I began researching: vegetable oil (whichever form) is a biofuel, not to be confused with biodiesel. Biodiesel is a biofuel that is converted by adding alcohol and a catalyst. This mixture is left to settle and then biodiesel is poured off the top, leaving glycerine at the bottom. I favour vegetable oil as you don’t need to use any other substances or contemplate what to do with leftover products. I can simply store my oil somewhere in the van in a protective container.

The fuel I use may need to be 10% diesel in the Winter due to the viscosity of vegetable oil alone becoming to high. However, several people have found in the last few winters (probably not including this Winter!?) that they have not needed any diesel. I shall be willing to undergo a process of trial and error!

I find the following to be an excellent general information source concerning using vegetable oil in vehicles: https://www.vegoilmotoring.com/eng/mixing-diesel-svo .

You may have heard talk of being able to use Algae as a biofuel by 2020!! See https://www.carbontrust.co.uk/emerging-technologies/current-focus-areas/pages/algae-biofuels-challenge.aspx

I still need to learn how to drive….there are numerous more ethical alternative driving schools in the UK, especially in London, for example www.greendrivingschool.co.uk and www.eco-drive-school.co.uk.


Using SVO/USVO actually results being exempt from road taxes!

I will be checking with The Co-operative and Caravan Club to establish if they will provide insurance for a van that I am living in and how much it will cost. Please check messages below this article in one week to find the results of my findings.

Solar Energy:

As the energy source for the remaining devices I would like to run, I was advised by CAT (Centre of Alternative Technology in Wales) to steer clear of wind energy and go for solar energy. Albeit a small windmill on top of the van, it would still produce enough noise to attract unwanted attention and to be labelled as disturbance by locals. It is also not predicted to produce as much energy in a UK location year-round as the solar option.

There is still a negative environmental impact during the production of solar panels but this still amounts to far less environmental degradation than that caused by fossil fuels and the solar cell constituent parts of the panels can be recycled.

The following website will tell you the longitude and latitude of your town: https://www.astro.com/cgi/aq.cgi?lang=e …..these details are needed to discover the direction of ‘true-south’, where I will want my panel to face. These details are also needed to determine the angle I want to place my panel at, depending on the sun’s angle to Earth (which changes throughout the year). The  recommended tilts are shown here after entering your latitude: https://www.wattsun.com/misc/photovoltaic_tilt.html . Taking account of these factors will increase the amount of energy the cells can produce.

I found https://www.green-trust.org/2000/solar/findsun.htm a very good site for instruction of how to optimally place my solar panels.

There are different kinds of solar cells. Those made from crystalline silicon (CS) are most widely used. They are a little more expensive but manufacturers guarantee that CS panels still will provide 80% of their maximum energy output after 25 years! Other cells available are thin film cells, comprised from either copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) or cadmium telluride (CdTe) among others. These are cheaper and use less raw materials but are less efficient than CS, though according to CAT, much research is currently being carried out on the efficiency of thin film cells. I will assume I shall use the CS solar panels, but will do further research at the time of buying.

This website can help predict the average potential amount of solar energy that’s obtainable anywhere in the EU: https://re.jrc.ec.europa.eu/pvgis/apps3/pvest.php .

According to the book by Nick Rosen, it is possible to power a mobile phone, lap top and a few other low-energy devices if wanted, with just one single 50w solar panel in the UK. I am still working on working this out for myself with all the equations and everything as described here: https://www.sunshinesolar.co.uk/khxc/gbu0-display/faq.html#4.  I have tried it out a couple of times before but keep on getting new information to alter the information I put into the equations. Please check messages below this article in one week to find the results of my findings. I will try to base my calculations on the average solar energy achievable, or indeed the minimum solar energy achievable. It would not be wise to base my estimations on peak solar energy!

No planning permission is required for solar panels so that is one hurdle I do not have to cross.

I predict that I will purchase two 12V, lead-acid, deep-cycle batteries for the storage of the solar energy. These are the cheapest and simplest type and release energy slowly, perfect for the low-energy-consumption of the few devices I plan to be using. The devices I wish to use are available in 12V versions and even if there is something unavailable in 12V I can purchase a transformer, as is likely to be necessary for a laptop. Two storage batteries enable me to be flexible with my energy usage – if there is insufficient energy being produced at a certain time, I can use previously-stored energy that I did not use. The final requirement for the batteries is that they are at least 100AH (capable of powering a 100-amp appliance for one hour). I will need to ensure all connecting wires are thick as the current is higher and could melt the wires. I will use a shunt regulator to ensure no overcharging nor undercharging of the batteries.

If my energy production is too limited, I can purchase a battery-powered mini- heater if worse comes to worse. This is the only compulsory device I can think of…and this only for winter as well. Though I need to work on this idea – or maybe I will only know for sure after trying it out; will I really be content putting up with the noise…presumably whilst I sleep too….maybe I can find a quiet one that is a little more expensive?? Please check messages below this article in one week to find the results of my findings. I did investigate woodstoves – amazing possibilities. However, I predict that I will be living near other people and I think smoke from the roof of my van will definitely be classed as a disturbance! Of course if I do find myself not living near anyone, I can reconsider using woodstoves.

There are plenty of ethical/environmental companies in the UK and abroad from where to buy all this desired equipment. www.brightgreenenergy.co.uk is just one example.

I hope to convert to a more ethical mobile phone network in the future too. I have found one offered by The Phone Co-op. However, they say the mobile must be a 3G Nokia mobile, which is one of the newer, more expensive versions. I will find out why their network is only compatible with these specific mobiles….as, normally, I would not wish to spend that much (around £96)….especially when 2nd hand mobiles keep on finding their way to me! :-p :-). If it is, for example, for reasons of ethicality (for example Greenpeace have rated Nokia as the most ethical electrical company…or maybe rather the ‘best of a bad bunch’), then I will definitely convert to their network.

I have one final thought and a question to pose for you all: I have been hearing that it is a lot easier to live off-grid in Scotland and Wales than elsewhere in the UK. Whilst this may be true, part of me feels reluctant to aim to live/campaign in those areas; is it not more beneficial to the off-grid movement to aim to live where you would live if living off-grid was not an issue for society? Although I do realise that it is helping the movement tremendously regardless of where off-grid-living is carried out.

And for now……that’s it guys and gals! I look forward to writing and sharing my next article and indeed to the developments on research mentioned in the above article, which I shall add in messages below.

Merry days to you All…

Jenny. :-)

22 Responses

  1. Hello Jenny,
    I’ve only just joined this site, and being of dinosaurian age (60+) I’ve done a little travelling around on an RV myself more than a few times, I take my hat off to you with all that research you’ve done, since travelling around Western Canada and Southern Alaska with my son I came to like the lifestyle, although now living in Sweden it still appeals to me, seeing the wilderness from the wilderness – if you see what I mean. Using solar energy is a must, to replace energy used when the engine is not running, being 12V DC, or 24V DC if looking at a big RV, I would strongly advocate the use of LED internal lighting – hardly any battery drain. I would also look at ‘Fold Down’ Furlmatic wind turbines (I’m aware of the comments by CAT) they are not so noisy – but you would have to be in an area where wind energy is usable. The use of cooking oil as a non polluting diesel fuel is good, though you have to be aware whether you use the double tank or single tank method (Diesel and cooking oil or just cooking oil) that the engine needs to be decoked more frequently than with plain diesel – a small penalty but worth mentioning. The use of a well thermally sealed 100 litre tank acting as a thermal storage unit (a large coil inside from the engines cooling system would heat this water up when running, a second coil would provide you with hot water from your standard water tank) effectivly a thermal storage unit (as we use here in Sweden but ours considerably larger and fed from a large efficient multi fuel boiler) the downside would of course be the extra weight and the expansion unit required as well as the space taken up. On an RV home it is very important to design the internal layout to have all the weighty permenant fixtures as low as possible to maintain as lower centre of gravity as you possibly can, especially if you are contemplating the fixing of photovoltaic panels on the roof, they are not over heavy, but do none the less raise the centre of gravity on an RV – as of course would the ‘Fold Down’ wind turbine.
    As a company, before I retired we designed a fully self contained self energy sufficient home that made use of Solar, Wind and Ground Source energy. An anerobic digester fed from bio waste and organic toilets, cleaning it out was very messy – but a good source of manure, the gas generated supplies the cooking and contributed to some of the heating, a wood burning aga supplied the rest of the heating, it also included a waste cooking oil tank to power a boiler and a diesel generator in the case of an emergancy, as well fueling a diesel 4×4 station wagon that was very necessary in the location.
    The very best of luck.

  2. Jenny you indicated a desire to use USVO then later admitted that you were not likely to drive more than 10 kilometers a week and would therefore not expect to use more than 1 liter of fuel per week. Why bother to go to all the trouble of adapting to usvo fuel then not drive very far? Seems to me a more practical approach would be to park a trailer someplace and use either public transit or an electric scooter for travel to the work place. You indicated a desire to work in some kind of volunteer organization and this in turn meant you would remain close to but not necessarily inside a town. The cost to hire someone to tow the trailer periodically would still be less than the cost to maintain the camper van plus pay for insurance in an ongoing basis. A second issue being the van motor would likely be tempramental because it did not get driven very far or often. Any vehicle that is not driven daily and for a goodly distance tends to have more service problems. Disk brakes tend to rust when not well used. Lubricating oil inside the engine develops sludge when not brought up to full operating temperature. Driving 10 kilometers is not enough to really warm up an engine. Not being an experienced car driver or having experience with motor maintenance seems to have led you to make certain assumptions about how easily it would be to live in a Van and using it occasionally for transportation.

  3. Jenny You are right, living off-grid in the USA or Canada seems to be very different compared to the UK. To begin with climatic conditions can be much harsher than the UK. By popular magazines I include publications not specifically aimed at off-grid living but more broadly speaking covering alternative life styles. There are a number of magazines aimed at a readership who have chosen to move away from cities and live in the country. Some specialize in how to develop or rejuvenate a small farm or homestead with subsistence farming just to feed themselves Some deal with the challenges of building and maintaining a home/house on a very low budget. There are also specialized magazines dealing only with wind or solar power .
    And of course there are any number of websites dealing with the same topics .
    Two exceptional magazines that have survived several decades are ‘Home Power’ and ‘Mother Earth Good News’. Both have online companion websites. Check them out. Just google the title.
    Generally speaking the North American off -grid practitioners appears to be more affluent than their UK counterparts. However there will always be exceptions. For the past decade I have catered to a small niche market of off-grid dwellers. These are the people who chose to live on a boat. Many of them anchor out so must be totally self sufficient. Sailboaters in particular do not like to use a motor or generator so their requirements are very similar to those who choose to live in an RV or trailer. They strive to live with wind or solar power only. Others who live in power boats called trawlers often follow the sun as the season change. They move from Alaska to Mexico or Maine to Florida to stay within a climatic comfort zone. Even so the challenges remain the same, how to live on a limited amount of electrical power off-grid.

  4. Jenny The reason I moved out of the RV was due to a job change. The RV had been parked for so long the brakes had seized. Very expensive to fix. I had to move to accomodate a new job. A question to you. You indicate you have to get a drivers license. what made you decide to select a van rather than a camper that would have greater interior volume for a given lenght compared to a van which contains a motor compartment. Reading your blog I get the impression you were not planning on driving around a great deal in any event. For the record I now live in the central interior of BC Canada. We get six months of winter with temps going down to -30C or lower and we only have a very short day in winter.Snow accumulations amount to 8 feet during a typical winter.
    solar does not seem very practical under the circumstances. We are into the fifth day of cloudy dark weather. No solar energy possible under these conditions.

  5. Hello Jenny,
    I am from Hudson Valley, NY. I am building a cabin, up in the catskill’s to give this wonderful life style a turn. I have been researching so many fabulous things too. With the dollar being top priority of how to avoid it ..ha ha ha ..and to not offending this wonderful planet any more than i need to…For every tree I must cut in order to live , I am also replanting…I will keep in touch..much love peggy

  6. hi jenny. Glad to see your making plans and doing the right thing and thinking things through before jumping in. This is sure to save you both money and stress in the long term.

    However you state you dont have a driving licence yet, this is obviously your fore-running priority, have you done much l-plate driving? or studying for your test?. Im led to believe the driving test is getting harder all the time and more expensive, most tend to need a few shots at it before success now.

    So i think it realy has to be put as your most urgent priority before anything else.

    get cracking girl!

  7. Hello there Elnav,
    Thankyou for your thoughts.
    No worries….you have not burst any bubbles :-p. I am of course in the planning stages….I can but think and plan realistically for myself at present….and believe that it would preferable to try it out and decide to discontinue/upgrade than to not try at all (though, of course, that is not my intention)…and hey….I’m learning lots along the way. :-)

    I have not read any of the popular magazines on the subject….was not aware that they exist!? Though I believe you are from the USA and I have heard off-grid living is much more widely practiced there.

    I guess I consider my way of thinking as realistic idealism/optimism.

    Interesting! Five years on continuous living in an RV motorhome…..did you discontinue because you were no longer content…or never were? Or other problems that arose? Or was the reasoning behind this actually travelling rather than living long-term in the van? Would appreciate your thoughts.

    Wishing you well with your book.


  8. Wow talk about idealism. I earn my living designing off-grid power systems for RV and boat use. Sorry to burst your bubble a little bit but many of the ideas and suggestions posted here are somewhat impractical and wil likely not fulfill your expectations. I lived in an RV motorhome for five years continuous and have live aboard a boat for over a year. I am currently writing a book on the problems of how to set up an off-grid system even if you do not live in the sunny south. Where I live at present we get 6 months of winter with outdoor temps going down to -30 C for days on end and at best 8 hours of daylight (forget solar power during that time)
    Yes it is still possible to live off-grid but it requires very different approaches than what you read about in the popular magazines

  9. Thanks Len and Simon – I have also emailed a recommended engineer on the subject of alternators and energy storage for appliances via a vehicle’s veg oil.

    All – concerning the other answer/solution-needing points in the article that I said I would find out about and write here…….

    – Insurance of vehicle and contents seems to be a tricky one!! I have spoken with Co-operative Insurance, with The Caravan Club, with Club Care and others…..all say the same…..they are happy to provide insurance to those living in a vehicle for recreational purposes…..but not for those without a permanent address…..I wonder how that is all proved though????….if making a claim how can they prove you were living in your vehicle at the time rather than living at a permanent address of your parents/ friend……they couldn’t seem to answer these questions for me…..though they did get quite a lot of entertainment form this ‘barmy’ idea of wanting to live in a minibus! :-p :-)

    Then again…..with the money I’d be saving from renting and paying for the insurance and everything being 2nd hand…..hopefully if anything did happen I’d be able to afford the consequences…..

    I have checked with DVLA….if I can find someone willing to let e park my vehicle on their private land, then I declare the vehicle as off-the-road and live in it before have my driver’s licence! :-DD. It’s only the compulsory insurance companies that require a driver’s licence.

    Dieselveg will get back to me soon with a rough percentage of the number of vehicles listed in the above article link that are indeed vans, not cars…..just so as we know if the number of vans available for the mechanical conversion to enable veg oil use, is very sparse or not…..

    I am still researching about heating options and my precise energy requirements. Will get that on here asap.


  10. Thanks or your post Solar Panel! :)

    Chickenfarmer – so you are saying after 4 days of one 12v deep cycle battery being used in the truck, that there was sufficient energy stored in it to use it in your travel trailer for lights and radio? Correct? If so, how far were you driving your truck/at what speed?

    Thank you and cheery days to you,
    Jenny. :-)

  11. Jenny-
    I lived in a travel trailer with 1-12 volt deepcycle battery to run my radio and some lights. It would last about 4 days before I had to put it in the truck. (OK, 2-12 volt batteries-one in the truck, one in the house, then switch after about 4 days) Worked great!

  12. Wow…I just found your blog Jenny and what you are doing is AMAZING! While I have a few solar panels that I’ve built for my home to help reduce my electrical costs I’ve never truly thought about going off the grid to the extent you are. I live in a rural town in Pennsylvania USA and my wife and I enjoy finding ways to reduce our impact on environment but you have taken it to a whole new level.

    Thanks for sharing :)

  13. Two things about using the alternator for charging batteries (maybe three ;-) 1) There is already in the alternator a rectifier that changes the ac to dc which is why it can charge your starting battery. 2) at idle the power produced is not enough to fully recharge even the starter battery (though it could be designed that way) 2b) 10 k travel is probably not enough to keep your starter battery up let alone charge your deep cycle batteries… so make sure your solar panel sends something there too. 3) any power you use from the alternator with affect your fuel milage. That is the more power you draw from the alternator as you drive, the more fuel it will take you to get there…. no free lunch ;-) Solar panels, even laying flat on your roof so they are not too visible would be a must, or a long drive on the hi way (2 hours or so over 40m/h… 60km/h) once a week may be able to charge all of your batteries. A small gas genset may be cheaper than the long drives.

  14. Jason,
    I meant for Deep cycle which require a lower voltage or slower charge…But maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree, I am sure I have read before that it can be done, I will dig it up.

  15. Kev – cool! great! I look forward to keeping in touch with you… I presume by ‘P.M.’ you mean send a message to you…..I need your full name or email address or something to be able to find you on facebook – as yes! I am indeed on there….

    or add me as a friend: Jenny MAce (do include the capital A in my surname …it helps to find me!) ….or try with my email address too. ….it says Aberystwyth University below my name and I have a black jumper on in the pic.
    jollioes…..thanks, Jenny :-).

    Len – thanks for the info; I’ll look into the propane heaters/furnaces…..by BBQ you mean barbecue?? definitely looking at all things second hand…

    Simon – WOW to you too! hehee. What a lovely word display that was to my eyes…..yes – i agree – i ideally would not travel at all….but I am predicting (as you also commented on) to need to change my parking living spot (even if just by one street)…..and I just thought it would be better to overestimate than underestimate- hence the 1o miles.
    ….yes – IDEALLY I will find and select an ideal, unproblematic spot but i do not wish to count on this as it may not happen. …..especially if i would like to be near to or in a town….we shall see….more will become clear on that when i start working and known of my work location. I will of course not completely rule out the making of soap idea but my preference is to work for a campaigning organisation….I feel this would be of more benefit to society…I wish to steer clear as much as possible from work/jobs just for the sake of it…not inline with my philosophy in life that I will attempt as much as possible to live up to….if that makes sense…

    Jason & Simon – well….I needed to look up what an alternator is heheee……but I now see that it’s the device actually forming the energy in a vehicle….the info I read said the energy made is in in AC current…..I wonder if an inverter can switch it to DC for the deep cycle batteries??….I shall add it to my list to investigate.

    So let’s get this straight – Simon – you were promoting the idea of storing energy produced by the vehicle/USVO in my two deep cycle batteries I will have……and then using that energy to power any devices I wish to live with in the vehicle?? WOW – i’d never thought of that! But you don’t reckon it’s possible Jason – ok well thanks very much to both of you for both view points……I’ll see what I can rummage up on the topic….

    Jason – by saying the batteries would not be ‘maintained’ as well as by a solar panel….do you mean the process would damage them and shorten their life?…or just that it wouldn’t produce much/good power??

    Thank you All! :-)

  16. Hi Jenny
    My partner and I our 3 lads are doing a very similar thing this year. I would be very interested to keep in touch, dont suppose you use facebook do you? P.M. me if you can
    Best of luck Jenny, hope to speak to you soon


  17. As someone mentioned above, that running the engine would charge a couple of deep cells, let me comment on that a bit… an idling engine does not spin an alternator fast enough to charge a single “auto” battery. Unfortunately adding more alternators won’t do any good either, problem is still the same. Even in driving a short distance, the batteries would not be maintained as well as with a 50 watt crystalline solar panel.

  18. Hi Again Jenny,
    WOW! you are really researching this are’nt you! I*N*S*P*I*R*A*T*I*O*N*A*L
    Why travel the 10miles? Surely it would pay you to keep the van stationary, and run the van with the 1-2litres/week and actually charge a set of deep cycle batteries, you could even add additional Alternators to the pulley system to allow more charging per run of engine as you would be in effect “static”. The problem then lies in the old gypsy problem of having to move along every day/week by a small amount, but being selective in your plot would work out for the best all round. I mentioned Boondocking, as this involves staying incognito whilst in the cities/towns, and by building that van the way you describe, i’m sure it would work… By sorting the USVO you will get your diesel plus you will be able to make soap and stuff to sell in the shops … double bonus, ultra eco living along with a wage… :-D

  19. If you are using oil for fuel, you may find that a marine diesel “fireplace” works well and makes less smoke than wood. There are small propane heaters and furnaces for rvs, but that would mean two kinds of fuel… propane might cost more than veg oil, Having propane cans mounted on the outside of the van (the only really safe place) invites theft or other attention. There are lots of used marine and RV places, at least around here… don’t buy new unless you have spare dollars. I have even seen stainless marine BBQs for less than $50 Can.

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