Deciding to go off-grid is easy on a cold, dark winter evening when you’re enduring a two-and-a-half-hour blackout and contemplating another five years of what Eskom calls loadshedding.
Before you rush out to buy a generator or solar panels and a battery back-up, it’s worth doing some homework to make sure your solution is fit-for-purpose, affordable to run and doesn’t break any laws or regulations.
Shafeeqah Isaacs, head of financial education at personal loan specialists, DirectAxis, says that since the latest round of loadshedding there has been a discernible uptick in enquiries about finance for standby or backup power systems.
Expert opinion suggests, however, that before taking the plunge there are some important considerations. For example, do you want to go completely off-grid or do you just need to run some lights and maybe a television when the power goes out?
There may even be some preparatory considerations, such as replacing all your lights with LEDs and making sure your geyser is insulated and ideally on a timer. Not only will this save you some money when Eskom does manage to keep the lights on, but, because you’ll need less power, it could lower the cost of your alternative solution.
“The experts concur that no matter the generation option you decide on, the more electricity you need or want to generate the higher the upfront cost. That’s why it makes sense to make sure you’re using electricity as efficiently as possible and to potentially look at incrementally becoming power-independent rather than trying to go big bang all at once,” says Shafeeqah.
As a quick, easy solution, generators are often the first thing people think about. With myriad options and prices ranging from around R2 000 to R30 000 and more, even choosing a generator can be tricky if you haven’t thought carefully about your requirements.
In your haste to banish the next blackout you could buy something that delivers more power than you really require, with all the attendant running and maintenance costs. Or worse, waste money on a generator that doesn’t produce sufficient power for your needs.
Some questions you should ask:
You also need to make sure you aren’t breaking the law. The two main things to consider are installation and noise.
Standby generators, used to run a few appliances while the power is out, generally don’t need to be wired into the household circuit and consequently don’t need to be installed by a professional electrician.
Backup generators, which are wired into a household circuit and kick in when the mains power goes down, do need to be installed by a professional and must not break any municipal bylaws, which differ from municipality to municipality.
The other regulations, which apply to all generators, covers the noise they make.
Depending on where you live you will need to make sure your generator does not make more noise than is allowed, or a complaint from a neighbour could land you with a fine or worse.
Another increasingly popular solution is solar or photovoltaic systems, both as a way to keep the lights on and to reduce escalating electricity costs. As the technology improves, solar is becoming more efficient and cost-effective.
Again, there are a variety of options available, depending on your needs. These vary from relatively simple, affordable options that will provide light when Eskom throws the switch to very fancy systems, with panels that track the sun and will power most appliances in a large household.
Depending on how much power you require, solar systems range from just over R60 000 for a system that produces 2kW per day to around R200 000 for one that generates 10kW a day.
When considering solar, however, remember the batteries used to store the energy don’t last forever and need to be replaced. This can cost as much as half of the initial outlay, so consider this when you’re working out the budget.
Before installing a photovoltaic system it’s also important to make sure you’re not contravening any regulations. For example, the City of Cape Town requires all systems to be registered. Owners of unregistered systems are liable to be fined.
Other options include uninterrupted power systems (UPS) which will run some essential equipment for a while. Again, prices vary, but you should be able to find one for around R1 000.
“There are plenty of solutions to overcome loadshedding and even save on electricity costs when the power is on. Whichever solution or financing option you eventually choose, it’s important to first do your homework. Make sure it’s appropriate for your needs and budget and that by solving one headache you don’t cause another because you’ve contravened a law or municipal regulation,” says Shafeeqah.