What power cuts? says couple living off the grid

The rolling blackouts around the country have peeved millions of South Africans, but one Garden Route household does not even notice them. 

While most people in their area are without power for hours at a time because of  “load-shedding”, this household has the lights on, dinner sizzling in the oven, television playing, Wi-Fi working, fridge humming and the beers frosty.

They are completely off-grid, have been for 13 years, and Eskom’s woes do not touch them. Nor do water restrictions, as their entire water supply is from rain collected off the roof, enough to supply all their needs including two showers, loos, washing machine, drinking water and the indigenous garden.

Many South Africans would probably love to be in their situation, but to be fully off the grid is not cheap. The good news is that many banks are now giving bonds to pay for renewable energy installations, which means there is no heavy capital outlay for a householder, while the price of installing solar in the home is coming down at an average rate of about 10% a year. 

Cheryl* and Marc* went off-grid out of necessity when they built their house in 2007 as there were no municipal services linked to the out-of town plot Cheryl had bought many years before.

“Now even if I had the chance to get Eskom power and municipal water I wouldn’t do so, because this way we are self-sufficient. We don’t notice the power cuts. Sometimes if there is a big match on and there is load shedding we get friends from town coming out to watch it on our TV. They think we are so lucky,” said Cheryl. 

In June 2017 their house was one of hundreds that burned down in the massive fires that swept through the Garden Route. But a positive spin-off was when they rebuilt their house in 2018 they could install more up to date solar technology. One improvement was the move from the old lead-acid batteries to the newer lithium-ion batteries.

They are more expensive upfront, but have a longer life-span, less maintenance and can be kept inside the house as they do not emit hazardous gas as the lead-acid batteries may do during charging. 

“We run our house as a normal home. A lot of people walk in here and when we tell them everything is solar powered they are amazed. I don’t think most people really understand what sun power can do – or how it works,” Cheryl said. 

On their roof they have 12 photo voltaic (PV) panels of 320w each, and three 3.7kWh lithium ion batteries inside. The sun power from the PV panels is stored as direct current (DC) power in these batteries. The power is then converted to 230v alternating current (AC) power by a 5kVa inverter. 

“You need a converter because most appliances use AC power, which is like Eskom power,” Cheryl explained. 

Three of the solar panels are for the hot water geyser. These panels run a DC geyser element that heats the water during the day. The water temperature is shown on a digital wall display in the house.  

“If the temperature drops because there is not enough sun radiation, we just press a button which ignites a gas geyser mounted on the wall outside and this in turn heats the geyser. Very quick and easy,” she said. Cheryl points out that any appliance running off an element, such as a stove, requires a great amount of power, so they opted for a gas hob and oven. 

Apart from that and the back-up system for the hot water, the sun generates all electricity in their home, and all appliances run on sun power. This includes a fridge and freezer, microwave, washing machine, coffee machine, toaster, computers, vacuum cleaner, iron, television, alarm system, Wi-Fi, irrigation system and all the lights. 

The sun also powers two pumps, one to get the rainwater from the underground storage tank to the 5000 litre storage tanks at ground level, and another to give water pressure so that no header tank is needed. 

One point they emphasize is if you are going to go solar, to select household appliances that are low energy. Because of climate change and emission regulations in some countries, several manufacturers are geared to producing low energy appliances. 

“We looked at everything before we bought them and chose those that were low energy – and had to do it again after the fire. Those that are low energy have an AAA mark on them.

“The fridge and microwave are low energy, and work absolutely fine, as does the washing machine, which we use on the cold water cycle and the clothes come out beautifully - and probably last longer. 

“We have a vacuum cleaner that can be switched from 300w to 2000w and we use it on a low wattage. Why would you need 2000w? It would suck up your carpets!” Cheryl said. 

Another thing people don’t understand, she says, is that even if it is a cloudy day, the sun’s radiation still delivers power, although this might be less than on a bright day. There is a little instrument on the wall which shows how much radiation is coming in. A new addition to the household is a “data logger” cell phone app for remote monitoring of the system. 

“The modern system that was installed after the fire allows me to check the level and usage of power on this app on my phone. So I can be in the office in town and can check how much power I have in the batteries and also how much power is being used at home in real time. Very convenient,” said Cheryl. 

The app also shows other interesting things, such as the environmental benefits of using solar power. For instance it shows that since December, they have saved 520kg of carbon emissions and 780 litres of water that would have been used in fossil fuel electricity generation. 

“It also shows that we generated enough power for an electric car to travel 4741km.” 

Marc points out that solar power is good not only from a sustainability perspective, but also for job creation.

“It can become fantastic for providing jobs and new opportunities for entrepreneurs,” Marc said. When people ask them how much it would cost to go solar, they can only answer, “it depends”. 

“It’s like asking: ‘How much will it cost to furnish my house?’ The cost of solar depends on what your electricity needs are. We went entirely off-grid because there were no services, but you can start small, with just a couple of panels or just an inverter and battery that stores Eskom power to see you over the load-shedding,” said Cheryl. 

Their entire system, starting from scratch after the fire, cost about R190 000, with the biggest cost being the lithium batteries. 

Would they recommend solar power for households? 

“Absolutely. If you have the opportunity, go for it. And you don’t need lithium batteries, you can get the cheaper lead-acid batteries. Start small and build up as you can afford it. You won’t regret it,” said Cheryl.  

* Names have been changed.

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