It's easy to see red when everything goes black but the bottom line is there’s precious little we can do about it.
Eskom has said we can expect rolling blackouts until at least September next year as the embattled state-owned enterprise tries to regain control from the “death spiral” it has been in after years of corruption and neglect.
So how can SA households be better equipped to deal with it and at least mitigate Eskom’s impact on our daily lives? There are products that keep lights and equipment on in the home when the power goes off. But there’s so much out there, how do you know what to spend money on for back-up electricity for you and your family? What would suit your needs – and what should you be wary of? We did some digging.
THREE MAIN OPTIONS
If you need many of your lights and appliances to stay on during loadshedding, you basically have a choice between a generator and an uninterrupted power supply (UPS).
If you want to invest in greater energy security for the future, you could also opt for solar- hybrid systems which will make you less dependent on Eishkom – and lead to big savings in the long run. A generator uses petrol or diesel, while a UPS is essentially a big battery. Both have pros and cons.
If you want to keep most of your household appliances on, a petrol or diesel generator of 6 400 watts (8 kilovolt- ampere or kVA) is a good choice, says Alwyn Coetsee, managing director of Turner Morris, a company that supplies equipment to the construction and agricultural industries and specialises in power-supply solutions.
“It’s big enough to cover most of a household’s electricity needs, excluding the geyser and the swimming pool pump,” Coetsee says. A 6 400W generator should be able to power the moderate use of a standard stove too, he adds. If you mainly want to keep your lights and electronic equipment such as TVs, cellphones and computers on during outages, a 2 000W (2,5kVA) generator should suffice.
Things to be aware of
- “A standard generator is noisy. Some people don’t like it or they live in a complex or on an estate, many of which have restrictions on decibel levels,” Coetsee says. “But you do get quiet generators now, purpose-made in a special container with enough air flow to keep it cool – you can barely hear it from 6m away.”
- Generators also release pollutants, so never run a generator inside the home or even in the garage – the fumes can cause carbon- monoxide poisoning.
- Never refuel a generator while it’s running, Coetsee warns. “If petrol or diesel spill on a spark plug, the whole thing could go up in flames.”
- A generator must run outside but you can erect a shelter to protect it from the elements.
Some generators can be connected to your main power board but be sure to have a certified electrician do this for you. Insist on an electrical compliance certificate, Coetsee says. “Illegally connected generators can lead to malfunction which can cause a fire and affect home-insurance claims.”
- With loadshedding there’s been a dramatic increase in power-related products on the market but these can’t necessarily be legally connected to power boards. Use suppliers with a proven track record who’ll be able to supply parts for years to come. A generator can last up to 20 years if you look after it well.
- “Ensure generators used during loadshedding have an AVR – automatic voltage regulator. If they don’t, they can irreparably damage electronics such as your TV or computer.”
- 6 400W – R8 000 to R10 000
- 2 000W – R3 500 to R4 500
2. UPS SYSTEMS
A UPS consists of a number of rechargeable batteries (a battery bank), controller and inverter, all mounted together in a box. You can ask an electrician to connect your UPS directly to your main power board so it automatically switches on during loadshedding, and off again when the lights come back on.
Alternatively, you can use an extension cord to connect to something specific you want to stay on during loadshedding, such as your fridge. Or you can simply plug a device into the UPS. The duration of the UPS’ operation and how long it takes to charge depends on the type of UPS, how many batteries it contains and how many devices you connect to it at one time.
“Your running time is important in a UPS system and that’s determined by the size of the battery bank,” Coetsee says. “The running time will be stated in the specifications. Usually it’ll say if you use 80% of the UPS’ capacity it’ll run for a specified length of time. This also determines the price.”
So it’s not ideal to have a UPS with a small battery bank and a large power output. “A lot of people will offer you a cheaper UPS but its battery bank won’t be sufficient to run for a long time. So the bigger the watt or kVA rating, the larger the battery bank should be,” Coetsee explains.
Things to be aware of
- A UPS of 1 600W (2kVA) is sufficient if you want to power only lights and electronics such as TVs. This should have a large enough battery bank to last for a loadshedding session.
- If you want a bigger UPS that can potentially run fridges and the rest of the household – excluding the geyser and stove – you’ll need a UPS of about 4 800W (6kVA).
- A UPS of 8 000W (10kVA) is ideal for a larger home and could for example also power a stove if need be.
- A UPS is pricey but its benefit is there’s no noise and no changeover – when loadshedding kicks in, there’s no delay in the power supply.
- But the battery life is sometimes limited, Coetsee warns. “Batteries often don’t last longer than about five years before you need to replace it.”
- 1 600W – R15 000 to R20 000
- 4 800W – R60 000 to R70 000
- 8 000W – R100 000
3. SOLAR POWER HYBRID SYSTEMS
This is the most expensive of the three options to set up initially – but in the long-term it definitely makes sense, Coetsee says. “A solar power hybrid system includes a battery power bank and works in conjunction with the Eskom grid,” he explains. “While the sun is shining it generates power – you use solar power mainly and less Eskom power.
When there’s no sun, it switches over to Eskom power; and when there’s loadshedding, it switches over to batteries. “If you install a 4 000W (5kVA) solar power hybrid system, you’ll be able to run more or less everything in your house on it, apart from the geyser and the stove. With a 12 000W (15kVA) system, you should be able to run everything in the average household.”
These systems don’t come cheap, “but you can save up to 80% of your electricity bill, so you’ll pay it off within two or three years,” Coetsee says.
And if you have a business, you can also claim back about a third of the outlay from tax.
South Africa on average gets more than 2 500 hours of sunlight a year, double the solar radiation of Europe, for example. This makes our country the perfect place to install solar panels at homes, says Angela Lee-Wright of online eco store sustainable.co.za.
- 4 000W – R85 000
- 12 000W – R200 000
A power bank can be handy when you’re stuck in darkness and your cellphone battery is running low. Charge the power bank while the electricity is still on. It has one or more USB power points so can charge any type of cellphone or electronic devices such as tablets, Bluetooth speakers and headphones, LED torches, digital cameras and e-readers.
Prices range from about R120 to R700, depending on output, capacity and number of power points. Some power banks can also be charged with solar power.
PROTECT AGAINST POWER SURGES
Unstable power supply can damage items such as your television, decoder and computer.
Electronic devices often aren’t geared to deal with loadshedding. When the electricity suddenly comes back online, the resulting unstable power supply can damage items such as your television, decoder and computer. Although power surges don’t happen automatically, it’s their unpredictability that leads many people to safeguard their devices.
Surge-protection plugs that you plug into the wall and connect your devices to are valuable and cost-effective as they absorb the spikes and dips that could damage your electronics during loadshedding, says Orlando Luis, CEO of Brights hardware chain. “But they’re limited to handling a few spikes only till they can’t absorb any more and need to be replaced.
“The alternative option is to install a surge and lightning arrester in your distribution board that protects all your appliances in your home. Your incoming supply before your main switch is connected to it and it relays the surge away from your appliances. “For peace of mind many customers use both, especially on expensive electronics.”
The price of surge- protection plugs ranges from about R85 for a double plug to R365 for a multiplug with sockets for 12 devices. Installing a surge and lightning arrester in your distri bution board costs between R5 000 and R8 000.
There are a variety of battery-operated rechargeable lighting systems on the market and many run on solar power. “Any rechargeable battery LED lantern, lamp or torch is a solution during loadshedding,” says Orlando Luis, CEO of Brights hardware. “Some plug into existing lamp holders in ceiling fittings or desk lamps and automatically switch over to their built-in battery during loadshedding.
“[You could also] convert other light fittings outside to solar-powered LED versions with day/night and motion sensors. That would remove your dependency on Eskom as the lights get their power from a battery built into the light fitting that gets charged during sunshine hours. So lights don’t even need a cable connection to your distribution board.” These days there really are a multitude of solar power and rechargeable LED light products available and “all are good, cost-effective solutions”, Luis says. Solar power lanterns cost about R190 and a solar-power desk lamp R315 – so the kids have no excuse not to do their homework anymore.
Any electrical appliance for heating draws a lot of power. You can run your stove on a generator or even a big UPS system, but a gas stove is a much better option. “Cooking and heating are the two biggest power guzzlers in the home,” says Orlando Luis, CEO of Brights hardware.
If you use appliances that don’t need power, such as gas stoves, heaters and geysers or solar geysers, it means the power source, such as a generator, needs less capacity – which means you can pay less for one and for refuelling it. Stoves, fridges and other household appliances with a good energy-efficiency rating (such as AAA+) can make a significant difference with their lower power consumption.
In a nutshell, a gas stove makes enormous sense if you’re tired of having sandwiches for supper. You can get quite a handy four-plate gas hob for about R2 200 or a one- or two-plate gas burner for between R250 and R350.
COMPUTER AND INTERNET CONNECTIVITY
Small UPS systems can keep your computer and internet running during loadshedding – simply connect them to your computer or modem. They cost between R500 and R2 800, depending on their power output and running time. Small UPS units work well for computers, tablets, cellphones, internet connection and TVs during loadshedding, says Orlando Luis, CEO of Brights hardware.
“They can last for two to four hours, depending on the number of batteries and how many electronic devices need to connect. A 600W UPS with one battery can cost about R4 500.”