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Don’t blow a fuse about load-shedding & short circuit your finances

Eskom is warning of intensified load-shedding if power station performance does not improve sufficiently to meet increased demand for electricity during the cold winter months.

If you haven’t already, this and other dire warnings about the state of the grid may be the catalyst that causes you to rush out and buy a generator or solar panels and a battery back-up.

Before you do, though, it’s worth doing some homework to ensure your solution matches your needs and your budget, is safe, and doesn’t break any laws or regulations.

Neven Narayanasamyat specialist loan provider, DirectAxis, says there has been a discernible increase in enquiries about finance for standby or backup power systems since the fifth and most enduring period of load-shedding to date started late last year.

Expert opinion suggests that before taking the plunge and investing in an alternative to candles or battery-powered lights, there are some important considerations. For example, do you plan to go completely off-grid or just power some lights and essential appliances?

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 in the face of increasing Eskom tariffs, but because you’ll need less power it could also 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 potentially look at incrementally becoming power-independent, rather than trying to go completely off-grid all at once. The incremental approach should help prevent big, expensive mistakes and incorporate any cost-saving lessons you learn along the way,” says Neven.

As a quick, easy solution, generators are often the first thing people consider. With numerous options and prices ranging from a few thousand rand to tens of thousands, choosing the right generator can be tricky if you haven’t thought carefully about how you’re going to use it.

In your haste to prepare for the next blackout you could buy something that delivers more power than you really require to run a few essentials, with all the attendant running and maintenance costs. Worse, you could waste money on a generator that doesn’t produce sufficient power for your needs.

Some questions you should ask:

  • Do the manufacturer’s guidelines or specifications match your requirements? Overloading could inhibit performance, shorten the life of the generator or damage it.
  • Is the generator approved for use in South African conditions? There’s no shortage of people trying to take advantage of the power situation.
  • What does it cost to run and maintain?
  • Where will you install it? Generators need to be well-ventilated.
  • Are there any installation costs?
  • Does installing a generator break any conditions in your household insurance policy? Will it result in a premium increase?

You also need to make sure you aren’t breaking the law. The two main considerations are installation and noise.

Standby generators, used to run a few appliances, generally don’t need to be wired into the household circuit and consequently don’t need to be installed by a qualified electrician.

Backup generators, which are wired into the household circuit via an inverter 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, concern the noise they make. Depending on where you live you will need to be 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, and an expensive asset that you can’t use.

Another increasingly popular solution is solar or photovoltaic systems, to keep the lights on, to counter rising electricity prices, and potentially as an income-earner. 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 lights 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 around R70 000 – R140 000 for a 4kw to 5kw system, to around R250 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 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 that all systems 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 considerably, depending on how much backup power you need for how long. 

Also consider that, although they are more expensive, lithium batteries degrade at only about 1% a year and provide about a 10 000-charge cycle life. By contrast, AGM batteries may not cost as much upfront, but degrade faster and have only about 500 charge/ discharge cycles.

There is also the option of installing a battery/ inverter system that can accommodate solar. This option enables you to spread the cost. It also allows you to install a back-up power solution, without having to wait for solar panels which are in high demand.

“There are plenty of solutions to overcome load-shedding and even save on electricity costs when the power is on. Whichever finance solution you eventually choose, it is 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 broken the law or contravened a municipal regulation, says Neven.