Going off the grid

Adding extra solar panels.

Going off the grid is a big decision that must first be carefully weighed; are there other options?

Big decisions are not made in a hurry, nor should they be, but finally we have reached the stage where going off the grid might seem the sensible thing to do.

In the past, I have been adamantly against the notion unless you have a huge Eskom line-charge, or a lot of money for battery storage. Both reasons still apply, though the price and efficiency of lithium-ion is coming down.

The reliability and quality of the power fed to us by the municipality is dropping, in part due to factors beyond their control. Stormy weather, complete lack of monitoring of scrap yards that encourage thieves to steal copper wire and the shenanigans at Eskom should not be laid at their door.

Likewise, if dead trees leaning over the power lines from private gardens, crash down and damage municipal property, that is our fault, and frankly we should be charged for the repairs.

Plus the cost of this inconsistent and poor quality power is rising rapidly. Nersa has approved a hike of 9.4% + 4.4% (= 13.8%) to which the municipality will add a cut. The price is almost certainly going to increase by nearly 20% per annum.

Due to a huge miscalculation by Nersa a big hit in electricity prices is expected in 2020.

That means if you are paying R1500 now, in April it will go to R1800, next year to R2160, and in 2021 to R2592. R30,000 per annum is a lot to pay for power that is not reliable and sends you spikes that damage the wiring in your home and your electronic goods. The payback time for going solar is dropping every all the time.

On the other side of the equation, going off the grid means cold showers when the Hilton mists sweep in for three or more days as happens several times a year; that possibly means installing a gas geyser.

But clearly the days of high quality, cheap electricity are gone for ever.

The other political factor, for which the municipality really should not be blamed, is that it is clearly Cosatu’s policy to go on regular prolonged strikes demanding what employers consider unreasonable wage increases.

The net result is that Municipalities across the country have retrenched a large part their workforce, both the good and the bad, in favour of outsourcing the jobs to local contractors, many of them presumably previously employed by the local authority.

What swung matters in favour of going off the grid was the decision by the municipality to appoint an incompetent contractor to install a new transformer in Hilton. Lacking the basic knowledge of how the neutrals should be wired, they turned on the power and went home when the job was complete, unaware that the whole street was being fed a catastrophic 431V. The damage was colossal, and insurance companies refused to pay for the destruction caused by a surge in utility power.

They also blew out the municipal street lights which are yet to be repaired more than a year later.

Two nights ago when the power went off numerous times, a friend measured that he was receiving only 110V. A ‘brown out’ like that severely stresses motors as in fridges. Slowly all the factors are swinging in favour of going off the grid.

One of those factors is that the old lead batteries should not be drained below 70% of their capacity, so you need a lot extra, but the new lithiums are both cheaper, and can be used, some say down to a third or less of their capacity.

They will also accept a full boost charge at lower light intensity when the voltage from the panels reachts 13.4V instead of the 14.8 required for lead-cell batteries.

No longer does one need a huge bank of batteries, and one can simply add more capacity in the years ahead, which you cannot do with lead. Plus the charge and discharge factors of lithium batteries are far better.


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Going off the grid

So, it will be a step by step process; first the installation of more panels and the new battery. Then there will be trials so see how well we manage without the grid, and then finally perhaps a gas geyser.

Going solar to date has not been a huge saving, but we have had clean electricity when everyone else has been grumbling. We anticipate much the same in the future; not a big saving, but a lot less stress when there is load shedding. And none of the power surges that cause such massive damage to our appliances.

Our latest thinking is to stay on the grid but go over to a prepaid electricity meter, and turn off the mains switch for protection from surges except during inclement weather; more about that in the future. Solar systems tend to evolve over time; I have found it essential to keeping thinking and reading, and talking to others.

It is also important to be flexible and ready to change an opinion and try something different. For example, it has been for several years our plan to put in a gas geyser for hot water during inclement weather; now I have realised it is much simpler to go on to a prepaid meter, with no fixed monthly charges, and happily pay the higher rate for the odd wet days.

Another excellent viewpoint about going off the grid.

  1. Bernard Preston
  2. Our green home
  3. Going off the grid

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56 Groenekloof Rd,

Hilton, KZN

South Africa