Living Off the Electrical Grid in A City

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Wednesday, 17 July 2013
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I have become one of those people who look up into the sky to greet the sun every morning.  If it is not there, I feel a bit anxious and wish it a speedy return.  No, I am not a farmer and no, I do not live in one of those spots on our planet that seldom sees the sun.  I am just one of those lucky people who are able to go off the electricity grid and run my house and office on alternative energy, in this case, solar power.  I do it for various reasons, but mostly because I feel it is my duty to do so in order to help protect our planet and also because I like my independence.  Living in South Africa means that one is more often than not held to ransom by our monopoly electricity provider, Eskom, and their incompetence, increasing rates and the constant threat of rolling blackouts, or as we choose to call it here: ‘load-shedding’.  But this article is not about Eskom, it is about my eco-responsible journey to this point.



My journey started in the late 1990s when I became more aware of the damage done to the earth by so-called ‘developed’ life styles. At first I mostly focused on saving water whenever I could – I guess the Namibian farmer’s daughter in my genes could be held responsible – but as the years passed, and as my awareness grew, I realized living in an eco-responsible manner encompasses much more than just one aspect of life, it includes everything, including the welfare of other humans and animals. In 2010 I planned to build an eco-friendly home in the Henley-on-Klip village in southern Gauteng in South Africa. It was supposed to be built from straw bales, run off solar and use mostly water from water harvesting from rain.  All the research got done, an architect from Orania was sourced, and it was all systems go.  (Why Orania?  At that time Orania had the largest number of eco-friendly buildings in South Africa and a concentration of knowledge on how to build with straw bales.) Unfortunately there was some unscrupulous behavior by estate agents and attorneys and the sale of the property fell through. Just as well because life had other plans and I moved to Port Elizabeth and after a few months there, I moved to West Africa.  Now back in South Africa and in Gauteng, unscrupulous behavior once again intervened when I was set on purchasing an apartment in the Maboneng District, resulting in that deal being cancelled as well.  A day later I found my perfect home in Pretoria, a bit big for my liking, but good value for money.  What made this house appealing is that it is north-facing with large windows on that side, and now smack-bang in the middle of winter, after I eliminated all drafts through gaps in doors and windows not closing properly, I have yet to use heating in this house. A jersey cardigan or pull-over and some socks are all that is needed here at night, no other heating of any kind required.  It also has a small garden, which will make an effective vegetable garden and provide a city dweller the opportunity to stand on soil (instead of concrete) once in a while.


I immediately started investigating the possibility of going off the national electricity grid.  One of the most often asked question from my concerned friends and colleagues was: “what will you do at night?” …. ?... The answer always: ‘batteries my dear, batteries’. More often than not, the listener would confuse solar energy with using a ‘solar geyser’ as this is the most common solar usage in the country.  Ninety-nine percent were skeptical and telling me it will fail.


My most unlikely friend had gone mostly off the grid in his Johannesburg home and I went to look at his system.  It worked well and I was grateful when he asked his ‘solar man’ to help me set up a solar system for my house.  A few days later, the very affable Werner from Sound Secure (cell: +27-82-8547144) near Vereeniging walked into my home.  Very soon he had me educated on which light bulbs and appliances would be best and how many panels, inverters and batteries would be needed.  On 7th June 2013 I became the legal owner of the house and a week later work started earnestly to take the house of the grid.


The first step was to replace all the light bulbs in and outside of the house – not just with the ordinary CFL (compact fluorescent) lights one can buy at the supermarket, but with the super-duper LED (light-emitting diodes) ones that provides 30,000 hours of light and can run off solar panels.  These are not cheap, but worth every cent, as they provide much brighter light while using far less energy than the traditional LED lights.


The second step was to replace the electrical element geyser with a heat pump.  Where a geyser uses three units of electrical energy to produce three units of heat energy, a heat pump converts just one unit of electrical energy into three units of heat energy.  Heat pumps use the reverse cycle of a refrigeration plant to heat water.  In effect, it transfers heat from a source such as air or water to the water which is to be heated.  As in other refrigeration equipment, the heat pump system employs an evaporator, a compressor, a condenser, refrigerant gas, and an expansion valve within a closed circuit.  Latent heat is given off when the refrigerant gas is liquefied through the condenser and transferred to the surrounding water together with further “sensible” heat loss, effectively raising the temperature of water to a higher temperature.  All too technical for me, but what I can say, is it works well.  And I have steaming hot water on demand without having to switch off my geyser for large parts of my day and night in order to save some electricity.


And now for the past fifteen days or so, my house has been off the grid.  Apart from now using a gas stove to do the little non-microwave cooking I do, my life has not changed much.  I have renovations going on in my house now, and the workers were shocked to hear this morning that I am not on Eskom and that they have been using electricity made by the sun for two weeks now.  It was quite educational for all of us and very amusing too.


I am actively doing something towards the protection of Mother Earth, especially since South Africa continues to invest in coal-fired electricity production; and just as importantly, that I am no longer dependent on an incompetent electricity provider.


 My Solar Panel Installation

My Solar Panel Installation

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Sunday, 21 July 2013 00:21