solar panel
Installing solar panels. Photo from Twitter..

How to save electricity and how to cope with load-shedding are actually two very different enterprises, and South Africans find themselves thinking hard about the first while trying to cope with the second… writes Helen Moffett.

solar panel
Installing solar panels. Photo from Twitter..

First, take an absolutely volcanic rage-y rant on the powers that be that got us into this mess as given. But frothing at the mouth won’t power our businesses or homes. (See Eskom’s loadshedding tips at the end of the article.)

In Wise About Waste: 150+ Ways to Help the Planet, I explain that by far the most effective electricity-saving things we can do as individual homeowners is to insulate our houses (cooler in summer, toasty in winter) and install a solar geyser (or try the cheapo version – lag your existing geyser by wrapping it up in a special blanket).

But while this will have a most pleasing effect on your electricity bill while also taking a bit of pressure off the grid (and thus the planet, don’t forget), it doesn’t help us survive Eishkom’s current “we are finding new ways to screw up our one job” scenario.

My parents lived for decades on a smallholding where the power would go down for easily three days at a time. It was not unheard of for the Telkom to go down too, ditto the wifi gizmo installed in the garden, all at the same time. (Or rather, the cell masts would lose power, and then everything would be stuffed.

The essentials

How did they cope?

First (and at least fairly affordable), you will need torches (both heavy-duty and small penlights), batteries, candles and matches. Make sure you know where all these are, and that you can lay your hands on them at any given moment. One torch per family member is a good ratio. Most cell phones can also double up as torches, but you have to keep them charged, obviously. The best option I ever saw: a wind-up torch.

Next, I swear by my solar lantern (mine is plastic, not glass, so unbreakable and portable). Visit your camping shop for these, along with paraffin and similar lamps, also small wind-up gadgets like torches and radios. (Yes, it’s ironic that we need to go to expensive shops pitched at the recreational market for these supplies; also try hardware stores.)

Coping with load-shedding requires many, many cups of tea

Generally, it’s a good idea to cook on gas, but replacing your electric stove with a gas one requires a rather large lump of dosh (can we please bring back the rebates offered for doing this back in 2010?). You can get by with one small camping-style gas cooker. Keep it to hand, along with a kettle – coping with load-shedding requires many, many cups of tea. Speaking of which, invest in thermoses. I have five, and fill them all ahead of load-shedding. This meant that this morning (brace yourself for unspeakable virtue-signalling) I had hot water for tea, for washing up, and even for my bucket bath. This doesn’t necessarily “save” electricity if you’re boiling all that water in an electric kettle first, but it does slightly ease Eishkom wear and tear on the nerves.

If you run a small hospitality business (such as a B&B, a deli), however, install a gas stove pronto. Tourists want their bacon and eggs piping hot.

Once again, it takes money, but for winter, install one of those super-efficient little wood-burning stoves that consume little wood and heat an entire house. Make sure it has the kind of top you can put a kettle or saucepan on. This means that in winter, you can have warm toes, soup AND hot chocolate without relying on electricity. Also: consider the bright side – at least we have a climate that doesn’t require us to heat our homes in winter or freeze to death. Plus we can get by without air-con in summer, mostly.

Take precautions if using open flames

If you’re using candles, paraffin lamps or stoves, or fires for light, heating, boiling water and cooking, take HUGE extra precautions to prevent fires. Make sure all your children understand the “fire rules” (teens can be amazingly blase about candles) and follow them (no naked flame may ever be left unattended, not for for one nanosecond, make sure you know how to put out a fire – a friend once threw a bag of flour on a small stove fire, and burned down the entire kitchen). Yes, you need a fire extinguisher in your home, and make sure you know where to find it in the dark.

Keep your fridges and freezers closed during load-shedding. I keep long-life milk out on the counter during power outages so I can have plenty of tea from my smug thermos without ever opening a fridge door. If you have a separate freezer, you can keep its contents going for days during power failures simply by keeping the lid shut and storing a few two-litre containers (I use milk bottles) three-quarters full of water in them. You can also improvise a fridge with a cooler bag.

Cheap solution to the dilemma of serving up a hot meal: cook a big pot of soup, rice, curry or stew and put it in a hot box (you can make your own with straw and an old sleeping bag – see Lord Google). The food will stay piping hot (in fact it will continue gently cooking) for hours.

Keep everything with a battery charged up

My heart bleeds for those trying to run small businesses or enterprises under these circumstances. As a freelancer, my most maddening thing is being unable to meet deadlines. Especially for international clients, many of whom are utterly bewildered by my string of excuses for not replying to emails, submitting documents, scanning contracts, etc. The only real piece of advice here: keep everything with a battery (laptops, tablets, phones) charged up.

Generators? As many Zimbabweans will tell you, these lead to thoughts of murder unless you live on a smallholding and have deaf neighbours. They’re also not a cheap or green substitute. Rather reserve for small (and large) businesses. I’ll be investing in portable storage batteries and inverters, but once again, it all takes money, and as usual the poor get the worst of it. *deep breath, averts impulse to rant*

Ditch the telly and have a good old-fashioned family evening in

Now for the REAL spend (although this is the way of the future): roofing your house with solar panels and storing the power in huge batteries (“Tesla walls”). Yes, you will have to notify your municipality about these and have them checked the same way any electrical contractor has to register their work and pass a safety inspection. The city doesn’t want you burning down the neighbourhood or electrocuting your family. But if you’re thinking about building a house or doing major renovations, then budget for an off-grid building. One good thing (although I can’t understand why it’s taking so long) is that the technology will improve at the same time as the costs come down, so this will become less cumbersome and more affordable as time passes. Imagine the pleasure of being independent of Eishkom, captain of your own fate.

And now for something happy. No power? Ditch the telly and have a good old-fashioned family evening in. Play cards (maybe not poker: too easy to cheat in the dark) and other games. Get a wind-up radio and dance. Have a sing-along (OK, too Kumbaya?). Get out that solar lantern (or my next best thing, a little battery-powered reading light that clips onto a book) and read, read, read.

Helen Moffett is an editor, writer, poet, teacher and scholar. The excerpt above is from her book Wise About Waste: 150+ Ways to Help the Planet

loadshedding tips south africa
Loadshedding tips from Eskom.