6 things you should know before going off-grid.

Investing in solar energy to power your home may be costly at the beginning, but it’s worth considering.

Continual electricity outages on the national grid, commonly known as load-shedding, are extremely frustrating and inconvenient. They seem to happen at the worst times – just when we sit down for dinner with family, or when we’re about to log in to virtual work meetings. There’s simply no right time to be left in the dark by a power failure.

That explains why so many South Africans are thinking of weaning themselves off the national grid and generating their own electricity for their homes. Going off-grid promises three major benefits: lowering your electricity costs in the long run; ensuring a reliable power supply; and reducing your carbon footprint – so it’s an understandable route to take.

South Africa gets an average of 2 500 hours of sun every year, so solar energy is a popular way of getting off the grid. Photovoltaic (PV) solar panels are placed on the roof to absorb sunlight and generate electricity, which is converted to alternating current by an inverter to power the appliances in your home. You can add batteries to the system and store extra power generated during the day to power your home at night.

Six things you should consider before going solar

  1. Reduce the energy consumption of your lights and appliances

    Before you convert to solar power, convert your lights by replacing existing light bulbs with LED bulbs. This will not only help reduce your electricity consumption, but also decrease the maximum power your solar-power system will need to generate, so you can install a smaller, less costly system to begin with. Get into the habit of turning on lights and other appliances only when you need them.

    Re-evaluate the use of your electrical appliances. A gas or solar geyser can reduce your electricity consumption by up to a third, while kettles, toasters and irons consume a lot of electricity for short periods. Larger appliances like electric stoves, ovens and heaters also use a lot of power so consider gas alternatives or more energy-efficient electrical appliances, like induction hobs and air fryers.

    If you can get into the habit of not using more than one energy-hungry appliance at a time, you can reduce the peak output required from the system you install.

  2. Do you have the space you need?

    A solar power system requires a certain amount of space. You could need as many as 20 solar panels if you plan to go completely off-grid.

    If you don’t have the space to install them on the roof of your home, you may have to erect a supporting structure – one that is not obtrusive to your neighbours. You will also need space inside your home or garage, or in a secure outside room, to store the batteries. Depending on the size of your installation, you could require up to 30 batteries, and some types of batteries also need to be stored in a room with ventilation.

    Flooded lead-acid batteries are the most common and inexpensive, but they need good ventilation and regular maintenance. Sealed lead-acid and lithium-ion solar batteries do not require ventilation. Sealed lead-acid batteries require little maintenance, but they are expensive. Lithium-ion batteries are portable, last longer and require no maintenance – which explains why they’re also the most expensive.

  3. Budget for ongoing maintenance

    Solar panels may need to be washed monthly to ensure they function effectively, and most installers also offer monthly contracts to cover maintenance of the system components. Most panels have lengthy lifespans, but you will probably have to replace them every 20 to 30 years, which can be an expensive exercise. And make sure that your panels are hail-resistant.

    Although the latest batteries tend to last much longer than they used to, they also need to be replaced more often. You may have to replace lithium batteries every eight to 15 years, depending on the usage and whether they are exposed to extreme temperature changes.

    Generally, solar deep-cycle batteries like lead-acid batteries only last through 1 500 to 2 500 recharges. As a result, these batteries require replacing every three to five years.

    Weigh up the cost of replacing the different types of batteries upfront, as this will determine which solution will best suit your needs and your pocket – both now and in the future.

  4. Have a backup generator

    If your plan is to go off the grid completely, it’s important to remember that technology has its limitations. Should your solar power system stop working or be unable to produce sufficient power due to cloudy and rainy weather, or for whatever other reason, make sure you have a backup system in place so you’re not sitting in the dark. Consider adding a small diesel, petrol or gas generator to your budget when you’re designing your system, to provide emergency electricity if your solar system is down for any reason.

  5. Hidden costs

    There are a few hidden costs you should be aware of. Typically, two types of small-scale embedded generation (SSEG) systems are used when going off the grid: the grid-tied SSEG system and the off-grid or standalone SSEG system.

    The grid-tied SSEG system keeps you connected to the electricity grid. Although you’ll have to pay a daily or monthly service fee in addition to an energy fee per kWh, you’ll get money back if you generate excess power. For any excess power you feed back into the grid, your account will be credited at a feed-in tariff. This service isn’t available through all municipalities, so check with your local municipality whether there are any hidden costs.

    You also have the option of going the grid-tied non-feed-in PV route, which means any excess electricity you generate on your property is blocked from feeding back into the grid. To go completely off the grid, you’ll need an off-grid or standalone SSEG system. These systems are physically separated and electrically isolated from the grid.

  6. What will it cost to go completely off-grid?

    Investing in a solar solution is costly, so it may take some time before you begin to see a return on your investment. Depending on your usage needs, installing a solar energy solution can range from R100 000 for a starter package, to more than R400 000 to go fully off-grid. But the good news is that you don’t need to do so all at once. Most solar solutions are modular, so you can expand them in stages. You can start your solar conversion with the basics and add to the solution over time.

If you need financing to convert your home to solar power, Solar Energy Asset Finance from MFC, a division of Nedbank can help you achieve your goal of living off the grid and saving money in the long run.