A friend who lives in Melbourne, Australia complained on Facebook that he had been without electricity for several hours, in a curfew. His laptop died on him, and there he was in the dark with only his thoughts for company.
I smiled slightly but did not comment.
And recent news from Sydney that residents had been asked to conserve power in the evening as much as possible to avert blackouts prompted the same wry smile.
After all, there is no real joy in claiming the high ground on the question of being without power. All the tips I could give Australians are not really needed: sitting in the dark probably won’t happen to them again for months or even years.
Here in South Africa of course we all know what it is to be without power – that state of being for which we all grudgingly use the Eskom term: loadshedding.
Loadshedding – the nationwide cutting of power on a rotational basis – comes and goes. And the Covid-19 pandemic-induced work-from-home trend means there are people trying to figure out how to keep working online when the power goes out.
I’ve been working from home for several years and my home office just keeps on trucking, thanks to many home improvements made by Bob, my TV tech/home handyman husband. He dreams of somehow retrofitting our suburban home to a fully off-the-grid solar-powered oasis – but there just isn’t the capital for that (and in our neighbourhood we would probably be over-investing in this particular property anyway).
Here’s a breakdown of what we have learned and rigged up as loadshedding has ebbed and flowed over the last couple of years. Note that there are more expensive solutions – an inverter can keep several electrical appliances going. The assumption of this article is that you don’t have money for one of those, but could do incremental smaller expenditures to get a good-enough solution, working through the issues one by one.
Priority one: keep the Internet connection going
Solution – an uninterruptible power supply (UPS). We bought one about two years ago, when they were thought of primarily as tools to provide about 15 minutes of power to your computer when the power goes off, so that you can shut down safely. We used it instead to keep the WiFi router and fibre box running. That UPS had now died, and we bought a new one. UPSes are now a well-known way of keeping your WiFI network running. The key is make sure that the one you buy can accommodate both your router and your fibre box (if you have fibre).
A warning: all batteries degrade over time. You can make them last longer by not having them on if the power cut happens when you are not working. So, if you know power is going out at 4pm on a Saturday and you won’t need your WiFi network – then just switch off the UPS.
Priority two – a working computer
You need a full inverter to run a desktop PC. If you can’t afford on of those, you’re going to need a laptop to beat loadshedding. And then make it your sacred duty to keep it plugged in ALL THE TIME. If you have two laptops, so much the better. Keep them plugged in all the time. Should I say that again? If you unplug your laptop to work in the garden, plug it in again when you get inside. Every single time.
And if you find your battery is not lasting through the full period of loadshedding, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need a new computer. It might simply mean you need to replace the battery. Check that out with your local computer repair shop first, or search online for a new battery for your make and model of laptop.
If you have a PC, you need to do the sums: how much money are you losing by not being able to work for extended periods of time? How does that stack up against purchasing a mid-range laptop? And how does that compare to the cost of buying an inverter. (And if you are in full-time employment, make those sums to persuade your employer to get you a laptop).
Priority three – lights
We have a loadshedding corner, where we have gaslights and some cards and an ancient Monopoly set (our teenager insisted on a PC, so when the power goes out we have to resort to old-fashioned entertainment). Those things stay in the same corner all the time, so if the lights go out we can find them in the dark, or by the light of a cellphone torch. On a nearby table there are some candles and matches – again, always in the same place so we can lay our hands on them.
I have been known to shower by candlelight, and I have sat at my desk for an early morning shift working by gaslight.
But we now have a better solution: a small set of solar-powered LED strips in key positions in the house: the kitchen, the bathroom and my office. The LED strips run off a small solar panel which stores power in lead-acid batteries (the same kind that are used in gate motors and alarm systems).
Priority four – food, drink and warmth
We have a gas hob, so warm food and hot water are possible. (The hob is courtesy of a long-ago Eskom rebate scheme, where we traded in our electric hob for a gas version). If you don’t have a gas hob, a gas bottle with a cooking plate will get you a one-pan meal, and a flask will keep some water warm if you do some forward planning. We also have two gas heaters – one of them purchased second-hand.
So – not an inverter in sight, but we are pretty comfortable no matter what Eskom throws at us. And crucially, my freelance work can continue uninterrupted.
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Main picture: Federica Giusti, Unsplash
*This post was originally published in 2020, and has been updated.