According to a statement this morning, Eskom reckons that there’ll be no more loadshedding until January. But after that, the firm admits, South Africa will probably face power cuts until the end of March and remains at risk for the next few years.

That might leave you wondering what your options are for keeping the lights on.

When the power flips off, however, there is no need to be sitting in the dark. We’re assuming most people have stocked up on emergency candles and LED torches. (Judging by the devastation wreaked on the lighting department at our local Pick ‘n Pay, it seems likely.)

One of the best options for a light source is a solar powered lantern or flashlight. They are generally fairly cheap and easy to come by. Shops like Builders Warehouse stock a huge range of solar powered lights, ranging from small lights to illuminate a pathway, to handheld flashlights and even larger ceiling lights. Granted, the larger ones do come with a separate solar panel that needs to be powered for a relatively long time, but it will be worth it.

But what if you want to keep more than lights on?

Buying a generator

The most important thing to remember when buying a generator is that not all are made equal. Sure, you can pick one up for less than R1 500, but be careful. Modern electronics are delicate things and a power source that spikes all over the place is likely to fry that expensive HD TV on your wall.

The two main types of generator are standby generator and portable generators. Standby generators are big, fixed into position and take over supplying your home with power when Eskom goes down. They’re expensive to install, but the idea is that you carry on as normal and don’t notice loadshedding at all.

More practical for most of us is the portable generator. These range from cheap and nasty to pricey and digitally controlled, but all boil down to basically being a petrol or diesel engine with a plug socket on the front. They’re a bit more limited in that you can only run one multiplug adaptor from one, and they can be noisy too.

One thing you need to bear in mind is that a portable generator may not be waterproof – especially at the power outlet – and you won’t want to run one indoors because of exhaust fumes.

Update - Safety first!
As mentioned in the comments, we can’t emphasise this enough. Do not run a generator indoors – the exhaust fumes are poisonous, just like a car exhaust. Dome generators do support an exhaust extension that attaches to the back and can be draped out of a window, but even then we’d be very wary about this. And while the generator may be waterproof, they usually have a regular plug socket (rather than a weatherproof one) on the front which isn’t and will shock you or short if used when wet.

Also, take professional advice about storing fuel. Petrol is highly explosive and has to be stored correctly. Don’t put petrol in anything other than a jerry can designed for the job – even water containers and containers for diesel will not hold petrol without degrading or allowing fumes to leak out. Store it somewhere well ventilated where fumes can’t build up, and don’t smoke or use anything flammable near stored petrol. Any spark – even from turning on an electric light switch – can ignite fumes and cause an explosion.

How much should you pay?

If you (and your neighbours) don’t mind the constant drone of noise, then there are several petrol or diesel generators for selection. A lower end 750Watt Stramm generator will available for around R1 000.

A more powerful Ryobi 2 300Watt petrol generator, which will give you about 210 hours of run time between three and a half and seven hours of power per tank, depending on load (see comments below), retails for around R3 400. If you mean serious business (and we mean serious) the 161kg Kipor 8 500 Watt petrol monster will set you back around R26 000.

For quieter inverter options, Kipor’s 900Watt digital generator retails for around R6 000, while the Ryobi 1 600Watt is about R2 000.

Why you should get an inverter

The best kind of generator for loadshedding is an ‘inverter generator‘.

Most household appliances require an alternating current (AC) power supply, which is what the spinning motor in an electric generator creates. But if you plug, say, a TV directly into a petrol generator the fluctuation in the supply produced by the generator is likely to fry it.

In an inverter generator, the AC power produced by the engine – which is likely to fluctuate in output dramatically and damage sensitive electronics – is pushed through an rectifier and turned into DC energy. This is then passed through a second circuit which flattens out the load and turns it into a nice steady stream of power. It’s then passed through an inverter which turns it back into AC electricity suitable for the home.

Not quite as efficient and costs more, but worth the extra expense over that of a new TV or laptop.

A 2 100W portable inverter generator from Honda.
A 2 100W portable inverter generator from Honda.

How big a generator do I need?

Inverter generators generally are built with portability and low noise levels in mind, so they aren’t as powerful as conventional generators. But with that said, they do come in some powerful variation ranging from about 1 000 to 4 000 watts.

To give you an idea of what you need at home, a desktop PC should use about 100W of power unless you’re running a demanding application (like a video game) and an Xbox One consumes 72W while in use (a PS4 draws 88W). A 40inch Samsung LED TV draws a maximum of 70W. A microwave oven can pull well over 1 000W.

Portable LED lamps are generally in the single digits.

To get an idea of what you use at home, look for the label on the back of your appliances that tells you the maximum power draw and add up what you want to keep on during load shedding.

According to www.inverters.co.za, a 1 500Watt inverter with 25A 24V battery charger should be able to run a television with DStv,  three household lights for 3 hours and about two computers for the same amount of time. For bigger demands, a 2000Watt inverter  with a 25A 24V battery charger is recommended.

It will be more than enough to keep you going for the three or four hours that loadshedding takes you over weekends.

Remember the fuel!

The most expensive inverter generators will also contain circuitry that matches the amount of power produced to the amount of power demanded. That means that they’ll slow the engine down if you’re only running 200W of kit off a 2kW engine. Again, the price premium is something you may save in the long run on the amount of fuel used: certainly it means they’ll run for longer on a single tank of petrol and will be quieter than a generator running flat out all the time too.

One of the massive diesel generators that keeps Teraco's datacentre running when the power goes out.
One of the massive diesel generators that keeps Teraco’s datacentre running when the power goes out.
[Image – CC by 2.0/Lauren Rushing]
Charlie started his professional life as a motoring journalist for a community newspaper in Mpumalanga, Charlie explored different journalistic angles since his entry into the fast-paced world of publishing in 2006. While fostering a passion for the arts, Charlie developed a love for technology – both which allowed him to serve as Entertainment and Technology Editor for an online publication. Charlie has since been heavily involved in consumer technology for various websites and publications. He thoroughly enjoys World War II films and cerebral documentaries; aviation; photography and indie music. Oh yes, and he also has a rather strange obsession with collecting coffee mugs from his travels.