Winter is coming, and Eskom is already in trouble.

Historically, demand for electricity’s rises by around 10% during peak hours in the winter compared to the summer, as heaters are turned on and we spend more time in doors cooking and eating. Given that the current period of loadshedding began when demand is traditionally lowest, and that there’s been no major upgrades to capacity since, we can be fairly certain that the next few months will be tough.

Which is exactly why one Pretoria entrepreneur has been particularly busy of late, refining his renewable and battery back-up generators products for businesses and homes around the country.

The name Inus Dreckmeyr will be familiar to htxt.africa readers. We first featured him almost two years ago after a visit to his home, where he lives completely off grid. Since the current bout of loadshedding began, Dreckmeyr has become something of a local celebrity, and his work has been covered on many TV stations and in many newspapers over the last few months.

We thought, given the sudden focus on renewables and loadshedding, now would be a good time to catch up with Dreckmeyr and find out what he’s up to.

Dreckmeyr’s off-grid experience isn’t just about keeping his family up and running no matter what, however. In his day job, the boss of Netshield SA advises and supplies local offices and data centres with products that can keep them up-and-running no matter what. Netshield has worked with everyone from door access control systems for small businesses to SAPS for powering remote police stations with wind and solar generators, to installing solar-powered street lights for municipalities.

“Our main aim is to reduce complexity,” Dreckmeyr says, “We want to simplify things so that anyone can use them. Most frustrating thing for an office worker is when you can’t log on and you can’t see why. We try to make systems that anyone can manage and everyone can see what’s happening and what’s wrong.”

Dreckmeyr’s latest product is something he calls Datacentre-in-a-Box. It’s aimed at small businesses or satellite offices which have shifted most of their heavy weight apps off to the cloud, but still need something on site for Voice over IP telephony and as a gateway and management system for the local network.

Datacentre-in-a-Box is essentially everything you need in one air-conditioned cabinet from a firewall to UPS back-up power, and can be controlled by someone with no real IT experience using a customised dashboard. Everything from turning off network connectivity to a particular PC to opening the doors to the cabinet itself can be done remotely from a dashboard, and it includes temperature sensors, flood sensors and SMS notifications to alert managers to problems.

The Datacenter-in-a-Box is designed to be deployed in just a few hours.
The Datacentre-in-a-Box is designed to be deployed in just a few hours.

The really interesting part, however, is that Dreckmeyr and his team are also integrating office power supplies and controllers into the system. At the core of the design is a large inverter/charge controller – the Netshield NIC12KVA48V-120 – and a battery bank, which means that the Datacentre-in-a-Box can be hooked up to a renewable source, like a wind turbine or solar panel, which can run the cabinet and charge the batteries, and only switch over to grid power when demand outstrips supply.

One of the biggest problems in South Africa is that there are very few places where you can use renewables to sell energy back into the grid. So the challenge is that when loadshedding kicks in, the renewable generator has to be isolated from the mains – so the Netshield inverter is designed to take energy from the best source possible and manage it so no flow goes back towards Eskom.

Dreckmeyr is also proud of the fact that his company manufactures locally wherever possible.

“What we’ve created is a deep-cycling UPS,” Dreckmeyr explains, “That’s designed to keep your office online for as long as possible by mixing renewable energy with battery power for as long as possible.”

Although the power system was designed to complement the Datacentre-in-a-Box, Netshield has started selling it separately as a self-contained unit for domestic customers too.

Netshield's inverter is a custom designed box built in South Africa.
Netshield’s inverter is a custom designed box which is simple to maintain and use, and is built in South Africa.

“Not just about loadshedding,” says Dreckmeyr, “We know that the municipalities and Eskom want to move to variable pricing so that they will charge more for peak time use, so with this you can run off of batteries during peak pricing periods and then charge them again when the cost is less – at night, for example.”

Dreckmeyr says that an eight battery set-up with a 6kVa controller should cost around R80 000 and be capable of keeping a home up and running for four hours during loadshedding. Factoring in the cost of solar panels, it’s competitive against the cost of current solutions out there. A complete home solar system will generally cost in the region of R120 000-R200 000, including the panels – the bulk of that cost is in battery storage.

Netshield also produces 16 battery systems for small offices, and is working on smaller systems for households on a budget. Because the system uses standard sealed batteries, it’s best to start small, says Dreckmeyr, and add in more as you require.

One thing Netshield doesn’t do, however, is sell the renewable generators themselves.

Netshield's control panel is all about scale. Everything from an overview of the network in a satellite office to the status of a single plug is within a few clicks.
Netshield’s control panel is all about scale. Everything from an overview of the network in a satellite office to the status of a single plug is within a few clicks.

“We’re not going to import panels and compete there,” he says, “We can do the procurement and installation of solar if they want, or just act as a consultant.”

The important thing, Dreckmeyr advises anyone thinking of going off grid or installing renewables or a generator at home is not to rush any decision.

“When you’re investing in renewable energy in your own environment you want to make sure you’re buying something reliable that will last and that you’re getting what you expect. We want people to see it as an asset, something that will increase in value over time and increase the worth of their home.”

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.