On Tuesday, I went to quiz night at the Colony Arms in Craighall Park. Eskom had been flip-flopping about load-shedding all day, only to finally implement it at 3pm that afternoon so the power was out. And as I walked down the road after parking my car, I was surrounded by the steady hum of generators.
Only, it wasn’t a steady hum.
It should have been a steady hum. A steady hum is the sound of a healthy generator.
Instead, it was a choking death rattle. Like the revving of a learner driver who can’t quite get the right balance between accelerator and clutch.
In short: at least one of those generators was deeply, and desperately, overloaded*.
*I believe my exact description at the time was “That – that is the sound of a <c-word> boiling a kettle.”
Reflecting on it afterward, I realised that what we are dealing with is a market distorted by asymmetric information.
Which is one of my favourite types of market distortion. Here are some earlier posts:
- Why Sh***y Restaurants Happen [To Good Tourists]
- Why are wedding dresses so expensive?
- South African Art: The Economic Reason to Buy It. Immediately.
The Asymmetry When It Comes To Self-Powering
Don’t know too much about electrics. Or about watts. Or what the VA means.
But they know where their board is.
Although they don’t know what’s connected to what switch.
And anyway, power is just power.
Plug and play, bru. Plug and play.
Know more than you do.
But when in doubt, it’s better to sell the person more than they need, because then they’re less likely to complain. And/or to sell them the high margin item, because that’s good for your bottom line. And/or to sell them the easiest one to install, because then there will be fewer callouts during load-shedding.
I realise that makes me a bit of a cynic. And I will acknowledge that there are good people out there that just want to get you what you’re looking for.
But on average, for most of us, principles are only really good in principle: because the gap between thinking that we live by them and actually living by them is much broader than we care to realise when we’re dealing with just another anxious customer at closing time on a Friday afternoon, or whatever.
So bearing that in mind, here are some other things to bear in mind.
The Zimbabwean Rules of Thumb for Keeping The Lights On
Rule 1: If You Want To Boil A Kettle, Buy A Gas Stove
When buying something to power your house, there are three options:
- Expensive Generators that cost as much as a car.
Be absolutely clear.
If you want a generator that will boil a kettle and run your geyser and allow you to glaze that roasted leg of lamb, then you need to buy an expensive generator that will cost as much as a car.
If you try to do any of those things on a reasonably priced inverter, then you will drain it almost immediately.
If you try to do any of those things on a reasonably priced generator, then you will blow it.
And someone will walk past your house in the interim and call you a <c-word>.
So unless you’re willing to spend a lot of money replacing the generator that you just bought, then you’re better off starting with a gas stove to make tea.
Rule 2: Think About What You Need
The big inconvenience during load-shedding is the lack of lights and television.
The bigger inconvenience during whole days/weeks of no power is the food going off in your freezer, and all the hand-washing in cold water.
If you are experiencing light load-shedding, then all you need is a good inverter. Because it’s silent and it doesn’t require you to keep a store of diesel on the premises.
If you are experiencing prolonged periods without power, then what you really need is an expensive generator that costs as much as a car. Which you will run for three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon: firstly, to keep your freezers cold; secondly, to run your washing machine; thirdly, to roast your dinner; and mostly, to recharge your inverter batteries so that you can still have lights and television when you turn off your expensive generator that costs as much as a car.
If you can’t afford an expensive generator, then you will need to buy a reasonably-priced generator for the primary purpose of recharging your inverter batteries so that you can have lights and television when you turn off your reasonably-priced generator.
What I am really trying to say: your first port of call is an inverter, not a generator.
So don’t let someone tell you that a generator will keep you going during those times when the inverter batteries run out. Truth is, if you reach that stage, then you need both.
Rule 3: You Probably Need To Rewire Your House A Bit In Order To Avoid Rewiring It A Lot
Do not waste time on cheap electricians that do a make-shift job on installation.
If they get the wiring wrong, then wires get burnt, batteries get over/undercharged and need to be replaced, and generators get blown.
These can be very expensive school fees.
What you want is to find someone that knows what they’re doing. And when they come in, you say “Right, I want you to connect everything to the main switchboard, and I want you to make it so that the inverter/generator does not connect to the geyser, the air-conditioner, heaters, or any plug point in the kitchen where someone may inadvertently try to boil a kettle and/or straighten their hair.”
There are no short-cuts with electrics.
None of this “Don’t worry – I’ll just tell my wife that she can’t use the dishwasher when the power is off.”
If you do that, then your installation cost is simply a downpayment on so much more expense to come.
Rule 4: Don’t Procrastinate
You can wait for the crisis to be over.
But you should really take a step back and say “Is the situation critical, or is it chronic, and if it’s chronic, is there a quick-fix cure, or can it only be ‘managed’?”
A related point of information: you get the greatest value from your investment the sooner you put it in.
Rule 5: Learn Some Stuff About Electrics
It’s good to know things. It helps you avoid being on the losing end of a new acquisition.
But always bear in mind that knowing “some stuff” is not the same as knowing “all about it”. From what I understand, even electrical engineers don’t really understand what electricity is, although they have a good idea of how to use it (most of the time).
So you want to know enough to know when someone doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and you also want to know enough to know that you actually don’t know a lot.
Tricky. But there it is.
Rule 6: Call An Engineering Friend
They usually give good advice.
Rule 7: Not A Steady Hum? Turn it off. Immediately.
Someone in the vicinity is doing something that they shouldn’t.
You want to find them and stop them before it all goes horribly wrong.
The easiest way to do that?
Cut ’em off at the plug.
I hope that’s a bit helpful.
Just remember that I’m not an engineer, and I don’t know much about electrics.
But like Pavlov’s dog, I’ve been conditioned to get very jittery when a generator starts revving. Because that’s what comes just before I get shouted at for turning on a kettle.
Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and the corporate life in general. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha.