Two crucial steps to lowering household electricity costs

Local expert says two straightforward actions beat all others for households trying to put a lid on soaring electricity bills.

With electricity prices literally going through the roof, coupled with the recent 29% increase in municipal rates in Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni, South African families will be facing serious expense challenges this winter and in the years ahead. Graham Mundy, founder of Solar Beam (a local solar water heating company that has been running for 33 years) says that while there are many small daily actions people can take to reduce electricity consumption, a focus on the geyser will produce the biggest rewards.

“The geyser typically accounts for as much as 50% of the household energy bill,” says Mundy. “It’s the dominant force when it comes to household consumption, so families must consider ways of reducing the power their geysers are pulling. Other actions – like making sure you don’t leave your TV or Hi Fi on standby – are important, but by far the most powerful puller of energy is the geyser, there’s no doubt about that. ”
Mundy, who has several decades experience in the solar industry, including working on major industrial projects, recommends two focus points for South African families.

“Firstly, buying a geyser blanket and insulating the first two meters of the hot pipe from the geyser can make a big difference. They’re cheap and easy to install and they offer an immediate point of action for pretty much anyone, regardless of budget or cash in hand. Mundy also explains that air-conditioners running on heating mode in winter should be kept to a minimum as this in itself is a fairly wasteful heat source, simply because the air-conditioner is usually positioned high on the wall, so the heat produced hovers around the ceiling.

“Secondly, taking a slightly longer view, a solar powered water heating system offers the opportunity to radically reduce consumption.”

While there is a relatively significant up-front cost in installing a solar water heating system, the savings that can be achieved outweigh this cost, especially within the context of the massive annual increases South Africans will have to deal with over the next three years. Industrial solar water heating systems have the ability to halve the cost of the water heating bill a staggering reduction in anyone’s book. For residential households the figure is less, but still weighs around an impressive 40% of the total bill in an average household.

“Eskom offers a rebate for consumers who install such systems, so that lessens the up-front blow,” Mundy adds. “Ultimately the calculation must be carried out over a three or four year period. Over this period, the money is going to be spent, like it or not. Those who manage to install a solar system are looking at financing the cost up-front, and then at a large drop in electricity costs once the savings have paid off the installation. The rest are looking at spiralling costs, year on year, often at the mercy of power suppliers such as Eskom. The maths is undeniable.”

Given the savings on offer, water heating investments are now falling into the primary category of household expenditure, maintains Mundy, along with cars and houses. “Finance for these items is freely available and makes some compelling reading when comparing instalment costs with monthly savings. The idea is to let your solar system pay for itself!”

“These are investments that literally change the structure and quality of family life. They are foundational investments, because they allow a family to grow and sustain itself into the future.” Just like any capital purchase, doing ones homework is essential before a decision is made.”
Mundy stresses, however, that even for those who aren’t able to finance the installation of a solar system, geyser action is not only possible, but imperative.

“Many people don’t realise that the first step to reducing their electricity bill can cost as little as R300. At Solar Beam we see every day how people who invest in a geyser blanket experience immediate savings. Many are then also motivated to put more effort into the larger issue of their actual geyser.”

And what technical advice does Mundy have to offer for those taking the first steps to installing a solar water heating system?

“It’s simple,” he says. “Make sure you deal with a company with an SABS Mark Approved product and a strong track record. They must be able to provide great references and demonstrate at least five years of successful operation in South African conditions. With these credentials in place you won’t go wrong.”