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Finding a UPS to fight Stage 6 load shedding won't be easy – and old models can't keep up

Business Insider SA
A small Uninterrupted Power Supply (Getty Images)
A small Uninterrupted Power Supply (Getty Images)
  • Stage 6 load shedding hit South Africa at 16:00 on Tuesday following warnings from Eskom earlier in the day.
  • When load shedding stages rise, alternate electricity solutions, like Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) products, sell out fast.
  • The current supply constraints have been made worse by global factors and a shortage of critical components.
  • And those using older systems containing lead-acid type batteries face serious challenges at Stage 6.
  • These older products could deal with regular load shedding, but blackouts have become more frequent and longer, reducing the lifespan of batteries.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

Stage 6 load shedding was implemented by Eskom on Tuesday afternoon with more due to come, and for those without an Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) to keep lights and appliances on, finding one now on short notice won't be easy.

South Africa's national power grid is under extreme pressure. The country was last plunged into Stage 6 load shedding, which removes up to 6,000 MW from the grid to avert a nationwide blackout, in 2019.

Load shedding has implemented at various stages in recent due to unexpected breakdowns and routine power plant maintenance. More recently, an unprotected strike by disgruntled Eskom staff has sent the utility over the edge.

See also | SA flips switch on Stage 6 load shedding. Here's where to find your load shedding schedule

As South Africans brace themselves for at least six hours of powerlessness a day under Stage 6 load shedding, many are rushing to buy backup battery systems to keep lights and appliances on. This sudden demand is outstripping supply.

"Since load shedding began in 2008, there has been a massive demand for UPS and related products such as inverters and solar inverters," Andrew Ingram, consultant for UPS Warehouse, told Business Insider South Africa on Tuesday.

"This demand, however, has been very sporadic… when load shedding starts, the demand, both from business and domestic, has been unprecedented to the extent that companies in the industry find it difficult to cope with both supply and education into the correct solutions. When the grid is working to capacity, the demand drops to normal requirements."

Stock shortfalls have only been worsened by global supply chain constraints. Lead times from overseas manufacturers have increased dramatically since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, with Ingram saying that it had become "extremely challenging to carry sufficient stock to meet demand." These backup power solutions have also become more expensive.

"In general, prices have increased over the past year, with component shortages and shipping costs driving up prices. We have seen increases of between 15% to 25% on our ranges," said Ingram.

But load shedding isn't a new challenge. South Africans have been seeking alternatives to stave off bouts of blackouts for more than a decade, with many finding UPS products.

And while the current availability and cost of UPS products may make new systems harder to buy, older systems, overworked by years of load shedding, will struggle to stand up to the challenge of Stage 6.

"The heart of any inverter solution is the battery. The useable lifespan of the battery is dependent on a number of factors, the main one being the number of times the battery is cycled [the number of times it is charged and discharged]," explained Ingram.

"For many years, the industry has typically used lead-acid type batteries. These are fine, provided that after a discharge, they have sufficient time to recharge fully. In 2008 with the first load shedding, there were usually four-hour outages three times a week. This meant that there was sufficient time between outages for the battery to fully recharge, an essential part of ensuring getting the maximum cycles out of a lead-acid battery, typically two to three years. Now, however, we have two or three outages a day of two to 2.5 hours duration."

The increased frequency and length of load shedding stop these batteries from recharging fully, which, in turn, reduces their lifespan. Batteries are now lasting only between three and nine months, compared to years previously.

"Replacement is not only expensive but highly inconvenient to users as batteries are bulky and heavy to transport. The most common solution to this problem is the use of lithium batteries which are able to cope with the increase in daily outages," said Ingram.

"Depending on the specifications, lithium batteries can last reliably from two to 10 years. While the initial investment in lithium batteries is higher, the lifespan makes them a much lower cost in the long term."


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