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Inverter backup systems - Nightmares or success stories?

By Afam Nnaji on July, 4 2009

Views: 6,450

Inverter backup systems are becoming common these days but the experiences out there on the field have more or less created a mixed atmosphere of caution, fear, joy, uncertainty, disappointment, satisfaction etc depending on who you ask.

One fact remains regardless of failed projects out there, inverter backup systems remain the most cost effective alternative to poor power supply and generators for the typical homes and offices.

This fact is further cemented by another fact from the writer of this piece - up to 5 years of running an office in Lagos without using a generator. But I must admit that the last 2 months have been really challenging as regards being without regular electricity for over 90% of the time. But again, a solar energy option would eliminate the dependence on PHCN completely.

So, naturally one would wonder why some people talk about success stories while other talk about failed projects and disappointments.

From experience and interaction with people that have had bad experiences it is safe to narrow down the causes of failed inverter backup projects to the following

1. Imported inverters with crazy charging algorithm

Quite a lot of imported inverters come with very low charging current while a few come with very high charging current. This means that a very low charging current would gradually destroy your battery bank (batteries that are connected together in a typical inverter backup system) until the batteries will give up. Sometimes it may take more than 5 or 6 months for you to notice this and this applies to deep cycle batteries are regular wet cell type will gladly pack up in as much as a few weeks.

A very high charging current will equally destroy your battery only this time the process would be faster.

Batteries come in different configurations and battery chargers must b built to handle them well bearing in mind the actual usage conditions and typical recharging times that usually have an important role to play in the life of a battery.

As a matter of fact some imported inverters in the market today come with charging currents that would require up to 24hrs for you to recharge a depleted battery. Well, if you need up to 24hrs to recharge your battery bank in a given 24hrs period then getting an inverter system would be a waste of money in my opinion.

Some of the design assumptions made in the labs in the foreign countries simply do not hold water down here in Nigeria. This is simple to demonstrate and prove.

2. Lack of support for the inverters once installed and commissioned

This one works like magic. For some providers, once the money is collected and the inverter backup system is installed and commissioned it is game over.

Some do not have any support in place to begin with especially the regular business man or woman who just invested money in inverter importation because a lot of people are talking about inverters.

At the barest minimum there should be support for inverters whether the inverters are under warranty or out of warranty. These inverters work most of the time once commissioned and in some installations work all the time be it the charging process, the inverting process or switching process.

End user abuse, mistake or even equipment failure should not deprive the client the opportunity to use the inverter system.

Closely related to this issue of support is warranty. An inverter with a valid warranty that needs to be shipped to say India, China, US or Europe for repairs or outright replacement can as well be seen as an inverter out of warranty because someone must pay for the associated charges from transportation to handing to import/export charges and that someone in my opinion is the end user/client. Sometimes these costs may be well over 70% of the cost of the inverter itself. This is why you see some damaged imported (and sometimes locally built ones too) being disposed off at 10% of their cost prices.

3. Insincerity by service providers in costing inverter backup systems

To begin with the initial capital outlay for inverter projects seems expensive and can only be appreciated or explained by doing a reasonable comparison with other options available from running generators to staying without power at all. A good professional advice on energy efficiency would help reduce the energy needs in any given scenario, increase the backup time and lower the total cost of ownership and these can be seen by the prospective client even before agreeing to do an inverter backup project.

A lot of inverter backup projects I know of are usually underpriced and they come with unrealistic expectations and impossible service guarantees.

I once told a bank that had already given approval for an ATM backup project that I would not touch the project even if the cost was increased by 70% because the cost and the backup time expected have no business being used in the same sentence.

Someone had wrongly advised the bank on the inverter capacity, battery bank and expected backup time for the project and based on this sought for and got approval for the cost implication. The recommendation was actually a definitive guide for a project failure.

The reason for the insincerity may range from fear of losing out in a project if the actual cost was quoted which may seem high but cost effective if the person understands what he/she is doing to lack of relevant knowledge as regards the inverter backup technology itself.

As a result people pay for inverter backup systems that will usually over promise and surely under perform or fail completely in a matter of weeks or months.

4. End user abuse and misleading information on the appliances to be included in the inverter backup system

Even with the most reliable inverters and batteries making up an inverter backup system an end user can still cause damage to the system by overloading the system beyond the recommended load limit. A good load separation will isolate loads but again once installed and commissioned the service provider will not be there to monitor every single action of the end user.

Some projects would hardy take off without problems even on the first day due to a complete disconnect between the appliances listed by the end user as the intended loads and the appliances that are actually needed to be included in the backup system at the point of installation.

This problem is usually easy to sort out but remains a very sensitive problem as relationships may begin to deteriorate at this point. However, there is a very workable solution that makes the most sense. The appliances listed at the time of order must be used in the backup system or if the end user insists otherwise a simple request to void the warranty is made as long as adding the extra appliances would not cause the inverter backup system to damage the unit, personnel or appliances connected to the system.

In conclusion, whatever story you may have heard concerning inverter systems from friends, colleagues, relations etc the fact remains that you can enjoy steady power supply with reliable inverter backup systems.

Insist of enforceable warranty, be honest about list of appliances and the expected backup time and look for service providers that build locally or even import inverters as long as there is real support on ground.


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