The mad man and the good water

18/02/2005

A retired South African businessman defies the severe environment and grows fruit in the desert.

South Africa on a windy winter’s day in July 1953. The day before, 19-year-old John Logan had erected a wind turbine to provide power for his parents’ holiday resort. John was good at technology, but he had never before made concrete foundations. Now he was contentedly looking at the fast-spinning turbine. He turned around to walk away, but did not get far…

Another July day 50 years later and a few hundred kilometres further northeast in the desert-like Karoo area, it is quiet and hot. John Logan wipes the sweat from his forehead.

- ”Why did I decide to settle here?”

He points to a place at the back of his head where there is a long faint scar under the grey hair.

- ”When the doctor saw this gash, he said I must be unusually thick-headed. ”That wind turbine should have been able to crush your skull like an eggshell!” As it were, I escaped with 13 stitches and maybe I became a little mad.”
John lets his eyes move from his solar panels to the plains.

When you have left the fertile Ceres area and driven for an hour and a half, you see John’s farm. It is one of the first signs of life, and you can just see it left of the ruler-straight unpaved road. There have been no electricity poles for 80 kilometres, but the telephone poles stand like matches along the road – holding nothing. The telephone wires have been stolen and sold as cobber several years ago.
But right there where the level plain meets the mountains, fresh green trees break the monotony of the low, dusty growth. The trees stretch through a gorge into the mountains.

- ”I think I bought this farm in a fit of madness. When I sold my company, I had to find something else to do, and a good friend of mine, who is a psychologist, said that I ought to buy a deserted farm with a broken wind turbine. And so I did.”

John picks a pair of large oranges from the nearest tree. The scent immediately spreads and mixes with the smell of damp earth. Under the trees, there are hoses, and every single tree has its own little sprinkler that waters its root.

This is John Logan’s second life’s work.

The first was the establishment of South Africa’s largest radio telephony and pager company. As an electronics engineer, he worked with that for almost 40 years before he sold his company to an international group in 1994.

Nowadays, he plays with electronics in his small workshop in Cape Town, where he still lives half the time. Like Gyro Gearloose, he invents solutions that enable him to work little miracles on his remote farm.
Actually, it ought not be possible. A typical solar-powered pump system is designed to supply a few families or a small village with drinking water from one single tap. Not to irrigate fields and absolutely not a desert!

In spite of this, John so far irrigates 300 of the farm’s 3000 hectares by means of eight Grundfos SP pumps with matching electronics boxes, which are powered by 150 solar panels. Everything is connected in series, and of course there is power for lighting, household appliances and everything else, too, including charging of the necessary satellite phone.

The reason why John chose Grundfos when he had to find a solution for his farm, having absolutely no experience of pumps and irrigation, was his thoroughness and technical interest:

- ”I simply sat down and read a bulky World Bank report from 1991 about solar-powered pump systems. Eight different makes were thoroughly tested, and Grundfos clearly stood out as the only one that kept its promises from the specification”, he says.

But John has got even more out of his Grundfos systems than promised.

- ”There is no hocus-pocus – only common sense.” John points to a series of black boxes on a wall behind some of the solar panels. They are Grundfos Solartronic inverters, which convert the direct current from the solar panels to ordinary alternating current for the pumps. The boxes are connected with each other via a jumble of cables, relays and other electronic equipment. ”When there are several of them, they provide more power, and several pumps provide more water than one - just like eight cylinders provide more power than two”, he says as he gets on his little 4x4 motorbike and sets off.

A few minutes later, he stops and points to a large piece of land where hundreds of small date palms make a sharp contrast to the vast and rough landscape.

- ”That is my pension scheme. They have cost a fortune and will not bear fruit for another eight years. But by then they should pay off!”

A date palm needs 40 litres of water a day, and there are nearly 500 of them. Every day, John’s solar-powered Grundfos pumps draw 130,000 litres of water from the porous earth into which the sparse rain water from the mountains quickly disappear being stopped though by a limestone layer some way down, whereby natural reservoirs are formed.

On most remote farms in South Africa, old wind turbines mechanically draw the water from the earth with a piston pump – slowly, noisily and sparingly.

- ”Wind turbines are crap”, states John Logan dryly. He has learned about concrete, and his solar panels are tightly secured facing north at a carefully calculated angle to the sun. And they provide lots of water.

John Logan is not in doubt:

- ”Those pumps really are the world’s best, and there is an enormous potential for them here in South Africa!”

 





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