Off Grid Ham: The Comedy and Tragedy of Wind Power

In this post at Off Grid Ham, Chris Warren talks about some power failures in Texas related to wind power. Whatever your power source, it’s good to have backups. As we’ve posted recently, the WA state legislature is entertaining the notion to ban fossil fuel heating, water heating, and possibly other appliances in all new home construction. But once you’ve put all your heating into the electricity basket, what happens when you have power outages like the ones going on in Texas currently, or California’s rolling blackouts, or any other extended winter blackout? You get cold, really cold, perhaps dangerously cold, maybe dead cold. Where I live currently, our heat is primarily electric. That said, we can also heat with a propane fireplace insert. We can cook on our propane stove. Both of those can be and have been used when there is no power.

When our family lived in Seattle, we once endured eleven days without power during a severe ice storm. Because our apartment building was on a relatively isolated spur of the electric system, we were low on the priority list for power restoration. We had a regular/wood fireplace, though, and a propane grill on the balcony, so we were able to keep warm and eat hot food. The balcony also served as refrigerator/freezer. So, having backups is not just for apocalypse preppers. Think about what you would do in an extended, wide-area power outage, in the worst conditions, and make some preparations ahead of time, so you’re not thinking “I wish I had just…” as you freeze to death or suffer heat stroke, depending on your environment.

Now, Texas has failures on multiple levels. Many homes aren’t insulated for the type of cold they are getting. Some natural gas pipelines broke, and the homes were only setup for heating with gas. Some have generators, but can’t get gas to refuel their generators. But that’s all the more reason to think about what you have and how you can supplement it.

It’s not a comedy if you’re living through it.

Bad news out of Texas gives us an opportunity  to look at what can happen when energy policy and weather conspire to pull the grid down. If you live in the upper Midwest USA like me, or New England, or for that matter anywhere north of St. Louis, you might think the winter weather hitting the Southern USA, particularly Texas, is somewhat amusing. Look at them losing their minds over three inches of snow! Where I’m from, we barely notice anything less than five inches.

texas

PUBLIC DOMAIN PHOTO

But there’s nothing amusing about millions of people being left with no power, no heat, no water, business closings, accidents, property damage, injuries and lost lives due to unusual weather (for them) that the region is not prepared to deal with. Yes, I’ve seen the internet jokes and memes, including the one with the helicopter de-icing a wind turbine (which, by the way, is confirmed fake news). Beyond the shallow humor, there is real damage being done.

The stage was set for a mess.

The disaster started when the the weather in Texas turned uncharacteristically cold and snowy. The increased demand for electrical power and stress on the grid from the storm created perfect conditions for grid failure. This failure cascaded to water and gas infrastructure when those facilities lost power. Some politically-biased news sources and personalities are laying the blame on frozen wind turbines, but it’s not that straightforward.

Wind turbines account for 25 million megawatts of power output in Texas. About 12 million megawatts went dark. Everything considered, wind turbine failure accounted for 13% of the lost energy. This is not insignificant, but by itself should not have caused millions of people to lose their juice. The other 87% of the outage was from conventionally-powered plants, mostly gas, going offline. It does not take an energy expert to figure this out. When a large part of the traditional grid is disabled, and then roughly half the wind capacity goes too, there is a huge problem.

The self appointed “experts” are squawking about the failure of wind turbines as if they were the only reason the Texas grid went down. It’s not even a half truth; more like a 13% truth. That’s why I have a problem with their hypothesis. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the state agency responsible for making sure this kind of stuff does not happen, has a lot of explaining to do. Right now Texas has only about half of the power capacity it usually needs, and it can’t all be blamed on the wind.

You are the star. And the supporting role.

What happened in Texas is a cautionary tale for every reader of this blog. The best and most expensive systems can fail. If you use solar, the same concept applies. After all, the sun is not reliable all the time. In my locale, we’ve had maybe three or four days of full sun in the last month and I’ve had to plan accordingly.

What are you doing to prevent your own personal version of Texas from happening? Don’t feel embarrassed if you’re not comfortable with the answer to this question. Many if not most off grid amateurs have enough alternative power to run their radio gear and not much else. No one can realistically prepare for every foreseeable disaster, but we can probably do better than we’re doing now. Off grid ham radio is just a small part of being ready. The good news is that you’re probably more prepared, and certainly more aware, than the average person.

If you’re warm and comfortable and the lights are on, take some time to evaluate your situation and identify areas to improve. Off grid radio for survival/preparedness reasons cannot be done in a vacuum. After all, what good is it to have the most awesome & capable off grid radio station ever when the pantry is bare and the house is cold? There is a tendency for people to go all in on one aspect of preparedness, be it radio, guns, stockpiling food, etc., and blow off all the other things one must do to be truly ready. If this sounds like you, break the curse of tunnel vision.

You cannot stop a Texas-style SHTF situation from happening to you. And you cannot change bad energy policy or poor infrastructure. So focus on what you can control and write your own ending, to the extent that you can. Those who are apathetic are auditioning to play the tragic character in a very non-fictional drama.

 

Off Grid Ham: Transfer Switch

Transfer switch. offgridham.com original photo ©2021

Chris Warren of Off Grid Ham talks about generators and the Transfer Switch.

Transfer switch 101.

Have you ever wanted to run more than just a few devices from your generator? Maybe you want the convenience and safety of connecting your existing home AC wiring to an off grid source? Maybe you don’t like the idea of running extension cords all over the house? Most gas generators can do much more than power a few radios. A transfer switch is the safest and best way to get power to where you need it.

A transfer switch is permanently installed in a home or other structure. It allows you to switch between commercial grid AC power and a backup source. AC outlets, lights and appliances connected back to the transfer switch will then work normally. You do not have to run temporary cords or physically disconnect and then reconnect individual devices.

What happens inside the box.

The internal functioning of a transfer switch is fairly simple. A switch allows the load to be connected to either commercial AC power, or the backup source. It will never allow both at the same time. Some versions are actually several small transfer switches that move individual circuits between power sources. Retailers also offer transfer switches that automatically move the load from main to backup power when the main power fails.

transfer switch

offgridham.com original graphic ©2021

Choosing a transfer switch.

Wow, there are a lot of choices out there! Very basic manually operated switches sell for under $150.  Automatic switches with internet connectivity can go well past $1000. For my own home, I went with a Reliance Controls 30216A. It can transfer individual circuits and includes watt meters for load balancing. Reliance Controls is probably the most popular switch on the market; they are available almost anywhere. I’ve had my switch in service for about ten years with excellent performance.

The Reliance 30216A and others like it come with an added bonus. Because it switches individual circuits, there is no need to disconnect the main feed to your house. This design feature makes installation barely more complex than changing a breaker.

Another factor to consider is materials needed to install your transfer switch. Reliance Controls sells their products as a kit. You get everything you need, including a cable to connect your generator. If you go with the cheapie $139 switch, you’ll have to buy extra items to make everything work. When you add everything up, expect to spend at the low end $300-$500.

The 240 volt question.

Most mid-sized and up generators have a 240 volt outlet that will connect to your transfer switch. So what do you do if your generator does not have a 240 volt outlet? This is common on smaller generators, such as the immensely popular Honda eu2000i. I located adapter cables for sale on line, but they are rare. Finding one that’s compatible with your application might be difficult. The other option is to make your own cable.

Using a converter cord I made myself, if needed I can connect any 120 volt generator to my 240 volt transfer switch. Making your own adapter is actually super-simple but dangerous if you mess it up. Since the safety consequences of doing it wrong are so serious, I decline to give instructions on this blog.

The photo below is my converter cord. The two standard male 120 volt connectors plug into the small generator. On the other end is a female L-14-30 plug that goes to the transfer switch. Keep in mind that you still cannot exceed the capacity of the generator.

transfer switch

offgridham.com original photo ©2021

Safety considerations.

To say the least, installing a transfer switch is not for beginners. Having a thorough knowledge of home electric systems and being confidant working near exposed live conductors is an absolute must. There are many instructional YouTube videos, but not all of them give good advice. If you have even the slightest doubt about your abilities, listen to that inner voice and get competent help even if you have to hire a pro. I did my own work, with a skilled assistant, and it took a weekend. This included cutting a wall open, cosmetic finishes, and running 40 feet (12 meters) of wire to a new generator tap on the outside of my house. Simpler installs can probably be done in one day.

When operating your generator, always have a fire extinguisher nearby. Always run the generator outdoors (not in the garage, even with the door open). Always have working carbon monoxide detectors in your home.

The internet is full of dubious tricks to connect a generator to your home wiring. Some hacks involve clamping automotive jumper cables in your breaker box. Others employ a “cheater cord”: a cable with a male AC plug on both ends. All of these lame ideas are dangerous and illegal. Don’t play games; do it right. If a dumb shortcut results in property damage or personal injury, you could find yourself on the wrong end of a lawsuit. Your insurance carrier may not help you either.

Code compliance & permits.

Building codes and ordinances regulating transfer switches vary by locality. You may need a permit, depending on where you live. The National Fire Protection Association document NFPA-70 is the nationwide standard for all electrical work. Many state and local governments have codes that are stricter than what is in NFPA-70. Do your due diligence!

In general, you need a permit if your proposed off grid system meets one or more of the following criteria:

  • The backup generator or power source is greater than 15 kilowatts.
  • The generator starts and transfers the load automatically.
  • Your generator is permanently wired to the transfer switch.
  • The generator is fueled by commercial natural gas or a non-portable fuel tank (this would include large propane tanks).
  • The generator itself is permanently mounted/not portable.

Also, generators greater than 15 kW require a manual disconnect “easily visible and accessible from the generating device”. In some situations more than one disconnect is required (NFPA-70 445.18, 445.18D, 702.12A). Generators less than 15 kW do not require a manual disconnect (NFPA-70 702.12B). Wiring to the transfer switch and all related conductors must be rated for 115% of the maximum power capacity of the generator (NFPA-70 445.13).

In most situations, generators less than 15 kW that are not permanently wired and are started/transferred manually do not require a permit. This would cover most applications an off grid ham would encounter.

I must stress again that these are general guidelines. Your locality can and probably does have different and/or more rigorous standards.

Load balancing.

If your generator has a 240 volt output, keep in mind that it’s two 120 volt AC sources combined. The generator achieves this by spinning two separate coils that produce 120 volts each. The off grid ham must be careful not to overload one side of the generator while placing little or no demand on the other.

On most consumer-grade generators, the total rated output equals the sum of the two 120 volt sections. In other words, your “7000 watt generator” is really two 3500 watt generators integrated into one physical unit. Therefore, you cannot pull more than half of the total capacity from either side of the generator.

With a transfer switch load balancing is somewhat simplified. Each half of the 240 volts is directed to its own side of the switch. All you need to do is assign your loads evenly between the two sides. In the photo of my Reliance switch above, notice that it is divided into two banks of three circuits each, A-B-C and D-E-F, with corresponding watt meters.  When I’m on my 5000 watt generator, I must not exceed 2500 watts on either side.

The 120 volt standard outlet on the front of your 240 volt generator is probably split internally so each plug is wired to a different coil. This allows you to tap both coils for load balancing, but do not pull more than 50% of the total from either plug.

When installing your transfer switch, be careful not to assign all your high power demand circuits to the same side of the switch. Distribute them as equally as possible between both sides so you’ll get the most benefit from your generator.

Resources.

Here is a link to the complete NFPA-70 document (free registration required).

Reliance Controls makes some excellent transfer switches. Their documentation is top notch and they even have instructional videos with accurate information.

This very cool website gives a concise listing and specifications for numerous AC plugs used with generators and transfer switches.

This Off Grid Ham article from April 2018 discusses NFPA-70 in detail.

Off Grid Ham: Learning From Off Grid Mistakes, 2

This article comes from Chris Warren at Off Grid Ham – Learning From Off Grid Mistakes, Part 2.

I wasn’t planning a “part 2”. learning from off grid mistakes

Last May’s article about off grid mistakes received a surprising amount of attention. Many months later, it’s still a very popular piece. As a follow up, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit the issue and go over a few points that were not discussed last time. I encourage readers to send in questions and comments because most of the articles that appear on Off Grid Ham are derived from reader input. learning from off grid mistakes

Mistake 1: Mismatched batteries.

Batteries are very exclusive. They don’t like other types of batteries. Just because two batteries are of the same voltage, and maybe even the same capacity, doesn’t mean they play well together. If you are using multiple batteries, they should be the same make and model, and roughly the same age. Most batteries will have a date code on the outer casing for determining age. learning from off grid mistakes

When I went shopping to replace my large storage batteries two years ago, I brought my battery analyzer with me to the store. They had a huge pallet of deep cycle batteries, so I had plenty to choose from. I dug through the pile and picked out a few that were manufactured within a month of each other. From that cohort, I tested each until I found a few batteries that had the same or very close to the same internal resistance. That was the matched set I ultimately bought and took home. Yeah, I must have looked a little weird picking through batteries and running tests, but I got what I wanted. learning from off grid mistakes

When you mix dissimilar batteries or batteries of different ages, the weak one will pull down the strong one. Always Install and remove your batteries as a set. If you must mix dissimilar batteries, wire a battery combiner between them.

Mistake 2: Mismatched solar panels.

This mistake needs some clarification. You should not mix/combine solar panels of differing voltages at any time. Solar panels that produce the same voltage but not the same wattage can be used together, but only if they are wired in parallel. Solar panels are often wired in series to increase efficiency and make better use of MPPT solar controllers. This works only if all the panels in the series are the same voltage and wattage.

If you wire solar panels of the same voltage but different wattage together in series, you will not damage anything or create an unsafe condition. What will happen is that the total power output of the system will not exceed the capacity of the smallest panel. For example, you have one 100 watt panel and one 50 watt panel wired in series. It might seem reasonable to think you’ve got a total of 150 watts capacity. Sorry, but you’ll never get more than 74 watts out of this system.

The reason why is fairly simple: Kirchoff’s Law states that current will always be the same at all points (nodes) in a series circuit. A 100 watt panel will produce about 5.75 amps. A 50 watt panel maxes out around 2.85 amps. Our 12 volt example panels below are wired in series for a system total of 24 volts (in reality, it would be closer to 26 volts).

Since Kirchoff says the current is the same at all points in the series, and the 50 watt panel will never exceed 2.85 amps output under any conditions, the system total is limited to 2.85 amps. Doing some basic math, 2.85 amps x 26 volts= 74 watts. These numbers will vary due to differences between loaded and open voltages, what specifications are used for your calculations, etc., but this gets us pretty close. Think of it like a convoy of ships: The entire convoy cannot go any faster than the slowest ship.

learning from off grid mistakes

ORIGINAL GRAPHIC ©2020

Mistake 3: Using automotive batteries.

If someone gives you a car battery, or a car battery is all you have (such as in a SHTF situation), then certainly go with it for your off grid ham radio power needs. But no thoughtful ham would purposely choose a car battery.

Car batteries are designed to deliver a large burst of current over a short period of time, which is needed to start a car. Off grid hams need batteries that can deliver smaller, steady amounts of current over a long period of time. Using a car battery will not hurt your equipment and is not a safety hazard, but you will not see the the level of performance that a correct battery would provide, and the car battery will have a shorter service life too.

Mistake 4: Using automotive “jump boxes”.

Those inexpensive portable battery boxes made for jump-starting cars seem like an easy, ready made power system for ham radio. They are not recommended for ham radio use for the same reason as standard car batteries. They are made for a short power burst, not for a lighter, continuous load. Some hams do use them with modest success, especially for QRP, but they’re not a serious way to power your radio.

Mistake 5: Buying the best, most expensive gear available.

Just as buying cheap junk because it’s cheap is a mistake, so too is insisting on only “the best”. More expensive does not necessarily mean a device has better build quality or will last longer than a less expensive device of the same type. In many cases it only means you get more cool switches and pretty lights. If you cannot justify the extra cost with some clear purpose or practical benefit, buying “the best” is a journey of vanity.

In my experience, mid-grade equipment has always given me the most bang for the buck. Early in my off grid career I spent over $500 on an ExcelTech inverter. They are made in USA. They are practically indestructible. The American military and US embassies around the world use them. They’re the Rolls Royce of inverters. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was unnecessary overkill. As nice as my ExcelTech is, my Samlex inverter is just as suitable for my application. It cost half as much as the ExcelTech and gives excellent performance. I still use both inverters, but if I were doing this over I’d get two Samlexes and spend the extra money on other useful upgrades.

Never buy any piece of off grid amateur radio equipment based solely on high or low price point…(continues)

Off Grid Ham: When Things Go Wrong, What Type of Ham Are You?

Chris Warren of Off Grid Ham asks When Things Go Wrong, What Type of Ham Are You?

It’s all fun & games until the electrons stop flowing.

Operating amateur radio is a load of fun. Operating amateur radio off grid is extra fun, but adds a layer of technical complexity to your station. Have you ever thought of what you would do if your off grid system itself went off line? Do you have the skills, spare parts, and tools to correct the problem and get the electrons flowing again? Troubleshooting solar power system may or may not be hard depending on what type of ham you are.

What kind of ham are you? Troubleshooting solar power

There are basically three kinds of off grid hams. “Type 1” hams do not get very involved with the technical aspect of the hobby. Maybe they just want to run contests. Perhaps they got into ham radio only because their kids are doing it, or to be part of a community service group. Type 1 hams don’t see amateur radio as a stand-alone hobby, but rather, as a tool, a means to achieve some other goal. They have some basic tech skills but want everything to be as plug-and-play as possible.

“Type 2” hams see radio as an end in itself. They love to tinker and experiment and would enjoy radio even if it had no ancillary practical purpose. Type 2’s enjoy messing around with radio/electronics and have a high skill level but don’t necessarily do a lot of on-air operating. They will pursue all kinds of projects, many of which never work and might seem a little crazy. They have a great time anyway. Troubleshooting solar power

“Type 3” hams are a combination of the first two. I place myself in this category. I love DIY and home brew projects and that’s what attracted me to ham radio back in the day. Yet, I see that ham radio has real-world applications. Type 3’s have figured out the magic combination of skills and utility. Troubleshooting solar power

Why this matters. Troubleshooting solar power

The type of ham you are will determine what happens when your off grid system goes down.

For Type 1’s it’s straightforward. Unless it’s a blown fuse or similar simple fix, they either call a pro or replace the entire suspect device.

Type 2’s know their off grid systems forward and backward because they probably built the system themselves. They can resolve even complex problems and have a large personal inventory of spare parts. Many Type 2’s will use the opportunity to reconfigure and make major changes and may spend a lot of time dabbling with different ideas beyond the initial problem.

Type 3’s, like type 2’s, can handle nearly any malfunction themselves because they have extensive technical knowledge of their off grid systems. They also have an inventory of spare parts, but only as it relates to their needs. They do not keep a lot of extra unrelated supplies around just for the heck of it like Type 2’s do. Type 3’s are practical and goal-oriented. They will quickly correct the immediate problem and save the tinkering and experimenting for another time. Troubleshooting solar power

Attention to detail.

Hopefully you occasionally take time to verify everything is in order. This means checking cables and connections, topping off electrolyte levels and density in flooded batteries, looking for damage with outdoor components, etc. By the way, when is the last time you cleaned your solar panels? Troubleshooting solar power

If you’re a Type 1 you’re probably not doing any of this. You probably don’t keep any spare parts around either. If you don’t plan on fixing anything yourself then at least plan for the time and resources for someone else to do it for you. Type 1’s are seldom preppers/survivalists (and if they are, they’re delusional) so being independent in SHTF situations is not a priority to them. I’m not trashing on Type 1’s. We all gotta do our own thing, right? It’s all good. I just want them to understand that they will have very limited options when things go wrong.

Types 2 and 3 are best set up to go it alone if needed. Still, there are always areas of improvement. For example, do you have printed technical data and manuals for your equipment? Are your tools neatly arranged and easily accessed, or are you the kind of person who spends thirty minutes tearing through a heap of junk to find a screwdriver? Do you proactively maintain your system, or do you only react when something goes wrong?

It happened to me. Troubleshooting solar power

troubleshooting solar power

PHOTO COURTESY OF PCHACADEMY

A few weeks ago I noticed that my home solar was producing hardly any watts during strong sunlight. Still, the batteries were fully charged at sundown. I didn’t think much of it until the next morning morning when the batteries were much more deeply discharged than they should be… (continues)

Off Grid Ham: Discussing Vertical And Wire Antennas

Here’s an article from Chris Warren of Off Grid Ham, writing about options for DIY antennas – Discussing Vertical And Wire Antennas

A topic so deep and wide.

I messing around with you. There is no such thing as an antenna specifically for off grid radio. But since off grid amateurs tend to be practical, do-it-yourself types, some vertical and wire antennas are more more appealing than others. What are the options, and how well do they work? We can’t possibly cover everything in one article, but we’ll go over the most popular types of antennas for off grid hams and talk about the function of each of them. vertical and wire antennas

Two basic flavors. vertical and wire antennas

There are two basic types of antennas for off grid radio: Vertical and wire. Yes, I am aware that there are many others: Beams, loops, etc. But remember we’re trying to keep it simple, practical, and relevant. A vast majority of hams end up using either a vertical or a wire antenna.

The reasons why are clear. These antennas are easy and inexpensive to build, and (for the most part) really do work. Think about all the advancements in technology. Radios have gone from massive tube farms to computerized communications centers with color displays and features that would have been Star Trek-ish just ten or twelve years ago! But at the other end of the coax, antennas have not fundamentally changed over the entire history of radio. You can compare a 50 year old ARRL Antenna Book to a 2020 edition and find nearly the same content in each of them. vertical and wire antennas

About the ARRL Antenna Book. vertical and wire antennas

It would be worth your while to own a print copy of the ARRL Antenna Book. It can be very technical and deep, maybe more than what the average ham is willing to digest, but wow, what a wealth of information. When you need to answer an obscure antenna question or look up a way-out-there math equation, the Antenna Book will come through. New copies can be quite expensive. I suggest buying an older used edition for a fraction of the cost. It doesn’t really matter because the information essentially never changes. My personal Antenna Book is nine years old and I have no plans to update it.

I don’t have a real high opinion of ARRL books in general, but the Antenna Book is an exception. It’s stellar. Every ham should own one.

The vertical antenna.

My very first antenna was a vertical, a Hy-Gain 14AVQ to be exact. I bought it used because, well, when you’re fourteen years old cobbling birthday & odd job money together for radio gear, that’s how you roll. The 14AVQ has been in production since at least the 1970s and is still available on the market today. I had a blast with that antenna and made many solid contacts on it. vertical and wire antennas

Vertical antennas offer an omnidirectional signal pattern, take up very little space, and are easy to install. They do not necessarily require support structures such as trees and buildings (I mounted my 14AVQ to a pipe pounded into the ground). Functionally they have a low angle of radiation, which is favorable to DX. There is also some evidence that vertically polarized antennas are better for short range (ground wave) communications.

The cons of vertical antennas. vertical and wire antennas

On the negative side, vertical antennas are harder to home-build and tune compared to wire antennas. Complicating that, commercially made verticals can be expensive. The Hy-Gain 14AVQ of my youth sells new for about $230.00. That’s a lot of money for what is essentially just an aluminum pole with some coils in it. The research & development costs, which I acknowledge can be very high, were amortized off the books decades ago. With that debt long paid off, the 14AVQ represents huge profit center for the manufacturer. This pattern can be repeated for almost any commercially made vertical antenna. Once the R&D costs are recovered, these antennas are basically money presses for the manufacturers.

Lastly, vertical antennas usually require ground radials. Where will you put them? If your antenna is mounted at ground level, you can just bury them in the dirt. Roof mounted verticals may be more tricky. There is no absolute rule for how many ground radials are needed, but more is better.

Wire antennas.

vertical and wire antennas

PUBLIC DOMAIN GRAPHIC

There is little to dislike about wire antennas. They can be easily made from materials most hams already have around the shop. Wire antennas done right really do work! The dipole is the “Mother antenna,” the antenna all others are based on. Wire antennas can be bent and shaped to fit your space. If you have to bend or droop a wire, it’s generally not a problem. Horizontal wire antennas also have a low angle of radiation, but it is dependent on elevation from the ground. This is why amateurs interested primarily in NVIS communications should not mount their wire antennas more than 30-50 feet up. There is such a thing as “too high”.

The bad news.

Wire antennas have two main disadvantages. First, they usually require two or more support structures. For a fixed station, this means having buildings or trees in the right places to hold your antennas up. For portable use, it means picking a site with trees or other tie points, or bringing a support system with you. By the way, many public parks prohibit affixing anything to natural features, even temporarily. Be respectful and verify what you’re allowed to do before you start tossing wire up in the trees.

Although wire antennas can sometimes be bent and shaped to fit a defined space, doing so may affect performance. Antennas are designed to be a certain shape for a reason. Anything that messes with the physics of an antenna is going to change the way it works. Changing the original shape of a wire antenna does not necessarily degrade performance, but it may result in a situation not favorable to your operating needs, such as when the radiation pattern is altered. Many hams have no choice and must do some antenna gymnastics to make their stations work. Although imperfect, these alterations are usually tolerable.

What about store-bought wire antennas?

I generally advise against buying commercially-made wire antennas. They do work well, but with a few exceptions they are not a good value for the money. One well known company is offering a portable “tactical dipole” for $400.00. Granted, it’s very well planned with a slick carry case and other handy features, but in the end it’s still just a dipole. A four-hundred dollar dipole! This illustrates a trend in the prepper/survivalist community where including the word “tactical” in a product name makes that product cost 3-5 times as much as it should.

The “Hail Mary” random wire antenna.

Wire antennas have one more big plus. A “Hail Mary” antenna can be any available length of wire. In more formal language, they’re called random wire antennas and they are exactly what the name implies. In an emergency, you can literally toss a random length of wire out the window, correct it to 50 ohms as best you can with an antenna tuner, and go. It won’t be very efficient, but you will get a signal out.

I have a random wire antenna as part of my go-kit. It works surprisingly well with my 5 watt FT-817. It would never be my first choice, but I’d be very happy to have it as a last choice.

Resources.

QSL.net has this amazing wire antenna reference that lists nearly 400 different wire antennas and diagrams on how to make them. Some of the designs are kind of way out there and I’m not sure they would work, but experimenting is part of the fun. The website cuts out complicated math and lengthy explanations; it just gives short & simple recipes on how to make some great antennas.

WA2OOO has a very cool calculator to determine the size of several popular wire antennas.

Off Grid Ham: When All You Have Is a Few Square Feet

Chris Warren of Off Grid Ham writes an article about operating off grid ham radio from small spaces like apartments in When All You Have Is a Few Square Feet. While this article is mostly power focused For information about stealth and hidden antennas, some of which can be used in small spaces see the Covert and Hidden Antennas article.

Hams are on their own. confined space ham radio

For better or worse, amateur radio is a hobby that typically requires a lot of outdoor space. Golfers can tee up on a golf course, and soccer junkies can use public athletic fields, but hams have so such dedicated public facilities. We have to work with whatever space we already own. Many hams are lucky enough to have huge backyards, sometimes many acres, to spread out their antennas and off grid equipment. Having enough space to do anything you want makes life as a ham a lot easier. This time we’re going to explore options for those who must operate confined space ham radio.

confined space amateur radio

STOCK PHOTO

Off Grid Ham reader Marlo sent in an email describing his difficult situation of living in a condo with almost no outdoor space for off grid power equipment. His dilemma is not uncommon. Many if not most hams have some kind logistical limitations to going off the gird with ham radio. It might be a lack of physical space, objections from spouses, or homeowner association (HOA) rules. I’m lucky enough not to live in a HOA, but I have in the past, and I think these organizations are for the most part a club for snotty power-tripping quasi-communist busybodies with way too much time on their hands. Regardless, it’s the reality many hams must live with. The situation is not hopeless. There are workarounds.

Getting something out of nothing. confined space ham radio

Suppose all you have is a small balcony. Or a deck or patio. How in the world can one have any kind of off grid operation with that? You do have options, but understand that there will be compromises. confined space ham radio

The Off Gird Ham 100 Watts for $300 power plant is one of the most popular and enduring articles on this website, with good reason. It’s a simple and easy DIY project that will easily work in a small homebound space. The solar panel can be stored flat under a bed, or vertically behind a cabinet. Since portability is not a main concern, you could even bump up the size of the battery, or have more than one battery and rotate them.

The Portable DC Power Pack is also a very viable and inexpensive option. You will need to reduce transmit power most of the time in order to keep within the technical limits of the pack. This handy DIY power source is 100% off grid and can also be used in the field. This gizmo is one of my personal favorites, and many readers have reported good results with them.

For those with a more outdoor space than the average condo, but still not enough to do anything big, I suggest the Portable Solar Power Plant. You can temporarily set the solar panel on a deck, patio, or small backyard. The battery & electronics will fit in a closet. This setup has enough juice to run a 100 watt radio if you go easy on the duty cycle. I also have a video on my YouTube channel demonstrating its capabilities.

Give it some gas? confined space ham radio

A less practical but still possible option is a gas powered generator. Even a small generator is going to produce much more power than the average ham needs. You’ll technically be committing one of the off grid mistakes, but it may be unavoidable. Generators are available at any hardware store for as little as a few hundred bucks. Keep in mind you’ll need to keep fuel on hand and change the oil every now and then. For hams in tight spaces, this might be a problem. Where are you going to store everything? There’s also one huge drawback: Noise. The cheap generators are colloquially called “screamers” for a good reason. They are oh-my-god loud! If you are in a condo or other high-density housing situation, the neighbors are not going to take well to a generator droning, at least not for very long. You might even be in violation of HOA rules. confined space ham radio

An inverter generator may be the answer…if you have money!

One possible solution is an inverter generator. Inverter generators run significantly quieter than conventional versions and are an excellent option when noise is an issue. The bad news? You can expect to pay 2x to 5x more than a comparable screamer. The legendary Honda EU-series is probably the best small generator, of any kind, on the market today. The EU2000i is the most popular. It barely makes any noise and with basic maintenance will run trouble free for decades. Honda introduced the EU-series inverter generator in 1988 and many of those early models are still in service cranking out the watts…(continues)

Off Grid Ham: Small Solar Can Give Big Results

Chris Warren at Off Grid Ham has another good article up on small solar arrays for power, Small Solar Can Give Big Results…If You Play It Right.

Call now! Operators are waiting! small solar power

You’ve probably seen the campy ads hawking small solar power systems and “solar generators”. These ads make some remarkable claims and the manufacturers are deliberately vague on the technical specifications of these products. They further fuzz up the facts with unrealistic depictions of hypothetical situations. small solar power

I especially get a chuckle from the TV commercial showing happy, cheerful kids playing a board game in a large, well-lit house during a power outage and raging storm outside. The entire house is powered by, we’re supposed to believe, the advertised product which is a small battery pack weighing almost nothing and fits under the bed. Are small solar power systems worthwhile, or are they junk? As anyone with at least one functioning brain cell should suspect, the truth lies somewhere in the middle grey area.

Pictures are better than words. small solar power

This video was recently posted to the Off Grid Ham YouTube channel. It’s just over three minutes long and demonstrates the power of small scale solar.

Small scale solar has been addressed on this blog before, and my advice is still the same. If you are looking to take amateur radio off grid with solar, your best option is a purpose built home brew system made from components that you personally selected for your application. Furthermore, a DIY system is almost always less expensive. If you don’t care about cost and just want a plug-and-play “solar generator,” then by all means go drop several hundred dollars for a glorified battery in a box (you’ll lay out another few hundred on a matching panel to charge it). To be fair, it’s a very cool looking box but in the end you’re only paying for looks so in that regard you’re getting your money’s worth. small solar power

I’m not knocking the functionality of these products. They actually do work very well if used within reasonable expectations. I’m sour on them because of their breathtaking price tags and marketing that vastly oversells their capabilities. The ads are targeted to non-technical people who will not bother or know to ask the right questions. The technically-savvy people who know what to look for will have a hard time finding even basic specifications such as amp-hour ratings on batteries. The information is usually dumbed down with generic statements like, “runs a laptop for twelve hours!” small solar power

The bottom line: They work, if you keep it real.

small solar power

Off Grid Ham original photo ©2017

The bottom line is that small solar power systems do work, up to a point. Forget about powering your house through a storm with anything that will fit under a bed, unless there is physics-defying alien technology out there I haven’t heard of yet. But if you need to run a QRP radio, charge up your handhelds, and have some juice leftover for other needs, a little 50-150 watt solar setup paired with a modest battery should suit the job just fine. And you don’t need to plop down six hundred-plus dollars to do it.

In the video a continuous 50 watt load is easily supported by the small system. It gets better: The system in the video is overbuilt for a 50 watt load. I used it for demonstration purposes, but you could get by with much less…(continues)

Click here to read the entire article at Off Grid Ham.

Off Grid Ham: Everything But the Ham (Non-Amateur Radios)

Chris Warren at Off Grid Ham has another good article up, this one describing the various radio services apart from ham radio which are available for use and their advantages and disadvantages – Everything But the Ham.

It’s about ham-less options.

I’m going to assume that everyone who reads this blog is either a currently licensed ham, or at least vaguely interested in becoming one. With that kind of a demographic, why should I even entertain the idea of covering non-ham radio communications? Well, it’s all about having options. Furthermore, there are some pretty good reasons why even licensed hams might want to consider other services. unlicensed radio communications

The king of communications. unlicensed radio communications

For non-commercial personal communications without reliance on a network or a grid, amateur radio isn’t just at the top of the pyramid, it’s about 95% of the entire pyramid. Without ham radio, your choices are very limited, but they’re not zero. What about that other five percent? Maybe you’re not a ham and don’t want to become one. Maybe you are a ham and want to expand your capabilities. What is out there? What is possible?

The good news is that there are several choices for non-ham communications. All of them are inexpensive and relatively easy to deploy. None of these options will allow you to communicate over long distances.

Multi-Use Radio Service (MURS).

MURS operates on five FM channels in the VHF band around 151 mHz. No license is required. Two watts is the maximum transmit power. The antenna cannot exceed 60 feet above ground or 20 feet above the structure on which it is mounted (whichever is higher). Non-voice communications such as motion sensors and security systems also use MURS. With only five channels, there is a possibility of competition for limited band space.

There’s one more hangup: MURS used to be part of the VHF business band. Commercial business licensees assigned to MURS frequencies were grandfathered in, meaning, they can still use the band even though their equipment may far exceed MURS technical requirements. Grandfathered business users have priority use over unlicensed MURS stations.

MURS-specific radios tend to be more expensive than those in other services. Many radios intended for licensed amateurs will operate on MURS frequencies. This is legal, but be sure to observe transmitter wattage restrictions as most amateur equipment by default exceeds two watts unless manually set to a lower power. unlicensed radio communications

General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS).

unlicensed radio communications

STOCK PHOTO

GMRS operates on thirty FM channels between 462 and 467 mHz. You will need a license in the USA; it costs $70 and is valid for ten years. GMRS shares 22 channels with the Family Radio Service (FRS). GMRS allows a maximum transmitter output of 50 watts, except for channels 8-14 where the limit is one-half (0.5) watt. Operators may use repeaters with GMRS if the input and output frequencies conform to established splits. Frequencies in between channels 1-7 may be used for simplex communications, but are limited to five watts. On interstitial frequencies between channels 8-14, simplex is also allowed but the transmit power limit is still 0.5 watts. unlicensed radio communications

True GMRS equipment can be costly. Be aware that manufacturers often market FRS radios as “GMRS radios”. This is technically true since the two services share frequencies, but read the fine print and know you are really buying. FRS radios are generally inexpensive and therefore poorly made.

Family Radio Service (FRS). unlicensed radio communications…(continues)

Click here to read the entire article at Off Grid Ham.

Off Grid Ham: Sudden Interest in Radio

Amateur Radio – ready for emergency deployment

Chris Warren of Off Grid Ham talks about the recent surge of Sudden Interest in Radio Syndrome (SIRS) cases in If You Missed The Train, Don’t Worry. There Will Be Another.

There’s a buzz about radio, and it’s not on the radio.

The amateur radio social media pages and web forums are suddenly buzzing with activity. Mostly it’s from people who are not hams but want to become one. This anecdotal evidence is supported by a notable increase in web traffic to offgridham.com in the last three weeks or so. The search terms suggest that most of these visitors are directly looking for information about off grid communications. Surprise! That’s what we do here, exclusively. So if you’re interested in off grid amateur radio you’ve landed on the best web page on this or any globe. covid-19

Saying the quiet part out loud. covid-19

covid-19

Public domain image.

Let’s not be coy. This interest in off grid amateur radio is being driven by the Covid-19 virus calamity consuming the world. While most people are not outright giving it as a reason why they are interested in off grid radio, they are dropping enough hints that it isn’t hard to figure it out. c

The funny thing is, the corona virus is not a calamity in the traditional sense. The grid is still solid. The electricity is on, the plumbing works, and the internet is up. The roads are free for travel and the stores are (mostly) open and (somewhat) well stocked. No one is being burned or flooded out of their homes. Society is still functioning, albeit with a six foot space cushion between every living human. covid-19covid-19

So why do so many people suddenly want to jump into radio? There’s not too many ways it can aid in Covid-19 response efforts, so it’s not about “emergency communications”. Or is it? I think the real motive is not about a disease. Rather, the disease is giving a lot of people a reality check about being prepared. Maybe they’re thinking about what might happen if all the people who make the grid work suddenly fall sick themselves. Maybe they’re thinking ahead to what else can happen where amateur radio really will be a valuable resource.

I’m just speculating and have no firm proof of any of this, but it’s hard not to see an association between current events and the sharp upturn of interest in amateur radio.

What now?

If you weren’t prepared before Covid-19 upended the world, you’re not going to make up for it now. I have some shocking news for all the hoarders filling their basements with toilet paper: You’e panicking and reacting, not preparing. The truly prepared already had a stock of toilet paper before Covid-19 came to town. The good news is that it’s not too late to prepare for the next calamity…and you know there will be another one, someday, somewhere.

Passing a simple test and buying a $35.00 handheld radio off Amazon to stash in a cabinet “just in case” is not going to make you prepared either. Amateur radio has a low barrier to entry but the learning curve is fairly steep once you’re in the door. If you do make the step into ham radio, it’s going to require some effort and practice. It’s not a “set it and forget it” avocation, at least not if you want to be any good at it. Many if not most of the people who become amateurs solely for emergency preparedness purposes will not touch a radio until an emergency actually happens. Then, and only then, will they realize that being prepared is not about collecting stuff.

Skills vs. stuff.  Covid-19

Theres is good news: Learning about ham radio is fun. Amateur radio is after all a hobby that just happens to have a practical secondary application as an emergency communications service. You’ll be a better person and be better prepared if you don’t let the latter overshadow the former. Being prepared is about having skills and having a plan. Regular readers of this website know I beat the hell out of the importance of having a plan. They also know the operator with a lot of skill but very little equipment is better off than a wannabe with a roomful of the latest & best gear. Making the most of what you have and using skills as a force multiplier is the heart & soul of what Off Grid Ham is all about.

Welcome.

If you recently found this website as a curious outsider, welcome. I hope you’ll stick around for the long haul and enrich yourself with amateur radio. If you’re a long time amateur or a regular reader, I hope you’ll refer newcomers to offgridham.com and help them find a reason to take amateur radio seriously.

We are in the midst of a disaster. It’s too late to plan for what’s already happened. If you weren’t prepared, learn from experience. The next disaster is 100% going to happen so ready yourself now. Only a fool waits for the the house to start burning before they go shopping for a fire extinguisher. I believe the strength and spirit of America will pull us through but hope has never solved any problem. As a famous radio host once quipped, hope is just disappointment delayed. Start learning skills and come up with a plan right now.

Off Grid Ham: You’re a Ham Radio Beginner. Now What?

Chris at Off Grid Ham has a nice article posted about all of the different things you can do as an amateur radio operator, geared toward those who are new to the hobby. We’ll be holding a two-Saturday technician license class in the next couple of months (probably toward the end of February) if you are interested in studying for your license. While our local club is focused on emergency/disaster communication, we do experiment with what modes are best for that purpose. We have running packet and AREDN (Amateur Radio Emergency Data Network) networks. We work on off grid power for some of our stations. Several members are running HF digital stations and many do HF voice for regional communications. So even a specialty like “disaster communications” can include a lot of areas of fun.

HAM RADIO BEGINNER

Courtesy of FOX Broadcasting

This article is primarily for those who recently got their radio license, but I hope the old timers will hang around. The goal is to provide direction to the ham radio beginner and give more experienced operators some insight they can use to help others ease into the hobby.

You’ve taken the first step into a “club” with a rich history of technical innovation, community service, and personal growth. You’re going to meet some great people, and to be completely honest, some not so great people too. Like any avocation, what you get out of ham radio depends on your motivation and attitude. If your head and your heart are in the right place, the rest will work itself out.

The breadth and depth of amateur radio can be intimidating.

Ham radio has a low barrier to entry but the learning curve is quite steep once you’re in the door. Don’t be put off by that. As a ham radio beginner, it’s important to understand that no matter how long you do this, you’ll never truly know everything.

Amateur radio is a very wide and deep field with many subspecialties. Among them are DXing, contesting, disaster/emergency services, fox hunting, data modes, moon bounce, SKYWARN, satellites, antenna design, QRP operating, and of course my personal favorite, off grid power. There are many more. The diversity is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because there truly is something for everyone. It’s a curse because there are so many choices a ham radio beginner may feel a little overwhelmed.

Your first action should be to define what direction you want to go. For some people, this is the easy part. They may have wanted their license for a specific purpose, such as to work with an emergency response group. If you knew what you wanted to do with ham radio before you even got your ticket, then you can skip this step.

For everyone else, some decisions will need to be made. Be open to all the options, even ones that don’t seem to grab your interest…

If you have not figured it out yet, your license is a departure, not a destination. To get anything at all out the hobby, you’ll have to invest some effort into learning much more than what you had to know to pass a test. The best way to do this is to partner up with a more experienced operator who shares your interests, or join a club.

Both of these options can be problematic for the ham radio beginner. It might be hard to find someone who has the time and desire to give one-on-one help. Clubs are a hit-and-miss affair. Some are very well run and go far out of their way to help newcomers. Others are very clique-ish and don’t want their group invaded.

Many clubs themselves specialize. Some do community service projects or emergency/disaster comms. Others focus on contests. One club in my area spends almost all their time planning and running a swap meet. Another is just a bunch of guys who hang out on a repeater and exists as club in name only. If your local club is not into what you are looking to do as a ham, then there’s going to be a disconnect. This of course doesn’t mean you can’t join or won’t fit in, it just means you may not get what you were hoping for…

Click here to read the entire article at Off Grid Ham.

OG Ham: The Transmitters of Freedom Get a Little Louder

In a follow-up to his previous article The Transmitters of Freedom Should Be Turned Back On, Chris at Off Grid Ham has some good and bad news about short wave broadcasting and a little on who is doing what to whom.

The Transmitters of Freedom Get a Little Louder

shortwave broadcasting

STOCK PHOTO.

First, the bad news…

Shortwave broadcasting is not dead, it’s just being kept alive by the wrong people. Shortwave broadcasting is almost exclusively the domain of sleazy oppressive governments and religious outliers. Communist-run Radio China International took over some of Radio Australia’s old frequencies when Australia discontinued their international shortwave service. And here’s something that should make shortwave fans seethe: The savings from shutting down shortwave saved the Aussie government…wait for it…was less than two million dollars.

That’s right. To save what isn’t even a budget rounding error, the Australian government killed shortwave to tens of millions of people. They probably could have raised that money from private donations.

When a pro-democracy voice leaves the platform, someone will step in to fill the vacuum. That “someone” is usually a bad actor. It’s unlikely shortwave broadcasting will ever completely die. It’s also unlikely shortwave will ever go back to the glory days no matter how obvious its practicality may be. Expect to see oppressive governments increase their presence on the HF bands at the same rate democracies abandon them.

The BBC increases shortwave broadcasting to disputed Kashmir.

The victims of tyrants, socialism, communism, etc., still clamor for the news of truth and freedom. They unfortunately have few options due to the rise of the internet and subsequent decline of shortwave broadcasting. Old school analog AM radio may seem like a quaint anachronism, but unlike the internet it requires very little infrastructure and is difficult to defeat.

The BBC has increased –yes, increased– shortwave broadcasting to the Kashmir territory in Asia. The backstory is somewhat complicated, but the short version is that India, Pakistan, and China each control a portion of the area. All three nations dispute the territorial claims of the others. India shut off the internet, some of the media, and phone service to the area.

To fill the information void, the BBC added one hour and forty five minutes of programming to the region. While this may not sound like much, put yourself in the people of Kashmir’s shoes. If you were living under a media blackout, having nearly two extra hours of uncensored news would be deeply meaningful.

Dissidents use shortwave broadcasting to reach Hong Kong and mainland China.

Sound of Hope started as an effort to bring homeland news to Chinese people living in the United States. It  has grown into a full-blown pro-democracy shortwave broadcasting network beaming to mainland China and Hong Kong. They have even found a way to evade the jamming of their programming by using a network of small transmitters placed in strategic places. Sound of Hope moves its signal to whatever transmitters are least effected by the jamming. It’s an effective system.

As one of the few media outlets that can defeat communist censorship, Sound of Hope has become a significant player in supporting the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.  Sound of Hope is not sponsored or funded by any government. It is run mostly by volunteers, many of whom are placing themselves at great personal risk by helping the network. It should be a national embarrassment that a group of volunteers with little money are doing what large governments deemed “too expensive” and “ineffective”…

Click here to read the entire article at Off Grid Ham.

Off Grid Ham: Survival Skills – When It’s No Longer a Hobby

Chris Warren at Off Grid Ham has a nice article up for amateur radio licensees, talking about whether you know it or not when a disaster strikes you may become the person everyone around expects to communicate with the outside world. So it might be a good idea to do some planning even if preparedness “isn’t your thing.”

Survival Skills: When It’s No Longer a Hobby

Like it or not, you may become “that guy” (or girl).

Amateur radio means different things to different people. Some like to tinker and experiment. Others are into DX or contests, or maybe community service projects. No matter what your motivations are, amateur radio serves a secondary usefulness that goes far beyond just being a hobby or avocation. Threatening weather, fires, floods, civil unrest, large scale accidents, and a long list of other calamities can and do occur. No area of the world is truly safe from everything. The day may come when your pastimes are valuable survival skills. Are you ready to be the one others can count on when SHTF? You may get the job even if you don’t want it.

It’s not crazy doomsday paranoia.

You’ve probably heard all the stereotypes about survivalists and preppers. While it’s true a small but highly visible minority of survivalists have unconventional and even bizarre ideas, the survivalists’ root theme is perfectly reasonable and rational: Major disruptions in society can and do occur and it’s wise to have survival skills and supplies that will help you deal with the situation.

Do you have a fire extinguisher and smoke detectors in your house? Why do you have these things when statistically you’ll live your entire life and and never need them? Are you some kind of paranoid weirdo?

Do you see where I’m going with this? Being prepared for things that are very unlikely to happen does not make one a prophesying crackpot. To some degree everyone is a survivalist/prepper; at what point being prudently prepared becomes kooky is a matter of either naiveté or cynicism, depending on your perspective.

Amateur radio and survival skills.

survival skills
Hurricane Harvey. Photo courtesy of conservativetribune.com

The maxim that amateur radio works when everything else fails may be a cliché, but it’s not inaccurate. The average off grid amateur already has most of the required equipment. The only missing piece is coming up with a plan to apply those survival skills in an actual SHTF situation. Reviewing a few basic concepts offers focus:

Click here to read the entire article at Off Grid Ham

Off Grid Ham: Go Boxes

Dan Passaro’s shack in a can.

In this article, Chris Warren of Off Grid Ham spends a little bit of time talking about ham radio go boxes. For ham radio enthusiasts, the radio go box is mostly commonly used when responding as an emergency communications volunteer or for fun, portable radio communications while camping or hiking. But the go box holds a place for preppers, too, even if you aren’t an amateur radio licensee. Even if your plan for emergencies is to “bug in” (stay put at home) there are disasters which may force you out of your home, and you will want some kind of portable communications ready to go – whether that is ham radio, FRS, GMRS, MURS, CB or just a kit for keeping your cell phone charged up.

Go Box Zen 2.0

I didn’t realize it’s been over three years since the last time Off Grid Ham specifically addressed go boxes. If the internet discussions and on air chatter are any indicator, it’s a very popular way to operate. It’s way past time to revisit the humble ham radio go box and come up with some fresh ideas.

In the last three years I’ve noticed an uptick in ham radio go box deployment. There are even entire social media pages dedicated solely to go boxes (or bags or whatever your thing is). I think there are several reasons why. Many operators live under homeowners’ association rules that severely limit having a fixed antenna. Theses operators may have no choice but to hit the road. Others want something they can take camping, for SHTF purposes, or EMCOMM. The various special event stations from parks and other significant places may be driving the trend too. There’s also new equipment manufacturers offering low cost gear. This opened possibilities to people who could not otherwise afford a dedicated go box.

As before, this is not going to be a step-by-step how to on building a ham radio go box. There are too many variables and too many individual choices for me to come up with a plan that works for everyone. Instead, we’ll go over some concepts to consider and questions you’ll need to answer before you begin.

Defining priorities.

What is the Number One priority for your ham radio go box? It it portability? DX-capability? Data modes? Keeping the cost down? Before you can construct a go box, you have to decide what trait is the most important. From there you can work in secondary needs. As with everything, there will be compromises, and some things are mutually exclusive.

The main reason ham radio go boxes do not live up to expectations is because they were not built to expectations in the first place. Or possibly, what you thought was a Number One priority turned out to be not such an urgent issue after all. Years ago my first go box was a huge fail because my Number One priority, cost savings, meant giving up so many other smaller things that they made the cost savings not worth it.

ham radio go box
The main parts of my new & improved, much lighter ham radio go box. Left is a 27 watt folding solar panel. Top is a DC power box which includes a 13 amp-hour lithium battery and the charge controller. Right is a random wire antenna. Not shown: Alpha Antenna FMJ.

I used an old Yaesu FT-757 GX II radio. I also dug up an inverter, a solar controller, an FT-2900 2-meter radio, a 100 watt solar panel, and some various plugs and connectors. All of this stuff I already had. I built a nice wood box to mount everything in. My out of pocket cost for the entire project was less than $100.00, and most of that was for a 35 amp hour SLA battery. It looked impressive. I felt like a boss!

Well guess what? I achieved my goal of keeping the cost down, but my ham radio go box was so clunky and heavy that I didn’t care. Between the battery, the wood box, and all the other stuff, I could barely move that beast by myself. There wasn’t much “go” in that go box, unless I invested in a forklift too. I thought saving money was my Number One priority but I gave up too many other attributes to make it worthwhile.

That was my lesson in not only defining priorities, but also considering what else I have to give up to attain that priority. I inadvertently buried the cost savings under all the other problems. I used that go box only once or twice, then dismantled it.

What comes next?

After admitting defeat in my first attempt at a ham radio go box, I reexamined my priorities…

Click here to continue reading at Off Grid Ham.

Related:

OH8STN: Grid Down Comms

Instructables: KE0OJE’s Ham Radio Go Box

Instructables: Radio Go Box (Ham, MURS, GMRS, FRS)

HARC Net: Amateur Radio Go Kit (pdf)

 

Off Grid Ham: Grounding Your Off Grid System

Chris Warren over at Off Grid Ham has a nice article about the often confusing concept and execution of system grounding in Grounding Your Off Grid System. He’s not just talking about grounding your communications gear, but also your solar panels, and generators. Don’t get burned; learn to ground.

It’s hard to follow.

One issue that seems to come up a lot in the off grid radio realm is proper system grounding. The rules and expectations are hard to follow. There are a lot of opinions out there. Many of them are accurate, others are not. Today we’ll go over some basic grounding principles for off grid ham radio. This is by no means a comprehensive guide.

All the same basic grounding concerns with commercial power also apply to off grid energy. Electricity does not behave differently just because it comes from a renewable source. Finally, lightning does not discriminate!

What exactly is “ground”?

In the most simple terms, “ground” is a reference point. If you remember your basic electricity training for your amateur radio license, voltage is an expression of potential energy. However, potential doesn’t mean anything unless it is compared to something. For example, if you are standing on the roof of your house you have potential energy (via gravity) when compared to your yard. If you are laying flat on your back in your yard you have no potential energy compared to the yard because, after all, you’re already in the yard. You can’t fall if you’re already down, right?

Electrical grounding works the same way. Electricity needs a place to go, and it will not go anywhere without potential. Ground provides an electrical reference point. This has many implications for the operational effectiveness and safety of your off grid system.

Grounding outdoor equipment.

If electricity needs a place to go, it’s best for it to have a defined safe path instead of letting it find its own way. Off grid hams should place a high priority on grounding antennas and solar panels.

Connect (bond) solar panel frames together with 6 gauge copper wire attached to a conductive metal pipe or rod pounded into the ground. Be sure also to connect any metal support structures. Grounding lugs made specifically for solar panels are available from many sources including (of course) Amazon. Ground rods should be at least six and preferably eight feet deep. Getting a ground rod down that far will be a problem for many hams. You can substitute two or more shorter rods in place of one long one (be sure to bond the rods to each other).

GROUNDING

OFFGRIDHAM.COM ORIGINAL GRAPHIC ©2019

Click here to read the entire story at Off Grid Ham.