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: Jumping Off the Grid for Beginners

Chris Warren at Off Grid Ham has written an off grid radio guide for those who are beginners to working their radios without mainline power. There are a bunch of useful links at the end of his article, too.

The demand and desire to take amateur radio off grid is absolutely there. The problem is that information about off grid radio is sprinkled around. It’s hard to find straight answers. Many radio and survival blogs occasionally address the issue, but to my knowledge, Off Grid Ham and OH8STN are the only two outlets that deal with off grid radio radio exclusively.

For readers who are not off the grid, or seek to expand off grid capabilities, I’ve put together this “off grid radio guide” for beginners that will answer the most common questions in one compact package. This is not a comprehensive guide; we’re just going to summarize main points. At the end of this article there will be links to additional information on the topics covered here.

Have a purpose!

off grid radio guide

Graphic courtesy of tunein.com

I’ve beaten this drum so much it may seem tiresome, but it cannot be overstated that having clearly defined goals is an absolute must. If you do not have a specific purpose in mind, then you’re just going to trip around randomly trying different things with no meaningful result. If you have the time and money to spend on dead-end projects, then by all means don’t bother with a roadmap; you’ll eventually find your way and probably have a great time doing it. Off grid radio guide

But for those of us who do not have the means to live like plans don’t matter, the first chapter in our off grid radio guide is to have a purpose. Your stated goal does not have to be complicated or lengthy. Here are a few examples:

  • Operate for a weekend or so while camping.
  • Helping kids/scouts/youth group with an educational project.
  • Involvement with contests and SOTA/POTA activities.
  • Energy independence/operate off grid full time from a home station.
  • Survivalist/prepper communications for when SHTF.
  • Curiosity/self improvement. Off grid radio guide

Your goals may change over time. I originally got into off grid ham radio just to experiment and fool around with solar panels. That lead to a large home station, several portable power setups, and this blog! Regardless of what your motivations are, make sure you can define them.

How much power will you need? Off grid radio guide

Answering this question is a major component of defining your purposes and goals.. After all, it doesn’t make sense to plan a power system without knowing how much power you’ll need.

If your plans include an engine-driven mechanical generator, choose one that will run at 33-50% of its maximum capacity while powering your equipment. This is the window where generators are the most efficient. You don’t want to push a generator close to its limit for extended periods, nor do you want a generator that is way oversized for the load it powers. Either of these two extremes are a bad idea.

Batteries.

Matching power needs to batteries is a very tricky dance because a battery’s performance can change with age, temperature, previous use, and physical condition. A handy rule to follow is that whatever number you come up with for your needed battery capacity, increase it by 50%. This will give you plenty of wiggle room for inherent factors that degrade battery capability.

When determining battery size, carefully consider the expected duty cycle you’ll be demanding of your equipment. Duty cycle is a ratio, expressed as a percentage, of transmit time to receive time. The more you transmit, the higher the duty cycle and the more battery you’ll need. At a minimum, figure a duty cycle of 25% and up to 80% if you run a lot of data.

Solar panel calculation.

No off grid radio guide would be worthwhile without discussing solar panels. The biggest variable is the sun itself. On a cloudy day, you may realize only 10% of your panel’s capacity. A solar panel will never hit its rated maximum power due to the varying levels of sunlight and the inefficiency of the system. Like batteries, include generous headroom in the form of more solar wattage capacity to make up for the losses…

Click here to continue reading at Off Grid Ham.

The Medic Shack: The Powergrid. Is it as screwed up as we think it is?

The Smart Survivalist: Off-Grid Batteries and Power Systems

The Smart Survivalist: How Much Does it Cost to Live Off Grid?

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

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