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