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RE and Ham Radio

Solar Power and Amateur Radio

Richard Perez N7BCR

©1997 Richard Perez

The more we use the tools of technology, the more we become dependent upon them. While technology does make our lives easier, it extracts a price—dependance on infrastructures beyond our control. Sometimes technology lives up to its promise and gives us tools which free us and make us more self-sufficient. Solar energy and Amateur (Ham) radio are two such tools.

Independent Power

While regular readers of Home Power are familiar with PVs, wind gennys, and microhydro turbines, the public at large still thinks electricity can only be made by a centralized utility or a gas generator. Home power people know that electricity can be independently made on-site using sunshine, wind, and falling water. During times of emergency or disaster, RE systems continue to make electricity when grid power fails and/or the gas runs out.

Independent Communications

Amateur radio, or Ham radio as it is commonly called, is just like independent electricity, only applied to communications. Home power systems have only been around for twenty years or so. Ham radio has been happening for over 100 years.

Ham radio is an international network of people who operate their own radio communications equipment. These radio amateurs are licensed by their government. Hams must take an exam in order to secure this license, called a "ticket". The name Amateur is really misleading because Hams actually pioneered most of the developments we now take for granted in radio and television communication.

Who do Hams talk to? Well, other Hams of course, and there are millions of us worldwide. Hams talk in virtually every known mode of communication: Morse code, radioteletype, voice, computer data, and video. Their communications spans from across town to the other side of the world.

OK, so Hams talk worldwide, but are we saying anything worth listening to? Yes, we are! You can find virtually every subject imaginable under discussion on Ham radio. If your interests are in electricity and electronics, then Hams are a gold mine of practical and useful information. And Ham radio is two way, you don't have to be content with just listening, you can jump into the discussion and ask questions, or air your views.

Many Hams specialize in what's called "Handling Traffic" which means relaying communications for others. Ham Traffic Nets span states and continents, delivering messages quickly and accurately. Other Ham radio nets are much smaller, such as our Backfence Net here around Agate Flat. Within six miles of Funky Mountain Institute there are four full time households, three are occupied by Hams. We just leave our radios (at home and in our vehicles) on all the time. If anything happens anywhere around our neighborhood, we all learn of it instantly.

You may ask if we really need to have independent communications. In this day of telephones, FAXes, Internet, and cell phones why would anyone need to have their own personal Ham radio? Here is just one example of many. Last summer a big lightning storm came through this area. The lightning started a forest fire close to us, french fried the entire local telephone network, and blitzed the local cell phone site. All standard communications were dead and our neighborhood was burning. We were able to get word to the professional fire fighters, and mobilize everyone. A close neighbor and Ham (Jim WD6EEY) located the fire site and directed all of us to it, all via amateur radio. Kathleen KB6MPI was in her car some 20 miles from the fire, but she heard our communications on Ham radio. She drove to the local fire station and told the pros where the fire was. And this is just one of many, many instances where Ham radio has saved lives and property during emergencies.

When the complex networks of technology, be it either electric power or communications, fail, then we are on our own. Ham radio is very like renewable energy. Do it for yourself and you can rely on it.

Solar-powered Ham Radio

Ham radio is a natural for solar power. Most Ham stations can easily be sourced by one to two PV modules. The Ham radio equipment loves the smooth,

RE and Ham Radio ripple free, power delivered by a battery. The real effectiveness of Ham communications is very apparent when the grid fails. What good is all the radio gear if there is no electricity to power it? Solar electricity and battery storage is the answer. All Hams should consider PV/battery systems for their radio systems. For under $1000 of RE hardware, most Ham stations could operate without the electric power grid entirely.

Ham radios come in many sizes (from hand held to fills the room), power levels (a few milliWatts to 2,000 Watts), and operating frequencies (DC to Daylight). We use several hand held transceivers here which operate on the 2 meter ham band. They use small NiCd batteries and are easily recharged using a small PV module. I'd rather leave the house without my boots than my handheld. Most Ham radios come in 12 VDC versions for automobiles. These same radios work great in 12 VDC home systems. Power levels are mostly low, 100 Watts or less on transmit and around 5 Watts or less on receive. If you already have a home power system, then you won't notice the energy consumption of ham radio gear.

RE users here is Ham radio!

If you already appreciate the self-sufficiency of making your own electricity from sustainable sources, then you are going to love independent communications. While I have stressed the dramatic, emergency, aspects of Ham radio, it's really the day to day convenience which keeps me using it. Little things like being able to work in the field and have solid two way communications with home and vehicle. Being able to pull into a town in a distant state and get the straight scoop on local eateries. Being able to arrive at the chaos of setting up for an Energy Fair, and have everyone (the whole HP Crew are Hams) in contact. Passing an idle moment by meeting a new Ham and talking about solar power. The thrill of talking to another Ham in Australia while using less than 10 Watts of power. If you plan to go for a Ham ticket, then take your significant other along—it's much more than twice the fun and utility.

Hams here is Renewable Energy!

What's the scoop, Hams? You folks already know enough electrical theory to understand how renewable energy works. Your station should be sustainable—you need to have solar power for your radios. Next time Field Day comes around, up root that solar Ham station and go to the nearest mountaintop. Next time an emergency shuts off power and phone, be in a condition to handle traffic.

A Special Event Station at MREF '98

What we need to introduce the RE and Ham communities to each other is a Special Event Station at next year's Midwest Renewable Energy Fair. I've already talked to the MREF Folks and they say, "Go for it!" Electricity will be supplied by the Fair's solar and wind systems. The event could introduce many RE folks to the world of Ham radio. It could also introduce many Hams, on the air, to the world of renewable energy. This is a marriage made in heaven!

What we need to make this happen is help. We need people with feet in both worlds, RE and Ham. These people must make sure that all radio gear and ops are on site and working on time. They must also make sure that the Ham booth is populated and on the air while the MREF is open to the public. I am not up to this job. I teach two seminars daily and try to spend much of the rest of my time in the Home Power booth answering questions. We need Hams who know RE who are willing to accept this task. How about it? Contact me directly and I will act as coordinator until the group gets organized.


Richard Perez N7BCR, c/o Home Power Magazine,

PO Box 520, Ashland, OR 97520

Tele: 916-475-3179 (during west coast biz hours)

FAX: 916-475-0836 (24 hours a day)

E-mail: [email protected]

Hams: We monitor 146.400 MHz FM Simplex

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