Technology

What you don’t know can ruin your day.

Radio

Fortunes are made and lost based on information exchange. How we dress on a given day might be based on weather reports. Television and radio inform us on developing news. We hear about our friends on social media and through email. Disruption of these services can indeed “ruin” our day; that is, in normal circumstances. In a state of emergency, what you don’t know can kill you. Our reliance on the power grid, cell phones and the Internet makes us very vulnerable. A simple storm like Sandy or Katrina can take away all power distribution and communications for days, even weeks. A hurricane will wreak havoc on a large area. just look at the Philippines recently or the last tsunamis in the Pacific. We are not immune from such events just because we have been lucky so far. Have we?

Lightning storm in Bradenton Florida

Lightning storm in Bradenton Florida

Certainly the United States has been lucky. Yellowstone hasn’t blown up yet, nor has California separated from the mainland after the overdue “big-one.” Since the Civil War the country has been fairly peaceful. There was an event however a century and a half ago that would have ended civilization had it happen today. Statistically it will. Actually there are about one in eight chances that it will happen by 2020. Meteor strike? Volcanic eruption? Nope, nothing that fancy but potentially deadlier. I am referring to the solar storm of 1859. Back then it only fried telegraphs and shocked a few Morse-code operators. Today it would destroy every single microchip in it’s path. That includes those in your car, phones, computers; airplanes, satellites, the trucks that deliver food to supermarkets, everything. We would essentially be back to 1859 with the population of 2014. I won’t tell you how important it is for you to consider that just maybe you could take a few simple steps to survive the first few weeks of any natural or man-made disaster. Just Google “prepping,” thank me later. One of these steps however I know much about, and that is radio communications. Not only receiving, but also transmitting. There is nothing worse than not knowing or reporting what is going on or not being able to call for help. Is your relative on the other side of town still alive? Have you ever seen a wall full of photographs in a disaster area refugee camp?

Now, this article is not about helping your community by becoming a Ham Radio operator (though I will suggest you do) and going to meetings with a bunch of old guys who occasionally will “help” during the local walk-a-thon with handheld radios and orange jackets. They can be of tremendous help during local or regional emergencies, but in my opinion only for a limited time until generators run out of gas and looting starts. Then they won’t come to you, or you to them to send word to your relatives on the other side of the country. Nor will you have any idea of what is going on beyond your field of view. This article is about helping yourself, friends and family. It is about staying in touch with them in times of need, receiving and exchanging vital information.

This is just an introduction. The subjects I will cover include which radios to use for different situations and distances. What type of information you can convey via radio, including voice, Morse code, text, and yes, even emails, including attachments. I will talk about simple but effective antennas you can build with cheap electrical wire. Which batteries to use and why. How to recharge them without power. You will learn how you could make contacts globally for less than $100 of gear that fits in a shirt pocket and send emails without the Internet for a few hundred dollars. I will not charge you for the information.

Gil's Field Radio Station

Gil’s Field Radio Station

What do I know about this stuff and why should you listen to me? Well, I went to school for electronics back in the 80s. At the time I was also into CB radio and learned how to set-up a radio station and tune an antenna properly. I learned about propagation and how radio waves behave in regards to the ionosphere, time of day and seasons. When CB radio went out of style with the advent of cell phones I boxed up my radio, picked up a camera, became a photographer and also learned to fly. Another story… Fast forward to 2012. It became increasingly apparent to me that things were not heading in the right direction economically as well as internationally. Also being separated from my parents by thousands of miles could be a problem if communications were disrupted. I started looking into Ham radio. Of course I wasn’t going to do what most Ham operators do, namely set-up a big station in my attic with a tower in the back yard to chat about politics and other ailments after the eight-O-clock news. I wanted to find what could be used after everything fails. What could be carried in a backpack that doesn’t weigh a ton. Being able to talk to a friend three miles down the road, send a message to someone on another continent or listen to a distant radio station for news. All of this with gear that can fit in a shoebox, including antennas and batteries. I wanted something I could use for weeks, months or even years without power.

There are three levels or licenses for Amateur radio operators. Usually one starts with the Technician license, which is very easy, then upgrades to General maybe a year later. Some go as far as the “Amateur Extra” license, though not everyone passes because of the amount of material involved and the math. I studied for and passed all three exams the same day. I have built and operated many radios, all geared towards that end. I have bought and sold numerous models. Most of my antennas are home-built with materials bought at the local hardware store. My favorite radio, which I also built is the size of a pack of cigarettes and I am routinely heard five to six thousand miles away.

Weber MTR

Weber MTR

I have operated these radios while camping, even outside my favorite coffee shop. Oh, and I can decode Morse code in my head at twenty five words-per-minute. So, I do pretend to know what might work and certainly what doesn’t. But enough self-pontificating.. A lot of the information I will present has been passed down to me from ex military signal intelligence spooks who know how to set-up a portable “discreet” radio station. Notably, I need to thank my friend Ray who helped me with my Morse code speed and taught me a good deal about what works in the field. Most of my Ham friends are very knowledgeable on field radio operations. It would be too long for me to thank them all here. You know who you are.. There are no secrets in radio. There are however a lot of misconceptions. There are also as many types of radio operations as there are games using a ball. They are as different as can be. Radio prepping is one of them and a fairly new concept.

Chapter two will deal with the minimum set-up to communicate with friends in the same town and also cover short-wave radios for news reception. Both can be done at very low cost and a Ham radio license isn’t necessarily required. That will include CB radios and handhelds of different kinds. I will assume the reader knows nothing about radio or even electricity. I will also explain how to protect your radios against strong magnetic fields generated by solar storms, lightning or God forbid, nuclear explosions. You could potentially stop reading there if you have no special interest in radio or no family living beyond about twenty miles.

Handhelds

Handhelds

Chapter three will move to regional and global communications for which a Ham radio license is required; again easy to obtain by anyone above the age of six who can read and for about $15. I will also write about easy to set-up antennas that are practically invisible. You will learn the peculiarities of the different frequencies or bands and how to take advantage of them with different modes of communications.

Chapter four will dwell into portable radios and why Morse code is probably the best mode for preppers. I will give you tips on how to learn the code efficiently by avoiding all the mistakes I made! Batteries and solar charging will be explored. This is my favorite mode of operation and I am looking forward to sharing this information.

Morse Code

Morse Code

Chapter five will be about data modes and sending emails. I will explain how you can connect a radio to your computer to send text or any type of file. This is beyond portable operations but could be extremely useful for short to medium term emergencies. Questions and suggestions are welcome.

CH2

I needed a better antenna for my Yaesu FT-270R. My requirements were to find a portable, efficient and easy to build design. The short rubber antenna works fine for me now, especially that I am not transmitting before getting my license. I do want more range however for emergency situations, in case local repeaters are down. My first thought was to make a Yagi-Uda directional antenna. They have a high gain but transmit in only one direction. While this can be an advantage, and I plan on getting one, my go-to antenna needs to be omnidirectional. I found the Slim Jim design to be my best option. It is easily made from soldered copper tubing. All you need is a couple of 5ft lengths of 1/2″ tubing, 90deg corners, end caps and PVC Ts. I added an electrical junction box for the feed-point connector, but it might make it more difficult to attach the coax and tune the antenna.


2m Slim Jim


Total length very-top to very-bottom is 58″. Width center-to-center is 2″. Gap is about 1-3/4″. See the Ham-Universe articles (1 & 2) for exact measurements.

It is easy to calculate dimensions for other frequencies:

  • 3/4w : 8415/F-mhz.
  • 1/2w : 5610/F-mhz.
  • 1/4w : 2805/F-mhz.
  • Feed point : 10-20% of 1/4w.


Slim Jim Gap

Slim Jim Gap


The PVC Ts need to be reamed with a 5/8″ drill bit so that the copper tubing can go through. I used a bit of WD40 to slide them down. Between the two Ts, I epoxied a 1″ piece of 1/2″ plastic tubing. There is one “H” PVC support assembly on the top portion and one on the lower portion, right next to the end cap.


Slim Jim Feed Point

Slim Jim Feed Point


I am not sure that using a plastic electrical junction box was a good idea for the feed point. Since I have not received my SO-239 socket yet, I must hold off on the electrical connection. My concern is that soldering will be difficult without burning the plastic box. I might have to use sheet-metal screws. Tunig might not be easy either, since the best SWR is obtained by moving the feed point up and down, between 3 and 4″ from the very-bottom. Maybe I should have used PVC Ts, like for the two support “H” assemblies. They can be split in half, then the coax soldered after finding the best feed point. Once epoxied, it would look fine. I do like the look of my electrical box though, and if it works fine, I will be happy with the results.

Total building time was about an hour. Everything came from Home Depot, except the SO-239 connector. Soldering turned out to be pretty easy. I sanded the parts and used flux paste before heating up the assembled parts with a torch. Once the parts are hot enough, you put the solder on, which flows in the joint, following the flux. Cost could have been as low as $30, but I spent about twice that much, not counting tools (hacksaw, drill bit, epoxy, solder), which you might have already. If you are starting “empty handed,” plan on $100. While it can cost more than a factory-made antenna, you get the satisfaction of building something yourself, which might be actually sturdier than a store-bought model.

Stay tuned for the finishing touches (painting), electrical connection and reception testing. The transmission test will come after I get my Technician HAM license.

Thanks to Richard KE5FXU SK at hamuniverse.com for the article!

Update, April 11th:

Finally, I got my SO-239 plug. Drilling the PVC box was easy. I didn’t even use my drill press. It only took me a few minutes by hand! Holes are one 5/8″ in the middle, and four 1/8″ around. I drilled in the middle of the lid, hoping I would have enough leeway to adjust the SWR by moving the contact in the box along the tube. First, as I suspected, I could not get the tube hot enough to solder the center of the coax to the copper tube using my 30w soldering iron. I solved the problem by heating up the tube with a Zippo under it while I soldered on top! It worked really well. I did the same to put soldering points in the box, every quarter inch or so. The zippo was placed an inch from the box. I was worried about melting it, but these electrical boxes are pretty heat-resistant. Sorry about picture quality:


Solder Points

Solder Points



It’s a bit ugly, but inside the box anyway..

Feed Box

Feed Box



Reception works great. I was able to listen to a conversation tonight on a distant repeater that I simply could not hear with the HT rubber antenna. I get three extra signal bars with the Slim Jim.
I got a cheap VHF/UHF digital SWR meter from Hong-Kong, which seems to work fine, but for the connectors which are of “N” type.
Digital SWR meter

Digital SWR meter

Update, May 1st:

I painted the antenna sort of a flat olive-drab color for stealth. I can easily hoist it up a tree and it blends in very well. SWR varies from 2.4:1 on the lower part of the band, to 1.8:1 around 146Mhz, and remains around 1.4:1-1.5:1 from 146.5 up. I used a ferrite RF choke kit from Palomar Engineers (photo below), which got the SWR down to 1.36:1 around 147.5Mhz. I much prefer the ferrite choke to the coax balun type, which looks ugly and wastes cable.


Slim Jim Connection Box With Palomar Ferrite Choke

Slim Jim Connection Box With Palomar Ferrite Choke



 
What I like the most about the Slim Jim is it’s sturdiness and that given it’s shape, you can hang it from anywhere, as long as you use an isolator to do so. When hanging it, I plug in an “L” shaped adaptor (photo above) to avoid bending the coax.

I clearly remember twenty years ago, or ten, even five. I did not then have any of the concerns I have today. The future was bright with no clouds on the horizon here in the United States. I don’t think the world is going to end this December twenty first, or next year for that matter. The Mayan who wrote his calendar must have been tired that night, and his wife was complaining about how much time he spent on it, so he probably just thought it went far enough and left it at that.. I am no doomsday preacher.

There is a certain unease among us however. The media is broadcasting multiple disaster and prepping shows. The economy isn’t going better. Five years ago, I had five ounces of gold, bought for less than $1500. Today, those coins would be worth close to $10,000. Only five years later! I am still hitting myself on the head for selling them before the increase. We may wonder why the value of the dollar hasn’t gone down by a factor of six or seven. The government is trampling on the constitution. One only has to watch foreign agencies news, not the dog-and-pony show we have here, to start worrying. Watching CSPAN can be more entertaining than “Doomsday Preppers,” and certainly scarier. Five years ago, there were few signs of trouble, none before September 2001.

So, you have a bit of food and water stored for rainy days, a generator with a few gallons of gas, your bug-out bag, and a .22 with a case of ammo. Will you be missing anything when disaster strikes? Yes, information. With the power down, no cell phones, land lines or Internet, you might be in total darkness has to what caused the blackout. Should you stay put? Is it safe? If you need to leave, where should you go and what route is the safest? If you happen to be away from your family, how do you get in touch with them? Where are they? Are they all right? Information in a disaster situation is crucial to you and your family’s survival.

I bought my first radio in 1980. It was a forty-channel CB. Back then, conversations were interesting and civil on the 11m band (27Mhz). You could talk to your neighbors, make new friends. People were helping each others. Truckers used them to inquire about road conditions and get directions in unfamiliar towns. Sure, we had some jerks, but the Citizen Band was self-policing. Ten years later it had changed dramatically. I worked one winter as a security guard, and wanted something to keep me awake at night on the job. So, I installed a 200+ channels CB radio in my car. There was still some good conversations going on, but mostly, CB had become pretty lame. I did manage to make a contact across the Atlantic once, using SSB (single Side Band), but usually, range was around ten miles.

A CB radio (AM) today is a poor choice of emergency communication in the U.S. Range is typically only a few miles and forty channels get crowded very fast. Radios are cheap however, and it is certainly better than nothing. “CBers” are no longer organized in clubs. Base stations are rare these days. Even truckers have replaced their CBs by cell phones and computers. The level of the conversations is rather low; you might not want your children to play with a CB radio… It is unfortunate, but the Citizen Band has become the black sheep of the radio world. One exception which could make CB a good choice is if you buy an SSB mode radio. Single Side Band is comprised of USB (upper) and LSB (lower) side bands. These modes offer more range, and even “skips” on the ionosphere, for very long range communications. Conversations on SSB are definitely more civil than on AM. Even with the legal 12W maximum power, you can reach stations thousands of miles away.

You probably own at least a pair of FRS (Family Radio Service) handheld radios. They are very limited in range, two to three miles typically. Do not believe the advertised ranges of twenty or more miles. That may work over water with perfect conditions, but don’t count on it. GMRS has slightly more range, but requires a license (no exam). They are useful to keep track of kids and family members within a small perimeter. Given their prices, you should get a couple pairs. Handhelds would be very useful for a neighborhood patrol, though anyone can listen in. There are better options, but in a pinch FRS can be a good thing to have.

There is no radio solution available to the public without a license that will provide you with enough range to contact anyone beyond line-of-sight. While receiving is important, and having a good short-wave receiver is a must, you still might need to call for help or inquire about a situation, or just contact a distant family member. The solution: HAM radio. Licenses require an exam, but it is easy to get started with a Technician license. It will only cost you a bit of study time and $15.

Now, a bit of technical information is needed. Transceivers (transmitter/receiver) are basically of two types, those that can broadcast beyond line-of-sight (thousands of miles) and those that usually can’t. It all depends on frequency. 6 meter wavelength and shorter are very good for local and medium range communications, from a few miles to around 200 miles. Longer wavelengths, up to 160 meters can bounce off the ionosphere around the earth. 6 meters is smack in the middle. Sometimes it will bounce, and sometimes not, but it does it all, hence it’s nickname, “the magic band.” The most common is the 2m band. As a “prepper,” I am mostly interested in the 2m and 10m bands, with my eyes on 6m. Longer than 10m, and you run into antenna length problems. Antennas become very long, and need to be strung horizontally between poles or trees. Not very discreet or practical in a survival situation, though possible with a bit of ingenuity. The basic technician license allows you to transmit on 10m and above 30Mhz, which includes the “magic” 6m band, 2m and 70cm.

By becoming a licensed HAM operator, you also become a valuable member of your community who can provide information when every other means are down. You would be the first to know what’s going on.

For anyone wanting to buy a do-it-all radio, I would suggest looking at the Yaesu FT-817ND. It is a small portable, multi-band transceiver which runs on batteries or external power. As far as handhelds, look into a couple 2m units like the Yaesu FT-270R for local traffic. Those are though and waterproof down to three feet for thirty minutes! At around $135, they are a bargain. I own one and I am very happy with it. You don’t need a license to buy them, but you can’t legally transmit, though anyone can legally use any radio in the United States for a life-or-death emergency. You would be missing out though by not getting a license, being it so easy and cheap, and get to know your fellow local radio operators.

As a prepper, you should have a spare and store it inside a grounded metal box for EMP protection (MUST READ article!). Make sure the radio is inside a dry cardboard box inside the metal one, and none of it’s parts touches the metal. Surplus military ammo cans are great for that purpose. I would also include a solar charger.

A radio is as important as your Coleman stove or rifle. You might not want to get into local HAM conversations, or even long distance contacts, but when you need potentially life-saving information, you will be glad you have one stored in that ammo can in the garage and that you know how to set it up and use it…