Radio Communication Planning – From a Prepper Perspectiveon December 24th, 2012 at 4:23 am
I wanted to go over my whole radio plan, which has finally crystallized. I am not done setting it up, by far, but I have a good plan that will set me up well. There will be one thing you will notice about my plan, I am all about having alot of base capabilities. I want to be as versatile and capable as possible. Some preppers go for having many many redundant backups, of the same equipment. That old adage that if you have 1 gun you really have none, if you have 2 guns you have 1. I appreciate that viewpoint, but for me, for the cost, I plan on focusing on acquiring as many different base capabilities first, then worry about redundant, back up items for the most important items.
Before going over the plan, lets go through just a couple basics for those that don’t know much about radio. There are plenty of resources online to educate yourself, but here are some basics. Radios work on different frequency ranges, and the FCC governs the rules. Some frequencies are free for anyone such as Citizen Band (CB) or the Family Radio Service (FRS) aka walky talkies at radio shack. There is also the General Mobile Radio Service (GMRS) which does require an 80 dollar license, but no test and the license is for your whole family. Then there is Ham Radio. Ham Radio is more serious and much more capable, and covers High Frequency (HF), Very High Frequency (VHF) and Ultra High Frequency (UHF). You will have to take a test to transmit on any of these bands, but anyone can listen. The tests are 15 bucks and administered by Ham Radio volunteers. The entry level “Technician” license is pretty easy and gets you access to the VHF. To study for the Technician test, just take the free online tests, a dozen times or so till you remember the answers, that’s it. The differences between HF, VHF and UHF is as follows: HF is for long range, like reaching around the world, and takes more work/setup. The VHF band is great for reaching out maybe 50 miles in your general area either directly or via repeaters maintained by ham groups. Repeaters are just big fancy radios high on a hill that “repeat” your signal out at much higher power, effectively increasing your range and removing alot of the physical interference (buildings, trees, mountains) between you and the people you want to talk to. VHF is probably the best band for your general prepper. UHF is more for city environments. It bends around buildings good, but gets blocked by the water in trees in rural areas.
So lets go through the plan from the beginning.
My first order of business was getting commercially available radios anyone can legally use.
- Midland 1001Z 40 Channel CB Radio
- Midland Hand Crank GMRS/FRS/NOAA Base Radio
- Midland Handheld GMRS/FRS/NOAA Radios
To go over my reasoning for these selections. The CB radio is about the cheapest you can get, at under 40 bucks with antenna. I wouldn’t plan on spending alot of time on these frequencies as they are known to be junked up with random crazy people and trucker humor as anyone can use them without a license and illegal use of high power radios are known to blanket large physical areas. That said, there are a ton CBs out there, so your more likely to be able to supply your friends/family with them after a extreme event that knocks out cells/production facilities. Think of it this way, if you had a local group of 30 families, and wanted a way to alert all of them at the same time to impending danger. Do you think it would be easier to find 30 ham radios after a collapse, or 30 CB radios? Just a thought. If nothing else, it gives you another radio, to monitor a specific frequency band, on the mega cheap. This radio is ok, especially for the cost. The one thing I might have spent more money on, is one with a scan feature. Live and learn, but I am not spending another 40 bucks on CB.
The Midland Base Station Radio and Handheld radios are great. All three are NOAA weather radios, and having three of them is great. The Base Station has a hand crank to charge the battery/cell phone. While this is useful, its not something you would want to depend on, but its better than nothing. One note, if you have a smartphone, it appears it has to be off before it will charge from the hand crank. These radios also cover the FRS and GMRS frequencies ranges. These are good little units for local comms and could potentially have a range of 30 miles, but terrain will likely make your range much shorter. One particular advantage, is that the base station and handhelds all use the same rechargeable battery, which could be very convenient. They can also run of alkaline batteries.
Moving Up to the more serious radio rigs.
- Kenwood TM-261 (VHF)
- Kenwood TS-120S (HF)
- 2 X Baofeng UV-5R
So the story here is that my father in law has been a Ham Radio Operator for many decades. So when he saw I had some interest, he gave me the Kenwood VHF and HF radio rigs for free, which is an awesome score! They are nice radios that work great for me. I personally don’t like to actually talk that much, but it is nice to just listen in to the old guys talk while working in the garage. So I intend to use both of them as base station radios in my garage, even though they are both mobile units. The VHF is great for listening in to local repeaters. The HF isn’t really that important as a prepper item in my setup. While yes these can be absolute lifelines in remote areas during a disaster, but for me, if anything ever happens big enough to effect south central PA, I cannot image a situation where news from really far away is needed for survival, but that said it would be nice to have news and know whats going on.
As I like to be as versatile as possible I consider having a basic capability in HF, VHF and UHF a must. I would highly suggest having something bigger than just a handheld in VHF with a decent antenna setup. To supplement this setup and add more units in the most cost effective manner possible, I chose to get two of the Baofeng UV-5Rs. At under 43 dollars, these things really are too cheap not to buy. Yes they are made in China, as shown by the horribly misworded warning labels on the bottom. If I had unlimited funds I would go with a Yaesu, but to repeat an overused statement, you cannot eat
gold a radio. So I have other things to get with my money. The Baofengs are nice in that they do give me a general capability in the UHF, so that is good. The two units I have, have worked great, and the overwhelming majority of the reviews are good. The radios do feel solid built, however the charging base looks a little dinky. I am not sure I would just leave them powered and charging forever, don’t want a lithium battery going bad and starting a fire due to a Chinese built charging circuit that may be missing a few parts to save cost. I just plug mine in a few hours every couple months. The programming of these units is a bit tedious, but do-able. I do intend to get the programming cable, but it seems people have issues witht them and Windows 7, we shall see. Overall these radios are just a real cheap easy way to get a radio that works for all your non-ham family members, without breaking the bank. If you choose to research ham radios, I would highly suggest http://www.eham.net/reviews/ they have a ton of reviews of all types of radios.
I also intend to put these radios in our cars for emergency communication. I work over an hour from where my wife works and it would be nice to be able to talk to her should something happen. I want to leave these in the cars, however I am concerned about the battery life when left in a hot/cold car. To solve this I intend to leave the radio batteries at home and get a couple battery eliminators.
These cheap adapters have some circuitry in them to make the unit think there is really a battery installed and regulate the voltage. (At least that’s what I think they have, maybe its just 12V straight through?) This with a mag mount antenna and an adapter should enable both of us to talk via the local repeaters. Note that the Boafeng is a bit non-standard as the antenna connector on the radio is a SMA male instead of the standard female. Just means you need a different adapter.
The next part of the plan would be to get a half decent VHF antenna set up at the house. Once again, this is where my father in law hooked me up with a Ringo Ranger II antenna. (below to the left) This is a fairly nice antenna that I expect to work very well once I get it high enough, and its only $110 new. Seems like a decent price and the thing really is designed to take high wind load so it should last. My hope is to be able to reach everyone I know in the area that preps. Due to the layout of my house and the fact that I want the radio in my garage, the cable run will be at least 100′. Since I am getting alot of the equipment for free, I decided I should splurge on the cable and get some good Belden 9913 to minimize loss in the cable run. When I got this cable I was surprised by how thick the center conductor is! Well worth the money. I intend to mount this up on the roof with a cheap gable antenna mount (middle) from Amazon. I paid 40 for it, now I see its only 26 bucks. I can tell you its a sturdy mount. Now since I was going to put all this on the roof, I decided I should double down and put up a Digital TV antenna on the roof. This has the dual purpose of being a back up news source in case someone ever hits that Internet kill switch like in Syria and making it easier to ditch cable TV and save some money. I went for an EZ-HD antenna (right) which you can get for under 40 bucks and all the reviews say it works great. In addition this antenna doesn’t look like a gimmick like some of the other funny looking digital TV antennas out there. I will cover the installation of all this equipment in another post. To finish off the TV section of this setup, I will also get a small 12 Volt TV. This way, if power is scarce I could at least watch a bit of news by powering this TV from a car battery.
In addition to these antennas I also want to have an antenna setup for the HF band. This is a bit more tricky due to the longer wavelength requiring a bigger antenna. Again my father in law hooked me up with a free 80 meter dipole antenna, somewhat like this one (shown below). These antennas seem to be a love em or hate em type of deal. In my case, it doesn’t really matter as I don’t see my wife letting me put up a big yagi. She thinks the VHF antennas are ugly enough as is, no idea why, I think they add character. In any case, I really don’t have the room, and don’t care to spend the money. I want base capability, that’s all. So, based on my Internet research it seems you can just throw these dipoles up in the trees. So I don’t really have a great area on my property for this. I am hoping my neighbors let me put the center and one end 20-30 feet up in two of their trees. I don’t think they will care. I will string the feedline from the trees to my shed, then bury the line to the garage. Not sure how well this work, but it gets me a capability and is probably about as far as I will go into the HF side of the hobby.
Update: As pointed out by radioshooter over at http://www.survivalistboards.com/showthread.php?t=277119 for most people it would make much more sense to just get a shortwave radio. This way at least you can listen in to whats going on. Not sure how great it will work with the small antenna, buts its better than nothing and for 30-40 bucks, its much more cost effective.
The last antenna I will work on is a J-Pole for the VHF. These antennas are cheap and easy to construct at home as long as you can solder some pipe. There are plenty of write ups and calculators online that will show you how to build one. My particular motive for building this is that I want to be able to deploy a larger antenna if I am away from my home. These antennas work pretty well, and with just a slingshot and a fish reel you can string it way up high in a tree to get some elevation. Again, the father in law hooked me up with a rod/sling he had built. Below is the J Pole I built (don’t mind the leaf stuck to the bottom). It works well. I did use 3/4″ copper as I read that gives you better bandwidth.
So all this equipment is great, but you have to be able to power it. All in all, radios aren’t large power drains like other appliances. They draw minimal power when your only listening, you can adjust the power level of your transmission to the minimum required and you can minimize transmit time in a real emergency to save power. My power plan is multi layer. First is my tri-fuel generator, which I have detailed in other posts. This can power a 20 amp 13.8V power supply my father in law gave me. However, I tend to just keep the radios hooked up to a deep cycle battery (again, given by the father in law) I have on a trickle charge. While your regular car battery will work, its not the best type for this application. Car batteries are designed for a massive but short, burst of energy to drive a starter motor in a car. Then they get recharged right away. They don’t like to be deeply discharged and will likely die quickly in a Ham Radio setup unless it is constantly charged. A deep cycle type battery (typically used for trolling motors on small boats) are designed to be deeply discharged and hold alot more total energy. If you can, an Absorption Glass Mat (AGM) battery is also great to have and is completely sealed requiring zero maintenance. For a charger, I really like the Battery Tender. It has good reviews and I feel its smart enough to leave on constantly without worry about damaging the battery.
Of course in a real emergency, you don’t want to rely on any fuel source. So a solar panel is a real must. A good 30-45 watt panel is definitly in my future. Of course you will need some form of charge controller to safely charge a battery from the panel. I just went with a cheapo unit from Amazon for my first attempt. Eventually I will get a panel and hook it up to test. Now some people really go crazy with solar, I really don’t understand that. The cost to power curve is just way to steep and even though no one talks about it. Solar panels degrade over time, I believe something like 4% per year. So ten years from now those panels will really be struggling. (When is the last time you heard a liberal mention that little factoid.) However, having just a bit of power to run communications equipment is really worth it. It gives you a really big capability that you can nurse along on very little power. Most all radios can be run or charged from a 12 Volt source, which is really good as it reduces the inefficiencies in converting to AC with an inverter.
So all this power is great, but you have to be able to get it where its needed. Well as it turns out the ARES and RACES (Ham Radio organizations that handle emergency response) have found a great little connector to standardize on, the Anderson Powerpole. This article details details why this connector was chosen. I would highly suggest making a Powerpole adapter for any/all of your devices. Make a battery clamp to powerpole adapter. In addition make a splitter, so you can hook up multiple devices. Also make powerpole to Cigarette lighter socket and plug adapter. Standardizing your connectors in this way will guarantee you can always charge your devices from any 12 volt source. In addition, since this is a standard ham connector, chances are other hams can plug into your setup as well, making your equipment that much more versatile if there is a need. In addition to power connectors, make sure you get enough adapters to connect your handhelds to your fixed antennas or mag mount antennas. You can really never have too many adapters, just in case.
To finish out this elaborate plan, there is one last device that seems to be a prepper favorite, the Simplex Repeater. Most VHF repeaters run by hams are full duplex. Long story short, that means the setup uses two different frequencies at the same time, to re-broadcast your signal in real time. For full details, see this writeup. A simplex repeater on the other hand, is a simpler device that is literally nothing more than an audio recorder that automatically records incoming sound for a pre-set amount of time, say 30 seconds, and then broadcasts that signal back out on the same frequency, preferably from a higher power radio in a higher location. Its kinda like communicating via short 30 second voice mails with a delay. It can be clumsy, annoying, and you can easily talk over each other, jamming the transmission. However, all that said, it does work, and can be an easy and cheap way to add the capability to extend your handheld coverage range. The simplex repeater really shines when it comes to price. You can get a simplex repeater for under 100 bucks, whereas a real duplex repeater can easily cost over a grand. You can buy alot of food with 900 dollars. Another benefit of a simplex repeater is not having to rely on the local repeaters run by the Hams. Those repeaters are great, and do a good service to the community. However, they are also well know frequencies, that would likely have a lot of traffic in a real emergency. I happen to be part of a small prepper group. I would prefer to have the ability to talk with them, on a separate frequency. This setup would have much less traffic and there would be less people listening to that specific frequency. So that is good operational security (OPSEC). Out of our local prepper group, I am probably the most radio/technology literate. So I took it upon myself to plan on installing a simplex repeater to hopefully provide a service for the group and hopefully help push some to get at least a cheap Baofeng handheld. I would also be the only one in the group with an HF unit and a the best VHF antenna. So hopefully I could serve as a good information hub.
All this equipment is great, but of course, a good Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) is needed to coordinate people. Once I get my equipment all up and running, I will need to get the wife licensed and distribute pre-determined frequencies/times for communicating. In addition, I love the wife and she does want to get the license, but I highly doubt she will remember anything about how to operate the equipment. So when I leave the handheld in her car, I need to write out full and detailed instructions about how to use the unit, and leave it on the most likely frequency with which she could contact me. On a larger scale there is a Standardized Amatuer Radio Prepper Communications Plan that was put together over at http://www.taprn.com/. If nothing else, these would probably be good frequencies to listen to. Of course you should also spend some quality time with your printer to create a hard copy list of every repeater frequency and emergency frequency in your local area, surrounding states and where your relatives live.
There are two additional aspects of ham radio I plan on researching once everything else is done. First is to research what hacks are available for your equipment. A popular type of hack is to perform a hardware modification that allows the unit to transmit on more frequencies than originally designed. Here is an example showing how to get a Kenwood to transmit on MURS frequencies. Be careful though, these types of modifications are legal to perform, and its always legal to listen to a transmission, but it is not always legal to transmit on certain frequencies, especially at higher power levels. The benefit to a hack like this would be after a doomsday type event where there is no FCC to come after you and you desire to communicate on frequencies that are less likely to be intercepted. Even if you don’t modify your equipment, it really can’t hurt to print out the instructions, just in case. Another potential way to avoid interception is to use a computer to blast data over the radio link. Now its illegal to encrypt anything over the ham bands, however, its much less likely that someone is sitting ready to feed your data stream into a computer to decode it. All they would hear is a very fast series of tones, kinda like Morse code, but much faster and not human readable. In the most basic form, there is free software called Fldigi, which can send/receive data with nothing more than a computer with a mic/speaker, its pretty cool.
Lastly, a side of radio I haven’t really researched that much, is scanning emergency frequencies. I’m not sure how much the equipment I have listed thus far can actually pick up in the way of police/fire fighters. I have also read that alot of agencies have gone to digital frequency hopping radios that make scanning much harder. So I am not sure what equipment I would really need in my area, but this is a area that should be explored.
So there you have it, a pretty large radio plan put together through the eyes of a prepper. Sure Ham Radio has lots of other interesting things to learn/do, such as Single Side Band, Morse Code (CW) operation, tuning your antennas, more backup equipment, etc….. but I think this list really hits the points important to a prepper and will take long enough to actually implement as is. If you think I missed something, please suggest it in a comment.