May 042014
 
This Avometer advertisement appeared in 1953, and offers the meter for £23.50, twice the average weekly wage at the time.  Similar meters today can cost only $23, closer to the average hourly rate.

This Avometer advertisement appeared in 1953, and offers the meter for £23.50, twice the average weekly wage at the time. Similar meters today can cost only $23, closer to the average hourly rate.

As we imagine and plan for a difficult life in the future, we realize that we will need to learn more skills than we currently have, because when things go wrong, we can’t simply go out and buy a replacement, and might not be able to find anyone conveniently nearby to fix the problem, either.

Hopefully you’ll continue to have at least some electricity at your retreat, and will be able to enjoy the extraordinary benefits that electricity has given to us all.  If you want to get a taste for just how extraordinary, beneficial, and essential those benefits are, treat yourself to a weekend with no electricity.  Turn off the main breaker in your fuse box on Friday night, and don’t cheat by using any batteries.  Go totally electricity-less for a weekend, and do it not when the weather is comfortable outside, but when it is either impossibly hot or impossibly cold.

Okay, now that you’re back reading the article again, and fully convinced about the essential role electricity has in your life (how long did you last before turning the breaker back on?) there’s every chance that at some future point, you’re going to have to become an amateur electrician, and maybe even an amateur electronics repair tech too.

You’ll not be able to repair anything if you can’t first troubleshoot to find out the problem.  Ideally, you’ll also want to be able to test the repair before making the fixed device ‘live’ once more, too.  Now the good news, particularly with electrical (as opposed to electronic) devices, is that many problems can be troubleshooted using that most sophisticated of instruments, the Mark I Human Eyeball.  You’ll spot breaks in cords, blown fuses, burned out plugs, and so on, just by looking.

But whether it is for troubleshooting, or for checking the correctness of repairs before plugging the devices back into your main power circuits, you’ll find everything you do will be immeasurably assisted by what is termed a ‘multi-meter’ – a device that will show you various things about electrical circuits – in particular, both amps and volts for AC and DC circuits, and also ohms for resistance, and with multiple scales ranging from fractions of a volt/amp/ohm up to tens of amps, probably thousands of volts and millions of ohms.

The first ever multimeters came out in 1923, and were the result of a British Post Office technician getting exasperated at having to carry so many individual test meters with him (and back then they were all big, bulky, and heavy, too).  His creation was the Avometer (Avo being an acronym for Amps, Volts, Ohms), and when first released it had seven different functions (three DC voltage ranges, three DC amperage ranges, and one resistance range).  When the Avometer finally and sadly ended production in 2008, it had 28 ranges, also now including AC volts and amps.

In the past, Avometers often cost more than a couple of weeks wages for the technicians using them, so they were hardly a commonplace device that people would have ‘just in case’ they might need it in the future.  But in time, more manufacturers started making similar devices, and with less robust but more automated manufacturing methods and standards, and so prices dropped amazingly.  I remember buying one as a teenager, very many decades ago, and at the time never gave thought to how such devices once cost hundreds of times more than they did then – and today, they are even cheaper still.  You can buy a reasonably multimeter from somewhere like Harbor Freight, or on Amazon or eBay, for under $20, and an excellent one for under $40.  So there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have one.

What To Look For When Choosing a Multimeter

A typical multimeter will be able to test at least five different things – DC and AC volts, DC and AC current, and resistances.  There are differences between meters, however, in terms of the minimum and maximum values it can read for all five of these scales.

Needless to say, you’d like a meter that has the broadest range of scales, but in terms of what you really need, if you are using your meter mainly for testing electrical devices, you probably need to be able to read DC volts from a minimum of maybe one or two volts (ie perhaps a 10V scale) up to a maximum of less than 1000V; DC amps from perhaps a 1A or 0.1A (100 milliamp) scale up to maybe 10A; AC volts from perhaps a 10V up to a 1000V scale; AC amps from perhaps a 1A scale and up as high as possible; and resistances from as sensitive a scale as possible (maybe a max of 10 kOhm on the scale, and showing individual ohms at the low-end of the logarithmic scale) up to showing maybe a 10 MOhm maximum scale).

If you will be using your meter for electronic troubleshooting as well as electrical troubleshooting, you might want to have some additional scales to show lower values for DC volts and DC amps, and probably a lower AC amp scale too.  You might also want to be able to read higher current flows too – this will likely require a specialized device (see below).

If you need other ranges beyond these, you’ll probably know about your special needs already.

A nice feature is a continuity buzzer.  This is useful when you’re doing mundane tasks like checking to see which ends of which wires relate to the other end of the same wires, or checking for breaks in circuits.  Instead of having to watch your meter, you simply touch your probes to things and if there’s a clear connection between the two things you are touching, the meter will buzz or beep.

It helps to understand, for the AC measurements in any meter, what range of frequencies the AC measurements are accurate for, and what types of waveforms it will accurately read.  If you’re just reading mains power type frequencies, then most meters will work well for that, but if you have unusual wave shapes or are wanting to measure audio or radio frequencies as well as mains frequency, then you will need a specialized meter that measures true RMS and higher frequencies.

Some meters have additional functions, including the ability to measure frequency, capacitance, inductance, temperature, diodes and some functions of transistors.  You’ll of course pay extra for such extra features, but if they have value to you, then why not get the ability, particularly because these extra functions don’t necessarily add much more to the price of the meter.

See further discussion in the section on analog or digital meters, particularly for some features that are unique to digital meters.

A meter should have at least one fuse in it to protect its circuitry from overload.  This is particularly essential in analog meters, where the meter’s integrity relies on you, the user, selecting the correct scale to start with whenever you connect the meter to anything.  Old hands know the rule ‘always start with the highest value range setting, and then switch down as needed’ from bitter experience.

Our point here is to identify the type of fuse used and to lay in a small supply of spares.  In the worst case scenario, if you blow the fuse, you can replace the fuse with regular wire or any other sort of fuse as well – the meter will continue to work, but it will no longer be protected, so your next mistake will probably fry it.  We’ve only once ever blown a fuse, so you probably don’t need to have too huge a supply of spares.

Accuracy Issues

Different meters make different claims about their accuracy, and some digital meters display more digits than others – indeed, they’ll probably display a more detailed number than their underlying accuracy allows.  By this we mean a meter that has an accuracy of +/- 3% might have a three or more digit display, so it could in theory show, say, 97.2 volts, whereas the actual voltage could be anywhere from 94.3V up to 100.1V – so what is the sense in telling you about the 0.2V when even the 7 volt part of the reading can vary widely from 4 up to 10.

Don’t get too hung up on accuracy issues.  Most of the time, the required value and tolerance of anything in typical electrical (and electronic) circuits is fine if it is within about +/- 5% of the optimum value, and sometimes you’ll find that +/- 10% is still perfectly acceptable.

Better analog meters will have a mirror on their scale.  This enables you to directly line up the angle between yourself, the needle, and the scale and avoid any parallax errors when reading values from the scale.  The bigger the scale on an analog meter, the more accurate the readings you can get from it.

A possible exception to our suggestion you don’t need a lot of accuracy would be reading the voltage of your input power supply.  Noting that power varies according to the square of the input voltage, if your voltage varies by only 10% from specification, the power available to your device will vary about 20%.  That can lead to not-obvious problems that end up burning out motors and frying electronics, so you probably want a meter that has reasonably good accuracy on whatever scale you’ll use to measure input voltages into devices.

One type of accuracy is important.  Whenever you connect a meter to a circuit, you actually change the nature of the circuit, and so the reading you get from the meter will be influenced by the fact that the meter has been connected to the circuit.  This is not really a worry when working on mains level voltages and multi-amp currents, but it can become significant when working on very low voltage and very low current electronics.  Most digital meters are very much better than most analog meters in this respect; if you are getting an analog meter, make sure it is rated at 20 kOhms/volt or higher (a measure of the impact of the meter on the circuit it is testing).  Digital meters should have an impedance of at least 1 Megaohm, and 10 MΩ would be better.

Analog or Digital Multimeters?

A great value analog meter, the Mastech YX360.

A great value analog meter, the Mastech YX360.

The big question you need to answer is whether you should get an analog or digital meter.  Analog meters have an ‘old fashioned’ dial and needle that moves across it, and digital meters of course have a digital digit display.

For an uncertain future, you should use as low-tech a product as possible.  An analog meter would be the best way to go in such a case, because it has almost no electronics at risk of being ‘fried’ by an EMP, and it does not require any power to read volts and amps (but it will unavoidably need a battery to be able to read resistances, due to the way that resistances are tested).  On the other hand, digital meters are very much nicer and more convenient and flexible, all of which is dangerously tempting!

Talking about batteries, make sure your meter uses a typical/common battery and voltage.  Don’t be tempted to go out and buy a lovely old antique Avometer, for example.  Although we have one ourselves, it is more as a museum/display piece than an everyday part of our test gear, because it uses a unique type of 15V battery that is, for all practical purposes, no longer available.

The higher the meter’s battery voltage, by the way, the better it will be able to measure high values of resistance.

A great value fully functioned digital meter, the Mastech MS8268.

A great value fully functioned digital meter, the Mastech MS8268.

Digital meters of course need power (usually from their battery) for everything they do, but their power needs are very low, and we find that the batteries in our digital meters last years at a time.

Interestingly, whereas analog meters are possibly more electrically and electronically robust, digital meters are more physically robust.  If you drop your analog meter, you might destroy it (the indicator needle is on a very sensitive bearing), but if you drop your digital meter, you are much less likely to harm it.

Digital meters have a lot going for them.  Better ones have auto-ranging, so you don’t have to worry about frying the meter by setting it too sensitively for whatever you are measuring.  They are generally a bit more accurate than analog meters too, but see our comments about accuracy above.  On the other hand, some people like to be able to see the swing of a needle which can sometimes help you better understand exactly what you’re seeing when troubleshooting, and of course this is only possible with an analog meter.

Digital meters usually have auto-polarity, so there’s no need to hassle over connecting the positive lead to the positive side of a circuit, and the negative lead to the negative side.  Better analog meters will have a polarity switch so you can simply slide the switch rather than reverse the leads if you get it wrong.

Some digital meters will have added functions such as ‘hold’ which locks in the display the value when you pressed the hold key.  That way if you forget it, you don’t need to remeasure because it is still on the display.  Sometimes you might also see the ability to capture minimum and maximum values, too.  This can be helpful, particularly if you are not staring nonstop at the meter, and have a problem you think might be due to occasional spikes or drops in power.

An auto-off feature is really nice – it saves you if you forget to turn the meter off; you don’t have to worry about running your battery dead.

If you are getting a digital meter, make sure it has a light switch on it so you can turn on a backlight and read the LCD display if you are somewhere with low ambient light.

So, yes, there are lots of benefits to getting a digital meter.  Our suggestion, noting how inexpensive both digital and analog meters are these days, would be to get one of each.  That also allows for the adage that a well prepared prepper has at least two of everything essential and important.

Which One to Buy?

Here’s a listing of analog multimeters from Amazon.  We’d probably choose the Mastech YX360 as a great value analog meter.  It seems to also be sold under different names by other companies, too, but generally at a slightly higher price.

Here’s a listing of digital multimeters, also from Amazon (of course).  You’ll see some units for under $10, but we’d probably splurge and spend not quite $30 to get this truly impressive Mastech MS8268 meter.  Indeed, although we have a shelf full of meters already, we liked this meter so much that we went out and bought one while writing this article!

High Current Ammeters and Clamp Meters

The Mastech $45 AC and DC clamp meter.

The Mastech $45 AC and DC clamp meter.

A problem that is common to most analog multimeters is that they have difficult reading high amp values, because they are built around a meter that is very sensitive, rather than one which is very insensitive, to current flows.

An inconvenience that is also common to all regular meters, is that to read the current flow – the amps – in a circuit, you need to cut the circuit open and connect the ammeter in series with the circuit.  When testing volts, you simply place the voltmeter in parallel across the circuit, which is usually a much easier thing to do.  (Oh yes, as for testing resistances, that can be the biggest hassle of all, because you have to isolate the thing you are testing from everything else before you can get an accurate reading.)

There are of course solutions to these issues.  You can get dedicated high-current reading ammeters and connect those in series in such circuits.  Or, in the case of AC current in particular, you can get a ‘clampmeter’ which is a device that you simply place around one of the wires.  The clampmeter senses the magnetic field created by the flowing AC current in the wire, and so displays the measured current in the wire without you needing to penetrate/cut the wire at all.

Due to the way they work, they are not so good at measuring small amounts of current (ie under one amp) but they are excellent for measuring large currents, potentially up to several hundred amps.  They are also inexpensive, and of the ones listed on Amazon at present, we think this one is probably the best buy (ie just under $30, and with scales all the way up to 600A) for most people and purposes at present.  There are other meters costing very much more, but offering not much extra in the way of useful features for most of us.

There is one feature which some of the more expensive clamp meters offer.  That is the ability to read DC current as well as AC current through the clamp.  If you might find this worth paying only a little extra for, something like this Mastech meter is probably a good choice, and still costing less than $45.

These are wonderful devices, but note they only work when placed around one of the wires in what is usually a two and sometimes three or four wire circuit.  If you place it around both wires in a typical AC power lead, the magnetic field from one of the wires is essentially cancelled out by the field from the other wire, so you will need to somehow separate the wiring to put the clampmeter around one of them.  You might find a very short extension cord where you’ve opened up the wiring between the male and female ends, allowing you to then clamp around whichever wire you wish, will be helpful in such cases.  (In theory, of course, you’ll get the same current reading from either the phase or the neutral wire, and hopefully you’ll get absolutely no current reading at all from the ground wire.)

There is another approach to this – there are wonderful line splitter devices such as this one on Amazon that not only split the line for you, but also have an extra section of line where the current signal is amplified ten-fold, enabling your clamp meter to pick up and display lower currents (for example, a 0.1 amp current would then read as 1.0 amps on the clamp meter).  At a cost of less than $15, this is a very useful thing when testing AC power around your retreat.

Summary

We suggest all preppers should have at least one multimeter as part of their tech/troubleshooting supplies.  If you are buying only one meter, and primarily for electrical purposes, perhaps buying a simple analog meter will not only save you money but also give you the most ‘future proof’ device.  But if you want vastly more capabilities, then you’ll probably choose to treat yourself to a digital meter as well.  And don’t forget a clamp meter too.

Aug 252013
 
Hopefully your group will be happy and positive, but chances are the stress and the rush will make for a difficult time for all.

Hopefully your group will be happy and positive, but chances are the stress and the rush will make for a difficult time for all.

This is the fourth part of a series on coordinating a bug-out action among a group of people who hope to all travel together to a retreat location.

If you arrived here direct from another link or search engine, you might wish to start reading at the first article (‘The Group Dynamic‘) and then work your way in sequence through the rest of the series.

As we’ve commented before in this series, the more people in a group, the massively more complex any attempt to manage and coordinate them all becomes.  Add to that the extraordinary high stress level everyone will be experiencing, and add still further some unexpected problems that may be interfering with your bug out process as part of whatever event it is that caused you to bug out, and no part of the bugging out will be easy or simple.

You need to get your group members to accept some discipline and constraints during the bug out process.  Right from the decision to bug out being made, everyone’s lives are massively changing and the world has instantly become a much tougher and less forgiving place, and there will be less time for discussion, and a more urgent need for (appropriate and coordinated) action.  People have to become responsible for themselves, and realize that there won’t be any second chances or other people to blame for their actions in this less forgiving future.

That’s not to say you should start acting like a parade ground sergeant major in a bad mood, and whatever you can do to give kindly reassurance and to radiate calm yourself will go a long way to help your group members, and give them confidence in you, and help them accept your advice and directions.

Earlier articles in this series have covered how to keep in contact with group members, and how to make and convey a decision to bug out.  We’ll continue the narrative from the point where you’ve advised everyone that a bug-out has been called.

Communicating with Group Members On Their Way to the Rendezvous

Don’t think that after having told each group member of the bug-out decision, then you have done all you need to do.  It would be very valuable to keep in touch with everyone as they make their way to the rendezvous point.  After all, the group as a whole is weakened if not everyone can join up with the group, and conversely, it is strengthened if everyone can join in.  So for the good of the group, as well as for the good of the individual members, you want to ‘quality control’ every part of the bugging out process.

Traffic and tactical condition reports can be shared among group members as they make their way to the rendezvous point.  That might prove to be very helpful and will help group members make realtime decisions about which route to take to the rendezvous, based on reports from other group members about traffic and safety issues.  And, worst case scenario, if something goes wrong with someone, they could tell you ‘Sorry, we’ve been blocked in by stalled traffic and don’t think we can make it in time, don’t wait for us’ and that would free the other group members to leave sooner.

It also means that rather than sitting, waiting (and doubtless worrying), with no idea of where people are and when they might arrive, the group at the bus knows, with regular updates, where their other members are and how soon they expect to arrive.  That helps everyone to feel slightly less helpless and slightly more ‘in control’ – or, at least, informed.

Bugging-Out Ground Rules

We precede this with a reminder that group members have an obligation to the group to participate in the bug-out event, and to do so in the most practical and positive nature possible.  Each group member both gives the other group members added safety and security, and also receives the same back again, but this concept assumes that all group members have optimized their bug-out actions so as to be least likely to have problems and most likely to be able to participate fully.

So this fairly means that all group members can be expected to conform to certain group norms and expectations.

With that in mind, you should have both a list of ‘mandatory’ items that people are required to have with them when the group bugs out, and also a ‘maximum’ restriction on how much people can bring with them.

If people are bugging out by car, the mandatory items would clearly start with ‘sufficient fuel for the journey plus an emergency reserve of extra fuel’, and might extend to essential spares for the vehicle, perhaps some defensive equipment, bad weather clothing, and anything else that would be prudent or necessary for the journey.  The maximum restriction in such a case would probably only be something like ‘no more than you can conveniently fit in your car’.

If people will be sharing cars, then the maximum restriction needs to be better understood.  There’s a huge difference in space per person when a car has two, three or four people in it – two people gives each person half the trunk and half the back seat – probably more than they’ll need, but four people gives each person one-quarter of the trunk and no space inside the vehicle at all – quite likely less space than they want.

If people will be on a group coach, then you will need to set limits on the size and weight of bags to go in the cargo bays and to be brought onto the coach.

Needless to say, you probably won’t be obsessively checking every person and their vehicle for all mandatory items, but also needless to say, if a person suffers problems on the journey due to not having some item that was required, then that would be their problem, not a group problem.

This might sound harsh, but it has to be understood and accepted that people who fail to comply with the requirements will be expected to suffer the consequences, and the safety of the group absolutely will not be compromised due to a group member’s noncompliance.

While this might seem to be ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’ – as we’ve said before, the group is strengthened by having everyone participate successfully, and weakened by anyone who fails to come, it could also be thought that a person who fails to comply with the clear list of procedures and protocols for the bug-out is likely to pose additional nonconforming problems at the retreat.  Consider it ‘evolution in action’ if such people are lost on the way to the retreat as a result of their noncompliance with group policies.

In a post-TEOTWAWKI situation, there will be no ‘safety nets’ and ‘second chances’ for people – or for the groups they jointly make up.  If people make mistakes, or do the wrong thing, they may suffer grave consequences – as may also the other people in their group who are relying upon them to do their necessary part of the group’s survival plan.  If something is broken through misuse, there’ll be no going to the store to get another one.  If something is wasted, you can’t replace it tomorrow.

The concept of being responsible for oneself and one’s actions and their consequences – a concept currently out-of-fashion in many parts of our society – will need to be revived and accepted, for the good of the individuals directly, and for the good of the groups they belong to.

For example, a person can no longer say ‘it is your fault for not explaining this clearly enough and warning me about the dangers’.  Instead, the situation will be ‘it is your fault for not asking for clarification if there were things you didn’t completely understand’.  That is a huge paradigm shift which you’ll have to clearly spell out to everyone joining you.

The only slightly counter-balanced concept to this is that the loss of a person weakens the group as a whole.  The group needs to protect itself wherever possible and prudent, but the degree of risk the group will accept in order to save a member will be ‘appropriate’ rather than extravagant.

To rephrase that last statement another way, the current concept of ‘there is nothing more precious than a(ny) human life’ will need to be revisited.

These are concepts very much at odds with today’s mainstream thought.  You need to understand the reasons for these changes, and get them accepted by everyone in your group.  We’ll talk more about this in other articles, outside of this specific article series.

Coordinating the Vehicle Load Out

If you have multiple vehicles all traveling to the same destination, the chances are you’ll end up with one vehicle that has only one or two people in it, and others with three or four.  It makes tactical sense to have the same number of people in each vehicle, or at least to have a minimum number in each vehicle – a minimum of two, three is better, and four better still (see our article on convoys for a discussion of each person’s duties/role).

You might consider having some people leave their car behind and consolidating into fewer vehicles with more people per vehicle.  If there is room in the vehicles (after whatever supplies might be loaded in) and if there are already a reasonable number of vehicles in the convoy, this would be good, but if you have very few vehicles, you probably would prefer more vehicles in case any get disabled on the journey.

Needless to say, if consolidating, eg, a vehicle with one person and a vehicle with three people, don’t automatically assume the person by themselves should go join the group of three.  Make that decision based on the suitability of the vehicles, and perhaps also based on who you’d feel most comfortable leading the group.  Maybe the group of three should go join the individual.

You might also want to equalize stores over vehicles, for even loading and even dispersion of critical supplies, meaning that if something bad happens to one vehicle, you don’t find yourself having lost your entire supply of some vital thing.

One more thing about stores.  Ideally, everything you need is already at your retreat.  The only things that your group should be bringing with them now are ‘comfort’ items (and some perishable fresh food, perhaps) that aren’t an essential part of ensuring a comfortable life at the retreat.  By all means, if there is spare space in a vehicle, and if it doesn’t slow down the bug out process, of course people can bring more stuff with them, but the priority, in coordinating the vehicle load out, is to get at least two, preferably three, and ideally four people per vehicle, and if you do that, there’s unlikely to be much remaining space for stores.

A note of realism too – the chances are that you won’t have much time to finesse these details – as soon as everyone is at the rendezvous point they’ll quite understandably be keen to move out.  So the more that is pre-planned prior to the bug-out, the better.

The Need to Practice, Practice, Practice

We again return to the fundamental truth about how group dynamics become massively more complicated, due to the growing nature of the group and its lack of experience interacting closely together with each other.  This needs to be anticipated and avoided, as much as possible.

One of the ways of countering and controlling these complications is to have as many things as possible planned and specified in advance, and we’ve been talking about many of these issues in this article.

But, invariably, there will be many things arise on the day that you had not earlier considered or planned for.  So, what do you do?

You carry out ‘dress rehearsals’.  You do practice drills, at different times of the day and night, and on different days of the week, and in different weather.

You can’t push too aggressive a schedule of drills of course – consider how sullenly many people respond to fire drills to see how some people will quickly be turned off by army drill type repetitive practice.

You can also selectively practice with just one or two group members.  Maybe you have an arrangement whereby when you hold a full group practice, the last two car loads of people to arrive will be required to do an extra practice the next week, or something like that, so as to motivate the group members.  A fun thing like ‘the first third of the people who arrive will have drinks bought for them by the last third’ would also add an edge to the event, but probably there will be some people who just because of their location relative to the rendezvous will always be first.

The practice times should be in morning and evening rush hours, on weekends, late at night, on hot days and in the snow.

We suggest that the group should agree on a window of time, at some point during which, a practice rendezvous will be called.  The broader the window of time, the better, so people aren’t ‘cheating’ and being ready to rush out the door, all ready to go.

There’s another, more subtle reason for practicing (and planning).  The bug-out process will be high-stress for everyone.  The more that people have practiced, the more comfortable they will be with the ‘real thing’ and the better they will perform.  That much is perhaps obvious (but can’t be overstressed).  The more subtle thing is that the more practiced you are, as group leader, the better you will be able to lead, and the more calm and confident you can project yourself.  This will calm and soothe your group members, and also encourage their compliance with your requests.

Sometimes you might just practice having everyone get to the rendezvous.  Other times you might then drive some distance in a convoy too.  Perhaps you might even create some ‘thought experiments’ and announce that roads are closed and require people to divert, and randomly declare vehicles to have problems.  For sure, you want to have everyone skilled at changing tires, and maybe you could have an occasional fan-belt break scenario too.

When people turn up in their vehicles at the rendezvous point, you should also do safety checks on the vehicles and their spare parts.  Are all fluids topped up?  Are fan belts and hoses in good order and condition?  Sufficient tread and inflation on the tires?  And so on.

Remember the saying ‘Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance’.  Remember it, and then adopt it!

This is the fourth part of a six part series about bugging out as a group.  Please now read on through the other parts of this series.

Part 1 – The Group Dynamic

Part 2 – Initiating a Bug-Out

Part 3 – Communicating the Bug-Out Decision

Part 4 – Managing the Bug-Out

(The final two parts will be released in the following days, please come back to read it, and consider getting our site updates sent to you via RSS or email or Twitter (choose your preferred method from the box near the top right of this page headed ‘Get Free Updates’).

Part 5 – A Policy on Uninvited Guests

Part 6 – Traveling in Convoy

Jul 312013
 
Adding a simple piece of wire to your walkie-talkie could double its range.

Adding a simple piece of wire to your walkie-talkie could double its range.

Some things in life you can never have too much of.  But for this article, we’ll concentrate just on radio range/efficiency!

There are many ways to boost the range of your two-way radios.  We write about this topic regularly (please see our complete section on communication related topics to access these articles) and basically, the suggestions we offer fall into one of two categories – either getting a more powerful radio transmitter and more sensitive radio receiver, or boosting the effectiveness of your antenna.

Between these two choices, improving the effectiveness of your antenna is always the better approach.  More powerful transmitters and more sensitive receivers are, of course, more expensive than standard grade units, and a more powerful transmitter is also going to need much more power to operate – chewing through batteries maybe ten times faster, and/or becoming a power-hog when you’re off-grid and power is precious and limited.

One more important issue – the more powerful your signal, the further it goes, and the greater the number of people who might receive it.  This is seldom a good thing, particularly when you are trying to keep a low profile.

This is why our focus is not just on greater transmitting power, but also on better overall efficiency of the antenna so it can receive weaker signals more clearly, and – with our radios – if we improve our antenna, we often then cut back on our transmit power, keeping it at the minimum needed for the range we require.

Enough introduction.  By now, you’re probably keen to understand the 10¢ device and how it can double your radio range.  Actually, we may have misstated the truth – the device might cost you less than 10¢!

How a Piece of Wire Can Double Your Radio Range

This device is simply a piece of wire which dangles down off your hand-held radio transceiver.  That sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it, and a bit like the ‘patch’ devices that used to be sold to gullible fools to add to their cell phones, with claims either that they would magically filter out harmful radiation or boost the phone’s range or something.

But we’re not trying to sell you anything, and there is actual solid radio theory that readily explains how and why this works as it does.  And, most of all, you will actually perceive the great boost to your radio’s signal yourself – you will know if it works or doesn’t work.

Without going too much into the theory, but also giving you enough to understand that this is a bona fide scientific real thing, most antennas need two parts in order to work properly.  Sometimes the two parts are obscured as part of a single overall antenna structure, but any good antenna definitely does have two parts to it.

However, with a hand-held transceiver (HT) the people who design them have pretty much unanimously decided that people prefer small portable robust units rather than larger, bulkier, and more fragile units.  They have taken that perception and used it to justify making the antennas small and inadequate.  They know the antenna is inefficient, but it is also small and strong, and they feel that is more important to most people, most of the time, than is a bulkier more fragile antenna but with better range (and with removable/replaceable antennas, if you do want/need a better antenna, you can simply buy one, as most of us do).

The manufacturers are probably correct in their assumption, and most of the time, we accept the limited performance we get from our HT antennas – but sometimes we need better performance, and that’s what this article is all about.

We explain this so you understand the answer to the question ‘If this is so great, how come it isn’t already being offered on all radios?’.

To be more technically precise, the antenna on most hand-helds is typically some type of quarter-wave monopole radiator, usually inductively loaded to shorten its physical length while preserving its electrical length, most commonly a normal-mode helix.  Adding this extra piece of wire changes it to a half-wave dipole.

You already know that the first thing you should do with any HT is to replace its standard ‘rubber ducky’ stub antenna with a better antenna, with ‘better’ being in part synonymous with longer/bigger.  See our two-part article about adding an external antenna to your HT, and if you have one of the lovely little Baofeng UV-5R or the newer Baofeng F8HP radios (see our commentary about why either of these are usually your best compromise choice here) then you’ll see on this page the first thing we recommend you do to optimize the Baofeng is adding a specific improved antenna (the Nagoya 701, costing a mere $6 or so on Amazon).

But even these improved antennas are still massively inadequate because they don’t provide some type of radiating element for both halves of the antenna.  Instead, the radio designers use various compromises in their design that basically end up as using your body as the other (‘ground’) half of the antenna system.  You’ll be unsurprised to learn that the human body, while wonderful in many ways, is not very good at doing double duty as a radio antenna!

So, to address this limitation, you can add the missing other half of the antenna to the radio yourself.  All it needs to be is a specific length of ordinary wire (bell wire or phone wire, ideally multi-strand so it is flexible, and insulated).  For 2M, this would be about 19.5″, for 1.25M, it would be 11.5″, and for 70cm, it would be about 6.5″.

For best results, you want to strip the insulation off a short piece of the wire and then connect the exposed wire to the ‘ground’ or outside part of the antenna connector.  This is very easily done with the Baofeng units – just unscrew the antenna sufficiently to be able to poke in the wire then screw down the antenna again to secure it.  It might help if you break off/file down/drill a bit off the side of the plastic shroud surrounding the antenna mounting screw, making it easier to get the wire in and firmly clamped by then antenna.

You can also use various types of washers or electrical clamps and connectors to create a connection too, depending on how much work you want to put into this enhancement.

Once you have connected your wire, just let it hang down freely while using the HT.  Don’t grip the wire when holding the HT, but let the wire hang down separately.

When the radio is not in use, you can wind the wire around the set or do whatever else you like to store it conveniently.

What Sort of Improvement Will You Get?

You will notice a significant improvement in both transmitting and receiving on 2M, some improvement on 1.25M, and much less improvement on 70cm.  We’ll spare you the antenna theory issues as to why this is.  🙂

But on 2M, you can expect your signal strength to increase by perhaps 6dB.  Some hams report as much as a 9dB improvement, but we find that improbable.  A 6dB improvement is the same as increasing your transmitting power four-fold, so it is a huge/massive improvement, and truly could double your range – or could now allow you to reduce your transmitting power while still getting a signal out as far as before, and getting a greatly improved receive signal.

Now for an interesting extra point.  Not only do you not always need to boost your transmit and receive capabilities, but sometimes this can be inappropriate.  Sure, you can maybe offset a more efficient antenna by reducing your transmit power, but if you are already receiving very strong incoming signals, and particularly if you have some unwanted signals on nearby frequencies, boosting the signal from the antenna to the receiver can sometimes cause problems.  If you find, after adding this extra wire to your HT, that it actually receives more poorly than before, even though it is transmitting better, you have a problem with your receiver circuitry being de-sensitized by strong adjacent signals, and in such a case, you should stop boosting your antenna.

For this reason, there is another way you could conveniently control your antenna, making it easier to selectively add or remove the extra wire.  Have just a short lug connected to the antenna ‘ground’ base on the HT, and protruding slightly from the radio.  Then if you need a boost in capabilities, you can conveniently clip whichever antenna you want onto the radio, but if your receiver is being overloaded, you can unclip it again without any great hassle or bother.

Some Extra Tips and Suggestions

First, if you use your HT on more than one band, you will need different length wires for each band (19.5″, 11.5″ and 6.5″ for the common 2M, 1.25M and 70cm bands).  If you regularly switch bands, what you might want to do is have the 6.5″ wire mounted permanently, and keep two extender lengths, 5″ and 13″, then if you switch bands from 70cm, you connect the extender onto the bottom of the 6.5″ wire.

Note that the connection needs to be electrical, not just physical.  There are easy and complex ways of doing this – the easiest is stripping a bit of insulation off the end of the 6.5″ wire and off one end of the two extender wires, then simply twisting the two together.  Slightly more elegant would be to have an alligator clip on the extender wire, and more elegant still would be to have a paired socket and plug connector at the end of each wire.

Second, you don’t actually need to have your antenna wire physically connected to the ground of the main antenna at all.

You will get best results if it is connected, but if that is difficult – or if it is impossible, for example, with a radio that has a fixed antenna that you can’t unscrew to access its ground – you can create a capacitive coupling between the radio and your antenna, by simply terminating your wire in a metal path (tin foil or copper or whatever) and affixing the patch somewhere on the radio.  The bigger the patch size, the better, and some locations will work better than others.  Some trial and error experimentation might be called for to work out the best place to place the patch.

Of course you could also open up the radio casing and hard wire/solder the wire to a ground point on the radio’s circuit board or access the antenna’s connector internally, then have the wire coming out through a hole in the case, and that would be slightly better than the capacitive coupled device, but is more hassle.

Third, some people have chosen to connect the extra wire to the antenna’s connector rather than to the radio.  There’s no reason not to do this, and if you don’t want to do anything to your radio, and/or if it is easier to add the extra wire to the antenna’s connector rather than to the radio’s connector, that’s an equally fine solution.

Lastly, if you’re still not convinced about how a simple piece of wire can add so amazingly to your radio’s range, Google ‘tiger tail antenna’ to see many credible articles confirming it works.  But, really, you don’t need to do this, because it only costs you 10¢ and only takes you five minutes to do it yourself.  You’ll hear the difference, as will the people you’re communicating with.

And surely that’s what counts.

Jul 292013
 
A radio repeater retransmits your radio signal, greatly increasing the range you can communicate over, and potentially getting it past obstacles and obstructions.

A radio repeater retransmits your radio signal, greatly increasing the range you can communicate over, and potentially getting it past obstacles and obstructions.

If you wish to establish emergency communications with other people in your immediate neighborhood, then you can probably do this successfully with portable VHF or UHF radios – ‘walkie talkies’ – ideally using higher powered longer range Ham radios analogous to but better than the popular FRS, GMRS and MURS radios anyone can use.  We have written about this topic regularly, most recently an article about optimizing the performance and range of short-range VHF/UHF radios.

But if your comm needs lie outside the admittedly very short-range within which convenient VHF/UHF direct communications will reliably work, even after optimizing your radio equipment and antennas, you have to consider either a different way of using your VHF/UHF radios, or switching to a different frequency band that allows for longer range (beyond line of sight) communications and which is less likely to be blocked by buildings, trees, hills, etc.

The simplest approach is to extend the range of your existing VHF/UHF radios by using a local repeater for your VHF/UHF communications.  Instead of communicating directly with the other people you need to communicate with, you send your signal to the repeater, and it then rebroadcasts it on to the ultimate recipient (and, of course, to everyone else listening at the same time!).

The wonderful benefit of this approach is that you use the same equipment you already have, and don’t need to invest in anything extra.

The Pluses and Minuses of Using a Repeater

We’re a bit ambivalent at suggesting you use public repeaters as a solution to your emergency communication needs, because we’re now saying ‘In the event there’s a massive disruption in society and its normal services, you need to rely on one such service still being available’ – that’s not a very sensible plan, is it!

But it costs you nothing at all to program some repeater frequencies into your radios.  Because the repeaters will be located some miles – maybe even twenty, thirty or more – away from you, maybe they will not be impacted by the same event that has caused the loss of cell and regular phone service and forces you to use your wireless capabilities.

The two big concerns with using repeaters in an emergency situation is whether they remain operational and whether they become very congested with lots of ham operators all excitedly chatting to each other about whatever event has occurred.

For the first issue – remaining operational – the big challenge probably relates to the continued availability of power at the repeater.

It would be helpful to find out if any of the local repeaters are solar-powered.  If they are, then clearly that is an enormously positive step towards being free of reliance on grid power.  Even if not solar-powered, maybe the repeater has a battery backup good for an hour or so of operation – that might be enough time for you to at least get in touch with your family members and agree on what, when, where and how you’ll meet up.

If your local repeater doesn’t have solar or battery power, why not suggest they add it.  Join the group/club that operates it (we’ll tell you, below, how to find out who the group is) and suggest you add this capability.  You’ll probably find the idea is warmly received – many ham enthusiasts are half-way to being ardent preppers already; and even those who aren’t love the thought of a ‘real’ emergency coming along where they can start to apply their ham skills and equipment in an important and essential manner.  Ham radio is a key part of our national emergency communication capability, and suggesting to your local repeater group that they should ‘harden’ the repeater and make it more disaster-proof is an issue that they’re probably going to be completely in favor of.

Having a repeater that will still work without grid power would be a very valuable enhancement to their ability to assist in a major emergency, and with the relatively low cost of solar systems these days, you might find it a concept that could be quickly implemented.  You might have to volunteer to coordinate a fund-raising appeal!

If all else fails, you could suggest applying to the local ARES or RACES coordinator for a subsidy to make the repeater self-powered, but there’s a danger that if you do that, ARES/RACES would claim it exclusively for their own use in an emergency, so perhaps it is better not to do that.

For the second issue, congestion, we can only guess as to what to expect.  In theory, ham operators are supposed to be very careful to avoid clogging up the air-waves, and should observe specific protocols and courtesies to enable the best use of the frequency at all times, including in an emergency.  In reality, though, what can we expect?  It is anyone’s guess as to what might happen.

You should also check if the repeater group has any arrangement to dedicate the repeater to ‘official’ emergency type services in an emergency, or if it will remain open, either to the entire general public, or to official members of the support group.  The best case scenario would be limiting the repeater to members of the support group, the worst case scenario would be restricting it to official emergency communications only.

Bottom line – we’re not saying that a repeater is something you should 100% totally rely on.  We acknowledge its limitations and instead are putting it forward as a possible alternate when all your more desirable options have failed.  It is something that might work and if it does, might be very helpful, and so, with no cost to you involved (because you already have your radios) why not at least include it as one level of your multiple levels of emergency communications.

Repeater Range

There’s nothing magical about how a repeater provides its extended range, although finding that your ability to communicate has suddenly grown from maybe being able to reach 5 square miles around you to now being able to reach over 1,000 sq miles sure can seem very close to magic.

The main benefit a repeater offers is that it is usually sited in an excellent location – on the top of a tall building, or on the top of a hill.  That simply gives it a much greater line of sight than you have on the ground, and because its signals are traveling down from a height, they are less troubled by buildings, trees, and other obstructions that otherwise cause you problems when trying to communicate, on the ground, to someone else on the ground.

A similar rule of thumb applies to repeaters as it does to direct communications.  If you can theoretically see the repeater (you might need binoculars or a telescope to actually see it), you can probably receive its signals and it can probably receive yours.    If you can’t see it, then it might still be within range depending on how much stuff there is blocking the signals – you’ll have to try it and see for yourself.

It is common for repeaters to be able to send and receive signals from 20 miles away, and often even further.  Just like the topography greatly impacts on non-repeater radio range, the same applies with repeaters too.  Some repeaters have a more than 50 mile range, and some reach out as far as 75 miles.

Remember that these distances are the repeater’s radius, which means you could be however many miles to the north and the repeater will receive your transmission and rebroadcast it, allowing it to be received however many miles to the south (as well as to the east, west, and everywhere else), giving you a best case range extension out maybe 150 or more miles.

This would be unusual, however, and normally you are better advised to consider most repeaters as having about a 20 mile radius of coverage.  If you can reach signals from further away repeaters, so much the better – the thing to do is experiment and create your own coverage map of where you can activate and receive repeater signals from which repeaters.  You need to become familiar with the repeaters in your area, their coverage ranges, their quirks of operation, and so on.

Short Range Benefits Too

So sometimes, maybe, you can get 100+ miles of range from using a repeater.  That’s great, but the chances are the people you most need to take to are much closer than that.  Indeed, sometimes the range extension you need is more like one or two city blocks, due to a block of tall buildings preventing any signals passing through them.  Or maybe you need a mile or two due to a small hill putting the person you wish to communicate with in your signal’s ‘shadow’ zone.

There’s every good chance a repeater can help in those cases too, and while it might seem ‘the long way around’ to communicate via a repeater 20 miles away to talk to a person one building over from you, the ability of the repeater, somewhere up high, to ‘see’ down to both your location and the other person’s location might enable some of the otherwise very difficult short-range special communication needs too.

Finding Nearby Repeaters

You might not realize it, but your local region probably has multiple VHF or UHF repeaters all within range of where you are and hopefully simultaneously within range of where the people you may need to communicate with will be, too.  The major challenge is knowing where the repeaters are, what frequencies they use, and what their CTCSS access control tones may be.

There are a number of sources you can turn to for this information.  This site shows, for example, 117 repeaters in ID (and the same number in MT too).  The ARRL Repeater Book lists 136 for Idaho.  Repeaterbook.com has 143 entries.  Radioreference.com has only about 60.

Note that a larger number of entries may or may not be better than a smaller number, because maybe the larger number of entries includes out of date listings for repeaters that no longer exist.

The best source of information – most complete and most up-to-date – is from the state or regional frequency coordinator group.  How do you find these groups?  You should get a copy of the annual ARRL Repeater Directory (we prefer the full size spiral bound edition, but there’s nothing wrong with the tiny pocket edition other than its small size print,, and its small size is a benefit when traveling) – this has a good listing of repeaters in it to start with, and has contact details for all the local frequency coordinators listed in the front.  Many of the coordinators publish their information on websites; if not, a courteous email from you to them (include your Ham callsign to confirm your bona fides) will usually get a fast and helpful reply.

Programming Your Radio to Work with Repeaters

Not all radios can work with transceivers.  You need a radio that can transmit on one frequency and listen on another frequency, and which can add control tones to its transmissions to ‘unlock’ the repeater.

Our favorite handheld radio – the Baofeng UV-5R– has all the capabilities you need, and so too does our favorite mobile radio – the AnyTone AT-5888UV.  Most other ham grade radios will too.

To work with a repeater, you need to know what frequency it listens on, and set that as your transmit frequency.  If the repeater requires a tone to activate it, you need to program that into your transmit side, too.  Then you simply add the repeater’s transmit frequency as your receiving frequency, and your radio is good to go.  Sometimes (rarely) a repeater might have a control tone on its transmit signal, but we usually ignore that when programming it in to our radios.

Most of the 2 meter repeaters transmit at a frequency 600 kHz higher than the frequency they receive on.  With the 70 cm band, the frequency change is usually 5 MHz, but some parts of the country have the transmit frequency higher than the receive, and other parts have the opposite.  So be careful to check which way around it is with the receivers you are hoping to work.

The information in the resources mentioned in the previous section give you all this data.

Which is Better?  VHF or UHF?

Should you search out VHF or UHF repeaters?  That question presupposes that you have the luxury of multiple choices of repeaters in the areas and locations you want to communicate within; that is usually true in most city areas, but much less true in rural areas.

Quite possibly, in a rural area there might be only one repeater, or – alas – maybe none at all (in such a case, don’t despair – we’ll be publishing a future article on how to set up your own repeater).

If you do have choices, our suggestion is to try them all and program them all into your radios.  At present, the ‘best’ repeater is of course the one which is most available and used the least, and which provides a good quality signal between you and the other people you need to communicate with.

But in a future event, WTSHTF, you’ve no real way of knowing which repeaters might remain functional, and for how long, and which repeaters may quickly become hopelessly overloaded with way too many people all excitedly and urgently trying to communicate each other.

The more different repeaters you have pre-programmed in to your radios, and the better you understand the coverage footprints of the repeaters in your area, the more likely it is you’ll end up finding one that works.  (Note that you and the other members of your group will need to have a pre-arranged methodology for which repeater signals you’ll listen to.)

If you are getting a single band mobile or portable radio, and plan to use it with repeaters, you should consider which band has the most repeaters available.  The two most common bands are the 2 meter and 70 centimeter bands, and (much less commonly) there are some 1.25 meter band repeaters too.  Some regions seem to be more focused on the 70 cm UHF band, others on the 2 m VHF band.

In terms of better range and signal, that is usually more dependent on the repeater location and equipment than on its frequency.

Who Can Use a Repeater?

Most ham repeaters can be used by any and all hams.  Some are restricted to members of the repeater association group only, but this is uncommon.

On the other hand, when you use a repeater, you need to realize that you are using someone else’s equipment.  Someone has spent considerable time and money creating and maintaining the repeater.  If you become a regular user of a particular repeater, it would be appropriate for you to join the group that manages and maintains the repeater, and contribute time, resource, or money to help in its upkeep.

Repeaters for GMRS Too

Although most of the ‘open to the public’ repeaters are for ham operators and are on ham frequencies, there are a number of GMRS repeaters out there too.  There are nowhere near as many GMRS repeaters as ham repeaters, though.

If you use a GMRS repeater, there is a slightly higher chance of you being required to have a current GMRS license, and if you’re going to get one of those, maybe you should get a Ham license instead (cheaper, albeit slightly more bother).

This website has a listing of some GMRS repeaters, some of which claim to have truly impressive coverages.

Note that very few GMRS radios on the market are capable of working repeaters, because they can’t send on one frequency and receive on a different one.  You would need to get a professional grade GMRS radio, or skirt the legal issues with using a dual purpose radio such as the lovely low-priced Baofeng UV-5R series (see our many articles on these radios, perhaps starting from here).

Summary

If there are repeaters in your area that provide coverage both in the locations you are likely to be in, and also in the locations other people in your group are likely to be in, then if you have problems establishing direct communication, working through the repeater might be a possible alternative approach.

Obviously direct communication is always better – less things to go wrong, and probably less congestion on the frequency you use as well, but this is not always possible.  In such cases, and assuming you’ve already done all you can to optimize your radios and antennas, it is logical to try repeater style communications.

It is unknown how available repeaters might be in a disaster situation.  Become a supportive member of the group that manages and maintains your local repeater(s) and encourage them to invest in standby power supplies such as batteries and solar.

Jul 232013
 
This easily constructed or inexpensive to purchase six element 2m Yagi antenna has excellent directional focus.

This easily constructed or inexpensive to purchase six element 2m Yagi antenna has excellent directional focus.

A directional antenna can give you a massive increase in the strength of signal you transmit, and in your ability to clearly receive weaker further-away signals in return.  If you are currently having problems communicating with another person while using omnidirectional antennas, a directional antenna might be an excellent solution.

Note that a semi-synonym for a directional antenna is a ‘high gain’ antenna.  And also note that in all cases, an antenna is not ‘creating’ extra power.  All a directional or high-gain antenna does is focus the power it has in one direction.  That makes for a stronger signal in its focused direction, with the trade-off being a weaker signal in other directions.  Think of it a bit like a light bulb.  If you put a reflector behind the light bulb, and/or a lens in front of it, you can shine a narrow small spot of light a further distance than if the light shines out in all areas equally.

This points to one consideration with a directional antenna.  If you start using one, you could be shutting yourself off from communications coming from other directions.  Might you need to be able to receive unexpected communications from other directions too?  If so, you need two receivers or two antennas.

Directional antennas aren’t always appropriate.  For example, when you are in a mobile communications environment, you want to have an antenna that transmits and receives more or less equally in all directions, because you will be facing in different directions and the path from you to whoever you are communicating with will vary enormously and somewhat unpredictably, as both you and/or possibly the other person moves about.

But if you are wanting to communicate from one fixed point to a second fixed point, a directional antenna becomes more relevant, because you know pretty much exactly where you want to focus your radio signals.

Do You Need a Directional Antenna?

Before we go too far into this article, it is necessary to first examine if you actually need a directional antenna or not.

If you have a clear signal already between your fixed location and the person you wish/need to communicate with at their location, there might be no need to add a directional antenna.  Of course, if you are struggling to understand each other, then you both should consider adding directional antennas.  A single directional antenna added to either radio will help both of you, but if you both add directional antennas, that will provide even better results.

There are also two situations when adding a directional antenna might provide a benefit, even though you have good communications with normal antennas.

The first is that with a stronger directional signal, maybe you can reduce the transmit power you are using to communicate.  In a future situation with grid power down, you’ll all of a sudden find each watt of power is a precious commodity to be very carefully used.  If you can reduce your transmit power from 50W to 5W, or from 500W to 50W (in both cases by using a 10dB gain antenna) then that might make a big difference to your total available power and how long it will last.

The second situation is that maybe you are in an area with a lot of congestion, and by using directional antennas, you are able to selectively receive signals from one direction and ignore signals from most other directions, making it easier to get the transmissions from the other person and not have them obliterated by other/stronger signals from other locations.

If not congestion from other transmissions, you might have interference from some sort of other device that is sending out ‘static’ – assuming it is not in the line you want to communicate with your partner on, a directional antenna will help you avoid the interference.

There’s a weak third consideration as well.  By narrowly focusing the beam of the radio signals you are transmitting, and by reducing their power to the minimum needed, you are reducing the number of other people who will also be picking up your signal.  You won’t have become invisible and undetectable, of course, but you’ll have lowered your visibility somewhat, and that’s got to be a good thing.

The Best Frequencies for Directional Antennas

In theory, directional antennas can work equally well at any frequency you wish.  But the theory needs to be tempered with some practical considerations, the most important of which is that a directional antenna takes up more space than a regular antenna.  That’s an unavoidable downside, and is usually addressed by choosing only higher frequencies for directional antennas, because, as you almost surely already know, the size of any antenna is proportional to the wavelength (and inversely proportional to the frequency) it is designed to transmit/receive on.  In other words, the higher the frequency, the smaller the antenna.

Remember that when we are talking about, eg, the 2 meter band, that is the length of its radio wave, and so a common simple half-wave dipole antenna will be half that length.

If you have a large open lot, and a reasonable amount of money to spend, you can consider directional antennas at lower frequencies, but for most of us (especially those who are limited to using higher frequencies with their Technician level ham license anyway) we will choose to concentrate on VHF and UHF frequencies.

The smaller the antenna, the lighter it will be, and the lighter it is, the less substantial the support materials and elements need to be, allowing it to become even lighter still, and/or more physically robust.  These are all very good attributes to seek out – light weight, small size, and strong.

Clearly, the 70 cm band uses antennas that are only about one-third the size of the 2 meter band.  While 2 meter antennas need not be huge (about 40″ long for a half-wave dipole) something that measures in multiples of 14″ rather than 40″ will clearly be vastly preferable in most respects.

On the other hand, in a rural environment, longer wave lengths can travel more successfully through forests.  In an urban environment, shorter wave lengths will be reflected by buildings and travel more readily than longer wave lengths.  So you might need to adjust your frequency choice depending on what is between you and the person you’re communicating with, even if it ends up requiring a larger antenna array.

Directional Antennas for Mobile Use

We started off this article by suggesting that directional antennas are not suitable for mobile communications.  That is essentially correct, but there is one special exception to that.  If you stop moving, and if the person you are communicating with is also not moving, and if you know the bearing from you to the other person, then during your transmission you could sensibly use a directional antenna to boost the quality of your transmitted and received signal.

In such a case, you’d want as small/portable/lightweight an antenna as possible, which means possibly sacrificing some elements of directionality and signal boost in favor of convenience, but even a 3dB boost in signal is the same as doubling both the transmission power and receiving ability of your radio.

If this is to work, you need to be able to know, reasonably accurately, where to point your antenna.  There are two ways to do this – an easy way and a hard way.  The easy way is to do so by trial and error.  You could transmit test signals saying things like ‘I am now pointing the antenna north, now northeast, now east, now southeast’ and so on, and each time you and the other person could decide how strong the signal is.  Once you’ve found sweet spots, then try smaller degree changes, and eventually you’ll come up with an antenna direction that seems to work better than other directions.  Assuming a not extremely directional antenna, as long as you’re within maybe 30° of where you should be pointing, you’ll be getting helpful improvements in signal strength.

The hard way is not necessarily much harder.  If you know where the other person is, and if you know where you are, and if you know where north is, you can simply compute what direction to point the antenna at to be pointing directly to the other person.  Some GPS units will even do this automatically for you, but of course, in an uncertain future, you don’t want to be relying on the continued availability of GPS service.  A compass and map however is wonderfully low tech and likely to survive just about any future catastrophe.

If you’re in a marginal communication area, being able to use a directional antenna while mobile might make a big difference.

How ‘Directional’ is a Directional Antenna?

Directional antennas send the strongest signal in a particular direction, but their beam is still fairly broad (much more so than a flashlight).  Generally it is common to be able to be within 15° to the left or right of the antenna’s primary direction and still get almost the same strength of signal.  You could be 30° to maybe even 45° either side of the antenna and still get an appreciably stronger signal than would be the case with omni-directional antennas.

So it is helpful to have the antenna pointed in more or less the right direction, but it doesn’t need to be laser-straight on target.  A few degrees either side is perfectly acceptable.

This has a related point, too.   If you want to communicate with two or three different locations, then if there is no more than perhaps 90° of angle from the one most to your left and the one most to your right, they can all be well serviced by a directional antenna pointed towards the middle of the group.

Which brings up a related concept.

Sometimes You Only Want a Weakly Directional Antenna

Maybe you are setting up a communication system at your retreat, and you know from your property layout and other issues that everyone will always be ‘in front’ of a certain line, but they’ll be all around the place while staying in front of that line.

In such a case, you don’t want a narrow beamed directional antenna.  You want one that fairly broadly radiates out in front and to the sides, but which has as little ‘wasted’ signal and sensitivity behind it.

What Type of Directional Antenna to Use

There are very many different types of directional antennas to consider.  You need to consider issues such as potential frequencies you might wish to use, and limits on the size and shape of the antenna you could install, plus also whether you will only need a very narrow band of radio energy focused in a single area or a broader beam to cover a wider area.

At that point, you can start to choose from various different antenna types.  The simplest is a two piece antenna with a driven element and a single parasitic reflector behind it.  Depending on the spacing between the two elements, you can get either a tight or broad focus of radio beam.

If you want a more directional (tighter focus) then a three element Yagi is a great starting point, and if you want to go ‘wild and crazy’, you can add more and more and more elements to the Yagi configuration, making it progressively more and more focused and directional.  A ten element Yagi can give you up to 13.5 dbi of gain – more than ten times the power of a dipole in its main focused direction, and with about a 3db drop in signal strength at about 20° either side of straight ahead.

The Yagi type antennas are excellent devices and easier to construct than it might first appear.  But they have very narrow frequency bands.

If you wanted a broad-band antenna that could work better than an omni-directional dipole, and which would be suitable for both the 2m and 70cm bands, you could consider a Log Periodic Dipole Array (or LPDA for short).  These have moderate directionality and moderate gain compared to a dipole.

It is also possible to have multi-band Yagis, or stacked Yagis, one for 2m and the other for 70cm.

Please refer to the reference selection below for sources of information on these types of antennas.  There are other choices, too, of course, but the Yagi will be your best bet, most of the time.

As a piece of trivia, we have been talking about antennas with up to about a 15 dBi gain – about the same as increasing power 20 fold.  However, there are some huge antennas, used in the space program, with gains of up to 100,000,000 fold – 80 dB!!!

Limitations of Directional Antennas

When used with VHF/UHF transmissions, a directional antenna is not going to be able to increase your range beyond the line of sight limit that affects all transmissions at those frequencies.  The radio waves slightly bend towards the earth as they travel in an otherwise straight line (which gives you a theoretical range about 15% greater than strict line of sight), but once they’ve passed that point and the earth’s curvature drops away, the radio waves shoot off into space, never to be seen again (unless they bounce off the moon or a satellite and come back again that way, which can happen, but which isn’t relevant for our purposes).

So a directional antenna can help you get closer to the theoretical maximum range of the transmission, but it won’t allow you to beat that limitation and go any further.

And it won’t penetrate every area where signals don’t currently reach.  It might improve reception when foliage is attenuating a signal rather than a structure outright blocking it, and it might also improve reception by sending a sufficiently strong signal to bounce off something else and make it to the receiver via a not quite so direct path, but it can’t do the impossible.

Polarization Issues

When you’re transmitting and receiving with a normal antenna, it tends to be more or less vertically oriented, and the electric field it emits reflects a similar vertical orientation.  The antenna is said to be vertically polarized.  Needless to say, a horizontal antenna would be horizontally polarized.  (To make things more complex, there are also some antennas with circular polarization.)

Sometimes one type of polarization is better than the other, and there are complex factors associated with that.  If you have the ability to experiment with both horizontal and vertical polarization, so much the better.  You might notice an appreciable difference one way compared to the other.

But the main reason for mentioning this issue is that for best results, both antennas should share the same polarization.  Make sure that the people you need to communicate have the same polarization with their antennas that you have with yours.

Resources

The best introduction to antenna theory, design and building, that we’ve come across is the ARRL Basic Antenna book by Joel Hallas.  This is very clearly written and doesn’t overload you with complexity or terribly long equations.  It is a great first step to take into understanding more about antennas, and is reasonably priced at only about $24.

At this point, if you want to know more, you have some free choices and also another excellent book to consider buying.

Here is a pdf from the National Bureau of Standards about Yagi antenna design.  It was published in 1976 but is as relevant and applicable today as it was almost 40 years ago when first issued.

But it is also complex and obtuse and hard to follow.  If you first downloaded that before buying the ARRL Basic Antenna book, don’t let it put you off.  The Basic Antenna book is truly basic and easy to follow.

If you’d like a broader book that is both easier to read and has a much wider coverage of all antenna related things, you can get a free download of the 1974 ARRL Antenna handbook.  This is a massive 338 page book that covers just about all there is/was to know about antennas back then.  You should probably get the download, but you would find the current edition very much easier to read and with more focus on VHF/UHF than was the case back then.

The current 22nd edition was published in 2013 and is available on Amazon for $38 or thereabouts (the book lists for $50).

Summary

Your antenna is one of the most important parts of your radio setup.  Money spent on a good antenna is almost always a better investment than money spent on more expensive radio transmitters and receivers.

There are several reasons why a directional antenna might be of use to you, and there are several styles of antenna that might give you the functionality you need.

After discussing the considerations, implications, and choices of directional antennas, we then provide links to further detailed free information and two excellent reference works as well.

Jul 222013
 
A simple and inexpensive, but also well designed and well placed external antenna will massively enhance the range you can send and receive radio signals.

A simple and inexpensive, but also well designed and well placed external antenna will massively enhance the range you can send and receive radio signals.

Several readers have asked us how best to communicate with other nearby friends and family in an emergency when landlines and cell phone service is all unavailable.

Maybe you too want to be sure to be able to reach your children in their schools, your spouse at their work, or your parents in their retirement village.  If they are relatively nearby, this might be relatively easy – but it also may not be so easy.  Hopefully this article will help.

The short answer is of course to use two-way radios, but there’s a lot more to how to do this effectively.  We’ve written many articles on the subject in general before (see our complete listing of articles on wireless and other communications here), and in this article we want to focus primarily on communicating between two houses or apartments that are perhaps a mile or two or three apart.

If you’re wanting to communicate with someone more than a few miles away, it may still be possible using the techniques in this article, but if it proves impossible, don’t be alarmed.  We will shortly be publishing a second article, explaining techniques enabling you to communicate up to about 200 miles.

So, concentrating initially on short-range communications, please have a look at our article about how to choose the best portable radio for FRS/GMRS use, and then after revealing our current favorite (the Baofeng UV-5R and/or F8HP series), we talk about how to best accessorize the Baofeng radios with better antennas and other useful add-ons.

We also have articles on how to maximize the range of your walkie-talkie, and a two-part series on how to choose and use the best antenna for your radio.

Now, let’s answer the question how to communicate with someone else a mile or two (or maybe three or four) away?

First, why do we choose a this as a distance to consider?  Because this may possibly be the maximum distance, in a city environment, that you can realistically expect to be able to experience convenient easy simple and affordable communications using regular VHF or UHF type portable ‘walkie talkie’ radios and with small convenient antennas.  Sure, out in the countryside, or on the water, you might get ten times this range, but in a city/suburban environment, your range will probably be more like a mile or two, maybe three or four if you are lucky and have great antennas.

Making an Initial Guess About Communication Feasibility

Depending totally on the terrain and obstructions between you and the place you wish to communicate, you might get more than a mile or two, or you might get less, even with powerful radios and great antennas.  We know, based on experience and guesswork, what sort of works and what sort of doesn’t, but you’ll probably have to do so on a trial and error basis.  Fortunately, the costs of doing so are not huge.

The first thing to consider is how blocked your radio signal might be between your location and the location you want to communicate with.  Can you physically see, with a telescope or pair of binoculars, the other radio’s antenna from where your antenna is located?  If the answer to that is yes, then you’ve a very high probability of being able to communicate.

If the direct ‘line of sight’ between you and the other radio is blocked by trees, you might still be okay, depending on the density of the trees, and if they are wet or dry (dry is better than wet).  You will probably find better results with VHF rather than UHF communications in such a situation.

If the direct ‘line of sight’ between you and the other radio is blocked by buildings and other man-made structures, you still might be okay, but in such a case, you are more likely to get better results with UHF rather than VHF communications.

If you’ve got a hill between you and the other radio, then you’re probably out of luck.

Equipment Needed For Your Communications

You need two key things.  Both are simple, and neither needs to be unduly expensive.  A good radio, and a good antenna.

A Good Radio

For the radio, if you use one at a fixed location, it doesn’t need to be a handheld transceiver (HT) – it can be a ‘base station’ type radio.

If you get an HT, it probably is limited to a maximum power of 5W or thereabouts.  This may be all you need, but if you’re struggling with very marginal reception, then you might get some benefit by increasing the power, either by adding a linear amplifier to the output from your HT, or buying a more powerful radio to start with (which is probably the better choice).  Mobile radios typically transmit up to 50W of power, and base station radios might be even more powerful again, all the way up to 1.5kW.

The key consideration is that whatever type of radio you select, you of course then need to be able to provide it with the electricity it needs, and the more transmitting power it radiates, the more electrical power it needs to drive that.  As a rule of thumb, you should assume that you’ll need 1.5 times as much power into the radio as you are transmitting out.

This is not a problem normally, but if you lose your mains power, you then need a reliable power source capable of providing almost as much as 100W of power while you are transmitting on your 50W transmitter, or more than 2kW if you’re going wild and crazy with a maximum 1.5kW transmitter.

Unless there are real reasons for needing to go over 50W, we suggest you stick to that as a maximum power level, because in truth, there are very few situations where you’ll get more range with 500W than you would with 50W, and anything over about 100W requires special (ie more expensive) antennas to handle the extra power.

We like mobile radios because they are designed to operate in a vehicle and from a 12V DC power supply.  It is easy and affordable to buy a single ‘golf cart’ type 12V lead acid battery and a trickle charger for it, so that you can always have many hours of emergency power for your radio (and other things too) if the power fails.  See our article on emergency low capacity power supplies for more information on how to power devices such as radios in an emergency without mains power.

You can choose either a mobile radio that only operates on VHF frequencies  (ie 138 – 174 MHz – approximately the 2M ham band or thereabouts), one that only operates on UHF frequencies (ie 400 – 480 MHz – approximately the 70cm ham band or thereabouts), or a dual band VHF/UHF radio, or a multi-band radio that operates on more than two bands (perhaps adding the 1.25M band, maybe adding other HF frequencies too).  A single band radio is of course less expensive than a dual or multi band radio, but is also, of course, less versatile, too.

Some mobile radios are slightly more powerful than others (some go up to 75W, others are no more than 40W) but you’ll not really notice much difference in range between these two extremes, while you’ll definitely notice a difference in battery life, so we’re not too fixated on transmitting power.

Currently our preferred mobile radio for people on a budget is a dual band AnyTone AT-5888.  Amazon sells it for about $300.  This radio is distinctive because in addition to the narrow ham frequency bands which most radios are restricted to, it will also transmit on other nearby frequencies such as GMRS and FRS and MURS.  This is of course illegal, but in a true emergency, you would be allowed to make use of that extra feature (click link for our discussion on that special dispensation).  You’ll see plenty of ham radios that seem to offer broad frequency band support, but if you carefully read the fine print, you’ll see that while they receive signals over a wide range of frequencies, their transmit abilities are restricted to only the ham frequencies.

If all you need – or all you can consider (eg for taking to school or carrying in a handbag) is a handheld walkie-talkie, then probably the Baofeng UV-5R series is your best choice.  Choose the cheapest UV-5R from this page on Amazon– ignore the claims about ‘newer model’ or ‘improved’ etc.  They all have identical electronics in them, no matter what their exact model designation or outside case appearance or marketing claims may be.

A Good Antenna

This is the most important part of your setup.  You’ll have more influence over the effective range that you can both send and receive communications by choosing the best antenna than you will by choosing a more powerful radio.

If you are using any type of HT radio, you should immediately replace the provided ‘rubber ducky’ type short stub antenna with a better after-market antenna.  Even high-end radio manufacturers seem to perversely delight in providing a low quality antenna as standard, and you’ll get markedly better reception and transmission with an after-market antenna.

In the specific case of the Baofeng UV-5R, you should replace the provided antenna with either a Nagoya 701 or a Nagoya 771.  The 701 is more portable, the 771 is longer but more fragile, so generally the 701 is perhaps the better choice.  However, they are both very inexpensive (about $12 each) you may as well get one (or more!) of each.

When I am arranging for a child to carry a portable radio with them, I unscrew the antenna so that it is easier and less bulky to carry (and also less fragile).  It is very easy for them to screw in the antenna before using it.  The same is true of, eg, a woman wishing to carry one in her handbag.

If you are considering a radio for use in a vehicle, then you absolutely must add a roof mounted external antenna to the radio.  This will give you a further significant improvement, even over using an improved type of antenna directly on a portable radio inside the car.  The Tram 1185 is a fairly priced dual band antenna (under $30), but if you are only going to be using a single band, then it is much better you get an antenna designed specifically for the one band you’ll be using.

For use at home, there are two things to try to achieve :

The first is to get your antenna as high up as possible.  The higher up the antenna, the much better the range it will have, and the less impact obstructions will have – the radio signals will literally go over the top of the trees and buildings (if you get the antenna up high enough, of course!).

The second is to get your antenna out of the house rather than keeping it inside.  Why force your signals to go through the side of your house, and have them lose strength and range because of it?  It is of course much better to have the antenna outside, with one less obstruction between it and the other antenna it is trying to send to/receive from.

A related concept is that if you can’t position your antenna somewhere with an unobscured 360° view of the surroundings, at least try to position it on the ‘best’ side of your dwelling, so that the directions you are most likely going to be communicating in are least obstructed.

The good news with both VHF and UHF antennas is they don’t need to be very big in order to be very effective.  Because they are small in size, they are also light and sturdy and less likely to be damaged by wind and other adverse weather.

If you are in a situation where it would be difficult or not allowed to have an external antenna, don’t despair.  You could either wait until an emergency and then mount an antenna outside – perhaps you already have prepared mounts that are inconspicuously present, so all you need to do is drop the antenna in.  Or perhaps you have a temporary/emergency antenna that you just hang off the side of your house/condo/apartment when you need to use it.

Indeed, we’d go as far as to recommend not having a permanent external antenna (unless you’re an enthusiastic ham and use your radio for other purposes on an ongoing basis).  If you keep your antenna inside and only mount it outside when it is needed, then you are more assured that it won’t be damaged.  Wind, debris, and UV radiation from the sun all take their toll on antennas, and the last thing you need is your antenna to fail right when you need it most, and/or for the weather emergency that is causing you to need to communicate with others to have also destroyed your antenna.

Antennas are both cheap and essential, and so we’d recommend having several of them as ‘just in case’ backups.

There are a number of good antenna designs and suppliers out there, and each have their fans.  But when you hear a person speaking very highly of an antenna, you need to understand what other antennas the person has also tried and scientifically compared alongside their favorite antenna.  It is our impression that most people who rate antennas have not actually comprehensively compared their favorite antenna with other possibly similar or superior antennas.

We too have our favorite design of external antenna, indeed, we have two favorites – one intended as a semi-permanent type external antenna and the other as an emergency ‘mount anywhere’ type antenna.  Both are designed by a professor in California, Ed Fong (he teaches antenna and radio theory so he knows what he is doing), and before you think our own recommendations are also made without having carefully analyzed and compared different types of antennas, let us point you to some articles Ed has written, explaining how his antennas work, testing them, and setting forth the specific ways in which his antennas are better than others out there.

Ed does not make these antennas as a business – he and his graduate students make them as a way to earn funds that go to tuition scholarships, and because of that, he doesn’t even have a website.  He sells his antennas either directly or through eBay, and last I checked, they are about $26 each.

Due to his not having a website, and for your convenience, we have hosted the following four articles that explain his antennas and why they’re so good :

The DBJ-1 :  A VHF-UHF Dual- Band J-Pole (an article in the Feb 2003 issue of QST magazine)  fong.pdf

The DBJ-2 :  A Portable VHF-UHF Roll-Up J-pole Antenna for ARES (an article in the March 2007 issue of QST magazine) dbj2_arrl.pdf

An Omnidirectional Gain Antenna for UHF without Radials (an article in the Summer 2012 issue of CQ VHF magazine) CQ_Quarterly.pdf

Radial-Free Collinear Omni-Directional Antenna with Gain and Virtual Ground (Ed’s granted patent application – includes a fascinating discussion on the strengths and weaknesses of other types of similar antenna) publishedpatent.pdf

If you’d like to buy one (or both) of his antennas, you can email to Ed edsantennas@gmail.com, or you can search for his antennas on eBay and buy them from there :  http://myworld.ebay.com/antennas_iqn/ .  You can tell him the frequency bands you want the antennas made for and he’ll cut them to exactly the lengths you need.  Alternatively, if you do the sums yourself, you can of course use the information in his articles and make the antennas yourself.

Oh – it seems we’re pushing you to buy his antennas.  Maybe that’s true, but in case you think we’re doing so for nefarious and selfish reasons, we hasten to add we don’t get anything at all from Ed in return.  Although we’ve bought antennas from him, he doesn’t even know who we are or about this website.  We simply consider them to be the best, and the best value, antennas out there.

Omni-directional or Directional Antenna?

Now for an additional consideration.  We have been talking exclusively about omni-directional antennas so far – ones which radiate their signal, and receive incoming signals, equally in all directions.

Sometimes you might get a better result from a directional antenna – please see our new article all about directional antennas for more information on this point.

Summary

With the best antenna, located as optimally as possible, and connected to a good quality receiver with a reasonably high power transmitter (ie probably about 50W), you’ve done about all you can do to maximize your range within the VHF and/or UHF frequency bands.  More power – an obvious seeming possible approach to get more range – will not really make much difference at all.

If you can’t get connected with the people you need to connect with after optimizing these things at both their end and yours, you need to consider other strategies.  There are two more reasonably practical radio/wireless solutions to consider, and we will shortly be publishing an article explaining those as well.

Jul 072013
 
The Midland WR300 and the WR-120B are excellent and affordable SAME equipped NWR EAS compatible radios.

The Midland WR300 and the WR-120B are excellent and affordable SAME equipped NWR EAS compatible radios.

We’ve written before about the need to urgently make your way to your shelter if you receive a warning of pending nuclear attack, and about setting a policy for how long you wait for others to join you in your shelter.

But these considerations overlook one vital issue.  How can you get any such warnings of any type of pending disaster that you need to respond to?  It isn’t just pending nuclear Armageddon you have to be worried about, either.  All sorts of weather related events, or other local emergencies – dangerous chemical spills, public safety/law enforcement alerts, and so on – might occur, and it would be advantageous to be among the first to know of such issues.

In scenarios where seconds may literally make a life and death difference to your ability to adequately respond to an urgent threat, you can’t rely on noticing an item on the television news or hearing a special announcement on a regular radio.  You need some type of specific warning system that will grab your attention directly if an urgent warning is issued.

The good news is that there is a national system in place for such warning messages to be promulgated, and it is tied in to the National Weather Service – the NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards (NWR) service.  You can get special radio receivers that will be activated by such warnings (see below for details).

These Emergency Alert System (EAS) emergency messages are sent out with additional data attached to them, specifying the type of alert message and the county it applies to.  Messages can be for a single county, for up to 31 different counties, for an entire state (or multiple states), or for the entire nation.  The geographic tagging of the message is referred to as Specific Area Message Encoding or SAME.

Alert messages fall into one of various different descriptive categories (ranging from Avalanche watch messages to volcano warnings) and have one of four different status codes signifying their degree of immediacy.  The four codes are :

“W” for WARNINGS “A” for WATCHES “E” for EMERGENCIES “S” for STATEMENTS

  • A WARNING is an event that alone poses a significant threat to public safety and/or property, probability of occurrence and location is high, and the onset time is relatively short.
  • A WATCH meets the classification of a warning, but either the onset time, probability of occurrence, or location is uncertain.
  • An EMERGENCY is an event that, by itself, would not kill or injure or do property damage, but indirectly may cause other things to happen that result in a hazard. For example, a major power or telephone loss in a large city alone is not a direct hazard, but disruption to other critical services could create a variety of conditions that could directly threaten public safety.
  • A STATEMENT is a message containing follow-up information to a warning, watch, or emergency.

Emergency and Statement type messages are sometimes grouped together as ‘Advisory’ messages, making for a three level set of categories.

Here’s a list of different message types that might be sent as part of a NWR EAS message.

SAME/EAS Capable Radios

Clearly it makes sense to buy a specific radio designed to receive these types of messages.  The radio, while switched on, would normally be silent and would only come to life if it received a message coded to the county or counties that you wanted to receive alert messages for.

Ideally, you’d want the radio to be mains operated but with a battery backup capability so if the power goes out, the radio will still continue functioning.

You want to be able to program the radio as to which counties you wish to receive alert messages about.  We suggest you should program alerts for adjacent counties as well as your own county, especially if your county is small or you are close to the boundary with another county.

Some radios also allow you to filter out some types of alerts that you don’t want to be advised about – for example, if you live a long way from the coast, you might not be interested in coastal flood warnings, and you might decide to forego receiving child abduction messages no matter where you live.

And, of course, you want to be sure the radio has some type of loud warning device – an alarm or siren – that will sound when it receives a warning so you’ll be instantly notified.

noaaSome radios might be certified as complying with either the Public Alert Standard or as being approved by the NOAA as having the necessary capabilities for the system.  You can see the two logos displayed here.  Radios that are so certified might not be fully featured, and ones that have not paid for the certification may be equally featured or even better.  So these certifications are interesting, but not mandatory.

publicalertWhile some model radios can be expensive, you can also find excellent units for under $30 – for example, this Midland WR-120B which sells for about $25 at Amazon .  If you wanted to spend a bit more, the Midland WR-300 is also a good choice (about $45), but doesn’t have any additional ‘must have’ features compared to its cheaper cousin, the WR-120B.

Summary

All the preparations in the world will be useless if you’re not warned in time to respond to a sudden unexpected threat.

The NWR EAS system might send out warnings in time for you to respond to them, but only if you have a compatible radio receiver that will ‘switch on’ and alarm/alert you when it receives the specific types of warnings you have told it to respond to.

While the NWR EAS system isn’t guaranteed to always give you adequate notice of all pending threats, it certainly increases your odds of being alerted in time to adequately respond.  With compatible radios costing as little as $25, it is something you should invest in.

Jul 072013
 
A great value versatile radio that gives you access to many additional frequencies.

A great value versatile radio that gives you access to many additional frequencies.

You almost certainly know that the FCC has very stringent restrictions and requirements about what frequencies you can transmit on, and severe penalties it imposes on people who fail to observe these limitations.  But did you know that the FCC waives all such restrictions in emergencies?

If you find yourself in a true emergency situation – such as we prepare for – then if you’re a licensed ham operator, you can use pretty much any frequencies at all in order to conduct emergency communications.

The FCC Regulations in Subpart E of Part 97 relate to the use of amateur radio equipment provide special dispensation in emergencies :

§ 97.403   Safety of life and protection of property.

No provision of these rules prevents the use by an amateur station of any means of radiocommunication at its disposal to provide essential communication needs in connection with the immediate safety of human life and immediate protection of property when normal communication systems are not available.

§ 97.405   Station in distress.

(a) No provision of these rules prevents the use by an amateur station in distress of any means at its disposal to attract attention, make known its condition and location, and obtain assistance.

(b) No provision of these rules prevents the use by a station, in the exceptional circumstances described in paragraph (a) of this section, of any means of radiocommunications at its disposal to assist a station in distress.

In other words, at least as it applies to already licensed ham operators, if there’s an emergency, you can communicate on any frequency, in any form, if you have the capabilities and equipment to do so.

Note there is no similar dispensation for GMRS/MURS/FRS/CB radio users, and it is largely absent from regular ‘radio telephone’ type commercial radio operators also.  This provision to communicate in any manner and means extends only to licensed ham radio operators, in part because they are more likely to have flexible equipment at hand and the knowledge about how to use it in a non-standard manner, and in part because ham operators have traditionally been called on to provide emergency communication services.

So if you are a ham operator, your communications flexibility becomes very much greater WTSHTF.  We suggest you plan for this and use it accordingly.

Going Off-Band to Avoid Congestion

Most of the short-range ham frequencies are fairly uncongested most of the time, because most hams seldom use their radios, and because the short-range nature of VHF/UHF communications mean multiple people can be using the same frequency, as long as there is sufficient distance between them so they don’t interfere with each other (the same concept as how cell phones work).  But this is likely to change in an emergency, particularly when cell phones stop working, and it is reasonable to expect anywhere from a ten-fold to a one-hundred fold increase in radio traffic by ham operators.

Ham frequencies that have longer ranges are and will be even more congested, due to a single user on one frequency potentially blocking out all other users on that frequency across the country, maybe even across the globe.  There will of course be requirements for longer range communications in a Level 2/3 situation as well as short-range tactical communications, and we’ll discuss the best way to handle these needs in a subsequent article.

The massive increase in the number of hams suddenly wanting to use their radios will make for very busy/congested airwaves, and just like a busy freeway ends up carrying fewer cars because the traffic starts to slow down, making the situation worse; the congestion on the radio waves will make things very difficult, with lots of people transmitting over the top of other people, causing for repeated retransmissions, adding still further to the congestion and hassle.

On the other hand, some of the other frequencies currently allocated to other types of services will free up, and may have never been used much to start with, and/or might have been in use by devices with only a very limited range, and in places far enough from you as to allow you to ‘share’ the same frequency without interference.  For example, the mall security at the shopping mall on the other side of the metroplex might have some frequencies allocated to it, but if you’re more than a few miles away from the mall, you could use those frequencies without any problems from the low-powered hand-held sets in use at the mall.

Overall, the entire radio spectrum ‘from DC to daylight’ is more or less fully allocated, but that’s not to say that some parts of the spectrum won’t be more available than others in an emergency.  Here’s an interesting chart which shows, as of August 2011, how the total radio spectrum has been allocated (this is the most recent chart currently available, as of July 2013), and here’s a slightly more detailed table showing the same data plus some additional information about uses, too.

But what does it mean when you see a block of frequencies allocated to, eg, ‘Mobile’?  That’s a very general term that could mean just about any sort of commercial use.

There’s another useful way of getting a feeling for what frequencies are being used for in your area, and that’s to go to a site such as RadioReference.com, and click through to your state and your county, and then you’ll see lists of frequency allocations.  There are also scanner guide books that list frequencies and who has been assigned them in even greater detail.

The Official Ham Frequencies

For the purpose of short-range tactical communications (ie basically line of sight) you will want to use VHF or UHF equipment.  HF equipment has longer range and requires larger antennas, and anything with higher than UHF frequencies is too specialized for most general purposes and the equipment needed not so freely available or affordable.

In other words, you want equipment that operates from about 50 MHz up to about 1000 MHz.  Within this range, the most common ham bands are :

  • 6 Meters ie 50.0 – 54.0 MHz (VHF)
  • 2 Meters ie 144.0 – 148.0 MHz (VHF)
  • 1.25 Meters ie 219.0 – 220.0 MHz and 222.0 – 225.0 MHz (VHF)
  • 70 Centimeters ie 420.0 – 450.0 MHz (UHF)
  • 33 Centimeters ie 902.0 – 928.0 MHz (UHF)

The most commonly used frequencies (ie the frequencies with the most readily available and affordable equipment) are the 2 meter and 70 cm bands.

Some inexpensive ham equipment covers not just the official 2 meter band, but a broader range (typically about 140 – 170 MHz), and some of the equipment for the 70cm band goes much wider too (from about 400 – 500 MHz).

Choosing the Best Alternate Frequencies

There are two simple things to consider when choosing the best alternate frequencies.  The first is to choose frequencies which truly are empty and unlikely to be monitored.  The second is to match the frequencies to your equipment capabilities of course.

Depending on where you’re located, a useful block of frequencies to consider using would be the maritime frequencies.  Here’s a list of the VHF maritime frequencies.  If you’re more than ten miles or so from the water or a navigable river, then these frequencies are probably sitting empty.  However, we’d recommend you don’t use the Chanel 16 or 70 emergency channels.

If you’re not close to any railroad, then their frequencies are probably massively unused too.  Here’s a list.

On the other hand, marine radios are not uncommon, and many people like to listen to train frequencies if they think there will be trains in their area.

Generally, the ‘best’ frequencies will be ones very close to ham bands for which you already have suitable antennas for.

If you are going to a non amateur assigned frequency, you should listen very carefully to make sure the channel is truly free and that you’re not interfering with someone else’s legitimate use/need for the frequency that has been assigned to them.

One more possibility is to use non-standard frequencies.  If you’re looking at a part of the radio frequency spectrum that normally has 25 kHz spacing between frequencies, why not use a frequency that is halfway between two standard frequencies, and if you switch to narrow FM, you’d be able to carry on your communications on that intermediate frequency and possibly not even be detected by, be interfered by, or in turn interfere with, people using the regular frequencies.

There’s no way of knowing, in advance, what frequencies other hams mightn’t ‘take over’ and claim as their own as well, so you’ll have to hunt around the dial until you find a relatively unused chunk of spectrum that you can use.

Make Sure You Have Flexible Equipment

So, in theory, in a genuine emergency situation, you are free to use any frequencies and any power levels you wish.  That’s great, but what if your radio gear only works on the exact ham bands and nowhere else?  There’s a very good chance that might be the case.

It is common for amateur radio gear to be capable of receiving over a broad range of frequencies, but to be very tightly restricted to only being able to transmit on official FCC approved amateur frequencies.

However, there are some exceptions to this – for example, the AnyTone AT-5888UV (pictured at the start of this article) is a very nice VHF/UHF mobile radio (and suspiciously very similar to much more expensive Yaesu radios…..) that is capable of transmitting not just in the narrowly defined 2m and 70cm bands, but more broadly over a range from 136 – 174 MHz and from 400 – 490 MHz.  Amazon sells it for under $300.

The lovely little Baofeng UV-5R handheld radios have a similar capacity, transmitting from 136 – 174MHz and 400 – 480 MHz (or possibly even to 520 MHz).  Amazon sell them for under $40 each.

Make Sure You Have Appropriate Antennas

Your antenna is probably ‘tuned’ for a narrow band of frequencies.  It will most efficiently transmit and receive at a particular frequency, which is usually in the middle of its designed frequency band, and will work successively less well the further away from that particular frequency you are working on.

If you are going to be working in non-official frequencies, and if the non-official frequencies are more than a few percent away from the official frequency band the antenna was designed for, you might want to consider modifying the antenna to retune it for best performance at the new frequency band.

Modifying an antenna most simplistically means making it longer if your frequency is getting lower, and making it shorter if your frequency is getting higher.  You would use a SWR meter to help find the sweet spot where the SWR is lowest (see our article about installing and tuning antennas for more information on how to do this).

Summary

It is likely that the official ham bands will be very congested WTSHTF.  Fortunately, it is lawful for licensed ham operators to use any other frequencies they can in valid emergency situations.

Accordingly you should buy radio equipment that is capable of transmitting and receiving outside of the ham bands, and you should research the other frequencies to find little used frequencies that you could switch to for emergency communications in a future scenario.

Make sure you have antennas optimized for these frequencies.

Jun 242013
 
This map shows the maximum posted daytime speed limits on rural interstates.  TX is fastest at 85, the grey states are all 75.

This map shows the maximum posted daytime speed limits on rural interstates. TX is fastest at 85, the grey states are all 75.

What would life be like without cars and other forms of motorized transportation?  That’s a question we’ll almost surely find the answer to in a future Level 2/3 situation, but until such time, having convenient transportation is an essential part of our lifestyle.

Actually, convenient transportation will become even more vital in a Level 2/3 situation in the future, in a scenario where you might be more reliant on horse or other animal power rather than gas/diesel power.  These new constraints will completely redefine what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable transportation issues/constraints, and some of the present day issues (eg congestion) will probably disappear entirely.  We’ll also see the gradual decay and diminishing of our amazing current national roading system, bridges will fail, and so on.

But the future issues and challenges are a matter for other articles.  In this article, we mainly look at many of the issues associated with present transportation.  These issues impact on the desirability of potential locations as retreats, because hopefully for the indefinite future, life will continue as normal, and our experiences will be shaped by present day issues rather than by the challenges of TEOTWAWKI.

There’s another reason for looking at such issues as well.  How a state legislates for traffic matters gives you an oblique perspective of how intrusive and controlling the state wishes to be in the lives of its citizens.  The more traffic laws, and the higher the penalties, the more likely there are to be too many laws on too many other things too, and draconian penalties for all sorts of other minor offenses too.

Here are a number of criteria to consider when choosing retreat locations.  Our map graphic at the start of this article touches on one consideration – the freeway speed limits each state allows.  You can see a larger size map here, and this page has a more detailed table of data for each state.

If you are like us, you’ll probably equate being able to drive faster with a better state in general to live in.  🙂

Driving Safety

Of course, the justification for lower speed limits is usually safety.  Dubious data suggests correlations between traffic speeds and traffic safety.  We’re not going to argue the point about how fast is too fast, but we will definitely agree that there are very large differences between states in terms of vehicle accident rates.

The most relevant measure of the safety (or danger, if you prefer) of driving in each state is to look at the deaths per 100 million miles traveled.  This is more relevant than the deaths per 100,000 of population, because some states have people driving much greater distances than others.  Here’s a table that shows this data both ways.  The safest state was MA, while the most dangerous state was MT, with nearly three times the rate of fatalities (1.79 per 100 million vehicle miles in MT, 0.62 in MA).

One word about the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.  We’ve used their data for many of the elements we look at in this article, but we also understand them to be funded by a group with a massive vested interest in the matter – insurance companies.  What is the vested interest that insurance companies have about road safety?  That’s a good question, and there are two possible answers.

The first answer is that by making the roads safer, insurance companies can lower their premiums and also make more profit from lower premiums, because they don’t need to pay out on accidents as often.  That’s obviously the positive view.  But there’s a second answer, too – by encouraging states to penalize more and more types of driving, the insurance companies create opportunities to raise insurance premiums based on a driver’s ‘safety record’.  Some cynics feel that this may be the stronger motivation.  We make no statement, but we do point out that there are both these issues driving the apparently laudable promotion of safety issues by the IIHS.

What about the role of alcohol in fatal accidents?  Less is known about this than you might think, because not all drivers involved in fatal accidents have their blood alcohol tested.  Furthermore, the total numbers of cases by state are surprisingly low, so statistically, the answers are not always very significant.  You can see a table here, however, and most of the states score very similarly to each other.

These days all states have a limit of 0.08g of alcohol/100ml of blood, but penalties vary.  This table shows how severely different states treat DUI/DWI.

Driving Costs

The cost of driving varies appreciably from state to state.  The main variations in cost are insurance, gas prices, and registration costs.

This table lists typical insurance costs by vehicle, ranging from the most expensive states (LA, MI and GA – $2699, $2520 and $2155) to the least expensive states (NC, IA, ME – $1085, $1028, $934).

This table shows the cost for a vehicle title and annual registration by state, although it seems to us that some states have additional fees imposed by city and county authorities in addition to the state fees shown in the table.

Fuel taxes hit you every time you go to the pump.  This table has 2010 data by state, including not just a simple statement of how much is taken in state and local gas taxes out of every gallon, but some additional data too.  Page 8 probably has the best table, highlighting the huge range in tax levels, from a high of 58.1c/gallon in IL to a low of 8.0c in AK (or 14.0c in the lower 48 states, in WY).

Depending on where your retreat would be located, and where you might regularly drive, you might find yourself up for turnpike fees too.  Here’s a list of toll roads in the US and here’s some more data on the fees they charge.

Seat Belts, Helmets, and Phones

A difficult compromise that all states, counties and cities have to wrestle with is where to draw the line between allowing their citizens the freedom to make wrong/foolish decisions on the one hand, and insisting on proper/best behavior on the other hand.

We make no value judgments about these issues, but you might find the different ways that different states respond to some of these bellwether issues to be illuminating.

The first of the big three issues is requiring people to wear seat belts.  Although all states except NH now require front seat passengers to wear seat belts, there are different approaches to enforcing the law, and a wide variation in terms of special child restraint laws.

This map distinguishes between states that have seat belt laws as a primary enforcement item, and those with it as a lesser secondary enforcement item.  This map shows the age below which children have to be in an appropriate restraint system, and this table has detailed information on state seat belt and child restraint laws.

A related topic is requiring riders on motorbikes and bicycles to wear safety helmets.  Only 19 states require all motorbikers to have helmets, and 28 more require helmets of some riders (eg younger riders).  As for bicycles, 21 states have bicycle helmet laws, although none apply to all riders, state-wide (but there may be county or city laws applying to all riders).

This map shows motorbike helmet laws by state, and this map shows bicycle helmet laws by state.  Here is a table with information on the applicability of such laws.

The third of the ‘big three’ things is the use of cell phones while driving.  Hand-held cell phone use while driving is banned in 11 states, and text messaging is banned in 41 states.  This map shows state laws on hand-held cell phone use, and this map shows state laws on texting while driving.  Here is a table of information about these two issues.

Traffic Enforcement Issues

Depending on your perspective, states that are less aggressive at traffic enforcement either show a wanton disregard for the importance of human life, or perhaps, alternatively, are less intrusive and obsessive at controlling every last detail of our lives.

In particular, we have a strong dislike of states that aggressively use photo-radar and red-light cameras.  Again, opinions differ, but there are credible concerns widely expressed that suggest such devices primarily exist to make money for the local authorities (and for the companies that operate them under contract).  Too often we’ve read about cases where traffic lights have their timings changed (ie shorter orange light times) when red-light cameras are installed, and speed cameras are as likely to be located where normal average speeds are high as they are in areas where accident rates are significant.

This table on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s website lists state and local policies on the use of such devices.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has an interesting summary table of state policies and penalties for speeding and ‘reckless driving’ (a concept which is very subjective) and more detailed information on each state from this menu.

We really don’t like states which potentially can jail first time speeding offenders.  Of course, that almost never happens, and if you’re speeding truly fast, then even in a non-jailable state, you can find yourself locked up, because the officer who stops you will simply upgrade your ticket to reckless/dangerous driving or some other more serious charge.

Traffic Congestion

No-one likes getting stuck in traffic, but it seems to be an unavoidable part of living in any moderate to large-sized city.  For many reasons, all ultimately being, of course, based on money, few if any roads are built to a traffic handling capacity such that they can conveniently handle not only average volumes of traffic but also peak surge volumes.

However, your retreat is unlikely to be anywhere near a big city, so we’ll ignore those issues (but here’s a good starting point if this is relevant to you).

Instead, let’s look at more rural parts of the country, and traffic flows there.  Here’s a map showing freight traffic movements across the country (we think it dates back to 2010 or earlier).  It provides an interesting perspective on where commercial traffic flows across the country.

Looking ahead, here’s a second map that shows only the extra amounts of freight traffic expected to be added in addition to the freight traffic already shown in the first map, above.  That gives you a good impression of where future traffic will be appearing.

Both these two maps were taken from this report.

Here’s a more forward-looking map, showing projected truck traffic in 2035.

In addition to simple traffic, how about congestion?  This map shows the predicted level of congestion on freeways and other major roads in 2020, and this map adds more secondary routes to its 2020 congestion display.  Both are taken from this report.

Other Transportation Issues

There are many other considerations that you might want to also evaluate.  For example, here’s a map that ranks states by the quality of their bridges and what percent are deficient and in need of priority repair/replacement.  PA is the worst state, FL the best.

This map is part of a fascinating website that gives you detailed information about all the road bridges in your area.  That’s a relevant issue to understand, because it gives you a clue to what may happen in the future WTSHTF and road maintenance stops – how long before the essential bridges in your area start collapsing?

A related, but more difficult to get hard data on, issue is that to do with road maintenance needs in general.  For example, do you have roads along hill-sides that are subject to landslides falling onto the road, or slips/floods washing the road away?  Do you have roads lined by large trees that could fall over and block the road?

Another issue to consider is snow removal in winter.  If you’re in an area with appreciable winter-time snow, what happens to the major and minor roads in your area?  Will you get snowed in, and if so, would it be for a few days or might it be for many months?  As for WTSHTF, there’ll of course be no snow removal in that type of scenario.  What will you do in that situation?

A related part of these questions is to consider what the potential seasonal problems could be if/when you need to bug-out to your retreat.  How much of the year might the roads be impassable?  Are there any major risks on the routes you would have to take that may interfere with your bug-out plans?

Summary

The quality of our roading system, its reliability, and the associated costs of traveling by private vehicle are essential aspects of our present normal life.  At the present, they are factors to consider in choosing a retreat location.

In the future, if a Level 2/3 situation does eventuate, some issues will become irrelevant, but other ones will become vitally important.  You need to consider both present and future issues when weighing transportation considerations as part of your retreat selection process.