Search Results : baofeng

Feb 012015
 
The new Baofeng BF-F8HP looks very similar to the UV-5R, but is a genuinely different and improved model.

The new Baofeng BF-F8HP looks very similar to the UV-5R, but is a genuinely different and improved model.

For several years, the small-sized and even smaller priced Baofeng UV-5R has been the most popular budget HT ‘walkie-talkie’ radio transceiver.  Although primarily intended for licensed radio ham operators, many of them have been purchased by people to use as ‘super’ FRS and GMRS radios, a (mis)use that is notionally illegal but almost never enforced by the FCC.  We’ve written several articles about this lovely radio, see, for example, ‘The Best Radio for FRS/GMRS‘ and also read through our articles on Communications in general for a lot of resource.

Baofeng have released a somewhat confusing variety of other models of radio (in particular, the UV-82 series), none of which have been compelling ‘upgrades’ to the core UV-5R radio.

Confusing the matter further, their various distributors have often rebadged and repackaged the UV-5R and given it new names, or implied it to be a new, improved, updated, enhanced subsequent model.  As far as we can tell, none of their claims have any foundation in truth at all, and no matter what the outside case of the radio, and no matter what its alleged model number, all such versions of the UV-5R are almost exactly the same, other than for occasionally updated versions of the firmware inside them, and all perform essentially identically.  Resellers also make varying claims about being official and sometimes the only official dealers for ‘real’ Baofeng radios, and these claims are also to be taken with a degree of open-minded skepticism – as best we can tell, Baofeng will happily sell their products to anyone who will buy them, and will slightly alter them as major customers may request.

To make it more confusing, the Baofeng radios are also sometimes called Pofung radios (this spelling more closely indicates how the underlying Chinese word is pronounced).  Again, there is no difference.

But now a truly new model has been released, and it truly is better than the standard UV-5R.  This is the model BF-F8HP.  Already, we are seeing a confusing diversity of model numbers surrounding this new radio type, as well.  The F8HP designation seems to be the official default designation, but there are other variants such as F9-V2+ (which seems to attempt to imply it is a later model than the F8) and the F8+ (which is actually a UV-5R).

There are three key differences between this new radio and the earlier UV-5R series, and one very important similarity.

1.  The new F8HP has three power settings rather than two.  The UV-5R had two power settings, and on high power was nominally claimed to be outputting 4 watts of power, and typically was closer to 4 watts on the 2 m band and 3 watts on the 70 cm band.  The F8HP has a low power that is similar to the UV-5R low power setting, a mid power which is similar to the UV-5R high power setting, and a high power which nominally gives you 8 watts and has been tested to give about 7 1/2 watts on 2m and 6 watts on 70cm.  That’s an appreciable boost in power, and may give you a slight increase in range in some settings.

2.  A new battery with more capacity.  The UV-5R typically had a battery claiming about an 1800 mAh capacity (and more realistically giving you 1500 mAh).  The new F8HP has a battery with a rated 2100 mAh capacity and good for about 2000 mAh.  The battery is the same size, but uses newer cells that have higher capacity.  You can never have too much battery, especially if you’re now using it at a much greater rate on the high power transmit setting.

3.  The new F8HP has a greatly improved antenna provided as standard.

baofengantennas

The new style antenna is on the left, the old style is on the right.  This truly does make an appreciable difference to the radio’s ability to both send and receive signals a longer distance.

4.  The similarity :  All accessories that work with the UV-5R series also work with the F8HP.  That includes batteries as well as external microphones and speakers, and of course, antennas too.  So whatever you’ve bought already can be repurposed for the F8HP.

There are a few other minor differences too.  The new radio has some slightly improved internal circuitry, and a much better written 76 page manual.  Oh yes, it is also more expensive (but still great value), and currently can be found on Amazon for around $63, which is almost exactly twice the price of the UV-5R (which remains available for sale, too).

The F8HP operates on the same frequencies and has the same wide range of features and options, and can also be programmed through the same programming cables and the excellent free CHIRP software.

So – should you buy F8HP radios or twice as many UV-5R radios for the same amount of money?  We’re always keen to get the latest and greatest and best of everything, but the truth is that many times, the UV-5R will be all the radio you need.  If you get clear and reliable communications when using UV-5R radios, and especially if you are using them in low power mode, then there’s not really any need to get the F8HP.

If your UV-5R radios are struggling to connect to each other, then a better investment might be improved antennas on the UV-5Rs, rather than junking them and buying F8HPs.  A UV-5R with a good antenna (a Nagoya 701 or 771, for example) will generally give you comparable performance to a F8HP with its standard antenna.

But if you still have range issues, then, yes, you should get the F8HP.  A F8HP, on high power, and with an improved antenna, will beat the UV-5R every time.

As for us, we’re not junking any of our collection of UV-5R radios, but future purchases will all be of the F8HP.  Who knows what evolving needs and scenarios might come to pass, and you can never have too much range or battery life in your radio (although note that the UV-5R can also accept the same battery, and both can also use the extended battery or battery eliminators too).

Apr 222013
 
The UV-5R comes in different case styles and model numbers, but all are identical inside.

The UV-5R comes in different case styles and model numbers, but all are identical inside.

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably either just purchased a UV-5R or are about to do so.  Congratulations on a good choice.

Like any other professional grade two-way radio, the UV-5R has an enormous amount of flexibility and versatility in terms of how you can program and use it.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  You can’t just take the radio out of its box, charge up the battery, and start using it.  Although it comes with 21 simplex channels pre-loaded, you’re not likely to use any of them, and so you’ll need to program in and name the channels you want.

Furthermore, you’ll quickly discover that the provided manual is far from well written.

But, never fear.  Solutions to all these issues are readily available.  Let’s go through them more or less in some sort of sensible sequence.

1.  Radio Firmware

Do you have a recent level of firmware in your radio?  There are some relevant improvements and bug fixes in newer firmware levels, and it is easy to check.

Turn your radio off.  Press and hold the ‘3’ key, and while holding it, turn your radio on.  Release the ‘3’ key.

Your display will show the firmware level in the radio.  It will say something like

VER
BFB297

You want your radio to be version 297 or higher.  This software has been out since about Nov/Dec 2012, and if your radio has a lower version firmware, that means you’re getting old stock.  More to the point, earlier version firmwares have some bugs in them, and – most to the point – the firmware in your radio can not be updated.

We’d recommend that if you get a radio with an earlier firmware, you contact your seller and ask for an exchange for a more recent version radio, or simply return it if they can’t/won’t/don’t offer an exchange.

This is one of the benefits of dealing with Amazon (the link takes you straight to their UV-5R page) – not only do they have great prices, and fast free shipping if you’re a Prime member, they also have great return policies.

At the time of writing (April 2013), we are still occasionally hearing of people getting stuck with old stock radios.  Don’t let it be you.

2.  A Decent Manual

Okay, so your radio does have recent firmware in it.  Great.

Now let’s fix the dreadful manual by getting you a very much better manual.  Click the link to download an improved Baofeng UV-5R manual.  This improved manual was written by one person and then edited/annotated/corrected by a second, and between the two of them, is by far the best reference work for the radio currently available.

Here’s a second link to a great ‘cheat sheet’ for the keyboard programming options the radio comes with (written by the same guy who annotated the excellent manual above).  Grab a copy of that, too.

3.  Software to Manage Your Radio

Okay, so now you have an up-to-date radio and a great manual and keyboard (as in ‘the keyboard on the radio itself’) programming ‘cheat sheet’.  The next thing you need is good software to program and manage all the radio’s settings and the 128 different channels that can be stored in its memory.

This assumes you have already purchased a programming cable for the radio that connects between a computer USB port and the radio’s mike/speaker connector.  If you haven’t done so, you’ll, about now, be discovering just how essential this is!  Here’s a link to the programming cables on Amazon.  Go and get one.

Note that some cables are for the baby brother of the UV-5R – the UV-3R  Don’t get that – it uses a different connector.

And there’s no need to pay extra money to get the cable and software.  Just get the cable, because the Baofeng software it comes with is only slightly better than the Baofeng manual the radio comes with.  Again, you’re going to replace the inferior provided software with very much better, and free, software.

Once you have your cable, go to the CHIRP website and download their software.  There are versions for PCs, Macs, and Linux.

The CHIRP software will enable you to program both the radio’s general settings (things such as squelch levels, backlight settings, scan mode, and so on) and also the specific settings for each of its 128 memory channels.  You’ll find this amazingly easier and more straightforward than struggling either with programming the radio from its own keypad, or through the Baofeng software.

Here’s a great guide to what the various CHIRP fields mean for programming the channels.

4.  Choosing Your Frequencies

Now for the fun part.  There are 128 memories in the radio, and you can load frequencies of your choice into them.  But what frequencies will you load in?

We suggest programming some FRS/GMRS/MURS frequencies into the radio, plus some ham frequencies too (assuming you’re a bona fide licensed ham).  These are discussed below.

We suggest you use some sort of standard frequency numbering scheme – although you can (and should) also program frequency names, it is helpful to have some sort of self-interpreting channel numbers, too.

For example, we have channels 1 – 9 for high priority high usage ‘general’ channels.  These include the standard national calling channels (eg 446 MHz) as well as a few local repeater channels that give good coverage, and our own group’s calling channels.

We then have channels 11 – 24 for FRS, 25 – 29 for MURS, 31-8 and 41-8 for GMRS simplex channels, and 51-58 for GMRS duplex channels.  We have channels 61 – 99 for various other repeaters and specific channels for specific services, then channels 100+ for ‘interesting’ local channels we like to monitor (public safety, etc).

The reason for naming channels is so that when you hear a transmission on an unfamiliar frequency, its name might give you a clue as to what you are hearing.

Note that these radios are not ideally suited for scanning purposes – mainly because their scanning rate is too slow.  By the time they’ve cycled through 100 or so channels and returned to channel one, more than 30 seconds has passed.  This means you can miss entire conversations.  If you really want to scan multiple channels, you should get a separate standalone high-speed scanner, or at the very least, get multiple UV-5R radios and program each one to only a limited number of channels.

4.1  FRS/GRMS/MURS Frequencies

In several of our other articles about handheld radios we’ve discussed the grey legality of using these radios as FRS/GMRS/MURS radios.  It is up to you how you personally resolve this issue, and perhaps suffice it to say that if you wanted to program the channels in to your radio so you could at least monitor and listen to the channels, that would be perfectly legal.  It is only if/when you transmit that you possibly trespass to the dark side of the grey area.

The good news is that the CHIRP software has these frequencies already available for you to copy in to your radio.  Go to Radio – Import from Stock Config and select the frequencies you want and decide which channels to import them to.

You’ll see that CHIRP has the eight GMRS repeater frequency pairs in its stock configuration.  That is great for using the radios with GMRS repeaters, but if you wanted to transmit/receive on the frequency paired channels in simplex mode (ie both transmitting and receiving on the same frequency) you’d want to import the frequencies a second time and edit them to simplex using the transmit frequency, then a third time and edit them to simplex using the receive frequency.

Note also the first seven of the FRS frequencies are the shared FRS/GMRS frequencies.

Our article Explaining the Confusion of Frequencies and Channels with FRS & GMRS Radios provides some much-needed clarification on these matters.

It is helpful to have all these frequencies programmed if you want to scan/monitor the frequency bands to pick up on other people nearby.  But if you’re only interested in using the radios for your own use, then you don’t need every last frequency entered and maybe it keeps things simpler to just have a few frequencies stored in memory.

4.2  Ham Frequencies

Find out who your local frequency coordinator group is.  If you have a copy of the helpful and annual (but not always up-to-date or complete) ARRL Repeater Directory you’ll find listings to local groups in the front; a bit of ‘detective work’ through Google and the ARRL site will often get you to the appropriate groups as well.  Hopefully the frequency coordinating group has a website and hopefully you can download a set of repeater frequencies from them.

The CHIRP software also links you to some online services (Radio – Import from Data Source) that have many of the local frequencies already in suitable format for you to automatically transfer over to your radio.  If you do this, it pays to check the data with the local frequency coordinator group if possible – generally the local frequency coordinator group has the latest and best information to refer to.

You’ll find it helpful to understand which repeaters you can access, and you’ll want to build up an understanding of the coverage areas of such repeaters.  In the event of an emergency that does not immediately destroy such repeaters, they will be one of your preferred means of communicating with other members of your group, especially if some of the group are not within direct/simplex range.

Usually the repeater listings tell you approximately where the repeaters are located, so that gives you a good helpful start to understanding which ones might be relevant – both around your local normal area where you live and work, and on any routes from there to where your retreat is, and of course, repeaters in/around your retreat.

It is hard to know whether repeaters will remain operable or not in any sort of emergency scenario.  If the repeater is only powered from mains/grid power (perhaps with an hour or two of UPS battery as backup for brief power cuts) then clearly, as soon as it loses power, it goes down, and it stays down until mains power is restored.

But if the repeater is solar-powered (and an appreciable number are) then it is much more resilient to interruptions in the normal world.  You should find out about your local repeaters, and maybe join the appropriate groups/clubs that own and maintain them, and subtly lobby for making the repeater grid-independent.

You’ll actually find you have a fair measure of support for such concepts.  While not all hams are preppers, many enjoy the thought of being able to participate and assist in minor regional emergencies – temporary Level 1 type scenarios, and within that concept, the idea of making a repeater as robust as possible will find plenty of support.

4.3  Other ‘Interesting’ Local Frequencies to Monitor

You can use resources such as www.radioreference.com and www.scannerstuff.com and www.mygmrs.com and www.interceptradio.com to get lists of local frequencies used variously by public safety, local, state and federal government, and all types of businesses from the local fast-food joint to mall security companies and just about every other type of radio user imaginable.

It can be interesting listening to some of these frequencies, and you might think of some tactical advantages to being able to monitor some of them as well – both while life is comfortable and normal, and in an uncertain future if things start to go suddenly very wrong.

However, remember that these radios are not fully featured when it comes to advanced scanning, and they can’t monitor digital or trunked frequencies at all. If these are things you want to monitor (and increasingly the more ‘interesting’ radio channels are on digital/trunked systems), you’ll need other equipment.

At the risk of stating the obvious, just because you have a radio that is theoretically capable of listening and transmitting on any particular frequency, that does not mean that you are allowed to do so.

4.4  Weather Frequencies

Not a separate function, but an often overlooked capability, is to program in the NOAA Weather Radio channels.

There are seven of them, in the VHF band.  If you are getting low on spare channels, you could just program in the one or two for the areas you expect to be (the preceding link takes you to pages that list the locations and coverage areas for each transmitter); otherwise, it is easy to put all seven into your radio (and CHIRP has them preloaded to copy over – go to the Radio – Import from Stock Config option).

    • 162.400
    • 162.425
    • 162.450
    • 162.475
    • 162.500
    • 162.525
    • 162.550

5.  A Note on Frequencies

The Baofeng UV-5R series of radios will receive and transmit on FM modulated VHF frequencies between 136-174MHZ and on FM modulated UHF frequencies between 400-480/520MHz.

It will also receive only (but not transmit) on FM modulated VHF frequencies between 65 – 108 MHz.

First, to explain the UHF range.  Many times the radios might be specified as having an upper range of 480 MHz, but (at least for the more recent firmware units) the upper range is actually 520 MHz.  Trust us on this – we’ve tested to confirm.

Second, there is a problem with very inexpensive radios being freely available.  Sometimes people buy them who, ahem, probably shouldn’t.  We regularly see ridiculous claims from people on websites, saying that they have managed to modify their UV-5R radios to receive (and presumably transmit, too) on other frequencies – not just slight extensions of the official frequency ranges, but all the way up to 1 GHz and down to only a few MHz.

We’ve also read other people saying they have modified their radios to receive AM as well as FM signals.

Both these types of claims are physically impossible, and are outright utter nonsense.  We can’t comment as to the mental health of people who make such claims, but the unavoidable electrical and electronic reality is that – no matter what you can get the display on the front of the radios to show – they will not work outside the frequency ranges they have been designed to operate on.  We will concede that with increasingly poor performance, maybe you could extend the two bands by about 5% – 10% at each end, but beyond that, the circuitry just will not work.

And as for receiving AM signals on an FM radio, that’s also not electrically/electronically possible.

We all like to get something for nothing, but don’t risk damaging your radios by trying these nonsense modifications.  They can’t work, they don’t work, and they won’t work.

6.  Broadcast FM Radio

In addition to being able to transmit and receive on its two bands, the Baofeng UV-5R has a bonus feature.  It also has a good quality extended FM broadcast band receiver in it, which allows you to receive but not transmit on both the regular broadcasting FM band (88-108 MHz) and also on the 65-88MHz frequencies too.

There’s not a lot of activity in the 65-88MHz part of the spectrum (that’s putting it mildly) and the radio only tunes in 100 kHz steps in this mode.  However, the regular FM radio capability is convenient.

You can’t store FM channels in the radio’s memories, but you can use the scan function to jump from one radio station to the next.

7.  Some Settings to Consider

The radio has a lot of configurable options, either through keyboard programming or via the CHIRP software.  Most items can be left at their default setting, and the per channel items for each channel can be configured as is needed.

There are a few settings to consider, however.

7.1  Squelch

The squelch setting can be varied from 0 (squelch off, you get all background noise all the time) up to 9 (very high squelch, only strong signals punch through).

The radio is set to a default value of 5.  Different people have different approaches and opinions about squelch, and you should adopt an approach that reflects your needs.

If you only want to use your radio for local communications, then set the squelch level for one or two numbers lower than the level necessary to ensure that it always ‘opens’ when receiving signals from the furtherest away place with the poorest radio signals that you want to receive from.  By having a higher number squelch setting, you’ll be less troubled by other weak signals, especially ones that many times are too weak to really understand.

But if you want to hear the other guy’s transmissions before he hears yours, and if you want to be sure to pick up even very weak signals, just for the knowing that there are other people out there, even if still some distance away, then set your squelch down to 1 or 2.

We generally have our squelch setting at 1, and find that we can understand most of the transmissions that come in.  We want to know who else is using radios out there, hopefully before they know about us.

7.2  Dual Frequency

If you have a lot of people in your group, and if you are using your radios a lot, it might be sensible to have multiple channels, plus a master emergency channel.  Then you could have everyone in one team using one channel, and everyone in a different team or tasking unit using a different channel, and the two different sets of users not interfering with each other.

At the same time, you’d also have both teams having a second global channel on their radios, so if there was any sort of emergency or community wide broadcast, everyone would get it on their second channel.

7.3  CTCSS, DCS, etc

There are ways to code the radios so they send specific inaudible tones or other types of signaling with every message they send out, and also so they will only play through the speaker messages they receive with specific tones on them, too.

This is a very dangerous and widely misunderstood set of capabilities.  They are useful and sometimes necessary when using a repeater – repeaters are commonly configured so they will only rebroadcast a message if the incoming message has an activating tone associated with it.  The repeaters are configured this way as much to cut down on repeater to repeater interference as for any other reason, although they are sometimes also used as a small measure of access-restriction too.

But for regular use within your community members, adding these types of tones seems to often result in someone’s radio being mis-configured and the person not hearing any messages, and his own messages in turn also not being heard.

So generally we recommend you keep all these settings off.

But there is one possible alternative factor to consider.  If you were to have any opposing force take one of your radios, they’d then be able to monitor and even possibly jam your communications within your group.  The radio they’d have seized would have all your channels programmed into it.

If you configured vulnerable-to-being-taken radios to use some type of tone signaling, then this would (hopefully) not be intuitively obvious to the people who stole the radio.  You could simply switch your other radios to another code (and there are hundreds to choose from) and that would probably be all you’d need to do to prevent the person with the stolen radio from listening in.  Only if they had technical radio skills, and knew how to read the configuration of your radio and how to change it could they restore their ability to monitor your radio traffic.

Note that if you use these types of tones to selectively block unwanted radio traffic within your network, it will not prevent other people (ie OpFor types) who already have radio receivers tuned to the frequencies you are using, from monitoring your transmissions.  They would of course not have any of these selective block features enabled and so would hear all your transmissions.

The recommendation to use the tones on your radios would only be beneficial if you were using unusual frequencies that any other people would be less likely to be monitoring.  And, of course, if they did get one of your pre-configured radios, the recommendation again assumes (and assuming is never a good thing to do!) that they wouldn’t know either about ‘opening the squelch’ via the button on the side of the radio, or about reprogramming the radio to ignore the CTCSS or whatever control tones.

So it might be beneficial, but it sure isn’t a guaranteed solution.

7.4 Key Lock

This is an essential feature that we urge you to enable in your radios.  Set the radio for automatic key lock any time the keyboard has not been used for a while.

When your radio is locked, you’ll still be able to use the on/off/volume control and the push-to-talk button (and the other two side buttons too).  But all the other keys are locked.  This is a good thing – it means there’s no way you can accidentally bump the radio and change its frequency or one of its other settings.  If you don’t have the radio locked, you will inevitably be bumping it against things from time to time, so it may not be on the channel or setting you need it to be on when either you urgently need to contact someone, or someone urgently needs to contact you.

So set the radio to auto-lock.  It is easy enough to unlock if you do need to change something – you just hold down the lock/unlock key for a couple of seconds.

7.5 Channel Frequency Step

If you wish to scan a block of frequencies (and remembering that these radios are not at their best as scanners due to slow scanning speed and lack of sophisticated scanning features) you should consider what frequency step setting you have.  The radios can be set to move from as little as 2.5 kHz up to as much as 25 kHz for each step while scanning and tuning.

If you set it to 25 kHz and a sophisticated opponent is using nonstandard frequencies for his own radio communications, you might skip right past his frequencies and never detect them.

For this type of purpose, it is better to set the frequency step low.

7.6 Transmit Power Setting

The radio can be set to transmit with 1W or 4W of output power.  This can be set channel by channel as appropriate.

Although a lot of the time we are focused on getting the best possible range from a radio, there are exceptions to this case.  Generally we recommend you transmit with the least amount of power necessary.  This saves your battery, reduces the amount of radio frequency energy and any effects it may cause on you, and also limits the distance at which your communications can be overheard by other people.

Sure, if you can’t be clearly heard at 1W, then by all means go up to 4W, because you have little choice.  But if you are heard clearly at 4W, consider dropping down to 1W.

8.  Other Information and Resources

The Baofeng radios are very popular, with the result there are lots of websites and user forums out there that discuss the radios.

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that some of the participants on these forums seem like recidivists from the ‘bad old days’ of CB radios in the 1970s – the real reason the CB radio ‘craze’ died out (in our opinion) is because the airwaves became infested with idiots who jammed up the channels and made the participation of ‘normal’ people into an unpleasant and difficult experience.

Just as low-priced GMRS/FRS radios have sort of overwhelmed the FCC’s policing of the GMRS radio bands, the ready availability of low-priced HT sets like the UV-5R threatens to see the 2m and 70cm  ham bands infested by such people, too.  Fortunately – at least so far – the ham community has been vigilant at policing itself, and we hope that will continue to happen on the air, if not on the internet.

There is an excellent website at http://www.miklor.com/ that is focused on all UV-5R related issues.  It is well worth your while to read all the way through it.  The material is generally accurate and helpful.

There is an active Yahoo Group – http://groups.yahoo.com/group/baofeng_uv5r/ – that you might want to join as well.  We’ve found that there’s a high proportion of nonsense messages in this group, alas; but if you can survive that for a few weeks, you might pick up some useful additional information, and it is easy enough to unsubscribe from the group again.

Currently there are 7700 members of the group, and at least some of them are very helpful and sensible.  Others however clearly don’t know what a ham license is, let alone have one.

Summary

Your Baofeng UV-5R radios are capable of doing many things, and are flexible and versatile communication tools.

Hopefully the information on this page will help you configure them to best reflect the operational needs and situation in which you are using them.  If you’ve not already done so, we recommend you also read through our article A Complete System for your Baofeng UV-5R Radio – this gives you details of other accessories that you should get to extend the use and functionality of your radios.

Apr 192013
 
The UV-5R comes with some accessories to start with, but some additional items will make the radio much more valuable to you.

The UV-5R comes with some accessories to start with, but some additional items will make the radio much more valuable to you.

In our immediately previous article, we recommended the Baofeng UV-5R and/or the Baofeng F8HP as the best general purpose two-way radio.

When you buy a either radio, you usually get the radio in a kit that comes complete with standard Li-Ion battery pack, charger, carrying clip, wrist strap, rubber-ducky antenna, and earpiece/microphone.  That’s a great set of goodies, all for about $35 or $65, but you should consider getting some accessories and additional items to add substantially to the radio’s performance and versatility.

You want to have a better antenna, you must have a way to program the radio, and perhaps you’ll benefit from a spare battery or two as well.  Indeed, with the radios so inexpensive, you should also get one (or more!) spare radios, too!

We suggest the following as being the most useful add-on items to get for your Baofeng radio.  Most of the following are less than $20, and some are less than $10, making them very easy buying decisions to make :

1.  Improved Portable Antenna

The standard ‘rubber ducky’ antenna that the radio comes with has the benefit of being short (4¾”) and reasonably sturdy.  But it is not an efficient radiator/receiver of radio signals.

You’ll get a massively improved range if you replace this with a longer/better antenna.  As we discussed in our article on How to Maximize the Range of your FRS/GMRS Radio, replacing the antenna can more than double the range of your unit and more than quadruple the effective power being radiated (or received).  We suggest you also read our two-part article on adding and optimizing an external antenna to your radio, too.

Noting the test results that were reported in by substituting a Nagoya 701 antenna for the standard antenna, this seems like a ‘must do’ item for everyone and all situations.  The Nagoya 701 antenna is about the same weight, and 3″ longer (7¾”) but still more than sufficiently portable for almost all situations.

There are many other antenna choices as well as the Nagoya 701; we feel the 701 represents an excellent compromise between size/convenience, performance, and cost, but you’ll be delighted with pretty much any other dual band portable antenna you choose.

There is also a still longer Nagoya 771.  This measures about 15¼” in length, but its greater length interferes with the portability of the radio and makes everything more awkward and clumsy, without adding any perceptible extra range.

One word of warning.  We have heard reports of fake/counterfeit Nagoya antennas out there – one way to tell if you have a real one or not is to read the label on the bottom of the antenna.  A genuine antenna will refer to the frequency ranges of the antenna in MHz, a fake may instead say NHz (instead of MHz).  If your antenna has this error, then it is probably not a genuine Nagoya.

Note, when choosing a portable antenna you need to find one with a Female SMA type connector on its end, so as to mate with the male SMA connector on the radio itself.  Otherwise, be sure to get the appropriate connector adapter as well.

Nagoya 701 antenna – $10 or less on Amazon.  Truly the best value you’ll ever get for less than $10 on improving your radio’s performance and range.

One more thought :  Antennas are semi-consumable items.  That is, they are sometimes knocked about, and possibly damaged.  They are also essential – no antenna means no working radio.  At less than $10 each, we’d probably get one or two spares – maybe one spare for each four  radios, ‘just in case’.

2.  Programming Cable and Software

The Baofeng radios have 128 programmable channels that you can define, and in each case you can set a lot of different parameters for the channel, ranging from bandwidth to power to offset frequencies if used with a repeater and CTCSS/DCS type tones on both the send and receive side of the channel.

You can do this by hand, but it is cumbersome and slow to work through many different layers of menus to set all the attributes for each channel.

If you get a programming cable and software, you can do this all from your computer, with a nice large interface screen to work on, reducing the time it would take you from hours of frustration (and possibly making errors that are hard to identify and correct) to minutes of simplicity.  Even better, you can download preconfigured files of repeater frequencies from several different websites that will automatically program up your UV-5R or F8HP for you.

Another huge time-saving is if you have multiple radios – you can create a series of configuration files and then quickly upload them to all the radios.  This also ensures all radios are exactly configured the same, with much less potential for errors.

The cable runs from your computer’s USB port to the external speaker/mike port on the phone.  As for the supplied software, ignore it.  There is much better free software, that runs on PCs, Macs, and Unix type computers (see our upcoming article on how to get the best use from your Baofeng radio for details on this).  But you do need the programming cable, even if you don’t need the included software.

A programming cable and software costs under $10 on Amazon.  We consider it another ‘must have’ item.  And, yes, you guessed right.  At less than $10 each, this is another thing that it would pay to have at least one spare of – the cable isn’t just a cable, it also has some electronics built into it, so there is the possibility of failure.  A second cable is cheap insurance.

3.  Spare Batteries

In truth, the units get excellent battery life from its provided battery.  For the UV-5R, it is rated for 1800 mAh and is a 7.4V Li-ion type battery.  The F8HP comes with a slightly more powerful 21oo mAh battery.  Both are said to give ‘up to 12 hours’ of life, presumably with a duty cycle of something like 90% listening to nothing, 5% listening to a received signal, and 5% transmitting.  Some reports have suggested that people have got more than 12 hours life out of it.

You can get additional batteries as spares, of course, and at as little as $5-10 each, you’d be well advised to get a few.  You can never have too many batteries, right?  There is also an extended capacity battery available – some models claim 3600 mAh and others 3800 mAh – probably they are the same battery, just with different capacity claims.  These are appreciably more pricey – $22 – $25 each.

So in theory, you can get more battery for your money by buying standard sized batteries, and perhaps it is better, if you think you’ll need more reserve power, to simply stick a spare standard battery in your pocket than to use one bigger, heavier, and more expensive battery.

Both types of battery are of course available at good prices on Amazon.

4.  Car Power Adapters

There are two types of car power adapter for these radios.  The first is a replacement battery back – you take off the regular battery and slide in this back instead, which runs via a coiled cord to a cigarette lighter power supply.

The other option is intriguing, and you should get one of these too, whether your radios will be used in vehicles or not.  It is a cord that plugs in to the cigarette lighter (or other 12V source of course) at one end and plugs into the power-in socket of the charger unit that was supplied as standard with the radio at the other end.

The interesting thing about this device is that it gives you a convenient way of powering the standard charger and recharging batteries if your mains power is down. The other unit doesn’t recharge the battery, it replaces it instead.

Both are helpful and useful.  Normally we use the battery back replacement unit when we have a unit in a vehicle, but we have one of the other connectors as a ‘just in case’ unit so we are prepared if there’s a future grid-down scenario we need to cope with.

Both types of units can be had for under $10 each at Amazon.

5.  Mobile Antenna

If you plan to use your unit in your vehicle at all, then it makes sense to replace your already upgraded Nagoya portable antenna with a true ‘mobile’ type antenna mounted to the exterior of your vehicle.  This will further improve the range with which the radio can send and receive signals.

Again, we suggest you read through our two-part article series on upgrading/replacing your radio’s antenna for a thorough discussion of this issue.

As for specific antennas, perhaps the least expensive and good performing antenna would be the Tram 1185, which costs about $30.  The only disadvantage is the wind noise that whistles through its coil; and if this is a nuisance, you could consider a more expensive antenna with a solid loading device rather than an open coil.

Note you will probably need an adapter to match the fitting on the end of the antenna lead to the connector on the radio body (you need an SMA-F type connector to screw into the radio body output connector).  In the specific case of the Tram 1185 (which ends with a PL-259 connector), this adapter does the trick perfectly.

External antennas on cars have finite lives.  Not only are they slightly stressed as you drive along the freeway at 70mph, but sooner or later, you’re going to drive underneath an object with little clearance, and it is going to collide with your antenna.  Maybe the first few times, the antenna will survive, but eventually it will mechanically fail.  It might break off its mounting, it might break in the middle if it is a multiple element antenna, or in some other way fail.  If the antenna lead is just going through the seal in the vehicle’s door, then depending on the pressure being placed on it, maybe sooner or later the coax cable will short out.  So you need some spares.

But use this to your advantage.  Don’t simply order a bulk quantity of identical antennas to start with.  Order two different antennas, and then experiment to see which one you prefer in terms of performance and price.  Then if you get a third antenna, you either know which of the first two is the better choice for you, or maybe you experiment further and get a third different antenna, giving you still more understanding of the ‘best’ antenna in your situation.  You can then use that information to know which antenna make/model to get more of in the future.

6.  External Speaker/Microphone

On the face of it, this might seem like a fairly unnecessary extra accessory,  Sure, if you think you might have a use for it, you can get a speaker/microphone unit that connects via a coiled cord to the handset.  That way you can have the radio clipped to your belt or securely mounted in the car, and conduct a conversation using the speaker/mike unit (which also has a push-to-talk button on it).  But if you need to change any of the radio’s settings, then you’d of course still need to access the transceiver itself.

But there are two important benefits that come from using one of these.  One has to do with safety, the other with the range you’ll get from your radio.

The UV-5R and F8HP manuals say you should keep the radio at least an inch from your head when transmitting, so as not to have problems with strong radio signals possibly harming your head and brain.  While the radio’s frequencies are lower than cell phone frequencies, they are also potentially at least ten times stronger, so just as how it is good practice to always use a headset with a cell phone to keep the cell phone radiation level to a minimum, it is good practice to use some sort of similar device with your handheld radio transceiver.

The other benefit is that if you don’t have to have the radio close to your mouth to speak in to it, you are free to locate it somewhere else for best signal transmission and reception.  You can hold it away from yourself, so your body isn’t soaking up as much radio energy, and you can hold it up a foot or two over your head (you’d be amazed at how much extra signal boost this one simple thing will do).

The good news is the radio comes complete with an included earpiece and microphone, which is all you really need to address these two issues.  But if you don’t like sticking earpieces in your ears, then an external microphone/speaker is something to consider.

They are not expensive, and when we looked at the low $10 – 15 or so cost of these accessories, we ended up getting a couple.

7.  SWR Meter

You’ll need one of these to tune a mobile antenna to your radio (this is explained in the second part of our antenna series).

If you have a friend already with a VHF/UHF SWR meter, you might think that all you need to do is borrow his.  Sure, that would work for now, but you’ll find that you’ll be wanting to refer back to it surprisingly often – any time you move or change your external antenna, and, of course, WTSHTF, who knows where your friend and his SWR might be.

So we recommend you buy one to keep as part of your radio kit.

Using a SWR meter to tune your antenna will give you better range and protect the transmitter circuitry – it really is a must have device.  There are good $40 units such as the Workman 104, and better $60 dual/cross needle units such as this one.  You only need one.

You may also need to get more adapters to connect the SWR meter to the antenna and to the radio – if you can’t tell what you need, simply get the unit and see what can be connected and what you still need after it arrives.

8.  Anything Else?

What else might you want?  Maybe a protective case for the radio – they’re only $10 – $15, although with radios costing only $40 a piece, there’s not a great deal of need to spend too much on protecting them!  On the other hand, in an uncertain future, you might not be able to buy replacements for love nor money, so taking care of your radios is just plain sensible.

Especially if you wear them on your belt, there’s every chance you’ll occasionally bash them in to things, and for sure, you’ll drop them on the ground sometimes, too.  So protective cases are probably a good idea.

Maybe a directory listing repeater frequencies (although we found the directory most useful for pointing us to websites of local repeater frequency coordinator groups and then accessing their more up-to-date lists).

And maybe some type of base station antenna to mount on your house/retreat roof, but that’s another subject worthy of its own separate discussion.

Summary

The best value two-way HT type radio for most purposes is the Baofeng UV-5R or its slightly more powerful and expensive newer sibling, the Baofeng F8HP.  They are both capable of transmitting on Ham frequencies, GMRS, FRS and MURS unlicensed frequencies, and land-mobile frequencies too.

The radio by itself will benefit from adding additional options to it.  We suggest the following should be on your ‘shopping list’, but you don’t need to buy everything all at once.

  • Baofeng UV-5R HT – about $35 each – as many as are reasonably required for your group, plus some spares
  • Baofeng F8HP HT – If you have a slightly bigger budget, you get a lot more radio for about $30 more cost per unit.  More range, better antenna, more power, greater battery capacity
  • Nagoya 701 replacement handheld/portable antenna – less than $10 – one for each radio that will be used in a portable application, plus some spares
  • Tram 1185 or other mobile antenna – about $30 – one for each vehicle that will have a radio in it, plus some spares, plus connector adapters as needed to match antenna connector to radio connector
  • Spare batteries– about $5 – 10 each – most of the time, the standard battery will be sufficient for an ordinary day’s operations, but it is good to have a few spares ‘just in case’ or for extended operations and in anticipation of batteries eventually failing and needing replacement.
  • Mobile battery replacement and 12V charger power supply – about $5 – 10 each.  Any time you expect to have a radio in your vehicle for more than a short time, it makes sense to switch from battery power to vehicle power.  So we’d recommend one of these for each vehicle that will have a radio in it on a regular basis (the same as your plan for mobile antennas) plus a spare or two.  The 12V charger power supply is a great product too, and we’d suggest one or two of those also.
  • Programming cable and software– less than $10 – we’d probably get two, just to be on the safe side.
  • External speaker/microphone – $10 – 15 – or otherwise use the included earpiece with each radio.
  • SWR Meter – units are available in the $40 and $60 price range.  You only need one, but you do need one to ensure best antenna matching on external antennas.

Properly equipped, you’ll find your Baofeng radios a great choice and very helpful for your local/tactical communications.

Nov 192017
 

The Baofeng series of radios – our recommended best choice for most prepping purposes.

The General Mobile Radio Service – or GMRS for short – has evolved since its original establishment in quite different form in the 1960s.  In 1987 it evolved to essentially its present form, with business use specifically excluded, with a set of eight channel pairs for repeater operation, and seven single channels for non-repeater ‘simplex’ operation.

In 1996 the FCC created a new product – the Family Radio Service or FRS for short.  This was sort of ‘GMRS-lite’ and almost literally was squeezed into the ‘gaps’ between GMRS channels.  It was designed as a low power service for handheld walkie-talkie type radios only, and unlike GMRS there was no licensing requirement.  Anyone could buy FRS radios and ‘play’ with them more or less as they wished.

Because the FRS and GMRS frequencies were sometimes the same and sometimes only very slightly different, radio manufacturers started selling dual-purpose radios that could work either as FRS or GMRS radios.  In theory, this was illegal, but in practice, it was so widespread that the FCC chose to do nothing.  This created a confusing mix of frequencies and channel numbers, and we previously explained the implications of this in our earlier article explaining the confusion of frequencies between FRS and GMRS.

Finally – 21 years after this all started to become a mess, the FCC has acted to try and clear things up, publishing new rules and frequencies in September 2017, taking effect from late October 2017.

Unfortunately, things are still far from clear, but they are perhaps slightly less messy than before.  In particular, there will soon no longer be any more dual purpose radios – something we discuss in our article explaining the changes in FCC regulations about FRS and GMRS radios.

Here now is the new improved official list of channels and an explanation of what each channel can be used for.

Let’s first look at the most relevant list of channels for many of us – the FRS channels.

Table 1 :  FRS Channels and Power

Channel Number    Frequency (MHz)    Power (ERP in Watts)   
1 462.5625 2.0
2 462.5875 2.0
3 462.6125 2.0
4 462.6375 2.0
5 462.6625 2.0
6 462.6875 2.0
7 462.7125 2.0
8 467.5625 0.5
9 467.5875 0.5
10 467.6125 0.5
11 467.6375 0.5
12 467.6625 0.5
13 467.6875 0.5
14 467.7125 0.5
15 462.5500 2.0
16 462.5750 2.0
17 462.6000 2.0
18 462.6250 2.0
19 462.6500 2.0
20 462.6750 2.0
21 462.7000 2.0
22 462.7250 2.0

 

Note that all FRS channels require a radio with NFM – ie, 12.5 kHz bandwidth.  And, as you can see, the numbering of the channels seems somewhat illogical and out of sequence with the order of the frequencies, as does the different power requirement for the 467 MHz frequencies.

Note also that the FCC assigns official channel numbers to these channels.  Whether new radios will follow the official channel numbering or not is anyone’s guess, but the list, as above, is the ‘gold standard’ FRS frequency/channel list taken directly from the FCC’s own website.

The FCC believes it all makes sense, and helps to fit the FRS frequencies more consistently into the GMRS frequencies too.  So let’s now look at the GMRS frequencies.

In the case of GMRS, not only do we show the frequencies and power, we also show what types of GMRS radio can use each frequency, and explain the frequency pairs for repeater use.  On the other hand, there are no official channel numbers.  Yes, it is quite a lot messier than the simple table above.

Table 2 :  GMRS Frequencies and Conditions

(FRS Channel)    Frequency (MHz)    Power (ERP in Watts)    Usage
15 462.5500 50/15 M H R B F
1 462.5625 5.0 M H B
16 462.5750 50/15 M H R B F   
2 462.5875 5.0 M H B
17 462.6000 50/15 M H R B F
3 462.6125 5.0 M H B
18 462.6250 50/15 M H R B F
4 462.6375 5.0 M H B
19 462.6500 50/15 M H R B F
5 462.6625 5.0 M H B
20 462.6750 50/15 M H R B F
6 462.6875 5.0 M H B
21 462.7000 50/15 M H R B F
7 462.7125 5.0 M H B
22 462.7250 50/15 M H R B F
467.5500 50/15 (M*) (C*) F
8 467.5625 0.5 H
467.5750 50/15 (M*) (C*) F
9 467.5875 0.5 H
467.6000 50/15 (M*) (C*) F
10 467.6125 0.5 H
467.6250 50/15 (M*) (C*) F
11 467.6375 0.5 H
467.6500 50/15 (M*) (C*) F
12 467.6625 0.5 H
467.6750 50/15 (M*) (C*) F
13 467.6875 0.5 H
467.7000 50/15 (M*) (C*) F
14 467.7125 0.5 H
467.7250 50/15 (M*) (C*) F

 

As you can sort of see from this table there are several differences between the GMRS and FRS services.  Although the FRS channels 8 – 14 are essentially identical with both services, the FRS channels 1 – 7 are restricted to 2 watts whereas the same GMRS channels allow 5 watts, and the channels 15 – 22 can go up to 50 watts with GMRS service but only 2 watts with FRS.

Plus FRS radios are limited to small handheld radios with fixed antennas, whereas the GMRS radios can have external antennas and be ‘base’ stations with greater power and/or repeaters.

In the power column, we show power of 50/15 for some frequencies.  In these cases 50W can be used for mobile, base and repeater radios, but only 15 watts for fixed stations.

So what are these different types of radios?  In the usage column we list them as :

B :  A Base radio station – a station located at a fixed location that communicates with other base and mobile stations

C :  A Control radio station – a base station that communicates through repeaters and can control the repeater

C* :  A Control radio station transmitting through a repeater

F :  A Fixed radio station – a base station that only communicates with other fixed stations

H :  A Handheld portable radio

M :  A Mobile radio station (ie in a vehicle)

M* :  A Mobile radio station transmitting through a repeater

R :  A Repeater radio station – ie one that receives (in this case) on one of the 467 MHz 50 watt channels and automatically/simultaneously retransmits it on the 50W channel that is 5 MHz lower (ie the matching 462 MHz channel)

Note – these definitions are per the FCC Part 95 regulations and seem a bit strange.  On the face of it, it seems that handheld units can’t communicate via repeaters, but we suspect this is not actually the case.

Simplifying the GMRS Frequencies

The key difference between the GMRS and FRS frequencies is there are an added 8 GMRS frequencies that are intended to be used only for repeater inputs (in the 467 MHz range).

Otherwise, the frequencies are the same, but power levels are different, and also in the high power channels, GMRS can use wideband FM as well as narrowband FM.

Most of these differences are automatically taken care of in the radio sets themselves.

The strange mix of frequencies sort of makes sense with this graphic illustration published by the FCC.

The FCC’s pictorial explanation of the new FRS and GMRS frequency allocations, which still quite literally leaves gaps or holes in their frequency allocations and reasoning

Summary

The new FRS frequencies and power allocations are much better than the original 14 frequencies and 0.5W power limit.  This is a good reason to get new FRS radios, and/or to reprogram your Baofeng or other radios to conform to the new frequencies and power limits.

It is possible the FCC may now start to lightly enforce some of its rules for the FRS and GMRS bands, so it would be wise to generally comply with the new requirements, now they are in effect.

Lastly, and as mentioned in the other article about the 2017 FCC changes to FRS and GMRS, you might prudently choose to get some more Baofeng or similar multi-purpose radios prior to their probable banning, early in 2019.

Nov 192017
 

The FCC’s Regulations for FRS and GMRS radio service are contained in Part 95 of their overall regulations.

The FCC have changed some of the rules associated with our use of the FRS and GMRS radio bands.  This was primarily to resolve the overlap of GMRS and FRS frequencies, and while the ‘solution’ they’ve adopted is a bit clumsy, it also allows FRS radios to have greater power, which is a good thing.

There are some implications for preppers in the changes – and while it seems the changes are generally good, you’re probably already old enough to realize that the government is seldom here to help us.  So read on, then maybe accelerate some of your Comms preparing.

Note that this article, published in November 2017, updates our earlier articles about FRS and GMRS, including an earlier article explaining the formerly confusing mix of frequencies for FRS and GMRS services.  You should still read these earlier articles because they contain a lot of general information too, but the specific details of frequencies are now in this new article.

Oh – and the formerly confusing mix of frequencies?  While it is somewhat simplified for FRS, it is at least as complicated for GMRS as before.  But it is definitely different, so be sure to check out our new table of updated FRS/GMRS frequencies and their associated power levels and restrictions.

The Key Changes Explained

Formerly FRS radios were limited to a maximum power of 0.5W.  Now they can go up to 2W on most (but not all) channels.  A four-fold increase in transmission power would typically represent about a doubling in transmit range, although that’s a very approximate statement.  If you are already managing to broadcast at maximum line-of-site (eg, over water) then more power won’t get you further.  And if you’re currently blocked by buildings and other obstructions, more power won’t cause those obstructions to magically disappear.  (We have several articles on radio range – what affects it, and how to maximize it, in our general section on Communications.)

The new rules also strengthen the earlier weak prohibition on voice scrambling devices, but there will be an 18 month transition period where it will still be legal to buy or import radios capable of offering this feature, and probably will not be a future prohibition on using them (in these frequency bands – amateurs have not been allowed to use voice scrambling, ever).

A disappointing non-change was the widely anticipated removal of licensing requirements for the potentially more powerful GMRS radios.  On the positive side, the licensing costs have reduced and the FCC is now going to issue ten-year rather than five-year licenses.

In addition, the FCC has formalized the differences between FRS and GMRS radios, and will prohibit the current practice of selling dual purpose FRS and GMRS radios, to make it harder for people to ‘accidentally’ use GMRS frequencies and power levels without a GMRS license.  This, and the more powerful FRS radios now permitted, seems to be a solution of general benefit.  But there’s a sting in that tail.

Banned Radios?

More significant is the FCC’s ruling that in 18 months, they will ban the import or sale of radios that can be used on the FRS frequencies as well as on other frequencies.  We’re not exactly sure what this means, because their explanatory discussion of what they intend seems to be slightly different to the specific wording of the new regulations they have published.  For sure, it means that ‘ordinary’ and ‘civilian’ type radios primarily designed for GMRS or for Marine services or for business service can no longer also have FRS frequencies in them.

But what about ‘ham’ radios?  Typically, ham radios are designed so they can only transmit on officially permitted ham frequencies – this simplifies the design and construction of the radios, so for cost saving reasons as much as anything else, ham radio manufacturers have tended to only sell radios that generally conform to the permitted ham frequencies.  But some of the newer radios, using a different type of internal design (software defined radio) can operate on a broad range of frequencies.  In particular, the Baofeng UV-5R and F8HP family of radios work over a very broad range of frequencies, including ham frequencies, commercial and marine frequencies, government frequencies, and both the FRS and GMRS bands.  This gives them a huge amount of versatility, and in a SHTF scenario, means you can communicate with many different groups of people and their radios.  Add to that an extraordinarily low price and a good range of accessories, and most preppers include a collection of Baofeng radios in their essential supplies.  For this reason, we’ve written in some detail about these radios – you can see articles about Baofeng radios and related topics here.

Will the FCC now require that Baofeng radios have a frequency block on the FRS and GMRS bands?  While the radios have never been officially approved to operate on those frequencies, until now they have legally been sold including those frequencies, and the radios can generally operate in compliance with the standards imposed on radios working in those two services.  Conceivably a prepper might now need to have three radios where previously one was sufficient – an FRS radio, a separate higher powered GMRS radio, and an ‘everything else’ radio (ie the Baofeng).

There are two important aspects to this.  The first is that you have until early 2019 before it becomes illegal to import or buy multi-purpose radios, and the second is that any radios you already own or acquire within those 18 months remain legal.  On the other hand, if it will become illegal, manufacturers will probably discontinue such radios well in advance, so as not to end up with useless stock.  So our suggestion is that you might want to think about adding another one or two (or three or four) Baofeng radios to your inventory while they are still available in their open unrestricted form.

This means that radios such as the Baofeng multi-purpose radios would no longer be available for sale, although any you already have remain ‘grandfathered’ in as legal.

Enforcement Issues

For the last decade or so, the FCC has basically turned a blind eye to activities on the FRS and GMRS bands.  The confusion of FRS and GMRS frequencies, combined with radio manufacturers selling combined radios that work on both bands, and at very low retail prices such that anyone and everyone would buy them as ‘toys’ to play with made for a messy situation and the FCC wisely realized there was no way they could prosecute hundreds of thousands of people who bought $25 radios at Wal-Mart and never bothered to read all the fine print about how they could be used and the need to get a FCC license.

But now the FCC has acted to clear up the overlap of FRS and GMRS radios, and has also doubled down on its decision to continue to require licenses to operate on GMRS frequencies, we’d not be astonished to note an uptick in FCC enforcement.  And that’s not necessarily a trivial laughing matter to ignore.  They can – and sometimes do – levy penalties of up to $20,000 per each and every unauthorized broadcast (here’s a particularly severe case where a guy who did some stupid things on police frequencies, nine times, ended up with a $404,166 fine!).

This is probably the least of your worries in a TEOTWAWKI situation, but until such unhappy time as it comes about, you probably should be reasonably careful to comply with FCC requirements, especially when involved in transmissions to and from your home or retreat.  Your chances of being pulled while operating without a license in your car are minimal, unless you are broadcasting personally identifying information, but if you are at a fixed location, or transmitting to someone else at a fixed location, you’d be surprised at how quickly and accurately your location can be plotted.

Summary

We as preppers always have to straddle an uneasy divide.  We have no wish to break the law, either before or after some major event and societal collapse, because that needlessly draws attention to ourselves, creates a vulnerability, and accelerates still further the decay of the civil society we are all keen to preserve and benefit from.

But in a potentially lawless future where there’s no longer any prize for being a ‘nice guy’ and possibly no longer any penalty for being a bad guy, we need to make full use of all appropriate tools possible to optimize our survival.

Radios are a case in point.  The complex morass of rules created by and enforced by the FCC make sense in normal times, and it behooves us to operation our radio comms in compliance with them.  The new changes to the FRS and GMRS services are relevant and important to us.

We again recommend you should become a licensed ham operator, as well as having unlicensed FRS radios and possibly licensed (as in simply pay a fee, not sit an exam) GMRS radios too.  This article explains the benefits of having a ham license, and the two articles starting from here help you to easily and quickly learn the material and pass the ham license exam.

Here is the official FCC ruling on the changes they have made, including (at the end) a complete reprint of the affected sections of their regulations.

Jun 282016
 
An example of a signal strength reading from a $25 SDR receiver and using free software on your PC.  Essential for testing your Faraday cage.

An example of a signal strength reading from a $25 SDR receiver and using free software on your PC. Essential for testing your Faraday cage.

So you’ve built your Faraday cage, and are ready to fill it with the precious electronic spares you want (need!) to protect against an EMP.  Well done.

But there’s one thing you really should do before closing it up and moving on to your next project.  Even if you’ve built a simple small and apparently 100% compliant cage, don’t you think you should check and test its effectiveness?  You’re placing a huge amount of reliance on this cage and its ability to protect its contents from an EMP, so isn’t it worth spending a bit of time and maybe a few dollars to check that it works as expected.

The interesting thing is that a Faraday cage is not an ‘all or nothing’ thing.  It isn’t like putting heavy blackout curtains across your windows and blocking out all the light from outside.  It is more like pulling a medium weight curtain across, and then having a searchlight shine on your window from outside.  Some light will get through, the key issue is how much.

The same with a Faraday cage.  It will reduce the strength of the EMP (the technical term is ‘attenuate’) but it won’t block it out entirely.  So how much attenuation will it provide, how much do we need, and how do we measure it?

How Much Attenuation is Desirable

First, how much attenuation do you need?  More is always better than less, but after a point, you reach a realm of vanishing returns and unnecessary extra protection.  We suggest you should look for 40 dB (dB = decibel) of attenuation, and ideally over 50 dB.

What do these numbers mean?  If you reduce something by 30 dB, you have reduced its power 1,000 times.  If you reduce it by 40 dB, you’ve reduced its power 10,000 times.  If you think to yourself ‘every ten dB adds another zero to the number of times the signal is reduced’ then you’d be correct.

So, after the lesson, the test.  How many times would the strength of an EMP be reduced if it had a 50 dB attenuation?  Please tell me that you answered 100,000 times.  Clearly that’s a lot, isn’t it, and probably it is enough.  Let’s see why we say that.

A strong EMP effect will induce voltages in the order of 50,000 volts/meter (it is difficult for EMPs to exceed this – anything higher than that and the sky sort of ‘short circuits itself’, although there are rumors of some ‘super EMP’ weapons that have found a way to create higher voltages).  If we reduce 50,000 by 40 dB, it is down to a trivial 5 volts/meter, and if we take it down by 50 dB, it is down to a hard to measure 0.5 V/m (ie 500 mV/m).

To put this into context, a strong radio signal ranges between 1 – 100 mV/m.  So after about 56 dB of attenuation, the strongest probable EMP is no more harmful than a strong radio signal – ie, totally utterly harmless.  And we’ve at least 10 dB of overload above that and probably 20 dB before there needs to be significant concern about EMP damage to electronic circuits that are switched off.

Measuring Attenuation – Decibels and Frequencies

There is an interesting complicating factor.  An EMP has a mix of different radio frequencies, and Faraday cages block different frequencies by varying degrees.  In general terms, the higher the EMP’s frequency, the less the attenuation.

So that begs the question – exactly what frequencies are likely to be found in an EMP?  The short answer is ‘all of them’, which isn’t very helpful, is it!  A better answer is ‘most EMPs are expected to concentrate most of their energy in frequencies below 100 MHz’.  To put 100 MHz into a meaningful context, it is right in the middle of the FM dial.

That is actually a bit of welcome good news.  The lower the frequency, the better most Faraday cages work at blocking it.  So if we test the cage at 100 MHz, we know that its blocking will be better at lower frequencies and that the 100 MHz result is getting close to a ‘worst case’ scenario.

There are a number of ways you can do this test.

Test 1 – The Phone Test

This is the easiest of all the tests, and is also the least valuable, but as a quick rule of thumb test, it can tell you if your Faraday cage might fail, although it probably can not tell you if the cage for sure will succeed (testing for failure and testing for success are surprisingly different things).

Take your cage and your cell phone to somewhere with good cell phone coverage.  Ideally, go somewhere where the cell phone is receiving on the approx 850-900 MHz range of frequencies, rather than on the 1900 MHz set of frequencies.  You can do this by using the excellent antennasearch.com website – put in your address, and then download all the different transmitters it finds close to you (chances are you’ll be surprised at how many there are!).  Use the tower map to find a tower belonging to the wireless service you use and which has only 900 MHz not 1900 MHz transmitters on it, then go to it to test.

This is more difficult than it sounds, and probably you’ll compromise by simply testing at home.  That is okay, but to get a helpful result, make sure that your cell phone has four or five bars of signal strength before putting it in the cage.

Close up your cage, and call your phone.  Maybe you’ll be able to hear the phone ringing inside.  If the phone rings, you know your cage is probably not working well.

If the cage material insulates the sound, simply check to see if the phone reports a missed call when you open it up again.  If it shows a missed call, that suggests your cage isn’t fully optimized.

Your cell phone can probably receive signals down to a signal strength of about -115 dBm.  You can probably get your phone to tell you the strength of the signal it is receiving if it is an Android or iPhone – here’s a good article on how to do so, and if you’re interested, this article tells you more.

So if your phone was showing a signal strength of -85 dBm before it went into the cage, and it didn’t ring, you know that the cage is probably providing at least 30 dB or more of attenuation (ie dropping it from -85 to -115 or more) but you don’t really know how much more than the 30 dB it is giving you.  And with only 30 dB of attenuation, that is close to a ‘failure’ so not hearing the phone ring, in this case, isn’t as positive as you’d think.

And if your phone is showing -55 dBm before going into the cage and still rings, you know the cage is providing less than about 60 dB of attenuation, but you don’t know how much less.  At 60 dB of attenuation, having the phone ring can still be considered a ‘success’, although you mightn’t think so by hearing the phone ring

So you need to interpret your phone results with care and caution.  You may be getting either false positive or false negative results; it helps if you know the signal strength the phone was receiving before going into the cage, and what the minimum signal strength is your phone will work on.

Plus, you are ‘torture testing’ your cage by checking its effectiveness at 900 MHz or 1900 MHz.  There is unlikely to be significant energy in an EMP at those sorts of frequencies, and the cage will probably offer better protection at lower frequencies.

So let’s now look at a slightly more helpful test.

Test 2 – Two Walkie Talkies

If you can walk inside your cage, go in with a walkie-talkie and have someone outside with a second one.  Close the cage up and see if you can communicate between the two of you.  If you can, that is suggesting a ‘fail’; if you can’t, that is suggesting a ‘pass’ for your cage.

The walkie talkies ideally should be on the MURS frequencies (about 150 MHz).  If you don’t have MURS capable radios, then FRS or GMRS (about 450 MHz) will work in a pinch, as well.  CB radios would not give as meaningful a result.

If you can’t walk inside your cage, that’s okay too.  In slightly simplistic terms, a cage not only blocks external signals from traveling into the cage, but also blocks internal signals from traveling out.  So all you need to do is use a rubber band to hold down the transmit key on a walkie-talkie, put it into your cage and close it up, and see if you are receiving any signal on the other walkie-talkie outside.

Note that walkie talkies sometimes have a ‘timer’ that stops their transmitting after a period of time.  Check that, when you reopen the cage, the walkie-talkie inside is still transmitting.

This is a good test with fewer ambiguities than the cell phone test.  You can be reasonably certain that if you can’t get a walkie-talkie signal through your cage, then it will block an EMP too.

But if the radios can still communicate with each other, is that necessarily a fail?  It depends on how much the signal strength has dropped.  If one of the radios has an accurate S-meter on it, this is helpful.  In theory, each ‘S unit’ on an S-meter represents a signal strength change of 6 dB, so you would want to see a 7 S unit movement or more between the two signals.  However, particularly, with inexpensive walkie talkies, they either have no S meter at all, or the S meter they do have is woefully inaccurate.

It is not prudent to rely on S meter values, even on quite expensive receivers.

Test 3 – Walkie Talkie and SDR

Good news.  You can actually do a very accurate test of the efficiency of your cage with very inexpensive items.  You want to have a walkie-talkie to place inside your cage, and use a SDR to measure the signal strength, accurately, on the outside.

For the walkie-talkie; if you don’t have a bunch of them already, get a Baofeng UV-5R.  While it is some years since we reviewed these lovely units, and while there have been later models released, the standard UV-5R, at a cost of around $30 each on Amazon, still remains an unbeatable value and excellent performer.  Tune it to a frequency around 145 – 155 MHz, it doesn’t really matter what.  You could tune it down to a lower frequency (they work down to 136 MHz) but best to keep it around the radio’s ‘sweet spot’.

But what is an SDR?  The acronym stands for ‘Software Defined Radio’.  Instead of a traditional radio with knobs and dials and everything, a SDR is a computer device – often in the form of a USB stick that connects into your computer, and which is then controlled by a computer program rather than by old-fashioned ‘analog’ controls.

These are amazing gadgets that can be had for as little as $25 (actually, you can get ones for even less than $25, but this specific $25 SDR is the best performing/best value unit until you start going way over $100).  Download the free SDR+ (pronounced ‘SDR Sharp’) software from here, plug the unit into your computer, and run the SDR+ software.  (If you have a Mac, you could try this free software.)

SDR radios have many uses for preppers, particularly as broad-band multi-mode scanners.  We’ll write more about them in future articles.

Tune to the same frequency as your HT (walkie talkie), make sure that you’ve zeroed out the RF gain and turned off the AGC, and you can get information on exactly the dBm signal strength that is being received by putting the cursor on the top frequency display.  If the signal is too strong – ie, you don’t get a nice single peak on the SDR’s display, but a whole series of peaks and a general lifting of all the frequencies being monitored, take the antenna off the SDR and maybe replace it with just a very short piece of wire.

Then stick the HT into the cage, close it up, and you’ll see exactly the drop in signal strength.  Maybe you go from +5 dBm to -40 dBm, or something else.  In such a case, clearly the cage has provided you with 45 dB of attenuation.  How easy (and accurate) is that!

sdrc

In this screen shot (a larger view of the image at the top of the article), you can see that the display is monitoring a signal at 145.330 MHz, with a signal strength of +2.5 dBFS (forget about the FS, it means ‘relative to full scale’ – a concept which is not relevant to our needs).  That is a very powerful signal, and as you can see, it ‘stands up’ a long way above the random background ‘noise’ (the other data tells us the background noise is 56.2 dB below full-scale, and so in total, there is a separation of 58.7 dB between the background noise and the measured signal) and some other weak signals that you see small peaks for.

After getting your ‘out of cage’ reading, which this is, you then simply put the radio in the cage and get a second ‘in the cage’ reading.  The difference between the two dBFS readings is the amount of attenuation, and hopefully it is reporting more than 40 dB.

Summary

You shouldn’t assume your Faraday cage is giving you the protection you need and are relying on.  Fortunately, there are some relatively easy ways to test its functionality.

Ideally, you should be getting more than 40dB of attenuation from your cage.

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 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.