- Written by Brian Keahl
- Category: Emergency Communications
- Published: 03 March 2011
- Hits: 1661
One thing you should expect in most emergency scenarios is loss of power. Only people with radios which are capable of or running on, and having emergency power, will be able to communicate for any significant period of time. As an emergency communication (EmComm) amateur radio operator, you should endeavor to have two sources of emergency power – even if they are both of the same type.
Of course, in this economy, many of us won’t have the money for heavy investment in backup power systems. So, while we discuss this, we all need to realize that many really great ideas for backup power will not be practical for all members.
Whichever emergency power sources you pick, know the capabilities and limitations of these alternative methods of powering your equipment..
Your emergency power considerations need to be based upon two scenarios: Maintaining operations at your home or at the deployment site. Most of us will be counting on our car battery to provide our emergency power at a deployment location such as an emergency shelter.
There is also no reason why a typical car battery can’t be your home system as well. Keeping a car battery in a ventilated area on a trickle charger requires only that you bring the battery inside and hook it up when the need arises. Many of us already have car battery chargers, so the investment is primarily a battery. I would consider using some kind of connector that allows you to quickly and easily connect the battery, perhaps even keyed connectors so you don’t have to worry about polarity while you’re hurrying to hook up your backup power. The downside of using car batteries is they are not tolerant of repeated "deep cycling" (full discharge / recharge).
Some hams have older handheld radios and are not in a financial position to afford something newer. Older radios may have more current drain. Also older HT Ni-Cad batteries have decreased performance. If you plan on using your HT and the battery doesn’t hold a charge or you have no spare battery, consider the investment. If money is tight, and nowadays that’s not uncommon, then consider purchasing a couple battery packs that you can install alkaline or rechargeable batteries in.
Portable backup generators are a good option, but you’ll need to have fuel for them and aren’t all that efficient for communications use. However, if you want one to keep freezer going anyway, then this may be a good option. The biggest issue related to these is keeping fuel handy, especially with the rapidly decreasing life of gasoline as ethanol and other mixes are mandated.
Portable “Jump Starters” have been mentioned before by Tim/KB4TIW (I think) during a past round-table. These are useful because they can be used for their intended purpose, but also provide a portable higher-current power source. Many of these units have the 12 volt “cigarette lighter” type power plug. Others have USB ports and even 110 volt capability. This would run an HT for quite a while and also provide considerable run time for a mobile or base unit if transmit power is kept to the minimum necessary.
Solar power is often used for keeping batteries charged, and can even power low-consumption equipment on a sunny day. However, here in Georgia, the most likely emergency response scenarios are probably not going to be taking place on clear and sunny days. This might be considered for trickle charging backup battery systems. The cost of solar power is usually just too prohibitive. I brought a Solar Cell out for the last Field Day to extend the life of our alternate power station, having used it to charge the battery before-hand.
Sealed batteries and Marine batteries are really good for battery backup. These are batteries that can be safely charged, discharged, and stored indoors. These types of batteries are used in Uninterruptable power supplies and other devices that require operation where power is not constant. These are not as expensive as solar power or backup generators but still more expensive than a typical car battery. I personally believe this is a good compromise and has become my backup power system. I have four sets of 12 volt batteries, both charging off the same power supply, but isolated with diodes to ensure that a malfunction of one set of batteries will not affect the other, and also allows be to have different batteries operate different equipment. They charge off the same power supply that runs my radios and one set is then tied to my radios, so I’m always “running off battery”, being recharged by the power supply. In this configuration a power outage doesn’t even interrupt radio operations for a moment.
Gary/KJ4MHS mentioned seeing someone hook a 12v generator to a bicycle, so a person could peddle the bike to produce power. Used in conjunction with a battery, this could be a useful system for maintaining charge on batteries and recharging them, and getting a little exercise to boot!
Finally, most amateur radio equipment runs on 12 volts. As a result, we should consider gearing our backup systems along those lines to get maximum efficiency. Remember, converting from one voltage to another ALWAYS results in a loss of energy, something to be avoided when power needs are a premium and availability is at a minimum. The exception to this is if you’re one of the lucky few who has whole-house propane or natural gas backup generation, but even then a simple battery backup should probably be kept handy, just in case.