View Full Version : Green newbie question on testing radios before licensed for emergency use.

Wed 27th Sep 2017, 01:34
Hello - I live in Southern CA and getting ready for the "big one" when it hits. I fully anticipate a total breakdown of all services when it happens. I've prepared for us to be able to be self reliant for a couple two or three months as far as water, food, shelter, ammo, electricity goes. Then it hit me that our family members could be scattered all over the place and have no way communicate if help was needed. So we had disaster planning powwow.

We decided we'd get some sort of satellite based system to chat. We ordered for each home a Garmin inReach Explorer+ that will allow us to text each other. The downside is that they need a monthly subscription but at $12 a month it's not too bad. Plus they can be used when hiking, etc. But that still didn't solve the problem of family members that may be stranded away from their homes to get in touch. Was too expense to get satellite device for each person. So our secondary communication plan is to keep an inexpensive hand held dual band radio in each of our cars. We ordered several along with a car power adapter and a set of AA Energizer Ultimate Lithium batteries that can endure the heat in the car without going bad too quickly. I figured the rechargeable Li-Ion packs that came with the radios would be junk after 1 hot CA summer in the car.

Most of the members in our doomsday group do not have an interest in ham radio other than for SHTF time. I think I'm the only one interested in getting a license to learn more about ham radios and to use one. I'd like to test out the radios but since we are not in an emergency, it would not be legal to do so not being licensed yet. Or is there a legal way to test them? Based on what I have read, they should reach our rendezvous house. The house is 14 miles or less from the rest of the homes, and it is located in the hills so there is line of sight between the rendezvous house and the other homes. (The simple line of sight calculator at hamuniverse.com says line of sight range is 27 miles.) I'd like to test each of the radios by chatting with a person at the rendezvous point to make sure they all work as intended before handing them all out. To do this do we need 2 licensed people?

This is my very first post into the ham world so please excuse my ignorance if I am way off base. My ARRL Ham Radio License Manual arrives Friday! Thanks!

Wed 27th Sep 2017, 08:29
Being honest - you're not in the ham world really? You want communications, you don't want to talk to strangers, and have no interest it seems in the self-training in amateur communications. I understand your situation, while it's totally alien to anything we do here in the UK. However, even with my rudimentary understanding of how your FCC works, without licences, type approvals and certificates, it's unlikely what you have can be licensed - however, some kit can be tuned to your US bands and used if it's approved. While i get the doomsday scenario, wouldn't it be sensible to have a system you can actually just install, use and get used to? SHTF is not the time to first use a radio, in any band, because the movies make it look easy, when it's plainly not! For ham bands, only somebody transmitting needs a licence, so if you have handhelds, then if you took your licence with the SHTF aim in mind, you could go out and yell your callsign "test only", and even if anyone heard, they'd not call you back. Anybody the other end can listen.

Range wise - your rendezvous locations are all on the high ground I assume to get that range, with nothing in between? Much depends on what you entered for power and antenna in the calculations. Hand held radios are lower powered, and have inefficient antenna systems - even the best add on ones don't match what a short pole with a dipole on it can do! I would be very surprised if you can do 14 miles handheld to handheld - maybe if you climb on the roof and hold it above your head, but any idea of leaving it on a table or worse, in your pocket is going to not work!

Tall outside antenna here to a hand held, which according to the geography should be a clean path at 10 miles, works at about 3 - usably and reliably. That's how radio works. Height, above local ground gives you a good 'take-off'. Hand held radios, used on their own antennas, radio to radio, rarely gets more than just a few miles. That's how it is. Ham operation allows you to experiment and generate good techniques - like holding a radio high, and using a speaker/mic, rather than holding the radio to your mouth. That alone can get a mile or two extra. Being able on FM to detect small changes in s/n, to get the best position can be learned. If you use digital of course, this doesn't work at all - you have no way to know it's on the limit till it dies.

If you use ordinary batteries, their performance drops very quickly. I had thousands of AA cells for a project left over, they are now due to expire in 2018, but using them now results in only half the lifespan of a brand new one that expires in 5 yrs time.

Lots to think about - but ham radio isn't really something to go for, too limiting for what you want - which seems to simply be family reliable coms. GMRS might be something to consider? We have no real equivalent to this in the UK - it's low power free, or higher power licence as a business radio, or ham - and ham wouldn't work here for your purpose either.

Wed 27th Sep 2017, 16:16
@paulears - The reason I want to test is exactly because of the wide variance of stories I've seen posted online about range. I hear of people only getting 2-3 miles on their HT and others saying they have no problem reaching repeaters 20 miles away with the same radios with good line of sight. On the plus side the rendezvous house is a few hundred feet higher than the valley area where the other homes are in, and it is not too hard to find a place to transmit that is not being blocked by something.

I thought GMRS and FRS radios were limited to 1/2 w of power so I didn't look into them. After reading your post I read more about them and it appears that there are 7 channels for GMRS that allows you to use up to 50w without the need for a license as long as your antenna is not mounted more than 20' above the ground. The radios we have now have an option for 1w, 5w and 8w and can be programmed to those GMRS frequencies. So if what I read is correct, I can program those 7 frequencies into the radios to do my testing without worrying about license issues for now! I do realize that wattage has much less to do with range compared to topography (line of sight) and antenna. I did get longer antennas for the HT radios to replace the short rubber ducky stock antennas.

My neighbor directly behind me has a couple of antennas in his back yard and on his roof that are quite tall, maybe 30' tall or so. Once I get the ARRL manual and learn a little more this may be a good topic to introduce myself to him and pick his brain too. But when planning for the big earthquake here, I don't want to be reliant on anyone for anything. But if his home is still standing, I'm sure he would have no problem reaching out 14 miles.

My goal is for me, and the resident of the rendezvous house, to be competent in radio basics and using the radios. From there we can make sure that the emergency HT radio kits we give out to the others to carry in their cars will have a good chance do their intended job, and that we can properly train those people in the basic emergency use of their radios.

Wed 27th Sep 2017, 20:42
I have read quite a few of Paulears posts on a couple of radio forums...
this one and another one that is not ham radio centered... I concur with his thoughts about 99% of the time and the few times I do disagree is mostly because of the fact that we live in different countries an ocean apart and do somethings differently.
I think he missed the part where you said you were the only one of your group who was actually interested in amateur radio... with that in mind let me encourage you to continue with studying the manual and remind you that it is very important for you to learn what the answers to the question actually mean and not just to memorize them answers for the exam...
I must concur with paulears that the HT radios will not really work out for what you have in mind...at least they will not be optimum...
if you do use them, I would put mag mount antennas on the cars and use them instead of the onboard antennas the HTs come with...
I would also put up a mast and a vertical dipole at your destination house.
that will increase the chances of the HTs doing the job you want them to do...
good luck and keep us informed of your progress.

Thu 28th Sep 2017, 06:04
@Obed - Thanks for the tips. I'm looking forward to trying some of the gear out, maybe this weekend if time permits. I am less and less optimistic the HT radios will work but will learn as I go along. Knowing a number of people in our group are not technical at all, and will be even less competent when frazzled in a disaster scenario, I'm trying to keep things as minimalist and as simple as possible. If it doesn't work will have to notch things up a bit until we get something that works. I didn't give a car mounted antenna much thought as I figured traffic here would be such that it would be easier and quicker to just walk to a good spot to use the HT radios. But I may get one for myself just to play around with.

Today I found a pair or GMRS radios I forgot I had back in the days when my kids were in Boy Scouts. Box says 36 mile range - maybe if both parties are on mountain peaks? I got them after using Motorola FRS radios for Scout campouts that on a good day would give us about 1/2 mile range. I don't remember how the Midland GMRS radios worked but for some reason I think I was not impressed. They are 5w radios but the antennas cannot be removed so that is probably a very limiting factor for them. Just for kicks I will experiment with them too.

I want to learn more about repeaters soon. Maybe if the HT radios will not reach the 14 miles they can still be useful if using repeaters. I just don't know how many repeaters will still work without electricity. Do most have backup power supplies? I took at better look at my neighbor's antenna and it's actually between 70 and 90 feet tall. It is HUGE. If he doesn't have backup power I can throw an extension cable over the fence and let him use power from my generator!

Thu 28th Sep 2017, 17:56
Good point Obed - looking at the disaster situation, then one of the great benefits of hams with a bit of operating under their belts, is that ability to get through where others fail - either by physical things or just a trained ear. If he's got one location that is high - then would the US system allow a private radio system with a repeater? Ours here does - anyone can have a business radio system, and in general, it's just the base station that is licensed - you can have as many radios on it as you like. If you have the location, then a repeater, with something like solar panels and battery backup could be a sensible move. Out licence cost depends on the area covered - the bigger the area, the higher the cost? Is the US the same?

Sun 1st Oct 2017, 13:57
After reading what you want to do I have a couple of comments.
1. After the event it is doubtful that you will be able to use your radios as handheld comms due to the fact that there will be so many others tying up the repeaters and the band. Not to mention the short range.
2. Be aware that no radio system is reliable. For instance I use HF up to 100 Watts and I cant communicate 25 miles away to a relative even though I communicate to Spain and S. America on a daily basis. I cannot hit a repeater with the HT thats 18 miles away.

If I were in your shoes I would buy CB sets (SSB) . Put up a base station at each house with a decent antenna, Also put a quick mount (or another radio) in each vehicle.
If a disaster occurs make contact. Put the base radio in the car if it doesn't have a radio and do your thing.
The base stations and meeting house should be battery powered backed up with a small solar charger.

Why CB? No license, better range due to lower frequency. Its even possible to talk coast to coast when conditions are good. And they are big enough not to lose them .