This year, I have a lot of portable radio play in mind as I travel across the continent. At some point, I even plan to spend several days in an off-grid cabin on the coast.
In the past, I’ve powered my 12 VDC ham radio transceivers with a system comprised of three PowerFilm solar 5 watt foldable PV panels (see below), a Micro M+ charge controller and several gel cell type sealed batteries (a couple 7 Ah and one 20 Ah).
The system works well, but the batteries are a little heavy and unhandy when I want to hike into a remote site or play radio on the beach, for example.
In terms of receivers, my portables (like the Sony ICF-SW7600GR, Tecsun PL-660, etc.) simply use AA batteries which I charge with PowerFilm AA PV chargers (see above). My CommRadio CR-1a has an internal battery that will power it for hours at a time.
Power is much less of an issue with receivers because they’re quite resource efficient.
I mainly need a system to power my QRP ham radio gear, and that’s where I could use your experience!
I need a new charge controller since my Micro M+ (no longer produced) is now being used to power a remote antenna tuner.
Of course, I’ll need an inexpensive charge controller that doesn’t produce RFI (radio interference).
It would be an added bonus if the charge controller could also charge my batteries when grid power is available.
12 VDC Battery packs
I’d like something relatively lightweight and safe.
Note: LiPo packs worry me, especially since I had one (an early GoalZero model) quite literally melt down and burn up on my bed only a few hours after bringing it back from an eight hour flight a few years ago. Scary!
Pure Sine Wave Inverter
I’d also like a small, efficient pure sine wave inverter that I I could connect to my largest battery and power my laptop for extended SDR spectrum recording sessions while off-grid.
I’d love a recommendation from someone who uses one and can confirm a model that doesn’t create radio interference while operating.
Post readers: Please comment with your recommendations and include model numbers and links if possible. Thank you in advance!
Card-carrying members of the Radio Shack Battery of the Month Club, get ready to salivate: The Eco USBcell is the most exciting development we’ve seen in rechargeable batteries in a long time.
Unlike most rechargeable AA and AAA cells that use nickel metal hydride chemistry, the USBcell’s are based on the same advanced lithium polymer technology that’s used in many smartphones.
That may not sound like a big deal, but one limiting factor in using LiPo in a AA or AAA battery is voltage. LiPo and Lithium Ion’s typical minimum voltage is 3.7 volts and would fry a standard device looking for 1.5 volts.
The Eco USBcell features a power control chip to match the voltage to the standard disposable alkalines we’re used to.
[…]And that’s not even the slick part of the USBcell. Once the battery is dead, you simply pull the top off to reveal a standard USB Type A port. That means there’s no need to carry a charger anymore. Plug it into a 1 amp wall-wart charger and it’ll be topped off in about two hours, even flashing an embedded green LED to let you know. The company says it can technically be charged on a computer’s USB port, but it’ll be a lot slower.
With USB ports and chargers being ubiquitous in our world, I can see where charging these would be very convenient.
My only hesitation is that I have a healthy fear of LiPo batteries after having a GoalZero LiPo pack melt down and burn on my bed while charging once. That was three years ago, however, and charging circuits have become much more reliable since then.
I’ll put these on my wish list and purchase them later in the year if the reviews remain positive. I just purchased a 12 pack of Panasonic Enloop cells, so I’m in no hurry.
Discount hardware store, Harbor Freight, sells packs of very affordable Heavy Duty batteries under the Thunderbolt Magnum brand name. Occasionally, Harbor Freight even gives large packs of these batteries away for free (with a coupon).
In truth, I use quality rechargeable AA cells quite heavily (mainly Powerex and Panasonic Enloops). If I am reviewing a radio, I buy fresh Energizer or Duracell AA alkaline batteries to make sure the radio is receiving full voltage from the batteries during the evaluation.
But, on occasion, a cheap AA will suffice, right?
I put three in a shortwave portable in June because all of my other batteries were in use. I had just planned to take the portable on a weekend trip. Though it shouldn’t have been a problem, I forgot and left the batteries in the radio.
Tuesday afternoon, I checked the batteries because they were already dead. Turns out they were already leaking! I then remembered that other cells–from the same pack–had leaked in one of my kid’s flashlights.
It could be that I simply got a bad batch of batteries, but these cells really do feel of poor quality–I bet they weigh half that of most other Heavy Duty cells.
My advice? Free is too costly for these batteries. Stick with quality cells!
Now I need to go through my house and find where the remaining four batteries are hidden before they damage another device.
Your goal was to assemble the best shortwave listening set-up possible for your virtual budget of $200 US. You were tasked to track down a radio kit that would keep you in touch with the world, and potentially afford you some very unique DX. [If you haven’t read the full virtual radio challenge, including all of the limitations you might face, I encourage you to check out this post before continuing.]
Your Reader Responses
And, wow, what great responses–! First, I want to thank all who participated in this challenge. No two responses were identical. Some truly surprised me…I must say, I sincerely hope you enjoyed this exercise as much as I enjoyed reading what you’ve sent to the SWLing Post!
Below you will find ten responses from readers, representing remarkable diversity in radio set-ups. Note that my comments follow; they are italicized and in bold.
Now, with no further ado…I welcome you to radio DX on Tristan de Cunha!
from Frank Holden
First up, Frank Holden, who submitted his entry at 3:00 AM–prior to leaving on a 6:40 AM flight. Obviously, travel was on this Post reader’s mind.
Based on both my own experience and recent swling.com research I would choose a:
Duct tape (for securing joints on Squidpole and taping top of ant to top of Squidpole) $2
20 metres of wire for antenna with fitted plug. $10
Cable ties for securing Squidpole to stake. $1
Coil 3mm diam polyester line for stays $10
One dozen big tent pegs. $12
Big hammer [Available locally!]
Squidpole Antenna (Photo courtesy of http://www.perite.com/)
Total is $210 Australian, so you will get change out of $200 US.
Feed antenna up inside the Squidpole and tape at the top…. The rubber ‘bobble’ is removeable.
Maybe run a short length of coax from radio to base of Squidpole.
Make sure the Squidpole is well stayed. My experience in VP8land and Tierra del Fuego is that the constant flexing in high winds will lead to squid pole failure. Mine were secured to the taffrail on my boat… i.e. at the base and 50cm up from base…. Failed at the 50 cm point. I have also had a 5 metre high quality (marine grade) alloy whip fail in the same manner.
Utilise rest of baggage allowance with warm clothes, rum (power outages… for use during), etc.
Thanks, Frank! I love the idea of the Squidpole as it can give you a little height when trees are absent. I have used a similar telescoping pole for Ham Radio QRP operations: a Jackite pole. I’ve broken the tip section twice already due to my own clumsiness–fortunately, the tip can be purchased separately. As you suggest, I bet the winds on Tristan Da Cunha would give the Squidpole a run for its money!
The Ham It Up v1.2 – NooElec RF Upconverter converts your RTL-SDR dongle into an HF receiver.
I propose using my current setup, since a laptop is a freebie here. I use the following in my setup:
That’s $157. That leaves $43 for a 25? length of coax and two MCX adapters. Coax run is $15 (at $0.39/ft for RG-8X.) I forgot how much the adapters were, but less than the $28 left over after buying the coax run.
Downside? I have no pole to support this, and houses on the island are only one story structures. I’ll have to attach the high end of the sloper to the peak of the home where I’m staying, and I’m sure that height is less than the 25? recommended by AlphaDelta. In addition, I’ll have to plant a stake at the lower end of the sloper to keep that end the recommended 8? above ground. I also made no provision for extra power if a power outage exceeded the amount of juice in my laptop battery.
If push came to shove, I would drop the MFJ 1020B for an extra $50 to buy supports or an extra battery.
Thanks, AB3RU! I’m willing to bet that you might find something on the island to support one end of your sloping antenna. It might be a challenge to meet the 25′ recommended height, as you stated. Still, this is an innovative and quite portable option!
Here are my choices:
A 50-100m wire to be used as an antenna for SW and MW. I imagine I’ll be able to catch a few MW stations from South America or Africa. As for choosing a radio…
I’ll need a good radio which allows using an external antenna not only for SW (all of them do) but also for MW (few of them do). I think there is only one radio which fits this requirement within the budget: the Sony ICF-SW7600GR, available on Amazon.com at prices around $140. My other choice would be a Sangean ATS-909X which works very well with external antennas, but it’s more expensive.
I’ll also need two packs of 4 AA rechargeable batteries and a charger.
Thanks, Tudor! I believe your choice of the Sony ICF-SW7600GR is a very good one, as the Sony is a solid performer. It would be a challenge to find a new Sangean ATS-909X within your $200 budget–you would need to track down a used one, most likely. With the PL-660 in tow, you would then have a full $60 to purchase batteries, charger, and your antenna wire. Very workable!
It is through hole soldered so replacing parts is easy. Bring a bag of spare parts and a couple batteries. Get two headphones so that you and a friend can listen at the same time.
Thanks, KK6AYC! At $110 US, you would certainly have enough budget for spare parts, batteries, and antenna wire. While a regen receiver may not be for everyone, these do provide excellent sensitivity once you pass this rig’s learning curve for tuning. If the winds blow your external antenna around, you might have to ride that regen control! Great alternative to the typical portable–!
from John Treager
Next, John Treager, who writes:
Neat thought experiment! I’ve recently got back into SW listening after years away. I’ve been hitting your sites for two or three months and your weak station comparison really grabbed my attention but this one has lit the fire again.
[…]I’m a contract engineer who lives away from my primary residence most of the time so this challenge kind of strikes a chord. And, as I’m getting back into SWL, you’ve given me a reason to research (something engineers love to do!).
If I’m renting a room with a family on the island, headphones are a must. I’m cheap and traveling light so let’s go with Sony MDRZX100 headphones. I’ve used them for quite a while and like them. I find them comfortable for at least a couple of hours. Currently $15.09 on Amazon.
I enjoy the challenge of simplicity so, as far as an antenna goes, I would choose a simple long wire. Either a reel or one I build, $10-15. I get as much enjoyment from fussing with antennas as I do from turning knobs and dials. If my simple wire antenna doesn’t work when I get on location, then investigating and tinkering with antenna design and construction will fill the hours!
By the rules of the challenge, power is available but somewhat unreliable it sounds like. To meet that, I’m going with rechargeable batteries and enough to last for a while. AmazonBasics AA NiMH Rechargeable batteries (16 pack, 2000 mAh). Not the newest version, but should suffice for one year and 16 batteries should be enough for extended periods of no power. And, this may be a bit of a cheat, but I use AA batteries for everything, so I already have a charger!
Next, some sort of reference. I usually use either my laptop or a phone/tablet for frequencies/times from various sources, but given that there is no internet access in the residence and power may be occasionally spotty, let’s go with the World Radio/TV Handbook as a backup (I do miss Passport to World Band Radio!). I found WRTH on eBay (new, 2014 edition) for $27.24.
I assume I will have notebooks and pens for other reasons, so not included in the total.
Thanks, John! That should be enough AA batteries to keep you going well over a week with no power. Packing a WRTH makes a lot of sense. Via the island’s library Internet–however variable–you could download WRTH updates, as well.
from London Shortwave
The Global AT-2000 (Photo: RadioPics.com)
London Shortwave sent his suggestion in by tweet–a simple, proven combo:
If a laptop was coming along, I would have to use an SDR.
I would get the Afedri SDR USB-only model [see AFEDRI SDR-USB-HS above] for $159 (board only, I’d have to mount it in a sardine can). I would then use the remaining $41 for a cheap used antenna tuner and a random wire for an antenna. I think this kit would make for an excellent listening post.
Backup power would be a concern with the outages, so I am contemplating a 6-volt battery backup power system to power my Phillips 4-port USB hub (6 volt DC in requirement). From there the USB-hub will power/charge a Dell Venue 8 Pro tablet (the laptop), the Afedri SDR and maybe a USB-powered speaker? Would have to test out this backup power scheme before boarding the boat!
I think I could do all of the above for $250 including the backup power system. Although it would likely push $300 when wires, cables etc are all in (does not include the tablet/laptop).
Thanks, Princehifi! So you’re a little over the $200 budget with all of the accessories, but if you already have a laptop and tablet, I think you could tweak your set-up to meet the budget goal. I did not realize that there was a USB only version of the Afedri SDR–I might have to get one of those myself!
Here’s my list. Where can’t get it locally and I don’t have a firm shipping cost, I’ve estimated it as an additional 20%. Stuff I can get locally (Radio Shack, etc.) I haven’t added any shipping or sales tax.
(That’s right, a spare radio. Because middle of nowhere.)
Grand total: $192
Now if I’m allowed to scrounge in the parts bin for stuff like 22 gauge antenna wire, RG58, and earbuds, there might be enough left over for a SECOND spare radio and 4 more Eneloops!
Thanks, Rob–you have a plan, indeed! Well thought through! I, too, would be very curious what sort of medium wave DX I could hear in the South Atlantic, especially since you know there would be no local blow-torch stations around. I have the Grundig version of the Tecsun AN200 and find it an essential antenna for portable MW DXing.
Grand total: $156.89 (all qualify for free shipping)
I’d guess I would save the rest for repair costs in case the radio acts up. Of course, I’d take the one I already have as a spare. When in remote locations, backups are essential so I probably bought more than most people think I need. And as far as the battery charger, rapid chargers are bad for most NiMH batteries so I went with a slower charger. And don’t forget that the Tecsun can charge the batteries in the radio when not in use.
Thanks, Michael! You are erring on the side of having extra batteries and more than enough wire for antennas; there’s no way you’ll run out in your one-year stay. On Tristan, I know that locals often trade supplies: those extra batteries may turn into an antenna support!
from Kenny B
Kenny B writes:
I love your site, I’m there everyday and almost forgot to enter so here it is:
1. Kaito 1102, I have had good luck with it and it has ssb, second choice would be a Tecsun PL-380, I really love this radio and it’s a great little dxing machine but no ssb. The Kaito is 64.95 on Amazon, free shipping.
8. Radio Shack 1/8th inch miniplug for end of coax, $4.00
Wow! Thanks, Kenny B! Other than the KA1102, your complete kit is DIY–I like it! You could build the battery charger and antenna prior to leaving.
1. Receiver: Wandel & Goltermann FE-8 Spy Radio Receiver (US$ 120 at a Hamfest)
Wandel & Goltermann FE-8 Spy Radio Receiver from the cold war (mine was manufactured in 1963. I bought it at a Hamfest in Sweden a month ago for the equivalent of US$ 120.[…]
For ruggedness there is nothing else like it. It is completely sealed and constructed from a single piece of die-cast machined aluminium and stainless steel. Just the thing for wet and rainy Atlantic islands! Covers 2.5 – 24 MHz and only needs 6 Volts at 8mA. A pack of twelve AAs will fit in my pocket and last at least a year with about three hours of listening every day. No adapter, no charger. The razor sharp 3.1 kHz Collins Mechanical Filter is not ideal for music but hard to beat for general news and SSB utility listening. Like the famous Collins R390 it uses a mechanical “digital” dial accurate to 1 kHz which also glows in the dark. […]It is smaller that a Tecsun 660 though it weighs a lot more. More about this radio here http://www.cryptomuseum.com/spy/sp15/fe8.htm
2. Antenna & Earth (US$ 15 in any electrical store)
Random length PVC insulated wires with a banana plugs- total 50 meters. The radio has a hi-impedance input and is sensitive enough to do a great job with just 20 m of wire. The rest is spare.
I’m all set for the trip now with $10 to spend on a supply of chewing gum. I know that this radio setup can easily deal with whatever is thrown at it… the question is if I can!
Thanks, Anil! Wow…I never saw that spy radio coming! It does look like an ideal radio for prolonged use and for pretty much any environmental conditions. I hope you realize that I will be bugging you (okay, pun intended!) to provide us with a few broadcast recordings from the FE-8. It’s certainly got my interest piqued!
Now, that was fun! Thank you all…
I know this sort of challenge may not appeal to everyone, but I really enjoy it. This sort of exercise forces you (though safely) outside the comfort-zone of a home radio set-up. Your responses are truly innovative. I only wish the Post could actually send our participants to Tristan de Cunha to try their set-ups out first-hand! I, for one, would love to come along…
Thanks, again, for your participation! If your response wasn’t included above, or I didn’t respond to you directly, please let me know: it’s possible I skipped over yours by mistake as there were quite a few responses to collate, and my email is managed by a rather discriminating SPAM filter.
Meanwhile, if you think of an alternative set-up–or would like to add your own to this post–please comment below!
I receive a lot of emails from readers and listeners who are new to shortwave radio. The bulk of the emails I receive ask for advice about which radio to pick for travel, for home, or for work. A lot of emails, however, are from listeners who wish to improve the performance of their portable radios.
One of the first things I suggest–especially if they’re hearing a lot of interference noise on the radio–is simply to unplug the AC adapter (a.k.a., “wall wart”) and run the portable off batteries. Why? Quite often, those wall warts are injecting a lot of noise into your receiver. Find it hard to believe? Give it a try!
Not all rechargeable batteries are created equal. Choose name-brand, higher quality cells. Dollar store batteries lack longevity and capacity.
Solution: Rechargeable batteries
I get so annoyed with noisy wall warts, that I simply never use them. Instead, some time ago I started investing in rechargeable batteries. Though one pays a bit more for them (than for alkaline batteries) initially, they can be recharged hundreds of times, and thus last for years.
You can buy rechargeable batteries nearly anywhere these days, and the price has dropped significantly over the past few years, even for name-brand batteries.
It’s worth noting that I’ve bought rechargeable batteries at radio hamfests or dollar stores that were as cheap as $1US per AA cell. Big mistake–not only do these ultra-cheap batteries not hold a charge for long, but they also wear out more quickly. Instead, stick with name brand rechargeables, like Energizer, Duracell, RadioShack, or (my personal favorite) Powerex.
About 85% of the shortwave portables I own are powered by AA cells, the remaining 20% off of AAA’s (you’ll find that I gripe about the ones that use AAA’s, by the way). When I buy a new portable–one that I plan to keep after reviewing on SWLing.com–I invest in twice the number of rechargeable batteries that the portable holds. For example, my Sony ICF-SW7600GR operates on 4 AA cells, thus I bought a pack of 8 cells for its operation. That way, I can always have an extra set of charged batteries available when I deplete those in the unit.
There are three main types of rechargeables available: NiCd (nickel cadmium), Lithium Ion, and NiMH (nickel-metal hydride). Without going into too much detail, I recommend NiMH batteries–they offer the best bang for the buck, are widely available, and with correct care, do not easily develop a memory effect.
A few tips for making NiMH rechargeables last longer
NiMH batteries are fairly fool-proof, but there are some simple rules of thumb you should follow to insure that they provide years of service:
Never mix old and new rechargeables
Never mix LiIon and NiMH cells
Nickel-based cells, such as our NiMH’s need to be fully discharged occasionally, else the batteries lose capacity over time in a phenomenon known as the “memory effect.” Once my radio has depleted its current set of batteries, I’ll often pop them into a flashlight to deplete them even further before recharging.
Label your batteries with a piece of colored tape or a marker to note the purchase date on the cell–that way, you’ll easily keep like batteries together and charged in sync.
The Maha MHC9000 is pricey, and you will need the manual to operate it, but it's a very high-quality battery charger and conditioner. I have brought nearly dead NiMH batteries back to life with this wonderful machine.
Like batteries, not all chargers are created equal. You should opt for a higher-quality, NIMH-specific charger. Ideally, since most radios require 3-4 batteries at a time, purchase a charger that will hold at least 4 batteries.
You can see that I’m very fond of the Maha brand battery chargers, though there are other good chargers on the market. Maha receives high praise from many amateur radio operators, and I’ve had excellent luck with them, too. What I especially like about the Maha/Powerex company is that they focus all of their innovation in the area of batteries and charging systems for a wide variety of uses.
Throw away the wall warts!
Have I convinced you yet? Don’t even bother unpacking the AC adapter that comes with your radio! You don’t really need it. “But wait,” you may be thinking, “my radio has a built-in battery charger, so don’t I need my AC adapter?” Even if your radio has a built-in battery charging function, it’s probably very basic and should only be used if you have no other option. Many of these are prone to over- or under-charge batteries, and take hours to complete this relatively simple task.
Trust me: your portable shortwave reciever will perform at its best when powered by quiet, rechargeable NiMH batteries charged properly with a good-quality charger. Try it, and hear for yourself.
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