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!
Up on the second-story rooftop of Sun Radio, one looks east to the antenna farm near Loop 360 in West Lake Hills, and southwest at the Hill Country gateway of Dripping Springs. From where Denver O’Neal stands, eight rows of solar panels lay out along the north side of our perch.
“We’ve got 48 panels sucking in the sun’s juice,” explains O’Neal, 30, operations director of the station. “It goes into this control box, then converts AC to DC. The juice comes out AC from the panels, where it converts to DC for the outlets.”
Sunlight remains the most abundant natural resource on the planet. A single hour produces more energy than Earth’s population uses in a year. Whereas any child who’s used a magnifying glass to wreak havoc on an anthill has witnessed solar power in action, the U.S. didn’t start harnessing rays to light homes and businesses until the Seventies. Decades of steady market growth meant that by 2004 states began offering rebates for solar panels.
[…]Sun Radio – 88.9FM in Johnson City, 99.1FM for Fredericksburg, 100.1FM here in Austin, 103.1FM out in Dripping Springs, and 107.1FM around Central Texas – began its love affair with solar energy in 2009. Daryl O’Neal and his son Denver bought the station as the 5-watt KDRP running out of a defunct studio in Dripping Springs. Back then, solar tubes were the franchise, reflective consoles installed into the roof in an effort to refract sunlight. Panels replaced them when the O’Neals stretched their signal to a transmitter a mile away.
Think of transmitters as a set of bunny ear antennas. They take the signal being broadcast from a station and cast it toward the horizon. The taller the tower, the further out the signal extends. At 96 feet, Sun Radio’s Dripping Springs tower could barely register among the 1,000-foot TV towers overlooking West Lake Hills. Yet the boost in wattage allowed the station to blanket town.
In 2012, the station bought yet more space on a tower in West Lake Hills to expand its coverage, then installed panels and energy storage batteries there. In Dec. 2013, KDRP itself uprooted from Dripping Springs to Bee Cave, going solar at that location two years later. The panels currently provide enough energy to power the non-commercial station from dawn till dusk, after which they use electricity.
In September, their utility bill read negative $17.12.
As Gregg notes, the article actually goes in-depth about the history of radio. Great read–thanks, Gregg!
This article makes me wonder how long will it be before batteries and solar (PV) panels become so efficient and compact that shortwave pirate radio stations can simply deploy a solar-powered transmitter box that absorbs energy during the day, then transmits at night?
Indeed, perhaps someone is already doing this? My only fear would be that an unattended Lithium Polymer pack might cause a fire hazard.
While the Tecsun GR-168 is my current pick amongst self-powered shortwave radios, performance is only mediocre compared with a proper, hobby-grade receiver with SSB.
What’s the best system for off-grid living? From time to time, I’m asked this question in the “comments” section of the website or via email. Recently it came up again, and I thought it might make sense to answer it here, and also open it for discussion.
Specifically, SWLing Post reader, Phil, writes:
“[H]i, I am looking for a SW radio that can be used in an off-grid location (rechargeable/ wind-up/ 12 volt DC/ or solar powered), that can pick up a wide range of English speaking stations from here in SW Spain, fantastic audio quality, in the £100-200 price range, and can pick up ham etc transmissions in an emergency (with SSB?). I know NOTHING about SW, so the CCRadio-SW looked about right, except it doesn’t have SSB. Any other suggestions?
Our little solar cottage, where The SWLing Post is often produced from the sun’s energy
Phil, I’m glad you asked. I may be uniquely qualified to answer this question, as I live in and work from a solar house that is off-grid at least some of the time, and I run a charitable non-profit, Ears To Our World (ETOW), that uses shortwave radio for educational purposes. ETOW works in schools, homes, and entire communities that are very often extremely remote, and, by default, off-grid.
So, you have a number of great options to choose from–and whatever options I overlook, our fellow SWLing Post readers will surely supply.
As the ability to receive SSB signals is important to you (and I agree), all of these options will take this requirement into account. You’ll notice that I’m not elaborating on crank/wind-up radios; while there are many of these on the market, none include SSB as an option. Fewer and fewer even include shortwave radio as an option. With that said, my current pick is the Tecsun GR-168 (photo above). Another to consider is the EU/Asian version of the Eton Rover (US versions lack SW, but feature NOAA frequencies).
Following are the options I would suggest for you–or for anyone looking to add a solar-powered radio system to their off-grid set-up.
The Tecsun PL-660
Option 1: Portable radio
Most of the good portable radios on the market use AA batteries and can run quite a long time on a set. I would recommend purchasing the Tecsun PL-660, Sangean ATS-909X, or the Sony ICF-SW7600GR. The PL-660 is possibly the best choice for ease of use and overall value; it’s an impressive little radio, and has good audio fidelity for the size.
Since these radios operate from AA batteries, I would simply purchase a 12V AA battery charger, if you have 12 volts DC available.
A PowerFilm Solar AA charger unfolded and charging on left, folded panel on right.
The other option would be to purchase a solar AA battery charger. I’ve tested a lot of these, and the best I’ve found are made by PowerFilm Solar here in the USA. What I like about these solar chargers is that they can charge either two or four batteries at a time––the panel folds out and has enough wattage to charge depleted cells within a few hours of sunlight exposure. Folded up, they’re small enough (a little larger than a wallet) to be used for travel.
I have used PowerFilm’s solar chargers extensively and they continue to impress. Note, however, that they are not waterproof––you cannot leave them outside in rainy conditions.
This radio/panel combo can be purchased for under $250 US (£155/185 EUR).
Option 2: Tabletop receiver
The CommRadio CR-1
If you have access to 12 volts DC in your home or cabin, and you’re less concerned about portability, then a tabletop receiver might fit your price range and will offer you better performance, when coupled with a reasonable outdoor wire antenna.
You would want to find a tabletop receiver that could run on 12-13.8 volts DC. Many amateur radio-class communications receivers will do this. I would recommend one of the following:
The Alinco DX-R8: an excellent receiver for the price. You can find them used for around $350 US. I ran one off solar power here at my home for almost 2 years.
The CommRadio CR-1: A new product this year. A bit out of your £100-200 price range, Phil, but worth considering as not only is it beautifully engineered, but it’s portable, and operates anywhere from 6 to 18 VDC! As a bonus, it has a built-in battery that will power it for hours. I’m due to publish the full review of the CR-1 very soon–here’s a quickie.
The Alinco DX-R8T tabletop shortwave receiver
One side note: It’s possible–depending on the type you use–that your home’s solar charge controller(s) could inject a lot of noise into your daytime shortwave radio listening. My charge controller does this, but I can turn it off and, if it becomes too much of a problem, actually modify it to do charging with less switching.
The Elecraft KX3 general coverage Transceiver (Click to enlarge)
Option 3: Get your amateur radio ticket and a transceiver
This option is identical to option 2, other than instead of buying a receiver, you buy a transceiver. I’m talking about becoming a licensed amateur radio operator or “ham.” Living where you do, and being a bit of a preparation guru, I can assure you that a ham radio license is a true asset and can keep you connected with the world when everything else fails or when you want to chat with a friend 3,000 miles away.
It’s well beyond the scope of my advice here to cover amateur radio–it’s a vast and multi-faceted hobby–but as a ham (callsign K4SWL–and, formerly, M0CYI in the UK) I can tell you that becoming one is a decision you’re not likely to regret.
A brochure of the original IC-735. These can be easily found used for $300-350 US (220-260 EUR).
If you’re licensed, you can purchase a general coverage ham radio transceiver and not only be able to use the rig for ham radio purposes, but also for all aspects of shortwave radio listening. I spent many years using the (now very affordable) Icom IC-735 as my shortwave receiver. Though I have dedicated receivers at home, I now use the Elecraft KX3 for ham radio and receiving on the go. I recently posted a review of the KX3 that can better explain in detail.
Phil, since you’re from the UK, consider contacting the RSGB and asking about becoming a ham in Spain (or getting licensed in the UK and getting a Spanish call sign). If you lived in the US, I’d advise you contact the ARRL, or in Canada the RAC. Most countries, however, have a support organization for amateur radio–the IARU can help guide you.
I’m sure SWLing Post readers may also have suggestions for off-grid SWLing–please check this post’s comments.
Of course, there’s more to the art of being prepared than simply purchasing a few radios. Being prepared is about having enough supplies, making a plan, and knowing how to get in touch with family/friends, where to meet and what to do should you lose contact. Fortunately, a great percentage of the time, being prepared is about dealing with a few days–not months–of difficult conditions.
What I’m trying to say is, don’t feel like you have to spend a lot of money stock-piling months of food, or buy several bricks of gold to bury at your house (hate to burst your bubble, but gold is, unfortunately, a rotten investment).
Don’t feel like there’s a financial barrier to being prepared, either. It’s easy, and you can gather everything you need in one day.
I find that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has a well thought-through list of items you should have in your preparedness “kit.” I have listed them below (courtesy of FEMA) and included my own comments under some of the suggestions.
FEMA Recommended Items To Include In A Basic Emergency Supply Kit:
Distilled water is inexpensive and very easy to store.
Water, one gallon of water per person per day for at least three days, for drinking and sanitation
I suggest purchasing inexpensive gallons of distilled water from your local store. When you bring them home, mark them with the date purchased. Over time, you can use and replace them with new ones.
Food, at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food
Include a lot of shelf-stable foods ready to be eaten without preparation–trail mix, dehydrated fruits and vegetables, etc.
Dust mask, to help filter contaminated air, and plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter-in-place
Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation
Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities
At least have a Gerber or Leatherman tool with a built-in pair of pliers.
Can opener for food (if kit contains canned food)
Very important–have you ever tried opening a can of food without a can opener? They’re cheap–buy one specifically for your kit
Cell phone with chargers, inverter or solar charger
Many of the radios above can charge a USB-based cell phone. If you are looking for a durable solar panel, consider the Goal Zero foldable panel or any roll-up/foldable panel by Power Film Solar.
Additional Items To Consider Adding To An Emergency Supply Kit:
Prescription medications and glasses
This is extremely important–you should certainly stock up on medical supplies if you’re in the path of a natural disaster like a hurricane. Pharmacies may be closed for several days and you certainly want your prescription heart medication on hand!
Infant formula and diapers
Pet food and extra water for your pet
Don’t forget Rover or Whiskers–!
Cash or traveler’s checks and change
Important family documents, such as copies of insurance policies, identification and bank account records in a waterproof, portable container. You can use the Emergency Financial First Aid Kit (EFFAK) – PDF, 277Kb) developed by Operation Hope, FEMA and Citizen Corps to help you organize your information.
Emergency reference material, such as a first aid book or information from www.ready.gov.
Sleeping bag or warm blanket for each person. Consider additional bedding if you live in a cold-weather climate.
Complete change of clothing, including a long-sleeved shirt, long pants and sturdy shoes. Consider additional clothing if you live in a cold-weather climate.
Household chlorine bleach and medicine dropper – When diluted nine parts water to one part bleach, bleach can be used as a disinfectant. Or in an emergency, you can use it to treat water by using 16 drops of regular household liquid bleach per gallon of water. Please do not use scented or color safe bleach, or bleaches with added cleaners.
Matches in a waterproof container
Feminine supplies and personal hygiene items
Mess kits, paper cups, plates and plastic utensils, paper towels
Paper and pencil
Books, games, puzzles or other activities for children
Often overlooked, but quite important–you may be without power, television and internet for days. You should have a back-up plan for your children. Board games are fun, burn a little time, and require absolutely no batteries!
Other recommendations I would add
Fill up your vehicles with fuel. Indeed, it’s not a bad idea to top-off your fuel on a regular basis.
Listen to local radio stations and follow any directions from local officials who are coordinating recovery.
Know potential evacuation routes and emergency contact information. This is especially important if you live in an area prone to hurricanes or typhoons
Making a plan and being informed
Being prepared, as I said earlier, is more than just having supplies. It’s about being prepared mentally and having your close family and friends on the same page should disaster strike. Also, you should be well aware of how things are handled locally.
Ready.gov has an excellent guide to making a plan (including downloadable forms) and general information about being informed.
SWLing.com has a lot of guests (almost half of our guests!) who visit us from outside of the USA. The information I have posted above may not be relevant to the place you live (for example, NOAA weather radio). Still, keep in mind the following:
Check to see if your national weather service has specific frequencies with weather or emergency information. If so, make sure you have a radio that can receive these broadcasts.
Check with your local emergency management office. If you have any specific needs (medical or otherwise), make sure your local authorities know.
Summary: Preparedness is crucial!
This is, perhaps, one of the longest posts I’ve ever written on the SWLing Post; you can probably tell that I’m an advocate of preparedness. I hope I’ve shown you that there’s a lot to think about prior to a disaster, whether natural or man-made. It’s not expensive to prepare, but does take a bit of dedicated time and energy. Once you you do it, though, I promise that you will feel better prepared and more secure than before. And one more thing: once you’ve taken care of your own or your family’s needs, please be prepared to help others however you can–sharing and caring is part of any disaster recovery process.
Today is the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks here in the US; also, here in the US, September is National Preparedness Month.
Hurricane Katrina (photo source: NOAA)
These two facts, coming as they do on the heels of several recent natural disasters in the US (hurricane, flooding, fires, an earthquake) have meant that I’ve received several inquiries about what radios (and supplies) are best for emergency preparedness.
So, I’ve decided to offer a comprehensive guide to preparedness. It includes specific suggestions for radios and other supplies (food, medical, etc.) one should have in stock in case of an emergency.
This is a lot of information, so I have broken it down into two posts:
Emergency Preparedness Part 1: Choosing the right radios (this post)
I’m no preparedness expert–and I’m certainly not a devotee of apocalyptic thinking–but in the rural area where I live, in a passive solar home, preparedness is an everyday fact. Power from the grid goes out here frequently, and when it snows, we can be stuck out here for a day or two at least. When weather or other problems occur, as they invariably do, we’re guided by the three emergen-Cs: we simply stay calm, use common sense, and solve any problems creatively. We keep several days of food in stock, have on hand emergency lighting, a generator (which we regularly maintenance), and spare fuel for the generator; meanwhile, my ham radio station can run on a fully-charged battery bank for days. Our refrigerator and freezer are solar-powered with battery back-up as well. When the power goes out, we may notice it, but only just.
We also believe in helping the neighbors whenever we can. Oh, and a sense of humor helps keeps things in perspective.
In the wake of natural or man-made disasters, radio is your friend
As this thought-provoking video points out, no matter where you live in the world, communication is one of the most important ways you can maintain control when the world around you is out of control.
What type of radio do you need? More than one type, in my view, if you can afford them. At a minimum, you should keep on hand the following:
One self-powered (hand-crank) radio with AM/FM and emergency flashlight. If you live in the US, this radio should also include the NOAA weather radio frequencies.
One capable digital portable shortwave radio with SSB (single-side band) mode.
Several sets of fully-charged rechargeable batteries to power the shortwave radio and other devices like flashlights
Solar or DC powered battery charger
Other non-radio supplies (see list at bottom of page)
I’ll start with recommendations of self-powered radios, then suggest a few portable digital radios and self-powered shortwave radios. Finally, I’ll also include FEMA recommendations for supplies that should be kept on hand for emergencies, just in case.
Review of the best self-powered emergency radios
Below, I’ve laid out what I consider to be the best self-powered radios on the market today. Note that many of these radios cannot receive on shortwave, but do receive AM/FM and NOAA frequencies (NOAA weather frequencies are only helpful in the USA, please remember). During natural disasters or in times of emergency, local AM and FM stations tend to be more information-relevant than international broadcasters on shortwave. Of course, I believe you should have a shortwave radio on hand as well, so I have also provided a list of self-powered shortwave radios.
The Eton FR160 self-powered AM/FM weather radio with USB charger
Self-powered AM/FM NOAA weather radios
The Eton FR160 ($30-40 US)
The Eton FR160 is a durable, portable hand-crank and solar powered AM/FM Weather Band radio. It’s quite easy to use and does a fine job tuning in local stations including NOAA weather radio (you can chose from a selection of all seven frequencies). The FR160 has another very useful feature–you can connect any USB-based charger into its built in USB port and use the radio’s hand crank to charge your cell phone or other portable USB device–very cool! Be aware that it takes a lot of cranking to charge a typical cell phone enough for a 5 minute phone call, but in an emergency, it’s worth the trouble. The built-in LED flashlight is also very bright and lasts a long time on 2 minutes of cranking. The solar panel is adequate for charging the radio or for playing it (in full sunlight).
The Eton Scorpion self-powered AM/FM Weather radio with built-in caribbeaner and bottle opener!
The Eton Scorpion ($50-60 US)
The Eton Scorpion is very similar to the FR160, but has the added features of an auxiliary line-in input, a larger solar panel, and is splash-proof. The Scorpion has an aluminum carabineer to attach it to your belt or pack, a bottle opener, and is overall a very rugged device, so is ideal for camping, too.
Other self-powered AM/FM/NOAA weather radios worth considering
Eton Corporation also produces the Axis and Rover–I have never used these, but assume they would be worth considering. Eton is certainly the king of self-powered radio technologies and produces many of their radios branded with the Red Cross. They’re sturdy and effective. I know of no self-powered weather band radios as reliable as those produced by Eton.
The Grundig G3 or Sony ICF-SW7600GR (in background) are both reliable and have excellent SSB reception.
I strongly recommend you have a capable, full-fledged digital shortwave radio tucked away for emergencies. If you already own one, just make sure you always have fresh batteries for it standing by.
While these radios lack SSB and the advanced functionality of the modern digital portable, they can operate with the turn of the crank. This is great, just in case you forget to have a set of fresh batteries among your supplies. All of the radios below have excellent reception characteristics for an analog radio. Why did I only choose analog radios? Mainly because I have yet to find a self-powered digital shortwave radio that has the sensitivity of the analog ones, or the battery longevity. Digital radios look cool and are great for casual use, but I wouldn’t rely on one in an emergency. Stick with these analog units instead:
Still on the market as the Tecsun Green 88, this little self-powered radio packs a big punch.
Tecsun Green 88/Grundig FR200 ($25-35 US)
My all-time favorite self-powered shortwave radio is the Grundig FR200 or Tecsun Green 88. This radio used to be widely available as the Grundig FR200, but Grundig has since stopped producing it. The radio can, however, still be purchased by Tecsun Corporation from vendors in Honk Kong on eBay (link provided below).
What do I love about the Tecsun Green 88? It is:
covers the shortwave spectrum down to 3.2 MHz
sensitive, even just using the built-in telescopic antenna
has fine-tuning control
runs for 40 minutes (with fresh NiMH battery pack) off of 2 minutes of hand-cranking
Other notable self-powered shortwave radios
I’m also very fond of several other self-powered shortwave radios, but none of them quite match up to the Tecsun Green 88 (Grundig FR200). I’ve listed a few below that are certainly worth considering.