The Amateur Amateur: Powerhouse
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
I started thinking about auxiliary power way back when I first got my
Amateur Radio license. Mostly it was about getting a bigger battery
for my hand held radio (more power,
see), but backup
was also a major concern. Accordingly, I didn't just get the bigger
battery, I got several of them.
The issue of backup power came up again when I bought my first mobile
transceiver. It was a Yaesu FT-5200, which I initially used as a base
station. Since I couldn't bring my car into the house, I bought an
Astron RS-20A power supply. It converted household current into the
magical 12 V DC I needed to run my Yaesu.
Just a few of the batteries and chargers in my shack
But always in the back of my mind was the question, “What do I do
if there's a power outage?” The question became more relevant
when I joined the local Amateur Radio Emergency Service group (ARES).
If there was a disaster of some sort, would I be able to help, or
would I be one of the helpless?
I didn't know much about batteries back then, but on impulse I bought a
Whistler Portable Power Station. It was a simple 12 V 7 Ah
(ampere-hour) battery housed in a case that had all kinds of neat
lugs, plugs and such. I didn't actually try to power my transceiver
from it, but it gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling knowing that I would be
able to operate during a power outage... at least for a little while.
Let's jump ahead a few years. I now had transceivers in my shack, in my
car, in my wife Nancy's car, and even in my briefcase. Everything had
power. But now I had a new challenge. Our ARES group was going to do
a demonstration out in a local park. Hmmmm. This was really
going to be off the grid. And not only was I supposed to run a HF
station, but a HF digital
station. There may or may not be a generator available, so I had to
come up with my own power. I was pretty sure my little Whistler
wasn't going to be able to handle the needs of my HF rig, and
certainly not the rig and
a laptop computer. I definitely needed something bigger, badder, and
I went to Batteries Plus and told them what I wanted to do, and that I
wanted the biggest whopping 12 V battery they had.
The clerk was very helpful. He said that what I needed was a
battery. Unlike a car battery, it could be drained
to low power levels and recharged without adverse effect.
Well! A communications
battery sounded just right. (Another term is UPS, or Uninterruptible
Power Supply battery.) The largest one the clerk had in the store was
12 V 55Ah. It looked just like a car battery, and was just as heavy.
Did it work in the field? Yes, up to a point. It certainly ran my HF
transceiver and my laptop. The problem was that it couldn't quite run
both simultaneously when I transmitted.
This 20 kw standby generator can supply enough electricty to run my
house and my shack.
I later bought a second 12 V 55 Ah battery, and when I go into the
field now I use one to power my field station and the other to power
my laptop. That works a lot better, but of course, it's a lot more
weight to lug around.
don't run forever, though, they have to be recharged. So my shack had
to expand a little. Now there was a section devoted to power
supplies, battery storage, and charging units. It was about that time
that I started thinking about backup power on a larger scale. Could I
do the whole house? Obviously not with a couple of 12 V batteries.
How many would it take? Too many. What about solar power?
I did look into solar power, but got very confused very quickly. Yes,
there are some plug-and-play units, especially for backpackers, but
if I was thinking about providing power for my entire house, I was
going to have to learn a whole lot more about electrical theory.
Since such a project would be complicated and
expensive I dropped the matter.
And then came the power outages. Straight line winds of up to 80 miles an
hour hit the St. Louis area in the summer of 2006 and knocked out a
big chunk of the power grid. A great many businesses and households,
ours included, were without power for several days, some even longer.
Nancy and I decided to tough it out and stayed home. We slept in the
basement because it was cooler down there. After a while, though, it
was cooler but smellier.
to get a generator,” I kept muttering.
Fellow ARES member Ed Harris, KC0UKR, loaned us one (for which we are
the “brown outs” leading up to the ultimate power failure
killed our refrigerator. Not only was the food spoiled, but the
fridge itself had a fried motor. The expense of purchasing a new one
deferred any thoughts of buying our own generator.
Until that winter, that is, when another
storm came through and knocked out power all over St. Louis again.
This time we didn't tough it out. We headed for a hotel in the next county
that allowed pets and waited for the power to be restored in our
neighborhood. It took several days.
Once again I entertained thoughts of buying a generator, and once again I
vacillated. It wasn't the expense, I was ready to pay just about
anything. No, the two concerns I had were (1) where in blazes were we
going to store
generator, and (2) how much of the house could we reasonably power
There were no satisfactory answers. We had no place to put a generator and
in all likelihood, we wouldn't be able to get one capable of keeping
our furnace or air conditioner going. Dead end.
The switch box for the standby generator.. 20 seconds seems like an eternity.
At some point I became aware of something called a “standby
generator”. Unlike a gasoline powered generator, a standby
generator is not portable. It is a permanent attachment to your house
and connects directly to your household electrical system. It runs
off of either propane or natural gas. It's always in “standby”
mode, and should the electrical grid fail, it automatically takes
over. If you choose one with the proper wattage, it can power
everything in your house.
like what I wanted. But, of course, I hesitated.
And then came more power outages. Some were widespread, but most, it
seemed, hit my neighborhood specifically. I'm not paranoid and I'm
not making it up. The same several blocks in Florissant always
seemed to be affected. And then it got even more personal, the same
blocks always got
hit. Even more aggravating, the lights stayed on in the houses across
During one particularly nasty storm Nancy, Ariel (our dog) and I took refuge
in the basement. We were watching the weather report on the TV down
there when, not unexpectedly, BOOM... there was a loud crash of
thunder and the power went out.
The basement wasn't completely silent nor dark, however, as most of my
radio shack was connected to batteries and still running. Everything
kept humming and giving off a friendly glow. About the only thing
that stopped working was my Automatic Packet Report System station
(APRS) since it was connected to a tower computer. I might have
actually operated if I could've made my way over to the shack without
tripping over something or someone.
That being about the fifth or sixth time we had lost power that
I was finally determined
to get a generator. Not just a generator, but a standby generator.
And not just any standby generator, but one that absolutely,
positively, would keep everything
in our house going during an outage.
It wasn't easy. Although standby generators are advertised everywhere,
actually getting one installed
is somewhat more difficult. Eventually we went to Lowes, which
ordered the generator and
arranged for its installation. The only thing we, the homeowners had
to do (besides pay for it, of course) was to call the natural gas
company and have them install a larger gas meter on our house. The
new one reads out in dollars rather than cubic feet. (Just kidding.)
It was an expensive proposition and there were a few hiccups, but eventually
the generator was installed and it worked. Wouldn't you know it,
though, the very day they finished installing it, the electric
company came out with an armada of trucks and fixed the problem with
the power line feed into our neighborhood. It's just like washing
your car is sure to make it rain. Putting in a standby generator
insured that power outages will never happen again in this
neighborhood. I felt like I should go around house-to-house taking up
One of several Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS) I placed around
Anyway, I could now claim that my shack, and indeed my whole house, had
emergency power. If something happened to the electrical grid, the
standby generator would kick in automatically and I wouldn't even
Except... there would actually be a twenty second delay before the backup
There is a massive switch box that is part of the standby generator system.
It monitors the service line. If it detects that the grid has gone
down, it actually waits ten seconds before sending a startup signal
to the generator, just in case it's a momentary glitch rather than a
hard failure. Once the generator gets the signal, it takes another
ten seconds to start and get up to speed.
That's a small amount of time to be without power, but it's an inconvenience
just the same. Clocks would have to be reset. All manner of
electronic devices would have to be checked. And the tower computer
in my shack would have to be rebooted and all of its ham-related
Alright, call me fanatical if you must, but I just couldn't tolerate that twenty
seconds without power. I didn't mind reseting the clocks so much, it
was the thought of restarting computers, televisions, DVD players and
so forth. It just didn't seem fair to have paid so much money for
backup power and still have to go through hassle of everything
shutting down anyway.
There was a solution, of course, and it brought me right back to where I
started: Batteries. Uninterruptible Power Supplies, to be specific. I
bought several of them and installed them on key electronic devices
around the house (and in the shack, of course). They don't have to
last long, just twenty seconds.
So now I can truly say that I do
have emergency power in my shack and house.
Well, as long as nothing happens to the natural gas line...