The Amateur Amateur: Powerhouse

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
October 2013

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, you see), but backup power 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.

Batteries and chargers

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 beefier.

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 communications 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.

20 kw standby generator

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.

Batteries 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.

“We have to get a generator,” I kept muttering.

Fellow ARES member Ed Harris, KC0UKR, loaned us one (for which we are eternally grateful).

Unfortunately, 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 the generator, and (2) how much of the house could we reasonably power with it?

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.

Switch box for generator

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.

Now that sounded exactly 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 two blocks always got hit. Even more aggravating, the lights stayed on in the houses across the street.

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 year, 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 a collection.


One of several Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS) I placed around the house

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 notice.

Except... there would actually be a twenty second delay before the backup power started.

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 software restarted.

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...

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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