The Amateur Amateur: Weather or Not

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
January 2016

Oregon Scientific console

The Oregon Scientific readout box (display unit).

Oregon Scientific anemometer

The Oregon Scientific whirlygig (anemometer)

It all really started back in 1995 when my wife Nancy (N0NJ) and I got our initial Amateur Radio licenses. The fellow who taught the Technician class we attended also managed the Amateur Radio Skywarn net for St. Louis County, so, naturally, we signed up for that as well.

One of the first things you do when you become Skywarn spotter is that you run out and buy a weather alert radio. And then you smash it to pieces when it wakes you up at 2:30 in the morning to tell yout that there is severe weather halfway across the state in some county you never heard of. (I replaced the offending appliance with a newer model that was more selective about when it woke us up.)

We've now gone through several weather alert radios, and no, I didn't smash them all. Some I bought because they had more advanced features, I won one as an attendance prize, and was given another by the manufacturer. I even helped program some during a promotion at a local drug store. Frankly, though, we rarely use them. These days I'm intimately involved with St. Louis Metro Skywarn., so I get lots of advanced warning about impending severe weather. (No, please don't call me. Call the National Weather Service instead.)

You'll find, however, that once you're in the grip of weather mania, alert radios are just the first stage. The next step is to set up your own weather station. Seriously.

Do you know about home weather stations? They can be as simple as an thermometer, or as complex as a multi-sensor array complete with hygrometer, anemometer, and rain gauge. Several companies manufacture them and they come in a wide range of models and prices. By and large they all have one feature in common.

They will drive you nuts.

I bought our first home weather station back before everything went wireless. It was a very early model Peet Bros. unit. It had a temperature sensor, a rain gauge, but best of all, a whirlygig (wind speed sensor) that made it look very impressive. It came with a lot of cable to connect the sensors to the readout box. Since the route from the roof of my house to my study was rather tortuous I had to add even more. We had that unit for a long time, but one by one all of the sensors died and replacements proved impossible to obtain, so I started looking around for a new weather station.

The next one that I bought was made by Oregon Scientific. This model was wireless, which meant that I didn't have to route cables by crawling around in spaces not meant to accommodate my physique. But being wireless also meant that a lot more could go wrong. And believe me, it did.

For one thing, all of the outdoor sensors for a weather station have to get their power from someplace. If they are wireless, then they get power from batteries or solar panels. Solar panels often fail or don't provide enough power. Batteries periodically need to be changed. So wireless sensors require a lot more attention than wired sensors (unless, of course, you have squirrels chewing on the sensor wires).

La Crosse console

The La Crosse readout box (display unit), studiously ignoring the rain gauge next to it.

La Crosse anemometer

The La Crosse whirlygig. No contact with the mother ship.

Another problem is that wireless systems invariably lose their signals. I don't know why, but they do. You can have the readout unit a mere six inches away from a sensor and it will still lose the signal. It will do so for no apparent reason other than you really wanted to know the weather conditions. (I call such events Pseudo-Random Failures. I'm sure is has something to do with chaos theory.)

But let's move on to the next part, connecting a home weather station to a PC. Now the fun really begins.

There are all sorts of reasons why you may want your weather station to talk to your computer. It may be because you are compiling a huge database of statistics to prove or disprove climate change. Or perhaps you just want to know what the weather outside is like without having to leave your PC in the middle of a rousing chat-room exchange. Whatever the reason, most weather station manufacturers assure you that you can make such a connection.

That's what they say, anyway.

Where to begin? I guess the physical connection would be a good place to start. And now we are right back to the wired versus wireless debate again. The information flow between the readout box and your PC is independent of how the sensors and readout box communicate with each other.

I've found that most home weather stations connect to your computer via a cable. Very few models do it wirelessly. This tends to be a problem if your weather station readout box and PC are nowhere near each other, such as in my case. I keep the readout box in our family room so that Nancy can figure out how she'll need to dress when she takes the dog for a walk. The computer, on the other hand, is in my radio shack down in the basement. (Yes, I have more than one PC, but the one is the shack is up 24/7. I also want the weather information on that specific computer for other reasons, but more on that later.)

The Oregon Scientific weather station that we owned did purport to be computer friendly, but it had a 9-pin serial connector, no cable, no software, and only a vague description of what the data looked like. To me that's not quite friendly. And so, even though the Oregon Scientific unit worked fine, I bought another home weather station that was significantly easier to link to my shack computer. (To be fair, the newer Oregon Scientific models have much better readout box / PC connectivity.)

The new unit, now our third, was a La Crosse model. Whatever else I may say about it, I love its wireless connection to the computer in my radio shack. That is the one feature of the La Crosse that is least likely to fail. If it does lose its link, reconnecting it is very easy.

By now you're wondering if I'm actually going to say anything that is related to Amateur Radio. Yes, I am. The reason why I so desperately needed a home weather station that could talk to a computer, and specifically the one in my radio shack, was because I wanted to include weather information in my APRS stream (Automatic Packet Reporting System). Quite a few non-mobile APRS stations do send out weather information, even if they don't use the well-known WX symbol (for example, my own station KB0H, and the local emergency operations center, W0AAF).

Gary with La Crosse hygrometer

Me trying to pry the battery cover off of the La Crosse Thermometer/Hygrometer.

Most home weather stations that can be connected to your computer have an associated software package. It may be included when you buy the station, it may be an "optional add-on", or it may even be produced by a third party. Generally speaking they all use different, sometimes proprietary formats for encoding the weather data. And that makes getting it into the APRS stream a big problem.

Argh!

Someone did, however, come up with a standard format for home weather data. He (she?) called it WXNOW. I've been unable to discover who developed it or when, but I'd like to say "Thank You!" to him/her. Virtually all APRS client software now accepts weather data that is in this format.

The trick, though, is converting the myriad of different manufacturer formats into WXNOW format. Fortunately, there is a free software package called WUHU (Weather Underground HeavyWeather Uploader) that can convert some of them. And of late, some manufacturers themselves have started providing conversion software or at least pointing you to third party products.

Now you know where I stand. I have two home weather stations, albeit only one of them has a rain gauge. The link to my shack's computer and APRS station is working fine. I'm ready for any weather-related event, right?

Think back. Pseudo-Random Failures, remember? Just after Christmas it started raining. And raining. And raining. It kept raining for several days. Streets and highways flooded. Levees broke. People were evacuated from their homes.

And both of my weather stations failed. Neither would report anything at all except the temperature inside the house.

I had to wait until the deluge ended before I could get outside to check the sensors for problems. Finding no obvious damage, I changed all of the batteries (they couldn't all fail at the same time, could they?), but that didn't help. I then went through the reset procedure on the La Crosse unit, a task I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. It was pretty much as complicated as starting up a nuclear power plant and far less satisfying (it didn't work). The Oregon Scientific unit was just as unresponsive.

Both units stubbornly refuse to tell me anything other than it's nice inside.

Sigh...

I guess they must be just fair-weather friends.


© 2017 Gary Ross Hoffman
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