The Amateur Amateur: Weather or Not
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
The Oregon Scientific readout box (display unit).
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
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
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).
The La Crosse readout box (display unit), studiously ignoring the rain
gauge next to it.
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
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
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
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
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.
I guess they must be just fair-weather friends.