The Amateur Amateur: Unpreparedness
By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
lost our electricity on perfectly clear days. Perhaps deep beneath
our well-manicured yards there is an ancient burial ground that has a
curse on it.
April 26, 2006
It was a relaxing
Sunday afternoon until the tornado sirens sounded. They caught me by
surprise, as I had not known that severe weather had even been
forecast. I grabbed my handheld radio and ran outside.
Yep. Storm clouds
were coming toward us from the southwest. I figured they'd arrive in
five to ten minutes.
My wife Nancy
stuck her head out the door and said, "The power is out."
I said, stupefied. "The storm isn't even here
I shouldn't have
been surprised. We live in Florissant, Missouri, a mostly residential
city of 50,000 inhabitants. Our immediate neighborhood of 350 homes
is always the first to lose power and always the last to regain it.
It often takes only a hint
of severe weather to knock out our
power. We've even lost our electricity on perfectly clear days.
My preparedness bags. Is there anything interesting in here?
electric company hates us. Perhaps deep beneath our well-manicured
yards there is an ancient burial ground that has a curse on it. Or
perhaps it's just a repeated application of Murphy's Law. I just
don't know. All I can say is that it's very irritating to look out
the window and see that the electricity is working just a block away
while we are stumbling around in the dark and worrying about the food
in our refrigerator spoiling.
The storm arrived
in due course, and I retreated indoors. The wind blew and the rain
fell, but nothing terrible happened. The worst of it was over in
about fifteen minutes.
As long as the
power was out, though, I decided to pass the time by going through my
emergency kits. Hmmm, this doesn't work. Neither does this. Gosh,
work? I soon found that I wasn't nearly as ready
as I thought I was.
I never figured
that lighting would be a problem. We have flashlights everywhere. We
have every shape, size, and configuration imaginable. And yes, we
have batteries for all of them.
After a few hours
without electricity, though, I began to see the drawbacks of
flashlights. They're great for lighting your way while you're walking
around, but not too great if you want to read a book, fix a snack, or
do anything at all that requires two hands. And let's not even talk
about the need for adequate lighting in the bathroom.
Candles are okay
but don't give off very much light unless you have a couple hundred
of them. Then there's the fire hazard.
The bigger batteries: A 7-Ah "portable power station" and a 55 Ah
I do have a
sizeable collection of kerosene lanterns, but unless the need for
illumination is dire, I prefer not to use them indoors. They make the
house smell like a turn-of-the-century locomotive barn, and I don't
even want to think about the soot deposits they leave on the
So it appeared
that lighting was more of a problem than I had anticipated.
things I dug out of my bag were a couple of radios with internal
dynamos. You've probably seen these advertised. You simply wind them
up to charge them and they play without the need for batteries or a
wall socket. You can, however, run them on batteries if you wish.
Well, both of the
wind-up radios worked, but I found that they took a great deal of
cranking just to operate for a few minutes. Both seemed to run down
awfully fast. The instructions for one of them said that I should
turn the handle at a certain minimum number of revolutions per minute
to properly charge it. Try as I might, though, I could never quite
crank it that fast. And when I got even close to that speed, I was
afraid that I was about to break off the crank handle.
I eventually gave
up and inserted batteries in both radios. That's when I discovered
that the internal mechanism of one of them did not work properly and
it would not operate under battery power. Hmph
! Yet another
non-functional piece of emergency equipment.
kit was beginning to look more like an un
thing I decided to try was my bigger batteries. I have a portable
that is essentially a 7-Ah battery with some bells
and whistles attached. It seemed to work okay, but what I was most
interested in was my 55 Ah battery. I had purchased a couple of power
inverters, devices that take 12 vdc input and convert it to 120 vac
output. I was eager to see if my big battery could power anything of
The inverter. Could it--along with the biggest battery--run our
refrigerator? The jury is still out.
For some reason I
had the impression that the big battery and the largest inverter
would be able to keep our refrigerator going. I didn't actually know
the power requirements of the refrigerator, and it would have been
difficult to find out in the dark, so I just plugged it in and gave
it a try.
Nope. No such
As it turned out,
the big battery wasn't fully charged. I didn't figure that out until
I tried to use my Amateur Radio transceiver. The battery usually
powers the radio just fine, but that particular evening it could
receive but not transmit.
turning out to be a pretty poor performance for someone who was
supposed to know something about emergency preparedness. What else
did I have in my kit?
Rain gear? That
wasn't particularly useful as we still had a roof over our heads. A
compass? No, the house wasn't moving. Tools? It was probably a bad
idea to play with them in the dark. MREs (Meals Ready to Eat)? Burger
King was just up the road, and it
still had electricity.
I was pretty
bored by this time. Idly, I wondered if I could figure out a way to
get onto the Internet. I had a laptop computer. I might be able to go
online if I could find enough power to run my DSL modem.
struck me. Rather than connect to the Internet, I set up my laptop on
a TV dinner tray and placed it so the screen could be seen from our
sofa. I configured it so that it was powered by my 7-Ah battery. I
connected an external speaker so we could hear it reasonably well. I
then stuck in a DVD. I grabbed a bag of popcorn and Nancy and I sat
down to watch a movie. Incredibly, that
Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant,
Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's name
-- "The Amateur Amateur" -- suggests the explorations of a
rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His
wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related
Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail,
© 2006 American Radio Relay League