The Amateur Amateur: Unpreparedness

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
April 26, 2006

We've even 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.

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."

"What!?" I said, stupefied. "The storm isn't even here yet!"

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.

Preparedness bags

My preparedness bags. Is there anything interesting in here?

Perhaps the 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, does anything 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.

Batteries

The bigger batteries: A 7-Ah "portable power station" and a 55 Ah bad-boy.

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 ceilings.

So it appeared that lighting was more of a problem than I had anticipated.

The Unpreparedness Kit?

The next 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.

My preparedness kit was beginning to look more like an unpreparedness kit.

Is Bigger Necessarily Better?

The next thing I decided to try was my bigger batteries. I have a portable power station 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 significance.

Inverter

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 luck.

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.

Plan B Prevails

This was 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.

Another thought 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 worked!

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 Web page. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail, [email protected].

© 2006 American Radio Relay League


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