A Micro Solar Power System With Maximum Utility, by B.C.

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Necessity being the mother of invention, I recently stumbled backwards onto an inexpensive and truly totable way to power two-way radios, shortwave, and other receivers; charge smart phones and iPads; provide lighting; quickly purify water on the go; keep night vision functional; enable electronic security systems; and pump rainwater to a gravity tank, while protecting all these functions from EMP in the interim.

I will quietly be turning 50 next month. I joined the survivalist movement in the early 1980’s, at the tail end of that upswing of interest in such things. Vietnam was still fresh in our minds, and the cold war in full gear. There were movies, magazines, and books but not the saturation made possible by the Internet today. I still have issues of Mother Earth News that I saved from the seventies and a survival book copyrighted in 1978. Having endured the Blizzard of ’78 in Ohio as a child, Hurricane Hugo in college, and been hit by the Blizzard of ’96 in Atlanta, the day after arriving for graduate school I had long recognized the necessity of radios for listening to broadcasts and so I accumulated many different ones powered many different ways. I even had a pocket shortwave receiver and hand-held scanner. Despite reading several good articles on your site over the years about the benefits of Ham radio, however, I did not recognize my need for transmitting beyond my FRS (Family Radio Service) bubble pack radios, until I began to build an off-grid cabin in the mountains of Appalachia, where I can only get a cell signal by hiking to the top of the mountain. In pursuit of OPSEC, I decided to forgo a mailbox and driveway dragging in building materials from the gravel dead-end public road across a utility easement and single-handedly building my tiny house on the rear of my property, which I was comfortable doing until I got to the steep pitched roof that allotted for my sleeping loft.

I was standing there one autumn day on the loft I had built first so I could stand on it while constructing the roof rafters before just tilting them into place. I was looking down through the hardwood forest at the rooftops of a few homes I could see in the valley when it occurred to me that if I fell off this roof no one would hear me scream; I could not call 911, because there is no cell service, and it is a quarter-mile crawl to the Jeep after which I have to navigate a locked gate. I went home that day and immediately ordered a Chinese starter radio and spent ten days on HamExam.org learning what I needed to know to pass the technician and general class tests in one sitting. I had used commercial radios as a firefighter and while running a high adventure outpost for the BSA, plus I had previous hobby electrical experience. So, when it was time to start sheathing the roof, I was carrying a radio programmed to contact the local fire department on their own repeater should for some reason my fall protection fail or I was unable to extract myself hanging from it after an accident. It even has a siren function so they could zero in on me.

Now to a man with a hammer everything is a nail, so I immediately started looking for other uses for my new hobby. For over forty years men and their sons from my hometown have been camping in the midst of the wilderness area of our national forest. Many of those who started this tradition are getting old and without the addition of a mule train that operates in the backcountry could no longer attend. A few have already died back in our hometown. When they do, we bring in climbing spikes and place a hand-carved plaque high in a tree over our campfire area where the rangers will not bother it. In the event of a medical emergency, it is a six-mile hike uphill to the parking lot, then another ten mile drive to hit a cell tower, but with my handheld Ham radio and N9TAX roll up antenna I can contact emergency services using the frequencies and PL tones provided to me by the emergency management director for that county saving valuable time and possibly a life, should one of of our company have a medical emergency.

When not being used for those purposes, my Ham radio resides in a waterproof bag inside a metal container within my auto emergency kit along with a 12-volt adapter in case of a breakdown in one of the many parts of my state without cell service, but how would I power it if I had to be away from the vehicle for a period of time exceeding its rechargeable battery pack? AA and AAA battery boxes are readily available for Ham radios and rechargeable batteries are better than ever, but I needed a lightweight and reliable method of charging them. After briefly considering hand crank generators I focused my search on solar chargers and discovered those designed to charge smart phones are lightweight, plentiful, and varied. After days reading reviews, I opted to match a folding 21 watt Anker Powerport dual port USB charger with a couple of SunJack 4 AA/AAA USB chargers for a total weight of about 18 ounces. Including a dozen AAA NiMH rechargeable batteries the total cost was under $100. This configuration will charge eight batteries in about five hours of sunlight, leaving enough time to recharge my iPhone and ipad simultaneously on one of our many sunny days. It is powerful enough to still work even under full cloud cover, as long as they are white and fluffy cumulus clouds rather than dark storm clouds. After forgetting my cigarette lighter adapter, it recently charged my iPhone on the dash of my Jeep while driving down the interstate on a cloudy day. Not only do the AAA rechargeable batteries I selected fit into my Ham radio battery pack, but they will also power LED flashlights, FRS radios, portable security alarms, a cell/smart phone backup charger, and with lightweight plastic adapter shells, my AA devices like shortwave radio, night vision monocular, a Steripen Classic water purifier, and so much more. For electronics that require higher voltages, I purchased several 4 x AAA battery boxes, which by wiring in series and/or using a dummy battery (I use a 1/4” hex bolt) can produce between 1.2 volts and 24 volts DC. They can also be wired in parallel for the higher wattages necessary to power appliances like my mobile CB radio or Zodi battery-operated water pump. Are you thinking all these electronics would take up an entire bug out bag? I agree. However, also understand that from the Great San Francisco Earthquake to recent refugees traveling from Syria to Germany (like this guy), in most cases the majority of the trip is not on foot for those with the means to hire alternatives. While the media focuses on the wretched refuse waiting at border crossings, there is a cottage industry providing chartered planes to refugees who can afford to flee in style and land in their country of choice. For this reason and the fact I’m in a rural area not at risk of hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, riots, and without nuclear reactors, I have a separate pack for my portable electronics. I fill up quart Ziploc freezer bags with one or more electronic devices, which I wrap in aluminum foil, write a description of the contents, and place the bag in the daypack. I place that in a larger bag with a metal layer and store it in a cardboard lined 55-gallon steel drum with clamp-on lid atop larger devices containing electronic parts that are also electrically isolated. That sits in a metal shed behind my house with a metal subfloor. Depending on one’s opinion on EMP, that may be too little or too much, but I mostly used what I had so it cost very little and adds only a minute to my response time after I’ve left the house. The $15 steel drum was originally purchased for my spare wood stove kit, and it can still be used when necessary.

While all the electronics I store in the EMP bag will not fit into a single reasonable bug out bag, many of them will. In the rare event we need to walk out of here, they will be distributed between other members of my household. They are much smaller today than the Vietnam era walkie-talkie G.I. Joe held in his kung fu grip when I was a child in the 70’s. Some space and weight is offset by substitution. My iPad mini, for example, weighs only 11 ounces, and its YouVersion app lets me download translations so I don’t need Internet access. This frees up over a pound, when compared to the Bible I used to carry in my backpack, leaving plenty of room for electronic books, manuals, schematics, and family photos that I would not be able to carry at all. Electricity has always been a labor saver– a force multiplier. Whether it’s radio communications replacing message runners, portable alarms reducing the number of sentries, faster water purification when on the move, or portable plans and schematics to start rebuilding infrastructure, electricity and electronic appliances are worth preserving as long as possible.

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