I recently received an interesting email from a gentleman that asked a question that I receive on a regular basis. How do I stay in touch with my family if we need to use radios for communication? Below is this gentleman's question, please read it, and we will address the issues he brought up. We'll try to get rid of the myths, and focus on the truth about radio communication.
I hope all is well with you and the misses, I haven't e-mailed you in a while but once again I need some advice.
I need a good reliable in a grid down situation radio to communicate with 2 of my kids until they can be picked up or make their way to our safe location. The farthest one is 50 miles away, what would you suggest as the best way to communicate with them??? UHF, VHF, SW, CB Modified with "Dark Channels" ???
Thanks again and God Bless You All
Like I said earlier, these questions comes up on a regular basis. But in this particular scenario, it is a grid down situation. Grid down is a cute term that is thrown around loosely, but when you get down to it, grid down means no electricity, the power grid is not working. Therefore, cell phones and cell phone towers are not going to be operable. Even if there was a situation where a cell phone tower had power, it would be jammed to the point to where there were no transmissions. This also applies to land line telephones. When the power goes down, both of these forms of communication will only work in extremely isolated cases, if they work at all. There are multiple reasons for this scenario to happen, but the focus of this article is going to be that the power is off, what caused it is not on the agenda.
Let's eliminate some radios and some systems. Some folks have this illusion that any ham radio will broadcast and receive all around the world. That is just not the case. You have two basic types of ham radio. You have the type that bounces the signal off of the atmosphere, and it comes down
some place a long ways away. This is not what we're looking at here. In this case the parameter is 50 miles. But this type of ham radio is normally referred to as HF, high frequency, and it requires an amateur General license to operate on these frequencies. If the power is down, most of these radios aren't going to work either, except for the few ham operators that have back up power. There is an exception to this rule. On the 40 and 80 meter frequencies, there is an antenna system called NVIS, near vertical incidence skywave. This basically sends the radio signal almost straight up, bouncing off the atmosphere and coming down to earth, within about a 200 mile radius, give or take. This will work, but you have to have a source of power, an amateur General license, a special type of antenna, and this applies for both the sending and receiving stations. This will not work, assuming his children are going to be mobile. Let me preface something here, there are exceptions to every rule. Remember that.
Now, things that will not work. If you have your ham radio license at the Technician level, which is the entry level license for ham radio, then you can use VHF & UHF radios. They come in handheld, mobile and base. The handhelds have their own power supply via battery. Most of the mobiles are in vehicles, so you have a power supply. And most base units are just mobile units with a home power supply. These type radios have a much shorter antenna, 18 inches to 16 feet. Some of the handhelds might be 2 inches. Follow me. These type radios will not bounce off the atmosphere, they are strictly line of sight communications. Now in the ham community, they use a gizmo called a repeater. A repeater is normally on a high spot, on top of a hill, on top of a tall building. If you are in line of sight with your radio, you can talk to the repeater and it will rebroadcast your transmission to anyone that is in line of sight. Sometimes you can cover a fairly large area with this. Remember this is a grid down situation. Is that repeater going to have power? Some might have a propane generator that starts automatically when the power goes off, most won't. So, if you have your Technician ham license, then you can use a repeater, if it's working, and you are within line of sight. I wouldn't bank on that being the case, though.
Will these VHF/UHF radios transmit 50 miles without a repeater? Sure they will. But, remember, they're line of sight. If you live on top of a hill, wonderful. If you have a base station with a 40 foot tower and your VHF/UHF antenna is on top of it, then you might have a chance. It just depends on where the transmitting and receiving radios are located. Remember, line of sight. Example. I have a buddy that lives about 40 miles from me. We are both ham radio operators. He can sit on his deck with his handheld radio and he and I can talk line of sight. But, I have a 40 foot tower and he lives on the side of a good sized hill facing towards me. It will work. But, when my buddy drives down his hill, we lose the ability to communicate.
Another example. I have another ham friend that lives down the road 5 miles. I still have my 40 foot tower, and he and I have difficulty communicating unless he is standing in the right place in his house. There is no perfect way to communicate.
Non-ham radio frequencies. GMRS, FRS, MURS. These are all legal frequencies for non-hams to broadcast on. Remember, this is a grid down situation. This would easily fall under the category of an emergency, and according to the FCC, any person can use any radio in an emergency, when no other means of communication is available. You need to remember that. If you drive up on an automobile accident involving a police car, can you use that police radio to call in for emergency help? Absolutely. It's just a microphone and a radio. Just push the button, talk and use common language. Don't be afraid.
Okay. Grid down. MURS frequencies are in the same ballpark range as ham radio VHF frequencies. Let me introduce the commercial radio here. Ham radios are only designed to operate on ham radio frequencies. Commercial radios are designed to operate on anything from police departments, fire departments, search and rescue, commercial businesses like Wal-Mart and Sam's Club with proper licensing, and they can also be used on the ham frequencies, legally, if you have a ham license. These radios will also broadcast on the GMRS, FRS frequencies, which are UHF. They will also work fine on MURS which is VHF. All of these radios are line of sight
communications. The rules of physics mentioned earlier in ham radio about line of sight apply to these also. Most GMRS radios are handheld, and you can buy them at any sporting goods store, Wal-Mart and a gazillion other places online. They make fantastic claims about distance. This is under perfect conditions, from hilltop to hilltop. They are all the same radios, with the same frequencies, and for the most part, the same power output. They do have some different features, but overall, outside of the features, they have the same operating conditions. These are excellent radios, but they have limitations, as do all radios. Kind of like people, we all have limitations.
The commercial radio mentioned above will cost you about $40.00 and up. $40.00 radios work just fine. I'm going to provide you a link that explains these $40.00 radios in detail. These are fine little radios. They will broadcast on ham frequencies legally, and they will broadcast on police and fire frequencies. If you really want to prove to your buddies how low your IQ is, then broadcast on these police and fire frequencies. Drunk and stupid is not cute. Don't broadcast on police and fire frequencies. As mentioned above, these radios can also be used to broadcast on MURS and GMRS frequencies. These come in handheld, but you can also pay more and get a commercial mobile radio. This gives you more power and the ability to hook to an external antenna, either on your vehicle or a 40 foot tower at your house. If your receiving station has a handheld and they are within line of sight of wherever you are, then you will have communications. Remember the examples above. If you're on the side of a hill, great. If you live in a highrise apartment, heaven forbid, and your apartment is facing the direction you want to transmit, then stand near a window with your antenna facing the window. What that means is, don't have your handheld and be talking on it, with your head between the antenna and the window. Hold your radio straight up and down, the higher the better.
In some of my previous articles I have discussed how to set up home base stations, and mobile stations, antennas, power supplies, and general radio information. To answer the question. Can I talk to my kids 50 miles away? Yes, you can. But your conditions have to be favorable, and your equipment needs to be appropriate. Line of sight. A mobile station in a vehicle with an external antenna works much better than a handheld. A home base station with a 40 foot tower works much better than a mobile. But it's got to be line of sight. I know from experience that you can transmit and receive 40 miles on the MURS frequencies using two handheld radios, one on the side of a hill and the other connected to an antenna 40 feet in the air. I hope this answers your question.
The question about CB radios. A CB radio under perfect conditions can do 50 miles. It is a line of sight communication device, but the chances of this are happening are slim. CB is an 11 meter radio. It is between the 10 and 12 meter ham frequencies. Under proper atmospheric conditions it will operate just like any ham radio. The right radio, and the right antenna, and you can talk to countries around the world, because it bounces off of the atmosphere. With the right antenna, you can talk to your buddy down the road. But the chances of communicating 50 miles consistently are slim to none. In this case, forget about CB. I have a CB radio and I talk and listen to places all around the United States. But I seldom talk to anybody in my immediate area. I like CB, it has a place in the radio communication world. For this purpose, scratch CB from your list. Those dark channels you made reference to, those are called free banding. They're on the outside of the upper and lower ends of the CB frequencies. You'll need a modified CB radio, or a 10 meter export radio. You can also find that topic discussed in some previous articles.
Most of the things we've discussed here today, are illegal to use except in an emergency situation. Do people use these type radios and frequencies everyday illegally? Yes, they do. If you choose to do this, it is your choice. But, in an emergency situation, it is not illegal.
I have provided several links throughout this article that includes some handy information. Whatever you decide to do, you need to practice to make sure your set up meets your needs. Most people don't care what you do on a radio, as long as you don't interfere with anybody else. Don't get a commercial radio and play on the police and fire channels. Don't put an antenna inside your house and broadcast power. Think about it. Many handheld radios transmit on five watts. This is not going to fry your brain. My VHF/UHF radios operate on 5, 20, and 50 watts. I would never operate 50 watts with an antenna inside my house. But I will 5 watts. Police cars and ham radio operators, have antennas on top of their cars, and they can operate with 50 watts. But don't stand outside your car with your microphone in your hand, and operate on 50 watts with your head two feet from your antenna. That pain you feel in your head, will be your brain frying. Maybe a slight exaggeration there, but don't do it. Always be safe, and if you don't know what you're doing, don't do it.
To the man that sent the email up above with the great questions, I hope this was helpful.
We'll talk more later. 73s, Frank