I get just the right amount of reader email and public replies to my articles here at Off Grid Ham: Not so much that I can’t personally respond to everyone, but enough to get a good feel for what’s important to the off grid amateur radio community. Surprisingly, the number one topic that hits my inbox is not solar panels or generators or anything like that; it’s whether to go with a high power rig (QRO) or a low power (QRP) station. The QRP vs. QRO dilemma seems to be a top concern for off grid hams. Let’s objectively try to sort this one out.
Spoiler Alert: There is no “correct” answer.
The questions about this topic comes from two main cohorts: Recently licensed amateurs who want to jump right into QRP without fully understanding what it is, and long time hams who are experienced in radio but are new to off grid power and hope to carryover their old habits. Both groups face the same learning curve.
Each group also has some awareness of the pros and cons of QRP vs. QRO as it relates to off grid energy, yet it’s almost as if they write to me hoping I have some magic all-inclusive solution for the shortcomings of their chosen path. In other cases, they seem to be seeking validation for a foregone decision. Only a tiny minority go negative and trash talk anyone who isn’t doing it their way.
For you newcomers, the QRP vs. QRO discourse has been around almost as long as the amateur radio hobby itself, and a cursory look around internet forums will show a very lengthy history of arguments that are often more animated than they need to be. For you old timers, in the context of off grid power the debate is much more pronounced because for off gridders, QRP vs. QRO is not conceptual or philosophical. There are are real world technical considerations that conventionally powered hams do not have to think about. In the past I have gone to great lengths to impress upon my readers that everything in off grid amateur radio comes with benefits and compromises, and QRP vs. QRO is no different. There is no catch all magic solution.
I am a big advocate of QRP and have promoted it in this blog before, yet it’s not lost on me that my preferences are not a universal good fit for everyone. That’s why we’re having this QRP vs QRO discussion in the first place.
Radio amateurs of all experience levels need to understand that successful off grid QRP operation is more than just turning the power down and continuing on as you did before. Likewise, running QRO in an off grid setting presents a lot of challenges that will make one wonder if the extra watts are worth all the hassle…and there will be a lot of hassle.
A rich man’s game.
Hams with the financial means to own separate, dedicated low and high power radio stations and the accompanying off grid power sources really can have it both ways. QRP vs. QRO isn’t much of a debate for them. But the average ham does not have a large menu of equipment to choose from. Decisions need to be made, and as someone who works a real job just like 95% of my readers, I totally get it why the QRP vs. QRO question is a recurring theme in my email. If we were all rich, we would not be talking about this.
One easy workaround is to get a full powered radio and simply turn the transmit output down. This option is popular with hams who occasionally like to experiment with QRP but are not into it enough to justify dedicated equipment, or those who operate from their home stations with commercial power but want the option of going off grid with minimum power generating resources.
Fixed vs. portable operation.
Whether or not you want to operate from a permanent location such as your house, or a temporary/portable site such as a hiking trail or campground, will have a huge influence on your QRP vs. QRO decision. This factor is probably more meaningful than how much money you have to spend.
To further complicate the question, portable means different things to different people. The amateur who wants to operate from an RV or radio club communications trailer faces a much different set of issues than the amateur who wants a radio setup that will fit in a backpack.
So the first question any radio amateur should ask themselves is, “Do I want to be off grid as a fixed or portable station, and if I’m portable, what exactly does that mean to me?”
A special message to new hams.
A lot of new hams will tell me about their plans to jump right into the low power pool. I believe this idea comes from the perception that QRP equipment is less expensive and easier to use (neither assumption is necessarily true).
I don’t want to discourage QRP because it’s a great way to operate. But here’s the deal: QRP requires some skill and finesse that only comes with practice and experience. My concern is that a new ham will go straight into low power, be unsuccessful due to a lack of practical knowledge, and then may bail out of ham radio altogether without ever honestly trying a higher transmit power where they would likely get much more encouraging results.
I suggest that new hams run full power to facilitate building operating experience with a lot of easy contacts. The QRP vs. QRO matter can be addressed after you’ve gotten your groove and had some on-air success.
If you are leaning towards QRO…read this.
Running high transmit watts with off grid power is certainly possible as long as it’s accepted that it will require a lot of solar panels, a lot of batteries, a lot of money. And it will not be backpack-portable.
One of the benefits that helps offset the expense and trouble of large off grid power systems is that they can also be used for other things not directly related to radio. It does not make sense to have high generating capacity for the sole purpose of running radio equipment that will be on the air for perhaps at most a few hours a day. If you make accommodations to connect your off grid system to non-radio loads, then the expense and trouble might just be worth it.
It’s a bright morning here in the upper Midwest USA as I write this article on a laptop powered by the sun. I have a few lights, a refrigerator, and The Howard Stern Show on a SiriusXM internet stream, all of it off grid. Meanwhile, my batteries alone are pulling about 200 watts from the solar. It was cloudy almost all day yesterday and they’re playing catch up. If I wanted, I could turn my radio on and go full power.
My point is that if all I used my off grid power for was running radios, it would be leaving a lot of potential energy on the table. Considering what I spent on all my off grid stuff, it would also be a huge waste of money. Remember, I’m all about bang for the buck. Off grid QRO is worthwhile if you think beyond just radio. If you decide to go make the investment required for off grid QRO, make sure your system has something to do when it’s not powering radios.
What you need to know.
I’m sorry to disappoint any off grid hams who thought there was an easy answer to the QRP vs. QRO question. This blog can clarify technical topics and even help wade through some of the non-technical conceptual ideas, but ultimately this is something everyone has to sort out for themselves because the answer depends on each personal situation.
Some firm principles do apply to everyone. For example: Is ultra-portability a top priority? Then you’re probably going to be stuck with QRP. Is a big signal and working lots of rare DX a big deal to you? Then you’ll probably be stuck with QRO and the tradeoffs that come with it. The laws of physics are not negotiable.
The best way to settle the off grid QRP vs. QRO question is not to jump too fast. Take time and inventory your personal likes and dislikes, ham radio goals, available funds, and technical skills. At some point you will arrive at a plan that feels right. It will not be 100% of you wanted, but nothing in off grid amateur radio ever is. Give your instincts a chance to speak, and then trust what they say. You’ll be very happy with the end result…I promise.