Avoid These Five Common Off Grid Mistakes!

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I don’t know how I compare to others, but my three-plus decade amateur radio career is littered with failed projects and off grid mistakes. Much of it can be explained away as valuable learning experiences, but as I look back, there were a lot of times when I could have and should have been more circumspect. Doing so would have avoided a lot of time, money, and hassles.

With that in mind, I compiled a list of common off-grid goofs. I’ve been guilty of all of them in some form, and I see them come up over and over with other hams. Learning from your own mistakes is always a good thing. Learning from someone else’s is even better!

1: Underestimating off grid capacity. Off Grid Mistakes

If you get a 100 watt solar panel thinking “hey, I have a 100 watt radio, so it should all work out,” you are dong it all wrong. Regular OGH readers know it’s a lot more complicated than that. Where can things go sideways? Well, for starters the sun cannot be depended on all the time. Then there are inherent inefficiencies in every power system. Your radio may transmit 100 watts, but it consumes a lot more than that. You can actually get away with a small solar panel on a 100 watt radio, if you pay attention to duty cycle. Always allow for losses or risk being underpowered when you really need it. Off Grid Mistakes

Also, understand that you’ll never get full rated power out of any off grid system. I have a 650 watt solar power plant with monitoring software that records all kinds of detailed data about my system performance. I’ve never pulled 650 watts out of it, nor do I ever expect to. The best I do is around 540 watts during a “power window” that only lasts about two hours on sunny summer days.

2: Overestimating off grid capacity.

We’ve all seen “that guy”. You know him…the operator who buys a 5000 watt generator to run a simple 100 watt HF setup and charge a few handheld batteries. The generator barely even knows its doing anything. This mistake is equally bad as under powering your station. In addition to the expense, you’re dealing with power-generating equipment that is a lot bigger and heavier than it needs to be. Having power generation capacity way beyond realistic operating needs is unnecessary and unproductive. off grid mistakes

3: Overbuilding a system, or needlessly complex systems.

This is probably the #1 most popular mistake. The hardware that makes up your off grid power system should be proportionate to the expected task. It should also have a clear and practical purpose. You don’t need 10 gauge wire and a 300 amp DC switch on a seven amp-hour battery! Yes, I’ve seen this! I’ve also seen elaborate LED light setups integrated into go boxes as well as unwarranted cooling fans, switches, buttons, fuses, and meters.


Public domain graphic.

Admittedly, all this radio minutiae looks cool and is fun to show off. Yet in the end, that’s all it’s good for, and it adds many points of failure to deal with when the system malfunctions.

I recently saw a social media post by a new ham who was showing off his go box. It was beautiful! All bands, all modes including data, a huge lithium battery, and plenty of bling. He easily spent over $4000 on it. off grid mistakes

Here’s where he fell down: He mentioned that nearly all his ham activities involved community service work on 2-meters, such as supporting local parades, festivals, EMCOMM, etc. In other words, he will rarely if ever use 90% of the capability he has in that box. He spent thousands of dollars on a go box when all he really needed was a basic 2-meter radio. He could have made a very nice off grid VHF station for a few hundred dollars.

I guess if your goal is to have an off grid setup that looks slick and gets a lot of attention (and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that), then go for it. Spend the big bucks on your showboat station. But if you want something practical & functional, put some thought into what you’re trying to achieve. You can get by with a lot less than you think.

If you’re not already aware of the OH8STN YouTube Channel and blog,  I highly, highly recommend it. Julian walks the talk and knows how get things done with a minimum of fluffy extras.

4: Only buying cheap equipment. off grid mistakes

This is the opposite of the previous point. I get it. I work hard for my money too. Keeping an eye on the bottom line is never a bad idea, but it’s a bad idea to think the bottom line is the only thing that matters. You’re really hurting yourself if your top goal is to meet a price point. People who do this almost always settle for less than what they really need, both from a product features/performance standpoint as well as build quality.

It’s important to consider how your off grid gear will be used. For example, if all you want is a solar panel to use once a year on Field Day, or for a kids science project, then going for the low end stuff is not such a bad idea. If you are a serious off grid radio operator or a survivalist/prepper, then it makes sense to get quality, name-brand equipment. The “sweet spot” will not be the same for everyone, but there aren’t too many situations when going for the cheapest stuff you can find pays off.

The same principle applies to radio equipment. Sure, that $30 VHF/UHF handheld radio is super-affordable. What happens in a few months when you grow tired of it, or it turns out to be less than you had hoped? You’ll be back on line shopping for the better radio that you should have bought in the first place.

In another internet post, a ham complained that his off grid power plant never seemed to work right. The photos told the whole story. He had everything connected with alligator clips and recycled stereo speaker wire. The solar controller was some pile of crap he got for $12.00 on Amazon. The solar panel was of unknown origin, purchased used at a swap meet. The battery was also used, from a junkyard. He bragged that the whole deal cost less than $100. It was $100 worth of nothing. Draw your own conclusions about what he’s doing wrong.

5: Not enough training.

We’ve addressed this topic on Off Grid Ham numerous times. It happens mostly with survivalists/preppers, but anyone can fall into the trap. If you buy a bunch of off grid radio gear, stick it on a shelf “in case of an emergency” and otherwise never touch it, then you’re more or less wasting your money. Communications is a skill. Skills need to be constantly practiced and updated. Taking your gear out and using it exposes weak spots and gives you a chance to fix deficiencies under controlled conditions. When it really matters, there may not be enough time or resources to fix anything. off grid mistakes

What we learned today.

I could go for hundreds of pages describing the ham radio mistakes I’ve made. No matter how long you do this, you’ll never reach a point where you know everything. If you see yourself in the previous points, don’t beat yourself up over it. Screwing up is an expected part of the process. Make a commitment to evolve, change, learn, and help others. The rest will sort itself out.

13 thoughts on “Avoid These Five Common Off Grid Mistakes!

  1. Bruce

    Really great advice. I’m old enough to have made most of those mistakes, and mostly learned from them, so I strive to avoid making them again but it’s a process. Example: I’ve had very good success using inexpensive DC-DC voltage converters from Amazon as solar charge controllers. They aren’t charge controllers because they only have one of the features of a solar charge controller – voltage regulation. However, I’m able to limit the charge current by specifying a solar panel that’s unable to charge the battery at an excessive rate. Unless you need optimal performance at the equator and the north pole, an inherently safe charging solar panel is usually a good size solar panel to use. Additional (emergency) over voltage protection is provided by the battery management system, which also includes under voltage cutoff and cell balancing. The BMS is part of any lithium battery system you build, but for the sake of simplicity and rugged reliability, I’ve been purchasing LiFePO4 batteries that are intended as replacements for sealed lead acid batteries with the BMS internal to the battery. In normal operation, the BMS over voltage and under voltage protection should never be engaged. The DC-DC converter is set to slightly below the voltage where the BMS will disconnect to avoid an over voltage, and the radio is set to disconnect slightly above the voltage where the BMS will disconnect to prevent an under voltage. My only other concern with using an inexpensive imported DC-DC voltage regulator as a charge controller was RF noise that a more expensive solar charge controller wouldn’t have, but so far, I haven’t noticed any EMI. Admittedly, my largest system so far has been a 30W solar panel trickle charging a 100 W Hr LiFePO4 battery, and I haven’t done a “DC to light” spectrum analysis, but so far, so good. YMMV.

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Traditional charge controller are basically glorified DC-DC converters, so your idea makes sense. The battery management systems (BMS) built into most lithium packs makes DC converters more useful as “controllers” because the battery does a lot of the work an actual controller would. I’m not sure using a DC-DC converter really saves any money or time, but it does provide a very useful learning experience. This is the kind of experimentation I wish more hams would pursue, as opposed to defaulting to off the shelf plug-and-play products.

  2. Don

    Number: 1. Guilty 2. Not guilty 3. Guilty 4. Not guilty 5. It seems that I always feel that I don’t know enough about what I am working on and spend a lot of time with my head in a book,or in front of the monitor. So maybe guilty maybe not.
    Thanks, Chris, for all the information you give us.

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Hi Don, Thanks for being an Off Grid Ham reader! I’ve been guilty of all of them at one time or another. No one should ever guilt-trip themselves over not knowing “everything”. Ham radio is so wide and deep that it just isn’t a realistic expectation. As long as one has the right attitude and keeps seeking to do better, then they can consider themselves a success.

  3. Randy Hewitt VE3HWT

    Hi Chris;
    I’m a new ham and have been reading your off grid ham and enjoy the topics you post lots of good info.
    On this one I agree with what you are saying, to go low end or high end I when with middle of the road or a little more purchased Yaesu ft70dr & an HF ftdx3ooo, the plan is to grow into the gear as I learn the hobby.
    I’m retired now and have the time to learn this new hobby from people like yourself and the hams I have meet so far, it’s fun to learn new stuff and keep my brain working.

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Hi Randy, I’m glad you are benefitting from Off Grid Ham. I try to keep my articles relatable to the newcomers while also offering something for the old timers. Ive been a ham for close to 40 years. I guess that makes me an old timer, but I don’t feel like one because there is always something new. I think you picked out some great radios. They will serve you well for a long time, and you won’t likely outgrow them.

      Thanks again for stopping by.

  4. Randall Krippner

    Ha!! I’m guilty of almost all of those mistakes myself. Especially the “use it or lose it” lack of training mistake. I haven’t fiddled with our VHF/UHF gear in ages because my wife is the only one who uses it, so when my she wanted help to reprogram our Yaesu handhelds, her car transceiver and the one in the house because her ARES group wanted some changes to the simplex frequencies and repeaters they regularly use, I found that both of us had pretty much completely forgotten how to change the programming and there was a great deal of head scratching, muttering of curses and searching through manuals before we got everything done. And now that the weather is getting better (finally!) and I find myself thinking about wandering around with my QRP gear that’s sat on the shelf all winter I’ve forgotten most of what I knew about operating my 818.

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      For portable use, I carry user manuals for my radios, or at least a cheat sheet. I do have a good general knowledge of my rigs, but with the deep and wide menus on modern radios, it’s beyond me to know every little function. Some operators cannot program their radios even with a manual. They’ve become so dependent on software that without it they’re helpless.

      1. Randall Krippner

        I have cheat sheets and manuals in the car for the handhelds and the car’s transceiver otherwise we’d probably be lost. When I was with ARES I got so frustrated I bought them a laptop, cables and RT Systems programming software for almost all of the transceivers that were most commonly used because nine times out of ten when we were out in the field doing an exercise or volunteering to do communications for a bike race or marathon half the volunteers would need to have their gear reprogrammed *right now* for new repeaters or simplex frequencies. That made life a LOT easier.

        Sidenote: Just bought a 16 AH LiPo battery pack with 120V inverter that supposedly can put out 200W 120V AC as well as 13.8V DC, and a matching 40W folding solar panel from the same company on a “close out” deal that should be here in a week or so. It’s one of those “solar generators” that you were talking about in your last article. I got enormously curious about these things, like just how good (or bad) are they, are they at all useful or is it all hype, and most important, are they potentially dangerous? Quite a few people are buying these things and I got to wondering just what people are going to end up getting. It was cheap, being run out at “half price” which probably means they’re still making a hefty profit on it, and I’d really like to see just what these things are like because as you pointed out they’re popping up for sale all over. If it actually works, great. if not, well, I’ll tear it down and look at how it’s made and look for potential issues, etc. and write it up over at grouchyfarmer.

  5. Mark

    It is good to have too much in your go-kit rather than not enough. A missing connector, not enough power wire, or coax can leave you off the air. I have seen many Hams show up to provide communications for an event with nothing more than an HT. It is easy for a served agency to see Hams as a bunch of yah-hoos if they do not show up with the proper equipment to do the job. It is very hard to recover once a communication failure has occurred.

    I like a modular approach with everything I could ever need in a large car transportable container. Then smaller portable containers to be filled from the larger container depending on the event. I have recently converted over to a Milwaukee pack out tool box system which so far I really like.

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Hi Mike, thanks for visiting Off Grid Ham. Having spare fuses, connectors, and maybe a few basic hand tools and a multimeter makes good sense. But at some point there are diminishing returns. You can look just as much like a ya-hoo by showing up with the entire Ham Radio Outlet catalog as you can with a handheld rig and not even a spare battery.

      You bring up a great point about go boxes that I’ve addressed on this blog before: Everyone has their own vision of what a go box is. For some, it’s an air conditioned tandem trailer with a full size station, large generator, portable tower, and even toilet & bunk facilities. For others, it is small and light enough to take backpacking for a weekend or longer. I don’t believe in bringing stuff just for the sake of having it, or for nebulous “just in case” scenarios.

      No matter what your idea of a go box is, the same rule applies to everyone: The more stuff you add, the less “go” you get. In the end, every ham has to evaluate every single item in their box and decide for themselves if it’s worthwhile to lug it along.

      Thanks again for stopping by Off Grid Ham. I hope you’ll come back soon!

  6. JRH20

    Thanks for your forum Chris. I am not a HAM but I do rely on a scanner for several uses including security. We are far off grid and in a remote canyon for 10+ years. There are no utilities and the nearest transmission line is over a mile away. Our canyon is a tributary to that river valley. There is a high voltage transmission line 3 miles away, opposite us by a few canyons and atop a far plateau. We don’t really have lightning strikes but there is dry lightning which is also rare.

    We have two systems on solar: 3 kw for the house/shop and .8kw for the well. They are complete separate unless I plug the well system into house power for some reason (the pump works on AC or DC and does some internal magic to work with whatever comes its way).

    I would suggest a #6 and that would be interference in terms of RFI. Because of our remoteness reception isn’t about proximity as much as it is line of sight. We do fine with Sat TV and internet which are separate receivers. But radio and TV are mostly unavailable. Why? After enough years it is this: The work of the panels and charge controller emit more RF than the incoming station frequency strength. Ya can’t test this because as the day winds down so do the signals so you can’t get results from shutting down the solar. I have never shut the inverter down for a this test. Why? Because the inverter can never be taken down for our purposes. But I can fire the inverter genset which effectively runs the inverter in reverse, charging the batteries and passing the genset straight through to all loads. It makes no difference. It’s the charge controller, me thinks.

    Anywhere a system voltage line runs at our place, underground or part of the structure to home, shop or outbuildings, radio reception disappears within 15′ of each side of the line. Outside of that the signal is receivable except evening through early morning.

    There has been lots of talk about filters, etc. but one needs a scope. That doesn’t happen here.

    Any input would be appreciated

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      I think the obvious answer is to get a different controller. You say you’ve been off grid for ten years. Controller technology has improved quite a bit in the last decade. Also, make sure everything is grounded and the ground wires are as short as possible. Lastly, to the extent it is possible, eliminate any ground loops (I did an article about this a while back). I hope this helps; thanks for your comment!

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