When All You Have Is A Few Square Feet.

Hams are on their own. confined space ham radio

For better or worse, amateur radio is a hobby that typically requires a lot of outdoor space. Golfers can tee up on a golf course, and soccer junkies can use public athletic fields, but hams have so such dedicated public facilities. We have to work with whatever space we already own. Many hams are lucky enough to have huge backyards, sometimes many acres, to spread out their antennas and off grid equipment. Having enough space to do anything you want makes life as a ham a lot easier. This time we’re going to explore options for those who must operate confined space ham radio.

confined space amateur radio

STOCK PHOTO

Off Grid Ham reader Marlo sent in an email describing his difficult situation of living in a condo with almost no outdoor space for off grid power equipment. His dilemma is not uncommon. Many if not most hams have some kind logistical limitations to going off the gird with ham radio. It might be a lack of physical space, objections from spouses, or homeowner association (HOA) rules. I’m lucky enough not to live in a HOA, but I have in the past, and I think these organizations are for the most part a club for snotty power-tripping quasi-communist busybodies with way too much time on their hands. Regardless, it’s the reality many hams must live with. The situation is not hopeless. There are workarounds.

Getting something out of nothing. confined space ham radio

Suppose all you have is a small balcony. Or a deck or patio. How in the world can one have any kind of off grid operation with that? You do have options, but understand that there will be compromises. confined space ham radio

The Off Gird Ham 100 Watts for $300 power plant is one of the most popular and enduring articles on this website, with good reason. It’s a simple and easy DIY project that will easily work in a small homebound space. The solar panel can be stored flat under a bed, or vertically behind a cabinet. Since portability is not a main concern, you could even bump up the size of the battery, or have more than one battery and rotate them.

The Portable DC Power Pack is also a very viable and inexpensive option. You will need to reduce transmit power most of the time in order to keep within the technical limits of the pack. This handy DIY power source is 100% off grid and can also be used in the field. This gizmo is one of my personal favorites, and many readers have reported good results with them.

For those with a more outdoor space than the average condo, but still not enough to do anything big, I suggest the Portable Solar Power Plant. You can temporarily set the solar panel on a deck, patio, or small backyard. The battery & electronics will fit in a closet. This setup has enough juice to run a 100 watt radio if you go easy on the duty cycle. I also have a video on my YouTube channel demonstrating its capabilities.

Give it some gas? confined space ham radio

A less practical but still possible option is a gas powered generator. Even a small generator is going to produce much more power than the average ham needs. You’ll technically be committing one of the off grid mistakes, but it may be unavoidable. Generators are available at any hardware store for as little as a few hundred bucks. Keep in mind you’ll need to keep fuel on hand and change the oil every now and then. For hams in tight spaces, this might be a problem. Where are you going to store everything? There’s also one huge drawback: Noise. The cheap generators are colloquially called “screamers” for a good reason. They are oh-my-god loud! If you are in a condo or other high-density housing situation, the neighbors are not going to take well to a generator droning, at least not for very long. You might even be in violation of HOA rules. confined space ham radio

An inverter generator may be the answer…if you have money!

One possible solution is an inverter generator. Inverter generators run significantly quieter than conventional versions and are an excellent option when noise is an issue. The bad news? You can expect to pay 2x to 5x more than a comparable screamer. The legendary Honda EU-series is probably the best small generator, of any kind, on the market today. The EU2000i is the most popular. It barely makes any noise and with basic maintenance will run trouble free for decades. Honda introduced the EU-series inverter generator in 1988 and many of those early models are still in service cranking out the watts.

Other manufacturers have their own versions of inverter generators. How good they are and whether they are worth it…well, that depends. Do your due diligence and shop carefully. When in doubt, save up the money and get a Honda EU. There is no need to ponder about Hondas. They are the absolute Gold Standard of inverter generators.

Sacrificing power for space is not much of a sacrifice.

One of the compromises off grid radio amateurs with limited space should seriously consider is running lower transmitter power. In my opinion, low power operating (QRP) is highly underrated. It’s not really a “compromise”. Technology has improved receivers to the point that they can effectively pick out weak signals and reject unwanted interference. There are also numerous digital modes (ie, FT8) specifically designed for low power. These advances have transformed QRP from a niche specialty within amateur radio to a practical & reliable mainstream communications method. Adopting QRP allows you to scale down your power generating equipment. This in turn makes operating off grid in a small space more doable.

If you absolutely must run a 100 watt or higher station, well, the laws of physics do not cut anyone any breaks. You’ll need to come up with enough off grid capacity to provide sufficient current, yet still fits within the small space you have to work with. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive goals. The best option I can offer is the Portable Solar Power Plant. In any case, you’ll need to mind your duty cycle. Duty cycle is a ratio, usually expressed as a percentage, of transmit to receive time. For example, a 25% duty cycle means a radio transmits 25% of the time and receives 75% of the time. Since amateur radio equipment consumes much more power on transmit than receive, keeping your duty cycle as low as possible will keep you within your generating capacity.

Bring the outdoors in.

Not to put too fine a point on things here, but the projects intended for field/portable operation on this or any website can be adapted to work from home. You can use these systems just as easily from your dining room table as you can from atop a mountain.

What we learned today.

  • Operating off grid from condos, town homes, and similar small spaces presents challenges, but hope is not lost. It can be done.
  • Power systems intended for field/portable use can easily be adapted for home stations.
  • Operating QRP allows you to scale down the physical size of your power generating equipment.
  • If running higher transmit power, keep your duty cycle within the capabilities of your off grid generation capacity.
  • Conventional “screamer” generators are too large and too noisy for most high-density housing situations.
  • Inverter generators run very quietly but are expensive.

Resources.

This portable solar power station will fit in a relatively small space and push a 100 watt radio

The portable DC power pack is an inexpensive DIY project that works great at home or in the field.

Here’s an Off Grid Ham article that discusses battery capacity and duty cycle.

The VE9KK blog provides excellent insight from a ham who successfully operates from the balcony of his condo.

The Grouchy Farmer blog is not specifically a ham radio blog, but Randall is a ham and often discusses his QRP and data mode adventures. Great photos too!

And as always the highly respected OH8STN blog and YouTube channel has a mountain of useful information about doing more with less.

 

4 thoughts on “When All You Have Is A Few Square Feet.

  1. Robert Johnson

    I have a few ham friends who run their stations off deep cycle batteries connected to trickle chargers so they’re still on when a power shortage happens.

    Reply
  2. Randall Krippner

    You’re comment that a lot of these condo associations and HOAs are “these organizations are for the most part a club for snotty power-tripping quasi-communist busybodies with way too much time on their hands” is spot on, unfortunately. And you can be sure i’m going to steal that quote and use it over on the QRZ forums when the subject comes up again (grin).

    I can sympathize with Marlo. He’s working under some pretty serious restrictions. A lot is going to depend on what he wants to do, really. If all he wants to do is keep some devices like a cell phone or laptop charged, that’s not a big deal. An off the shelf solar panel with enough capacity to do that is fairly inexpensive and easily available, and can be tucked away under a bed or in a closet until needed. But if he wants to power things like a fridge, freezer, keep a furnace running, etc. over long periods of time, he’s going to have to get creative. If he owns a house in an HOA or owns a condo with a roof, he could look into something like the Tesla solar roof and PowerWall battery. It’s expensive, yes, but they work pretty well and I don’t think even an HOA could object to that. Otherwise large solar arrays big enough to keep a household going are a real problem with most HOAs. They’re considered “ugly”. A generator/inverter works great for short term power outages, but isn’t really viable over the long term. The Honda, like my Yamaha, is whisper quiet and uses very little fuel, but they still make some noise and put out carbon monoxide, so they have to be run outdoors. And fuel storage is a problem too. Most of these associations restrict you to having only 2 gallons of fuel or less stored on your property. You can get around that by getting a small hand pump/syphon and using one of your vehicles as fuel storage. The average car has a 10 – 15 gallon fuel tank and that will keep the little Honda running for a very time.

    Thanks for the plug for the website! I’ve been playing with that little solar power system I picked up and putting together some data on that, so that will be coming up in the next couple of weeks. It was “surplus” (actually cosmetically damaged) so I got it super cheap, but it’s turned out to be surprisingly good. I *finally* got the toroids I needed to make coils for the shortwave receiver project that I’d set aside so that might be coming up in the future. We’ll see how ambitious I get. ARRL’s Field Day is coming up on June 27 and I might grab the battery pack, the 818, my CW key and the mag loop antenna and operate from the old stone bridge about 5 miles from here. Has anyone done a SBOTA? (Stone Bridges On The Air) event? If people can do WMOTA (Walmarts on the air) and “activate” parking lots, why can’t I do stone bridges?

    Reply
    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Hi Randall, HOAs unfortunately put up a lot of barriers that don’t need to be there. Even without manufactured roadblocks, it’s hard to go off grid from a condo or similar high density housing situation. Still, there are possibilities and my goal with this article was to give those folks some hope.

      Reply

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