It’s all fun & games until the electrons stop flowing.
Operating amateur radio is a load of fun. Operating amateur radio off grid is extra fun, but adds a layer of technical complexity to your station. Have you ever thought of what you would do if your off grid system itself went off line? Do you have the skills, spare parts, and tools to correct the problem and get the electrons flowing again? Troubleshooting solar power system may or may not be hard depending on what type of ham you are.
What kind of ham are you? Troubleshooting solar power
There are basically three kinds of off grid hams. “Type 1” hams do not get very involved with the technical aspect of the hobby. Maybe they just want to run contests. Perhaps they got into ham radio only because their kids are doing it, or to be part of a community service group. Type 1 hams don’t see amateur radio as a stand-alone hobby, but rather, as a tool, a means to achieve some other goal. They have some basic tech skills but want everything to be as plug-and-play as possible.
“Type 2” hams see radio as an end in itself. They love to tinker and experiment and would enjoy radio even if it had no ancillary practical purpose. Type 2’s enjoy messing around with radio/electronics and have a high skill level but don’t necessarily do a lot of on-air operating. They will pursue all kinds of projects, many of which never work and might seem a little crazy. They have a great time anyway. Troubleshooting solar power
“Type 3” hams are a combination of the first two. I place myself in this category. I love DIY and home brew projects and that’s what attracted me to ham radio back in the day. Yet, I see that ham radio has real-world applications. Type 3’s have figured out the magic combination of skills and utility. Troubleshooting solar power
Why this matters. Troubleshooting solar power
The type of ham you are will determine what happens when your off grid system goes down.
For Type 1’s it’s straightforward. Unless it’s a blown fuse or similar simple fix, they either call a pro or replace the entire suspect device.
Type 2’s know their off grid systems forward and backward because they probably built the system themselves. They can resolve even complex problems and have a large personal inventory of spare parts. Many Type 2’s will use the opportunity to reconfigure and make major changes and may spend a lot of time dabbling with different ideas beyond the initial problem.
Type 3’s, like type 2’s, can handle nearly any malfunction themselves because they have extensive technical knowledge of their off grid systems. They also have an inventory of spare parts, but only as it relates to their needs. They do not keep a lot of extra unrelated supplies around just for the heck of it like Type 2’s do. Type 3’s are practical and goal-oriented. They will quickly correct the immediate problem and save the tinkering and experimenting for another time. Troubleshooting solar power
Attention to detail.
Hopefully you occasionally take time to verify everything is in order. This means checking cables and connections, topping off electrolyte levels and density in flooded batteries, looking for damage with outdoor components, etc. By the way, when is the last time you cleaned your solar panels? Troubleshooting solar power
If you’re a Type 1 you’re probably not doing any of this. You probably don’t keep any spare parts around either. If you don’t plan on fixing anything yourself then at least plan for the time and resources for someone else to do it for you. Type 1’s are seldom preppers/survivalists (and if they are, they’re delusional) so being independent in SHTF situations is not a priority to them. I’m not trashing on Type 1’s. We all gotta do our own thing, right? It’s all good. I just want them to understand that they will have very limited options when things go wrong.
Types 2 and 3 are best set up to go it alone if needed. Still, there are always areas of improvement. For example, do you have printed technical data and manuals for your equipment? Are your tools neatly arranged and easily accessed, or are you the kind of person who spends thirty minutes tearing through a heap of junk to find a screwdriver? Do you proactively maintain your system, or do you only react when something goes wrong?
It happened to me. Troubleshooting solar power
A few weeks ago I noticed that my home solar was producing hardly any watts during strong sunlight. Still, the batteries were fully charged at sundown. I didn’t think much of it until the next morning morning when the batteries were much more deeply discharged than they should be.
So what’s going on? The sun fully charges the batteries by day and there should be plenty of juice to pull me through the night. Upon investigation, I found a battery cable had come completely loose! This had the effect of cutting my battery capacity by 66%. This explained why my charge current was so low and why the working batteries drained so far overnight. My best guess is that I neglected to fully secure the cable last time I removed it for system maintenance. It may have been hanging on just enough to work ok for a while, but eventually became fully disconnected. That, in addition to the fewer hours of sunlight in the Fall, was wiping out my working battery overnight.
I secured the stray cable and my charge wattage from the panels immediately went up dramatically. This made perfect sense, since now all the batteries were on line and taking a charge. My off grid power system has been working correctly ever since and my batteries drop only a few tenths of a volt overnight.
At first I felt a little embarrassed that I let such a malfunction happen in the first place. After some reflection, I went easy on myself. The reason the cable came loose in the first place was because I was doing preventative maintenance. So, I had the right attitude even if my execution failed. The irony of creating a problem while trying to prevent a problem is not lost on me.
Secondly, I was able to quickly identify and correct the malfunction. My multimeter and hand tools were all at the ready. When something goes wrong, I do not have to spend more time looking for tools than I do actually fixing the problem.
It turned out that my problem had a very easy fix…this time. What if it was a more complex failure? The importance of keeping an inventory of wire, connectors, fuses, nuts/bolts/screws, and other supplies cannot be overstated. While it’s not possible to forecast every need or stock a replacement for major components, there is still a lot you can do to proactively be ready for trouble.
It’s also helpful to have a solid working knowledge of your off grid power system. Types 2 and 3 should be good to go in this area. Type 1’s are at a disadvantage. I strongly suggest Type 1’s come up with a contingency plan that goes a little farther than calling a pro or ordering a replacement online. The day may come when neither of those two options will be available.
What this all comes down to is priorities. Everyone is going to have a different idea of what’s important. I hope that having a working off grid power system is a common priority no matter what type you are. Having some skills, tools, and of course desire, will go a long way in getting you back up when something goes wrong.
Here is a nice list of basic tools for electrical repairs. You won’t need everything on this list, and some of it does not really apply to off grid power, but it offers many solid ideas.
I don’t normally review or recommend products, but the Fluke 117 multimeter is superlative. They cost about $180.00 on Amazon and other online retailers. Yeah, that’s a lot of money, but it’s truly a lifetime purchase. How many $25 multimeters have you bought that are junk? Maybe enough to buy one Fluke 117 that will still be running strong decades from now? I have the 115, the predecessor to the 117, and it will easily outlive me. There are many older Fluke meters on the used market for very good prices.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but way back in November 2015 I published an article specifically about multimeters. It’s one of my earliest articles and still relevant and worth a read now.
I am a #1 but close to a #3. A #2 takes years to learn the ins and outs of electronics as well as having the test equipment. Spare wire, tape, heat shrink, hardware, tools, two soldering devices, bulk coax and connectors and every adapter known to mankind. A power source is always a big issue for when everything goes down hill. I do wish someone would invent a battery that had a 30 year shelf life. I play with generators, solar and wind but the storage of that power is the most critical to me and is again to me the weak link. Sort of like having freeze dried food and no water.
I am mostly a #3 but sometimes slip into #2 mode. I’ve often said that amateur radio has a low barrier to entry but has a steep learning curve once you are in the door. Your comment reflects this. I have been dabbling in radio since I was a teenager and now work professionally in communications electronics…so I have a pretty deep well of experience and training to draw from, plus access to parts and tools. But not everyone is as well situated as myself. For those who want to ascend that learning curve, I suggest that you read and experiment and learn as much as you can. Yes, it might take years, maybe decades, but you gotta start somewhere! The main reason I started Off Grid Ham was to help others get up that hill.
Again, another great article.
As always, thanks for your support, Drago!
Nice article. I would consider myself as a type 3 HAM just like you. Do most repairs myself except if it is SMD related. Just bought a used FLuke 112 by the way, after so many multimeters I finally became wise ;-). 73, Bas
Almost any Fluke, even an old used one, is better than 90% of everything else out there. You chose very well.
Fun article Chris! I guess I’m a type 2? I have one whole wall in my shop full of boxes of parts; resistors, capacitors, diodes, ICs, wire, solder, a hundred or so 259 connectors of different types and sizes, my infamous “box O’ cables” which has at least one of every imaginable kind of hook up cable ranging from odd ball computer stuff, to cell phone connectors, power supply stuff, etc, a couple of hundred PowerPole connectors for different amperages, several hundred feet of coax of different types, spools of wire, paracord, a bench full of test equipment… I’m not exactly practical, though. I have more unfinished and failed projects than successfully completed ones, but what the heck. As long as you have fun doing it.
I heartily agree with your comment about Fluke. My Fluke meter was probably one of the best investments in test equipment I ever made. Damn that meter is nice!
Ahh Randall, you’re my favorite reader! Yes, I too have a breathtaking inventory of supplies and parts and enough tools to fill a hardware store. I say I’m a sensible #3 but maybe I’m just kidding myself and am really a closet #2. I even have a large “Box of Seldom Used Tools”. It’s exactly what it sounds like. That’s where I can find a right angle drill, a basin wrench, a carpet kicker, and a menagerie of obscure niche tools that I acquired for one single job and never needed since. But you are right, as long as you get things done and have some fun along the way, then there’s no need to sweat the details.
Fluke meters are peerless. I have probably a dozen meters, three of which are Flukes. My true love is my Fluke 87, which is technically not mine because my employer bought it for me. At $400-$500 it’s way more than the average hobbyist needs. I use it all the time at work and it never fails even with rough treatment. I’m thinking of doing another meter article to discuss this topic in more detail; it’s been five years so maybe it’s time to revisit the issue.
I think you have missed a different type. I like being a ham and belonging to a amateur radio club. Being a member allows me the opportunity to help in civil matters such horse indurance contests, biking, running and swimming evens. Also, being able to contribute keeping communication routes open in emergency times. Plus, the old time hamming it up.
Hi Bob, well we could dissect ham radio “types” down very far. Within your club you’ll probably find all three of the types I describe. Clubs can be a good place to learn, but the quality of the education will depend on who else is in the group. If everybody is a Type 1, not a whole lot of learning will happen because nobody really knows anything. Types 2 and 3, the folks who really know what they are doing, are hard to find in a club setting since by nature they like to be on their own. I’m like that myself. I do not belong to any organized radio group, but I’m happy to pass knowledge along via this blog and I occasionally make guest presentations at local clubs.
So yeah, certainly join an amateur radio club if that’s what works for you. If you can find one with a Type 2 or 3 in the membership, so much the better!