Be Your Own Radio Shack…Because You Have To.

The halcyon days.

As early as middle school, before I was a ham and still into CB radio, Radio Shack was my haven. They had pretty much anything a teenaged electronics experimenter and ham could ever want. With thousands of locations, they were everywhere. I know I’m dating myself but I doubt anyone under the age of forty has ever set foot in a Radio Shack. RS still exists as a timid spirit through an e-commerce website and few holdout brick-and-mortar dealers with limited stock. The glory days of being able to run out and pick up a 2N2222 transistor at 3:00pm on a Sunday are far behind us. Now that the go-to place for all things electronics is distant nostalgia, we are in a time when radio amateurs need to be their own source for off grid supplies. off grid supplies

Thinning the hoard.

When you’ve been a ham for as long as I have, you tend to have a large “collection” of stuff. That’s not necessarily a good thing. Some hams take pride in their mountain of radio-related minutiae. But the thoughtful ham will keep a supply of only what they truly need; having a big hoard just for the sake of having it doesn’t get one anywhere. off grid supplies

off grid supplies

Photo courtesy of e-radionica.com

So how do we decide what makes the cut? For starters, evaluate your equipment. What plugs, connectors, fuses, and other parts would you need to keep your gear running? Second, think to the future. Do you have any plans to expand or change your off grid radio station? Lastly, plan for others. Planning for others means keeping supplies to be used for someone else’s equipment. This is where things can get away from you. You want to be helpful to others but you likely cannot (or should not) be the de facto Radio Shack for every ham in your ZIP code!

Survivalist/prepper amateurs planning for SHTF are especially prone to unwarranted stockpiling of radio and off grid gear. A good rule to follow is anything that does not have an explicit, defined purpose should not be kept around. Do not gather random stuff “just in case.” At that point you’re no longer a disciplined, contemplative amateur. You’re just some obsessive crank amassing junk.

Making your shopping list. off grid supplies

In addition to any proprietary plugs and connectors for your equipment, you’ll also want a supply of generic items that every amateur will need. For example, heat shrink tube, connectors, fuses, spade lugs, nylon ties, and on and on. Also important are materials for making antennas, such as wire, coax, baluns, ununs, etc.

This of course is a partial list. Regarding antenna materials, you have my permission to collect a little more than what might be considered normal. Since antennas are outdoors and are frequently damaged by weather, it’s not unreasonable to expect a high turnover. Furthermore, you should have the resources to construct different designs of antennas and not depend on one type all the time. off grid supplies

Help thy neighbor. off grid supplies

Part of your plan should be to keep extra supplies for others to use. You never know when a buddy is going to need a connector or a length of wire. While you don’t owe it to them, it’s a nice gesture that may pay off later. You may someday find yourself short and need a hand too. Karma is real. Just sayin’. off grid supplies

If you are a survivalist/prepper, then your motivations for keeping extra radio stuff is a little less altruistic. In a true long term SHTF situation, electronics parts and supplies can be used as barter. When things go bad, connectors, plugs, coax, and all the extras that make radio possible will be a form of currency. We all hope it never gets to that point, but as the cliché says, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.

To be clear, none of these strategies are a reason to collect a massive pile. The entire purpose of this project is to have a good supply of what you need without it becoming a pointless mass of stuff you’ll never use.

Double duty.

As an off grid ham, you bear an extra burden that grid-based hams do not have. Not only do you need enough parts to maintain your radio gear, you also must have resources to keep your off grid power source on line too. Solar panels, charge controllers, batteries, generators, all the stuff that makes your radio go, needs upkeeping. Use the same strategy we just discussed. Keep a reasonable supply of what you genuinely need, and maybe a little more to give/barter away. off grid supplies

There is a bit of a problem. Keeping a stockpile of solar panels or gas generators is an unrealistic goal. If you have quality gear that will last over the long haul then this problem should theoretically take care of itself. You can buy six cheap Harbor Freight generators or one Honda. Trust me…that Honda will still be cranking out watts decades after all six Harbor Freight machines have gone to the junkyard. off grid supplies

How to get there from here.

If you are a long established ham, you likely already have a large parts inventory and may even need to get rid of some things. If you are new to this game, you may feel unprepared. For the newcomers, it’s probably a bad idea to go on a shopping spree and try to catch up quickly. The better route is to buy more than you need, as you need it. If you are working on a project that requires one DC barrel plug, buy a pack of five. You’ll have one for your project and four spares. Over time, you’ll build up an inventory. Like us long timers, you’ll reach a point where you can build a project without buying any new parts because you already have everything in your private stock. Replace the items as you use them, but do not let things get out of hand.

Organization. off grid supplies 

Where and how to keep your stash is a very difficult question to answer. Organization is a very individual thing, and most of us are very territorial about it. Everyone has their own system and resist any attempts to change it.

My dad is a super-handyman. I mean this dude does everything, and does it well. He’s got an entire barn full of tools and lumber and hardware. He’s his own Home Depot…literally. When I go into that barn, especially the loft, I’m completely out of my element. There is stuff everywhere. Boxes, bags, plastic totes, glass jars, coffee cans, all sorts of containers filled with a lifetime of home improvement leftovers. There is no obvious order to the place, at least not to me. But dad has a firm grasp on it. If I ask him for, say, a 20 amp outlet, he has no hesitation and knows exactly where they are.

Over the years I’ve suggested that maybe he should better organize his stuff. As you can guess, that idea is always strongly rebuffed. His “system”, such as it is, works for him and he’s absolutely not going let anyone tell him what to do with his barn. Even my mom doesn’t have veto power within the walls of that place. off grid supplies

My point is, whatever form of organization that works for you is the “right” one. Some people like to have everything neatly arranged in labelled plastic bins. Others, like my dad, just kind of wing it. Whatever your style is, make sure it’s workable. Constantly having to search for things or not even knowing what you have is a red flag that you have too much stuff.

Next steps. off grid supplies 

The days of running to Radio Shack for any little thing are not coming back. Ordering online is an option, but even with next-day shipping it may present an unacceptable delay for your project. And if SHTF, there will be no Amazon truck arriving to save you. You can’t stock everything, but you can keep enough odds and ends around to solve most of your problems and keep your radio on the air.

12 thoughts on “Be Your Own Radio Shack…Because You Have To.

  1. JRHill

    I had bought several odds and ends from RS but my first real project was a DIY motor tune-up dwell meter kit. It also did RPM and basic resistance/continuity, all in a plastic fold-up case. The supervisor of the electronics side of the shop I worked at (I was a young machinist/welder) invited me to come to his house and he would help me assemble it. But he did nothing but watch. He instead instructed on proper shaping of component leads, stuffing the PCB, soldering, static protection, etc. It worked perfectly the first time used. I developed a love for RS and did more kits over time.

    But in recent years RS fell to selling cell phones and consumer toys. The amount of stocked connectors, plugs and sockets, components, wire, fuses, etc. got smaller and smaller. The catalog thinned out too so ordering on line became essential. Besides, RS was 1.5 hour away and it was useless to try to call ahead to see if they had stock.

    In our case Off Grid means there is no mail delivery, UPS or Fedex, certainly no truck freight and no utilities. We live a reasonably modern life but anyone bringing a curling iron or blow drier will have them confiscated. And no neighbors that have much more than fencing and odds and ends. So now its on line only and the small town USPS office and I have a special relationship for reasonably sized packages. On line shopping is risky though.

    Reply
    1. Chris Warren Post author

      When I was a kid growing up in Naperville, Illinois, there were three Radio Shacks within minutes of my house. Heck, my town had more Radio Shacks than McDonalds burger joints. And of course, every mall in the land had one too. I spent a lot of my meager teenage paycheck in that place. I remember how excited I would get when the new catalog came out every year.

      But you are right. RS had a very undignified end. They became little more than a cell phone hut and peddler of cheesy junk and toys. These days I have no choice but to buy nearly everything on line.

      Your situation is a good example of why it’s important to always have extra. When you buy something, buy three of them! Obviously you have internet access but the rest of the logistics can be a challenge. Planning for more than the immediate need is never a bad idea and in your case it’s mandatory.

      Reply
  2. Rick Bender

    Thanks for writing Chris – good food for thought. Enjoyed hearing about your dad; nice personal touch. I once read a “rule of thumb” that said: “if you often have to look for things more than 5 minutes, you need a better system; if you never have to look for anything you may be over-organized”.

    Reply
    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Hi Rick, I’m not sure there is a downside to being “over organized”. I’m semi-organized. I pretty much know where everything is, but could probably do better. I’m glad you enjoyed this article!

      Reply
  3. Randall Krippner

    Radio Shack – wow, I miss that place. Not the cell phone garbage it turned into, what it used to be back in the 1970s and early 1980s. I built so much stuff from parts I bought from there. Got my first shortwave receiver from them, my first computer, the list goes on and on.

    I probably have more electronics parts up on my “Wall ‘O Parts” down in my shop than the original Radio Shack stores. I tend to overbuy badly sometimes. But sometimes that works out too. I’ve ended up with a lot of fun (if rather silly) projects that were the result of me staring at a lot of oddball parts I’d picked up.

    Reply
    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Years ago I wrote an article specifically about Radio Shack for another blog. I’m in the process of updating & editing that article to reprint here. I think the old timers will love it.

      Reply
  4. Greek Prepadedness

    Chris I read you 100% on storing HAM “possibles”.
    Living in a Greek rural city the best I can find is what is related to audio/video in the electronics stores. And a scarce supply of… So I resorted to the necessary waits from ebay orders.
    A good strategy is to buy in packs of 5,10 or 20. Further down the road a tinkerer HAM will use the parts, no doubt about it. One time I cursed myself for ordering BNC connectors twice by mistake, but now I have 3 antennas to be built in one batch. And those black plastic sleeves from the junk BNC connectors i found in a local shop, are so nice to keep the kink of the RG-58 wire at the crimp spot.
    So tip no. 2, guys do not throw away anything.
    Last tip is build two of everything, especially wires. And do have a foot long leads of various connectors pre-made.

    Reply
  5. Philip Brzezinski

    Radio Shack was MY favorite hangout in my teens!! I miss it BADLY!! I’m STILL looking for a place (online or nearby electronics store) that won’t charge you $10 shipping for $2 worth of parts!!!

    Reply
    1. Chris Warren Post author

      I think a physical store along the line of the old Radio Shack are not going to happen, at least not on a large scale. It looks like it’s Amazon or bust for us!

      Reply

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