Solar Power, Lathes, Bats and Snakes

I don’t recommend equipment here unless it is something I bought and use myself and I find genuinely good. That’s the case with this, the Rocksolar battery and folding solar panel. I finally had a chance to give the Rocksolar battery pack and solar panel a good workout the other day and the whole package worked quite well. MrsGF was gone for the day and I was bored so I set up the FT-818 up on the front porch with the mag loop antenna, running off the Rocksolar battery, and tried making contacts on CW for a few hours, with it’s high intensity LED lights turned on just to give it an added load, and plugging a cell phone and my bike’s GPS/odometer into it’s USB charging ports to recharge them at the same time. I should add that just to make things more interesting I’d had the battery pack’s lights turned on for over eight hours the day before. The battery pack hardly even noticed the load. When I got sick of not making contacts (ah, the “joy” of QRP!) I gave up on that, dug out the laptop and switched to FT8 and finally made a few contacts. That got boring after a while (well, it was about 95 degrees out there) so I quit to retreat into the air conditioned house.

The Rocksolar battery pack with the Rocksolar folding solar panel.

I threw the folding solar panel out on the ground and hooked it up to the pack to recharge it and that worked well too. About as easy as it gets. No need to buy charging controllers or extra cables, everything needed is included. Just plug it into the charging port on the battery pack and lay it out in the sun. After charging up a cell phone, running the lights, powering the FT-818, etc. the panel brought the battery up to full charge in about 3 hours according to the meter on the battery.

So overall I’m really rather pleased with the battery and the matching solar panel. It takes, the documentation says, about 9 hours to do a full recharge using the included AC charger, and about the same using the solar panel if you have full sun. Of course recharging with the solar panel depends on conditions. The documentation claims it will run the dual high intensity LED lights for 189 hours. Heat is always an issue with battery packs like this, so this one includes a cooling fan that kicks in automatically if it starts to get too warm. And it has a 200 watt AC inverter to power AC equipment. But it doesn’t provide a clean AC sine wave so it isn’t suitable for some AC equipment. It has 4 USB charging ports and 4 DC ports in addition to the 3 prong AC outlet.

So if you’re looking for a solar charged battery system to run your gear, take a look at the Rocksolar stuff. You can find it on Amazon. It isn’t exactly super cheap, though. This particular battery is going for $178 at the moment, and the folding solar panel is going for $165.

Lathe Going to Junk Yard

I’ve had it with that Harbor Freight lathe. The bearings are starting to go after just a few hours of use, it’s made of cheap stamped sheet metal that flexes and shudders and it’s just – just nasty.

This thing is basically an industrial accident waiting to happen. So it’s going, and is going to be replaced by a Delta mid sized lathe that’s made out of actual real steel and iron, with a motor that won’t stall all the time. Good lathes aren’t cheap. The new Delta is going to set me back about $800. But this Harbor Freight monstrosity has reached the point where it just isn’t safe to use any more.

We Got Bats

Now I like bats. They eat bugs and all that fun stuff. But I only like bats as long as they aren’t actually in my house. Which they have been. We’ve had two of the little buggers in the house in the last three weeks, and, well, enough is enough. We’re getting a bat removal specialist in this week to figure out where they are, how to keep them out, put in bat excluders, etc.

Uh, I have a confession to make. I said I like bats. That’s a lie. I only say that because I’m supposed to say I like bats. I don’t. Bats really, really creep me out. I’m sorry, they just do. When I see a bat in the house I want to run and scream and hide.

Snakes, on the other hand, don’t bother me at all. I think snakes are kind of neat. Which is good because…

We Also Have Snakes

This little guy has a rather indignant look on his face because he was trying to get into the wax beans and MrsGF wasn’t going to put up with that. She grabbed him and put him in the flower bed and he sat there and pouted for about ten minutes before slithering off.

We have three of these guys hanging around. They’re garter snakes and they’re amazingly beautiful creatures. They’re harmless. Well, unless you’re a frog or a mouse or bug or something else they like to eat.

I suppose I should wrap this up with a picture of a flower because holy cow we got flowers this year!

Amateur Radio & Gardening, Hey, Why Not

The weather has been amazingly pleasant for a change these last few days. Everything is growing like crazy as you can see from the photo of the hosta garden in front of the house that I took yesterday. Wonderful plants, hostas; decorative, resilient, with so many different shapes and types it’s hard to keep track.

IMG_0875The corner garden here has been completely redone. In the past it was mostly herbs and decorative plants, but this year we more than doubled it in size, hauled in a tons of compost (well, my aching back claimed it was tons) and it’s being switched to mostly vegetables this year. MrsGF put in something like 20+ pepper plants of varying types (can you tell we like peppers?) plus two blueberry bushes and a couple of rows of beans down along the front. The soil in there is so utterly horrible that I did something I very rarely do, I raked in some commercial fertilizer as well. We’ll see what happens. It will either be wildly successful or everything will die off.

IMG_0873We were not going to make the same mistake we did last year by crowding too many plants into the two raised beds. It’s very tempting when putting in seedlings to crowd them in because it seems like there is so much wasted space, and forgetting just how big those plants get when they’re mature. We only put 6 plants in each of the beds this year and I hope that will help to eliminate some of the issues we had last year. While we avoided the dreaded blossom end rot last year, we did have some fungus problems because the plants were so crowded together.

IMG_0881And then when I was walking around the yard yesterday I nearly stepped on this guy. Yes, we have snakes in Wisconsin. You wouldn’t think they could survive our winters up here, but several species do quite well. Heck, until the 1950s or 60s we still had timber rattlers around here. This little guy… Little? Ha, he was a good two and a half feet long. He scared the heck out of me although I’m sure nearly being stepped on while he was sunning himself in the grass scared him more.

Amateur Radio Stuff

IMG_0863After the fiasco of wrecking the fold down mount for the GAP antenna, I put the crappy old Comet 250 vertical back up, hooked up the coax, went inside, checked to make sure everything looked OK, turned on the transceiver and — and immediately made about 6 different contacts all over North America with the thing on 40, 30 and 20 meters, running about 40 watts of power, less than it takes to run a modern lightbulb.

Sigh… radio propagation is weird sometimes.

I’ve been getting more and more interested in QRP operations. That’s amateur radio slang for very low power. QRP operators put out 5 watts of power or less. Often a lot less. The guys who are really good at it often operated with less than one watt of radiated power. They often use transceivers they built themselves or got as kits that can be ridiculously inexpensive.

There is a ‘gotcha’, though. Trying to make contacts using voice at those low power levels is damn near impossible. If you’re going to run QRP, you really need to go with good old morse code, or CW as it’s called.

Now I’ve thrown myself at CW on numerous occasions over the years, and failed miserably in learning it. The recommended techniques, the tapes, the CDs, none of them have worked. It all sounds like pure noise to my ear.

But then I ran into an IOS app called “Ham Morse”. It does have the more traditional teaching method, which doesn’t work for me. But what does work is that Ham Morse can also tie into the headline news feeds of various news organizations and sends the as CW at whatever speed you’re comfortable with. And guess what? For me, at least, this works. Now that I’m trying to copy actual meaningful text instead of single letters or groups of letters that have no relationship, my weird brain is actually starting to make the connection between those strange noises and the text.

The result is that I can copy CW at up to about 6 – 8 words per minutes. Maybe. Sometimes. Sort of. I’ve been listening to a lot of CW down on 20 meters trying to make sense of it all and despite all of the odd abbreviations and symbols and prosigns they use, I’m starting to pick some of it up.

Anyway, one of the reasons I’m interested in QRP is that the equipment is small, the antennas are small, you can operate with nothing but a relatively small battery. The whole kit can be thrown into a backpack easily, set up and taken down quickly. It’s ideal for someone who spends a lot of time on a bicycle like me. Would be great fun to sit out on the trails making contacts on summer mornings with just a wire hanging in a tree and a couple of watts of power.

I don’t make a lot of recommendations for websites or products or stuff like that, but if you’re at all interested in QRP operations, battery technology, solar power technologies and amateur radio, click the link up there at Chris over there has provided a wonderful resource. He delves into alternative power technologies like solar, evaluates and discusses battery charging systems, battery types, etc. While it’s oriented for amateur radio, the material he covers is going to be of interest to anyone who is interested in unplugging from the power grid.

And that’s all for now.

Oh, I keep forgetting. I have email here. If you have questions or stuff you don’t want to put in the comments, you can reach me at