Many years ago, in a small town near where I live, a young family was gathered in their home. The weather had begun to look threatening, and they were concerned. Then, a growing rumble shook the earth and sky, like the approach of an impossibly large freight train. The family sought what shelter they could find. As the oncoming tornado shattered their house, the young father shielded his family with his own body. His family survived. He did not. One of the children whom that man protected grew up to be an acquaintance whom I greatly respect and admire.
Many other people in my community are personally acquainted with people who share similar experiences. So it is not surprising that many people around here take tornado preparedness seriously. It is common to have a tornado kit in a safe place in the basement. This kit will typically contain items like a flashlight, extra batteries, a whistle, a first aid kit, bottled water, and a knife.
Besides the flashlight, probably the most commonly stocked item in a tornado kit is a battery-powered radio. Once a family has sought shelter, they want to able to track the progress of the storm, and know when it is safe to come out. A battery-powered radio gives access to this kind of information.
Several years ago, I wanted to upgrade the radio in my tornado kit. Batteries degrade over time. They should be replaced periodically to be certain that they retain an adequate charge when needed. But as a Norwegian proverb observes, “It is quickly done to forget.” I wanted a self-powered radio to assure that diminished battery capacity would not be an issue. So I put a hand-crank radio on my Christmas wish list, and received one from my wife that year.
The Eton FRX3
The radio I received from my wife was the Red Cross edition of the Eton FRX3. The radio has an attractive, sturdy-looking design. The radio is equipped with AM, FM and Weather bands. Power sources include both built-in rechargeable batteries (charged by mini-USB input, solar cells, or a hand crank), and replaceable AAA batteries. Plan A was to use the solar cells to keep the rechargeable batteries fully charged. I stored the unit on the ledge of a south-facing basement window. Periodic testing quickly revealed that this plan would not work. A small LED clock on the unit continuously drains the battery. The solar cells were not producing enough current to keep up.
Plan B was to use the mini-USB input to keep the rechargeable batteries charged. I kept the unit plugged into an outlet near my workbench. I expected that if the power failed, I would find the rechargeable batteries fully charged. This seemed to work for a while, but eventually the mini-USB input stopped functioning.
Plan C was to turn the hand crank at regular intervals to keep the rechargeable batteries adequately charged. But even with regular and extensive cranking, the rechargeable batteries drained too quickly between charges for this solution to be practical.
Finally I decided to just treat the FRX3 like a regular battery-powered radio, and power it primarily with replaceable AAA alkaline batteries. A few months after this plan was adopted, the acid test came. The sky grew dark, and the wind roared through the trees. The power failed, and we sought shelter in the basement. I tried to turn on the radio to get the latest report on the situation. The AAA batteries were already dead. I desperately turned the hand crank for about thirty seconds, and then turned the radio on. It briefly came on, but then quickly died before I could gather any useful information. I set off with a flashlight in search of another radio and appropriately sized batteries. My wife was not impressed.
After that traumatic experience, I put the FRX3 aside, and stocked my tornado kit with a cheap, ugly, battery-powered radio that my wife had picked up at a garage sale. It looked like a piece of junk, but it worked reliably every time I turned it on.
I pulled out the FRX3 to test it again in connection with the writing of this article. I turned the crank for one minute, and then turned the radio on. With the charge provided by one minute of cranking, the radio operated for 4 minutes and 10 seconds before dying.
Other people have reported better success with the FRX3 than I have experienced. Perhaps my particular unit is defective. In any case, the unit I have has been a grave disappointment that I cannot count on in an emergency.
If you decide you would like to give the FRX3 a try in spite of my experiences, it is currently available on Amazon for $39.99. Or I would happily send you mine for just the cost of the postage. You would just have to promise not to depend on it in a critical situation and not to return it.
The Excalibur H690
After my experiences with the FRX3 radio, I was not really interested in getting another hand-crank radio. I jumped to the conclusion that such radios were a nice idea that did not really work out in practice.
So I started looking for a radio that I could keep in the barn to listen to while splitting wood. So when I ran across an Excalibur H690 at a local thrift store for a dollar fifty, I took a second look. The primary feature that attracted me to the H690 is that it can be powered by three standard size AA batteries. I have an almost endless source of free, partly-used AA batteries, so I decided to give it a try. The radio can also be run off of 6-volt DC input, a hand crank, or built-in solar cells. It has a built-in three or five LED flashlight that is not particularly impressive, but which is better than nothing in the dark.
The battery life in this unit is fantastic. I am still on my first set of partly used AA batteries. The radio uses so little current, that it will continue to run for several minutes even when the AA batteries have been removed and the rechargeable batteries are expended to the point that they can no longer produce even a slight glow from the LEDs.
In recent testing, one minute of cranking produced 26 minutes of play on the radio. I had to turn the volume up for the final five minutes of listening, but other than that the signal remained clear throughout the test period.
This unit doesn’t look nearly as attractive, well designed, or sturdy as the FRX3. But it works well and the FRX3 does not.
The H690 currently is available new on Amazon for $17.95. The one I own is not for sale.
The Aervoe 7810 Wind ‘N Go
I suspect most people buy the Aervoe 7810 Wind ‘N Go combination lantern/radio unit primarily for the lantern, with the radio as a fringe benefit. I bought it primarily for the radio with no real interest in the lantern. I was surprised by the quality of the radio reception when I found it on a shelf in a thrift store in another state. So I paid the $9.99 listed on the price tag, and took the unit home with me. In addition to the hand crank, this unit can be powered by 12 volts DC or by three AAA batteries. Performance with the hand crank is so good that I have never even tried the unit with the other power sources. The lantern has high, low, and emergency flasher settings. The unit is also equipped with a night light, siren, and compass. I consider all of the functions on the unit other than the radio and lantern to be mere gimmicks. I would like the unit even better if it were half as large and consisted of the radio only.
The unit looks more durable and attractive than the H690, but not quite as nice as the FRX3.
One minute of cranking produces 25 minutes of excellent radio reception. This unit is my current primary tornado-kit radio. I still keep the cheap, ugly, garage-sale, battery-only radio as a backup, as a result of my experiences with the FRX3.
Ironically, the less my family and I paid for one of these radios, and the less durable and attractive it appears, the more I like it. I paid $1.50 for the H690 at a thrift store. It looks kind of cheap, ugly and beat up, but I like it very much. I paid $9.99 for the 7810 at a thrift store. It looks okay, and I like it quite a bit. My wife paid full price for the FRX3 on Amazon. It looks very nice, but I don’t like it at all.
I would probably donate the FRX3 to a thrift store, but I don’t want it to fail a potential buyer at a critical moment. It seems a shame to throw it in a landfill. So for now I am hanging on to it as a potential source of parts. I hope I figure out what to do with it before my poor children need to sort through my estate.
The H690 and the 7810 both seem to be reliable hand-crank radios for home use. For traveling, I would suggest something more durable than the H690, and something lighter and smaller than either unit. Perhaps SurvivalBlog readers have suggestions regarding appropriate units.