Portable Solar Electronics and Gear

Buying Tips - Choosing a Portable Solar Weather Radio

September 11, 2015

Emergency weather radios are an important piece of any emergency prep equipment. They not only keep you informed in a weather emergency, they also can provide entertainment and serve as a great camp radio on your next outing too.

In an attempt help you become aware of other options and features available, this Buying Tip post will focus on portable solar weather emergency radios and attempt to filter out confusions between types of products.

What is a Solar Weather Radio? 

If you're reading this and you're from the United States, you're likely familiar with the terms "weather band" and/or "weather alert" radio. Many people group them together, but the fact is they are quite different. We think you will want to keep these points in mind prior to purchasing one of these products for camping or your emergency preparedness kit.

Weather radios, in general, are special radios that receive emergency alerts for dangerous weather events, natural disasters and other hazards like terrorist threats. The U.S. and Canadian governments broadcast these alerts over special high frequency radio networks. In the most simple terms, a "weather alert" radio automatically responds when it receives an emergency alert signal, even when you aren’t listening to the radio. A weather alert radio will automatically override other radio functions when it receives an alert. For example, if your weather alert radio features AM/FM tuning and you are listening to music, it will interrupt station programming and temporarily switch to the NOAA channel. Basic forms of this type of radio are often plugged in and remain on a desk waiting to be awoken by the NOAA alert signal. Other weather alert radios look and feel alot like a standard AM/FM radio, but go to into emergency mode when the emergency signal arrives.

Slightly different than a "weather alert" radio is what is called the "weather band" radio. Unlike the weather alert radio, which on and functioning at all times, to receive alerts on a weather band radio, the owner must be turned on radio...just as though you’re listening to music. The radio must be tuned to the local weather station manually. Unless the power is turned on a "weather band" radio and it is tuned to a local weather information station, a weather band radio does nothing to warn you when an alert is issued. If a tornado warning is issued in the middle of the night and your weather band radio is turned off, it will not awaken to alert you. 

Limitations of Types of Weather Radios

In general, "weather band" radios have limitations during emergency situations. For instance, a weather band radio must be turned on and tuned to a local weather station for you to hear an alert. If the power goes out or you’re listening to your favorite music station (or not listening to the radio at all), you won’t hear the emergency weather alert. Many people buy weather band radios expecting to be alerted to severe weather no matter what. However, after getting annoyed by leaving the weather radio on all the time (or never turning it on in the first place), it gets shut off and thrown in the closet, where it can’t give them a lifesaving warning.

On the other hand, weather alert radios automatically sound a warning whenever an alert is issued. Other functions like AM/FM listening are overridden when an alert is received while the weather alert radio temporarily tunes to NWR. Weather alert radios with back up battery power can alert you during power outages too. 

Does NOAA Make Weather Alert or Weather Band Radios? 

No. NOAA is a public agency with the mission to monitor weather and severe weather, among other things. NOAA does not manufacture weather band or weather alert radios, but it does permit manufactures to use its "NOAA" logo. The logo is only found on qualified radios capable of receiving the NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) emergency broadcast signal. When severe weather, natural or technological emergencies, and watches are identified, NOAA transmits the appropriate warning and post warning communications. With this in mind and since any weather radio in the United States is capable of picking up the NWR signal, choose your weather radio based on whether you want a weather alert or weather band model. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security recommends every home and school have a weather alert radio.


What some typical features found on a Weather Band Radio or Weather Alert Radio?

Alert - The most important feature of most weather radios is the "alert" feature. Whether is is a "weather alert" or "weather band" radio, this is the feature that allows the radio to be used or remain silent until it detects an emergency alert broadcast. Once an alert is detected, the radio music or sports event you are listening to on the "weather alert" radio will be turned off, and the alert radio will "activate" and broadcast a warning tone and the entire emergency alert. 

S.A.M.E. - The S.A.M.E. (Specific Area Message Encoding) feature is a new technology that allows the radio operator to program their radio to only receive warnings specific to their county rather than for the entire area that a weather radio station serves. This type of feature cuts down on alert signals that are probably more focused in other smaller local areas. To function in S.A.M.E mode, a weather radio with this feature must be set to a specific county it is located. The NOAA county codes for the US are available here and used to program the device. Don't forget to change this code if you are taking your radio camping in another area.

Power Options - In true emergency preparation fashion, an wather radio or weather alert radios have redundant sources of power. Hand-crank generators, integrated solar panels and replaceable batteries (like AA or AAA) are options available to keep a radio powered when standard AC electricity is unavailable during a disaster. AC Power adapters are crucial for using weather alert radios over extended periods of time.

Portability - Desktop style weather radios are typically designed for use in situations where the user wants the radio to remain on but silent until an emergency alert is detected and played. This is the type of radio most schools, homes, and businesses purchase to get advanced warnings of weather and non-weather threats. These radios always have AC adapters available so that they can be plugged into a standard wall outlet to remain active and waiting for a signal. Portable weather radios are designed to be small and lightweight so that they can be taken to a place of shelter to monitor weather conditions until it is safe to return to normal activities.

Mobile Device Charging - Many of the portable weather radios are equipped with crank power, solar and standard battery. In addition to these options, many models are also equipped with an on-board battery and mini-USB or standard USB connectors capable of providing the user with a means to boost charge a cell phone directly from the radio. The weather radio, in a sense, becomes a small power generation station for its own use and for recharging.

Lighting Capability - Many weather radios also have an integrated light for reading or light fixtures more like a flashlight to assist you move around at night. These lights also may double as a flashing beacon light which is useful for seeing and signaling your location during emergencies when power is lost.

Radio Tuning Options - There are essentially two tuning control features found on weather radios. On more technically advanced radios, control feature digital (LCD) tuning. Less expensive models feature traditional turn dial knob analog tuning.


Because it is very unlikely that you'll be aware of power outages in the middle of the night and/or that you actually listen to your local weather station 24/7. We believe that weather alert radios hold a distinct advantage over exclusively weather band radios. Weather radios are available at PhotonBuzz are built with weather alert functionality with most carrying the NOAA logo, which means that these products will alert you when the National Weather Service issues severe weather or other emergency advisories.

What type of model? PhotonBuzz offers weather alert radios in desktop, portable and emergency crank models. Desktop weather alert radios are best overall for home and office. Avid outdoors fans, campers, outdoor sports enthusiasts and those on the road should outfit themselves with portable weather alert radios. Also, emergency crank weather alert radios are a must if you’re a hardcore camper, hunter or sportsman far away from electrical outlets for an extended period of time. We would also suggest considering an emergency crank model if you live in an area that experiences prolonged power outages or being snowed in for extended periods of time.

For those of you looking for a home radio solution, you'll probably want a weather alert radio that will sit on a desk or counter-top and silently monitor the U.S. and Canadian government "all hazards" networks for an emergency alert broadcast. When an alert is detected, the radio will sound an audible warning tone followed by detailed information on the threat. This type of radio is designed to remain stationary and function on AC power. Most radios in this category are SAME weather radios, which can be programmed to only activate if a threat specific to your local geographical area is issued. 

Portable weather radios are perfect for staying informed on the go. If you're looking for a radio to take hiking outdoors or even to a safe shelter area when a threat occurs, this is the type of radio you probably want. Portable radios are often powered by replaceable or rechargeable batteries, and many are hand crank radios which can be powered by built-in generators.

We hope this Buying Tip post has been informative and helpful as you search for a weather radio to fit you needs. Let us know you thoughts and ideas.

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