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Personal Locator Beacon: A Buyer’s Guide

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guide to PLB

Personal locator beacons (PLBs) are land-based EPIRBs that can be used by hikers, mountaineers, and boaters. There are many different types, models, and brands of PLBs in the market today. This can make it difficult to know which to go for.

Generally, PLBs are classified into two types depending on whether they have an inbuilt GPS receiver or not, and this is described later.

Choosing the right type of PLB is the first step towards knowing which PLB brand and model suits your needs.

The next consideration is to determine whether the PLB can work when needed without failure and to ensure this, manufacturers of quality PLBs have built multiple components that serve the same purpose in a single unit, and this is called redundancy.

Normally, a good and effective PLB has multiple levels of inbuilt redundancies which minimize the chances of failure, as well as ensure that the beacon works when needed the most.

Apart from redundancies, there are other features that you should consider before acquiring any particular model. Let’s take a look at some of them now

1. GPS Functionality

gps remote location

As mentioned earlier, the PLB is designed as a last resort ELT for calling for help from SAR agencies when you are in a remote location without phone signals. Moreover, it is important that the RCC knows your location, and location data is provided by GPS coordinates and/or Doppler Shift trilateration.

The 2 types of PLBs

GPS-enabled PLB – This model has an inbuilt GPS receiver and it provides precise location coordinates that allow SAR teams to easily home in on your location. As expected, this PLB type makes SAR operations easier and faster as compared to the following type of PLB.

PLB without GPS – This PLB uses LEOSAR trilateration to provide your location data, and because this Doppler Shift method has a margin of error of 2-5km, then it enlarges the search area to a radius of 5km which makes SAR operations more hectic, error-prone, and wearying.

You should prefer a GPS-enabled PLB over PLBs without GPS receivers. Moreover, you should also check if the PLB supports the broadcasting of 121.5Mhz homing signals, as well as whether it has a strobe light.

Even so, the GPS receiver and the ability to broadcast homing signals are the 2 most important features of any PLB.

2. Build Quality and Reliability

A well-designed and built PLB can withstand falls, submersion into the water, and other environmental insults that it is exposed to in the wilderness.

Moreover, a good build quality assures you that the model is durable and long-lasting.

Reliability in a PLB is provided by multiple levels of inbuilt redundancies.

Battery-life

battery life

A PLB is required to have a long-lasting and fail-resistant lithium-ion rechargeable battery.

A class 2 battery is recommended because it is well insulated and its reinforced sealing ensures that water cannot seep in when the PLB is submerged in water, besides ensuring that its electrolytes cannot leak out if the battery is pressed by a heavy object.

Also, the battery should be able to power the PLB for at least 24 hours in -20°F (-28.9°C).

Additionally, the battery should be able to keep the charge for at least 60 months, which means that its self-discharge rate is very low.

Therefore, you should look for a model that has a battery shelf-life of 5 years or more.

Waterproof and Float

As mentioned earlier, boaters can use PLB, and this implies that the PLB needs to send distress signals when the boat has capsized and it has fallen into the water.

This would require the PLB to be waterproof so that it can withstand increasing water pressures as it descends down to the seabed while being able to function normally.

Even so, the water mass above the PLB creates an aquatic canopy that causes the distress signals to lose its power as it traverses through it to reach the atmosphere.

To counter this, some PLB models are built to easily float on water, and this allows these PLBs to have a direct line-of-sight to SAR satellites.

As expected, you should choose a model that is waterproof, and if your budget allows, then this waterproof model should be able to float on water.

3. Ease of Registration

The best way to know whether you are purchasing a genuine or fake PLB model is the ease of registration.

A genuine PLB model can be easily registered with the national registration body, which is usually the SARSAT service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NOAA is a scientific agency in the Department of Commerce.

The registration details that you must provide include your name, contact details, address, and existing medical conditions, such as diabetes or hypertension (and this allows the SAR team to come well-equipped to manage anticipated medical emergencies).

4. Warranty

You should also check for a warranty as only reputable manufacturers are confident enough to warrant that their products will function as advertised for a particular period of time.

5. Cost

The aforementioned considerations allow you to narrow down your choice of models, and the last factor to consider is now the cost of individual PLBs. You should choose a PLB model that fits within your budget as long as it offers good navigation data and homing signals.

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