The most basic set-ups are for very high frequency (VHF) local communications--up to 30 miles or so under normal conditions. VHF options include:
FM Handheld Transceiver: If you are on the go a lot and on a budget, an inexpensive handheld transceiver unit might be a good choice, if you live in town. Two-meter only and two-meter/440 MHz handhelds are now available for well under $100. To use in your vehicle, attach a 1/4 or 5/8th wavelength magnetic mount antenna to the outside of your vehicle for best results. You can also get a second antenna for home use. More on antennas later.
FM Mobile Station: An excellent choice to permanently mount in a vehicle and this is what many experienced operators use on a daily basis while in their vehicle. There are few drawbacks and many advantages. The mobile unit runs off the car battery. The power cable should run directly to the battery for best performance. The hand microphone is easy to use and, most of all, there is a lot more power available than with a handheld unit. A problem one might encounter is "noise" from the vehicle electronics, which can usually be resolved by installing a commercially-made filter.
Base Station: An FM handheld transceiver with an external antenna, preferably mounted outside or in the attic, will function as a base station in your home. However, its low output power is a handicap, especially when using simplex transmission. Simplex means communicating directly with another operator without benefit of a repeater. A VHF or VHF/UHF FM mobile unit powered by a 120 volt AC to 12 volt DC power supply is much more effective to use as a base station. Since most mobile units now deliver at least 50 watts output power, an expensive base station is no longer required except when you desire to operate using modes other than FM. Some handheld and mobile units also include digital communications capability, though these are usually much more expensive. At present, there are several incompatible digital modes and all may not survive. (VHS vs. Beta VCR flashback)
Summary: If you plan to operate from home and also want some mobile capability, a 5-watt FM handheld unit is a good starter radio. For more effective home operation, a mobile FM transceiver used as a base is the best choice.
You also need a 12 volt power source and antenna.
To communicate directly over longer distances, a high frequency transceiver is required. These are more expensive and complex. An outdoor antenna is highly desirable. Entry-level (Technician Class) operators have limited HF voice privileges but with persistence and development of good operating techniques, one can communicate over distances of hundreds and thousands of miles when wave propagation conditions are favorable.
Upon upgrading to General Class, an Amateur Radio operator may use eight additional bands from 1.8 to 30 MHz. with a variety of modes including voice, Morse Code (CW), digital and television. HF transceiver prices for new equipment start around $500 though used gear is available for as little as $100 or so. An electronic background is recommended for new operators using pre-2000 equipment, especially vacuum tube units.
The information below relates to two-meter VHF communications. Some is relevant to HF communications as well.
Choosing the right antenna is one of the most important parts of good Amateur Radio operation. As with the selection of a radio, it is suggested that a well-respected brand of antenna be your choice to get you started. After you learn more about how they perform, under what conditions, and then using your antenna as a baseline, you can then experiment with other antennas. Many hams say antenna construction and evaluation is one of the most enjoyable parts of Ham Radio.
Good, time proven antenna brands include: (Alphabetical Order) Comet, Cushcraft, Diamond, Hustler, Hygain, Larsen, Maxrad, MFJ, Tram, and Workman. Suggested types of antennas include Verticals, Yagi Beams, and J-poles.
Vertical Antennas: The typical antenna found on vehicles, in homes on a metal base or mounted outside. These antennas consist of a vertical whip or tubing and have omni-directional coverage. But verticals cover shorter distances than a Yagi Beam.
Yagi Beam: A long metal boom with perpendicular tines mounted in descending size along the boom length. This antenna is good for extended range, but only works well in one direction. If rotatable, Yagis perform much better.
J-pole: A J-pole is a simple antenna that is fun to construct. They can be purchased inexpensively, and be used inside or outside. They can be rigid, flexible or roll-up type. This antenna does not compete with beam antennas, but cannot be matched for flexibility of use. Most experienced Hams have a J-pole antenna close by for emergency use.
One of the biggest challenges for new operators is selecting the proper antenna. Now that we have discussed the basic antennas available, let's list some possible use scenarios:
For the home, the best bet is a Yagi Beam mounted on a pole or tower. The antenna is pointed toward the city. Again, the Yagi has a narrow angle of coverage, but enhanced performance in the direction it is aimed.
In compliance with restrictions, mount a vertical antenna as high up as you can. Maybe in the attic if no outdoor antennas are allowed. Not all of us are lucky enough to be on the top floor of a 40-story high rise, but a good setup can get you into the local repeaters and also allow some communications on simplex frequencies. If you are limited to an indoor antenna, a 5/8ths wave magnetic-mount vertical whip antenna on top of a refrigerator or other metal surface is an option. Or find a place where a magnetic mount can sit on a large pizza pan, which acts as a ground plane. If that won't work, try using a J-pole hung up vertically at the top of a wall, hopefully away from metal. Move it around to find the best area for reception. Use caution with power output when close to people. Later on, if you get an outside antenna, you can use an antenna switch and still use the inside antenna during storms.
If erecting a pole or a tower outdoors is prohibited, think about being patriotic and erecting a flag pole made of non-metallic PVC. This is allowed by Florida Statutes. A flag on top and a surprise inside! With restrictions becoming more prevalent, there are companies who specialize in covert antennas. See the Home Owner Associations page of this website for tips and strategies.
Inside, as a backup and storm antenna with a switch, use an antenna listed above. Outside, the choices are numerous. You can erect a "Push-Up" pole or a tower, and put up a large Vertical, a Yagi Beam and even a rigid J-pole. Talk to an experienced operator about grounding issues when constructing an outside antenna.
A "rubber duck" styroflex antenna that comes on an HT does not usually transmit well from inside a car. An outside permanent or magnetic mount 1/4th or 5/8th wave antenna is a big improvement. A mobile unit should have the same type of external antenna. If you install a mobile transceiver or use a handheld unit with a small amplifier, it is a good idea to run cables in an area that is out of the way--under edges of carpet or underneath seats is recommended.
A quality external speaker is a good investment. An extra power cord for your mobile used as a base hooked to a large deep-cycle, or gel cell battery for backup is a good idea. Also, an SWR/Power meter to gauge antenna effectiveness and transmitter output power. An extra battery pack and an alkaline battery pack for your handheld is highly recommended. For handheld units, a small external plug-in hand microphone is a handy addition.
Keep a flashlight close at hand and/or a mounted battery-operated light in your ham shack. DC flourescent lights are inexpensive and available at most hardware stores. LED lights also are good choices. Those rated at 10 watts or higher provide best results. Get a second power cable for your radio. Since these cables are becoming more standardized with "T connectors", they are available at many radio shops.
Large size Deep Cycle Battery or Gel Cell: Usually, the larger, the better. Deep cycle and gel cell batteries are important as they can be repeatedly charged. Regular automotive starting batteries are not recommended. They don't hold the consistent power for our application and repeated total recharging can shorten their life span. They are good for short bursts and, of course, great if connected to an alternator.
A combination "float" and "trickle" charger: Float chargers maintain a topped off level for the battery without creating a lot of "out gassing", which could be an irritant, and possibly explode inside the home. If you use a conventional lead-acid battery, such as a car or marine battery, indoors--make sure that the area is well ventilated to disperse gasses that are produced when charging. Gel cells don't deplete water the same way a conventional lead acid battery does. Proper use of a float charger can maintain the life of a battery for years.
Start with a fully-charged battery and keep it in the ham shack with the battery end of the extra power cable attached to it. Then, fasten the other end of that power cable right to a point near the "T" connector of the primary power cable. This puts the primary and the battery-fed "T" connectors beside each other. When the AC power goes out, simply unplug the radio half of the power connector from the normal power supply "T" connector and plug it into the battery side duplicate "T" connector and you are now running on backup power!
For new operators, it is best to tune into a frequency and just listen for a while to get a better understanding of how a repeater sounds when it resets after each transmission, and generally what the "personality" is for that repeater. Some repeater operators discourage long transmissions while others welcome long "rag chews."
Since some repeaters are linked and/or have remote receivers, it is best to key your transmitter for 1/2 to 1 second before you begin talking.
JOINING IN: During a gap between transmissions, say your call and the word "listening" or "monitoring". Or just say your callsign and wait for a response. If there is a conversation in progress, and you want to join in or comment, just give your call in between other transmissions.
PROPER IDENTIFICATION: Say your call clearly and slow enough to be understood. Remember to give your call every 10 minutes and at the end of your QSO. Some repeater operators also require that you say your callsign near the beginning of your first transmission. It is best to stay on point with the conversation at the time. Also, try to think about how you sound to others and avoid repetitive uses of filler words such as there, you know, etc.
AMATEUR RADIO EMERGENCY SERVICE (ARES): Sponsored by the American Radio Relay League. Coordinated on local and regional levels. Most counties hold weekly nets as noted above. Duval County ARES meets monthly and participates in public service communications activities. Agencies served include American Red Cross, Duval Emergency Operations Center, area hospitals.
Buying from a reputable dealer is arguably the safest and most reliable way to get started. In addition to a warranty, you can ask the salesperson for advice. Dealers tend to recommend good equipment they have on hand and build goodwill with their new customer. Ask for used, but tested equipment, if you are interested. Don't be afraid to ask for free shipping. Confirm there is no sales tax if you are buying from an out of state company, and always ask for specials and rebates. Also, do your homework and ask if they will beat the known price from another competitor. When talking with a dealer, have a list of questions ready. That list should include things like any other parts needed to complete the rig, recommended upgrades for your particular project, and any tips or free documentation for a good installation.
There is one sure fire way to learn about new equipment, what works and what doesn't, where to find the good deals, and network with other Hams. Join and become active in a local Amateur Radio Club, like the North Florida Amateur Radio Society (NOFARS). Joining a radio group provides a good source of contacts when looking to find a good deal on equipment or needing help with solving problems. There are several ways to buy ham radio equipment from other hams:
1. Get on local, weekly nets that allow on-air swapping of gear. Make an announcement of what you are looking for.
2. Tell your group at a meeting what gear you need and someone may have just what you want, or they will know where to find.
3. Go to a hamfest and look at items being offered for sale. These items are usually sold as-is, but I have found most hams to be honest. After all, you know their call sign and where they live in case you have a problem! In addition to local gatherings in late March and October, major hamfests, like those in Orlando, FL and Dayton, OH, have many large commercial vendors and others selling equipment. These are major shows that are worth the trip when you want to see a lot of equipment at one time.
4. You can look on the Internet at places like eHam, QRZ, and eBay for equipment. With those kind of sources, it is buyer beware.
It is interesting how Amateur Radio has evolved. In the old days, you had to build most of your own equipment. Today, however, most of the modern radios are either designed to be replaced and not repaired, or are so complex, with sandwiched circuit boards, etc, that it is difficult to work on them. This would be especially true with the new Ham starting out with a two-meter radio.
Still, there are many things a ham can build on their own such as antennas. In reality, running feed line and soldering connectors is something common in today's ham shack. Building antennas can be fun and creative. There are many good sources of information from your local clubs, to the ARRL Antenna Handbook, to general and specific information on the Internet. Don't spend a lot of money on your first round of equipment, unless you know specifically what you want. Buy a radio, work with it and determine what you like and dislike, what additional features you would like to have, and then look at upgrading the rig when the time is right.
Question: What equipment and hardware are required to set up my Amateur Radio Station for the first time?
Start with a simple VHF set-up for mostly local communications.
Acquire a radio. A mobile transceiver either used as a base station or mounted in your vehicle is a good starting point. Try for at least 50 watts power output on two meters (144-148 MHz.). Fancier transceivers include additional bands like 70 cm (440 MHz). Some include digital operation. These may be more difficult for the new operator to use though.
A small handheld transceiver usually has only a few watts of power output and comes with an inferior antenna. If hooked to an outdoor base station antenna instead, these small units may provide some degree of reliability for countywide communications. But a mobile transceiver with more power output is highly desirable.
Get an antenna and coaxial cable. An outdoor antenna up at least 20 feet performs more effectively. Start with a vertical VHF antenna designed for 144-148 MHz. These can be improvised or bought commercially from national dealers including those listed above. VHF antennas come in various sizes so get one that will fit into available space. Usually, the larger the antenna, the better it works and the longer its distance range at a specific height.
Mount the antenna. Chain-link fence top rail suffices if secured with an eave mount to the side of a house. Use two ten-foot sections available through hardware stores. Antenna masts above 25 feet may require guy ropes or wires for support. If you are limited to an indoor antenna, try one mounted in the attic or a portable antenna attached to a tripod or floor stand. If you are subject to restrictions on outdoor masts and antennas, a portable unit may be a good option.
Connect the transceiver output to the antenna. Use coaxial cable feedline. There should be connectors on each end. Cable can be bought pre-cut with connectors mounted or you may install the connectors after routing it between your radio and your antenna. Bring the cable in from the outside through a window or a drilled hole. For the smallest hole, install the last connector after feeding the cable through the wall.
Plus a power supply is required. Most all radios, because of their ability to be used anywhere/anytime, use 12 volts DC for power. You must use a 12 volt DC power supply. As an alternative, you could use a large storage battery and then keep it charged, but that is usually only used as a backup.
Brands like Alinco, Astron, Pyramid, Diamond, Kenwood, MFJ, and Icom are names to look for. There are many others, but when looking, make absolutely sure it is a filtered and regulated power supply, suitable for Amateur Radio use. Others could be noisy, and don't work as well. Think ahead and buy according to what you can afford and what all you will do with it in the future. For example, a 50 watt mobile transceiver needs a comfortable 12 ampere supply. (Power supplies are rated as Peak and Continuous Amperage) Many prefer to move up to a 20 ampere unit in case they want to run two radios or a scanner, etc. They can also run an HF rig, up to 100 watts, if needed. And yes, you can run more than one radio from a power supply. A 35 ampere unit is a good choice.
Linear Power Supplies
These are the traditional units that use heavy transformers and can be determined as such merely by weight. These tend to be stable, lasting a long time by providing years of stable service. They contain a pass transistor that can eventually fail, if used to 100% capacity all the time, hence the aforementioned suggestion of using a supply with power to spare. Linear power supplies can hum, and to those in some quiet shacks, that is a disturbance, but most are pretty quiet. Some have fans for cooling.
Switching Power Supplies
Many people don't know what these are, but in reality, almost all the new electronics that have a plug-in power supply use this type. So, one would assume this would be the obvious answer. Not so fast. The high amperage needed for ham radio, in contrast to your basic weather radio power supply, can make a difference.
Early switch mode supplies were found to be noisy and caused some interference. What is noise, anyway? Noise is radiated or conducted wideband emissions that are received by sensitive radios. There was also talk of models that went into failure mode and actually directed 120 volt AC right into your rig, which could be auto-disaster. The lighter weight of switch mode supplies can be important in some applications. If you want to take your radio out to the field for an event, the switch mode is a lot lighter to carry.
With 2m or 2m/440 now reaching 75 watts, and the 100 watt mobile on the horizon, don't buy anything less than 20 amperes. We recommend a power supply in the 20, 35 or 50 ampere range that is a name brand, regulated and filtered. If you choose a Switch Mode Supply, buy a new one, then you should be assured of better RFI filtering.
Which coaxial cable is best to use for a particular radio set up is determined by an individual's situation and requirements of the radio. The owner's manual sometimes gives good basic information. In general terms, 50 ohm coax is best. Using anything else may require some compensation to match the feedline. The single most important concept to understand about coaxial cable is the type to be used. The higher the frequency, the better the coax shielding must be. The shield is the outer metal mesh that surrounds the center insulation and wire.
For high frequencies (below 30 Mhz), smaller, less shielded (and cheaper) coax may be used with no significant problem. However, for VHF/UHF, and for longer runs, it is important to use heavier, better shielded coax. Because of loss factors, any gain you get with a great antenna may be partially or totally lost with cheaper or poorly shielded coax. Better shielded coax costs more money but performs much better.
For 2m/440MHz use the shortest run between your radio and antenna. If the distance is 25 feet or less, smaller coax such as "Mini-8" or RG 8x should be sufficient. This smaller diameter feedline is common for vehicular use. Mini-8 can also be used for high frequencies. At these lower frequencies below 30 MHz, "line loss" is a lot less. But for runs over 25' for VHF/UHF, use RG-8, which is a thicker coax. Mini-8 is about the size of a little finger, while RG-8 is more the size of a thumb. Names such as Belden, Jetstream, and Wireman are all good brands to look for.
What is the difference? If you cut into any piece of coax, you will see a Center Conductor, then one or more layers of Shielding, such as wire mesh, aluminum foil, and foam to insulate the layers. These all shield the center conductor from interference. There are also different qualities for a given type of coax. For example, Mini-8 can be bought with 95% or better shielding, which is good, but can also be found with much less quality shielding.
For long VHF/UHF runs, use Heliax, a solid copper encased tube, also known as hard line. This transmission line is not cheap. Even the end connectors are expensive!
PL-259 is the male connector, found on many antenna feedlines. SO-239 is the female part of the connector that is found on many radios. The other connector used frequently is the double female, sometimes known at the SO-243. There are other connectors and adapters commonly used, such as the BNC, SMA and Reverse SMA connectors. Each one has its own importance.
(From: Radio Electronics.com)
Soldering PL259 connectors is not always easy. Start by stripping back about 1.5 inches (35mm) of the outer coating or sheath of the cable, taking care not to cut too deeply and score any of the fibers of the conductive braid. Leave around 0.5 inch (13mm) of the copper braid or shielding in place and then remove about 0.5 inch (13mm) of the plastic core.
Tin the exposed central copper core. To do this, heat the core with the soldering iron and apply a thin even coating of solder to it. Take care not to keep the soldering iron on the conductor for too long otherwise the dielectric spacing between the outer and inner conductors of the coax will melt.
Once the cable has cooled slide the inner part of the PL259 plug over the cable with a screwing action until the copper core appears at the end of the center pin. The trimmed shield will have become trapped between the core and the inside of the PL259. The outer sheath or covering or covering of the coax cable will ensure a snug fit and any protruding shielding should be removed with the sharp knife. It takes some practice, but is an important part of ham radio. If you are new, buying a cable with the connectors already mounted might be best.
It is also important to test all feedlines before use and at any time there is a hint of a problem, such as poor SWR readings or problems with receiving or transmitting. Use a simple multi-meter and set it to OHMS or to the continuity buzzer setting. There should be very high resistance (approaching infinity) between the outer shell and the center conductor. This means no continuity. If resistance is low, under 10,000,000 ohms or so, the cable is "leaky" and will result in power reduction at the antenna end.
If resistance is close to zero, you have a short which must be cleared. This is usually due to an improperly installed connector or a direct metal-to-metal contact (a short) between the center conductor and the shield of the coax. Look for burned spots or other obvious damage.
Another good suggestion is to purchase a good quality SWR (Standing Wave Ratio) Meter. A cross-needle type that shows both the outbound or forward power and also the return or reflected power is best. Where the two needles cross indicates the SWR. An alternative is a digital SWR meter that shows both forward and reflected power simultaneously. We recommend buying the best SWR indicator that you can afford. The cheap ones tend to be inaccurate and problematic.
For those who want to plan ahead and have an excellent meter, look into an antenna analyzer. High grade antenna analyzers are very expensive but MFJ and other manufacturers offer affordable units of sufficient quality for non-commercial communications work. Even these cheaper antenna analyzers cost considerably more than basic SWR meters, but there are other useful measurements that can be made. These analyzers are very fragile, so use extreme care. They produce a test signal so connecting and keying the radio transmitter to obtain readings is not necessary. This device becomes a very handy tool for diagnosing and tuning antennas. If used with antennas above 30 MHz or so, make sure that the analyzer's maximum frequency specifications exceed the design frequency of the antenna being tested.
Coax Seal is a roll type tar sealant that helps keep out moisture from your outdoor connections. It can be obtained from many sources from electronic stores to hardware stores. A good tip is to wrap your connection in a layer of plastic electrical tape first, then apply the Coax Seal. If you have to remove the connection at a future date, the tape keeps the connection much cleaner.
STATION LOCATION: Operating in a comfortable position, away from distraction, is certainly a key to the enjoyment of ham radio. The best chair in the house belongs in the ham shack. If you have young children, or visiting grandchildren, disconnecting the microphone when the equipment is not in use is a good idea. The same applies in your car with a mobile rig, and also extends to leaving the car in a repair facility. If you have older children, and they become curious as to what you are doing on the radio, get them involved! Most people agree that ham radio is a family affair that can be a great learning experience. Locate the power supply in a place where you can watch the meters, if so equipped, or at least have the AC plug in a place that can be reached in case of a storm. Having the ability to disconnect power and the outdoor antenna from the radio is always a good thing.
GROUNDING: There are as many opinions on grounding as there are experienced hams. If you disconnect your antennas when you are away, grounding is not a major concern. But common point grounding of all equipment is recommended in addition to having an outdoor ground rod that is close to your equipment. Check internet resources for hints on proper grounding.
ANTENNA SWITCH: If you use an outside antenna, it may be unsafe to use during storms. Adding an inside antenna and a two-way antenna switch covers you when a storm nears. A two-way switch is relatively inexpensive. Some switches, such as the Daiwa type A/B switch, come with a ground lug that, when attached to your common grounding point, grounds the unused side of the switch. To simplify, it is an A/B Coax Switch that grounds side A when side B is in use. Switches are available that allow you to choose between three or more antennas. These allow you more versatility especially using multiple outside antennas especially if you make longer distance contacts or operate simplex instead of using a repeater.
MISC.: Don't overlook a pad of paper and pens. Writing down calls, local information, etc. greatly helps in the relay and retention of details. If you are using a Mobile as a Base Station, be sure to put 4 good sized sticky rubber feet under the Mobile to keep air circulating. Setting up your first Ham Shack is a lot of work, but rewarding for years to come. Make it your own and show it off to everyone.
Back to JaxRadio.net Home