Will we ever be able to dispel the myths?
Steve Katz, WB2WIK/6
This is a much beaten-up subject. Hardly a day goes by that on some ham radio board or reflector there isn't a question about “station grounding.” Funny part is, the subject's been so discussed, that anyone asking a question must have not been paying attention for the past several (fill in: days, weeks, months, years).
I think the biggest problem is that a lot of commercially manufactured equipment comes complete with a “ground terminal,” usually somewhere on the rear of its chassis. That, along with directions from the equipment manufacturers, implies the equipment owner ought to connect something to it.
I view this as an adjunct to the “SWR” dilemma. You know, the one that drives hams crazy believing that for an antenna to work properly it must have a low SWR. Or, sillier still, that an antenna with a low SWR must be working properly.
It's funny that before about 1960, few hams owned an SWR measuring instrument of any sort but somehow made DXCC, bounced signals off the moon, worked meteor scatter, aurora and E-skip, and just happily made contacts without having the foggiest idea what their antenna's SWR was. Commercial transmitters didn't have internal SWR bridges, and inexpensive bridges weren't on the market. The famous “Monimatch” circuit hadn't yet been published, so few hams knew how to build an SWR bridge, nor would they bother trying. Hams, and their transmitters, were perfectly content to be working each other, around the world, without this fabulous knowledge.
Now, back then it was also pretty common for a lot of equipment to not even have a ground terminal. Some of it did, some of it didn't, and it didn't matter much one way or the other. I think the best reason for a ground terminal would have been to help prevent equipment users from killing themselves due to internal short-circuits in equipment that was AC powered, back before 3-prong (and 3-wire) power cords, plugs and outlets became common.
Ironically, the most unsafe equipment back in those days was thousands - if not millions - of inexpensive, AC-line powered broadcast radios, including bedside “All American Five” type radios and clock radios, which did not use AC line isolation transformers. To minimize production cost, a lot of these radios directly rectified the AC line and fed a full 120 volts AC to a series string of tube filaments. The string totalled around 120 volts, so no filament transformer was needed. One side of the AC mains was connected directly to the radio chassis (preferably, the “cold” side of the mains!), and to prevent people from touching the chassis, the little radios were installed in plastic enclosures and used plastic knobs over the control shafts. These radios did not have 3-wire power cords.
Those were accidents waiting to happen, of course. Untold thousands of people received electrical shocks from these radios, and they were responsible for more than a few fires. Sadly, some probably lost their lives due to such shabby design.
And while those radios really indicated an actual need for a chassis (earth, safety) ground, they didn't have any provision for one.
But we don't use radios like that anymore. Now, we have equipment that uses isolation transformers, and 3-wire power cords plugged into grounded outlets. And a lot of our equipment is powered by low voltage DC, where a shock hazard is literally non-existent. (You can be hurt by low voltage DC, but not electrocuted. The major source of injuries to people working with low voltage DC is in the form of burns caused by jewellery shorting out the DC power supply's output bus, which can often pump dozens of Amperes through a ring or bracelet before shutting down - if it ever shuts down.)
So, why do we ground?
Really good question. I guess I'd preface my answer with this simple statement:
I've been a licensed ham for 39 years, and continually active. I run legal-limit amplifiers and power output on 160 meters through 10 meters, a kilowatt on 6 and 2 meters, and a couple hundred watts on 135cm and 70cm, and sometimes on 33cm and 23cm, too. I've used dozens of different antenna configurations and have operated from all over the world, but mostly from any of the fifteen home-station hamshacks I've built over the years at the various homes I've owned.
And in all that time, I've never once had a “station ground” of any sort.
And in all that time, I've never had any problem that grounding would solve.
I've operated mobile, marine mobile, maritime mobile and aeronautical mobile and never had a ground on any of these vehicles, either. Especially when operating from an aircraft, that's hard to do. I've also set up dozens of field operations, including Field Day and other contests, without ever owning a ground rod or feeling the need to drive one in, anywhere.
Therefore, you can see I'd be a tough one to convince that a “station ground” serves any particular purpose. Not to say it cannot help, in some situations. But in most all those situations, better station engineering would help more.
(For clarification: Nowhere in this article will I say it's a bad thing to ground your equipment. I just discuss the counterpoint that grounding your equipment usually isn't necessary, and if you're spending any time deliberating on this issue, that's time wasted that you could be operating, instead.)
There's surely such a thing, and it's a good thing. If I ever use a voltage-fed antenna or a random wire, I usually place my antenna tuner outdoors, or at least in an open window, so the entire antenna is literally outside, and then I have a very short and direct path to Mother Earth for the return current. The earth completes the current path from transmitter to antenna and back, and everything is happy. This is a great situation. But you really need to have the tuner laying on the ground, or very darned close to it, to accomplish this feat - because a tuner sitting on a desk in the shack is often too far from ground to be effectively grounded.
Usually, however, I use current-fed antennas and I match the antennas to their transmission lines (by adjusting the antennas themselves). Most of my lines are coaxial cable, but some are twin lead. If I use coax to feed a balanced antenna, I use a current balun at the antenna feedpoint. If I use twin lead to feed a balanced antenna, I don't need a balun, except perhaps in the shack where I transition to 50 Ohm equipment. In all cases, the lines are cool and quiet and don't seem to bring any RF back “down the pipe” from antenna into the shack.