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Your first ham radio station

So, you're studying for your first amateur radio license -- probably the Technician Class license -- and wondered what kind of equipment to get in the meantime. If I could do it again with modern equipment, here are some of my thoughts.

Enjoy, and feel free to drop me an e-mail if you have any questions.

First: The receiver

I feel the first thing to buy for ham radio is not the radio transmitter itself, but a decent receiver. If you pass your exam for the Technician Class license, you'll be able to talk on the VHF (50, 144 Mhz band) and UHF frequencies (440 Mhz band) as soon as your license is processed by the FCC. (By the way, these days, the VEC-FCC process takes as little as a week to complete, and you can transmit as soon as you can see your callsign on any of the various web callsign databases on the Internet. When I was first licensed, it took about 6-8 weeks, and you had to wait for the processed license paperwork to arrive in the mail.)

So, the initial temptation might be to get a transmitter or a combination transmitter-receiver called a transceiver. But, you might underbuy or overbuy on your equipment. So, it makes sense to try it out on a comparatively inexpensive solution. Get a "police" scanner first.

Scanners can go through a number of frequencies very quickly. You can monitor all the popular repeaters and simplex frequencies in a matter of about one or two seconds. I listen to the local frequencies with a scanner, and when I hear someone that I want to talk with, I turn on my radio (if it's not on) and make a contact. You can get more background information in this web article. Thanks to Dan, a scanner enthusiast and a student from Delaware for letting me know of this great introductory article on scanners.

For fun, you can also add the local aviation, weather and other frequencies to monitor -- and lock them out if you don't feel like listening to it at the moment. Best of all, they cost around $100 or so new. If you're fortunate to find a used model, your cost might be less.

Any old time ham will tell you that a good, solid and sensitive receiver is a must because there's an old adage "If you can't hear 'em, you can't work'em" -- meaning that if you can't hear the other station, you can't make a two-way contact with them. That makes sense. But, starting out, you probably don't need a top-of-the-line scanner. If you go to your nearest Radio Shack, you'll find a number of police radio scanners available. You can get started with one of these. See Radio Shack Scanners for starters. Look for one that you can attach an external antenna.

I would get a model that plugs into the AC wall outlet, so I wouldn't have to worry about charging or changing batteries. You can program a number of interesting ham frequencies: the nearest VHF and UHF repeaters on your island. Then, you can listen to the amount of conversation present, and get an idea of how strong the repeater signals are in your area. That'll determine how much radio and antenna to buy next. You'll also hear how conversations are made on the air, and that'll help you pass the Technician exam.

There are a number of frequency guides that list out the available repeater frequences and general location. See: Open Hawaii Repeaters.

There are "open" and "closed" repeaters. The "open" repeaters are community repeaters open to the public. They are usually sponsored by a radio club, a handful of individuals or similar situation that makes the equipment, electricity and frequency possible. "Closed" repeaters are those set up for a specific audience and generally don't welcome strangers to use the equipment -- after all, they did pay for the equipment, installation and electricity. So, when you setup and program your scanner, listen around and find the open repeaters. See: Hawaii Repeater Listing.

Hopefully, you should be in a area where you can hear say two or three open repeaters. They are not constantly transmitting a signal like you would find in AM or FM broadcasting, or as in TV watching. Hence, you use the scanner to sample the programmed channels repeatedly, sometimes even several times in one second, trying to pick up on the first conversation present on the frequencies. If the signal is fairly strong, you're in luck. If it is fairly weak and the signal fades in and out, you now know you'll need a better antenna (perhaps one installed outdoors) to hear the repeater reliably.

Even after you buy your first transceiver, you can still use the scanner to quickly listen for activity in your area.

Second: The handheld "walkie"

Your first "real" radio would probably be a handheld portable that puts out five watts of transmitter power. There are other smaller models that put out less power, but in most circumstances you probably need the full five watts of power during critical times. Think about it as trying to get on a freeway and having enough horsepower to get your car up to speed for the freeway on-ramp. If you don't have that power, you can't get on the freeway.

Many times, you won't need five watts to make a conversation, but when conditions are poor you'll be glad you have the five watts. Any more power than that, and the weight of the batteries start becoming significant, so there's hardly any seven watt radios on the market. Depending on your situation, you may find you can get by much of the time on low power of perhaps one watt or so. In the future, if you really like a smaller, lighter radio, you can pick up one that puts out about 1.5 or 2 watts.

When I buy a handheld transceiver (also known as a handie-talkie and walkie) I also get the AA alkaline battery pack. Most times it's an extra option, sometimes it is the main battery that comes with the radio. I get AA's in case I travel or it's an emergency, and I am unable to charge the rechargable batteries. With the alkaline AA battery pack, I can put in disposable AA batteries (or rechargable AA batteries) and keep operating.

You have a choice between a single band (VHF only), dual band (VHF and UHF) and more than two bands. In general, I'd recommend the dual band radio. It gives you flexibility to use both VHF and UHF. For those radios with a third band, whether it's 50 MHz, 222 MHz or 1.2 GHz, it's rarely used, unless you know someone specifically that's operating on those frequencies.

When you consider buying the radio, find out what kind of antenna connector is on the radio. The older ones come with the BNC (Bayonet N Connector that locks on with a quarter-turn twist), and the new ones come with the SMA connector (a screw-on connector). It becomes important when you look for your next item.

In addition to the rubber duck antenna that comes with the handie talkie, I usually buy at least one extendable whip antenna. In that way, you get better antenna performance than just a regular rubber duck, which really doesn't do much. My preference is the MFJ-1712, not because its a spectacular antenna, but because it's reasonable and it doesn't cost that much.

If you find you'll be traveling in the wilderness or other remote area, and you want to stay in touch with a repeater, the antenna that I've found to be useful is the Premier (or Pryme Radio Products) AL-800, a BNC mount antenna. It's a 1/2-wave on two meters, and puts out 3.2 dB. That's worth a lot of coverage. However, I would use that antenna only when I need to transmit, as it is a very long and heavy extendable antenna. The weight of the antenna will flex and break the solder connection in the BNC connector on your walkie (or even the entire connector) if you leave it extended while you hike around with your walkie. It's best to change to the AL-800 when you want to initiate a contact.

Now that you have an idea of what features to look for, you can view the handheld product reviews at eham.net. I am partial to Icom and Yaesu walkies, but that's just me. One of these days, I'll buy a Motorola just because of its physical durability and excellent radio characteristics.

Third: The magnetic mount antenna

The handheld transceiver is useful for talking to one another in relatively close range or if you're near a repeater. When you're farther away, it's more difficult to make contacts. A major reason is that the flexible antenna that comes with the radio (often called a rubber duck antennna) is small and convenient, but it is not a good antenna. You can do much better with a full sized antenna that you can use when you're at home, or put it on top of your car when you go driving. The magnetic mount antenna accomplishes that. The magnet in the base keeps the antenna securely fastented to your car while driving at freeway speeds, yet can be removed to operate at home or while traveling.

My favorite VHF/UHF magnetic mount antenna is the Diamond NR73BNMO antenna, on an NMO magnetic mount. The Diamond NR73 (B is for black, and NMO is the mount) is a dual band antenna, so it's usable on VHF and UHF. It's flexible and convenient enough that I use it in the home, and take it with me when I want to use it in the car.

On VHF, the NR73 is a half wavelength antenna which is fed the radio energy from one end, as opposed to the middle of the more common half wavelength dipole. Since it is an end-fed half wavelength antenna, the advantage is that it does not need a metal ground plane such as the car roof in order for it to function. You can set it on top of a wooden table, or a metal filing cabinet and it'll operate just fine. Of course, you shouldn't have any metal such as a refrigerator or filing cabinet in the immediate vicinity alongside the antenna where it radiates or it won't work well, but having metal under the magnetic mount base is just fine. On UHF, it's co-phased two 5/8-wavelength antennas, so it'll work well without a ground plane as long as you don't use too much power -- a watt or two.

You'll need to get a NMO magnetic mount. Typically, one goes for about $20 - $40. The cable that comes with the mount usually has a connector at the radio end that is a PL-259 "UHF" connector. You might be able to get one with a BNC or SMA connector, if that is the connector that your radio uses. Or, you can get a PL-259 female to BNC-male adapter, or a PL-259 female to SMA-male adapter according to your needs.

If you find you need an external antenna to get better signals for reception and transmission, you'll need to find a way to get the antenna cable and antenna outside and up higher. That's a topic of discussion all by itself.

Fourth: The home radio

A handheld transceiver is portable and can be used anywhere. But really, you'll probably spend most of your time at home. So, you should think about the kind of equipment for the home. A common technique is to get a mobile VHF/UHF radio, and power it from the AC outlet at home using a power supply.

There are a number of mobile radios, both new and used. I suggest you spend some time talking with others, reviewing the product literature, and checking out product reviews. You want a radio with little or no intermod (a radio highly resistant to out-of-band interference), and reasonable operating features and controls. Some like lots of memory channels to program and scan. Others like the ability to control the radio from the buttons on the handheld microphone. Some want to put in a voice annunciator option that can read back the frequency programmed or selected in the radio.

Right now, the radios at my home shack are over 25 years old. I spent most of the time listening, and when I need to talk, I talk on a handful of common frequencies. So, I do not need the most modern radio for that. The radios are set to frequencies that I monitor, and the scanner is scanning through other frequencies of interest looking for activity on the bands. My modern radios are often used for mobile or portable operations, where I use the current features for unusual contacts, or computerized assistance with operations.

The models are an Icom IC-22U VHF mobile, and a Kenwood TW-4000A VHF/UHF mobile. These old radios have very solid front ends. Helical resonant filters and lots of internal shielding. No interference, no intermod. It'll put out 10 and 25 watts on high power, which is adequate for every day use. I run them on low power, which is 1 and 2 watts. I also have an Icom IC-251A for sideband contacts.

The radios have the Anderson Powerpole connectors attached to the power cord, so the radios can be moved about and interchanged quickly without having to worry if the power cords will connect. They are plugged into a RIGrunner 4005 5-way power splitter.

For 120 Volt AC to 13.6 Volt DC power supplies, there are two main types of power supplies -- linear and switching. The traditional power supply is the linear power supply, which contains a heavy power transformer, a voltage regulator and large capacitors to filter and maintain the output voltage. While it is a good power supply, it's size and weight increases with the amount of current needed, which is a drawback if you intend to buy and ship the unit. I use Astron linear and switching power supplies, as they have proven to be rugged and reliable through the years. My personal preference are the units with the meters, but it is strictly a personal preference.

I use linear power supplies if I know I'm going into an environment where power fluctuations are expected. If there are fluctuations, there are also power surges. Voltage spikes caused during power surges can quickly kill a piece of electronic equipment and the section most likely to fail is the power supply. The massive power transformer of the linear power supply tends to slow down the voltage spike, and it just might be enough to cause your radio equipment to survive for another day. It's very heavy, but my 50 amp power supply occasionally leaves the shack during Field Day and protects the radios that are connected to the generators.

The other type of power supply is the switching power supply. It gets its name from the high speed computer-type chip that quickly switches the incoming AC current on and off and adjusts the "on" time to match the amount of power being used. As a result, the switching power supply is smaller, ligher, cooler,and more power efficient. The drawback is that it is prone to fail during power surges, or might even fail right out of the box. Just as I like the Astron linears, I also prefer the Astron switching power supplies. Like the linear, I like to monitor voltage and current.

For the home, I terminate all DC power cables with the Anderson Powerpole connector. I used to use the West Mountain Rigrunner power strips at home, but I now use those mainly for mobile and portable settings. At home, I use the Saratoga PP6 power strip.

The actual power supply I am using is an old Icom PS-45 8 amp power supply. It's small, light and sometimes goes traveling with me. For now, it powers the two VHF radios and an occasional TNC.

For antennas for the home, I have a mix of components. Usually, I hook up the Diamond NR73BNMO magmounts to the mobile radios. For home use, I am switching from PL-259 to N connectors, primarily because i like to work satellites and 1296 MHz, where minimizing signal losses in antennas cables is a plus. I hook up lower loss 9913 coax cables with male N connectors at each end to extend the cable reach. Of course, I need the female N to male PL-259 adapters at each end. I can also run "standard" RG-8U or "thinner" RG-8X cables with PL-259 connectors for regular VHF and UHF work. I also have low loss LMR-400 and LMR-600 cable with N connectors in the parts bin in case I need it for special occasions.

For long runs, I recommend LMR-400 rather than RG-8U or 9913 for lower losses. If it's really long runs, you'll need hardline or heliax cables.

I often use a diplexor to combine VHF and UHF signals onto one coaxial cable, then send the signal to a dual-band antenna.

Useful accessories for the ham shack include some good publications and reading material. I highly recommend getting the ARRL Radio Handbook. Any recent edition, say within the last five years will do. The answers to many questions will be found there. Other supplemental publications include the ARRL Antenna Handbook and the ARRL Operating Manual.

In addition, you should get a station log. You keep track of each major contact by writing down the details in your log, which also helps you to chronicle your growth as a ham radio operator.

These and other publications can be found at the ARRL online Catalog and Bookstore.

Fifth: The mobile radio

Once you have a decent station set up at home for daily use, the other area of daily operations is the vehicle. I enjoy mobile operations, as it helps to pass the time away whether I'm inching along in traffic, or zipping down the freeway.

There are a number of types of radios available for the mobile. In general, I prefer the type where the front control panel is removable and can be placed on or near the dash. This improves your ability to keep your eyes on the road and leads to overall safe operations. Some radios also offer more controls on the handheld microphone, so you can change frequency or adjust the audio volume more conveniently.

Some notes about mobile radio installation and operation. As much as possible, you should string a 12 or 10 gauge "zip-cord" red-and-black power cable from the battery into the passenger compartment. if you intend to run more than 10 watts, you should avoid running your radio off the cigarette lighter plug as you'll more than likely pop the fuse which is often rated around six amps. If you install the zip-cord power cable, for electrical safety reasons, place in-line fuses on both the black and red cables near where you connect the cable to the car battery. If something should go wrong, that cable can draw a lot of current very quickly, start sparking and start an automobile engine fire. Putting protective in-line fuses near the battery cuts off the current should a short occur. Terminate the cable in the passenger compartment with an Anderson powerpole connector, so that you can interchange the radio in the car with the radios in the home.

For mobile operations on the island of Oahu, I recommend installing VHF and UHF quarter-wave antennas on the rear trunk lid of the car, and using a diplexor to combine the signals into the single antenna connector commonly found on most dual-band mobile radios these days. The quarter-wave antenna has a more uniform radiation pattern, so it will both send and listen to radio signals over objects and terrain nearby that can block your signals. Whether you travel through the concrete canyon between the downtown buildings, get stuck in a multi-story parking structure at the shopping center, find yourself in the hollow in the freeway that's been cut through the hillside, or travelling on the highway as it winds down between the valley walls, the quarter wave antenna will send the signal "up" over the obstacles and out to the repeater.

When you mount the base of the trunk lid mount antenna to the trunk lid, make sure to polish and wax the trunk well, mount the antenna base, screw in the grounding screws well, then apply silicon sealant around the base of the trunk lid antenna base to seal out moisture. If you can find alcohol-based RTV silicon sealant, that's the best material to use as it won't contain the acetic acid found in the variety carried by most hardware/home improvement stores.

Sixth: The mobile HF radio

Assuming you have a small setup at home, and you want to try your hand at HF, you might consider getting a mobile HF (High Frequency or "shortwave") radio. You'll have the choice of using it in your car or a home. You can click on the link for HF mobile radio and operations which will give you some ideas for a mobile setup, and you can resume some of the equipment for within your home.

Seventh: The home HF radio

Of course, you don't have to buy an HF radio designed for mobile work and use that within the house. You can buy one designed to plug into the AC outlet and put out 100 watts or more on HF. You can spend as little or as much as you want. New HF radios for the home can range from about $600 to over $10,000. (Yes, that's right, over ten thousand dollars for just the radio alone.)

There's all kinds of features and controls for the home HF radio. I'll defer a full explanation of these to another time. Of course, as more modern radios come to market, the general approach is to have the built-in computer do more and more of the work. As a result, there's more LCD screens, computer-type menus and push buttons appearing in some of the models that's taking the place of controls such as audio volume, squelch and RF gain which were traditionally controlled by knobs, or real switches such as "Noise Blanker" and "VFO split". The old timers have a saying. "Real radios have knobs." If you're chuckling, you understand.

If that saying escaped you, here is the key point. If you're listening to an obscure signal that's buried deep in the static and noise... or you hear an elusive distant station that you're just dying to reach out and contact, immediately, you'll be grabbing hold of the knobs and rapidly turning them to optimize the signal and your chance of making a two-way contact.

Oh sure, you could get the same work done by poking around menus on the screen to bring up the desired control/feature, then pressing the "up" or "down" button to the desired level, but that would take an eternity compared to the lighting speed of just reaching out with your hand and twidling the knob with your two fingers. You get what you pay for. So check it out. As the radio gets larger and more expensive, more of the controls leave the "computer screen and menu" and become permanently accessible knobs right in front of you. Real radios have knobs.

And, if the price tag is steep, you can always hunt around for a good used piece of equipment for a decent price.

If you found this guide map for shopping for radios to be of good use, drop me an email and tell me you liked it.

Find out more by contacting:  rhashiro(remove this part)@hawaiiantel.net
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Updated: January 15, 2013
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