N1GY- The simple Approach to Ham Radio
and My Model Railroad Hobby
One of the most frequent series of questions I get asked by newly licensed hams concerns the setting up of their first station, be it in the home or in the car. Here is what I tend to tell them, allowing for the fact that each ham's situation is unique and this advice will thus vary with the circumstances presented.
One of the standard answers most new hams get when inquiring about getting started is "buy a nice HT". While this may be the right answer in some areas in the country, it is not necessarily correct in all areas. Here in Florida, there are few hills, let alone mountains on which to mount repeaters. Higher power will often mean the difference between a scratchy barely readable signal and a full quieting strong signal that is crystal clear. Sometimes a mobile rig is the best choice for a first rig because of the location and altitude of the local repeaters.
One of the truisms about amateur radio is that the new gear always has more new features than the previous generation of radios. Some of these features are genuinely advances and make amateur radio better. Unfortunately, some are needless complication at best and marketing hype at worst. The saving grace about these "advances" is that generally you can simply choose not to use them.
Sometimes, new hams are advised to buy used equipment when starting out. I think this is a bad idea for several reasons. First, used equipment has no warranty. It is always sold "as is". A rig that looks great on the outside could have serious, possibly un-fixable problems inside. Second, many used rigs do not come with a users manual. Believe it or not, the best way to learn how to operate your new rig is to read the manual. A third reason I like new rigs for new hams is that they come with all of the parts that you will need. A mounting bracket, power cable, microphone, hardware, screws, bolts and nuts, etc are all nice to have when setting up your first rig.
A lot of new transceivers are capable of being programmed and operated with your computer. Sometimes the computer program or application is free from the manufacturer, sometimes the software costs a few dollars but even comes with the cable to connect it to your radio. With modern radios now having as many as 500 to 1000 memory channels, computer programming of the radio is often a good option to have.
I mentioned the user manual a few lines ago. The best way to learn how to operate your new rig is "Read the Manual". I know, a lot of consumer electronic gear is designed to be totally intuitive and easy to use. Ham radio gear does not fall into that category for the new ham. Read and re-read the user guide. Many new rigs buttons and controls do different thing depending on how they are touched. A tap does one thing. A push of less than one second does something else. A push and hold of more than that on the same button does a third thing. Ham radios are not intuitive, particularly to the tyro. Again, read and re-read the manual.
The choice of a mobile rig raises questions that new hams have little or no experience with and where their biggest questions occur. A mobile rig normally requires three things that a hand held rig already comes with: An antenna, a power supply, and a way to connect them all together. Here are my recommendations for these items.
Antenna: The choice of an antenna will depend on several factors. If mounting a radio in a car, one needs a "mobile antenna". These usually are sold with an adequate length of coaxial cable and the usual PL-259 connector. The connector may be different depending on the intended use. BNC and SMA connectors are usually used with hand held radios, N connectors are normally used with UHF and above bands due to their lower losses. The old standby PL-259 is just fine for HF and VHF and indeed UHF works fine too up to 70 centimeters (also called 440 MHz).
If you are setting up your "mobile rig" in a fixed or "base" scenario then a different antenna is needed. The "ground plane" provided by the vehicle body is not available at the house, so the antenna must be designed to provide a replacement. There are many ways to do this. You can build your own, there are plans and instructions aplenty on the Internet. Just Google homebrew antennas (insert the band of choice here). There will be literally thousands of hits. Just look for one that looks good to you and get started. One can also buy a readymade antenna from any of the various retailers on the net. Their catalogs are readily available and make good reading. To mount either homebrewed or commercial antennas, you will need a mast. Standard TV mast is available at any home center and will work well.
Cable: You will also need coaxial cable of sufficient length and size to connect the antenna to the radio. As I mentioned before, in the mobile setup, the antenna usually comes with the coax already connected to the antenna and needs only to be run to the radio and connected. In the home, the coax will have to be run from the antenna on the mast, down the mast, into the house and then have a connector soldered on correctly and then attached to the radio. There are very good articles on the Internet on this subject and books available from the ARRL on the subject.
Power: The radio has to be powered by something. In the car or truck, a "simple" connection of the red and black wires that came with the radio to the appropriate terminals of the vehicle battery will generally suffice. The reason I put quotes around the word simple in the above sentence is because installing a two way radio in a modern car is NEVER "simple". There are many things in modern cars that do not like RF. Therefore, any installation should begin with a bit of research. Most of the major car manufacturers have published guidelines on such installations. Some foreign makes want you to forget the whole idea and will not advise you. Believe me, a two way radio can be installed into just about anything. However, care and good engineering practice are required for any installation and are even more important when the vehicle's manufacturer does not help. In these cases I usually fall back on what Ford, GM and Chrysler have published and go from there. These guides are available on the Internet and some are listed on my "Links" page.
In the house, you will need a "power supply" to power the radio. This can be as simple as a deep cycle "12 volt" battery or it can be one of several types of power converter that takes 110 V AC and turns it into 13.8 V DC. Yes, that little wall wart that came with your last gadget can do that too, but NOT for the radio. One of the requirements for the power supplied to the transceiver is that it be clean, free from any wavering in voltage. A good power supply cleans up the output so that no noise or "hum" is injected into your signal. Another requirement is that the power supply has enough capacity to send enough amperes to the radio when it calls for it. On receive, most transceivers use less than one ampere. Push the PTT button to send the radio into transmit and the current draw can easily exceed 10 amps for a 50 watt radio or 20 amps for a 100 watt rig. The little 5 amp power supply at "Radio Shack" will NOT be able to do this.
There are two main types of power supply suitable for ham radio. Linear power supplies, put out little noise and work generally very well. However, they are heavy, and take up more desk or floor space than their "switching" relatives. Switching power supplies are much smaller for the same amp capacity and much lighter. Poorly designed ones can create "hash" or noise on certain bands. In looking for a switching power supply I recommend the MFJ switching power supplies. They were tested along with units from the major ham gear manufacturers and somewhat surprisingly, beat the daylights out of the "Big Three". I have used an MFJ 4125 PS for several years and am totally happy with it. To be fair, I also own an Astron RS-35M linear power supply and have since before switching units were even an idea. It has served me well for many years and in fact still powers my home station.
Grounding: Another area that should be talked about is "grounding". It is very important, so important that entire books have been written on the subject. It is an issue that I do not have enough space to go into in depth here. The shield of the coaxial cable should be grounded outside the house to at least an 8 foot ground rod. This is usually done by connecting the PL-259 on the end of the Coax to a "lightning arrester" which has a bolt that connects a heavy wire to the ground rod. This "lightning arrestor" will NOT protect your rig from a direct hit on your antenna. Nothing will do that. What it hopefully will do is allow a surge of electricity from a nearby strike to be shunted to the ground rod away from your expensive radio. The other end of the "arrestor" is attached via a shorter run of coax to the back of your radio. Your radio itself and any other gear such as the power supply should also be "grounded" to that same grounding point. This can be done in a number of ways. I have used a length of 1/2" copper pipe, mounted on the back of my operating position. This pipe is attached to the grounding point outside (which should be less than 10 feet away) by a copper strap about 2" in width and perhaps a 1/16" thick. All of the gear on my operating position, radios, power supplies, control boxes etc., is then connected to the copper pipe with flexible mesh cables that are mechanically attached to the pipe with metal hose clamps. Do not use solder. If you do experience a lightning event, the solder will melt within nano-seconds leaving you unprotected. The mechanical connections will last probably only a moment longer but it will be enough to divert the surge to ground.
Elsewhere on this web site I have written about other aspects of amateur radio and projects for the newcomer to build as they become at home with the technology. I will thus only touch the surface here.
Antennas are actually easy to build and make good projects for the newcomer. There are plenty of sources for designs and materials can be as close as the local hardware store. Always buy more capacity in a power supply than you actually need. The supply will loaf along having no problem keeping up with your usage of the radio and when you add more radios and more equipment and you know you will, the capacity is already there.
Find a space in the house that you can call your own. Maybe you have a spare bedroom or an area in an attached garage. Build or buy nice furniture for your radio room or ham shack. You have to use it, it might as well be nice to use. Arrange your gear so that it is easy and comfortable to operate. You will get more enjoyment out of this wonderful hobby if you make the place that you do it from, comfortable and pleasant to be in.
Do not be afraid to experiment. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Join your local amateur radio club. There is the best and fastest way to get your questions answered by people who live in the same area and have done the same things for the first time just like you are doing now.