Your First Ham Radio Station
A short treatise on setting up your very first permanent station.
When one gets their first FCC License for an amateur radio station, often the very first radio they purchase is a hand-held "walky-talky". For some this is a good option. With a good aftermarket antenna and a suitable quick charger an "HT" can, in some cases, be the only radio needed. In areas like our part of Florida, however, one sometimes needs the extra power that only a "mobile" radio will provide. Elsewhere on this web site you will find a page on installing a mobile radio in your vehicle. On this page I want to discuss the next step in the evolution of the typical ham radio operator- The Home Station.
There comes a time in the life of most ham operators when they want a permanent station at their home. These can come in all flavors, from the multi-radio contest station with big towers in the back yard and lots of different antennas, to the very simple one radio setup with a modest VHF/UHF antenna mounted inconspicuously on the house. Most hams start out with the latter and build the station up and out as their desires and finances allow. There never really is a stopping point (unless self imposed). There is always the "need" for a newer radio, a better SWR analyzer, an improved antenna etc.
What I am going to explain here is the beginning of this process - that first station. Everything that comes after will, in some way, be built on the foundation of that initial set-up. For the Technician licensee, with privileges on the VHF and UHF bands only (yes I know thatTechs have a few privileges on HF, but they are for CW and SSB only) the choice of a radio for the home station can be relatively easy. Any mobile rig for VHF/UHF is suitable. These can range in price from less than $200 for a VHF only rig to much higher for a dual band all mode transceiver. Remember nw, the license only specifies what frequencies you are permitted on, not what modes you can use on those frequencies. There are many different modes for the Tecj=hnician to use: FM, SSB. SSTV, FSTV, APRS etc. etc.
That first station will probably be set up for FM VHF and/or UHF operation. Here is your "Shopping list".
A single or dual band transceiver similar to the type you would mount in your car.
A Power Supply of either the linear or switching persuasion with enough amperage to properly supply you radio. It is wise to buy as big a power supplu as you can afford, because you will be adding other devices to the station that will need power too.
Coaxial cable long enough to get from wherever your radio is to wherever your antenna is. You will need several different lengths to connect the radio to the surge arrestor and then to the antenna. More about that later.
An antenna or antennas suitable for the bands you intend to operate on.
A mast or other support on which to mount the antenna(s).
A surge or "Lightning" arrestor. This hopefully will prevent the surge from a nearby lightning hit from damaging your radio.
A ground rod at least 8 feet long and cable, strap or wire of adequate size and length to connect your station to the ground rod. This distance should never be more than 10 feet if at all possible. Your surge arrestor will also be connected to this ground rod with a very short cable, strap or wire as well.
An accurate SWR meter. This need not be too expensive, but it does have to cover the bands you are going to operate on. That old CB wattmeter need not apply for the job.
All the other miscellaneous items and bits that you will find that you need as you proceeed.
The previous list concerns the actual gear you will need for the radio portion of the station. That is not, however, the whole story. You will also need an "operating position". The operating position can be as simple as a small table in a room with another primary purpose like the kitchen or a den, or it can be an entire room such as a spare bedroom or a part of the garage. I once had an extensive station in a Florida Room, now I am lucky enough to have a spare bedroom for my radio station.You can see some pictures of my home station on the N1GY QTH page of this web site. You will have to negotiate with your spouse as to how much room you need and where it will be located. The criteria that are vital are that it be on the first floor and against an outside wall. This is important because you will need access to the outside to run your coax to the antennas and the RF ground rod has to be within 10 feet of the station.
With your new operating position, you have a wide array of options. A fancy office desk can be used or a simple door blank on top of a couple of used 2 drawer filing cabinets. You can surround the room with bookcases or add a second table as a work area for projects. The design is really up to you. There are a few suggestions I would like to make:
Make sure that the set-up you design will be comfortable to use.
Buy a good office chair to sit in. Anything less will induce fatigue, whic will detract from your enjoyment of the hobby.
Make sure you have good lighting at the operating position and around the room. Here again, eyestrain and fatigue are the enemy.
If you are going to have a computer at your operating position, you may have to add some RF chokes to the various computer cables you will be using. For me the biggest problem was interference to the PC speakers from the radio transmissions. There are PC speakers available that can filter this interference out. Another solution is to physically separate the radios and the PC by a few more feet.
There are at least three books that every operator should have in their possession. The first is a copy of the FCC rule book. The second is a recent copy of the ARRL Handbook. These are updated every year. Yours need not be the absolute latest, but it should not be more than 2 or 3 years old. The third is a copy of the ARRL Operating Manual. Like the Handbook, this one is updated regularly, but any copy less than 5 years old will be OK.
The first book, The FCC Rule Book, you should always have at the operating position. If there is a question as to what is permitted or legal, the answer will be seen in a careful reading of the Rules.
The second book, The ARRL Handbook, is considered the primary reference for all things RF. It is found on most of the desks of professional engineers as well as amateur operators. In addition to chapters explaining every facet of radio communications there are projects to build from the very simple to the most complex.
The third book, The ARRL Operating Manual, is the definitive tome on anything to do with actually operating your radio station. In addition to proper procedures for every band and/or mode available, it contains important reference chapters on countries and call signs around the world and their operating privileges plus maps and guides to almost every facet of amateur radio.
The material so far is what I consider to be the barest minimum for a home radio station.From here, you can build out and up to add whatever you need to satisfy yourself as an Amateur Radio Operator.
I have seen and visited stations with custom built cabinetry consoles for all the different radio gear. Incredibly complex tower and antenna systems are a feature of some of the bigger stations. There are stations where the operating position is in one place and the actual radios and antennas are miles away, controlled remotely by computer. I know of at least one ham who has an operating position at his home in Florida, while his actual station is over a thousand miles away in his Midwest Home. Both are connected with computers operating over the Internet and operate just as though the radios were in the same room with the operator.
By the same token, I know of several hams whose stations consist of one or two HTs and mag-mount antennas on top of a filing cabinet or a refrigerator. Your station may well fall somewhere between these two examples.
The main thing every new operator has to understand is that skill and comfort come from frequent practice with the equipment. You cannot get the license, buy the gear and then just sit back and wait until it is needed in a disaster. You must get on the air, check into local and regional nets and monitor and use the frequencies often if you are to attain any level of competence as a communicator. Plus, it will be a lot of fun as well.
The material presented here is just a starting point. An experienced operator can offer help with the many details that I was unable to cover here. Join your local amateur radio club and get to know the members. The friendships created in this environment can add immeasurably to your knowledge, skill and enjoyment as a trained communicator in whatever aspect of amateur radio piques your interest.