Welcome

Welcome to the NewHams.info site.  Its purpose is to provide training, information and general encouragement to new or prospective amateur radio operators (hams).  Sort of a virtual “Elmer”, as we say.  Experienced hams should find it interesting and useful as well.

Organized in sort of a blog format, post topics are usually small and simple. You can scroll through the posts sequentially or search for key words or click on a category of interest.

The reader can sign up for email notification of new posts by clicking on the Follow button below Categories on the sidebar.

Topics generally cater to USA hams getting started in amateur radio with local VHF/UHF communications.  However, HF band operators and hams in other countries should find something interesting here as well.

You will see US license exam questions and answers in green boxes in various posts to refresh your knowledge.

Transmit Power

Q. How much RF power can a ham legally transmit with?

A. It varies with frequency/band, license class and licensing authority.  Maximum transmitter power levels are regulated by country; we will discuss the rules in the USA here.  It is one of the important regulatory subjects covered by the question pool for amateur radio license exams.

The average VHF/UHF handheld transceiver (HT) puts out 5 to 10W maximum.  A typical VHF mobile rig is capable of 50 to 75W.  Most modern HF transceivers peak at 100W.

Before we get to maximum levels, in the USA the general guidance is to use the least amount of power needed.

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Of course, that’s easier said than done so many hams just go with the radio’s max power setting unless they know that a lower power setting works well or are operating a weak-signal mode.

In general, US hams are limited to 1500W (1.5kW) peak envelope power (PEP).  That doesn’t mean you should, just that you legally can.  This applies to General and Extra Class licensees for most bands and Technicians at VHF and higher.

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There are specific power limitations on 2200m, 630m, 60m, and 30m bands:

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As you can see from the band plan (based on FCC regulations), Technician class licensees have 200W power limits on the HF bands, with HF privileges rather limited already.

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So why a would a ham want to use more power than their stock radios can transmit, and how would they increase their default power level?

To answer the why question, it is simply that more transmit power gives more signal energy at the receiving end.  Increased wattage improves the chance of making contacts under poor conditions by overpowering signal attenuation and background noise.

To answer the how question, hams use RF amplifiers (linear power amps) to increase the power of their basic transmitter.

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This RF power amplifier must operate linearly so that it does not distort the waveform.

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RF amps can be for single or multiple bands.  More commonly you will find multi-band HF (or HF+6m) amplifiers which tend to be large boxes:

HF Amp

You will also find broadband or single-band VHF and/or UHF amplifiers:

Mirage 2m Amp

Besides all these commercially available amplifiers some hams build their own.  This is partly a nod to tradition—hams being DIY types—and partly because commercial amps may not be readily available for very low or high frequencies.


Ham-speak note:  When a ham says that s/he is running barefoot it means raw transmitter output power, unamplified beyond the stock radio capabilities.  Typically 100W or less.


Power amps are not just for handheld VHF/UHF FM transceivers; they can amplify most any amateur radio RF signal.  They are mainly useful for voice (AM, SSB, FM) and video Continue reading

Why Hams Care About the Ionosphere

There are many questions concerning the ionosphere and its layers in US license exams.

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Experienced hams talk about the ionosphere a lot these days and we see plenty written on the topic in amateur radio websites and magazines.  So what’s the importance of the ionosphere?

The real magic in ham radio is skywave propagation where signals can travel well beyond line of sight, even to the other side of the planet if conditions are right.  We can have two-way radio communication between Iceland and Australia and places in between because voice, video and data signals may be bent back to earth by the ionosphere.

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The ionosphere is shell of electrons and electrically charged atoms and molecules (ions) that surrounds the Earth, stretching from a height of about 50 km (31 mi) to more than 1,000 km (620 mi).  Because this band is electrically active the ionosphere is able to reflect or refract electromagnetic radiation at certain frequencies, the HF bands in particular.  For most hams communicating beyond line of sight is a big deal and the ionosphere is what makes long distance (DX) contacts commonplace.

Ionosphere bending

There are two defined ionospheric layers at night and four in daytime, the difference being exposure to the sun which provides most of the energy to the ionosphere.

Ionosphere_Layers

In daylight the F layer separates into F1 and F2 regions.  Because F2 is farthest from the earth’s surface it can bend radio waves the greatest distance.

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Long-distance propagation changes with day/night cycles and seasonal variance away from the equator.  There are numerous anomalies and disturbances that can affect the ionosphere.  Between all these factors the ionosphere is not a uniform shell; it has varying height, thickness, and density.  This continually changing area makes HF propagation highly variable.

Also known as skip, ionospheric propagation of shortwave (HF) radio signals travel a specific radius or skip distance from the transmitting antenna.  This makes received signals particularly strong at the skip distance.

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In addition to single skip distance, the earth itself can reflect/refract signals from the ionosphere back up, resulting in a secondary skip or hop and perhaps Continue reading

Ham Radio Bands

The term band is thrown around constantly in ham radio discussion and it is included in  many questions in US license exam pools.  So what exactly is a radio band?

Parts of the radio frequency spectrum allocated for a common purpose are called a band.  Besides amateur radio, the reader may be familiar with USA commercial broadcast ranges known as AM band and the FM band, or another personal communication chunk of frequencies called the citizens band (CB).

With amateur radio, bands are generally associated with a number (2m or 40m, for example).  This number is approximately equal to the wavelength of that span of frequencies

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We say approximately because a specific wavelength is only valid at one exact frequency and that may be outside the actual range of the band.

Shown below is a chart of the current US amateur bands (dated 2017):

band_chart_image_for_arrl_web

These 18 bands are are named by their approximate wavelength.  For those who care about such details, the named wavelength (λ) may not actually be inside the designated frequency range.  A table of these is given below:

band wavelengths

Some do, but why don’t all the meter bands line up with wavelengths inside the band?

Lots of discussion on this issue can be found on the internet and two particularly good links are given in the first two references below.  It’s a real combination of history, simplicity, misuse, and existing broadcast band names.

0.7m is the same as 700mm or 70cm; the 70cm name is more commonly used Continue reading

Software Defined Radio (SDR)

While not really a topic important to new hams, Software Defined Radio (SDR) crops up often in amateur radio publications and advertising so we should at least introduce the idea here.

As its name suggests, SDR involves software working in radio equipment.  More than just being used for operator interface and general control, SDR software specifically replaces the functions of signal processing hardware employed by traditional radio circuits.

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SDR greatly simplifies radio circuitry by replacing the functions of hardware oscillators, mixers, filters, modulators/demodulators, and detectors with software.  Since software is easily changed this also means that radio functionality may easily be improved or enhanced, or allow for new modes, protocols, and interfaces to other devices by reconfiguration or reprogramming.

SDR may be used on radio transmitters but the most common implementation is with receivers.  Most of the popular and available SDR products are receivers and most employ direct digital conversion techniques.

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One of the more defining characteristics of SDR is the user interface (integrated or PC display) waterfall display and menu-driven controls interface.

hdsdr

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There are various SDR interfaces out there, many (most?) are free applications.  These will typically have a waterfall display showing the entire receiver passband, band/frequency controls, filtering and other features (volume, AGC, noise, mode), and display controls/customization, along with recording and playback capability.

Current SDR use in amateur radio is typically for the HF bands; stand-alone modules or dongles running on PCs are commonly found and complete transceivers are quite popular although more expensive than traditional HF rigs (see references below).  As of this writing, the author is unaware of any widely-available VHF/UHF FM mobile or handheld Continue reading

Radio Brands

A ham new or old has many choices for radios and radio gear available.  We don’t want to tell radio amateurs what to buy or not to buy but will give some guidance here.

The modern natural progression is to start with a handheld VHF /UHF transceiver, then a mobile VHF /UHF unit, then a base HF rig.  These have different characteristics which must be considered so the first question is what type of radio are we buying?

Beyond the basic type there are several factors in selecting a radio brand.  It usually comes down to the buyer’s top three or four priorities from this list of characteristics:

  • Functionality
  • Features
  • Performance
  • Quality
  • Reliability
  • Durability
  • Ease of use/programmability
  • Memory capacity
  • Familiarity
  • Style/Appearance
  • Portability
  • Price

Unless you are looking for a specialty radio (i.e., low-power portable CW operation), size isn’t much of a factor these days as within a general family all radios have similar weights and dimensions.

From this list the top consideration should be functionality (what it does, exactly) as that is most relevant.  Say you want a dual-band FM HT to work the local repeaters or for EmComm deployment.  You have more than a dozen choices available.

Refining further by features for things like APRS, power levels, battery type, weather resistance, and whatnot will narrow your selection but you still have many to choose from.  At this point you’re likely to think about price and here is where things get fuzzy.  You could choose the nice name brand $350 radio but there’s one that does mostly the same thing for $50.

Sounds like a slam dunk decision to go with the cheaper one, but you should carefully consider this.  Beyond functionality and features, important characteristics suffer.  With that low price you get questionable performance, low quality, poor reliability, and lack of durability, not to mention fewer features.  As the saying goes, you get what you pay for.

Now that doesn’t mean you should never buy a cheap radio, but you should really think about doing so.  Some HTs are so inexpensive they can be considered disposable.  If you lose or break one, you’re out only $30-50.  This may be a good candidate for backup or one you might take boating or on a camping trip or loan to a prospective ham to listen on.  You can find favorable reviews on some of these cheap radios (mainly HTs and mobile rigs).  But you will also find many negative reviews on the same radios, mainly for reliability and durability.  Some of the cheap Chinese radios also have poor RF characteristics, lack FCC certification, and are not strictly legal for use in the USA.  So it’s a crap shoot if you do want to buy a cheap radio.

icomlogo                kenwoodlogo                 yaesulogo

There are three well-known name brands that have reputations for high quality and reliability: Icom, Kenwood, and Yaesu for hand-held, mobile and base station radio equipment.  These will cost more but will give many years of service and are worth repairing should one fail or be broken.  All originate in Japan but have strong presence in the USA and other countries.  American companies Elecraft and FlexRadio make awesome premium HF rigs but they are not competing for hand-helds or mobile units.

Alinco was another Japanese manufacturer with a good reputation, arguably up there with the Big 3 but is now developed and built in China.

Pre-owned equipment will be less expensive than new, of course, but the price between used reputable brands vs unreputable will be proportional.  With used radios you also can find older HF brands with excellent reputations.

The author’s own sad experience with an off-brand mobile radio has led him to this topic and a determination to never again buy a cheap non-disposable radio.  He purchased a Continue reading

HT Antenna Improvement

The handheld transceiver (HT) is likely a new ham’s first radio.  This VHF/UHF rig is relatively inexpensive, compact and fairly useful for local communication via repeater or simplex operation.

Unfortunately, HT  performance is typically limited by its low power and cheap factory antenna.

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There are three easy ways to improve the HT antenna.  These ideas are from our post on Understanding Antennas but we wanted to elaborate a bit on them here.

The first improvement is to get a 2m ¼-wave or 5/8-wave whip antenna.

This 2m ¼-wave whip is much longer (~19″) compared to the factory antenna but gives dramatically better performance (roughly equivalent of 5x power):

QW whip

This telescoping 5/8-wave whip should (in theory) perform better than the ¼-wave monopole (shown with 5/8-wave mobile whip):

5_8 Whip

These two antennas can be purchased new in the $20-30 range; well worth the money.

While the antenna can be improved with a longer whip, vertical monopole performance is also limited by the HT’s indirect ground plane.

The counterpoise that makes the vertical monopole behave like a λ/2 dipole on a HT is the operator’s body.  It is capacitively coupled to the ham’s body through the plastic case and metal shell around the RF circuitry.

This indirect counterpoise coupling is not only weak but also highly variable and unpredictable.

The good news is that we can improve the counterpoise simply by adding a wire to the HT antenna connection.

By connecting a ¼-wave  wire (~19” for 146MHz) to the antenna connector outer terminal, we create a physical counterpoise in place of the indirect ground plane through the operator’s body.

This gives superior performance under difficult conditions and is easy to do.

These physical counterpoise wires are known as rat tails or tiger tails due to their appearance.

Rat tail counterpoise installation is quick and easy.  Simply unscrew the antenna, slip the rat tail over the connector and re-attach the antenna

tiger tail1

tiger tail2

tiger tail3

tiger tail4

The rat tail can simply hang down in a gentle arc where it won’t be much in the way of anything. Even better, you can hold the wire out  in the direction of communication.  Gain/directivity is achieved Continue reading

What You Need to Know About Electrolytic Capacitors

Capacitors are a fundamental electronic component and their property of capacitance in Farads (F) are a core part of radio circuitry.

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The basic capacitor is a pair of metal plates separated by some form of dielectric insulation.

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Electrolytic capacitors are special because they have a lot of capacitance—hundreds or thousands of microfarads (µF)—in a relatively small package.

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Electrolytic Cap
Electrolytic capacitor assortment

Most big electrolytic caps are in the radial package where both leads are on one side. The axial package with one lead on each end of the cylinder are sometimes used.  See axial vs radial.

Aluminum electrolytic capacitors provide the highest values while remaining relatively inexpensive so are commonly encountered in radio and electronics.   This is possible because of wet chemistry; specifically, an electrolyte solution as part of the dielectric layer between metal plates.  Aluminum foil is the primary conductive surface and the electrolyte is part of the separating insulator.

Al-e-cap-construction.jpg

Aluminum electrolytic capacitors are frequently used in power supply circuits such as shown below, and are found in most every type of electronics:

Figure T-2

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OK, so this is wet chemistry but a dry topic. Why are we boring you with all this?

There is a practical point here for those of you who are handy or brave enough to tackle your own electronics repair; hams tend to be a DIY group.  Be advised that many functional problems in all sorts of electronics—not just radios—can be attributed to failed aluminum electrolytic capacitors.  We hope to encourage you to fix an expensive piece of equipment, not just toss it or pay someone to repair it for you.

Usually an easy fix with just two component leads to un-solder and then re-soldering the replacement. Diagnosis Continue reading