SWR

The standing wave ratio (SWR) is an important topic to hams regardless if they are working HF, VHF, UHF or any other frequency range allocated to radio amateurs.  Unfortunately it is technically involved and somewhat complex so is not intuitive or easy for non-technical folks to understand.  We’ll give a simplified explanation of SWR here and give you a basic idea of its significance and how hams relate to it.

The simplest way to think of SWR is as a measure of impedance matching.  Most commonly it is looking at the impedance differences between transceiver, transmission line (more often coaxial cable), and antenna.

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Assuming that all modern radios and cable have 50Ω impedance, the real SWR of interest boils down to the match between the transmission line and antenna.

As we mentioned in a previous post, when impedance of a source equals load impedance the best possible signal coupling occurs. Conversely, when impedances are not the same, signals couple poorly.  This is true of all electronics circuitry involving AC waveforms.

In amateur radio SWR focus is on transceiver to antenna coupling where we want to maximize RF power transfer in both transmit and receive modes.  When impedances do not match, received signals will be weak or non-existent; when transmitting, power will not radiate well from the antenna.  The ideal or “perfect” SWR for best possible transmit/receive coupling is 1:1, meaning a 50Ω radio/transmission line to a 50Ω antenna.

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SWR is simply the ratio of two impedances being measured.  It is commonly expressed in the X:X format and the larger value is always given first, regardless of which side is higher.

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With a 50Ω radio and 50Ω coax cable, a 4:1 SWR could indicate either a 12.5Ω or a 200Ω load (antenna).  Similar examples for 50Ω cable are contained in the General class exam pool:

G9A09-2015G9A10-2015A ham’s main concern with high SWR is significant power reflected back from the load, which stresses the transmitter power amplifier.  While a 1:1 SWR is ideal, practically speaking, 1.5:1 or less is good.  Many modern transceivers automatically reduce transmit power with a SWR greater than 2:1.

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SWR can be measured 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

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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

Indirect RF Hazards

Part 3 on Safety

Safety is an important topic in ham radio.  There are 11 questions on electrical hazards in the USA Technician class license exam pool, 13 questions on tower safety and associated grounding, and 13 questions on radio frequency (RF) hazards.

Part 1 on general electrical hazards and Part 2 on contact RF hazards were posted previously.  This post will address indirect RF hazards.  In case you are not familiar with the specifics of RF energy, refer to our post on the subject.

Here we are concerned about non-contact RF energy.  A long and involved topic (sorry about that) but full of useful detail.

While it involves radiation, RF energy radiates at lower wavelengths where it is least hazardous.

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From the electromagnetic spectrum diagram above we see that radio waves are on the low end of energy levels.  As the frequency increases (wavelengths decrease) the energy in electron volts increases exponentially.  Energy above 250eV (or so) is ionizing, which in addition to radiation burns can cause cell damage and mutations, leading to cancer and other maladies, as would radioactive material.

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Fortunately for hams, all radio frequencies are well below the ionizing radiation energy levels.

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Ham radio operators are radio  active, not radioactive. 🙂Amateur radio activeNow just because RF radiation is non-ionizing doesn’t mean it is completely safe.  Besides the direct contact hazard, exposure to radio frequency energy may cause localized tissue heating, particularly in the eyes and male reproductive area (here’s where a lady ham has an advantage, hihi).  Non-thermal effects of RF radiation are being studied constantly because, while compelling, they are somewhat ambiguous and unproven.

Because RF energy has this radiated exposure risk, rules and regulations have arisen to protect people from such hazards.  In the USA this is done at the federal level by both the FCC (radio communications) and OSHA (occupational).  There are also guidelines for RF radiation published by the ARRL and the IEEE.  Internationally, most countries apart from the US have similar guidelines, as does the World Health Organization (WHO).  References to some of these are given at the end of this presentation.

Specific to US radio amateurs, the FCC instituted RF field exposure limits called Maximum Permissible Exposure (MPE). Continue reading

Going Mobile

The Who had a hit tune entitled Going Mobile that may be playing in your head right now.  While the song celebrates the joy of living in a mobile home and traveling caravan-style in the UK, going mobile to hams means using radio equipment in your vehicle.

While some hams have HF radio setups in their cars, mobile predominantly means local VHF/UHF communication.  Besides bring able to talk to our ham buddies while driving around, 2m/70cm capability is particularly useful in case of disaster or other emergency communication (EmComm) situations.  It is perfect for storm spotting and certain public service events.

Mobile operation is popular and important enough that there are a number of US license exam questions involving the topic as you will see below.

Installing and using amateur radio equipment in one’s personal vehicle is too large a topic to cover here so we’ll simply advise you to research details on your own.  Talk to fellow hams and see what/how/why they installed their own gear.

The internet is also a vast resource for [mostly good] info .  One noteworthy site dedicated to mobile ham operation is managed by Alan Applegate, K0BG, and is located here.   It contains exceptionally useful info on most topics presented below.  We encourage you to use this site as a primary reference for your own mobile radio installation and operation.  The ABCs topic is the best place to start.

Before embarking on any of this yourself, there are several important points to consider:

  • Radio type
  • Radio control location
  • Radio mounting
  • Radio power wiring
  • Antenna type and mounting
  • Radio audio/speaker
  • Transmitting while driving
  • Hands-free/Distracted driving laws
  • Noise and interference

We will scratch the surface of each of these topics here:


Radio type-  Choose a mobile radio that best fits your needs, desires, and budget based on several factors:

  • Brand– quality/reliability and/or familiarity/loyalty
  • Transmit power (Watts)
  • Features– Auto power-off, APRS, dual-channel, remote head, cross-band, packet
  • VHF/UHF (V/U) or HF?
  • FM only, or multi-mode?
  • Single-band, dual-band, tri-band, or quad-band?
  • Analog or digital communication, or both?
  • New, reconditioned, or used?

Note that while a hand-held transceiver (HT) can be used in a car, it is significantly limited by its antenna and transmit power.  Both can be improved (linear amplifier and external antenna) but if you really want good mobile performance you should consider a purpose-specific mobile radio.


Radio control location-  Modern mobile transceivers typically feature removable front panels where the operator controls can be positioned in a more convenient, ergonomic, and safe location using a smaller footprint. Continue reading

Antenna Gain

Newer amateur radio operators may read or hear some discussion of antenna gain.  The gist of it usually involves how much stronger signals are with a particular type of antenna.

This concept of antenna gain can be confusing or misleading to new hams because it sort of suggests that some antennas actually amplify received or transmitted RF signals.  Not so.

Like the decibel (dB) antenna ‘gain’ is always relative.  So when we speak of antenna gain it refers to a performance improvement compared to a different type of antenna.

More commonly, gain is used to compare highly directional antennas (beams, dishes) to monopoles or dipoles.

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While antenna gain usually emphasizes directivity it may also be used to compare two similar types with different characteristics, as efficiency is another contributing factor.  For example, we can observe and measure the relative gain of a stubby “rubber duck” handheld radio antenna (pathetic) vs. a 5/8-wave whip (much better) even though they are both vertical monopoles with the same directivity.

The two types of antennas usually referenced against are isotropic and the simple dipole.  When measuring performance of other antennas, they will often be compared to one of these two.

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If the gain improvement is relative to the theoretical isotropic antenna, the units should specify the gain as dBi.  If measured against a dipole antenna, the gain should indicate dBd.  Any other comparisons should mention the reference antenna in the text.

Some good references for antenna gain are given below: Continue reading

How Far Can I Communicate?

One of the more interesting questions a new or prospective ham will have is, “how far can I communicate?”  The frustrating answer is, “it depends…” (don’t you hate hearing that?)

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There are many factors involved in the limits to distance of radio communication.  Carrier frequency is the huge one, followed by operating mode, antenna characteristics and transmit power. Time of day, solar activity and the season (spring, summer, autumn, winter) also have a big impact on range.  Natural (thunderstorms, aurora, geologic, cosmic) and man-made (crowded band, power lines, noisy electronics) interference can also limit or disrupt a radio contact.  Also factor in the use of repeaters (terrestrial and space satellites) or reflective objects (structures, moon, meteor showers), plus unusual weather conditions and you have a lot to consider.

Since many hams get started using VHF/UHF radios for local communication, let’s talk about this first.  VHF/UHF radio wave propagation is normally limited to line-of-sight, meaning the antennas at each end must have a clear path between them (no obstructions such as buildings, trees, and particularly, the earth).

3-20 miles is a realistic range for VHF/UHF hand-held radios on the ground, depending mainly on a clear path and relative height of the two parties.  Throw in a repeater with a high antenna and that range extends considerably.  Raising your own antenna up higher Continue reading

Don’t Settle for Just a HT

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Often a new ham’s first radio is a handheld transceiver (HT).  A HT represents the lowest-cost entry point to amateur radio and is relatively easy to set up and use.  Your first on-air experience as a licensed ham may involve a HT on a local VHF/UHF repeater, and that’s fine.

But don’t settle for just a HT as supplied by the manufacturer for your early ham radio experience.  You are almost certainly going to be frustrated and disappointed at its performance to the point of giving up on ham radio and wondering why all these hams are so enthusiastic about the hobby.

Don Keith N4KC makes this point eloquently  in his ‘HT Trap’ article where he discusses how easily a new ham can get discouraged with amateur radio because of the limitations of a stock HT.  I have observed this as well while helping new hams get set up in a local EmComm organization.

Huge improvements in HT performance or ease of use can be accomplished with three accessories.


First and foremost is the Continue reading