Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Ham Radio

Once you've passed the novice-license test, it's time to start thinking about setting up your first station.

At a minimum, you'll need:

About these ads

* A transmitter and receiver, or a transceiver (the transmitter and receiver are housed in one cabinet and share common tuning circuits).

* A transmit-receive switch, if you use a separate transmitter and receiver. This allows you to disconnect the receiver from the antenna while you're transmitting.

* An antenna.

* A standing wave ratio (SWR) meter, or watt meter, which gives you an idea of the efficiency of your antenna system - antenna and transmission line - and how well it's matched to your transmitter. If the antenna and transmitter aren't matched properly, much of the energy leaving the transmitter is reflected back into it, instead of radiating from the antenna. If reflected power is too intense, it can damage the transmitter.

* A transmatch, which is a tuning device connected between the transmitter and antenna. In essence, it fools the transmitter into ''seeing'' a matched condition with the antenna. It also allows hams to use some very unorthodox antennas, including window screens, downspouts, and vertical lamp poles (apartment dwellers take note), as well as highway guardrails.

* A dummy load, basically a mock antenna, which allows you to tune or test your transmitter or transceiver without putting a signal on the air that could interfere with other stations.

An expensive shopping list? It doesn't have to be. It depends on how you approach it. There are two basic avenues for acquiring these and other pieces of equipment. You can buy commercial units. Or you can build your own, either from circuits published in various ham-radio books and magazines, or from professionally engineered kits.

About these ads

''The key is how much money is available. If you're on a tight budget, look into second-hand equipment. There are some good, early vintage transceivers around for $100 to $150,'' says Wes Hayward (W7ZOI), a 27-year veteran of the pastime who has written extensively about the hobby. Sources of used equipment can be found through local ham-radio clubs, ham-magazine ads, and ham-club flea markets and auctions. Many of these same sources also can lead you to outlets for new equipment. Experienced ham-radio operators often are very willing to help newcomers select new or used gear.

If you have $500 to $600 to spend, Mr. Hayward adds, there are ''nice transceivers made in Japan. Japanese equipment represents very impressive performance per dollar.''

Commercial units have several advantages. They can be put on the air almost as soon as you pop open the carton. And if you decide later to purchase a new radio, commercial units generally have a higher resale value. The disadvantage is cost. The price of a new transceiver ranges anywhere from about $400 to $3, 000 or more, depending on the number of ''bells and whistles'' packed into the cabinet.

Building a transmitter or receiver also has advantages. Its resale value may not be great, but a ''homemade'' radio can get you on the air for less money. And you sure get to know your way around the inside of the cabinet.

''It's very rare to find a radio amateur these days who really understands how his equipment works'' or who can repair a radio that breaks down, Mr. Hayward says. ''You're really going to learn something about electronics by building your own equipment.''

Hayward readily admits his bias. He says he's designed and built most of his own equipment.

Kits offer a compromise between commercial and home-built equipment. The Heathkit Company in Benton Harbor, Mich., is probably the best-known kitmaker in the United States. Prices for its transceiver kits range from about $180 to $700 . The firm also markets a transmitter and receiver kit that, combined, sell for about $530 (including the power-supply kit for the transmitter). Heathkit also offers a variety of accessories, including transmatches and SWR meters, in kit form.

Both kits and ''homebrew'' radios, Hayward says, give the builder ''the confidence to get inside the box'' when the need arises or when the desire strikes to improve its performance.

Once you've picked a radio, it's time to consider an antenna. This is perhaps the key decision in setting up a station: All other things being equal, your antenna system will determine how effectively you'll be able to communicate with other stations.

A number of good books geared to beginners is available on the subject. Besides presenting basic antenna theory and construction, many of these books also describe unobtrusive indoor antennas for hams who live in apartments.

Broadly speaking, there are three types of antennas to chose from:

* Verticals. Made of aluminum tubing and designed to work on one or more amateur bands, verticals radiate in all directions. In most cases they're self-supporting and stand just under 30 feet tall. Often they're mounted on the ground. If bought ready-made, a vertical can cost from about $30 to $160, depending on quality and design.

* Wire antennas. The most common type is the dipole, a length of wire cut for a specific frequency band and strung as high as possible between two supports. The transmission line is attached to the center of the antenna. Depending on the frequency, these antennas can range from about 15 feet to 260 feet long. Different dipoles can be tied to the same transmission line to eliminate the need to switch antennas. Ideally, the dipole radiates best broadside to the wire. Depending on the type of transmission line and supports used, an efficient dipole can be built for $50 or less.

* Beams. These are the most sophisticated - and expensive - antennas of the lot. Usually made of aluminum tubes, the beams consist of a boom that supports two or more parallel elements. These elements, also aluminum tubes, run perpendicular to the boom. The advantage of a beam lies in the fact that it's highly directional. This not only substantially cuts unwanted interference from signals hitting the backs and sides of the antenna when receiving. It also concentrates most of a transmitted signal in one direction, thus making more effective use of the power at hand than either of the other two types of antennas. Beams are mounted on metal towers and use antenna rotors to turn them to the desired direction. Depending on design, the cost of commercially made beams range from about $80 to nearly $700. That doesn't include the tower - up to $2,400 - and the cost of the antenna rotor.

The choice between these antennas may hinge on more than the condition of your pocketbook. Before you spend a dime on an antenna, check with your city or town zoning board, or homeowners' association, to see what, if any, restrictions they place on outdoor antennas.

Next: installation and operation of your station