Getting Ready To Setup and Operate
The first thing you need to know is that ham radio
has a loooooooong learning curve. You can be a ham for 50 years and still
be learning something new every day if you want to. Also know that Ham
radio may not be "plug and play" like you may expect! You will have many
questions from the start that are not learned in the "books". Get yourself
a good local "Elmer" who can guide you on your way!
This article is in no way intended to be all inclusive and would be impossible, but is intended to make you ask yourself questions so you can be a better than average ham radio operator! If you ask yourself a question that you can't answer, then to get the answer....is up to you! Do your research!
We get many emails from
"Newbies" to ham radio who don't have the slightest idea of where to start
building their station so they can get on the air and start having fun
with ham radio. Many are excited about getting their license but are still
in the study stage and start thinking about the future when they do get
People with little or no
related ham radio background must rely on the instructions that come
with ham equipment and the advice of other experienced hams to help
them get their station on the air.
Some study manuals do not
help very much in this respect when it comes to setting up a new ham radio
station because they are designed to help you pass the exam and do not to
teach you thousands of other things you need to know that won't be on the
exam questions. These "other" things you need to know will come with time
and much help from either your research on the internet, books, (yes, you
will have to do lots of reading and more study now that you have your
license), ham friends, and many other sources.
"Any knowledge gained by extra study
on your part will make you a much better and respected operator and will
help you advance in ham radio. We all were not born knowing everything, so
it will take time and lots of effort on your part along with the help of
others. Don't expect to learn it all from the
internet....you will need to buy....yes...buy reference books that
are great teaching tools for all the information you may need. Check out
some of the reference books and ads on this page....get them...and start
If you don't see the highly recommended
"ARRL Operating Manual" listed in the ad
below...just click on any of the ads and use the Amazon search...you will
Let's Get Started!
space, the "shack" and safety precautions basics.
All of the information below will apply to either set up, HF
You may already have figured out to hook everything up to the radio including the antenna...but....DON'T transmit...yet!...Is your antenna tuned properly according the the instructions that came with it???. Have you checked the swr? If you know the answers to these questions....still...you need to wait until your station is completely set up.
you even have an swr meter? If not, buy
or borrow one designed for the
bands and frequencies you will use and get that antenna tuned
after your station is ready to go. If you need help, use it's manual. If
you still need help, get a local ham to help you.
You will also need to install a good station ground just outside the entry point of the coax. Get a good copper ground rod, 8 feet long and drive it into the ground just outside the entry point of a window or where it enters your shack. Keep in mind that the distance from the ground rod should be as short as possible from it to the equipment inside. It is never a good idea to have a long distance from the equipment to the ground rod...remember..as short as possible. Now run very heavy (large conductor like # 8 size) if you can get it or as large as you can afford.
idea here is to have the least resistance to current flow as
possible. The larger the wire the less resistance. The longer the wire,
the more resistance is usually the case. Connect all of your equipment
using whatever connectors needed to this single ground wire using short
lengths if possible. Use the largest size wire that will fit the
ground connections of your equipment.
You will need to have a "place" to set your equipment. This is called your operating position and is located in your "shack". It can be located just about any place in your "shack" as needed. It should be located at or near a window or other location that has easy access to the ground rod and the outside world for antenna coax, etc as mentioned above. The operating position can be a desk, table top, closet shelf, etc. Leave plenty of space between the desk and the wall for running wires, coax, etc.
Try to plan the layout of your station equipment on the desk, counter top, etc for future expansion...believe me...you will later need some more space if you start out with a very small working area. Again, plan, plan and more planning.
Now that all of your equipment is set up, refer back to those operating instructions on the radio, power supply and the antenna to refresh your memory.
Assuming that you have your antenna connected to the swr meter and it to the radio, you are ready to tune the antenna for best performance.
Use the instructions that came with the antenna for this...and use LOW POWER, when adjusting it. Don't forget to ID when testing! Get help from a local ham if needed.
After you have adjusted the antenna, then you can mount it in it's final position. Recheck the swr again using low power and if all is OK, mount it in it's final location. Your ready to get on the air!
Suggested tools and simple test equipment and accessories you may need for your ham station.
A good swr/power meter rated for your station frequencies and power level.
good volt, ohm milliamp meter or digital meter that can measure
continuity, resistance, voltage and current. Your choice. Get help
from a local ham to help you decide what you may need. This is not a must
have piece of station equipment but certainly comes in handy when
troubleshooting coax problems, power, etc.
ON THE AIR!
During your first contact on the air, you get the question from the other operator....."How is my modulation?".......You would not know how to answer him if you did not know the meaning of the word "modulation"! Look it up...you will hear that word often....learn all you can about "modulation".
Here is another example:
He asks....."What polarity is your antenna?"
So you can see, if you had not learned some very basic things about ham radio in the past...then you would not be able to answer him correctly...you would have to ask him to define those strange words to you. At least, now you are asking the questions and hopefully.....learning!
Don't get me wrong, your first few contacts on the air most likely will be with total strangers who know nothing about you other than the call sign you gave them and maybe your first name. They are not there to TEST you! They do not know if you have a Phd in Physics or whether you are a electronics engineer, a school kid, a teacher, a construction worker, janitor or whatever! Most of them don't care one way or the other...they just want to meet and make new contacts and friends on the air. The only way they have of finding out more about you and your technical ability is by asking YOU questions. Details about your personal background and theirs can be learned in later contacts BUT....be careful with giving very personal information over the air....the ham bands are open to all ears with a receiver! If you are not of legal age...be even more careful! It might even be wise that you have a parent present when you are actually on the air if you are not of legal age. Don't give your exact address over the air if you are under age! If the other operator wants your address, there are many methods of looking it up....off the air.
The first few contacts that
you make may not be aware that you are a "newbie" to the ham bands until
they start asking questions like in the above examples. When they get good
answers from you, then they will know that you are well informed! When you
make a new contact, don't be afraid to let him/her know you are new to ham
So before we go further...an
important thing you need to do in setting up your first ham radio
station is learn all you can FIRST! Knowing some very basic, basic
electronics is a great help. No that was not a mistake...the word basic
was repeated twice on purpose!
What is a PL259? What is an
SO239....What is coax? Why all the different antennas? Where should I
start and how? Questions, questions, questions...they all have answers
that you will need to know.
about your authorized bands.
Since you are a Technician class ham, you now have privileges on portions of some HF bands plus ALL privileges on all ham bands from 50mhz and higher. More info on your bands here.
You need to decide if you want to operate on just the "upper" vhf bands and above (50mhz and above), or also use your new privileges on HF also or get the best of all worlds using all of your privileges on all of your allowed bands.
This is your decision and will be based on many variables in your lifestyle, property layout, budget, equipment needs, etc and really can't be answered by anyone but you.
If you decide to operate HF only, then you will have 10 meter voice and CW, plus CW only on the lower HF bands of 80, 40, 15 and 10 meters. You DO NOT HAVE ANY VOICE PRIVILEGES ON ANY HF BAND EXCEPT A PART OF 10 METERS!
So your hf
transceiver will have to be capable of operation from at least 80
meters thru 10 meters using voice modes (ssb) AND CW. NO...CW IS NOT A REQUIREMENT....but if you use
it....you will have to know it....so learn it! Reading between the lines
you may ask, "Well, If I have privileges on the HF bands, then why can't I
use ssb (voice) on the other bands besides 10 meters?
required by the FCC as a licensed Amateur Radio Operator to have access to
Part 97...do you have a copy or do you know how to get access to
Let's pretend for a moment that you have decided to operate only on 2 meters and/or the 440 ham bands from a base station (your home) for a start, like most new hams do until you can get some experience under your belt and intend to study more to get your General class license as soon as you can.
need a transceiver, that covers the 2 meter ham band or a dual
band radio that covers also the 440 ham band plus they should be
capable of working thru repeaters
using PL tones. The cheapest way out would be a
single band radio for say...2 meters only, if money is an object. They can
be had in either small low powered handheld (ht) units operated from
internal batteries (rechargeable), or small external power supplies for
base station use or the more standard and more powerful mobile mount
size. The larger and more powerful type radios for mobile use
have to be powered by the vehicle battery (DC) or used as a base
station with an external power supply that converts standard AC power to
DC to supply the radio.
should you buy for a power supply to use the radio in a base
Hopefully you will have the instructions, operating manual, etc that came with the radio....it should tell you in its specifications section. If you don't have the "specs", then do a search on the internet using the brand and model number of the radio and the word "operating manual", "manual", "users manual", "specifications", etc.
Look for voltage requirements and transmitter current, etc.
Most standard sized mobile
radios require 12 to 15 volts DC. If the
transmitter "pulls" 10 amps on full output transmit, then look for an
external power supply that will handle AT LEAST that amount as a
continuous rating....AT 12 TO 15 VOLTS DC. Never try to save money by
buying a power supply that supplies LESS than the full rated output of
your radio! You WILL NOT SAVE MONEY when your radio says...NO!
It is worth mentioning that if you buy an older HF radio from the used market that many of them come with built in power supplies. Do your research.
Antennas for the New Ham Station!
station antenna is the MOST important part of the station!
Most of the very inexpensive
homebrew or commercial antennas, if mounted outside up as high as you can
get them, will fill your needs. Even the simple ground plane type antenna
works well for most local communications. However, if you don't yet have
the skills to build a good effective antenna, then buy a good vertical
base antgenna that is "ready
made" that suits your operating bands.
Here is your chance to experiment with simple homebrew antennas! Many hams are very restricted do to several reasons when it comes to antennas and their locations.
If you are within a few
miles of a 2 meter repeater, then it should be able to "hear" your signal
even with a simple antenna mounted inside your "shack". Check out
the simple 2 meter antennas on the antenna project
page on this web site.
Building your own 2 meter
antenna can be lots of fun, and easier than you think and may OUT PERFORM
the same type of antenna on the commercial market. It will be MUCH cheaper
than a commercial made equal. You will need very little "test equipment"
for building one that you will be proud to say, "I built it myself".
Basically all you would need would be a good swr/power meter usable on 2
meters and a few hand tools and materials plus your ham station
transceiver. See the antenna projects
on this web site and look under "50mhz and up" for
several homebrew antenna plans and projects.
Here is a simple way of looking at polarity as related to antennas:
Imagine you have a "beam" of light energy (the transmitted signal), coming from a transmitter antenna and the "beam" is perfectly straight up and down (vertical polarity), in the form of this > | This energy is being transmitted over some distance and does not spread...sort of like a laser beam.
Now place a solid
object that is much larger than the "source beam" between it and a
receiver antenna that is trying to see it, that looks like this
___ Now imagine the horizontal ___ has a slit cut into it from one end to the
other so as to allow energy (rf) to pass thru it. The two lines
represented here are now at opposite "polarity" to each other. One is
vertical and the other is horizontal. There would only be a very tiny
area where the two intersect if they were in the form of a plus
If you plan on strictly using repeaters and talking to mobiles and simplex (station to station), locally using FM, then build or buy an antenna that is vertically polarized. This is due to the difficulty of mounting horizontally polarized antennas on vehicles so vertical polarity is almost always used on FM. If you want more range to repeaters in different directions, then go with a vertically polarized Yagi (beam) or a high gain vertical mounted up as high as you can get it.
If you plan on using SSB on the lower portion of 2 meters, then horizontal polarity is the way to go. Most SSB operators on 2 meters use horizontal polarization unless they are extremly close to each other. Remember that due to "cross polarization", like in the drawing example above, both the receive and transmit station must use the same polarity antenna.
If you really want to
increase your usable range, then look into the Yagi
types (beams). They can be built or bought with gains exceeding 10 to
15 times or more over standard ground planes or "no gain" type antennas
and depending on their polarity relative to the ground, can be used with
much fun. An antenna with a gain of 10dBd will give you an erp (effective
radiated power), of about 500 watts using a 50 watt signal to the antenna
input assuming no losses in the feedline! As a general rule, horizontal
Yagi types are used on the lower ssb portions of the band and vertical
types are used in most other portions including repeater use. A rotor that
will handle the weight of the Yagi will also be required to "aim" the
antenna toward the other station. NO...you don't need those rotors costing
hundreds of dollars...just a plain simple "Radio Shack" TV rotor
should work well for most Yagi type antennas. Always do your research on
antenna weights, wind loads, etc before buying a
warning worth remembering!
What kind of coaxial cable do I need for operation on 2 meters or higher frequencies?
The output stage of your radio and most modern transceivers will require that you attach 50 ohm type coaxial cable (also shortened to the word "coax" between the radio "antenna" connector and the antenna.
This is the main and only "pipeline" for getting the rf energy that your radio produces to the antenna where it is radiated over the air. This "link" in your total antenna system is probably second in importance of station equipment. Remember that your antenna should be considered the first most important, then the coax. Not counting you, the operator!
If these two combined parts of your station are poor, so will be your signal over the air and received and transmitted signals will be weaker or not heard at all compared to a good antenna system. All of the components and devices between the antenna connector on the radio up to and including the antenna is called your antenna system.
The idea of having a good low loss antenna system which consists of the antenna and it's feedline (the coax), and an efficient antenna, will certainly enhance your station's performance, so try to pick coax types that have the least loss in db per foot, like the LMR-400 type, that you can afford at your operating frequency relative to the required length you need to get the signal to the antenna. This means that you should not be afraid to try a higher loss per foot type coax if you have very short runs to the antenna. There is a happy medium when it comes to station expense....don't over do it unless you have money to burn! Just because you have a brand new roll of ultra low loss coax in a 100 foot roll connected to an antenna 10 feet away from the transceiver would not only be wasteful and expensive...but it would make little to no difference in your signal on the other end compared to a regular 10 foot length of less expensive higher loss coax. It's your money....burn it if you want to. If you can make at least a 3 to 6db or more change for the better by reducing the loss incurred in the feedline using the more expensive coax, then by all means consider it...otherwise...don't bother.
See this article for
more on Coaxial Cable Characteristics and Data
then come back here when you are done. It will help you compare
different coax types and the amount of loss each type has for a specified
number of feet at a particular frequency.
This gives valuable time in between transmissions for an emergency call to get into the repeater. If the emergency call can not be heard because everyone using the repeater is "Quick Keying", then lives may be lost.....seconds sometimes count!
911 using a repeater!
This gives the ham operator reporting the emergency from his car or where ever he may be mobile or portable, direct access to the needed emergency people via a direct phone patch to them using the repeater to access the 911 number directly. Several seconds or even minutes can be shaved from the process of breaking into an ongoing conversation and getting the other station/s to relay the emergency over their telephone.....if they have one....... by using the direct entry 911 function of the repeater system! If you have ever had to get vital life saving information to emergency responders, you know that seconds count and the more people between the source of the emergency and the emergency responders can make for confusion with the much needed details of the emergency. Check with your repeater trustee or owner to see if it has this function and learn how to operate it.....it may save someone's life in the future...maybe even yours! It is imperative that the 911 operator knows that you and he/she are using radio as part of the connection. Make them understand that both people talking at the same time will not work like on a regular telephone conversation. Each party must say "over" when they want to hear the other party. It is the responsibility of the ham radio operator to key and unkey his mic to accomplish the transmission of both sides of the emergency contact. The 911 operator has no control over your radio...only you. Remember, you are the control operator of your station.
If you hear an EMERGENCY in progress on the radio, listen carefully first and listen some more. Take notes if possible...and do not interrupt the station if he has already made a confirmed contact that will relay the emergency information. Only contact the sender of the emergency IF and ONLY IF you can assist him with the emergency. If 10 stations try to talk all at once to him....no one will hear anything!
If he is having difficulty in being heard attempting to get anyone's ATTENTION to report the emergency, then assist him in any way you can to relay his emergency message to the proper people. Of great importance is the exact location of the emergency, and then the exact nature of it, how many people involved, is there a fire, address, etc.
An emergency dispatcher
getting a location of " There's a car wreck on highway
59, and people are hurt badly" is NOT enough information!
In short, don't make the emergency dispatcher guess who, what, where, when, etc.
Give them as much exact information as you can to help speed up rescue operations. Saving time.....saves life!
Which direction from
what or where on highway 59. Is there a highway mile marker, billboard,
cross street, landmarks, bridge, overpass, railroad tracks, guesstimate as
to mileage from last town you passed thru, on which side of the road,
North, South, East, West, etc that can be used to find the location with
faster accuracy? Give the 911 operator the information as if you were
on the receiving end of the conversation.
Radio Repeater Operations and suggestions for use.
Then around the time of
"rush hour" when all of those poor working guys an gals who are attempting
to get ahead of those credit card bills have either started or ended
their day driving to or from their work "QTH", and all of a sudden,
the repeater gets very busy with idle chit chat. I suppose this could be
considered "Normal Use" by most hams.
In cases of "open" nets, roundtables, etc that are scheduled on repeater systems that you may join in, then feel free to use them. There are many "scheduled" drive time roundtables or nets on repeaters scattered over the entire country and by joining into the conversations as your turn comes, or just listening, can really make the drive time fly and be very enjoyable. You may even get to meet one of your close friends whom you have never seen in person, over a cup of coffee on the way.
Many repeater systems have
practice nets for passing emergency traffic and are "Directed Nets",
meaning that you listen to ALL of the instructions of the net control
operator before you key the microphone. He will inform everyone within
range of the repeater on it's proper use and procedures during the net.
Users are allowed to "post"
their wants, needs, for sale items, trades, etc over the air and sometimes
hundreds of people are listing...kind of like fishing...you never know
what will bite that hook! Some of the larger repeater systems maintain a
web page of postings on the internet and you can always go to it to see if
that "whiz bang thing a ma jig" you are "needing" is for sale by anyone
and where to get it.
Setting up your station for HF use:
As a Technician class license holder you now have portions of 80, 40, 15 and 10 meters as operating bands on HF.
Not only do you have to decide on a "rig", (your radio), but you have to decide on a good antenna, build it or buy it, where to put it, how high above ground for the antenna, what bands you want to operate on, etc.
If you want to operate only on 10 meters for the time being using your new voice privileges on ssb, then of course you will need space OUTSIDE. HF antennas as a general rule do not function well inside, due to surrounding metals or conductive surfaces of all kinds within the home and hf antennas are much larger.
A standard 10 meter dipole put up in the horizontal fashion or even the inverted V fashion, will take up about 16 feet or so in the horizontal length and needs to be at least 2 times that length above ground for best performance. This type of antenna can be homebrewed with very little expense. (see HF antenna projects here)
Assuming that you have decided to build your own HF antenna for 10 meters, you will need a good swr/power meter for tuning the antenna for best performance on 10 meters or possibly you have decided to also use CW on the other bands like 80, 40, and 15 meters. Either way, most antennas will require some tuning for best performance....even those right out of the box! The swr/power meter will give you the needed readings for physically tuning the antenna length for best performance.
One good choice of an "all band" standard size antenna for HF (80 thru 10 meters) would be what is called a multiband doublet. This is a multiband antenna. You can see plans for it on the antenna projects page. There are many others also. Many great commercial made antennas are also an option!
You will need an "antenna tuner" to go along with it and it needs to be fed with twinlead or ladder line and then you will have an "all band" antenna that will be very easy to build with little investment other than a good "antenna tuner". If you're not familiar with how antenna tuners operate, then just read this article on how to use antenna tuners. It also contains a diagram for setting up your hf station when you become a General class ham! A must read!
Of course you also have the option of buying commercial wire type antennas, Yagis, and verticals that can be used very effectively on HF. You have many decisions to make when attempting to get on HF due to the lengths of the antennas at HF frequencies and your space limitations! You can't get 10 gallons of water into a 5 gallon bucket, however, there are many limited space type antennas like the TAK-tenna that can really help you get a good signal out. See the TAK-tenna review on this web site....it works great and is only about 30 inches by 30 inches! It will give you all the bands from 40 meters thru 10 meters in one small antenna used with a tuner. Many hams who have tried it....love it for it's small size! Keep in mind though that it is designed for restricted or limited space operation and is not a physically stretched out antenna as would be required using the standard dipole formula that you should have learned. Electrically, it is the same, but physically it is not. It fits it's design purpose to a "T"! Get one if you are restricted with antenna space on HF. It, like all antennas is a compromise. Full size antennas are the best.
Coaxial cable for HF:
The technical requirements
for coax at HF frequencies is not nearly as stringent as on the upper VHF
and bands higher frequencies, so 50-52ohm types, the RG58 and RG8 and
X "types" will work well for you. These are the 50
to 52 ohm types that your radio will require. Try not to use the 75
ohm types you may have heard of. They are much cheaper, but you may
encounter swr problems due to the automatic mismatch with the 50 ohm
impedence the transmitter requires! If your are a perfectionist, then
money should be no object and you can get the most expensive coax with the
lowest rf loss per foot, but you will be wasting lots of money in most ham
You can't expect such good results with your ham station on the air or in the future unless you use good high quality PL-259 connectors to begin with. There are many PL-259 connectors on the ham radio market that come from overseas that are not high quality silver coated types with good insulation like Teflon. They are cheap copies with little or no quality control and marked up to outrageous prices and sold to those who don't know any better!
Many hams, to save a dime, are using their old worn out corroded connectors over and over that will eventually cause them a huge headache. Don't be one of them. Never skimp on rf connectors...they are your "pathway" to getting a great signal out!
"So I recommend that you use new high quality silver coated/brass connectors whenever possible. I personally have some silver coated PL-259s that I bought in the mid 1960s and they are just as good now as 50 plus years ago!!!! You can't skimp on quality!" You can quote me on that! N4UJW
There is an excellent source of high quality PL-259
connectors made from brass with a silver coating and Teflon insulation
that can be found at Amateur Radio Supply and at a price
that is hard to beat. Check them out there! You will be glad you did
not skimp on quality to save a few
Consider your family (if you have one), when setting up and using your ham station equipment!
If you are fortunate enough to have very understanding people in your home, then you don't really have to worry too much about how the station is set up to make it pleasing to the eye or how or when to use it.
But just consider that if you are not that fortunate, then you may have to compromise a bit to make everyone happy including yourself.
Most ham radio equipment
(modern) is very small and and easily placed in a very small area. This
author's "station" including computer equipment fits on top of a desk with
about 4 X 3 feet dimensions or less. The actual station covering 160 thru
2 meters fits in an area of about the size of a 2 foot cube on that
desk! Of course my station may not be typical, it could be larger or
smaller than yours. I have no doubt that you will change your station
layout many times before you are pleased with it. Most computer desks make
for nice setups for a modest ham station....so does an old wooden door
across a couple of saw horses...it's your
One of the most annoying
"sounds" coming from the speaker of a ham radio to lots of family members
is that "Morse code stuff"! Enter headphones...problem gone! Data modes
can also be very "noisy" to other members of the family....headphones
Where can I
get more personal help if I need it with my ham station
When you start out making
contacts over the air, you will soon learn that there are other operators
out there that have much more experience than you do. You will not only be
talking to other new Technician class operators, but you will have
contacts with Tech Plus, Generals, Advanced and Extra class operators.
Many of them will have
half a century or more experience with ham radio! Get to know your
contacts. Ask the more experienced hams to help you with your
questions. Some may even help you with your antenna installations and all
they expect is a nice thank you, cool drink in the summer, warm one in the
winter and maybe a nice meal or a snack. You can make some great lasting
friendships by having an "antenna raising party" using some of your new
ham friends. Get the OK from the wife before hand.....just a word of
One thing I have learned in
all my years in ham radio is the fact that when I do a simple favor for
ham friends, it is most often returned to me by them many times over. The
sharing of information and ideas and friendship among ham radio
operators worldwide has existed from the beginning of ham radio over 100
years ago. Continue with the tradition by attempting
to help another ham whenever possible. You will be glad you did.
Many great friendships have been brought about by contacts on the air and
the volunters for help when needed.
To find ham radio clubs in your area just do a search on the ARRL web site at www.arrl.org Look for the "Clubs" section at top of their home page.
I hope this article has
helped you in some small way in setting up or planning your first ham
radio station. Just try to think everything out...planning and more
planning and you will have a station you will be proud of that will put
your hard earned call sign ON THE AIR!
73 Don, N4UJW Hamuniverse.com
More good info for Chosing Your First Radio and Getting on the Air!
Editor notes: To all ham
radio clubs...please feel free to us any of this article that may be
needed for training new operators as you see fit. Please email me and let
me know where it is being used and please give proper credit....Some links
may be removed as needed by you without permission.