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What ham radio equipment do you need?

How much and what type of equipment to buy is one of the great mysteries—some say pleasures—of becoming a ham radio operator. With so many models of radios and antennas to choose from, not to mention all the accessories available, outfitting your “shack” (ham radio room) can seem like a daunting task. It need not be.

You can enjoy ham radio with a bare bones setup if you wish, or you can go all out. It’s totally up to you. (Within reason, of course. Budget, space constraints, and even building covenants also play a part.) Your Elmer or another experienced ham can help you in this area. I own two sets of equipment: An HF base station with a multi-band vertical antenna, and a VHF mobile radio whose mag mount antenna permits operation indoors as well as in the car.

My HF rig is a Kenwood model 820 (circa early ’80s, I believe). It feeds into a ground-mounted Butternut 6V (six-band vertical). Fully extended, it is 26′ tall. A true vertical antenna, it requires ground radials. I laid down nearly 120 while I was installing the antenna. I suspect a number have broken over the years, but I should still have around 100 working for me.

This arrangement allows me to work a number of HF (shortwave) bands without expending a lot of money or disrupting the natural beauty around our cabin. I realize that without a directional antenna or amplifier, I won’t be able to compete with the “big guns,” but that’s OK. I never have a problem finding someone to chat with. I generally get good reports, although a lot depends on the sun spot activity. As you may know, we’re coming out of the most recent sun spot lull, with the next peak expected to arrive in a year or two. Until then band conditions will steadily improve, making this a good time to be on the air.

The antenna is designed to operate on 80m, 40m, 30m, 20m, 15m, and 10m. My radio is an older model and does not cover the 30m band. With band conditions being quieter, I’ve spent a lot of time on 40m and 20m. As conditions improve I’ll start monitoring 15m and 10m more. The 10m band, in particular, is really “hot” during the sun spot cycles.

During the past cycle, 2000-2001, I shortened the antenna about six inches to maximize its effectiveness on 15m and 10m. Consequently, it became useless for 80m—it had a bandwidth of about 50 kHz anyway—so I wasn’t out anything. I didn’t operate much on 80m as it was.

Overall, I’m quite pleased with the Butternut, though it has a couple design quirks. The wire used for the 15m band is way up the antenna, requiring me to take down the antenna to adjust that part. Also, the antenna exhibits rather high SWR on 20m, causing a drop in output on that band. I could lower that a bit with some adjusting (called tuning), but that would throw off performance on the 40m band. So I leave it as is.

Completing the arrangement is about 160′ of RG-8U coax. For mobile operations I use a Radio Shack HTX-252 2m radio. A very basic model, it offers only standard voice operation. (No code or other modes you find on more advanced radios.) Its two power levels, 10W and 25W, are sufficient for hitting repeaters in most areas of the country.

I use a 5/8 wave mag mount antenna mounted on the trunk. To operate from inside the apartment—in essence, base operation—I had to buy a power supply. I also need a metal surface for the antenna. Sheet metal and even a spare microwave oven have been use as a ground plane for the antenna. (The car body serves that purpose during mobile operations.) It’s a nifty operation, and allows me to chat with folks in the Milwaukee area via local repeaters.

What arrangement is best for you? Only you can determine that. Ask other amateur radio operators to show you their shacks, and ask for their advice. Putting together your ham radio station is a lot fun with the reward—making contacts over the air—the icing on the cake.

Amateur radio and the VEC program

Since spring 1984, candidates for a ham radio exam have been able to take advantage of a very convenient testing program. Instead of visiting an FCC field office, sometimes a great distance away offering tests only infrequently, candidates avail themselves of test sessions closer to home held various times throughout the month.

Volunteer Examiner Coordinators, or VECs, now oversee the testing process, and it is through their efforts that amateur radio exams are available in communities all across the country. With the stroke of a pen, Pres. Ronald Reagan in September 1982 signed into law legislation that created the VEC program. Subsequent FCC rule making made the act official, and the VEC program went live in December 1983. Soon afterward individuals from around the country applied to be certified as VECs.

At its peak there were more than three dozen VECs in the United States. That number has since dropped to 14, but that hasn’t affected amateur radio testing. Each VEC is authorized to sponsor volunteer examiner teams anywhere in the country. These VE teams administer and grade the written exams, then forward the materials to their sponsoring VEC for review and filing. (Until Feb. 23, 2007, the VE teams also administered a Morse code exam when required.)

VEs are ordinary ham radio operators who graciously donate their time to help others get into the hobby or upgrade their licenses. Exam dates vary; Saturday mornings are quite popular, but some teams offer evening sessions during the week as well. The law provides for a test fee to help cover costs incurred in preparing and administering the exams. Each VEC sets its own fee; the average is around $10.

By 1985 the VECs realized a need to coordinate their efforts across the country. They formed an organization, the National Conference of Volunteer Examiner Coordinators, and agreed to meet in person or by phone on an annual basis. Through its Question Pool Committee, the NCVEC also maintains the question pools that are used to create the amateur radio exams. Since inception of the VEC program, hundreds of thousands of US citizens have become amateur radio operators. By successfully administering thousands of exams each month, volunteer examiners have proven that amateur radio operators can be entrusted with this important function.

The result is a program that has helped enrich the amateur radio service and provide an opportunity for many people to participate in this wonderful hobby. Perhaps I’ll “see you” on the air someday!

Public service events a great way to enjoy amateur radio

OK, so you’ve passed your amateur radio exam and are waiting for your “ticket” (license). All that studying, cramming, and worrying are behind you. It’s about this time that you start to ask yourself, “What do I do now?” Great question.

Your first step is to consider the type of equipment to buy. That’s something your Elmer (mentor) can help you with. My focus here is to help you put your ham radio skills and enthusiasm to work for the betterment of your community.

One of the more rewarding ways is to get involved with a public service event. Most often a walk or bike ride, these events support the efforts of many fine organizations, including the American Cancer Society, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, to name a few.

It doesn’t make sense for organizers to buy and maintain equipment for just a one-day event, so they turn to local amateur radio operators. “Hams” are happy to help out, particularly for the larger events.

How might you, a new ham radio operator, help? Each event needs operators at numerous points along the route. Hams provide extra sets of eyes, and help ensure a smooth operation. There are a number of areas to choose from:

1. Net control – The command center of all public service events, net control contains the “dispatchers” (net control operators) who keep all radio traffic flowing smoothly. Net operators tend to be more experienced; newer hams may assist with logging, monitoring the APRS system (similar to GPS), or other duties.

2. Aboard a SAG wagon – Support and Gear vehicles ride a predetermined route, looking for injured walkers/riders and broken bikes that are then transported to the appropriate location. You may also be asked to deliver supplies to a rest stop during the event. (Initial supplies are provided by event organizers.) With your radio, your vehicle can be dispatched as needed.

3. At a rest stop – This can be a more relaxing assignment. Ham radio operators stay in touch with the event volunteers on the scene, and stand ready to call in any needs. Occasionally you’ll hear from someone with a broken bike or pooped walker/rider who wants a ride to the finish line.

4. With a Sentry Captain – Some rides employ Sentry Captains. These folks are assigned a particular route, and are responsible for the flag-carrying volunteers (sentries) you see along the route and at many intersections. The Sentry Captain rides the route continuously, making sure the sentries have sufficient water, munchies, and so forth. If you spot any walker or rider needing assistance, you call net control for help.

5. At an intersection – Some intersections are staffed by ham radio operators. Much like at the rest stops, you watch the crowd go by, and stand ready to call in assistance for a rider or walker.

As you can see, there are many opportunities during a charity walk or ride for you to put your amateur radio license and gear to good use. Although you need to get up early, and the morning can seem long, you will feel very satisfied afterward. You helped a worthwhile organization meet its fundraising goals, and in the process, you gave back something to your community.

Your Elmer should be able to help you get involved in public service. You can also learn more at most ham radio club meetings and by monitoring the repeater nets. Have fun!

How to get a ham radio license

Many people, if they have any impressions about amateur radio at all, feel that the hobby is way beyond their capabilities. “Too much about electronics (or math, or equipment; pick your area),” they might say. That’s not necessarily true.

I say “not necessarily,” because like any hobby, it depends on how well you grasp the material. For example, I know folks who could fix just about any problem with their cars. I wouldn’t even go near the spark plugs anymore. Others could compete with the average CPA if they wanted to. I balance my checkbook each month, but leave the year-end taxes to a pro.

Get my point? Each person has his or her own strengths. So it’s impossible to say whether a ham radio exam is “difficult,” as I’m often asked. I mastered the material, but can you? Only you can answer that. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Times have changed in the amateur radio world, and that means good things for those interested in getting involved. Specifically, the Morse code exam–once the bane of many a prospective “ham”–is long gone. The FCC still requires a written exam, but it’s a lot easier to study now. The material is in the public domain, and is available via the Web.

“Where do I begin?” Good question. The best place is with another ham radio operator. Do you have one for a neighbor or co-worker? If not, look for a ham radio club in your area. A good place to start is with the American Radio Relay League, The ARRL is our main educational organization and acts as a source for everything related to amateur radio. Click on the “Clubs” link found near the top of the home page, and follow the instructions from there. Then, check out one or more ham radio clubs. Be sure to mention that you are interested in becoming an amateur radio operator, and are looking for an Elmer–that’s ham-speak for mentor–to help guide you. You can count on one or two cheery folks offering to assist.

The next step is to start studying for the exam. The amateur radio service offers three classes of license, each with its own operating privileges. The first one is Technician Class. The higher up the scale you go, the more privileges (in terms of frequency bands, primarily) you get. There’s no rush to upgrade. One nice feature about amateur radio is that you may proceed at your own pace.

You can find study guides for the Technician Class license through numerous sources, including the ARRL, W5YI Group,, and Amateur Electronic Supply,, among others. At least one Web site,, offers online practice tests. You can “test” yourself to see how well your studying is going. (Official tests are taken in person.)

The next step is to take the exam. Ham radio tests are offered in numerous places around the country; chances are one is offered near your home sometime during the month. At the ARRL site, click on the “Exam Sessions” link found near the top of the home page. Follow the instructions from there. Contact the group offering the exams  for more information, including cost.

Once you’ve passed the test, you’ll be fired up to get on the air. But first you’ll need some equipment and simple instructions about on-air procedures and etiquette. Your Elmer can help you with those as well. Soon you’ll be talking like a pro (or an OT, for Old Timer). Pumped up, you’ll want to jump into operating; many opportunities exist, and I’ll cover one valuable way you can use your new ham radio license in another column.

Until then, best wishes as you prepare to join the amateur radio community.

Experience the world of amateur radio

“The reports of my death,” Mark Twain once famously quipped, “are greatly exaggerated.”

If you listen and read the comments offered in recent years, you’d swear that amateur radio is on life support, or worse. Kids just aren’t interested anymore, so the story goes, and why should they be? With the internet, cell phones, and computer games, young people have too many other “fun” things to do and can communicate with just about anyone in the world instantaneously. Where in the world does amateur radio fit anymore?

Good question, and I’m glad you asked. True, the hobby has gone through great changes in recent years. The advent of sophisticated communications equipment has eliminated the need for building one’s own station. Plug and play is the norm today. (Although many amateur radio operators — “hams” to us — still build their own mini radios, antennas, and other equipment.)

According to the January 2011 issue of  QST, there are more than 705,000 amateur radio operators in the United States. Granted, not all operate regularly, but at least they remain a part of this exciting hobby. It’s been growing, too; slowly, for sure, but growing.

The days when a young boy — and it often was a boy back then — built his simple Morse code radio, tossed a wire into a nearby tree, and sent his dits and dashes all over the country are pretty much over. But amazingly many young people, boys and girls, are getting into the hobby. Sure, they still tinker at home, but these spirited young people also contribute to their communities, and in the process derive as much or more satisfaction as before.

Public service is extremely important to amateur radio operators, who regularly volunteer to help their fellow citizens. They provide much-needed communications support for charity walks and runs. But where hams really shine is during crises; those catastrophic events that so devastate a community or region as to tax its every resource. Amateur radio operators stand ready to respond any time of the day, seven days a week. Among the more recent disasters, hams have provided additional communications during:

– Hurricane Katrina
– Hurricanes that hit Texas in 2008
– Numerous incidents since then

The next time you’re riding your bike to raise money for cancer research or some other noble cause, tip your helmet to the many ham radio operators who selflessly give of their time to help make your event a successful one. Look around: You may even spot a young person at the rest stop or finish line. They represent the future — yes, the future — of amateur radio.