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What ham radio equipment do you need?

February 18, 2011

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.

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From → Amateur radio

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