Your Amateur Radio station reflects your interests and, naturally, it will change as you explore different facets of the hobby.
But you have to start somewhere, right?
Fortunately, there are some fundamentals that all Amateur Radio stations have in common. Once you understand the basics, you can apply them to your first station and every station thereafter.
The three building blocks of every ham station are:
- Power Supply
- Antenna System
Selecting your transceiver will largely depend on how much you want to spend and what you hope to do. If you want to explore long-distance contacts on the HF bands, you’ll need an HF transceiver. If you are interested in chatting with local friends on the VHF or UHF bands, look for a VHF+ FM transceiver.
There are also many transceiver kits available, such as the Elecraft K3 shown here, that will provide hours of satisfaction. Kit building is fun and educational, and you’ll save a considerable amount of money in the process. If you think your technical skills are marginal, however, build your kit with the help of a more knowledgeable ham.
Low power QRP operating is a thriving part of the Amateur Radio scene. QRP enthusiasts operate at only 5 watts output or less. They tend to communicate using CW, but they also use digital modes and occasionally voice. You can build a simple QRP transceiver board, like the one shown here in a single evening.
The great advantage of QRP is cost. A QRP transceiver built from a kit can cost less than $200. Low power consumption is another major plus. QRP transceivers can be easily powered from batteries, which make them great for outdoor or emergency operating.
The disadvantage of QRP is that you need a very good antenna to make contacts with reasonable ease. With such low output power you must compensate at the antenna to make yourself heard. This isn’t to say that you can’t make QRP contacts with a poorer antenna (such as a small mobile antenna), but it will be much more difficult.
Without a power supply, a transceiver is a lifeless hunk of metal and plastic. The power supply provides the “juice” that makes ham radio possible.
If you’re considering a handheld transceiver for use on VHF or UHF FM, you’ll be pleased to know that most of these radios come with their own rechargeable batteries. But if you want to operate the radio without the battery (in your house or apartment, for example), you may want to invest in a small dc power supply—13.8 volts (V) with a current capacity of about 3 amps (A) will do the job nicely. You can find these at retailers such as RadioShack for about $40 or less. With a dc power supply, you won’t have to worry about your battery running down when you are in the middle of a conversation.
As you step up to larger radios with more output power, you’ll need larger power supplies to run them. Most of these transceivers do not have their own power supplies, so read their specifications before you buy. A transceiver with a maximum output power of 100 W will require about 25 A of current at 13.8 V when you are operating the radio at “full throttle.” That kind of power supply will cost about $100 to $200, depending on the overall design.
Don’t worry about buying a power supply with too much current capacity. Your equipment will only draw the current it needs—no more, no less. In fact, it is probably safe to say that you can never have too much current capacity. It may seem economically foolish to invest $200 in a 25-A power supply when all you want to power is a 5-W handheld radio. However, if you think you’ll be upgrading to a larger radio in the near future, you may want to get the big power supply today (especially if you find a great deal on a high-current supply).
When shopping for a power supply, beware of one potential stumbling block. Power supplies are often rated by their continuous and intermittent (ICS) current capacities. The figure you want to look at is the continuous rating—the amount of current the power supply can provide continuously. Don’t be misled by an advertisement that promises a fantastic deal on, say, a 30-A supply. Are those 30 amps provided intermittently—only for short periods of time--or continuously? You need continuous power, so check and be sure!
It is also worth mentioning that you’ll find two types of ham-grade power supplies for sale. The linear design uses a hefty transformer to shift the 120 V ac line voltage from your wall outlet to a lower voltage for later conversion to 13.8 V dc. These power supplies tend to be large and heavy, especially the high-current models.
Another approach to the power supply problem is the switching design. In the switching power supply, the ac line voltage is converted directly to dc and filtered. This high-voltage dc is then fed to a power oscillator that “switches” it on an off at a rate of about 20 to 500 kHz. The result is pulsating dc that can be applied to a transformer for conversation to 13.8 V or whatever is needed. The reason for doing this is that rapidly pulsating dc can be transformed to lower voltages without the need for large transformers. It is the transformer that accounts for most of the weight, size and cost of traditional linear power supplies. A switching power supply is much smaller and lighter, and usually less expensive.
Switching power supplies are the same type found in your computer and they are becoming more popular in Amateur Radio. The disadvantage of the switching supply is that some designs generate interfering signals that you can hear in your radio. If you’re considering a switching power supply, look for models that boast low “RFI” (radio frequency interference). QST magazine occasionally reviews and tests switching power supplies.
Antennas are subjects unto themselves. It all depends on whether you want to get started on the VHF or HF bands. See the sections below and make your choice!