Amateur Radio, what they don’t tell you in your classes

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Sniper1946
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Amateur Radio, what they don’t tell you in your classes

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Post by Sniper1946 » Fri May 22, 2015 10:55 am

New Amateur Radio Operators: what they don’t tell you in your classes

Welcome to the amazingly wonderful hobby of Amateur Radio. You are probably only just starting to scrape the surface of the many facets of this terrific hobby – a hobby which can last a lifetime. I first obtained my amateur radio license in 1971 so I have a few years experience that I would like to share with any newcomers to the hobby who may wish to read this – particularly some of the aspects of ham radio that are often not found in operating manuals and infrequently discussed amongst hams. I want to bring these to your attention to prepare you so you don’t suffer initial disappointment or embarrassment and so you can put your time and resources into things which will enhance rather than detract from the hobby.

Operating Suggestions

Listen.

If you are new to ham radio consider doing more listening than talking for the first month or so. Learn the proper etiquette for radio communication on the various modes and various frequencies you intend to use. Listen to how the hams with more experience carry on communicating. You do not want to be considered a “lid” (lousy operator). That is the worst insult you can get in ham radio and is usually reserved for those who really do make a hash of things on the radio. You will not make any friends nor garner many contacts by being a poor operator and the best way (at first) is to learn by listening, not by talking, unlike many other pursuits in life.

VHF FM

VHF (2 metres) FM operating is often the newcomers first introduction to ham radio as anyone with a most basic licence can operate this band, a new base station radio can be less than $200 (a handheld < $150) and antennas for this band are small, easy to erect and readily available. Working 2M FM is a completely different ball game than working HF (short wave). You may need to be aware that 2M FM is essentially “the ham telephone”. The reason being is that it is almost treated like a private telephone link between hams who know each other or between club members of the club which owns the repeater you happen to be using. There is nothing wrong with this, but an outsider might not get a response to a CQ, even though many hams might actually be tuned in to that frequency. In fact, it is sort of frowned upon to actually call a CQ on 2M FM – instead one tends to say ” WB6XXX on frequency and monitoring” , or something to that effect. This informs other hams that you are available to chat and if they are so inclined they just might answer you – and then again they might not. If you like to chat and meet new hams on 2M FM then you need to consider joining the local club, meeting other local hams who use 2M and or joining in the scheduled local 2M radio nets because calling CQ tends to get you nowhere fast. This is a vastly different scenario on the HF bands where calling CQ is expected and where you will usually get an answer.

HF DX

If you live in North America and operate HF (80-10M) calling CQ DX (calling a CQ specifically aimed at attracting calls from outside of North America) is normally a complete waste of time, breath, electricity and bandwidth. Why? As someone who has operated as a DX station (in Papua New Guinea, Argentina, Wales, Australia, New Caledonia) I will share the reasons. Basically, there are many more active HF stations with great signals emanating from North America than from many other parts of the world. To a DX station you are just another North American – a dime a dozen so to speak! They can contact North Americans almost any time of the day or night as they wish. They most certainly are unlikely to respond to a CQ DX when they themselves are hunting for other DX, not for North America. Secondly, most DX stations tend to not respond to CQ DX calls. Instead they tend to find a clear frequency and call CQ themselves, because they know that they are “in control” and they are also now in control of their own frequency. Because a DX station is in more demand they will often have numerous stations responding to their CQ and they can then choose to do split frequency or even call for specific regions of the world if the number of calling stations becomes numerous. They often are not really interested in a ragchew with a North American. A North American ham calling CQ DX with a great antenna and a kilowatt is the equivalent to using capital letters in emails or shouting across an empty room at someone in the corner of the room. Many American hams still persevere with this lousy etiquette and it tends to get them nowhere. You will be much better served, and you will contact many more DX stations if you listen for them first, rather than trying to get their attention by “shouting”. Listening carefully is the key to working DX. You will not hear the weak DX stations by calling CQ DX into the ether and you are highly unlikely to raise them either. If you are not very good at listening then check out the DX Cluster System.

Ethics

It is considered a gentlemen’s agreement amongst ham radio operators that discussions on politics and religion are verboten. You can see the reason why: ideological discussions are the breeding grounds for arguments and for offending others who may be listening. Others who may believe in vastly different ideologies than you do. Unfortunately political and religious discussions are now becoming commonplace in ham radio, particularly between USA-based stations on the 75 metre band (3.7-4.0MHz). The way around this is to simply ignore them, do not join their QSO’s or not discuss such issues if they come up, change the subject, or better yet tell the offender you are not interested in discussing politics or religion on the radio, but would be happy to continue the discussion via email, telephone or personally over a coffee. The ARRL has a wonderful document for download entitled: “Ethics and Operating Procedures for the Radio Amateur”. It is well worth a read.

Personalities

Amateur Radio obviously attracts many with a significant technical bent. In my humble experience it also tends to attract a significant proportion of guys who unfortunately also tend towards “know-it-all” attitudes. This may manifest itself in very annoying traits of being always outspokenly right and sure of themselves on technical issues, when often what they are saying is incorrect. I am unsure why there tends to be an over-abundance of loud bullshitters in the amateur fraternity, but there are, and you need to be aware of that and to take measures to lessen its influence on you. I have met a number of hams who have been discouraged from the hobby due to such personalities. There tend to also be a lot of “signal quality experts”. They will make disparaging remarks about your audio quality that only they can hear. I suggest you don’t take these to heart until you get at least one other signal report from a third party who is not involved in that immediate discussion. If you do receive such comments ask the station specifically what is wrong with your signal and how he is measuring the quality. If there are others on the same frequency ask them if they too hear faults in your signal. Do not rely on the so-called expertise of one know-it-all. The best way to deal with such people is to ignore them.

First Class Amateur Radio Operators

Try to expand your horizons in ham radio and not end up being just an “appliance operator”. This is someone who tends to know very little about radio and electronics, only just barely passes the basic radio exam, has more money than sense, spends huge dollars on the latest equipment, talks about nothing but his equipment and antennas, tends to use an amplifier when unnecessary, is highly opinionated on subjects which he really knows little about, often has a know-it-all attitude and also discusses religion and politics frequently. This is the worst face of amateur radio, and fortunately these radio operators are in a minority and they tend to hang out on 75M SSB, 75M AM and some 2M FM repeaters. To avoid being lumped in this group try constructing your own receivers, transmitters, antennas and accessories. Get involved in new modes of communication (rather than just FM and SSB), use lesser known modes and frequencies, keep learning, keep experimenting and join your local club or emergency group and volunteer your time to worthwhile radio causes. You will get bored quickly otherwise and contribute next to nothing to your hobby.

Equipment Truths

Handheld Radios

VHF/UHF handhelds are often the first radio purchased by beginners as they are so inexpensive. You will soon be disappointed in these radios as they are very limiting. Unless you live in a hilltop location you will be limited to working stations through repeaters, your signal will still be marginal at best and you will drain your battery very quickly if you are long-winded. Some of this can be alleviated with a proper external antenna such as a “Slim Jim” but in my humble opinion it is better spend your money on a base station radio and an external antenna as high as you can get it. Obviously, you might not want to spend much money on your first radio in case you loose interest in the hobby, but having a crappy signal is one sure way to quickly loose interest, that is, when no one can hear you! You would be better served to find a used 2M FM base station radio and used external rooftop antenna for the same price as you will spend on a brand new handheld.

Antennas

Put more effort and money into your antenna systems than into your radios. Spending $100 on an antenna and $4000 on a transceiver is the equivalent of building a Ferrari around a lawn mower engine. A good, used HF transceiver can be bought for $300-$500 dollars. Use the extra funds to erect a tower and a good directional antenna and you will have a much better signal than a $4000 rig with a dipole or multi-band vertical and you will make many more solid copy contacts. You will also hear significantly louder signals due to the increased directivity and receive signal gain of that antenna system. When you decide to invest in a base station HF rig be aware that you can easily get sucked into spending up to $7000 for just one transceiver. Be warned that your signal quality from that unit and its receive sensitivity are highly unlikely to be noticeably different from a radio costing just $500. What you get for the extra $6500 are simply more bells and whistles – bells and whistles that will take you a considerable amount of time to master, when you could be contacting stations and spending that money on accessories (or better yet antennas).

Urban QRN

Also on the antenna situation – you need to be aware that living in a dense urban area will definitely result in increased background noise levels, especially on shortwave frequencies. Your background noise level will significantly reduce your ability to hear weak signals. Nothing you can do with your radios or antennas will eliminate this problem (although vertical antennas are more susceptible). If your primary interest in amateur radio is working shortwave DX stations then do yourself a favour and move to a rural location or join a large DX club that has their own station and antennas in a quiet rural area. The difference you will notice hearing weak signals from electrically “quiet” rural locations is truly amazing.

Amplifiers

Having a clean, easy to read signal is nice to have, especially from the standpoint of the station trying to copy you. But the difference between an S7 signal strength that is above the noise level and one that is 40-50dB above S9 is entirely irrelevant and a waste of resources and bandwidth (for normal operating situations). Unfortunately in North America there still exists the pervasive Texan attitude that bigger is better. Many stations in North America unnecessarily over-power themselves with amplifiers. This is particularly unnecessary during the evenings on 75 and 80 metres where 100 watts can get you half way around the continent without any effort whatsoever. Overly strong signals are unnecessary: they take up bandwidth, they can tend to splatter, they require noisy fans in the background that come through annoyingly on the audio and they consume unnecessary electricity. A linear amplifier should be absolutely the last item you buy or build in your shack. Where you to invest the same money in a better antenna you would be much better served because that antenna will increase your receive capabilities and transmit capability, whereas the amplifier will only deal with the latter.

QRP

QRP (low power operation) is lots of fun but can be incredibly frustrating if you purchased your QRP rig during the down slope of the sunspot cycle. Fortunately early 2010 was the low of our current cycle and conditions on the HF bands are improving dramatically each month, so now is the time to consider investing or building a QRP rig as the next 6 years will be great. Don’t wait, do it now, because you will only be frustrated if you buy your rig after 2016 when the present sunspot cycle begins to decrease.

Morse Code

Digital modes over amateur radio are fascinating and sometimes more technically challenging. On the other hand voice communication via SSB, FM or AM is easy and does not require any technical experience. Consider that fact. Also, do not denigrate the oldest and most efficient mode of radio communication: morse code. This is an especially important point if you are unable to erect an efficient antenna. Morse Code on HF with just 100 watts and a simple dipole antenna will enable you to communicate around the world easily. This is also possible using the PSK31 mode (but there are many fewer amateurs using PSK). To do the same feat with SSB you will require a much bigger signal (antenna and/or amplifier). Also, morse requires skill – blabbing into a microphone or typing on a keyboard does not. Consider it a challenge that is well worth learning.

Neighbours

Although national regulatory bodies do state that amateur radio operators are fully able to erect antennas on their own property you may find that municipal governments may try to stop you from erecting something your neighbours will complain about. You need to be fully aware of these facts before you decide you want to put up an obtrusive antenna system. Your neighbours and the local council can make life hell for you – even though you may be within your rights to erect it. It would be best if you were to canvas your neighbours in a friendly manner over a beer and a BBQ before erecting an antenna tower. Antenna towers unfortunately fall under the category of “structures” and therefore will require local council/municipality approval before erecting. If you live in a town-house/condominium complex you really need to consider whether amateur radio is an appropriate hobby in that situation. You cannot erect any type of antenna in such complexes so you are limited to VHF/UHF and to a really crappy signal from indoor or balcony mounted antennas. If you have problems with your local condominium board/council and need to erect a stealth antenna there are many options. Flagpoles can make reasonably good stealth vertical antennas but you are unlikely to get approval to erect one. I find one of the best stealth antennas is a tuned long-wire made from 24-30AWG grade non-insulated magnet wire. This stuff is almost invisible and can be easily strung from a window to the top of the nearest tall tree in the middle of a weekday night! You will however, require an external tuner, a good ground system for your station and a tree or other end support if you want to use a long-wire such as this. However, if any of your neighbours discover you have in fact erected an antenna contrary to the strata title regulations you will become rather unpopular, be forced to take it down and you may be subject to a fine.

You also need to be aware that even your clean 100 watt HF signal can inadvertently affect neighbourhood electronic appliances. It is best to deal with such RFI problems immediately and in a friendly manner. You must live happily with your neighbours for often many years.

I realize much of this blog has focused on some negative aspects of amateur radio but you do need to see all sides of any coin to appreciate it. Have fun!
Source: https://lggagnon.wordpress.com/2010/11/ ... r-classes/
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