Forget home. Go portable!
Is investing in a home station simply putting all your eggs in one basket?
Hello, and welcome to this, my first article on this platform!
A lot of you out there may have thought about becoming an amateur radio operator - a ‘ham’, as we’re often called - but aren’t sure about the expense.
After all, pick up any amateur radio magazine, and you’ll find yourself bombarded with adverts for all manner of products. Whilst what are rather amusingly called ‘entry level’ radios cost around £700, more advanced versions can cost as much as a decent second-hand car!
The question is: do you need to spend a lot on radio? This is a particularly salient question for those who are curious, but not yet convinced they will, when it comes to it, actually enjoy the hobby.
My advice, which I’ve been pushing for years now - and which I do heed myself - is to abandon any intention to invest in a home-based amateur radio station - unless you live on a large farm, or ar otherwise remote from the rest of humanity.
Well, other equipment has long caused interference to the radio bands. But, as the world rapidly turns to electric-everything, the potential for increasing interference in a domestic setting is now quite high.
Take, for instance, the roll-out of VDSL2 copper wire broadband transmission in the UK. Seen as a ‘quick fix’ for providing acceptably high internet speeds to the masses along existing wire infrastructure, it is widely causing interference to some amateur radio bands, notably the lower frequency ones.
Other common causes of ‘RFI’ (radio frequency interference) seen in domestic settings are power supply units for phones, CCTV systems, and the like. Known as ‘switch-mode’ power supplies, without proper design, these can cause really quite severe interference to the area around your home.
Another increasingly-common source of RFI is solar PV systems. Unfortunately, PV systems have a large loop of wire forming the circuit. This radiates RF interference, often at significant levels, into the local community. It typically renders amateur radio rather pointless.
Even LED lights, also now almost universally adopted, can cause severe RFI.
It’s about not putting all your very expensive eggs in one, very vulnerable basket. It’s about keeping fleet-footed, so that you can enjoy radio without the trauma, frustration, and disillusionment one will feel, should you wake up one day to find someone is about to install solar panels or a CCTV system next door.
So, what, then, are you to do?
In fact, it’s pretty easy. Aim to conduct your radio operations either as a ‘backpack’ portable station - this is much easier now than it ever was - or as a mobile (car-based) operator.
A car allows you to locate yourself wherever you want. If your favourite location suddenly has a solar PV farm springing up locally, then you can simply drive to a new location that doesn’t have such a source of RFI.
A car also allows you to visit the coast - something that isn’t so unnatainable for an island nation like the UK. If the sea is too remote, then a lake, decent river or swamp can offer ‘free’ environmental gain, so that signals to and from your antenna will magically appear stronger - often much stronger - than an identical (or even much larger) antenna based away from such a location. Trust me, I’ve done all the real-world tests to prove it!
The great news also is that the equipment in a car-based radio system is quite simple and cheap. A ‘whip’-style antenna, costing about £22 in 2021, plus its magnetic base, is all you need. The transceiver can be a second-hand unit, or a lower-power, new unit, which is the only expensive part, at maybe £250-£400. It should last for very many years.
Just don’t power your radio from the 12V outlet provided on your car - it’s typically got wire that is too thin for radio use. This may well lead to melting cable insulation behind the dashboard (where you can’t see it happen), and/or unacceptable voltage drops such that your radio may not work properly, or put out the power you have dialled-in.
If your interest is only or mainly in SSB (voice), then this is all you need - together with a watery environment - for very efficient amateur radio.
If, like so many these days, your interest lies in digital modes, then you simply need to add a Raspberry Pi computer; a complete Pi system might cost you about £100. A sound interface between radio and computer may cost you abour £90. All these things will last a very long time, so they are investments.
So, if you can get near some water, you can look forward to contacts with far-away places that others, even with large, directional antennas may not be able to achieve.
I won’t try to persuade you further, other than to encourage you to try it for yourself - always knowing that, if something causes RFI, you can simply drive off to the next good location!