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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Radio - Basic Equipment & Start Up

Hello, Frank here.

I've had a couple of requests lately about entry level basic equipment and getting started. For those of you working on your General, I hope you're well into whatever program you are using. I believe next in our studies is antennas, which is where we will continue. But tonight, will be a different topic.

Okay. Entry level equipment. First, you will need your Technician's license. That will give you transmitting privileges from 30 MHz up, which includes VHF and UHF. Now, remember, this is just my opinion and recommendation, and this is the very minimum. I'm not going to cover HT's (walkie talkies) here.

You will need a radio, an antenna, coax cable and a power supply. Radio. Alinco DR-635T. This radio covers your VHF/UHF ham bands, and if you have the desire to open up or modify this radio, it is very easy to do. This will allow you to transmit on MURS, GMRS/FRS frequencies, and if you're really stupid, it will allow you to transmit on police and fire frequencies, too. This radio is not approved for broadcast on the modified frequencies. There are commercial radios made that will accommodate this need. This radio will work both in your car and as a base station.

For your automobile you now have your radio, your battery is your power supply. You will need an antenna. My recommendation is the Comet M-24M. That for your automobile is your complete kit. You will need to attach the radio to the battery for power, or you can use the cigarette lighter plug. The battery is first choice.

For your base station. Same radio. You will need a base
antenna. I am going to recommend a Comet CA-2x4SR. Yes, this is a mobile antenna. If you choose to modify your radio, this antenna will work for all of the frequencies mentioned above. With this you will also need a ground plane kit. Make sure both the antenna and the ground plane kit have UHF connections. Now, you will need some kind of pole to put this up on. Top rail fencing from your local lumber yard works great. Two 10' pieces, with one bracket attached to the highest part of your house, normally the ridge. Put this antenna and ground plane kit at the very top. Now you will need some coax. For VHF/UHF short length and low power, use RG8X. If you're going to run more than 50' then a higher quality cable is needed. For your base station, you will need a power supply. Here is my recommendation for a small power supply, MFJ-4125. This will power your radio needs for years to come. That's all you need for your base station. You have a radio, an antenna and ground plane, coax cable and a power supply. You need to have a way to get your antenna into your house. I drilled a hole
through my wall, used a PVC pipe, a 45 degree angle and ran it through that way. To keep out bugs, I use stainless steel scrubbing pads on both sides and spray heavily twice a year with bug spray. You will also need a grounding rod connected to the base of your antenna pole and connections between the pole and the grounding rod. Speaking of this antenna pole, this is the horizontal pipe that goes along the top of a chain link fence, it's called top rail. One end is slightly crimped to allow the next piece to slide over it. Cut off one of these crimped pieces, about 3', drive the non-crimped end into the ground, with the crimped part sticking above ground surface. Now slide the rest of your pole over the piece in the ground, align it with your bracket attached to the side of your ridge, of course, make sure it's straight up and down. Now you have a good, solid pole. Some lumber yards carry 21' lengths of this top rail and some don't. Lowe's carries it, but you will have to special order it. And if you do that, get the thicker gauge metal.

Okay, that's your VHF and UHF mobile and base station. This is as basic as you can get. No switches, no power strips, that's it. For lightening protection, unplug your power supply and disconnect your coax cable from the back of your radio. Put that piece of coax that you just disconnected into a glass jar
laying sideways. If you want to know what your SWR is for your radio, you will need an SWR meter. A very basic one is the MFJ-842. You'll also need a coax jumper, RG8X will do fine. Footnote: all jumpers and coax should be PL-259 to PL-259. Okay that will do you for VHF/UHF.

I'm not going to discuss HF for mobile use. For most people it's just not practical. There is a small portion of 10 meter that a Technician can use. For the other parts, you will need your General license. So, here goes. For your base station radio, let me reiterate, this is just one man's opinion. My recommendation is the ICOM IC-718. You will need an antenna tuner. You do not have to
have an antenna tuner, but I highly recommend it, and my recommendation is the LDG IT-100. For this you will also need a jumper, RG8X will work just fine. Next you will need an antenna, for this my recommendation is a dipole antenna. If you only choose to operate one band, then a simple dipole will work great. If you choose to operate
multiple bands, here is a pretty good selection. These are made by Alpha Delta and they are all good dipole antennas. This dipole antenna, like most antennas, the higher the better it operates. Metal roofs and power lines will take away greatly from it's performance. But you can mount it on the same pole as your VHF antenna. Come down about one foot from your VHF antenna, drill a hole through the pole, attach an eye hook and a light weight pulley. This is how you will attach your dipole at the center. Each end of the dipole is up to you. Again, the higher the better. For your coax use RG8X. You will also need an SWR meter and for this radio an MFJ-860 will work fine. You will also need one more jumper. This
radio operates off of the same power supply as the Alinco base station.
Lightening applies the same with this radio. During a lightening storm unplug your outside antennas coming in and your power supply. 

Again, this is your very basic operating equipment. By the way, these are the radios that I use and the antennas that I use and the meters that I use. What I didn't mention here is that it is not required that you have the following pieces of equipment. Power pole connectors make life very handy. Power strips come in real handy if you're operating multiple 12 volt DC devices. A more professional tower comes in handy. All you need is a radio, an antenna, a power supply, coax cable, a meter, a couple of jumpers, a way to hold your antenna in the air and you need to ground the antennas attached to the pole by grounding the pole. Remember, always follow basic safety rules, it will pay off in the long run.

The reason for this post is because of the following email. All the equipment I mentioned here is new, and don't forget, the HF radio is also an excellent shortwave receiver. The writer addresses time on the radio. There is no requirement for any time at all, just what you choose. Also remember I do radio from a survival perspective. I do not contest, but if you choose to, you certainly can. 98% of my radio time is listening.

I would like to start with Ham radio, but what has stopped me is the expense. Maybe you can write some posts for the lowest common denominator. Ham radio for the lowest of budgets. That would be helpful. Usually when people write about Ham radio operations it is just too much information, just like people who write about solar power. I got started with solar by watching a 2 minute or less video. The person broke it down and made it super easy. I was able to get started with less then $300 and it is enough power to run a laptop, light and modem and router for hours. By putting the few pieces together I learned what it took to do solar. That simple tutorial that showed a small setup hooked up and running was more valuable to me then all those complicated books and articles that I read about solar power!
I think if you write for the 'haven't started but would like to start' crowd that would be a great service and it would get more people involved in Ham radio. In most people's mind it seems too complicated and too much of a commitment - people have a lot on their plate. Economy is on everyone's minds. Show how to start simple with just the basics so we can get the idea. People can always upgrade as their budget allows. It would be nice to have excellent equipment but that is not always possible for everyone. Having a small setup to communicate with is better then not having anything at all.  And then there is the subject of how much time does a person need to spend on the air?  That could be a show stopper for many.  I have a busy schedule with all my homemaking and homesteading duties and do not want to spend a gillion hours on the radio but want to have the abilities and skills should the occasion arise.

The person below has requested vendors which I have included with each item discussed. There are vendors that are cheaper and some that are more expensive. The items that I have listed can be found for less from some other vendors. I like Universal Radio, but I also buy from many other good folks out there. Hope this information helps.
I would like to buy a ham radio and antenna, but do not know what I should buy.  I am a  beginner, so I am not interested in a radio with lots of bells and whistles.  Just a basic get the job done type of radio.  Also looking for a good vendor to purchase said radio and antenna.  Also need to know how to properly install and set up antenna for best reception.
Also, where to get the study guides to get licensed.  In the future a license probably won't be too important, but the knowledge on how to properly operate a radio using approved standards will be critical.
Any information you can give me will be great. 

Please remember, these are just my recommendations and opinions. Many people will disagree and say you have to have this and you have to have this. If you want to get started, this will get you there. Both of these radios are good, solid pieces of equipment. Many veteran ham operators use this same equipment everyday. Again, this is just my opinion. I will remind you that I am of the persuasion that someday we are going to face some type of collapse. Radio may be one of your only means of communication. I also use solar power. Please take the above statements with a grain of salt, because it is also, my opinion.

We'll talk more later. 73, Frank



  1. Great write up Frank. If someone is interested in an HF radio with a built in auto tuner I can recommend the Kenwood TS-480SAT. It is a bit more than the combined price of the Icom HF and tuner mentioned but mine has worked very well for me.


    1. Terry, thank you for your kind words. I looked very seriously at the Kenwood TS-480SAT and the Yaesu FT-450D. Both of these radios have internal antenna tuners and are good radios. The reason I went with the IC-718 was it's long history and proven track record. Both of the above mentioned radios are fine radios.

      73, Frank

  2. Frank,

    Have a question on Ham License? This is purely a hypothetical question. I read your blog daily and I have ask you questions in the past about Radios.

    So here is my question: Do you have to have a HAM License to actually use a Ham Radio??? I know from a legal stand point the question is yes, but could a person buy all the needed equipment and be able to use it if needed??? In a SHTF situation I know that the FCC is not going to be running around checking compliance. Also what license do I get first??

    1. Your first license is the Technician. This will operate all of the VHF/UHF frequencies, VHF being the most common. Next is the General license, which you'll need to operate the HF frequencies. A gray area here. Some of the radio vendors will not sell to you if you do not have a license. Many will. You do not need a license to legally buy the equipment. You can listen on any radio that you want to. Like I've stated before, an HF radio is also an excellent shortwave receiver (SW).

      It is not difficult to get your Technician's license. As you know, some VHF radios can be modified to broadcast on MURS and GMRS. Read the post I just wrote and go back and start reading the 'how to get my Technician license' series. Don't forget the humble CB radio either. It is an HF radio operating on 11 meter and if you get SSB and use the lower side band (LSB), using channels 30 through 40, with the proper antenna, you can talk to people all over the planet.

      In an emergency situation even today, any radio can be used at any time, by anyone for an emergency, when no other means of communication is available. By the way, when you get your Technician's license you do not have to give a physical address. All they need is a mailing address, like a post office box. If the government wants to find you, then they're already standing on your doorsteps. The reason I got a post office box for my ham radio address, is that everybody on the planet will not know exactly where I live.

      So, get your Technician's license, the methods to do so are explained multiple times. And then get out your checkbook and buy the equipment that you want. What I recommend to my readers is solid equipment with the impending emergencies that are coming.

      Thank you for your question, keep reading and get your license.


  3. Frank,
    I just got done trying out the Comet antenna with the ground plane adapter over the weekend and my SWR on any 2M frequency was 3 or higher! I use these antennas on my vehicles and hardly get above 2. Needless to say, at 3+ SWR, any meaningful distance on 2M is impossible. I am curious if you tested your SWR with the Comet and the ground plane adapter, and if so, what results did you get?

    Thanks and 73,
    Bill [call sign removed]

    1. Hi, Bill. I will run some measurements and get back to you in a couple of days. And, I will get back to you. Thank you for the question.


    2. Hi Bill. Here's what I've got. The antenna is the Comet CA 2x4 SR. The ground plane kit is a TRAM1460 UHF.

      On my automobile, without the ground plane kit, the SWR was flat. That is using UHF and VHF ham frequencies, UHF using GMRS, and VHF using MURS 151-154 MHz.

      Next, I went to a friend's house that has this system, the antenna and the ground plane kit. On the upper MURS frequencies, around 154 MHz, we had an SWR of 2. All of the other frequencies mentioned above were flat.

      At another friend's house with the same set up, the antenna and ground plane kit, using 2 separate meters, the SWR was flat, straight across. At both test sites we used power ranging from 4 watt HTs to mobile radios with 5 to 50 watts.

      Bill, I can see from QRZ that you have a solid knowledge of SWR. I don't really know what to recommend, except you might want to check your connections and your coax. Because with both of these gentlemen, the SWR readings were good and low, including outside of the ham frequencies. On my automobile, with just the antenna, they were flat straight across the frequencies using a mobile radio from 5 to 50 watts.

      I certainly appreciate your observation, and I appreciate your comment.

      73s, Frank

    3. Frank,
      I just got in from doing my tests with the new ground plane adapter. At first I was excited because I first tested with my antenna that is on the truck and everything looked great at 2.0 or less. Then I switched to the new antenna on the ground plane adapter, and got similar SWR results. However, I then noticed that my radio was only putting out 1/2 power. It has Low, Med, and High - 5W, 20W, and 50W on both 2M and 70CM. The 70CM was doing fine, but the 2M was only putting out 2.5W, 10W, and 25W - exactly 50% power. I immediately thought something was wrong with my radio (I never even looked at the forward power needle on my first test with the antenna on the truck). I connected my dummy load and tested - and got 100% on all 3 settings. I then hooked the antenna mounted on the truck back up, and got 100% on all 3 settings.

      What was happening is that the radio's fold-back protection circuit was kicking in due to extremely high SWR's coming off of the ground plane adapter. So, the lesson here is that you also need to check the forward power level and not just the SWR. I was getting very good SWR readings, but only because the radio was cutting the power in half. I have no doubt that with these levels, it was putting gout 25W of static had I tried to make contact. I'm sure that some radios may cut all output power entirely if they experiance high SWR's which would show up as a terrific SWR reading!

      My suggestion is to run your tests again, but pay close attention to how much power the radio is actually putting out. If you get full power along with the low SWR's then you are doing great! Be careful if you are not getting full power. Attaching a radio that does not have the fold-back protection circuit may result in damage to the radio.

      Needless to say, I am not going to be able to use this setup on 2M, but on 70CM I hope to get good results.


    4. Hi Bill,

      Give me a couple of days and I will get back with you.


  4. Thanks Frank.

    I was testing with a 5 watt (VHF) and 4 watt (UHF) handheld directly at the antenna. I was actually on my roof using 3' factory made patch cables and a Daiwa SWR meter. I only did this after trying to reach another HAM friend of mine about 25 miles away with 50 watts, but all he could hear was static, even on regular HAM frequencies that we talk on all the time so we already know that it is quite do-able. So I suspected high SWR's were the culprit. When I put the meter on from within my home on an ICOM mobile at 50 watts I was getting close to 3. Higher on other frequencies. I suspected maybe a bad connector or something so that's when I just climbed up to the antenna and used the handheld up there. The handheld test had slightly higher SWR than the in-house test. I'm guessing because the longer lengths of coax provided more loss.

    I forgot to mention originally, that I ordered the MFJ version of this adapter. Their website depicts the exact same product as the Tram model you've shown. But it is quite different in physical design. It's stainless, connects with U bolts, and will only fit on a 1-5/8" max mast. However, it has the same length radials, so in theory it should still work the same. The reason I wondered what results you were getting, is that if you got good results, I would try the Tram version.

    I am currently waiting on a ground plane adapter from a different mfg. I will let you know what results I get from it. It's all aluminum. If those fail, I may put this antenna on my vehicle and see what's happening. Although not very likely, I suppose I could have received a bad antenna. At this point, if a bad antenna has been ruled out, I'll try the Tram adapter. Whatever happens, I will let you ,and your readers, know how it went.

    Thank you very much for doing these tests. It will help me immensely in getting to the bottom of this problem. Antennas are mysterious creatures, at best.

    Best wishes to you and your family and Merry Christmas!


  5. BTW, what are you mounting to your cars with? I use a Comet lip mount, but have also used a large mag mount. Both perform about the same as far as SWR goes.