Ham Radio and the “New Normal”.

23 Oct

Traditionally, ham radio becomes more interesting and engaging with the addition of tall towers, larger antennas or more flexible and better performing radios. Every hobbyist longs for that new rig or improvements in station  design for capturing that new and rare DX station, accumulating more contacts in a shorter period or working more stations with less power in less than ideal conditions, whether it be trail side or at home. Increasingly though, we are being masked from capturing the utility of these ever expanding improvements in technology by living in a cloud of RFI. In my experience, most enthusiasts do not recognize the encroachment as it comes in small steps, and then one day,  with a new source added,  you find yourself overwhelmed by noise.

Ham Radios “New Normal” is increasingly akin to a bird watching experience in a wet and dense foggy morning. Only with bird watching one can wait until the fog burns off with the advance of the light of day, while in our hobby we can never rid ourselves of the local “cloud” of RFI. Each and every time we, in our own home, or one of our ever closer neighbors purchases a new gadget or appliance we add to an already thick blanket of interference surrounding our radios. Most of this mist violates current good practice and perhaps FCC Rules but it matters little as there is no enforcement. It comes to us then to police our environs and track our quarry while exercising our best community citizen face forward. It used to be simpler. A faulty electric fence, a leaky power pole or some easily tracked arcing switch that ofttimes gave off as much light  as RFI to telegraph its presence. Nowadays, to meet Green Power and efficiency standards we see ever more small switching power sources, each with less and less RFI filtering and adherence to good design practice. Economics rule the day in this arena and not good engineering.

This “New Normal” requires a change in thinking. It becomes our own economic war to wage. Where to best spend our scarce hobby dollars? A new tower? A new radio? Or better spent in noise abatement? Over the last three or four years I have become increasingly convinced that unless and until my local environs are cleaned of every bit of RFI in my control, that adding more sensitivity, a new higher tower or support or other accoutrement to my radio ensemble is money wasted, and would be better spent in reducing my local noise. Adding a new tower or larger antenna and keeping a local noise environment intact is an invitation to being heard better but not getting any advantage on receive. It becomes an advantage divided by two. One may say that engaging in noise abatement is also an advantage divided by two as it contributes nothing on transmit. Granted, that is true to a degree. However, there remains one overriding caveat with that equation, and it tilts toward noise abatement first: You cannot work them if you cannot hear them. Additionally, that cash spent on noise abatement can mightily contribute to lower TVI/RFI while on transmit. Transmission line chokes prevent, to a large degree, this phenom.

Noise abatement is a change in thinking. It is a skill that needs to be acquired and that requires some work. It isn’t as simple as plunking down some cash or a credit card and installing a new tower or purchasing a new radio. Gaining those skills in noise abatement may not solve the noise problem forever: things change and so do home appliances and gadgets, so it is an ongoing challenge.  Someone once wrote me a note suggesting that noise abatement equipment was expensive. I would ask which is more expensive, a new radio that provides no advantage, a tower or antenna that “hears” no better than an older model, or, flipping the question, perhaps you can make do with a dipole and forgo the tower/beam and work everything you wish? There are advantages outside those that may immediately come to mind, such as ones age and how much longer we can climb said tower, or perhaps neighbors and the increasing visual standards that are acceptable or perhaps new covenants and restrictions.

This local noise problem is encroaching more every day. On one hand Hams are getting squeezed by the aforementioned proximity to neighbors and increased restrictions while on the other hand, we lose ground to ever more populous small switching supplies to meet efficiency standards. Each trip to the department store produces more challenges and opportunities. We as a community should become more proficient at dealing with this issue or it may well become our undoing.

Thanks for reading my Blog. Best, Chas W5PG

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Posted by on October 23, 2010 in Radio, RFI


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