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TOP FIVE STATION ACCESSORIES EVERY HAM SHOULD HAVE
BY DON KEITH N4KC
Copyright 2018 by Don Keith
Okay, so you have studied the manuals, answered hundreds of exam-pool questions on-line, and happily passed your licensing exam. Congratulations! You’ve finally gotten to the point where you can say your mouthful of a call sign without stumbling. And you have purchased your primary station transceiver, something for VHF/UHF in the car, and have a decent antenna or two. You may even be on the air already, making contacts and flinging RF all over the globe.
Now is the time to start thinking about what else you need in your shack to enhance your enjoyment and the fulfillment offered by our amazing hobby. I have some suggestions for you, based on my own opinion and experience. Others may have different ideas and I assure you they will not hesitate to express them in this worthy venue.
First thing, I am NOT going to include on this list some items others may consider to be essential. I believe each of the following are“nice things to have” but not absolutely required to have yourself some fun and fully enjoy being a ham. The other accessories I will then list in rank order are those I think should come first.
That “nice to have but not essential” list includes:
· A linear amplifier. Yes, they are wonderful to have when the going gets rough, but a good transceiver (which, when I say “good,” means a decent receiver with some modicum of filtering and noise suppression) and an efficient antenna system will open up the world for you with 100 watts. Save your pennies and get you an amp someday. I operated without one for the first 47 years of my ham radio tenure and have had a blast. Now, I’m often glad I have the extra 9db of signal, but I still would not rate the amp as an essential accessory.
· A tall tower and multi-element HF beam. Again, nice to have, but not an option for many. A well-designed vertical or wire antenna system will still allow you to work the world. I did it with a G5RV and a multi-band trap vertical. And I’ve done it with tri-band beams and my current hexbeam. Beams are better but not essential.
· An “antenna tuner.” I can make a good argument for this being a required accessory. If you have read previous articles by N4KC then you know I am an advocate of having at least one of your antennas being a long piece of wire (dipole or loop) fed with open wire feedline so you can use it on multiple bands. If you have gone that route then yes, you must have a “tuner.” The auto-tuner available in most radios these days may or may not be robust enough to cover all the bands and their segments on which you wish to dance. However, for the purpose of this article, and because not every ham will require one, we will keep the antenna matching device in the “nice to have” category. But keep in my mind it can also be a must-have gadget, depending on your antenna situation.
Now, what do I think you DO need? What do I believe should be your top five accessory purchases as you delve into the hobby? Here goes, in what I believe is the order of importance:
1. A good watt meter. And by “good,” I mean it should be reasonably accurate (lab grade not required) and ideally have the ability to see both forward and reflected power. A cross-needle display is really nice so you can see forward and reflected power at the same time and get a decent idea of your antenna SWR.
Those who have seen my previous articles on eHam and in my book RIDING THE SHORTWAVES: EXPLORING THE MAGIC OF AMATEUR RADIO know that I believe SWR is a highly over-rated commodity. Still, it is good to have an instant visual check on the integrity of your antenna system. If the SWR is suddenly 10:1, you know something is haywire with either your antenna matching device, feed line, or antenna.
And as long as we are talking ideal, I would also get a watt meter that has a peak-reading function. I am sure you remember from your studies that many watt meters do not react in such a way as to allow you to see what actual peak power is for such modes as SSB. If you glance at that swinging meter movement over there, it may appear that you are only putting out 60 or 70 watts even though you are sure you set the transceiver’s output power at 100 big ones. A peak-reading meter will show you more accurately what you are actually doing.
Nowadays, there are several manufacturers that make good peak-reading watt meters with either dual displays or a single cross-needle meter face. Be sure it will handle the power you intend to shoot through it and that it will work on the frequency range for which you will need it. I have seen—and purchased—several such meters, good for HF frequencies, for less than $100 new. Add capability up to UHF and they get pricier, or you may want to just get a separate VHF/UHF meter. Be wary of used meters at flea markets as they may have been scorched beyond repair, but you can also get a good bargain there, too.
2. A dummy load. Yes, a dummy load. Stop airwave pollution while you fiddle with that new radio or tuner. Avoid entertaining the rest of us and the shortwave-listening world while you adjust your transmit audio processing for hours on end with that oft-heard yodel, “H – e – l – l – l - o – o - o – o, radio – o – o – o!”
Again, be sure the dummy load you buy can handle the amount of power you intend to send coursing through its oily innards. Read the manual to be sure you know what the tolerable on-and-off cycle should be so you don’t fry its resistors or send its oil bubbling over like a witch’s cauldron.
3. A volt/ohm meter. Look, I know not everyone gets into ham radio to learn all there is to know about electronics. There is nothing wrong with that, and many other aspects of the hobby besides the technical part attract folks to its ranks. However, a decent volt/ohm meter can serve a number of purposes in your shack.
I confess I usually go for the cheapest model Radio Shack has on its shelves (using those nice Shack gift cards my kids give me for Father’s Day) or something I pick up at hamfests. As with the watt meter, you are not looking for something NASA might use. If you do yearn to learn more and construction and kit-building are in your wheelhouse, invest in something heftier and more fully featured. However, ninety percent of my VOM usage is checking continuity on coaxial cables and jumpers or making sure my 13.8 volt power supply—the one without benefit of a voltmeter on its plain-Jane face—is somewhere in the general vicinity of 13.8 volts. That and checking the veracity of refugees from that pile of discarded AA batteries. For this reason, I usually prefer an analog meter as opposed to a digital readout. Take your pick. Or have one of each.
4. An antenna switch. Even if you are new to the hobby and only have one antenna out back or stretched across the attic, trust me, you will soon have more. I suspect mine are mating back there and having babies. I put up a G5RV and a 2-meter/70 CM j-pole, and before I knew it, wires crossed my backyard with such regularity that birds can no longer safely fly through the maze.
My rig has two antenna outputs. I have five HF antennas. Simple solution: a 4-position coax switch (my big horizontal loop goes to a second output on my auto-tuner). Read the reviews here on eHam on the various switches available. Most are perfectly okay for amateur use. Expect to pay up to $100 for a solid, manually-switched device and well above that if you opt for something you remote outside and switch electronically. Either way, you prevent carpal tunnel from constantly screwing connectors on and off. Using such a switch also neatens up the shack considerably.
5. A computer. I almost left this one off since it is so obvious anymore. But I still talk with hams who have the computer upstairs and the rig downstairs. When I became active again in 2005, I had my shack in my son’s old room and my office/computer in the old family room next door, both in the basement part of the house. I somehow did not realize how firmly the ‘puter had become entrenched in the day-to-day operation of a ham shack.
It did not take me long to move the shack into the office with the transceiver right next to the desktop computer. And I also keep my laptop on the desk, too, so I can interface easily with the radio for firmware updates, memory programming, and the like. I use it to program my two HTs and the mobile HF/VHF/UHF radio, too. The main computer is hooked up to the main rig through a SignaLink USB external sound card for digital modes. And I usually keep DX Summit and QRZ.com open in the browser on one or the other machine for quick reference. I love looking up the guy with whom I am ragchewingto see what he has on his QRZ page, enabling me to launch into conversation about some of the relevant things I might find there.
Of course, other logical uses of the computer in the shack include rig control and logging. I came from an era in which we had to keep a paper log. You cannot imagine the hassle when a QSL card floated in from the bureau and I had to try to find the logbook in which that particular QSO was logged. Or when I figured I had worked up to another DXCC plateau and tried to track down the various countries to include by riffling through multiple spiral-bound logbooks.
I am still a casual user of computer rig control. Old-timer that I am, I still kind of enjoy twisting knobs. But it is there when I want to use it. And many now prefer it. Note that a whiz-bang game-worthy computer is not necessary for most amateur radio use. An Internet connection—and a reasonably fast one—is almost a necessity, though.
I suppose if you wanted to pick nits, you could say logging, digital mode, and rig-control software, and the digital interface between computer and rig are additional “accessories,” and I have actually named nine here. Maybe so, but I think you get the point.
And as previously noted, I bet many of you can think of numerous ideas you might suggest in addition to or instead of the ones I have ranked above. If so, I hope you will share them with justification for why they are recommended.
After all, the best “accessories” of all are probably an Elmer’s heart and an open mind.
Don Keith N4KC has been a ham radio operator for more than fifty years. After a long career in broadcasting and advertising, he now writes full time and has published more than thirty books, fiction and non-fiction, on a wide range of subjects including amateur radio. See www.donkeith.com or www.n4kc.com for more info.