Prepping a 2-Meter Ham Rig…
Here’s a question that comes up all the time: “I got a 2-meter ham radio…now WHAT?”
Yes, there are dandy books put out by the ARRL (American Radio Relay League) such as their ARRL :: Operating :: ARRL Operating Manual are excellent technical references. Especially the chapter “VHF/UHF FM, Repeaters, Digital Voice and Data.”
But, if you’re not an old-school hands-on tinkerer, actually getting where you’d like to go with a VHF radio can be daunting. And did I mention time consuming?
A Typical Use Case
My long-time buddies (45 years now!) Gaye (htttps://strategiclivingblog.com) and hubby Shel both have two-meter ham radios. With licenses and chargers and so forth. But, learning how to build a highly functional personal network is a daunting task. And it takes time…and “George, can I send you our radios to program?”
Which I did – with pleasure! (It’s fun if you have the geek gene…)
It’s not that Gaye lacks the brainpower (she’s smarter than me)…it’s just that messing with cables and radio interfaces, antenna heights above average terrain (HAAT), and other obscure variables aren’t her cuppa tea. In short, she’s normal.
If this sounds like an obstacle that has kept you from enjoying your VHF ham radio, read on. We can get you fixed up in short order!
First You Need Some Basics
Almost everything you can ever need to know about radios is in the new ARRL 2021 Handbook. It’s all searchable (.PDF) and fast.
It’s also big. Takes up almost a gig of hard drive space.
With that much pure volume (the Handbook is also available as six softbound volumes, so probably over a thousand pages in all) if any of the terms I’m about to use go “over your head” just search the Handbook and you’ll find answers.
Step 1: RKA and Workflow
We’re going to “eat knowledge” now in a very Ure-like manner.
Starting Resources: We start with a reference book, a charged up VHF ham radio, an instruction manual for the radio, computer, Internet access, and the all-important programming cable to get from an open computer USB port to the radio. Normally it’s the external speaker-mic jack where this cable plugs in.
RKA means Rapid Knowledge Acquisition. It’s a suite of skills – I think we’ve dealt with RKA more on the Peoplenomics side of things. But essentially, if a strategy to get you the knowledge to accomplish a [new/never-before done] task in the shortest possible time.
In other words, we have the pile of “radio stuff” – so how do we squeeze high performance out of it? (Gaye was lucky: “George can you….”)
But Elaine (KG4YHV) and I don’t live in Phoenix or up in the Arizona mountains…so how did I program radios “remotely?”
Part of the answer is RKA: I knew a) where to get the frequencies, b) how to use software to load it all into radios quickly, and c) I’ve done this “workflow” a couple of times. There were few surprises.
Workflow: This was not taught in school when a lot of us were younger, except maybe touched on when talking about Henry Ford and the evolution of the Production Line.
We can already see some of the “workflow” parts. Got radio gear, got this discussion as a road map. What else will we need? Let’s make a shopping list. And we will do it in workflow order so it will make sense.
Some Key Definitions:
- A transceiver is both TRANSmitter and recEIVER.
- A frequency is an absolute measure of a radio transmitter. E.G. WOAI (San Antonio, TX) is on 1.2 MHz or 1,200 KHz. (yeah, decimal slides 3-left to convert KHz to MHz.
- A channel is a “convenient local radio memory slot” where a frequency (and tones, offsets, and more) can be stored.
- A bank is a “collection of channels.”
- Typical radios will cover a range of frequencies. Which can be stores in whatever channel number you assign them to.
- Typical handheld transceivers have 100 (available) channels you can assign. More advanced radios (covering more bands (wider frequency ranges) have multiple banks of channels.
- An Icom 7000, for example – covering longwave receiver, all of HF spectrum and up through the 440 ham band has several banks. The operate can assign one bank to favorite digital modes (for computer to computer comms) and another to HF voice while another might be employed for VHF/mobile voice comms. (slick, huh?)
If you’ve stayed with it so far, we’ll keep trudging along:
- Repeaters have an input frequency and an output frequency.
- The output frequency is the number displayed by the radio when listening to others.
- When you transmit, that will be on a different frequency. Up (or down) 600 KHz on 2-meters. If the transmit is on a higher frequency, it’s called a + (positive) offset. And if lower, – (negative) offset.
- Few repeaters are “wide-open” anymore. There is normally [PL=private line] “tone” required to key the repeater.
- When you collect frequencies for transmit, don’t forget to include the PL tones. You won’t need them for general public service traffic (marine and weather, for example). But more ham repeaters require PL tones.
Let’s to through the steps (workflow) and we’ll point to resources along the way:
- First thing you will need will be a computer (we’ll use Win10 in this example), an open serial port, and a fast internet connection.
- Second will be to download a radio frequency managing program called CHIRP which you can grab from here. (A contribution to their coffee fund is worth it – CHIRP saves all kinds of agony of trying to remember complex button-presses to enter a frequency.
- Install CHIRP.
- Now visit the website of your local ham radio club. Say, for example, you wanted to program a handheld and lived near Chandler, AZ. Click here and if you have a Baofeng UVR5 radio, you would simply download the “image file” and upload that (via the programming cable which we will get to in a sec.).
- You will also want to get a few local fire, police, and state patrol plus maybe a Coast Guard channel (16 is general marine calling) along with the two or three strongest NOAA Weather channels. (Around 162.55 or 162.45 in many areas.
- If you do NOT have the radio-specific file (an img file) then open CHIRP and follow the prompts to lay out how you want the radio to operate.
- When you have a file list done, SAVE IT.
- Next, whether you load CHIRP channels by hand after looking up channels of interest (using data found on RadioReference.com), or whether you download an img file, the next step is to plug in the serial cable and (following the manufacturer’s (sometimes incomprehensible) directions, dump from CHIRP into your radio.
Which Repeaters Will Work?
Once a handheld radio is programmed, it’s then a simple matter to see if you got things right.
All you need to do is go to a channel you wish to test: (Let’s say Channel 4)
You turn up the speaker a bit and briefly transmit. 2-seconds ought to do it.
If – upon releasing the transmit button you here a “click” then a [pause] and another “click”.
What you are hearing – when you stop transmitting – is the receiver at the repeater location having its squelch come on silencing noise. The second click is the squelch on your handheld coming on.
In-between, with a carefully calibrated ear (which takes a while to develop) you can get pretty good at judging whether the repeater you just keyed will be useful.
In this way, you can begin to develop your “best signal” repeaters without having to mess with a complex radio, signal strength meters – no science needed, just some “common sense” (OK which isn’t so common…).
Signal Strength via Squelch?
Sure – first step in the evolution of highly robust emergency comms is having a “mental look-up table” in your mind that pays very close attention to the “back porch noise” you hear on a repeater.
Let’s go through some use cases:
Case #1: The first squelch is clear, the pause is silent, and the second squelch pop is crisp. This should be in your #1 list of best repeaters to hang out on. Because – and this is key – even if the repeater is crystal clear between squelch noises, you may still have a bit of noise (popcorn) around the edges of your handheld signal.
Radio paths are equal (inverse square law is bi-directional). But the repeater likely has a full-sized antenna. Most handhelds have a short (10-12″) “rubber ducky” type antenna. If you want to improve your handheld range, a long (read: high-performance) antenna will help.
Case #2: You can still hear the two distinct “squelches.” But, instead, you hear from “fuzz” or occasional “popcorn.”
This repeater may still be useable. But remember, even if you can hear the other station well, a shortened (however rugged) antenna will be harder to hear in most cases.
Especially inside the house if you let the contractor use foil-backed insulation… (See how everything is connected? Foil insulation is the bane of wifi and high performance VHF ham gear!
Case #3: You can make out the other person talking, but there’s a good bit of static on them. This is when that orchestral ear comes into play.
Listening closely to the other station, is it their signal that is fuzzy? Or, is it the repeater that is fuzzy?
When the other station unkeys – and if the space between squelches is “clean” then you likely have good comms. Because the other station is weak into the repeater.
On the other hand, if there’s also “popcorn” and “fuzz” on that “back porch” then you will have a hard time being understood.
On FM signals – unlike AM stations – yelling will usually only make communications worse.
Here, we can insert a long discussion of bandwidth and noise, and the finery of ERP = effective radiated power (which varies on AM as modulation increases – yelling may help). But, on FM when the carrier power is the same, speaking in a normal well-articulated not overly soft, but not screaming will be as good as it gets.
Depend on receiver, if you yell, the deviation index will increase, potentially widening the signal far enough that squelch drop out can be induced on the receive location.
Optimizing a Personal Net
The idea for this morning’s column was proposed by my buddy (the Major) who wondered “How can half a dozen of us up in Washington state, all figure out when is the best repeater frequencies for each of us?”
Now we’re into the serious workflow part: Step by Step:
- One member of the ‘net is elected (drafted) to be the “CHIRP Keeper.”
- The group meets on Skype for a half hour every week until the project is done.
- The group builds a “frequency list” which would include the public safety, weather, fire, yada yada along with all ham repeaters.
- Next, the group (*we assume all have Excel or OfficeLibre) all get a list of possible ham repeaters.
- Then, each net member go through “squelching” a few times (remember try this day and night, good weather and bad because precip path loss may factor in the Seattle area, lol).
- Each repeater is scored 0 through 5
- 0 – Couldn’t even break squelch.
- 1 – Broke squelch only upstairs or in front yard.
- 2 – Broke squelch but noisy as heck. Very poor comms.
- 3 – Fairly “fuzzy” or “Redenbacher.” Useful, though. Doesn’t work in basement.
- 4 – Occasional pops but pretty enjoyable chatting. Fuzzy in basement.
- 5 – Full quieting between the squelch points. Great repeater from my location. (Warms up coffee in basement…)
What comes out of it is a spreadsheet that does (as a manual project) what HF ALE (Automatic Link Establishment) does on the HF bands (without the nuisance of repeaters and such): Transmit, exchange LQA scores *(link-quality analysis) and frequency hop). (Huge fan of ALE – so for more go read more at the HFLink.com website .Every SERIOUS prepper should have reliable, nuclear survivable comms, right? Message store and forward…real the End kinda stuff…Somewhere in here you may figure out what my Icom M700 commercial SSB radio has in its future…)
OK, but back to point:
CHIRP KEEPER Report
Ends up looking something like this:
This report (done with actual data, not this mock stuff) makes it possible for a group of friendly hams to prioritize their personal comms into something workable.
The boxes in yellow (read horizontally left) tell you what frequency not everyone can hit. On the other hand, the blue boxes indicate workable channels and overall, in this example, the repeater BREMER(ton) might be best (or Gold Mountain) because at least everyone ought to be heard.
Or, you could use this as a prioritizing tool. MicNKey repeater might be great if the group can work with the “Chirp Keeper” to change up to a different handheld, better antenna, and or similar.
Not Too Mysterious…
…but not terribly obvious, either.
Useful? We hope not. But, better to have comms and plans than have a disaster come along and not have reliable comms when you need them.
Off to today’s real “shop project” – first run of the wood-fired pizza oven this afternoon.
Write when you get rich,