Is amateur radio and expensive hobby?

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Assembling an amateur radio station can be as simple or as elaborate as you choose. You can have a simple CW (Morse code) transmitter and receiver with a piece of random wire for an antenna, or, have a station that has all the bells and whistles required for space communication. Either way the station will evolve to suit your operating requirements over time.

Most amateur radio stations consist of a few basic items; some of these items are listed below, with brief descriptions of their use:-

  • The Power Supply. These can be built for as little as $100 from parts scavenged from various sources (even the local reuse transfer station!) or one can be or purchased second hand for around $150 to $200 depending on the amount of amperage it can deliver continuously. (20 amps continuous is recommended for HF work)

  • The transceiver is the single most expensive piece of equipment you will own, and can cost many thousands of dollars, although this need not be the case as there are many "features" you may never use.

For VHF and UHF work there are hand held FM units available for as little as $150 these are an excellent choice for both mobile and portable use and can easily cover the local repeater network. Many amateurs use only hand held transceivers, even for base station work.

A second hand HF transceiver can be purchased for as little as $300 and will cover all the Novice amateur bands with ease.

  • An Antenna Tuning Unit (ATU) can be constructed easily from junk box parts for around $40 or can be purchased second hand for around $150. An ATU as its name suggests, tunes the impedance of antenna to suit the transmitters output impedance; this allows you to use a single random length of wire for all band operation.
  • An VSWR Bridge is used to measure the standing waves on an antenna, these are usually included in commercially made ATU's or can be purchased separately second hand for around $50, and yes these can be home brewed as well.
  • Feed line. Coaxial cable is the feed line of choice these days due to its easy of installation and handling. Coax can be routed around, through and under various objects and will not be influenced by close proximity to metal objects such as down pipes. Coax can be purchased for around $2 per metre depending on the quality and construction of the coax.

Before coaxial cable was introduced, open wire feeder, similar to TV ribbon, was used as antenna feed line. Open wire feeders can be made from any scrap pieces of wire you may have, as long as they are kept the same gauge. Spreaders can be made from paddle pop sticks or even hair curlers. On a cents per metre basis the open wire feeder is by far the cheapest option, has fewer losses over long runs and is easy to construct.

The down side of open wire feeder is that it can be affected greatly by close proximity to metal objects and can be difficult to handle when being used with rotatable directional antennas such as Yagi arrays and Quads.

  • Antenna. Most amateurs have built an antenna at some stage; many have never owned a commercially manufactured antenna. An antenna can consist of a simple wire dipole, or have many elements as can be found in Yagi or Quad arrays. A dipole can be constructed for under $10 if using wire, or under $20 if using aluminium tubing. Using aluminium tubing for a dipole is a good idea because by simply adding a few extra elements the dipole becomes a Yagi and has a much higher gain than a simple dipole.

I recommend The ARRL Handbook and The Arrl Antenna Book as excellent starting points for those of you who want to construct any of the items listed above. At the bottom of this page is a search box for Barnes and Noble, use it to buy these books on line if you like.

In all, you can get on air for as little as $600 using commercially manufactured equipment purchased second hand. As and example I purchase a Kenwood TS120s for $350, a Kenwood AT200 ATU (which has a built in VSWR bridge) for $150 and constructed a 20 amp continuous power supply for around $100. To top it all off I use a simple loop antenna tuned to 3.565MHz. The ATU allows me to use the same antenna on the 160, 20, 15 and 10m amateur bands.

Sources of second hand equipment include;

  • Classified adds in newspapers and the Trading Post,
  • Amateur radio magazines and publications,
  • Hamfests,
  • Contacts through amateur radio clubs.

Hamfests are the equivalent of trash and treasure markets and are a great source of bits and pieces. Listen to the WIA news broadcasts* and watch amateur radio magazines and newsletters for dates and times.

Once you have established a basic amateur radio station you can concentrate on a particular field, be it chasing awards or engaging in space communications.

Other equipment you may consider, could be directional antennas towers and rotators, linear amplifiers, or test equipment such as a Cathode Ray Oscilloscope (CRO)

As mentioned previously, there are many facets of amateur radio, and the cost of equipment will be governed by the direction you choose to follow.

*9:00am local time on 80 metres and most 2 metre repeaters around Australia.

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