OK, so you realize that you need radio communications with those in your neighborhood. So many choices, so what do you get? In this article, we’ll look at the choices made by someone who has been a ham radio operator for a bit over 30 years.
Important: This is not about the Baofeng hand-held radios. This is about setting up a base station that will have more power and the ability to reach much further than the Baofeng radios (which are excellent for what they were designed for, but that’s another topic).
Our local group has a weekly radio net that is conducted on 2-meters, and then on CB. Both work well within our area.
Disclaimer: Much of this is opinion and personal preference. If you have someone with experience who will help guide you along the way, then go with their recommendations.
- This is not for a hobby – we need to get the job done without spending any more time and money than necessary.
- We’re not trying to talk to the whole world – just those in our neighborhood. One step up, if we can, would be to talk across the county.
Two Ways To Go
2-Meter radio – The best option is to get your ham radio license and set up a 2-meter radio, with antenna and power supply. You’re going to want to monitor the radio as much as possible, and a 2-meter radio is going to be silent when no one is transmitting. That silence is important – trust me on that one.
CB – The other option is to get a CB radio, with antenna and power supply. CB is greatly affected by conditions in the ionosphere. When conditions are “right”, signals will cover much of North America, and you might not hear someone just a couple miles away through all the garbage. Though it is not the best choice, your situation might be such that it is the only choice. Different groups, different situations, different choices.
No matter which way you go, you will need the same basic components: the radio, an antenna, coaxial cable to connect the radio to the antenna, and a power supply. First, we’ll look at the basics; then we’ll have some very specific suggestions with links.
What brand to go with is a personal choice. I have always gone with Icom radios. I’ve used them for over 30 years, they are excellent quality, and they are extremely reliable. Others go with Yeasu or some other brands. If you have someone who can help you along, and there are no other factors involved, go with whatever brand they like.
2-meter, Dual-band, or Tri-band
What are you going to use it for? If this is strictly for preparedness purposes, then go with a basic 2-meter radio unless others in your area are using the UHF bands. Keep it simple. Keep it basic. If you just want to have the added capability of more bands, and you have an antenna that will support it, then go for it. The cost is not all that much more, and there really isn’t any downside to having more bands.
While the radio is what gets most of the attention, the antenna is at least as important as the radio. Don’t skimp on the antenna. The antenna includes the mounting, and the simple rule is “get it up as high as you can.” Trees will soak up the signal, and buildings will bounce the signal where you don’t want it. Getting it as high as possible is very important.
While a dedicated antenna tower is great, it isn’t necessary in many cases. Something as simple as a section of top rail pipe used for chain link fencing will work if properly supported. For some antenna designs, trees make a convenient support.
Your radio will operate on 12 VDC (Volts Direct Current), so you either need a 12 volt deep discharge battery and a way to recharge it, or a power supply that converts your utility power to 12VDC. The ideal is a system consisting of a battery, solar panel, and charge controller. That, however, is beyond the scope of this article.
I recently bought my first CB radio in over 40 years, so I have very little experience to draw on regarding brand. I looked at the different radios available, and looked for one that is as close as I could find to the 2-meter ham radios that I use. So many CB radios are filled with knobs and buttons and switches that seem designed to look impressive, but what I want is simplicity. I want a clean design, along with a top quality receiver.
The transmitter part of a radio is relatively simple and cheap. The money is in the receiver. If you want a good receiver, then you’re going to have to pay for it. A good receiver will have effective filters to clean up the signal and remove much of the static and interference. It will also have a good squelch on it – not just “a squelch”, but a good squelch.
AM-only, or AM/SSB?
An AM-only CB is going to be the cheapest option, but that might not be your best choice. A SSB (Single Side Band) will effectively triple the power of the transmitted signal, and it also triples the number of available channels (40 AM channels, plus 40 LSB and 40 USB channels). The manufacturers are also probably going to be including their best receiver circuitry on the more-expensive SSB models rather than the lower-cost AM models. Bottom line: unless cost is a major factor, go with a radio that includes SSB rather than AM-only. If there is a lot of interference from distant stations, you will want the extra power that a SSB radio will provide. Keep in mind that for a neighborhood net to work using SSB, then all radios will have to have SSB capability if you are going to take advantage of SSB.
OK, Let’s Go Radio Shopping
The following is what I own (or very similar), after having done my own research. At this point, I am very pleased with each item, but I will also include some other alternatives where appropriate.
2-Meter Radio – Icom IC-2300H
Simple, rugged, single-band 2-meter radio with 65 watt output
2-Meter Antenna – Cushcraft ARX-2 “Ringo Ranger”
The “standard” for a very long time.
Coax cable with PL-259 connectors (a.k.a. “UHF connectors”) on each end. Keep the length no longer than you actually need. Avoid the thin RG58 coax for what we’re doing. RG58 is great for a mobile installation with a very short length. It is a poor choice when used on a longer run. Don’t scrimp on the Coax. Don’t get it any longer than needed. Unless you really know what you’re doing, get coax cable with the connectors already installed. Good choices include RG213/U and LMR400. Look for cable made in the USA, if you can find it.
Power supply – There are several ways to go here, each has its advantages and disadvantages.
- For a 2-meter radio transmitting at 65 watts and 11 amp drain: Astron RS-12A
- For a CB radio transmitting at 5 watts (max. legal) and 2 amp drain: Astron RS-4A
- For either: Use a 12 volt deep cycle battery with a trickle charger. Bonus points for solar charging.
Antenna Mast – Go to Lowes or Home Depot and pick up a couple sections of top rail pipe for a chain link fence. You should also be able to find some hardware to mount it to the eave of your house. Be sure that the bottom of the pipe is mounted such that it cannot move. It’s also good to keep it away from direct contact with the ground to prevent rust.
CB Radio – President McKinley
AM/SSB radio, simple to operate, rugged construction, excellent receiver with good quality filters, automatic/manual squelch. It also has a built in SWR “meter” that makes matching the radio to the antenna very easy (Any radio needs to use an antenna that is matched to the frequency being used. Again, another topic beyond the scope of this article). This is the model that our group is encouraging our members to use, and there are now several in current use in the group. Standardizing on a radio makes it easy to help others in the group when questions arise.
CB Antenna – 11 Meter band dipole on ebay. This omnidirectional antenna extends a total of 16′ and is made of stainless steel wire. SWR is a maximum of 1:1.3 . At this time, we are testing this antenna, so this is a pending recommendation only. I am using my HF ham radio antenna with a tuner for CB, as well as for HF.
A few words for New Hams
Ham radio has it’s established customs, etiquette, and protocols. Just as in the rest of society, that is how you are judged by others. It’s important – don’t ignore it and risk being shunned by the ham radio community. Here are a few key points:
- This is Florida – lots of lightning, and it does bad things to electronics. There are 3 connections to your radio: antenna, power, and ground. Keep them disconnected when not in use. Oh, yeah: EMP also does bad things, and staying disconnected is important to protect against that.
- Ham radio is NOT like CB radio. In fact, hams take great pride in being Not like CBers.
- Hams, with very rare exceptions, are scrupulous about obeying the rules governing ham radio, including giving your call sign as specified in the FCC rules.
- Never use 10-Codes on the ham bands. Hearing “10-4” is enough to make many hams cringe. Hams have the Q-Codes that were developed to make Morse code more efficient, and they are occasionally used. Common ones are QSO = a radio conversation, QTH = location, QSL = OK or acknowledgement. Instead of “10-4”, an appropriate response would be “Roger” or “Copy that”.
- To sum it up: Listen to “chatter” CB for a few minutes, and then don’t do that.