You can do it!
Today, just as we did last week, we are going to begin with Troubleshooting 101 as part of our initiative to help new ham radio operators (and even some of us older ones) learn how to do some basic troubleshooting for ourselves. Yes, it can be tempting to ask someone else to do things for us. This can become a bad habit when it keeps us from learning new things, especially things that we could - with a bit of practice - learn to do for ourselves. Knowing these basic things can serve us well in the future when no help is available. This next simple exercise is one that we will be practicing at this summer's Radio Camp. You can do it yourself once you learn a few basics.
Help! My HF radio is dead!
One of the things we grow used to is turning on the radio and hearing stations, even if they happen to be weak or off frequency. We quickly learn, as new operators, how to tune around and adjust the VFO to hear stations clearly. Sometimes we turn the radio on first thing in the morning and hear nothing but static from far-off thunderstorms, but that is nothing new. We know that we can tune across the band and find some really strong stations.
But this morning is different. You turn the transceiver on, but there is nothing - no sound at all, at least any that is loud enough to detect without headphones. What could be wrong?
Well, the best thing to do is to follow the advice in "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and don't panic. Many of our Handiham members are blind, so we will include some troubleshooting steps for them. We are going to check off everything without making assumptions. Some of our readers will think that this stuff is obvious, but in the grand scheme of things we must allow for a wide range in the knowledge and experience of amateur radio operators. Some will be familiar with the "dead radio" problem and others will be experiencing it for the first time. Let's cover all the bases.
- Yes, I know this is obvious, but did the radio really turn on when you flipped the switch? Did the radio make a telltale sound when switched on? Even if I could not see the lighted display of my IC-7200, when it is powered up I hear a click as a relay energizes in the connected autotuner and my computer makes a connected sound to tell me that a USB device is now on line. Keying the PTT in SSB mode and not talking should trip the transmit relay without sending any RF, so you can hear the click of the relay. Have you checked the power supply switch?
- Make sure that you have not left headphones plugged into the PHONES jack. Doing so on most radios will mute the speaker.
- Check the AF gain (volume) control. Maybe you turned it all the way down the last time you used the radio. Don't laugh - I often do this if I am in the radio room and get a phone call or start listening to something else. Turn up the volume and if you can hear stations, you have solved the problem.
- Check the RF gain control. Sometimes this gets turned down by accident, or perhaps you turned it down in a previous session because you were dealing with a very strong signal. Turn it back up and try tuning around again. Incidentally, I often find that users of the Handiham remote base stations leave the RF gain turned down on the TS-480 radios. No wonder the bands seem dead!
- Okay, so now we have power to the radio, the RF and AF gains are adjusted, and there is still no sound. Many radios have squelch controls, and this little feature can cause all but the very strongest signals to be completely muted. Perversely, this control is sometimes a concentric one that shares the same spot as the volume control. It is easy to misadjust, by which I mean setting it to anything but completely off! With the volume turned up to mid-range turn the squelch all the way down. Note that you don't want the volume cranked up to max when you do this, as the sound may be startlingly loud!
- Don't forget the other adjustments your radio may have to tailor the sound. Filter settings and pass band tuning might be set incorrectly. If they have detents, return them to "normal".
- Still nothing at all? Retrace your steps to make sure there is power to the radio. Check the power supply and connection to the radio. Check the fuses and breakers at the station equipment and at your home's breaker box. Make sure everything is connected as usual.
- Assuming that you do actually have power and that the radio is powered on, you could have a problem with the radio itself. Sometimes oxidation occurs on the mechanical connection in the headphone jack. Push a headphone plug in and out to clear it. Don't forget to listen via the headphones to eliminate the unlikely possibility that the speaker coil has opened. If any of this resolves the condition, you are good to go. If not, take further steps to have the radio checked. Ask for help from your local radio club before assuming that the radio has failed. There are probably club members who are experienced with that radio and who can help you determine what is wrong and whether it needs service.
- Let's say that you do actually hear a gentle hiss from the radio but that you can't tune in any stations. Check to see if you have locked the main tuning dial by mistake. If the tuning is locked, you can twirl the dial all day long and the frequency will not change!
- Now you have tuned across the band and there are no signals. Try another band and check again. Still nothing? Check to make sure that the antenna's feedline is connected. If you have an antenna switch, make sure that it is in the correct position. Don't forget the radio's antenna selector if your transceiver has one!
- Try WWV on 5 and 10 MHz. Both put out awesomely strong signals. If you hear a weak or warbling signal, conditions may be poor.
- Next, tune your radio to a local commercial AM radio frequency. You may not be used to doing this, so be aware that to direct enter such a frequency you may need to key in something like
zero dot eight three via the direct entry on your keypad to get "830" on the AM radio dial as I do here for local station WCCO. Of course you will choose your own local station if you don't live here in the Twin Cities. If you can hear a local AM station it is likely that the radio is fine and that HF sky wave band conditions are just extremely poor. By tuning the local commercial AM station, you can hear a ground wave signal that does not depend on sky wave propagation.
- If the local commercial station comes in fine, try checking the SWR on your antenna system. If that passes muster, it is likely that your station is intact and functioning normally and that HF band conditions are just really, really poor following a solar event. If the SWR is terrible, perhaps the feedline or antenna have failed. That is a separate troubleshooting issue.
- If the HF conditions are indeed so bad that you cannot hear sky wave stations, you can confirm this by checking various solar weather and propagation websites. It is generally a matter of waiting a few days for conditions to return to normal. When I was a young lad and had only recently gotten my General license, I ran into just this situation. I even went out side to check to see if my antenna was still up in the air! It was the first time I had experienced what amounted to a radio blackout of sky wave propagation caused by a solar event. Today we can confirm our suspicions about solar weather via the Internet, but back then it was a very puzzling thing. Eventually I did learn more about solar weather and HF propagation so that the next solar storm did not catch me by surprise and make me think my antenna had fallen down!