Good operating practice states that radio amateurs should use the minimum transmitter power required to maintain effective communications. In most cases that would mean to QRP (reduce power), yet in reality pretty much everyone runs their HF rigs at full power, all the time. There are two big reasons why radio amateurs who have no real interest in QRP should familiarize themselves with it anyway. First, it forces them to refine their operating skills, and that’s helpful no matter how much juice you’re sending up the coax. Second, the time to know how to operate QRP effectively is before shit hits the fan (SHTF), when a few watts may be all you have to work with.
The easiest way to get into QRP is to “just do it” with the station and antennas you already have. Turn the power down to less than 10 watts and jump in. This is the point where QRP exposes a lot of shortcomings in a ham’s equipment and operating skills. Here are a few common barriers and what you can do to correct them:
You need to refer to your radio’s manual to figure out how to QRP the power down. Not even knowing how to reduce transmit power without looking it up means you have not put enough effort into correct operating protocol, nor do you know your equipment as well as you should.
What you need to know: Modern radios have so many settings and menus that it’s not realistic to memorize all of them, but if you do not have basic competency in the primary controls and features without using a reference, then study up and learn your gear before proceeding. You are, after all, a radio operator. Keeping your skills sharp should be a matter of personal pride.
You always run full power because your antenna is poorly tuned/not efficient. This might be something you’re willing to settle for at 100+ watts, but losing a few watts when all you have is a few watts is a very big deal. If you can’t make any contacts with QRP, it may be because too much of your RF is lost before making it out of the antenna. A poor antenna effects your receiving capabilities, too.
What you need to know: One key to successful QRP is having an antenna that sends as much RF out as possible. This will also give you an edge when running full power too. Do not lazily hide behind a lot of watts and an antenna tuner. Many radio amateurs are aware that their antenna sucks and instead of making it right they slap a tuner on it and call it “fixed”. Regrettably, there is no shortage of hams who think a tuner is the answer to all antenna problems (this issue could be an entirely separate Off Grid Ham article).
If you are a radio amateur with a sub standard antenna due to physical limitations (Example: Antenna hidden in an attic because of homeowner association rules), then look over your setup carefully and determine where you can make improvements. I understand that not everyone has stacked monoband beams on a mountaintop. The internet is full of plans for effective antennas that will fit in small spaces. Make the best of what you have.
You tried QRP once, didn’t make any contacts after a few CQ calls, and gave up. Off Grid Ham is not a personal development or life coaching blog, but it’s worth mentioning that successful amateur radio operators practice their craft regularly and use mistakes as an opportunity to learn and improve. Giving up too easily has nothing to do with skill or equipment and everything to do with attitude. You have to want to. There is no advice for someone who does not care.
What you need to know: Cranking up the power is not a valid substitute for patience and practice. One great way to build QRP confidence is to participate in any of the numerous QRP contests and nets. These events bring together a large pool of operators specifically looking to work QRP stations, so the odds of making good contacts are greatly improved. The MIDCARS net operates every single day of the year from 0830-1400 EST on 7.258 mHz. It is intended primarily as a net for mobile stations but they are QRP friendly.
With a little practice, you will quickly pick up the nuances of QRP. There are also hundreds of books and articles written on the topic as well as on line forums and discussion groups where experienced operators will be very eager to help you. Another way to get more out of QRP is to use CW and the very popular PSK31 digital mode as they tend to be more effective getting a signal through than SSB. No matter what path you take, keep focused, keep trying, and do not readily accept failure.
Do you need a dedicated radio?
Having a radio specifically designed for QRP (such as the Yaesu FT-817ND or TenTec Argonaut) is a great idea if there is room in the budget, but it’s not required unless you need portability. Before you run out and plow hundreds of dollars into a radio, begin by practicing with the equipment you already own and upgrade to a specialty low power radio as your skills and needs warrant. In a future article we’ll discuss taking the leap into a dedicated QRP station.
Operating QRP as a portable amateur station. For our purposes, portable is defined as a complete station that can be reasonably carried, set up, and operated by one person: Radio, antennas, power source, and accessories. Some hams will use a Yaesu 857D or an Icom 7200 as a portable so they have the option of going up to full power if needed. I recommend against buying a full power rig with the intent of running it as a QRP portable. The idea sounds great in theory; in real life it’s got a lot going against it.
When using it in low power mode, you are lugging around a radio that is much larger and heavier than it needs to be. At the other end, to operate with full 100 watt RF output you must also bring along enough electrical capacity (batteries, generator, etc.) to run it. Either way, you are committing to transport a lot of extra stuff for at best a modest payback.
I tried using a full power rig as a portable myself once and it was a dysfunctional mess. I eventually tore down the way too heavy “King Kong portable” 100 watt station. Now I have a five watt (max) FT-817ND and everything I need in a backpack. I compensated for the lower power with well-rehearsed operating procedures and homebrew antennas so carefully tweaked that they do not need a tuner. My success rate for making contacts is actually better than it was when I had the 100 watt rig. If you have any plans to operate as a portable station, then a QRP radio is almost a must.
QRP: 1) A subset within amateur radio that specializes in HF communications with low transmitter power, typically less than ten watts; 2) a Q-signal in amateur radio that means “should I reduce power?” or “I am reducing power.”
PSK31: Phase Shift Keying, 31 baud. A data protocol that shifts the phase (as opposed to the frequency) of the bits in a data transmission. PSK31 is characterized by requiring very little bandwidth and being able to complete an exchange under very poor operating conditions.
Portable Station: A complete amateur station: Radio, antenna, power source, and accessories, that can be reasonably carried and quickly set up/taken down by one person.
The off grid ham is constantly aware of how much electrical power is available and does not have the luxury of indiscriminately running 100 watts or more as a default setting all the time. Learning to establish effective communications via QRP not only gives radio amateurs more options when energy resources are limited, it also translates into better operating when energy resources are plentiful.