Communication – Choosing Your CB Radio System

Choosing Your CB Radio System

 

When considering what type of CB, antenna, and accessories to buy, the important question is, “what use(s) do you want the CB for?” Here are the more common uses people get them for, and the most desirable setup for that use:

TYPE OF USE EQUIPMENT DESCRIPTION
Monitoring Road Conditions/Truckers During Travel: A Full Feature AM CB with good audio qualities and a medium-to-full size quality antenna will work best here. You can get away with a bare-bones CB setup for this, but you’ll get a lot more out of it if you set yourself up with some important features.First, and foremost, is a good antenna. This doesn’t have to be a huge setup, although that does have it’s pluses – with antennas, generally the bigger, the better. The most important matter here is that it is at least 36″ tall (if base, center, or continuously loaded) and tuned properly. Stay away from mini-magnetic or clip-on antennas if possible as the performance is usually pretty bad even when properly tuned.Next desirable are common-sense radio features. For perspective, imagine listening to an AM radio station with a cheapo hand-held portable that uses a tiny, tin-can sounding speaker. How does that compare to listening to the same station on your stereo at home with good speakers, tone controls, maybe some noise-eliminating circuitry that makes the signal quality better? Same is true for CB. A minimal feature CB with only a volume/squelch/channel selector setup is like using the AM portable. Adding on features like tone controls, noise limiters/blankers, fine tuning, better audio components, etc not only improve the signal quality but help with range since you can pick out difficult signals better, so look for these features when picking out a radio to buy.

Another popular feature on some radios (usually sold as CB-Weather Radios) is a NOAA weather band receiver which allows you to listen to National Weather Service radio broadcasts with your CB, very handy if you travel frequently, and it complements perfectly listening to Truckers passing road condition information to each other to let you know what’s ahead.

Contact With Home While Mobile: This used to be a popular reason people bought a CB in the 70’s – but now that function has been replaced by the cell phone, so few people use a CB for this now. I myself own several mobile, walkie-talkie, and Base Station CB’s, yet still prefer to use a cell phone for contact with home. Aside from being more convenient, the phone also doesn’t have to put up with 15 foreign stations trying to interfere with my communications. This type of use may pick up again when the sunspot cycle interference dies in 4-5 years, but at the moment is not a factor. As far as equipment setups go, all that is needed is a basic setup for both the home and car, but better features will obviously improve things. Probably the biggest bang for your buck here is not money spent on the radio – but the base station antenna.
Off Road/Recreation Communications: This is one place that CB still shines. First, you don’t need anything fancy for it – bare-bones equipment works great, since it is rare you are separated by much distance. When off-road driving, camping, boating, etc, it is often very inconvenient to constantly stop what you are doing and make contact (in person) with someone to pass on information – it sort of ruins the experience in some situations.For instance, on a 4×4 trip, someone can broadcast information about points of interest, tips for getting thru bad spots, etc without having to stop, get out, go to the other vehicles, and so on. And other drivers can ask questions, call for help in a bad spot, etc. the same way. People at camp can call someone fishing downstream for dinner without hunting for them for 30 minutes.All you need for this is a basic CB radio and decent antenna. Radios that have PA capability and units that can receive NOAA broadcasts might be some extras to think about, however.
Emergency Communications: CB used to have a definite niche here when everyone and his brother owned a transceiver, but it has faded quite a bit from its former glory.Back in CB’s heyday, a volunteer organization called REACT (Radio Emergency Associated Citizens Teams) was formed to monitor CB channel 9, which was federally designated in the 70’s as the Highway Emergency Locator Plan (HELP) channel. You could call in any major city on CB ch 9 for road condition information, roadside assistance, 911 emergencies, etc and get instant help. This so successful that a common feature on today’s CB’s is the “instant channel 9” button or switch that lets you click immediately to that channel.Unfortunately, it’s now a wasted feature. While there is some spotty coverage on CB channel 9 in a few areas of the country, mostly this help has been replaced by the cell phone. Interference from Mexican stations often renders any emergency radio communications on channel 9 virtually useless, unless you are within blocks of monitor station. REACT has moved almost all operations into the UHF-CB band known as GMRS, and even there coverage is spotty.

But CB is not completely out of the picture, yet. If there is a local disaster, there are a surprising number of CB radios that suddenly get dusted off for secondary communications during the disaster (such as organizing citizen groups for cleanup, sheltering, etc), so it is still a handy thing to keep around for this reason. The ideal setup hear is mobile equipment, since many civil emergencies are accompanied by a power loss. Base Stations for this use should have the ability to be run by 12V DC as well as house current, and keeping a backup wire dipole around to replace a storm-destroyed antenna isn’t a bad idea, either.

Long “Skip” Distance Communications: CB is meant to be for short range communication (according to FCC regulations, 155 miles is the legal distance limit), so why long distance? Here’s the flip side of that interference coin and where special features come in. The same sunspot ionization that reflects or ‘skips’ CB signals off the upper atmosphere not only creates interference, but allows you to ‘skip’ your signal as well. If you have the right equipment, you can take advantage of this for some fun (instead of just being interference yourself), but the right equipment is very necessary.First in importance is the right antenna. In this case, the higher the gain (the amount that the antenna amplifies your signal), the better, and a directional beam is wortyh it’s weight in gold. If it is a mobile antenna on your car or truck, there is little you can do in this department, as high gain antennas are physically too large for your car – they are sold for use on top of your home. You may see ads for mobile antennas that tout wonderful gain figures – the ratings are B.S. The antenna gain figures many manufacturers give are often completely meaningless, in fact. See my Antenna Basics section for more information on this.Next in importance is a radio with good audio and noise limiting features. Something to keep in mind is that all CB radio transmitters (the legal manufactured ones, anyway) are virtually the same. They have a maximum AM power output of 4 watts, and a maximum modulation level of 100%. There are some hard-to-find features that boost transmitter performance, but even those help by marginal amounts only. What makes the difference in a $30 radio or a $300 radio is the RECEIVER. Good audio and the ability to filter out static, power line noise, etc can make a world of difference in what you can hear – or not.

The other feature that is a virtually MUST-HAVE is Single Side Band (SSB) capability. Yes, it is possible to “skip” signals with an AM-Mode-only CB. But it is much more difficult, for technical reasons, and requires huge increases in output power to be at all reliable. With SSB, it is possible to skip cross country using legal power limits, with little problem!

To summarize, for long distance (DX or skip-shooting to those who do it) communications, you should have a good quality AM/SSB radio you can easily tell a SSB capable radio because they have a LSB/USB/AM mode switch and a fine tune or “clarifier” control, in addition to the other features. For Base Stations, a high gain antenna like a 5/8 wave omni, or a directional beam will give best results. There are a good list of accessories that are prized for this type of communication as well: amplified microphones, signal preamps, exotic noise filters, and linear amplifiers to name a few. But be aware that while DX communication is easily done on SSB, it is illegal. Fortunately, it is also very difficult for the FCC to track, so unless you cause some sort of complaint while doing it, it is unlikely you’ll be caught.

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