Technical Articles

Low-Power Operating: How to Do More With Less

The author enjoying operating QRP in the 2014 NJQRP Skeeter Hunt along the roadside in rural Connecticut, 2014. Setup and teardown was simple and the fun factor was S9! [Sean Kutzko, KX9X, photo]

My Ham radio career began like many others. I got a used 100-watt rig, threw a dipole in a tree, and started making contacts. Then I got hooked on working DX and contests, and needed a bigger antenna and better radios. I eventually had a 70-foot tower with two tribanders and excellent wire antennas for 40 and 80 meters. I had my eyes on an amp, too. Then I got divorced, and my station was dismantled.

Somewhere along the way, I picked up an old Heathkit HW-8 for $40 at a flea market. I recall working South Africa on 15 meters CW with 3 watts using that rig. I was intrigued. What else could I do with QRP power? The answer turned out to be “quite a lot.” That led me to entering a lot of domestic contests as a QRPer in the 1990s and early 2000s, placing in the top ten in ARRL CW Sweepstakes multiple times. It also led me to take QRP gear to parks and on mini-DXpeditions—and thoroughly enjoying myself. My pack was light, and I could set up and tear down my station quickly.

Many of my Ham friends thought I was losing my mind. It was so contrary to the world I was in, where large stations were the norm and rare DX was to be worked on a single call. I was challenging these notions out of necessity; I was unable to put up a tower anymore, but I wasn’t going to be forced off the air. For me, the slow transition from a tower and two Yagis to a complete backpack station that weighed just 7 pounds was perfect for my downsized lifestyle. I was able to reduce my Ham radio footprint without sacrificing enjoyment or pileups. Everything you can do in Ham radio—building gear, operating in contests, EMCOMM, working DX—can be done with QRP.

So What’s the Appeal?

Ward Silver, N0AX, has worked 319 DXCC countries as a QRP op. It’s in a QRPer’s blood—to get through and make a QSO when others can’t using higher power. It means you have to acquire operating and technical skill. There is certainly some skill required on the “other end,” too, but busting a big pileup because you timed your call just right or listened to the DX station’s instructions more carefully or were on at just the right time…all that is very satisfying. It’s like catching a 20-pound fish on 4-pound tackle.”

Paul Swanson, AA0K, finds appeal in the aesthetic qualities of QRP. “Headphones and a wire tossed in a tree, sitting outside in the backyard or on a mountaintop, there’s a definite satisfaction that happens in making a contact with a minimal setup away from the shack. Logging my successes with pencil and paper…add a sandwich and a beer and a dynamite view of nature, and it makes for a very good day.”

Myself, I appreciate the philosophical view. Lower-powered gear, and less of it, fits in with my current “minimalist” approach to life, and I find by using less, I appreciate more. It’s also easier to take my gear with me on adventures. There are also some very special Ham radio memories as a QRPer. I worked Risto, OH2BT, in Finland during the 2013 QRP-ARCI Spring Contest. I was running 3 watts to a mobile whip in Connecticut; Risto was running 50 milliwatts to a Yagi. I’ve worked India on 10M RTTY and the 2008 VP6DX Ducie Island DXpedition, both running 5 watts to an indoor loop. These rank among some of my most memorable contacts in nearly 40 years of operating.

100 Watts vs. 5 Watts—You’re Still Audible

The initial reaction of most Hams when dropping to 5 watts of transmit power is shock. “Why would you intentionally do that? You need to be loud!” Turns out, you’re louder than you think. Here comes the science.

With all other aspects of a station being equal—antenna, ground, terrain, etc.—a 100-watt signal will have about a 13 dB advantage over a 5-watt signal. Given that an S-unit is about 6 dB, a QRP signal is just over two S-units quieter than a 100-watt signal. In comparison, that would be like going from S9 to S7, or S7 to S5. That’s really not that much difference. If you operate CW or FT8, you’ll maximize your transmitted signal even more, as those modes are easier to copy with lower power levels than SSB.

Getting Started

Your first steps in QRP don’t need to involve purchasing new gear. Simply turn the power down on your current rig and see what you can work. Be sure to set your expectations accordingly. If you’re used to running 1500 watts or even 100 watts with a Yagi antenna, you will probably not bust that pileup for the rare DX station in one or two calls. Nevertheless, I’d wager you’ll be surprised at what makes it into your log. Try your hand at some of the many operating events sponsored by QRP-ARCI(QRP Amateur Radio Club International). They sponsor several on-air events every year, from weekend-long contests to two-hour casual sprints. QRP-ARCI also offers several operating awards, including the very popular “1,000 Miles Per Watt” award. Most major contests worldwide offer a QRP category, and ARRL has a special QRP DXCC Award for working 100 entities with 5 watts or less.

If you’re ready for some outdoor adventure, QRP and field operating go hand in hand. Set up in your backyard, a park, or nearby high spot. Use a simple half-wave dipole or end-fed half wave (EFHW) antenna in a convenient tree and be amazed at what 5 watts can do. Several operating programs are particularly well-suited for QRP operating, such as the popular Summits On The Air (SOTA) program. It’s hard to beat Ham radio from atop a summit with an incredible view! The Adventure Radio Society, which holds the monthly Spartan Sprint QRP contest, is all about operating QRP while outdoors. And of course, who can forget ARRL Field Day? It’s special as a QRPer. See my blog on Backpack QRP Basicsfor more info on portable QRP operating.

My Challenge to You

If you’ve never given QRP a serious try, I challenge you to give it a genuine effort. Pick a weekend and turn the power down on your transceiver to 5 watts and see what you work. Make it focused around your own style of operating. If you’re a ragchewer, then enjoy casual contacts with the power turned down. If you’re a DXer, see how many different DXCC entities you can work. If the propagation is poor, see how many states you can work. If you’re into contesting, try entering a contest as a QRP participant. But give it an entire weekend and see how it works for you.

More Information on QRP

QRP-ARCI maintains a list of QRP clubsworldwide. These clubs actively promote QRP operating, building gear, and keeping up with the latest trends in QRP operating. There are lots of QRP groups on Facebook as well.

Julian, OH8STG, maintains a wonderful QRP site with lots of technical info on operating and gear. He also has a YouTube channel with excellent instructional videos.

Larry, W2LJ, also maintains a great blog that focuses on the fun of QRP operating. He is also the organizer of the NJQRP Skeeter Hunt QRP contest every August.

Finally, Craig, WB3GCK, offers lots of tips and tricks on QRP operating at his site.

Dipping your toes in the QRP world doesn’t have to be costly or anxiety-inducing. Low-power operating offers great technical challenges and bolsters your on-air skill set tremendously. Learning how to make QSOs with less power, and even less equipment, will make you a better Ham radio operator. And even in these times of poorer propagation, you’ll have a richly rewarding experience. Turn the knob down… go QRP!

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