Radio adventures in an apartment complex

Radio is the greatest hobby if you live in the countryside. But you live in an apartment complex in the center of a 9 million people city, and you cannot install that 60-meter-long doublet that you've seen on YouTube anywhere. Now what?

Hire rise buildings are not really RF friendly

Let's all acknowledge that amateur radio is a great hobby. Specially if you live in an area where you are not physically limited by the space you have. In this case, you can set up your 10m tall vertical antenna, and lay down all that copper wire that you need to create your 120 radials ground plane.

But this is not your reality. You live in a 60m^2 unit on the 4th floor of a eight-storey high apartment block, surrounded by even taller buildings in every direction. And you still want to play radio. Now what?


Background
When I first move to London, I used to live in a tiny ground flat in a Victorian house in the South West. I had access to small back garden, where I installed a co-linear white stick and a random wire for HF. Is was a compromised setup, but it worked. I managed to hit several repeaters around me, and worked most of Europe on FT. Then, I moved to my new QTH in an apartment complex made of steel and concrete.

S9+20 noise on the 2m band with an indoors aerial

I knew that new developments weren't really radio friendly, but I couldn't believe how bad it was. S9+ noise all across the band, in every band. Steel and concrete were preventing any signal going out. It was impossible to hit any repeater or make any contacts at all.

My experience in amateur radio was not really vast, and I was presented with new challenges that I didn't know if I could overcome. The initial frustration was immense, but still there were things I could do. Here's a list.


Climb up to the Rooftop
You sure do have a couple of handheld radios. Brew some coffee and go up to the rooftop, specially as the days are longer and warmer. The additional height will help you reaching that repeater and making contacts. Also, it will bring up some of the fun and the challenges that operating portable has, but in a more controlled environment. Use the rooftop as your playground for SOTA later.


M0PQA operating 2m from the rooftop
Working 2m from the rooftop on a sunny London day can be stressful

If you have an HF radio, consider making a backpack such as the one that Mark M0IAX has built. If your rooftop is big enough, you might be able to set up a portable antenna for HF. Julian OH8STN has plenty of videos showing his setup.


Learn something new
I have to admit that I am nerd. I like to learn new stuff, and I took some time off from radio to gain more understanding about digital modes, and the technical infrastructure behind them. If you just moved houses and you cannot work HF any more, maybe this is a good time for you to learn a new aspect of the hobby.

Screenshot of Direwolf 1.6 Dev working as a TNC for APRS


During the last months, I've been putting in practice my long-gone Linux skills to set up a APRS i-gate, configuring a Raspberry Pi for everything amateur radio, learning about packet radio, playing with POCSAG and many other tech-oriented stuff. You might have never considered this options. Give it a go.


Try a mobile whip
Ok, you don't have a balcony, but you do have a window that you can open. A mobile lip mount and a whip may work for you. Add a ground plane such an oven tray for better performance. Sure it is a compromised setup, but you will get out and make a couple of contacts. 

Mobile whip on a lip mount with 3 radials on a window

Several people have managed to work on 80m with a HF multi-band whip with a setup very similar to the one on the photo above. One wire radial running down the window might also help to bring the SWR down.


Build your own aerials
None of the mobile whips worked for you, and you are not ready to spend hundreds on a commercial portable antenna without knowing whether it would work for you. I understand. Make your own antenna, and try it out.

The ubiquitous 3-element measure tape yagi allowed me to make several contacts on 2m FM and 70cm SSB. It is a really easy and fun build. In full honesty, this yagi is the only antenna that has allowed me to make any contacts at all from inside the apartment. Granted that it's very directional - and your buddies might be on the wrong side of your window - but it will work.


The 3-element measure tape yagi

Some others have reported success building a full-wave loop for 10m with wire attached to a wall, or building their own magnetic loops. You mileage may vary. Still, building, testing and refining your own antennas can bring back those contacts and the joy of radio.


Try Digital
Luckily, I have both DMR and D-Star radios that I've put to work for the most part of a year. If you have no way to install any antennas at all, this might be your first choice.

Yes, you are using RF for only a couple of meters, but DMR and D-Star will keep you active, and allow you to make new contacts. Several clubs in the UK host their DMR nets once a week, to account for people who cannot install a 2m antenna in their back yards.

Get a MMDVM hotspot. It is an inexpensive piece of equipment that will open up a number of possibilities for you in the world of radio. The combination of a hotspot and your preferred digital radio will allow you to -literally- speak to anyone in the world. Consider this option before you give up.

Some complain about DMR being too complex. In fact, DMR is very easy once you've learnt the basics. If you struggle with creating your own codeplug, consider reading this other post.


Wrapping up
Amateur radio is a fascinating hobby, but it presents a number of challenges when living in an urban area. High-rise buildings and RF noise coming from everywhere will seriously limit your options. Still, there are plenty of alternatives for you to keep being active in the hobby.

Try some of them, and let me know how it went.

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