Features February 2019 Issue

Testing VHF Coaxial

The loss in RF coaxial cable increases substantially and quickly, when there is water intrusion. Coax that uses foam dielectric, like RG8X and LMR type coax, is particularly prone to this problem because the water can quickly propagate along the foam dielectric used in these type coaxes. We delve into the causes of this degradation in more detail in the main aritcle on this topic: "Special Report: How to Prevent AIS and VHF Antenna Malfunction."

Connect the VHF radio to the SW meter, and the other port of the SW meter to end of the coax that connects from the mast to the AIS splitter. A Bird 43 power meter was used to evaluate performance in our VHF antenna test.

The lightweight versions of LMR coax (LMR-LW) have another problem when wet, which is an aluminum shield which corrodes very quickly. Simply measuring SWR from the base of the mast is not able to detect lossy coax because the increased attenuation due to lossy coax is indistinguishable from a well-matched antenna.

A relatively convenient solution is to disconnect the antenna at the masthead and then measure the “return loss” which is the amount of RF power reflecting back down the coax from the open end. Because the top of the coax is disconnected, there will be 100-percent reflection, so the coax loss is half the measured return loss.

This test requires the use of a SWR or a directional power meter (often combined in one unit). The tests are the same with a directional power meter and with an SWR meter, you just get different numbers which can easily be converted to determine loss. Inexpensive SWR directional power meters like the MFJ-812B ($40) will work so long as they cover the 156-174 MHz band. The Shakespeare ART-3 is a bit overpriced but is widely available at West Marine.

We use the more expensive Bird 43 power meter. To use a directional meter, you’ll need a 25C “slug” dummy load (widely available for about $30). You’ll also need:

• VHF radio, 25 watts.

• Coax connectors and patch cables for interconnecting the radio, the meter, and the coax.

SWR Meter Field Test

This is the most common test because SWR meters are widely available, inexpensive, and easy to use.

1. Disconnect the antenna at the masthead.

2. Connect the VHF radio to the SWR meter, and the other port of the SWR meter to end of the coax that was connected to the radio.

3. Repeat with antenna connected.

If the SWR is >4.0 with the antenna disconnected, then coax loss is acceptable (i.e. less than 2.2 dB loss).

If the SWR is < 1.5 with the antenna re-connected then the antenna and coax are ok.

Directional Meter Field Test

1. Follow steps 1 and 2 above.

3. Measure the forward power (from the radio to the coax).

4. Measure the reflected power (from the coax back to the radio).

5. Compute the coax loss in dB as 5* (log (P(fwd)/P(ref))). The reflected power “P(ref)” should be greater than 36 percent of the forward “P(fwd)” power. For example if the forward power is 25 watts, the reflected power should be greater than 9 watts, which is 0.36*25.

6. Compare the measured coax loss to the cable specifications and to the requirements. The coax should have less than 2.2 dB (i.e. 40 percent) power loss.

7. Finally, to test the antenna, reconnect the antenna at the mast head. Again measure the reflected power at the boat end of the coax. Compute the SWR from the nomographs that come with the directional power meter. The SWR should be 1.5 or lower. A higher SWR indicates that the antenna or coax is open or shorted.

Bench Test

To test shorter lengths of coax on a bench use the following approach which requires a 50 ohm, 25 w (or more) RF dummy load, readily available from radio stores for around $40.

1. Connect the VHF radio to the directional power meter, and the other end of the directional power meter to the coax. 

2.Connect the dummy load to the far end of the coax.

4. Measure the forward power from the VHF radio to the coax.

a. Note the reflected power using he directional power meter. If there is any measurable reflected power it indicates a bad connection or flaw in the coax

5. Move the directional power meter to the far end of the coax, between the coax and the dummy load.

6. Measure the forward power from the coax to the dummy load.

7. Compute the coax loss in dB as 10* (log (P(radio)/P(load))). The math-averse can use  Stan Honey's handy online calculator.

8. Comparison between the measured loss and the theoretical loss will indicate coax that has suffered from a wet dielectric.  Well installed coax connectors have essentially zero loss.  The coax losses above are for 156.8 MHz, in the marine band.

Comments (7)

SW should have been SWR which is Standing Wave Ratio, a measure of how much radio frequency power is sent out by the antenna (the signal) and how much is "reflected" back to the radio (lost).

it's best to look up the various types of coax on the net using Google. There are lots of coax type cables. You are looking for "50 ohm" cables which vary by construction and materials and thus by performance, bendability, and cost. Coax, including supplied connectors, is available through many suppliers that cater to the ham radio community. The marine VHF band is close to the ham 2 meter band.

The big drawback here is the requirement to go to the top of the mast to disconnect the antenna and again to reconnect. You are going to put adhesive shrink tubing around the antenna connector after reconnecting, right? It's always about corrosion.

This is the kind of test you will be doing if nobody answers your radio check. The SWR measurement can help determine what is not working: antenna, coax, or radio.

Posted by: Boston Barry | October 21, 2019 6:29 AM    Report this comment

Very good article...very complete and very understandable. I'm going through an issue at this time with my VHF/AIS. I bought an SWR meter to do exactly what this article recommends...but it's nice to see the procedures beyond the instructions provided. Along with the recent companion article on AIS/VHF malfunction prevention, I've been been able to affirm a plan I've been developing to fix this problem. Once I determine the cabling/antenna are OK (which I suspect), I can move on to hardware issues.

Posted by: rmarcks | October 20, 2019 10:44 AM    Report this comment

Wait a minute ... if you can get to the top of your mast to "unhook the antenna" or your mast is already down, why are you fooling around with that expensive test equipment/dummies, etc. when you could just replace any suspect coax wire with the best available at a fraction of the testing costs??? Does this not make sense to anyone???

Posted by: grampaBrian | October 20, 2019 10:08 AM    Report this comment

What's the point of asking for clarification of an article as they seem to go unanswered ?

Posted by: Capt. Singood | March 7, 2019 6:05 PM    Report this comment

There's nothing quite like undefined acronyms and other jargon to alienate readers. What do SW or SWR mean? Defining these acronyms would go a long way to interpreting this important information to a wider audience of non-electronics savvy readers. Defining the difference RG8X and LMR type coax could also be helpful.

Posted by: Winsome | January 31, 2019 11:18 AM    Report this comment

This a very useful article and timely for me. I have a 1998 Beneteau 321. I am sure the coax is still the original factory installed cable. The boat is on the hard this winter with the mast down and stored on an easy to access outdoor rack. Is there a different method to test the coax with the mast down? The antenna appears to be the original factory Shakespeare whip antenna. I get up to 10 miles range on the current equipment. I would like more. If I replace the coax and the antenna, what advice do you have as to what coax and antenna should I use?

Posted by: mark2 | January 30, 2019 9:05 AM    Report this comment

I used LMR400UF cable for my coax as it has the least loss of any cable I could find. I am now seeing poor performance from our VHF radio. If this is possibly due to water ingress of the foam core or aluminum shield degradation then what coax is recommended for marine use to give the best longevity but still maintain reasonable levels of loss?

Posted by: Moraysan | January 29, 2019 12:48 PM    Report this comment

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