I spent the first 30 years of my amateur radio adventure as a code-bearing Technican class licensee in the obvious VHF and UHF systems and operations. That included 4 years running a mobile telephone installation shop and 8 years maintaining the electrical and comms systems in fire/rescue vehicles. The recent past 15 years I discovered and tried to devour as much as I could about HF operation - fixed and mobile. They are quite different and quite the same all at once.
I thought I knew a little about RF and mobile platforms until I was granted General class privileges as a pre-1978 code-qualifying Tech. I was quickly proven wrong on several fronts - HF, base or mobile - is a lot different than HVF and UHF.
You really get to learn about RF, antennas, grounding, shielding, etc. when you experience interference, sub-optimal antenna performance, and then try to make a mobile HF station work. That's where my good friend Doren and his friend Don Johnson (W6AAQ,sk) take hold of my home and mobile RF-life and school me. Don was one of the first of a very few hams who pursued running HF mobile back in 1948.
Amateur radio operators have it a LOT easier today (with the Internet) than the likes of mobile HF operation pioneer Don Johnson and others. We also have it a lot more difficult (with the Internet) as bad information spreads as fast or faster than good information. As well, beware, vehicle manufacturing materials, techniques and electrical systems are constantly changing.
To quote a friend of Don's, Russ Farnsworth W9SUV (sk 1977):
"Many people like to display knowledge without understanding."
"It is easy to limit your knowledge to what someone has written or said."
What I offer to share with you will hopefully defy both points, and if I don't think I have, I will say so and usually point to other reference work to support what's being shared.
These are but outlines and thinking points as I work to compile a modern-day work about mobile radio installations and operation, mostly, seemingly about HF (at or below 50MHz) but absolutely worthwhile implementing at and above 50 MHz.
I believe in expert reference points and experiencing them. The links below are more or less as indicated - several vehicle manufacturer's guides to their electrical systems, electrical system options, primary and secondary power take-off points. Not fully covered, and I'm researching and will document appropriately, are the nuances of some very 'smart' and tricky vehicle electrical system components and functions that you MUST know about in modern vehicles. As of this date I consider 'modern' as most any vehicle built after 2000 - when more and more computer systems, diagnostics and vehicle use data were mandated.
The common thread through all of these is BEST PRACTICE - especially if you're not 100% sure of your vehicle.
Most vehicles accommodate some level of accessory/after-market-equipment power access. For most consumer cars and light-trucks this may only be a 10, 20 or 30 amp connection point or pig-tail fused at a distribution point under the dash. For light to heavy trucks often used in commercial service there usually accommodations for 20,30, 40 amp connections at the main distribution blocks under the hood. In both of these cases the source of power comes direct from the alternator - the vehicle's power supply - that's where the battery is connected.
To compliment accessory power points there are several pre-determined 'ground'/(-) connections points throughout the chassis - to be used instead of just any convenient piece of metal. Given these built-in accommodations we most often do not have to create or own power connection schemes and risk ground loops or compromising other in-vehicle systems. So best practice - make it easy - use what's already there. How do you know?
It's highly likely that those who make their living working on vehicles knows more about them than the makers of $100-800 radios. The above expertise in vehicle systems should be able to tell you if there are known bad locations to connect to, points that create ground loops (since we typically have three 'ground' connections for our radios - the (-) power lead, the chassis/mounting bracket, and the antenna), places you may encounter alternator whine, CAN-bus noise, or a kick-back voltage spike from the starter, etc.
Your vehicle chassis+body+frame will never be a complete 1/4-wave counterpoise below 30 MHz - there's just not enough inter-connected/conductive surface area. We do the best we can to 'sink' RF return currents and try to get the frame and drive train to help establish ground-effect coupling for HF operation. Never ever under-estimate the 'power' of (stray) RF to get into anything and everything in your vehicle and those around you.
Try to trust that the engineers who designed your vehicle might know a little more than various radio companies about mobile power systems, related vehicle control and safety systems, and how (poorly) all the metal parts are put together. Gone are the days that the chassis was 'ground' and lighting, etc. only needed one wire to operate. Lamps and devices have two wires now because the body/chassis is not a contiguous electrical circuit.
What happens with RF voltages and currents if not properly contained, terminated, matched, efficiently directed to a radiator and balanced with a decent counterpoise is anyone's guess. We can't always measure it, certainly cannot see it, but we can understand basic circuits, comprehend stray energy/radiation, and certainly take advantage of what we do know about the science and proven practices to do things right/better - the point is maximum RF in and out of the antenna, minimum noise/interference. Tough to accomplish with most 'plastic' cars today, but we can try to work around the compromises.
On with the sharing of information...
Due to the varied use of different vehicle models in public safety applications, the Big Three U.S. auto manufacturers have produced significant resources for mobile installations. They designed the vehicles and systems, they certainly ought to know how they work and where they intend auxiliary devices to obtain power. Similarly the Society of Automotive Engineers published vehicle electrical system guidelines.
I augment these with some generic information breaking down the vehicle power system into discrete sections, and go from there. There is one author/site and a related article in QST about mobile power I am hesitant to share until I can 'qualify' some of the material from a lot of yadda/verbiage to what some of it really means, or not, because the information presented never once acknowledges the vehicle manufacturers specifics.
Ford 2012 Upfitting Guide
Local copy of 2010 Police Interceptor guide
General Motors Upfitting Guide
Local copy of 2013 'municipal' guide
The 185-page guide for my 2010 Silverado 2500HD
Chrysler/Dodge Upfitting Guide Start Page
Beware this site is a convoluted mess of Adobe PDF files with active links - be patient!
Local copy of 2011-2016 upfitter guide
NOTE: The web pages/URLs and organization of each maker's web site can change at any time. Helpful search terms to use to find these guides: modder, upfitter, fleet, municipal
Society of Automotive Engineers - Electrical Info
Unique Antennas for Your Quad-Band Radio
A Generic Mobile Power System Schematic
Big-A DC Filter
My Silverado 2500HD Install
- A step up from a prior GMC Sierra 1500 install, but all according to GM and Don Johnson best-practices. No whine. No voltage sag. No ignition/injector/fuel pump noise. No charge system or other vehicle issues. No stray RF.
While ideally a correct vehicle DC power connection should NOT present alternator whine to and through your rigs on Rx or Tx audio, be prepared for it. As well, there is a lot to be said for presenting very clean and 'stout'/'stiff' DC to the rigs, especially for peak loads like 100w SSB operation. For this I lucked out extracting a huge iron-core choke from an old surplus DC supply, and typically have a few 50-100k ufd caps around. You can ADD a 'stiffening' or "super-cap" typical of high-power mobile audio installations, but 100k ufd should hold things pretty well by itself.
I have used this filter in all of my mobile installations so there is little or no question the rigs get DC. I use one of the generic Radio Shack filters for the low-draw DC feeding my "glove box" installs of scanner, CB, and USB-Buddy for device charging.
Along with the DC power issues and I am working on a compilation of mobile installation/antenna/counterpoise/ground-effect references beginning with the first-ever HF mobile operations circa 1948 - RF is RF than as now - it's just a more complex issue in modern glued-and-crimped vehicles versus hand-welded chassis of old with better contiguous ground/chassis conductivity.
The vehicle cabin, chassis and frame are critical elements for optimizing mobile HF operation, and best-practices in this realm also compliment non-HF (> 30MHz) operations.
Obviously you can't easily go with an alternative of a full, balanced, half-wave dipole on a mobile. We're more or less stuck with verticals, which on the mobile scale are a significant compromise from the at-home 43-foot vertical and ample field of radials.
Consider that last example carefully... what it takes to be an adequate vertical antenna for fixed station operation... got that?
Where in a mobile environment are you getting the required (or barely adequate) radial field from ??? Think about that...
At best... at least on VHF and UHF, perhaps low-VHF if the vehicle is big enough, you have a less than ideal counterpoise for a classic vertical antenna.
Few vehicles are large enough to be an adequate counterpoise for any frequency below 28 MHz, and even that is dubious with mid-size and compact cars.
The best we have at 28 MHz and below is a rolling coupling device to obtain ground-effect. When you see how current motor vehicles are put together, that capability is highly questionable - a vehicle body is seldom a contiguous piece of metal with electrical conductivity from roof to axles.
To get RF counterpoise currents to a counterpoise and begin to establish ground-effect coupling requires very low-impedance conductivity from the antenna feedpoint to the lowest components of the vehicle - the frame, axles, lower body pan.
You are simply NOT going to get a good RF ground with a clip-on/clamp-on window or door mount alone... NOT POSSIBLE. You need a LOT of FAT CONDUCTORS!
Imagine every surface of your car/truck is an isolated sheet of poorly conductive sheet metal - NOT electrically connected to anything next to it.
From that expectation... figure out how to get as much conductivity from the base/feedpoint of your antenna to everything under your vehicle. THAT is how you begin to establish ground-effect coupling so that your mobile antenna has some form of, admittedly compromised (high-impedance) counterpoise.
No mobile will ever be perfect for HF operation, but with a little bit of work you can get it to be better than a horribly poor and inefficient RF termination.
Anticipate that NONE of the metal parts are truly connected to each other. Hinges and latches and grease do not make good electrical connections. Every door and hood will be at a different potential level than the chassis/cab than the frame than the engine. These differences simply MUST be corrected. The illustration below shows what the standard vehicle looks like electrically, off the lot:
The typical method of correction is with ample use of 1/2-1" braided strapping to create a low-impedance connection for DC and RF potentials. This method reduces RF and DC potential (voltage) differences significantly, helping form more robust shielding against RF interference and increasing the ground-effect capacity of the entire vehicle:
With a 'tighter' vehicle cabin/chassis/frame connection you are half-way to maximizing the efficiency of the HF RF system. The tricky part is finding the right place to mount the antenna, ensure MINIMAL feedpoint loss and maximum ground-effect coupling of the entire chassis/antenna system. Remember that the vehicle body is NOT large enough to be a counterpoise at HF, so we need to couple the vehicle to the earth below to effect a more efficient HF radiation scheme.
POOR coupling of the antenna feedpoint to the vehicle increases the feed impedance and thus reduces the RF current path from the antenna radiator, around the vehicle to the feedline return. The result is a LOT of RF could be lost in the coax to vehicle connection at the antenna. This is bad.
If we do the best we can to ensure that the point where feedline from the radio meets the antenna system counterpoise/connection to chassis is as LOW an impedance as physically possible, then most of the transmitted energy flows to the radiator and less is lost in the wire connecting to the chassis.
'Moral' of the story is that EVERYTHING, EVERY connection in and around the vehicle to all vehicle components MUST be as low-resistance as possible, by whatever means possible (short of welding the doors and hoods shut!) This means that BOLT ON mounts are preferred and clip/clamp/magnetic mounts are 'FORBIDDEN' - NONE of the latter have any where near the appropriate and necessary RF coupling to support HF operations at or below 50 MHz - PERIOD.
I will detail more of the GM-specific power connections and all of the cab-chassis-frame bonding to increase ground-effect and mitigate any common-mode RF intrusion to vehicle management, and audio and video systems. (Watch this page for updates!)
He connected a load bank via #4 to the (+) tie point in the engine compartment on a new Tahoe, and the (-) of the bank to the floor pan at the rear deck. (about 18 feet of 'tin' resistor)
It took less than 100A for the floor/deck pan to start warming appreciably - felt through the carpet. Clearly spot welded/glued thin sheet metal is a pretty good resistor, making for bad 'ground' and an obvious safety hazard.
If you get a peek inside the trunk of a fully optioned Ford Crown Vic Police Interceptor - look at the right rear pillar. Ford runs both (+) and (-) back to the deck for equipment installations. Neither lead runs direct to battery at the engine - instead to where Ford engineers say to take power.
The Dodge upfitter manual has some of the best vehicle electrical information of them all. They are all different, owing to their specific alternator/regulator and battery/power management techniques.
Alternator whine and inadequate power capacity are not issues if you know where to get the power from, and don't try to outsmart, outguess or one-up the guys that designed these systems.
RF counterpoise and preventing RFI are different animals. CHP and I have documentation for that.
Recent GM Install
Generic Mobile Tuner and Whip
A Motorola App Note to Make a Dual-Band DiplexerSee also the data collection reviews of various popular VHF/UHF mobile antennas at:
NO1PC Station References
No1PC Radio Page
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