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A Primer On Grounding for Hams

A Compilation Of Information On RF and Safety Grounds

Nothing like a fierce electrical storm to get Hams talking about susceptibility to lightning strikes. Well, we experienced just such a storm in early August, which provides the perfect opportunity to review the topic.

Proper grounding of radio stations is probably one of the least understood aspects of  ham radio.  It almost has a certain aura of mystique or magic about it instead of being the pure science it should be. This is a very important aspect of any radio installation. There are two major criteria we need to consider when doing the planning for this installation. The primary reason has to be safety, both for ourselves as the operator who will be seated at the controls, but also for our equipment and possibly the structure… probably our home. The second of course has to do with the performance of our antenna system and it's ability to radiate an efficient signal. Let's treat these separately for now and they will combine into a total plan at the end.

Surge (or Safety) grounding

We need to protect our installation and ourselves from lightning, but… There is no protection against a direct lightning hit! It has way more power than we can shunt to ground safely or our budget can handle.  That is what insurance is for.  We CAN however make our installation an unattractive target to lightning.  We can also take care of any secondary surges and static build up that can destroy equipment and give healthy zaps enough to more than get your attention.  There is nothing more frustrating than trying to talk on a radio and you keep getting zapped on the chin while doing so!  I speak of personal experience here.  Let's let it go at that.  The Safety ground has to consist of enough ground contact surface area to safely dissipate the surges into the soil safely.  Multiple ground rods connected with solid ground wire is best.  You should have one rod where your antenna support structure is whether it be a tower or mast or roof tripod, etc.  It must have at least 4 gauge bare or insulated, NOT stranded wire.  These surges can easily be hundreds of amps.  DO NOT scrimp on the wire.  This is your life you are dealing with.  If stranded wire is used it should be no more than 8 conductors.  Heavy bolt type connectors should be used for all connections.  You should also employ a non corrosive type coating.  All of these connectors and grease are available at your good home supplies or electrical supply houses.  All grounds for the installation should be bonded together at the ground.  NEVER daisy chain grounds.  ALL connections from devices should go DIRECTLY to closest ground point.  Use eight foot copper ground rods for all.  Bond the rods with single or solid bare copper wire.  Drive a ground rod for electrical supply to house if you do not already have one.  Bond it to others with aforementioned wire.  If you have overhead service to house, run wire direct to neutral wire at feed point and use split bolt connections with grease for corrosion.  If you have underground service, ground at meter box.  If your power company objects, run it to your service panel.  You need a minimum of one eight foot ground rod for every protected structure, ie, every mast, tripod, vertical antenna, etc.  These must all be connected together AT THE GROUND.  Run bare copper between the separate ground rods to form a ground system.  The bare copper provides additional surface contact area for the ground system.  It should be underground, but does not need to be deep for any engineering reasons.  Make sure you make yourself a map of the runs for future projects to avoid hitting and digging up the system in the future.  Use heavy duty bolted connectors designed for this service.  If you have access to a ground megger or ground tester the system should be less than 15 ohms.  In sandy soil this can take several rods to achieve.  I have had to put down 3, 32 foot rods (consisting of four 8 foot rods with couplers and driven in with a power driver) in sand to get the measurement needed.  This should take care of our safety grounds.

RF Grounding

RF grounding is considerably different than surge grounding.  First thing is you are working with RF.  Since it is an AC signal it has impedance.  The length of the ground runs has much more to do with the fraction of a wavelength at the frequency involved than the DC resistance of the wire.  While the DC resistance of a ground wire may be only a fraction of an ohm, the impedance (or the AC resistance at RF frequency) can easily be hundreds or thousands of ohms on the same wire.  This can make it pretty difficult to get an effective RF ground.  Remember an RF ground wire is just a short antenna!  We want to make it as  LOUSY an antenna as possible!  We really don't need it radiating extra RF inside our shack.  It is supposed to remove this stuff not cause it.  An effective RF ground needs to be less than a quarter wave length at the highest frequency used.  As you can see there is no such thing as an effective ground for VHF or UHF.  We will concentrate our efforts to 10 meters and above.  This means our ground wire from radio to ground must be about 9 feet or less!  This is still pretty difficult.  All radios, tuners, meters, etc in radio system should be grounded in a star ground configuration.  The common point should be at the tuner if one is used, otherwise a ground bus bar can be purchased at an electrical house.  All Connections to radios should be with either insulated or bare wire with as few strands as possible.  RF likes smooth surfaces best.  DO NOT USE braid for RF connections.  This is an old wives tale!  Your ground run should go directly to the ground where you should have a ground rod for the connection point,  (which will be connected to all your other ground rods in the system as discussed above).  This run must be less than nine feet to be effective.  If you are on the second floor this will make this length impossible.  Use of a shielded ground* wire can stop radiation of the ground wire but you will still have a lousy ground.  Nothing can change this.  Ground wire tuners only turn your ground wire into a counterpoise for your antenna, meaning it WILL radiate.  This will only ensure that the low voltage point of your antenna will be at your radio.  Next we need to form our  RF counterpoise outside at our ground system.  You will next need to add some bare copper wire at the RF feedpoint where your shack ground wire connects to.  I prefer to use bare 8 gauge copper ground wire here.  It is single conductor, bare copper and easily bent and run around house.  Single strand is best but it should definitely be bare even if you have to strip insulation off wire.  Run it around the house or anywhere it will stay out of the way of lawn equipment but not buried deeper than ½ inches.  This is CRITICAL.  RF will not penetrate soil deeper than this at these frequencies.   Those bonding wires you have between ground rods and ground rods do not exist to the RF!   Burying this wire under wood chips or similar non conductive landscaping, etc is the way to go.  This counterpoise should be as long as the wire antennas you have in the air.  For most hams this will be about 130 feet.  Longer is better.  I run all the way around my house.  I have found the eight gauge will push into the spacing used between driveway and foundation when persuaded with the proper tool, (READ HAMMER).  You can connect the loop back on itself at the feed point.  This can add several S units to the receive signal and dramatically reduce noise on the signal, though nothing will help all the noise on 80 or 160 meters.   Years ago I installed a long wire antenna that was about 250 feet long and about 50 feet in the air.  This should work fantastic you say.  I had three ground rods outside window of shack with single solid copper ground wire direct to tuner. Ground wire length was only six feet.   All three rods were spaced about eight feet apart with connecting bare wire interconnecting them… in other words, a really good surge ground.  What I did not realize at that time was how lousy my RF ground was.  We could not tune the antenna on most frequencies and we kept getting zapped from the radio or microphone when we transmitted.  Also, our signal reports were lousy.  So, after consulting some experts, I added 250 feet of counterpoise around the building consisting of some bare 6 gauge copper wire I had.  The radio was on while I rolled it out and a friend was listening to the broadcast on 40 meters, (OK it was night time-best time to do antenna work right!)  Anyway he reported the broadcast was only about S 4-5 on meter.  As I rolled out the counterpoise it rose to 40 over S9 and came in much clearer.  We were able to tune everything easily now and SWR was rock stable.  When we did a signal test, the station we had talked to before accused us of running a contest amplifier.  We could not convince them it was only 100 watts, same as before and the same antenna! 


Don't underestimate the importance of a good ground system.
Include it into the planning of that ultimate shack you are working on.  Don't scrimp on good copper wire and connectors.  Aluminum can be used above ground but never in ground.  Add one size to aluminum to achieve same current capability.   Ground everything to the system.  A ground run to ductwork in house can alleviate a lot of noise.  A run to water pipes should go direct to ground… NEVER to radios,  NEVER connect radios to ANYTHING inside the house for ground purposes.  Always run all grounds from everything to ground directly.  In other words, your furnace ducts will get one run, your water pipes will get one, etc.  Don't daisy chain to save wire.  If you have a chain link fence in back yard, run a bonding wire underground from ground system to it and bond well.  A solid aluminum or copper wire run along bottom of fence as a bonding device will make it a great addition to the system.  Weave it through the bottom fence fabric and bond every few feet with a split bolt connector.  The power company does this with all their fences around their power stations.  

A shielded ground can be made using RG 8 or similar coax to replace the ground wire.  Connect both inner and outer shields to the Ground rod and connect the center only to the radio.  Add a .1uf 1000 volt cap between ground and shield at this end.

Coax should be grounded at two sites, first at the antenna and then just before entering the house. Is there an advantage in grounding at more than these sites?
With grounds the most common experience is “the more the merrier”. As you add more, however, you usually reach a diminishing returns (no pun intended) situation where there is no *observable* improvement: that’s usually a good place to stop. There are also exceptional circumstances where grounding increases noise problems, but these, in my experience, are much rarer than the pundits who preach against “ground loops” seem to think.

Even a semi-quantitative theoretical treatment of grounding in oversimplified situations requires heavy math at RF. Experimentation is thus required even if one has done elaborate calculations. It’s often easier to use the theory as a guide to what to try, and then experiment.

I would also assume that the antenna is grounded when it is connected to the receiver as the outer braid of the coax is in continuity with the receiver chassis.

What’s ground? If connect the shield of my coax (which is grounded outside) to the antenna input of my R8, I hear lots of junk, indicating that there is an RF voltage difference between the coax shield and the R8 chassis. Last night this measured about S5.5, which is about -93 dBm (preamp off, 6KHz bandwidth). That’s a lot of noise: it was 18 dB above my antenna’s “noise floor”, and 26 dB above the receiver’s noise floor.
This sort of disagreement about ground potential is characteristic of electrically noisy environments. The receiver will, of course, respond to any voltage input that differs from its chassis ground. The antenna, on the other hand, is in a very different environment, and will have its own idea of what ground potential is. If you want to avoid noise pickup, you need to deliver a signal, referenced at the antenna to whatever its ground potential is, in such a way that when it arrives at the receiver, the reference potential is now the receiver’s chassis potential.

Coaxial cable represents one way to do this. Coax has two key properties:
  1. The voltage between the inner conductor and the shield depends only on the state of the electromagnetic field within the shield.
  2. The shield prevents the external electromagnetic field from influencing the internal electromagnetic field (but watch out at the ends of the cable!).

So, it’s easy, right? Run coax from the antenna to the receiver. Ground at the antenna end will be whatever the antenna thinks it is, while ground at the receiver end will be whatever the receiver thinks it is. The antenna will produce the appropriate voltage difference at the input side, and the receiver will see that voltage difference uncontaminated by external fields, according to the properties given above.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work that way. It’s all true as far as it goes, but it neglects the fact that the coax can also guide noise from your house to your antenna, where it can couple back into the cable and into your receiver. To see how this works, let me first describe how this noise gets around.

The noise I’m talking about here is more properly called “broadband electromagnetic interference” (EMI). It’s made by computers, lamp dimmers, televisions, motors and other modern gadgets. I have all these things. In many cases, I can’t get them turned off, because it would provoke inter-familial rebellion. However, even when I turn them off, the noise in the house doesn’t go down very much, because my neighbors all have them too. In any case, one of the worst offenders is my computer, which is such a handy radio companion I’m not about to turn *it* off.

Some of this noise is radiated, but the more troublesome component of this is conducted noise that follows utility wires. Any sort of cable supports a “common mode” of electromagnetic energy transport in which all of the conductors in the cable are at the some potential, but that potential differs from the potential of other nearby conductors (“ground”). The noise sources of concern generate common mode waves on power, telephone, and CATV cables which then distribute these waves around your neighborhood. They also generate “differential” mode waves, but simple filters can block these so they aren’t normally a problem.

So, let’s say you have a longwire antenna attached to a coaxial cable through an MLB (Magnetic Longwire Balun). Suppose your next door neighbor turns on a dimmer switch. The resulting RF interference travels out his power lines, in through yours, through your receiver’s power cord to its chassis, and out your coaxial cable to your MLB. Now on coax, a common mode wave is associated with a current on the shield only, while the mode we want the signal to be in, the “differential” mode, has equal but opposite currents flowing on shield and inner conductor. The MLB works by coupling energy from a current flowing between the antenna wire and the coax shield into the differential mode. But wait a second: the current from the antenna flows on the coax shield just like the common mode current does. Does this mean that the antenna mode is contaminated with the noise from your neighbor’s dimmer?

The answer is a resounding (and unpleasant) yes! The way wire receiving antennas work is by first moving energy from free space into a common mode moving along the antenna wire, and then picking some of that off and coupling it into a mode on the feedline. In this case, the common mode current moving along the antenna wire flows into the common mode of the coax, and vice versa. The coax is not just feedline: it’s an intimate part of the antenna! Furthermore, as we’ve seen, it’s connected back through your electrical wiring to your neighbor’s dimmer switch. You have a circuitous but electrically direct connection to this infernal noise source. No wonder it’s such a nuisance!
The solution is to somehow isolate the antenna from the common mode currents on the feedline. One common way to do this is with a balanced “dipole” antenna. Instead of connecting the feedline to the wire at the end, connect it to the middle. Now the antenna current can flow from one side of the antenna to the other, without having to involve the coax shield. Unfortunately, removing the necessity of having the coax be part of the antenna doesn’t automatically isolate it: a coax-fed dipole is often only slightly quieter than an end-fed longwire. A “balun”, a device which blocks common mode currents from the feedline, is often employed. This can improve the situation considerably. Note that this is not the same device as the miscalled “Magnetic Longwire Balun”.

Another way is to ground the coaxial shield, “short circuiting” the common mode. Antenna currents flow into such a ground freely, in principle not interacting with noise currents. The best ground for such a purpose will be a earth ground near the antenna and far from utility lines.

Still another way is to block common mode waves by burying the cable. Soil is a very effective absorber of RF energy at close range.

Unfortunately, none of these methods is generally adequate by itself in the toughest cases. Baluns are not perfectly effective at blocking common mode currents. Even the best balun can be partially defeated if there’s any other unsymmetrical coupling between the antenna and feedline. Such coupling can occur if the feedline doesn’t come away from the antenna at a right angle. Grounds are not perfect either. Cable burial generally lets some energy leak through. A combination of methods is usually required, both encouraging the common mode currents to take harmless paths (grounding) and blocking them from the harmful paths (baluns and/or burial).

The required isolation to reach the true reception potential of the site can be large. According to the measurements I quoted above, for my site the antenna noise floor is 18 dB below the conducted noise level at 10 MHz. 18 dB of isolation would thus make the levels equal, but we want to do better than that: we want the pickup of common mode EMI to be insignificant, at least 5 dB down from the antenna’s floor. In my location the situation gets worse at higher frequencies as the natural noise level drops and therefore I become more sensitive: even 30 dB of isolation isn’t enough to completely silence the common mode noise (but 36 dB *is* enough, except at my computer’s CPU clock frequency of 25 MHz).

Getting rid of the conducted noise can make a huge difference in the number and kinds of stations you can pick up: the 18 dB difference between the conducted and natural noise levels in the case above corresponds to the power difference between a 300 kW major world broadcaster and a modest 5 kW regional station.

The method I use is to ground the cable shield at two ground stakes and bury the cable in between. The scheme of alternating blocking methods with grounds will generally be the most effective. The ground stake near the house provides a place for the common mode noise current to go, far from the antenna where it cannot couple significantly. The ground stake at the base of my inverted-L antenna provides a place for the antenna current to flow, at a true ground potential relative to the antenna potential. The buried coax between these two points blocks noise currents.

There has been some discussion of grounding problems on this and related echoes. I believe it has been mentioned that electrical codes require that all grounds be tied together with heavy gauge wire.

I’m no expert on electrical codes, and codes differ in different countries. However, I believe that any such requirement must refer only to grounds used for safety in an electric power distribution system: I do not believe this applies to RF grounds.
Remember that proper grounding practice for electrical wiring has very little to do with RF grounding. The purpose of an electrical ground is to be at a safe potential (a few volts) relative to non-electrical grounded objects like plumbing. At an operating frequency of 50/60 Hz, it needs to have a low enough impedance (a fraction of an ohm) that in case of a short circuit a fuse or breaker will blow immediately.

At RF such low impedances are essentially impossible: even a few centimeters of thick wire is likely to exhibit an inductive impedance in the ohm range at 10 MHz (depends sensitively on the locations and connections of nearby conductors). Actual ground connections to real soil may exhibit resistive impedances in the tens of ohms. Despite this, a quiet RF ground needs to be within a fraction of a microvolt of the potential of the surrounding soil. This is difficult, and that’s why a single ground is often not enough.
A little experimentation with my radio showed that the chassis was directly connected to the third (grounding) prong of the wall plug. I am concerned that by connecting my receiver to an outside ground I am creating a ground loop that involves my house wiring. Can you comment on this?

Yes, you have a “ground loop”. It’s harmless. In case of a nearby lightning strike it may actually save your receiver. My R8 isn’t grounded like that, so I had to take steps to prevent the coax ground potential from getting wildly out of kilter with the line potential and arcing through the power supply. I’m using a surge suppressor designed to protect video equipment: it has both AC outlets and feed-throughs with varistor or gas tube clamps to keep the various relative voltages in check. Of course the best lightning protection is to disconnect the receiver, but I’m a bit absent minded so I need a backup.
This may seem like a trivial point but I recently discovered that the main ground from the electrical service panel in my house was attached to a water pipe which had been painted over. I stripped the paint from the pipe and re-attached the grounding clamp and I noticed a reduction in noise from my receiver.

Not trivial. Not only did you improve reception, but your wiring is safer for having a good ground.

I suspect part of the reason I see so much noise from neighbors’ appliances on my electric lines may be that my house’s main ground wire is quite long. The electrical service comes in at the south corner of the house (which is where the breaker box is), while the water (to which the ground wire is clamped) enters at the east corner. All perfectly up to code and okay at 60 Hz, but lousy at RF: if it was shorter, presumably more of the noise current would want to go that way, and stay away from my receiver.

I am also a little confused by what constitutes an adequate ground. I have read that a conducting stake driven into the ground will divert lightning and provides for electrical safety but that RF grounding systems have to be a lot more complex with multiple radials with lengths related to the frequencies of interest. Is this true?

Depends on what you’re doing. If you’re trying to get maximum signal transfer with a short loaded (resonant) vertical antenna with a radiation resistance of, say, 10 ohms, 20 ohms of ground resistance is going to be a big deal. If you’re transmitting 50 kW, your ground resistance had better be *really* tiny or things are going to smoke, melt or arc.
On the other hand, a ground with a resistance of 20 ohms is going to be fairly effective at grounding a cable with a common mode characteristic impedance of a few hundred ohms (the characteristic impedance printed on the cable is for the differential mode; the common mode characteristic impedance depends somewhat on the distance of the cable from other conductors, but is usually in the range of hundreds of ohms). Of course, if it was lower a single ground might do the whole job (but watch out for mutual inductance coupling separate conductors as they approach your single ground).

In addition, a ground with a resistance of 20 ohms is fine for an unbalanced antenna fed with a high impedance transformer to suppress resonance. Such a non-resonant antenna isn’t particularly efficient, but high efficiency is not required for good reception at HF and below (not true for VHF and especially microwave frequencies).

Much antenna lore comes from folks with transmitters who, armed with the “reciprocity” principle, assume that reception is the same problem. The reciprocity principle says that an antenna’s transmission and reception properties are closely related: it’s good physics, but it ignores the fact that the virtues required of a transmitting and receiving antenna are somewhat different. Inefficiency in a transmitting antenna has a direct, proportional effect on the received signal to noise ratio. On the other hand, moderate inefficiency in an HF receiving antenna usually has a negligible effect on the final result. A few pico-watts of excess noise on a transmitting antenna has no effect on its function, but is a big deal if you’re receiving (of course, one might not want to have transmitter power going out via unintended paths like utility lines: this is indeed the “reciprocal” of the conducted noise problem, and has similar solutions).

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