No. 17 Some Misconceptions About SWR

L. B. Cebik, W4RNL

We have all read dozens of articles about SWR. So we all know that the Voltage Standing Wave Ratio is a complex function of the relationship between the feedpoint impedance of our antenna and the characteristic impedance of our transmission line. When the antenna feedpoint impedance is a pure resistance, the relationship is simple: SWR equals the larger of the two divided by the smaller of the two. If the antenna feedpoint exhibits reactance in addition to resistance, then the SWR is higher by a somewhat more complex calculation.

We also all know that generally, the better the match between the load, the transmission line, and the source (our transmitter outputs), the more power is consumed by the load. Hence, it is generally wise to strive for a well- matched antenna-feedline-transmitter system. So we place an SWR meter in the line in, at, or near the transmitter and monitor the SWR at that point.

Despite all this knowledge, I still encounter some interesting misunderstandings about SWR. Of course, they come from outside the 10-10 ranks, so everyone can claim, "Well, I knew better than that." Even so, it may be useful to review a few of them.

1. "My SWR is low, so my transmitter is safe." In olden days when tube- type rigs had adjustable output circuits, folks worried about burning out tubes and other components "because" of SWR. Actually, the combination of resistance and reactance seen by the transmitter output circuit would sometimes permit only a small RF transferral. However, operators continued to load their finals to full DC plate input power. What is not RF in a final is heat, and that excess conversion of DC power to heat is what destroyed tubes and stuff around the tubes.

Today's transistor rigs have feedback circuits that sample the reverse voltage at the output and automatically reduce drive to the finals in the event of a high SWR. Thus, it is pretty difficult to hurt a rig by connecting it to a high SWR output load. However, SWR is NOT the only thing that can hurt a rig. Overdrive, with or without SSB compression, is a source of major stresses on a rig's circuitry. However, the chief rig killer seems to be voltage surges coming from the antenna, the power line, or the ground. And that is a matter of safety that calls for measures outside the rig--like disconnecting the antenna, power cord, and system ground to totally isolate the rig when not in use.

2. "My antenna system is fine, because the SWR is better today than when I put it up three years ago." The fact of a lower SWR over time is often true. However, the conclusion drawn is false. If the SWR is lower than it used to be, the chief reason is an increase in losses in the system. Losses represent that portion of energy converted to heat along the line and at the antenna terminals, energy that is no longer available as energy to radiate. As systems age, cables become "lossier," terminals become corroded, and a variety of other things contribute to the problem.

Yes, a lowering of SWR can indicate problems, not improvements. It is not impossible, but it is exceedingly rare for an antenna system to change its feedpoint impedance to match the transmission line. It is so rare that the lowering of SWR with time should always be taken as a sign that it is time for antenna system maintenance. Clean, deoxidize, tighten, and seal, as appropriate. If things do not improve, replace the outdoor coax with new stock (but save the old stuff for noncritical uses if it has any life left in it).

3. "My antenna is operating very well because my SWR is a perfect 1:1 match." Unfortunately, my dummy load gives a nearly perfect 1:1 match, and I cannot hear anyone when it is in the line. SWR is one measure of impedance match, but it is not an indicator of the quality of antenna performance as an antenna. Antennas convert radio frequency energy--a form of AC voltage and current--into electro-magnetic radiation (and also the reverse for reception); and they also manage to focus that radiation in various patterns. How well an antenna does this job is only indirectly connected with the impedance match to the transmission line carrying the energy to be converted and directed.

The practical consequences of this fact are pretty basic. First, before committing to an antenna, try to determine what kind of operating you want to do and select an antenna that will enhance that operation--within the limits of what you can handle in terms of finances, maintenance, and home site restrictions. Second, maintain your antenna regularly--even more regularly than most folks change automobile oil. Preventive maintenance will keep your antenna operating to its maximum ability. Third, if you build your own antenna for a long-term installation, use sensible quality materials. Stainless steel hardware is a must. Tubing and wire made for antennas or equally strong and conductive are necessary. Applying No-Ox or similar antioxidation conductive materials at connections of dissimilar metals is always a good idea.

4. "My antenna has a feedpoint impedance of 100 ohms. Surely 50-ohm coax will give me lower losses than the more highly mismatched 450-ohm parallel feedline." This misconceptions stems from the belief that SWR is a direct measure of the ability of an antenna to "absorb" energy and convert it into radiation. SWR is only part of the story.

Every transmission line displays two kinds of losses: first is a basic loss based on two significant factors: the ability of the wires to handle RF currents and the leakage between wires through the insulation. Because any coax we can afford compromises cost vs. effectiveness, all common coaxial cables have a higher basic loss per 100 feet than parallel feedline, whether 300-ohm or 450-ohm. In fact, for the HF bands, most parallel feedline has a minuscule loss compared to coax.

The second loss source is a result of SWR--or rather the mismatch that SWR indicates. Since peak voltages climb, leakage increases. Since peak currents climb, heat conversion losses are higher. In effect, SWR puts a multiplier on the transmission line's basic loss. Since coax begins with significant basic losses, additional losses due to SWR are that much more significant. Parallel transmission lines begin with almost insignificant losses, and the same or higher multipliers usually mean that losses are still insignificant. Under some common conditions, a parallel transmission line with a 10:1 SWR may have lower power losses than a coax cable with a 3:1 SWR. Parallel transmission line is almost always the best bet for multiband wire antennas that require an antenna tuner.

But remember that even at 3:1 SWR on the lower bands, like 80 meters, coax losses will still be too low to worry about. If your 75 meter dipole shows an SWR at the low end of 80 within the limits of your rig's built-in antenna tuner to handle and you would like to work a little CW, go for it.

5. "My meter shows the reflected power to be 25 watts. I'm worried about losing that power at the antenna and what it must be doing to my rig." Most folks who see these kinds of readings have never looked seriously at their forward power under the same conditions. Suppose you set your rig to exactly 100 watts output. Your reflect power reads 25 watts on a decent meter. Your forward power will read at least 125 watts--perhaps a couple of watts more to account for the cable losses just described (and your rig will be putting out about 102 watts). The difference is 100 watts. Where is it--and where did the extra forward power come from?

The reflected power simply returns to the forward direction and adds to the rig's power along the line. No need to worry about the rig, since it is not affected by the reflected power (except as the reverse voltage may activate a power reduction circuit). The antenna is receiving and converting 100 watts of power (less only the very small amount changed to heat due to cable losses). A receiving station cannot tell the difference in signal strength between an exactly matched dipole and one running a 10:1 SWR to a parallel feedline and ATU system. The received signal strengths will be the same, assuming the antennas occupied the same transmitting positions with the same propagation conditions. Both antennas converted just about 100 watts of RF energy into radiation. It may take about a dozen cycles for the high SWR system to build to full power and an equal number to return to zero, but when you have millions of cycles per second to use, those few make no difference to the signal intelligence.

I hope these notes help all those "other" folks approach SWR and antennas a little more intelligently. WorldRadio's Kurt N. Sterba occasionally runs into SWR msconceptions, and I assure you that his treatment is far more entertaining than mine--except to the sources of those misconceptions, who are technical writers who ought to know better. He is a good incentive for writers to keep things right and sensible. The best extended treatment of SWR and for SWR misconceptions is still Walt Maxwell's book, Reflections. Unfortunately, it appears to be out of print. You may want to petition ARRL to reprint it. Hopefully your library has a copy. Mine is too dog- eared to be borrowed. Anything right in these notes belongs to Walt. Anything wrong is likely to be noted by Kurt.

Updated 3-17-97. © L. B. Cebik, W4RNL. Data may be used for personal purposes, but may not be reproduced for publication in print or any other medium without permission of the author.

Go to An-Ten-Ten-nas Page
Return to Amateur Radio Page