As amateur radio operators interested in Emergency Communications, we spend a considerable amount of time discussing our radio gear, go-kits, antennas and other equipment we’ve either already accumulated, are about to acquire, or wish we could acquire.

Unfortunately, we often do little to maintain these items once we have them.  At least, that’s been true for myself and some other people I’ve worked with.  I guess it’s just human nature – and a recipe for trouble.

A few years ago I had my old-beater van stop rolling down the road. Ironically, Gerald (W34RWT) had mentioned hearing a roaring noise coming from the passenger side of my van as we were driving down a highway and he slowed to exit to the interstate. I knew something was going on there but a previous visit to a mechanic found nothing and I shrugged it off.  Sure enough, the symptoms I had already seen and the noise that concerned Gerald turned out to be the axle shearing.  A little more aggressive work finding the problem would have saved me a towing fee.

Now, you would think the previous story is a lead-in for why we need to be sure our equipment is in operating order. It should be, but its really just setting up for the real story.

 At the time the van broke down I was pretty certain it was the van’s transmission that was dead, not the axle; and the van was headed for the great automotive afterlife. So, while I was waiting for the tow truck and for my ride, I took everything out of the van, including my radio gear.

Well, it turned out the van was repairable cheaply enough to go ahead and do it. Once I got the van back I, of course, had to put everything back in – including the previously removed radio gear. All seemed well – until I actually tried to use the radio.

Radio reception was noisy and I could barely bring up a nearby repeater.  It wasn’t really hard to figure out, because I noticed, during the reinstall of the gear, that my ratty looking PL-259 connection going to the radio was looking rattier than usual.  I made a mental note to replace it one of these days – first when I removed it from the van and again when I installed it.  Sure enough, the poor fitting of the cable to the connector allowed dirt and grime to get inside the barrel and make for a poor ground connection. Since I was on the road I just cleaned it up and was back on the air with a 1.7:1 SWR – livable but not desirable. It held up for a day or two and then receive noise came back, requiring, finally, that I replace the connector.

What if that had been during an emergency? Sure, I know how to use the soldering iron and I could have twisted and pushed and nudged the connector into working. But I’d always be wondering when it was going to fail next, and it probably would at a critical moment. The reality is, that connector should have been replaced a year before.  Just the like the NiCad pack in one of my older radios.  Probably like a connector on one of your rigs or the batteries on one of your HTs. No? Are you sure?

When is the last time you charged up your HT’s batteries and carried on repeater conversations until the battery died? Do you really know how long they’ll last once you’ve pushed the PTT button and not just used it to monitor a repeater?

What about your backup generator, if you have one?  When was the last time the gas was changed? Did you use a stabilizer in the fuel?  How much fuel do you have on hand for it?

You have a pile of batteries? When’s the last time you jerked the plug out of the wall and ran on them?  Are you sure they’ll hold up under load? I’m pretty good about doing that from time to time, but it’s been a while, so I’m running on emergency power now.

When is the last time you inspected your antenna cable? The connectors at the end? Is there any corrosion building up on the power connectors for your radio? How about a simple check of your SWR?

There’s a bad thing about repeaters. They make us lazy. You’d be surprised how poorly your antenna and radio can be matched and still manage to hit repeaters, especially if you keep the radio at the hi-power output setting.  Of course, setting your radio at a high-power output setting and operating it through poor cable or badly matched antenna is a bad combination.

So, after my little experience in the van I came in and checked the SWR of my inside radio.  I have an Arrow J-pole that gives a nice flat SWR of under 1.3 across the 2-meter band. At least it did when I first installed it.  I discovered my SWR had crept up to almost 2:1 sometime in the last year. Okay, not the end of the world, but not good either. I spent the following weekend tracing the problem down to damaged cable.

I have no doubt there are people out there who are more meticulous than I am at this – and God bless you.  But I bet there are more than one or two who, if they’re honest with themselves, must admit they’ve been running with equipment they know isn’t quite right or haven’t verified that their seemingly well functioning equipment isn’t in need of a little maintenance.

So, how about putting a few equipment checks on the 2012 calendar and making sure things are working well before we’re called to serve during an emergency, rather than malfunctioning gear becoming part of the emergency.