Guest Post: Why does radio reception improve on saltwater coasts?

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, 13dka, who shares the following guest post:


Gone fishing…for DX: Reception enhancement at the seaside

by 13dka

In each of my few reviews I referred to “the dike” or “my happy place”, which is a tiny stretch of the 380 miles of dike protecting Germany’s North Sea coast. This is the place where I like to go for maximum listening pleasure and of course for testing radios. Everyone knows that close proximity to an ocean is good for radio reception…but why is that? Is there a way to quantify “good”?

Of course there is, this has been documented before, there is probably lots of literature about it and old papers like this one (click here to download PDF). A complete answer to the question has at least two parts:

1. Less QRM

It may be obvious, but civilization and therefore QRM sources at such a place extend to one hemisphere only, because the other one is covered with ocean for 100s, if not 1000s of miles. There are few places on the planet that offer such a lack of civilization in such a big area, while still being accessible, habitable and in range for pizza delivery. Unless you’re in the midst of a noisy tourist trap town, QRM will be low. Still, you may have to find a good spot away from all tourist attractions and industry for absolutely minimal QRM.

My dike listening post is far enough from the next small tourist trap town (in which I live) and also sufficiently far away from the few houses of the next tiny village and it’s located in an area that doesn’t have HV power lines (important for MW and LW reception!) or industrial areas, other small villages are miles away and miles apart, the next town is 20 km/12 miles away from there. In other words, man-made noise is just not an issue there.

That alone would be making shortwave reception as good as it gets and it gives me an opportunity to check out radios on my own terms: The only way to assess a radio’s properties and qualities without or beyond test equipment is under ideal conditions, particularly for everything that has to do with sensitivity. It’s already difficult without QRM (because natural noise (QRN) can easily be higher than the receiver’s sensitivity threshold too, depending on a number of factors), and even small amounts of QRM on top make that assessment increasingly impossible. This is particularly true for portables, which often can’t be fully isolated from local noise sources for a couple of reasons.

Yes, most modern radios are all very sensitive and equal to the degree that it doesn’t make a difference in 98% of all regular reception scenarios but my experience at the dike is that there are still differences, and the difference between my least sensitive and my most sensitive portable is not at all negligible, even more because they are not only receivers but the entire receiving system including the antenna. You won’t notice that difference in the middle of a city, but you may notice it in the woods.

When the radio gets boring, I can still have fun with the swing and the slide!

2. More signal

I always had a feeling that signals actually increase at the dike and that made me curious enough to actually test this by having a receiver tuned to some station in the car, then driving away from the dike and back. Until recently it didn’t come to me to document or even quantify this difference though. When I was once again googling for simple answers to the question what the reason might be, I stumbled upon this video: Callum (M0MCX) demonstrating the true reason for this in MMANA (an antenna modeling software) on his “DX Commander” channel:

To summarize this, Callum explains how a pretty dramatic difference in ground conductivity near the sea (click here to download PDF) leads to an increase in antenna gain, or more precisely a decrease in ground return losses equaling more antenna gain. Of course I assumed that the salt water has something to do with but I had no idea how much: For example, average ground has a conductivity of 0.005 Siemens per meter, salt water is averaging at 5.0 S/m, that’s a factor of 1,000 (!) and that leads to roughly 10dB of gain. That’s right, whatever antenna you use at home in the backcountry would get a free 10dB gain increase by the sea, antennas with actual dBd or dBi gain have even more gain there.

That this has a nice impact on your transmitting signal should be obvious if you’re a ham, if not just imagine that you’d need a 10x more powerful amplifier or an array of wires or verticals or a full-size Yagi to get that kind of gain by directionality. But this is also great for reception: You may argue that 10dB is “only” little more than 1.5 S-units but 1.5 S-units at the bottom of the meter scale spans the entire range between “can’t hear a thing” and “fully copy”!

A practical test

It’s not that I don’t believe DX Commander’s assessment there but I just had to see it myself and find a way to share that with you. A difficulty was finding a station that has A) a stable signal but is B) not really local, C) on shortwave, D) always on air and E) propagation must be across water or at least along the shoreline.

The army (or navy) to the rescue! After several days of observing STANAG stations for their variation in signal on different times of the day, I picked one on 4083 kHz (thanks to whoever pays taxes to keep that thing blasting the band day and night!). I don’t know where exactly (my KiwiSDR-assisted guess is the English channel region) that station is, but it’s always in the same narrow range of levels around S9 here at home, there’s usually the same little QSB on the signal, and the signals are the same day or night.

On top of that, I had a look at geological maps of my part of the country to find out how far I should drive into the backcountry to find conditions that are really different from the coast. Where I live, former sea ground and marsh land is forming a pretty wide strip of moist, fertile soil with above average conductivity, but approximately 20km/12mi to the east the ground changes to a composition typical for the terminal moraine inland formed in the ice age. So I picked a quiet place 25km east of my QTH to measure the level of that STANAG station and also to record the BBC on 198 kHz. Some source stated that the coastal enhancement effect can be observed within 10 lambda distance to the shoreline, that would be 730m for the 4 MHz STANAG station and 15km for the BBC, so 25km should suffice to rule out any residue enhancement from the seaside.

My car stereo has no S-meter (or a proper antenna, so reception is needlessly bad but this is good in this case) so all you get is the difference in audio. The car had the same orientation (nose pointing to the east) at both places. For the 4 MHz signal though (coincidence or not), the meter shows ~10dBm (or dBยตV/EMF) more signal at the dike.

3. Effect on SNR

Remember, more signal alone does not equal better reception, what we’re looking for is a better signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). Now that we’ve established that the man-made noise should be as low as possible at “my” dike, the remaining question is: Does this signal enhancement have an effect on SNR as well? Even if there is virtually no local QRM at my “happy place” – there is still natural noise (QRN) and that wouldn’t that likely gain 10dB too?

Here are some hypotheses that may be subject of debate and some calculations way over my head (physics/math fans, please comment and help someone out who always got an F in math!). Sorry for all the gross oversimplifications:

Extremely lossy antennas

We know that pure reception antennas are often a bit different in that the general reciprocity rule has comparatively little meaning, many antennas designed for optimizing reception in specific situations would be terrible transmitting antennas. One quite extreme example, not meant to optimize anything but portability is the telescopic whip on shortwaves >10m. At the dike, those gain more signal too. When the QRN drops after sunset on higher frequencies, the extremely lossy whip might be an exception because the signal coming out of it is so small that it’s much closer to the receiver noise, so this friendly signal boost could lift very faint signals above the receiver noise more than the QRN, which in turn could mean a little increase in SNR, and as we know even a little increase in SNR can go a long way.

The BBC Radio 4 longwave recording is likely another example for this – the unusually weak signal is coming from a small and badly matched rubber antenna with abysmal performance on all frequency ranges including LW. The SNR is obviously increasing at the dike because the signal gets lifted more above the base noise of the receiving system, while the atmospheric noise component is likely still far below that threshold. Many deliberately lossy antenna design, such as flag/tennant, passive small aperture loops (like e.g. the YouLoop) or loop-on-ground antennas may benefit most from losses decreasing by 10dB.

Not so lossy antennas, polarization and elevation patterns

However, there is still more than a signal strength difference between “big” antennas and the whips at the dike: Not only at the sea, directionality will have an impact on QRN levels, a bidirectional antenna may already decrease QRN and hence increase SNR further, an unidirectional antenna even more, that’s one reason why proper Beverage antennas for example work wonders particularly on noisy low frequencies at night (but this is actually a bad example because Beverage antennas are said to work best on lossy ground).

Also, directional or not, the “ideal” ground will likely change the radiation pattern, namely the elevation angles, putting the “focus” of the antenna from near to far – or vice versa: As far as my research went, antennas with horizontal polarization are not ideal in this regard as they benefit much less from the “mirror effect” and a relatively low antenna height may be more disadvantageous for DX (but maybe good for NVIS/local ragchewing) than usual. Well, that explains why I never got particularly good results with horizontal dipoles at the dike!

Using a loop-on-ground antenna at a place without QRM may sound ridiculously out of place at first, but they are bidirectional and vertically polarized antennas, so the high ground conductivity theoretically flattens the take-off angle of the lobes, on top of that they are ~10dB less lossy at the dike, making even a LoG act more like something you’d string up as high as possible elsewhere. They are incredibly convenient, particularly on beaches where natural antenna supports may be non-existent and I found them working extremely well at the dike, now I think I know why. In particular the preamplified version I tried proved to be good enough to receive 4 continents on 20m and a 5th one on 40m – over the course of 4 hours on an evening when conditions were at best slightly above average. Though the really important point is that it increased the SNR further, despite the QRN still showing up on the little Belka’s meter when I connected the whip for comparison (alas not shown in the video).

The 5th continent is missing in this video because the signals from South Africa were not great anymore that late in the evening, but a recording exists.

Here’s a video I shot last year, comparing the same LoG with the whip on my Tecsun S-8800 on 25m (Radio Marti 11930 kHz):

At the same time, I recorded the station with the next decent KiwiSDR in my area:

Of course, these directionality vs noise mechanisms are basically the same on any soil. But compensating ground losses and getting flat elevation patterns may require great efforts, like extensive radial systems, buried meshes etc. and it’s pretty hard to cover enough area around the antenna (minimum 1/2 wavelength, ideally more!) to get optimum results on disadvantaged soils, while still never reaching the beach conditions. You may have to invest a lot of labor and/or money to overcome such geological hardships, while the beach gives you all that for free.

But there may be yet another contributing factor: The gain pattern is likely not symmetrical – signals (and QRN) coming from the land side will likely not benefit the same way from the enhancement, which tapers off quickly (10 wavelengths) on the land side of the dike and regular “cross-country” conditions take place in that direction, while salt water stretching far beyond the horizon is enhancing reception to the other side.

So my preliminary answer to that question would be: “Yes, under circumstances the shoreline signal increase and ground properties can improve SNR further, that improvement can be harvested easily with vertically polarized antennas”.

Would it be worthwhile driving 1000 miles to the next ocean beach… for SWLing?

Maybe not every week–? Seriously, it depends.

Sure, an ocean shoreline will generally help turning up the very best your radios and antennas can deliver, I think the only way to top this would be adding a sensible amount of elevation, a.k.a. cliff coasts.

If you’re interested in extreme DX or just in the technical performance aspect, if you want to experience what your stuff is capable of or if you don’t want to put a lot of effort into setting up antennas, you should definitely find a quiet place at the ocean, particularly if your options to get maximum performance are rather limited (space constraints, QRM, HOA restrictions, you name it) at home.

If you’re a BCL/program listener and more interested in the “content” than the way it came to you, if you’re generally happy with reception of your favorite programs or if you simply have some very well working setup at home, there’s likely not much the beach could offer you in terms of radio. But the seaside has much more to offer than fatter shortwaves of course.

From left to right: Starry sky capture with cellphone cam, nocticlucent clouds behind the dike, car with hot coffee inside and a shortwave portable suction-cupped to the side window – nights at the dike are usually cold but sometimes just beautiful. (Click to enlarge.)

However, getting away from the QRM means everything for a better SNR and best reception. In other words, if the next ocean is really a hassle to reach, it may be a better idea to just find a very quiet place nearby and maybe putting up some more substantial antenna than driving 1000 miles. But if you happen to plan on some seaside vacation, make absolutely sure you bring two radios (because it may break your heart if your only radio fails)!

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9 thoughts on “Guest Post: Why does radio reception improve on saltwater coasts?

  1. Pingback: CHA MPAS Lite: A proper quick-deployment field antenna | The SWLing Post

  2. Andrew

    I wonder if you ever tried a “beverage on saltwater”, in short, solder a piece of copper pipe to the end of an insulated wire, put some fishing leads inside the pipe and seal it with sylicon sealant, then throw the wire end into sea and lay the remainder on the beach, connect the “dry” end to a beverage transformer going to the coax and from there to the rx; in practice your beverage termination will be the ocean ๐Ÿ™‚

    Reply
    1. 13dka

      Well, Beverage antennas may not work very well directly on the water, OTOH maybe they catch less DX but when you haul it back in maybe it has caught something for dinner? ๐Ÿ™‚

      Reply
  3. Rob L

    An excellent post on a very interesting topic, thank you! I don’t make it to the seaside very often but living in NE Ohio I have had a lot of fun with MW & FM Dxing from various Lake Erie beaches over the years. Although it is not salt water, the lake provides some good listening. Many stations, especially Canadians, that boom in at the beach are barely copied just a few miles inland.

    Reply
    1. 13dka

      Thanks, Rob! See my reply to Paul below, lakes are the next best thing and often really beautiful sites to hang out with a radio!

      Reply
  4. Paul PD0SWL

    Lovely article!

    It shows how alive the HF bands actually are if you escape the urban QRM “smoke curtains” that are almost inespcapable now.
    Even near the river side here in central NL (PA land) I notice a difference in signal strength.
    Found some favourite “hot”spots on cycling trips.

    The llittle Belka is a most excellent receiver to enjoy such experiments in rural DX.
    From pale radio shack cavemen, DXers now become healthy outdoor hikers ๐Ÿ˜‰

    73
    Paul
    PD0SWL

    Reply
    1. 13dka

      Thank you! Yes, wet ground and fresh water are the next best thing (B and C on the graph) and indeed, a quiet *and* sensitive receiver like the little Belka can turn the low noise into big fun! That the QRM is driving some of us off into the nature really is a case of “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade” but because it’s actually tremendously rewarding to do so I’m not sooo unhappy about my own QRM situation at home . ๐Ÿ™‚

      [img]https://imgflip.com/i/4joljs[/img]

      Reply

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