The $50 Ham: Dummy Loads, Part 2

In the last installment of “The $50 Ham” I built a common tool used by amateur radio operators who are doing any kind of tuning or testing of transmitters: a dummy load. That build resulted in “L’il Dummy”, a small dummy load intended for testing typical VHF-UHF handy talkie (HT) transceivers, screwing directly into the antenna jack on the radio.

As mentioned in the comments by some readers, L’il Dummy has little real utility. There’s actually not much call for a dummy load that screws right into an HT, and it was pointed out that a proper dummy load is commercially available on the cheap. I think the latter observation is missing the point of homebrewing specifically and the Hackaday ethos in general, but I will concede the former point. That’s why at the same time I was building L’il Dummy, I was building the bigger, somewhat more capable version described here: Big Dummy.

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The $50 Ham: Dummy Loads

This is an exciting day for me — we finally get to build some ham radio gear! To me, building gear is the big attraction of amateur radio as a hobby. Sure, it’s cool to buy a radio, even a cheap one, and be able to hit a repeater that you think is unreachable. Or on the other end of the money spectrum, using a Yaesu or Kenwood HF rig with a linear amp and big beam antenna to work someone in Antartica must be pretty cool, too. But neither of those feats require much in the way of electronics knowledge or skill, and at the end of the day, that’s why I got into amateur radio in the first place — to learn more about electronics.

To get my homebrewer’s feet wet, I chose perhaps the simplest of ham radio projects: dummy loads. Every ham eventually needs a dummy load, which is basically a circuit that looks like an antenna to a transmitter but dissipates the energy as heat instead of radiating it an appreciable distance. They allow operators to test gear and make adjustments while staying legal on emission. Al Williams covered the basics of dummy loads a few years back in case you need a little more background.

We’ll be building two dummy loads: a lower-power one specifically for my handy talkies (HTs) will be the subject of this article, while a bigger, oil-filled “cantenna” load for use with higher power transmitters will follow. Neither of my designs is original, of course; borrowing circuits from other hams is expected, after all. But I did put my own twist on each, and you should do the same thing. These builds are covered in depth on my page, but join me below for the gist on a good one: the L’il Dummy.

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Spot This DIY Electronic Load’s Gracefully Hidden Hacks

Sometimes it’s necessary to make do with whatever parts one has on hand, but the results of squashing a square peg into a round hole are not always as elegant as [Juan Gg]’s programmable DC load with rotary encoder. [Juan] took a design for a programmable DC load and made it his own in quite a few different ways, including a slick 3D-printed enclosure and color faceplate.

The first thing to catch one’s eye might be that leftmost seven-segment digit. There is a simple reason it doesn’t match its neighbors: [Juan] had to use what he had available, and that meant a mismatched digit. Fortunately, 3D printing one’s own enclosure meant it could be gracefully worked into the design, instead of getting a Dremel or utility knife involved. The next is a bit less obvious: the display lacked a decimal point in the second digit position, so an LED tucked in underneath does the job. Finally, the knob on the right could reasonably be thought to be a rotary encoder, but it’s actually connected to a small DC motor. By biasing the motor with a small DC voltage applied to one lead and reading the resulting voltage from the other, the knob’s speed and direction can be detected, doing a serviceable job as rotary encoder substitute.

The project’s GitHub repository contains the Arduino code for [Juan]’s project, which has its roots in a design EEVblog detailed for an electronic load. For those of you who prefer your DIY rotary encoders to send discrete clicks and pulses instead of an analog voltage, a 3D printed wheel and two microswitches will do the job.

You Can Learn a Lot from a Dummy (Load)

If you work on RF circuits–even if you aren’t a ham radio operator–you ought to have a dummy load. A dummy load is a non-radiative “antenna” with known impedance that you can use to test your RF circuit without radiating. For radio work, you usually just need a 50-ohm resistor that is non-inductive (at least at the frequencies you are interested in) and that can dissipate the amount of power you’ll expect it to handle (at least for a short time). [VO1PWF] wanted a dummy load and built his own.
CantennaThe Cantenna (not the Pringle’s kind; see left) was a famous dummy load design when Heathkit was in business. It was a single carbon rod immersed in a paint can full transformer oil (which we now know was full of dangerous PCBs; and we don’t mean printed circuit boards). [VO1PWF’s] design is a little more practical, using some resistors in parallel (20 1K resistors), a plastic pipe housing, and mineral oil to keep it all cool.

The reason for the parallel resistors is to maximize the power handling capability. The resistors are 3W units, so the dummy load–in theory–can handle 60 watts. Often, high power resistors are wire wound and thus have a good bit of parasitic inductance that makes the dummy load reactive (not a good thing since that makes the load impedance vary by frequency). They do make non-inductive wire wound resistors, but these aren’t truly non-inductive. The wire winds in two different directions, so the inductance tends to cancel out. We wouldn’t trust them to be a pure resistance in a high-power dummy load design.

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A constant resistance dummy load design


This constant resistance dummy load has not yet been tested in the real world. [YS] was inspired to come up with the circuit after reading Wednesday’s Re:load dummy load post. That was a constant current load, not a constant resistance load. [YS] started with the schematic for the Re:load and made his changes to arrive at this.

For him the exercise was just to alter the design to achieve constant resistance. He didn’t actually build and test the hardware because he doesn’t really have a need for it. This image was exported from Proteus, which includes a ProSPICE circuit emulator. His slides run through test voltages from 5V to 50V, maintaining a constant 10 Ohm resistance.

When studying this project we needed a little refresher on the different varieties of dummy loads. We found this post very informative about the differences and uses of Constant Current, Constant Power, and Constant Resistance (Impedance) loads.

Re:load, an Open Source Dummy Load


When testing power supplies or LEDs, a constant current dummy load is needed. These devices will draw a constant amount of current, regardless of the voltage at the input terminals.

[Nick] was looking for a load to test out a power supply, and found commercial offerings to be too large, too powerful, and most importantly, too expensive. This lead to the design of the Re:load, his open source alternative.

Like other constant current sources, the Re:load uses an opamp to control a pass element. While most constant current loads will just use a transistor, [Nick] opted for a BTS117 smart low side switch IC. This device has a built in current limiter, over-voltage protection, over-temperature protection, and short circuit protection, which makes it much safer. The project write up goes into detail on how the device works.

If you need a constant current load, [Nick] is selling kits on Tindie. All the design files are available on Github so that you can build your own.

Dummy load uses gray code to adjust load in small steps

We’re not really interested in building a dummy load like this one for ourselves. But the concepts behind its design make for a nice little mental exercise as you read your way through the build description. [Pabr] wanted to build a dummy load which could be used to test a cheaply made gas generator. He wanted it to be as simple as possible, while providing a range of different loads. What he came up with is this monotonically adjustable load tester which uses gray codes for switching.

The video after the break does a good job of explaining the motivation for the design. Grey coding ensures that just one bit changes at a time. The example he uses to show the importance of this is when binary code transitions from 7 (0b0111) to 8 (0b1000). Three digits have been turned off and one has been turned on. Since he’s using light bulbs for his load this will turn off 700 Watts and then switch on 800W. That sudden jump in power draw can cause all kinds of problems with the generator’s engine. But the system he wired up will ensure that each flip of a switch moves in smaller steps.

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