Measuring An Unknown Velocity Factor

When is the speed of light not the speed of light? Of course, that’s a trick question. The speed of light may be constant, but just as sound travels at different speeds in different media, electronic signals move through transmission lines at a reduced speed. When you have a known cable, you can look up the velocity factor and use it to approximate the length of cable to have a given effective length. But what if you don’t know what kind of cable you have? [More Than Electronics] used a scope to measure it. You can see what he did in the video below.

For example, RG-8/U has a factor of 0.77. Even air isn’t exactly a factor of 1, although it is close enough that, in practice, we pretend that it is. If you wonder why it matters, consider stubs. Suppose you have a 300 MHz signal (handy because that’s 1 meter in wavelength; well, OK, pick 299.792 MHz if you prefer). If you have a quarter wavelength piece of coax shorted at one end, it will attenuate signals at 300 MHz. To understand why, picture the wave on the stub. If the close end of the stub is at 0 volts, then the other end — because it is a quarter wavelength away — must be at the maximum positive voltage or the minimum negative voltage. If either of the extremes is at the close end, then the far end must be at zero volts. That means the maximum current flows only when the signal is at 300 MHz.

Dead Simple Time-Domain Reflectometry With Just A Battery And An Oscilloscope

“Time-domain reflectometry” sure sounds like something that needs racks of expensive equipment to accomplish. In reality, TDR is just measuring the time between injecting a pulse into a cable and receiving its echo, either from the other end of the cable or from some fault or defect along the way. It’s a useful technique, and as [Allen Wolke (W2AEW)] shows us, it can be accomplished with little more than a battery, a resistor, and an oscilloscope. And a little math, of course.

There are, of course, dedicated time-domain reflectometers, but all of them are really just elaborations of the basic principles [W2AEW] demonstrates with his simple setup. The oscilloscope is set up with a tee connector on one channel; one side of the tee is connected to the cable under test, while the shield conductor of the other side is connected to the negative terminal of a 9V battery. A resistor connected to the center conductor is used to complete the circuit, which sends a brief pulse down the test cable. The scope is set up to capture the outgoing pulse as well as the return pulse, allowing the time between the two to be measured. Some simple math gives the length of the cable, the distance to a fault, or with a little rearrangement, the velocity factor of the cable.

The video below shows the simple method at work on coax and Cat 5e Ethernet cable. It even worked on a roll of zip cable, which was a little surprising. If this technique is too simple, you can always elaborate a bit and roll your own TDR tester. Googly eyes optional, of course, but recommended.

Fast Video Covers Coax Velocity Factor

We once saw an interview test for C programmers that showed a structure with a few integer, floating point, and pointer fields. The question: How big is this structure? The correct answer was either “It depends,” or “sizeof(struct x).” The same could be said of the question “What is the speed of light?” The flip answer is 186,282 miles per second, or 299,792,458 metres per second. However, a better answer is “It depends on what it is traveling in.” [KB9VBR] discusses how different transmission lines have different velocity factors and what that means when making RF measurements. A cable with a 0.6 velocity factor sees radio signals move at 60% of that 186,282 number.

This might seem like pedantry, but the velocity factor makes a difference because it changes the actual measurements of such things as dipole legs and coax stubs. The guys make a makeshift time domain reflectometer using a signal generator and an oscilloscope.