Ladder Line

Copyright © 2002-2019 by Harold Melton, KV5R. All Rights Reserved. Rev. 02/19/19.

Why Use Ladder-Line?

To efficiently feed a non-resonant multi-band antenna.

Antenna Mythology

Resonance

First, let's dispel the greatest myth in antenna theory: Antennas must be “resonant” to be efficient. Baloney! It just ain’t so!

Please recognize that an antenna need not be resonant in order to be an effective radiator. There is in fact nothing magic about having a resonant antenna, provided of course that you can devise some efficient means to feed the antenna. Many amateurs use non-resonant (even random-length) antennas fed with open-wire transmission lines and antenna tuners. They radiate signals just as well as those using coaxial cable and resonant antennas, and as a bonus they usually can use these antenna systems on multiple frequency bands.

—ARRL Antenna Book, Ch. 2

As long as the length of the antenna is at least a half-wavelength at its lowest intended frequency, its efficiency is well over 90%, just like a resonant dipole. The problem is getting power to it—coax is very lossy (due to dielectric heating) unless terminated into its characteristic impedance, and this effect is what leads many hams to erroneously believe that non-resonant antennas are inefficient. But the problem isn’t non-resonance, it’s high SWR on coax.

On the other hand, ladder-line does not suffer from high losses at high SWR, so may be effectively used to feed an antenna that may, at various frequencies, present the feed-line with any SWR from 1:1 to ~12:1. So, with ladder-line you can completely forget about resonance and SWR, until you get to the radio, where you use a tuner to make the match to 50Ω.

To compare mismatched feed-line losses we have to start with the antenna’s feed-point impedance, and the line’s impedance, then calculate the SWR, and finally, the loss of each feed-line-type at a given frequency and length.

For a worst-case example, feeding a voltage node (like running 40 meters on an 80 meter dipole), let’s say the feed-point impedance is 3500 ohms. With 100 feet of RG-8 coax at 7 MHz, that's a whopping 65:1 SWR, with a total loss of 78%. With 600-ohm open-wire line, the SWR is only 5.8, and the loss is 3%! Then, if we switch to 80 meters, the impedance is 50 ohms, the SWR is ~12:1, and the loss is 7%. In this case, 450-ohm line would be even better, because its characteristic impedance is closer to the geometric mean, so the SWR only varies from about 9:1 at 50 ohms to 7.7:1 at 3500 ohms. The total losses for 100 feet of 450-ohm windowed ladder-line, at 9:1 SWR, ranges from 5% at 3.5 MHz, to 14% at 28 MHz, and again, that’s at the worst-case mismatch points.

So we see that ladder-line is not only better for non-resonant antennas because of its much lower loss at high SWR, but also because its characteristic impedance places it nearer the geometric mean of the antenna's impedance range, from lowest (odd half-waves) to highest (even half-waves).

See also: my feed-line calculator.

Handy formula: VSWR = (1+r)/(1-r), where r = (Zl-Zo)/(Zl+Zo), where Zl=load impedance and Zo=line impedance, in ohms.

Tuner and Balun Losses

Another popular myth is that antenna tuners are very lossy and waste a bunch of power. Baloney! A T-tuner, properly used, is about 95% efficient, and a switched-L tuner (like most auto-tuners) is about 98% efficient. If your tuner is getting hot, you have something wrong in the antenna system, and are exceeding the design limits of the tuner. A T-tuner becomes quite lossy when the antenna side impedance is low (<50Ω), but when it’s high (>50Ω) the efficiency is over 90%, reaching about 95% at ~500Ω. (See the graph at this article by G3TXQ ).

On the other hand, baluns can be very lossy, depending on the design and how they are used (or misused). As with tuners, if they are getting hot, they are wasting power, and you need to change the feed-line length (to move the anti-node out of the ham band), and use a balun designed for wide impedance variations.

Traditional baluns, such as the coax-wound toroidal 4:1 Guanella, are not designed to handle the extreme impedance variations of all-band doublets. They tend to arc or saturate and burn up at high power when presented with impedance extremes. Modern balun manufacturers have discovered this and now make 1:1 choke-baluns designed for ladder line feeds. Both DX Engineering and Balun Designs now make “tuner baluns” that are 1:1 current choke/baluns, and MFJ now puts 1:1 bifilar-wound choke/baluns in some models, like the 989D.

Ladder-Line Myths

Many hams refuse to use it because they are afflicted by common misconceptions:

  1. “Ladder-line radiates!” Baloney. Ladder-line does not radiate any more than does coax, if feeding a balanced antenna, like a center-fed dipole. If the power in each conductor is equal and opposite, we have complete phase-cancellation, and therefore no RF radiation. This is NOT true for off-center-fed antennas, like end-feed, or the various Windom-type feeds, where feed-line radiation is significant enough to warrant a bunch of power-wasting chokes.
  2. “I tried it once, and it messed up my TV, my computer, and filled the shack with RF!” Again, ladder line should be balanced, and a good choke/blaun used at ot near the tuner. To further reduce common-mode current that may bring RF into the shack, make sure you use a length of ladder-line that is not a multiple of a half-wavelength on any band. Lengths like 40, 80, and 110 feet work well. A resonant length of ladder-line, just like the shield of coax, will pick up RF by induction from the antenna and re-radiate it into the shack. A non-resonant feed-line length will present a high impedance to common-mode current. And, as with any feed-line, it’s best to run it perpendicular to the antenna as far as possible so the magnetic fields from each half of the dipole will cancel each other instead of inducing common-mode current in the feed-line.
  3. “It’s too hard to work with! You have to keep it away from metal!” Well, yes, a few inches or so. The general rule is: at least twice the width of the line. It’s easy to make stand-offs from small PVC pipe. Ladder-line can cross a metal edge, like a window sill; you just don’t want to run it right against metal for any significant length.
  4. “It’s too hard to bring into the shack!” Baloney. There are many waterproof ways to bring ladder-line into any shack. You can drill two small holes through the wall and bring two #12-#14 wires through, then caulk, and connect them to the balanced output of your tuner. Or better, mount your balun outside the wall and come in with a few feet of coax. I like that way better because the coax is easy to disconnect (at a bulkhead fitting) during storms.
  5. “It flops around in the wind, and it breaks too easy!” (a) Windowed line should be twisted about one twist for every two feet to prevent wind-induced oscillations. (b) Make a good feedpoint connection, with proper strain-relief. It doesn’t hurt to wrap the line over the top of your feedpoint insulator and then secure it to itself with cable ties. Also, the 14-gauge stranded is much more reliable than the 18-gauge solid line.

If you run an all-band dipole (with a tuner in the shack), you need ladder-line. Coax is very lossy when operated at high SWR. It’s easy to lose 75% of your power in your coax when operating on bands where the non-resonant dipole presents a high feedpoint impedance to the feedline.

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Continued…

150 thoughts on “Ladder Line
  1. I’ve read the article several times. Perhaps you could help me. I am planning a horizontal loop cut for 80 (perhaps 40, but I should have room at an odd shape 80). I intend to feed this with 450 ohm window line. I understand that even if I run the ladder feed all the way into the shack, I should still use a high quality 1:1 balun, like the dx engineering linked, and run short coax to the tuner.

    Here is my confusion. If I run the ladder line directly to the balanced input on the tuner, it has an internal 4:1 balun. If I run the 1:1 in advance of the tuner, I’m running coax directly to the SO-239 that does not connect to the 4:1 internal balun of the tuner. My preference would be to connect a balun outside the shack and connect the window line. Then a short coax into the shack. That seems as you describe, but I’m unsure if I need a 4:1 or 1:1 balun. I think my takeaway from the multi read of your great write up, is I will need the high quality 1:1. I will likely never use more than 100w, as I historically never have and lack the capability.

    I’m really seeing the benefits of balanced feedline, and look forward to my loop. I’m glad I’ve found information such as yours, and continued to read before purchasing the necessary parts.

    Thanks!

    • I would (and do) use an external 1:1 choke/balun that’s made for wide impedance range, such as the Balun Designs 1171.
      Or at barefoot power you can save some $$ just get a FT-240-31 and wind 11 bifilar turns on it.
      Trim the ladder line, if needed, if you have a band that the tuner won’t tune.
      73, –KV5R

      • Thanks for the information, and taking the time to reply. I’ve been considering products from Balun Designs already, thanks for the link to the correct design.

        I did my area measuring yesterday. I’m putting up enough wire for 80m. Now, I just have to get on a 28′ ladder to put two eye bolts into the house.

        73 and thanks again
        Nathan

  2. Hey Harold,

    I have a 10-40m Zerofive Vert Dipole antenna I am getting ready to install for the first time. I purchased 110ft of True LL 600ohm feedline in an effort to not have the feedline resonant for those bands. I intend on terminating the LL right outside my window to my shack to a Balun Designs 4114T. From there, I will run LMR600 coax from the Balun, in the window to my radio. The coax is 12ft. My question is this: What is the true length of my feedline from a resonance perspective. Is it just the Ladderline (110ft) or LL plus coax (122ft)?
    Thanks, John – KM4JON

    • Since the balun should provide a high-impedance choke to common-mode, length should be for the LL only. But in terms of impedance transformation it will be the total length, + whatever the transformation, if any, of the balun.
      Your lengths sound fine fine to me, just might have to trim a little (~1-4 feet) if it gets wacky in 10 meters.
      73, –KV5R

  3. Thanks so much for answering so many of my questions that I just couldn’t find definitive answers to. So I can make a Doublet and use ladder line as the feed line and run the ladder line directly into my elecraft kx3, (built in tuner) via banana plug and I should be in business. I hope and think I’m correct in this? Thanks……..Brock KC4SMI

    • Well, maybe. You’ll need a 1:1 current balun/choke, and the range of radios’ internal auto-tuners are usually too limited to run ladder-line on all bands. At least, that’s what I’ve heard. Feel free to try it, and if the internal tuner doesn’t get you there, look at a MFJ-993 auto-tuner, which has a very wide impedance range (to 3200 ohms). That’s what I use when barefoot.
      73, –KV5R

  4. Thank you very much for the many options. I can not put up the Spider antenna, we sometimes get wind gusts up to 70 mph. I will for sure be taking your advice.

    Thank You Again
    Bill…..KA6SPQ

  5. Sir:
    I am planning to make a 20/40 meter trap dipole.
    How well it work with 450 ohm ladder line?? I am in a bit of a small
    place here, Quite a step down from my 4 element 5 bad quad at 85 feet. Any info you can provide will be helpful. I am limited to a lot 100 feet by 30 feet. It will be about 20 to 25 feet up, all I can do.

    • Howdy Bill,
      I don’t know if LL would work with a trap dipole or not, but with LL you need a tuner anyway, so you wouldn’t need the traps for matching on the shorter band.
      In your situation, I’d put 40 and 20 meter dipoles as a fan, or better, crossed at 90 degrees, and run ’em both on one coax. Trim each one to resonance.
      That style of 2-band is usually inverted vees, with a center mast and the two crossed dipoles guying the mast. Like the Army AS-2259/GR. And there’s no reason you couldn’t add more dipoles to it, for 17, 15, and 10, though the tuning will get tricky.
      Another one to look at is the Cobweb antenna — 20-6 in an 8.5-foot square you can mount on a TV mast.
      BTW, if you have an 88-foot span, you could put up what Cebik called the Broadside Doublet, which is just an 88-foot dipole with ladder line (and 1:1 choke balun & tuner). Not gonna be a great performer on 80, but will work, and has the advantage of having a 2-lobed broadside pattern on several bands. Put up as an inverted vee so the end-nulls won’t be too deep.
      73, –kv5r

  6. Thanks For The Great Info,
    I’m a new ham to HF and am in the process of putting up a 80 meter skywire (275′) fed with 80′ of ladder line directly to a MFJ-993B tuner.
    What are your thoughts and suggestions on this set up?
    Also, what would result from running 12 stranded wire from the feed point of the antenna to the tuner and just route the two wires on seperate paths to the tuner? Sorta like a really wide spaced ladder line.

    • Your 80 meter loop with 80′ of LL to a 993 should work very well.
      But no, don’t route the feed-line as described. That would make the feed-line a radiating part of the antenna. To be a feed-line (non-radiating) the two wires need to be parallel and within a few inches of each other to provide opposing phase cancellation. Just use some kind of 2-4″ plastic spreaders between the wires. Look up “Ladder Snap,” or Zareba Ribbed Tube Insulators (attach with long, thin cable ties run twice through the middle).
      73, –KV5R

      • Thanks again for the GREAT and UNDERSTANDABLE info!
        Just an update from my last note. I got my “skywire” up and radiating. I ended up with 270′ of insulated 12ga multi-strand, and as mentioned previously, fed with 80′ of window line to the tuner. Height is about 15′ at the feed point, sloping up (ground slops away from feed point) to about 30′ at the highest point. Tunes great on 80 – 20 meters.
        I realize I need to get more height, but is there anything more I can do to optimize this system.

  7. Using poly pipe provides easy means for clamping. 300 ohm ladder line fits in 3/4 inch poly pipe, Since it is hanging straight down or secured with standoffs, the additional weight is minimum concern. It is much easier to strap ladder pipe run in poly pipe to a walls, span between secure points and even enter the radio shack for connection to a TUNER. Poly has wonderful electrical insulating qualities.

    I have my DiPole fed with a 40 ft; vertical drop of 300 ohm ladder line to an Icom AH-4 Tuner at the forty foot mast and then run LMR 195 to the radio shack 120 away. radio. From what you have suggested, it seems I should remove the existing vertical drop of LADDER line (300 ohm) and install a one piece LADDER line from the top of the mast to inside the radio shack and connect to AH-4 that would then be connected to the radio via short coax. Would that give a big improvement? ( I have to span a 25 foot wide driveway from the mast to the radio shack eve and then run down the wall to the radio corner of the building. Would shielding it in 3/4 Poly pipe be okay

  8. Problem: Ladder link is “whipped”by the wind. Ladder line gets WET with rain. Ladder Line gets dirty.

    Solution: Slide Polypropylene over the Ladder Line. Use DUCT SEAL or Hot Glue to seal the upper end of an inverted “V” dipole or high end of a Sloping line.

    Wind now has a 3/4 inch poly pipe; being round, no twisting action occurs. Now the LADDER line stays dry and clean.

    Polypipe End caps can installed for weather protection and keep lizards and crawling bugs out. A simple slit cut in the end cap allows the ladder line out and a dab of silicon glue or hot glue seals water intrusion. Lower end of ladder line/poly pipe is NOT sealed, allowing drainage for any condensation etc.

  9. I think your statement “Any real current balun will have two cores” is overly broad. A 1:1 current balun only requires one core. An impedance transforming current balun does require two, one for the common mode rejection and a voltage balun for the impedance transformation.

    • Thanks, I’ve corrected it to be more specific to 4:1 current baluns, the type with two 1:1’s connected in parallel at the input and series at the output.
      My point was that there are so-called 4:1 current baluns being sold using 2 windings on one core, which, according to some RF engineer I read a long time ago, are not actually baluns (they don’t balance the currents).

  10. I have read your article as I would like to use ladder line or window line for a folded Skeleton Sleeve 40-20 meter antenna. How ever I was questioning if one could even make the feed out of window line. All articles I have reviewed say to use coax as the feed. Can you advise if you have every tried this or heard of anyone doing same?

    • I’m not familiar with that antenna design, but if it’s balanced (symmetrical) you should be able to feed it with balanced line, and a tuner. However, if it has 50-ohm resonances in 40 and 20 meters, probably better to run it with coax and no (or very little) tuner.
      The best place for ladder line is feeding non-resonant multi-band doublets where the SWR is all over the place, and coax would be too lossy under such conditions.
      I found a picture of it. I would not make an antenna out of window line because if you don’t put twists in it, it’ll oscillate in the wind, and likely soon fail, unless you devise some means of dampening the oscillations.
      73, –KV5R

  11. OK, I’m sold on ladder line! Problem may be that I live in a mobile home with both metal siding and roofing. My current setup is:

    Coax from the antennas (HF, VHF, TV) passes through a 18″ standoff (made from pvc pipe) then down to drip loops before entering a 14″x14″x6″ plastic utility box. Inside the coax connects to bulkhead type arresters mounted in a grounded copper bracket. Coax to the shack connects to the other side of the arresters and turns 90 degrees before entering a short conduit made of 3″ pvc pipe.

    My tuner is a Palstar AT2-K.

    Looks like I have two options. I’d appreciate your opinion as to the upside/downside factors:

    Work with what I’ve got: run 6-8′ of RG-8 to an arrester and balun in the exterior box, then ladder line out is a gentle curve.

    Old school: Create a non-metallic panel in the exterior wall and run the ladder line directly through. I could mount a knife switch at the entry point and shunt the antenna to ground when not in use. How large should the non-conductive panel be? 16″x16″ is the most convenient size.

    • Howdy Brad,
      I also live in sheet-metal, and have a plastic junction box outside, with a big PVC thru the wall. But I didn’t try to use it as a ladder line termination point because there’s an AC transformer and some HVAC relays in it.

      Work with what you’ve got – the balun and arrestor (well-grounded) in the outside box is much safer, and more RFI-proof.

      If you do bring it in, there’s no need to install a non-metallic panel. I once had mine coming right through the metal trailer wall; drilled two 3/8ths” holes & put vinyl tubing for extra HV insulation, pushed wires thru tubings, then caulked & sealed. Another time I came in with short parallel coaxes. Both worked fine but I didn’t like the lightening hazard, and ended up with a balun outside, with 2′ RG213 to a 6″ SO-239 bulkhead fitting (grounded outside) through the wall, above the tuner, where it’s easy to disconnect (no more reaching behind stuff). Then another short coax to the tuner.

      So it took me 3 tries but I finally got it to where it’s both safe and convenient. I didn’t realize at first that if you bring it in, then the indoor balun, then ground the coax shield side, then the ground has to go back outside. It’s just better if the balun and any lightening grounds are outside, so when you disconnect for a storm your inside stuff is more isolated from any big arcs.

      I wasted money on a 30A DPDT knife switch, then when it came in I saw the connection terminals were like a half-inch apart, way to close to be any good for lightening impulses, so I didn’t use it. They don’t make’em like they used to!

      Just my 2 cents, 73!
      –KV5R

  12. All of these replies have points to look at. I have a tubular tower that is about 41ft high, plan on putting a 80 meter dipole at the top (maybe 130ft on each side) and running ladder line down to the 600 ohm to 50 ohm Balun (bought on ebay years ago, Antenna Products Co, SM-153/N, 2-30mhz 1kw avg 4kw PEP, paid a whopping $25 for it, someone paid much more than this). This Balun case . will be about 5 feet off the ground, coax from it to a coupler (itself in a fiberglass box), from the coupler 50 ohm to the shack. No open feedline inside the metal building I have. I am hoping to get a good almost all band antenna out of this. Any suggestions from you fellows? I have dipoles up there now, one for 80 and one for 40 but the performance isnt as good as I expected.

    • Minimize the length of coax; mount balun on wall just outside of tuner location. Go thru metal wall with bulkhead coax connector (makes a grounding point, plus easy to reach storm disconnect).
      Use a 1:1 choke balun designed for multi-band ladder-line doublets, such as the Balun Designs 1171. A 12, 9, or even 4:1 balun is no longer recommended for LL-fed doublets because at some freqs it’ll present very low impedance to T-tuner, where they are very inefficient. Both Balun Designs and DX Engineering sites have tech articles about this; see also G3TXQ article.
      Expect to have to adjust LL length a few times to make the system matchable on all bands, so start with several feet of slack in ladder line.
      73, –KV5R

  13. All great Info… but… I’m new to ladder. Recently put up a G5RV variation. Installed as near to instructions as possible. Yeah, it’s too low..25 ft. Ends at 12 ft or so. 40 ft ladder drop taped 3 places on the max gain systems fiberglass telescoping pole. Horizontal excess 8 ft from ground attached to a long run of pvc. Then into a 1:1 choke. Then 70 ft of a good rg8. Then into A full power Tentec tuner, AL82, and finally a Orion ll. Antenna will demonstrate in excess of 3:1 with the tuner at the low end of 40 and past midway it is totally UN tunable. Supposedly it should be a no tuner antenna. This GS6 ANTENNA IS A NIGHTMARE. TOTALLY FORGOT IT IF IT’S RAINING. I’m sure I’m missing something. Boneheadsoften do.HELP.. arghhhhh.

    • The G5RV has never been a “no-tuner” antenna, except on 20 meters, where it’s 3/2-wave. On all bands but 20, the SWR on the coax is very high and therefore very lossy. To fix a G5RV, add wire til it’s about 125-130 feet long, then add ladder line til it reaches a 1:1 choke balun at the shack.

  14. This was very helpful, I appreciate it. Probably the best article I’ve seen on the subject. After a long absence I’m getting back into the game with limited antennas due to HOA and considering a multi band attic dipole. My attic is not the most spacious and putting up something like a fan dipole or such, will present many challenges. It sounds like if I can put something up that is at least half wave on 20 (I want to operate 20-10 CW), I should be in good shape if I’m reading this correctly.

    • From what I’ve been hearing & reading, attic & eaves antennas are now pretty noisy, due to all the computers & switch-mode power supplies in everything nowadays. Also, they tend to overload wifi devices. Look on Youtube etc for ideas on stealth HOA antennas you can hide outside. Some use a fine wire thru trees, others make 20 meter verticals in fiberglass flagpoles, etc.

  15. Designing a budget hidden “antenna farm” consisting of a hidden loop antenna around the eave of an attached garage. Planning to feed it with ladder line connected to a manual tuner inside the house.

    Problem: the common wall is a fire wall, consisting of plaster on gypsum “button board” on the house wall, and thick stucco on similar button board pm the garage wall. I’ve researched for a solution online and the only thing found so far would be a 2″ or 4″ metallic sleeve filled with intumescent putty (a type of fireblock material) by Unique Firestop (https://www.uniquefirestop.com/store/products/threaded-firestop-sleeve-system/). These sleeves are metal, but if one was used and ladder line were carefully centered before applying the putty, how much signal would be lost?

    My transceiver maximum output is 100 watts. I’ve given up hope of WAS and the Century Club awards; I just want to get back on the air, and do it safely and economically.

    If this idea is totally impractical, my option is run a coax from the shack outside the house, then going along the house wall a foot or so, then back into the garage from outside, and purchasing an automatic tuner to connect directly to the antenna.

    Our club president was the one who cautioned me that just running the ladder line conduits through the wall without fire protection is a no-no, and online research showed me that the building code has upped the requirements in recent years. I plan to consult with him and other knowledgeable members as part of my planning.

    • Have you considered just running a couple small all-thread rods through the wall? Then solder ring lugs on the LL and put between double nuts. Might need to buy or barrow one of these long masonry bits the cable tv guys use.
      Or run a short coax outside to a balun. I recently did the latter, used a Balun Designs 1171 but running a kw now.

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