I Audited the RF Noise in my House

The largest problem facing analog AM broadcasting (and digital Medium Frequency and High Frequency broadcasting) is RF Noise.

Like most people, I have many modern conveniences that make my life easier than previous generations; electric lights, central heat and air conditioning, appliances like vacuum cleaners, microwave ovens, and whatnot. I enjoy the wireless internet, have an LED TV, use LED light bulbs, and get free electricity from my photovoltaic solar system. These devices can contribute to the high levels of RF noise found in most buildings. RF Noise which is the bain of AM broadcasting. Digital modulation schemes use variations in amplitude to transmit data bits. They are not immune to RF noise, they simply mask it better until they don’t.

I thought it would be interesting to isolate the various noise generators that may be present.

To make measurements, I used the Siglent SVA-1032X spectrum analyzer. This unit has a noise floor of -140 dB. My methodology is to turn everything off except the Device Under Test. Set the spectrum analyzer up for a wide band sweep, then narrow the bandwidth on any detected noise. Turn the DUT off to make sure that the noise goes away. Turn the DUT back on to make sure that the noise comes back.

The first thing I noticed; there is more noise during the daylight hours than at night. This is interesting. I thought it might be coming from my solar system, which uses individual inverters for each panel (so-called microinverters). These are wired to 240 VAC but have an internet gateway device that is in the house and communicates with the inverters using a power line data scheme. It turns out this was a minor contributor below the AM broadcast band.

By process of elimination, here are things that were not contributing to RF noise on Medium Frequency (AM band):

  • Cable Modem (Motorola MB7420 DOCSIS 3.0)
  • Router/WiFi gateway* (Netgear R6700v2)
  • GB Ethernet Switch (Netgear TLSG116E)
  • Dell Desktop PC’s (three models)
  • Dell Laptop PC (two models)
  • Android phones (two models)*
  • Phillips 4K LED large-screen TV (5PFL5604/F7)
  • LG LED computer monitor (24MK430H-B)
  • Refrigerator (Frigidaire FFTR1835VSD)
  • Stove (GE BP63D W1WH)
  • LG washing machine (WM3400CW)
  • LG clothes dryer (DLEX4501)
  • Bosch dishwasher (SGV68U53UC)
  • Dehumidifier (GE APEL70LTL1)
  • LED light bulbs (Sylvania 9W Ultra LED)
  • Generic incandescent light bulb
  • Furnace (fancy controller)
  • Furnace burner motor**

*These are intentional RF emitters

**The furnace burner motor made a small broadband RF signal on startup, likely the igniter which uses an electric arc. Once the unit was running, there was no further RF emissions noted.

Medium Frequency baseline noise level

The yellow line is the peak hold, the magenta line is the 100 sweep average and the cyan line is the minimum peak hold. I live out in the sticks; there are no streetlights, no stoplights for miles, the nearest cellphone site is four miles away, and houses are spaced far apart.

First, I measured the noise with everything turned off. I then turned things on one by one, noting any changes in the spectrum. For the list noted above, this is the way it looked.

These are a few things contributing to RF noise levels on the MF band.

We have cheap Chinese grow lights to start seedlings for our vegetable garden. We were using these during the daytime hours to augment the low sunlight in early spring. I initially thought this was coming from the solar system. The interference was making a massive noise hump between 750 and 957 KHz. The brand of growlight is BestVA B-1000 LED which was purchased from Amazon.

RF noise from Grow Light

Next, somewhat surprisingly, the LG computer monitor on my desk was creating a pretty decent rise from 1120 KHz to 1700 KHz. I have three LG computer monitors, this is the newest only this one creates any RF noise.

LG 240P500 LED monitor

Then, pretty much every florescent lamp (compact or full-length tube) created a broadband noise increase across the entire MF band and well into HF.

Florescent lighting

The vacuum cleaner makes a little bit of broadband RF noise when near the receiver. However, you cannot hear the radio when the vacuum is running, so that does not seem to matter.

None of these are surprising. However, I was more surprised that many other electronic devices are not contributing to RF noise in my house.

A little bit about data over power line or power line communications. Searching for power line data can be a bit tricky. First, there is this large voltage 60 Hz (plus harmonics) waveform to deal with. Secondly, there are many different protocols and many different frequencies. I narrowed down my solar system by listening to my Kenwood R-2000 below 300 KHz. Some noise went away when I completely disconnected the inverters. I don’t know the exact frequency, the protocol, the modulation type, etc. But there is something.

Data Over Power line is popular with home automation systems, it can be used to extend Ethernet LAN, and some power companies are using it to control substation equipment, smart power meters, and/or to function as an ISP for their customers. I have heard some HF users complain about BBPL, but I have not experienced it for myself.

Rohde Schwarz Test & Measurement Fundamentals

I found a great resource for learning about test and measurement on Rohde Schwarz’s YouTube channel. Each video is about 5 to 15 minutes long and covers the basics of RF test equipment, measurement parameters, and definitions.

Rohde Schwarz Test and Measurement Fundamentals

Measuring RF systems is an important part of Broadcast Engineering. Many folks think that RF plants are going away, replaced by all IP content distribution. I disagree; Terrestrial Broadcasting will be around for a while yet. AM and FM radios are still ubiquitous in cars, homes, businesses, etc. There is no other information distribution method that is as simple and robust as over-the-air broadcasts. That is why Federal Emergency Management is still spending money on hardening broadcast facilities.

The Internet and Mobile Data in particular are susceptible to failure in emergencies. Cellular networks were almost useless due to congestion or system outages during the 9/11 attack or a natural disaster such as Hurricane Sandy.

Radio still has a role to play.

As the older Broadcast Engineers retire, there is a dearth of qualified RF specialists who can make accurate measurements on antenna systems, filters, and other transmission system components. There are very few mentoring opportunities, especially in commercial broadcasting. Gone are the days of several engineers on staff, when there was time to teach the younger people some hard-learned lessons. One of the reasons I write this blog is to pass along some of that knowledge to others so that the industry might survive.

Summer Time Atomspherics; Why is there another FM station on our frequency!!??

That is indeed a good question. There may be several explanations; a pirate, somebody’s Part 15 device, or atmospheric ducting. If the weather is good, tropospheric ducting can cause VHF (FM broadcast) and UHF (TV broadcast as well as Remote Pickup units and STLs) signals to travel far beyond their intended reception areas.

The Troposphere is the zone in the atmosphere closest to the Earth, ranging from 0 to 15 km. It is the area where most weather phenomena take place. For VHF and sometimes UHF, refraction can bend the signal back towards the surface of the Earth. Refraction at lower altitudes (called surface ducts) can cause radio signals to travel shorter distances than normal unless they are over water. Refraction at higher altitudes (elevated ducts) can cause those same signals to travel far beyond their normal range, sometimes hundreds or thousands of kilometers.

Three things affect the tropospheric refraction index (or N); water vapor, air pressure, and air density. At higher altitudes, the air is normally cooler, less dense, and dryer than air closer to ground level. However, high barometric pressure will often bring warm, dense, moist air to high altitudes. This can create a layer of warm air over a layer of cooler air known as a temperature inversion. This can create a “duct” in the upper troposphere similar to a waveguide. These signals can be very strong, sometimes overpowering a local FM signal due to the capture effect.

There is an online source that predicts atmospheric ducting, mostly used by Amateur Radio operators, but it can also be a useful troubleshooting tool: https://vhf.dxview.org/

That site produces a map like this:

VHF Ducting map

This can happen any time of the year but is more common in summertime. Tropospheric ducting is not an effect of ionization from the sun. This phenomenon is known as Sporadic E, which will be covered below.

The good news is tropospheric ducts normally last a few minutes to a few hours. Sometimes they can last longer however changes in the width or length of the ducts will change the frequencies and distances that RF signals travel along that duct. In addition, if you are hearing a co-channel FM station from many hundred kilometers away, listeners of that station are now hearing your station the same way.

Another long-distance VHF propagation phenomenon is called Sporadic E layer propagation or simply Sporadic E. This happens when the Ionosphere is heavily affected by a solar storm or sunspot. Sunspots run in an 11-year cycle. We are approaching the solar maximum for Solar Cycle 25, predicted to happen in July 2025.

NOAA Space Weather Solar Cycle 25 progression

Sporadic E is much less predictable, more random, and short-lived. Solar storms can create highly ionized areas in the E layer of the Ionosphere, creating skywave conditions for VHF signals. These signals will skip in the same way that HF and MF signals do. Fortunately, these conditions usually last a few seconds or minutes at most. More on the solar cycle can be found here: https://www.swpc.noaa.gov/products/solar-cycle-progression

North American Sporadic E Map

Once again, Amateur Radio operators are interested in this as a mode of communication. There is a Sporadic E map online at: https://www.tvcomm.co.uk/g7izu/radio-propagation-maps/north-american-sporadic-e/