What Should You Look For In A Helium Antenna?

“Will this antenna work?” I get that question a lot, usually about some antenna that was discovered after hours of searching and sifting through Google results. Antennas are one of the most confusing parts of Helium, mostly because RF is fairly complicated and the average hotspot owner has as much experience with antenna design and theory as a warthog does with wearing Kiton tuxedos.

Hot tip up front: Antennas have very little to do with your earnings. Most of your earnings come from your placement, most of the rest comes from how high you can get in that placement, and the final little sliver comes from antenna choice. If you want to go deep into the best antenna for your Helium hotspot, read up on it here.

My recommendations for most instances is two-fold: If you have extra cash, try the HNTenna, either indoor or outdoor, for whatever setup you’ve got.
If you are deploying a fleet and have to watch costs, use any of the McGill antennas, the 6 dBi is a solid middle-ground applicable to almost all installs.

For those of you who don’t want to spend that much, here’s what to look for in a Helium hotspot antenna:

  • Overall, you want an antenna with a fairly narrow range. What is a narrow range? Ideally, less than 30MHz of band (15 on either side of center). In the US, 915 is our center, and 902-928 is what usually I look for.
  • In that same vein, Wide Band and Ultra Wide Band should be avoided. While they sound like they might be great because they “cover a wide band”, that’s like saying a Ford Falcon should fly because it has “Falcon” in the name.
  • An antenna for Helium should be either vertically polarized or multi-polarized. I’ve written about antenna polarization in this post on antenna radiation patterns.
  • Any antenna you buy should have a datasheet. That’s the thing that shows you its pattern from the top and sides. If it doesn’t, consider it experimental and usually a waste of money.
  • If the antenna is high gain (say above 6 dBi), you want electrical downtilt of 1-3 degrees. This helps you to not overshoot nearby hotspots.

Ok, so that’s how to assess what you should buy. The next step is actually testing the thing. We’re going to go a little into geek land here, be ready. I’ll step up the cost slowly, from zero to, oh, more than you want to spend.

We’ve got 3 general things to check:

  • Is it actually working in “the real world”?
  • Does the antenna perform the way it’s supposed to?
  • Is our hotspot actually putting out any RF energy?

Is It Working In The Real World? – Discovery Mode

  • Equipment Needed: Hotspot and the Helium phone app
  • Cost: 0. Well, it will eventually cost a few data credits, but if that’s a burden then you’ve got bigger problems than your antenna working.
  • Usefulness: Reasonably useful. There’s no reason you shouldn’t do this.

The cheapest way to see if your antenna is working is to jump into Discovery Mode on the Helium app. You need to have a hotspot connected to a wallet you control for this step.

Here are good examples of what you might want to see. Keep in mind that the visuals may change over time, so you’re seeing some variation here. Yes, I’m choosing hotspots that have an unusual number of witnesses. 🙂

Here’s what you don’t want to see:

Obviously, if you see something like this, that’s an indication that something might be wrong with

  • Your antenna
  • The Helium app
  • The chain itself.

You shouldn’t immediately freak out if you see that, but you should dive a little deeper.

What do I mean by that? I’d check activity and rewards on either the app or Explorer. If those are recent (within the past 24 hours), you’re probably fine as far as your hotspot and antenna working. Here’s a screenshot from Explorer for the above Discovery (failed) attempt. This hotspot is doing fine, there was just something wonky with either Discovery or the chain.

Of course, you might want to scroll back to your most recent beacon and make sure you’re being witnessed, although with all the beacons being witnessed in the above case, you’re probably fine. Antennas transmit & receive at the same “level”. I had to scroll back a day or so to see the most recent beacon, but there it was, complete with witnesses.

Let’s say your Explorer page doesn’t look like that, and you have zero witnesses on your beacon. There is the possibility that your hotspot is working fine BUT one of the witnesses was on a relay, so despite the beacon actually going out, it is reported as (basically) incorrect/not working as intended. Still, let’s not get too far into the weeds on that. Let’s stick with antennas for now. How do you test your antenna?

Is The Antenna Performing The Way It’s Supposed To?

  • Equipment Needed: Vector Impedance Analyzer or NanoVNA
  • Cost: $70-150
  • Usefulness: Very useful for making sure your antenna is good. This is more important if you’re buying an antenna from less reputable sources. Mostly this is useful for mid-level geeks who just want to know what’s going on.

In the image below, the VIA is the little black box between the long grey antenna (a Nebra) and the short white one (an eBay special.) The black antenna on the top is the HNTenna, my go-to for most deployments. A VIA is used to test the efficiency of an antenna. If you’re seeing a low VSWR at your frequency, you’ve probably got a great antenna. More on that in the Spiess video below.

I bought my VIA from Banggood, you can get ’em on Amazon. Those links aren’t exactly what I bought, there seem to be 4 or 5 variations of this thing that are all similar enough to work for you. You’ll need to get a pack of adaptors as well, pick those up on A-zon.

Pro-tip: Make a “connector saver” cable that attaches to the connector of the VNA. That way, when you’re attaching your antennas you don’t risk damaging the connector directly on the VIA.

So far most of the antennas do just fine, although I have seen a few duds.

Andreas Spiess has a great video on how to use this VIA, check it out starting at 7:30.

I use one to test any antenna that comes through the shop. You may find some RF snobs that turn their nose up at it. Yes, it’s not the highest end device, but I don’t see a reason for everyone with a Helium hotspot to buy (and learn how to use) far fancier equipment. This is a great quick and easy check.

Is The Hotspot Putting Out The Correct Amount Of Energy?

  • Equipment Needed: Bird Model 43 RF Wattmeter
  • Cost: $300-500
  • Usefulness: Almost totally useless for the average Helium Hotspot owner, but a very cool piece of kit, and it reassures you that your hotspot IS actually beaconing.

When I went out to visit the HNTenna folks a few weeks back, Adam pulled out a device so well designed that it hasn’t been changed since the 1950s! It’s a Bird Model 43P Wattmeter, and it tells you how much energy is being pushed out from a device (your hotspot) and into an antenna. I’m kind of a sucker for old school badass things, so I immediately bought one on eBay. I’ll tell you right now: You don’t need to. They are SUPER cool, but so far into geek-land that for 99% of Helium peeps it’s just not the right fit. Still, I bring it up in case you want to see what’s one layer deeper when it comes to RF investigations.

Here’s what it looks like in use. You plug the hotspot into the left side, the antenna into the right, then fire up Discovery mode so the hotspot beacons. When it does, you can measure the energy of that beacon. For US hotspots, it should hit 1 watt. Using the bottom scale and dividing by 10 gives you the 1 watt. Yes, I know, different scales, dividing by ten…that’s just standard RF geekery. This thing is doing what it’s supposed to do.

But, But, But…What Else Can I Test?

I’ll leave you with what you should do if all that HNT is just burning a hole in your pocket and you’re desperate to know even more about the RF waves all around you. Here’s the HNtenna crew walking me through testing the Helium Tab using a device called a Handheld Microwave Analyzer.

See that little spike every time we press the button on the Tab? Yep, it’s working. No, you don’t want to know how much that HMA costs. Or maybe you do.

In any event, we can see the Tab working it’s tiny little electronic but off to push out signals. Magic!

So now you know way more about how to choose and test an antenna for Helium.

If you’d like further help with Helium, whether it’s understanding the network or optimizing your placement, consider hiring me or taking the Helium Basic Course, which you can find here.

Rock on!

58 thoughts on “What Should You Look For In A Helium Antenna?”

  1. Hey Nik
    I went to buy that outdoor antenna for $150 but here is the message I got.
    Your cart has been updated and the items you added can’t be
    shipped to your address. Remove the items to complete your order. We don’t offer shipping to Arizona.
    HUH?
    anywhere else I can get that antenna. I like that the antenna is thick and not tall and since I have had such good results with the stock rak antenna I am not trying to go real high on the DB raiting.

  2. Do you have a few hotspot names I can look at that using HNTenna in urban settings?

    Just curious as I have seen decent discussion on discord but no actual data.

    Thanks!

  3. Hi John, sure. Thankful Caramel Quail and Chilly Blood Mongoose both currently have an HNTenna on ’em which has been on for a while. Neither of those are optimally positioned, so I’d be careful drawing inferences from them, but…they’ve got that antenna. 🙂

  4. those two with hntenna look like they are providing great coverage, but that brings up the question do why some hotspots with great coverage do so poorly in rewards. look at cool wool giraffe. That’s a stock rack antenna using lmr-400 10ft to get it about 6 feet above the roof. were those hotspots with hntenna were using a 3dbi multi polar antenna? The one that goes for $150

  5. Well, the more witnesses you have does not equate to earning more HNT. I’m not sure why TCQ doesn’t do better. CBM is flat out over crowded. Most of both of their witnesses are low scale value.

  6. Hi Nik,
    Does a higher dbi antenna allow you to witness hotspots farther away? Or does it just mean your beacons will reach hotspots farther away?
    Thanks

  7. They’re generally symmetrical, although the issue isn’t witnessing/beaconing to *more*, it’s that the signal values can put you outside of the valid ranges. Take a look at this article.

  8. Dear Nik,
    do you think a 8dbi Lora antenna with the following would be feasible for a rooftop in a big city in Europe?

    IH-G08-F8688-V1 Antenne
    Frequencies 860 MHz bis 880 Mhz
    Gain 8 dBi
    VSWR 2:1
    Polarisation Vertikal
    Angle (-3dB) – horizontal 360°
    Angle (-3dB) – vertikal 15°
    XPD (Cross Polarization Discrimination) >20dB
    max input power 50 W
    DC Ground yes
    Impedance 50 Ohm

    Thanks in advance

  9. Can you tell me how is the best way to make sure your antenna is perfectly straight up and down without any lean.
    when you are broadcasting signals for miles even a 1 degree lean i think would make a difference.
    its tough to eyeball.
    scott dieken

  10. Scott, with a lower gain omni it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. You can use a level on the pole the antenna is attached to.

  11. Hi Nik,
    I am going to put the antenna for my Bobcat miner outside on the roof of my one story house, attaching it to maybe a 6 ft mast on the eave( would you suggest maybe up to a 10 ft mast?)and dropping the coax straight down into the room where my router is as I am planning on keeping the miner connected with ethernet cable. Before I came upon this article, I was going to purchase a Rak 5.8 dBi antenna since that seems to be popular with all the Youtubers and others. I would like to ask you if that is even an antenna I want to use. I know the HNTenna that you are recommending is in a whole different class but since I am not moving the miner outside, I am going to use a LMR400 cable about 30 ft. so with the dBi loss of the cable length and the HNTenna is at a 3dBi, would that work well for me as I am located in the city of Torrance CA. I don’t have a lot of very tall buildings around, maybe 3 or 4 stories but I do have a 3 story apartment building located 1 house away from me.
    Thanks in advance for any input and suggestions.

  12. Hi Lilly, with the cable run you’re planning on, use the 5.8 first. Torrance (or anywhere in LA) is overcrowded, that may be a tough spot. Go as high as you can reasonably go with the antenna.

  13. Thanks Nik! I will try doing that first. This one hotspot Faint Pecan Trout is 1.1K from me and is one of my witnesses, it is pulling in 450-500+ HNT per month which is what I want to grow up to be like LOL. I checked around his/her area and don’t see any very tall mounted antenna in the area at all. They have their gain listed as 1.2 dBi and 0 meters elevation… with 87 or so witnesses, I am wondering what they could have set up, any idea? I truly appreciate you sharing your knowledge with all of us, and taking your time in answering everyone’s questions. I am learning a lot just from all the Q and A’s.

  14. Hmm, hard to say. Usually, high earners are ones that are providing WUPU (Wide, Unique, Proveable, and Useful) coverage better than anyone else. It helps a bunch if their hotspot can “see” other hotspots that can’t then “see” each other. Glad to hear you’re learning and doing, that’s always a rad way to interact with the world. Rock on!

  15. Hi
    So i have a lot of miners arriving shortly that I need to deploy.
    while I strongly feel the best way to set up a hotspot is with a very short very high quality cable going out side getting the antenna up high with 360 clear view, some people will not want to or not be able to drill holes in their wall or mount an antenna outside for whatever reason. I have been sticking with the lower dbi antennas with my outdoor setups. I am looking forward to deploying that 150 buck antenna from hntenna shortly, and I will get back to you with results.

    So my question is for those people keeping the hotspot and antenna indoors, what would the recommended dbi and antenna type be? Would it be a higher dbi? This is assuming they live in a city with many other hotspots around them, and the city is flat without any hills. also I’ve heard that windows might not be the best place to put the antenna depending on type of window, is that true? lastly I’ve heard that quarter wavelength antennas send the signal up more then a full wavelength antenna, is this true. thank you very much.

  16. Hi Scott, I’d put the indoor version of the HNTenna as high as you can get it inside the house.

  17. Hey Nick, on this post (https://gristleking.com/a-rough-guide-to-helium-hotspot-placement/) you recommend to buy a 5.8 dBi RAK antenna from Parley Labs. However, on this other post (https://gristleking.com/antennas-for-helium/) you mention to buy the 902-928MHz Outdoor Helium Antenna USA/CAN (915) from HNtenna.

    My hotspot is called Tart Lemon Sawfish, in Phoenixville PA, and I am on a steep location with a good looking for the township to one side but a bad look to the opposite side (blocked by a small hill). After reading your blogs and others, I know I need to install a 20 or 30″ pole attached to my chimney to improve my range to the opposite side (and to a few hidden hotposts to the good side, which are very low on the terrain). But I’m not sure which atenna do buy.

    Appreciate your expert comments, thanks!!

  18. Right on Tom. Either antenna would be fine. As I’ve learned more about antennas I’ve gravitated to the higher end of things (the HNTenna). With that said, you probably won’t see a significant difference in performance between those two antennas.

  19. Thanks!

    My next question is: if I am to place a 3dbi antenna outside on top of a pole (on top of a chimney), I will use a 50 or 60″ cable, but even the LMR400 cable has a certain dbi loss at that lenght (I guess). So my question is – isn’t the loss going to offset the gains of the outside antenna?
    (FYI my RAK miner will sit on the basement, so yeah – the cable distance will be at least 50″)

  20. Hi Ibrahim, right now (July 2021) there’s no way to confirm that the antenna gain & elevation reported is actually true, so I’d take those with a grain of salt. With many grains of salt, actually. 🙂

  21. Whew, in that case go with the 5.8. I’d also figure out a way to run ethernet from the basement up to the attic, then have a shorter antenna cable run to the outside.

  22. Run ethernet from basement to attic and connect where, if the hotspot will be on basement? Also where to connect the short antenna cable to? Sorry I did not understand that, please clarify. Thanks!

  23. Ah, I should have been more clear. I’d move the hotspot to the attic, and run an ethernet cable from the router to the hotspot, then a shorter antenna cable from the hotspot to the antenna.

  24. Hi Nik,

    I hope you can advise a hungarian fan of yours 🙂
    We have close to 0 possibilities to get a proper antenna here in Hungary, the closest order option is from Germany. I found 2 possible candidates, but not completely sure if they would be fine. Please nod if I should go ahead with one or both of them 🙂 Thank you in advance!

    1.MikroTik LoRa Omni Antenna Kit 6.5 dBi 824-960 MHz with SMA Female Con, TOF-0809-7V-S1
    2.Paradar 868MHz LoraWAN Antenna with N Socket for LoRa, HNT, Amateur Radio, Aviation, FLARM, OGN and Software Defined Radio (SDR) – 8.5dBi

    I have several miners and locations ready- 6.5 dbi would be used in top of building (130 feet above ground) in urban areas and 8.5 dbi in rural flat areas approx. 30 feet above ground.

    Regards,
    Viktor

  25. Hi Viktor, either of those looks like they’ll be fine. Keep me posted on your deployments please!

  26. Hi Nik,
    Thanks for sharing. I’ve been trying to figure out why I’m not getting any witnesses. I understand there a lot of variables but a new hotspot just came online just north of me and within a day it had witnesses (very similar tree coverage to where I’m at). I got a Rockland 8dbi antenna placed outside 12ft up and nothing. Just went back to the stock bobcat 4dbi outside the window and still nothing.

  27. Hi KJ, sounds like you should witness. I’d just give it time. How many hotspots within 1.5 km? 5 km? 10 km?

  28. Got it, that’ll be tough with that few close by. 12 days is worrying. I’d check the bluetooth diagnostics, then probably power cycle it and check all connections. Can you beacon successfully?

  29. Diagnostics are fine. Ports are communicating fine. API call responds well. Just not witnesses on my beacons. Power cycled several times. The thing I haven’t cycled is the router.

  30. Beaconing OK? If not, it might be worth getting something to test your cable & antenna. Full video on this over here. If you can hook the cable & antenna up to the little VNA/VIA and keep VSWR under 2, you’re probably fine for both.

  31. Cool. You may also find one in the local Helium community (check in Discord) or just ham radio peeps.

  32. Hey Nik,
    Really appreciate your contributions to the network. I been running my first hotspot for 5 days now (hot bubblegum seahorse) and keep getting Witness Beacon (Invalid) with my setup? It says the reason is: witness_rssi_below_lower_bound? Do you have any insight of why this is? Look forward to your feedback kind sir.
    Best,
    Jasper.

  33. That can be confusing, as it comes from the RSSI/SNR chart Helium is currently using. PoC V10 RSSI/SNR

    This was originally implemented to combat gaming, and will be changed with PoC v11. For now, you might try changing the antenna. What kind of hotspot is it? Bobcat, Rak V2, etc.

  34. If they’re not the same thing, they’re close enough that it doesn’t make a difference. 🙂

  35. Thank you! I was actually wondering about the “Polarization: Vertical” from the RAK antenna description, and the “omnidirectional monopole” on the Parkey Labs one description.

    I mean – is there any technical difference in the sense the RAK one does not do omindirectional, or anything else like this? I’m too uknowledgeable to understand that 🙁

  36. They’re both vertically polarized; almost all antennas on the market for this are. Multi-polarized is pretty rare. Omni-directional is something different.

  37. Is that mult-polarized antenna from HNtenna better than these vertically polarized antennas from RAK and Parkey Labs?

    Or there is not going to be a visible, significant change on the “performance” of the miner?

  38. More of a difference in urban environments, but it won’t be a “change your life” difference. I put ’em on all mine; just one less decision to make.

  39. Nik,
    Thanks for all the awesome info! What are your thoughts on declaring changes to your antenna and elevation in the helium app if you have an established hotspot already. Is it worth it to loose all your witnesses and have to rebuild them? Planning on going from a 2m indoor elevation to a 7m outdoor location, possibly going from a stock bobcat 4dbi to the HNtenna 3dbi. Is this info just used for the gaming check? Is it likely to get flagged if I don’t update it?

  40. Hi Paul, it doesn’t make a difference right now. You’re not really “losing witnesses”, as those are just a record of the hotspots that have witnessed yours; it’s not like you’re less likely to witness them again. Sounds like you’re making the right move going from indoor to outdoor and getting it up high. Keep us posted on how it goes please!

  41. Hi. Thanks for great information.

    I`m not looking to add any extra dbi or change my stock antenna. I just would like to have my antenna on the roof. Do you know if Bobcat stock antenna can handle outdoors? Hard to get a clear answer on this one.

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