Coax cable attenuation / loss

- an overview of the effects and causes of attenuation or loss in coax cable.

Attenuation is a key specification for all coax cables. The function of a coax cable is to transfer radio frequency power from one point to another. In doing so, in the ideal world, the same amount of power should exit from the remote end of the coax cable as enters it. However in the real world this is not so, and some power is lost along the length of the RF cable, and less power reaches the remote end than enters the RF cable.

Coax cable attenuation

The power loss caused by a coax cable is referred to as attenuation. It is defined in terms of decibels per unit length, and at a given frequency. Obviously the longer the coax cable, the greater the loss, but it is also found that the loss is frequency dependent, broadly rising with frequency, although the actual level of loss is not linearly dependent upon the frequency.

For virtually all applications the minimum level of loss is required. The power is lost in a variety of ways:

  • Resistive loss
  • Dielectric loss
  • Radiated loss

Of all these forms of loss, the radiated loss is generally the least important as only a very small amount of power is generally radiated from the cable. Accordingly most of the focus on reducing loss is placed onto the conductive and dielectric losses.

  • Resistive loss:   Resistive losses within the coax cable arise from the resistance of the conductors and the current flowing in the conductors results in heat being dissipated. The actual area through which the current flows in the conductor is limited by the skin effect, which becomes progressively more apparent as the frequency rises. To help overcome this multi-stranded conductors are often used.

    To reduce the level of loss due in the coax cable, the conductive area must be increased and this results in low loss coax cables being made larger. However it is found that the resistive losses increase as the square root of the frequency.
  • Dielectric loss:   The dielectric loss represent another of the major losses arising in most coax cables. Again the power lost as dielectric loss is dissipated as heat.

    It is found that the dielectric loss is independent of the size of the RF cable, but it does increase linearly with frequency. This means that resistive losses normally dominate at lower frequencies. However as resistive losses increase as the square root of frequency, and dielectric losses increase linearly, the dielectric losses dominate at higher frequencies.
  • Radiated loss:   The radiated loss of a coax cable is normally much less than the resistive and dielectric losses. However some very cheap coax cables may have a very poor outer braid and in these cases it may represent a noticeable element of the loss.

    Power radiated, or picked up by a coax cable is more of a problem in terms of interference. Signal radiated by the coax cable may result in high signal levels being present where they are not wanted. For example leakage from a coax cable carrying a feed from a high power transmitter may give rise to interference in sensitive receivers that may be located close to the coax cable. Alternatively a coax cable being used for receiving may pick up interference if it passes through an electrically noisy environment. It is normally for these reasons that additional measures are taken in ensuring the outer screen or conductor is effective. Double, or even triple screened coax cables are available to reduce the levels of leakage to very low levels.

Coax cable attenuation with time

It is found that the attenuation of coax cables increases over a period of time for a number of reasons. The main reasons are as a result of flexing, and moisture entry into the RF cable. As the degradation and increase in loss depends to some degree on the construction of the coax cable, this may affect he choice of which cable to employ.

Although many coax cables are flexible, the level of loss or attenuation will increase, particularly if the RF cable is bent sharply, even if within the makers recommended bend radius. This increase in loss can arise as a result of disruption to the braid or screen, and as a result of changes to the dielectric. At frequencies of 1 GHz with RF cables normally exhibiting a loss of 10 dB, there could be an increase of a decibel or so.

Even if a cable is not flexed, there can be a gradual degradation in performance over time. This can be caused by contamination of the braid by the plastictisers in the outer sheath. Additionally moisture penetration can affect both the braid where it causes corrosion, and it may enter the dielectric where the moisture will tend to absorb power.

It is found that the loss in coax cables that use either bare copper braid, or tinned copper braid exhibit more degradation than those with silver plated braids, although the later are more expensive. Additionally it is found that braids using tinned copper exhibit about 20% greater loss than those using bare copper, but they are more stable over time.

The dielectric also has an effect. It is found that some versions of polyethene can absorb moisture more readily than other types. Although foam polyethene offers a lower level of loss or attenuation when new, it absorbs moisture more readily than the solid types. Accordingly coax cables with solid dielectric polyethene are more suited to environments where the level of loss needs to remain constant, or where moisture may be encountered.

Although RF cables are enclosed in a plastic sheath, many of the plastics used will allow some moisture to pass through them. For applications where moisture may be encountered, specialized cables should be used otherwise the performance will degrade.

The loss introduced by a coax cable is of paramount importance. Any power that is lost in the RF cable will degrade the performance of the system in which it is used. However the decision of which RF cable to use may not just rest in deciding which cable provides the lowest loss, but in a variety of parameters including its size, weight and also its long term stability

By Ian Poole

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