I am a pragmatist by nature. Long ago I developed and validated a theorem stipulating that regardless of where you are in contesting, your next 3 dB of signal improvement will be expensive. Electronics 101 tells us that doubling the transmitter's power effectively improves the signal by 3 dB. Properly stacking two five-element 20 meter beams theoretically yields a 3 dB improvement over a single antenna. Before buying an amplifier or stacking Yagis, we apply cost/effort and return-on-investment calculations, either conspicuously or due to limited resources, time or importance to you (and to your family).
Let's analyze these two scenarios. If you're S8 with 750 W and a five-element Yagi, you'll be S8.5 by plugging either of the above variables into the equation. At first blush, that 3 dB increase is hardly audible, and going forward with the improvement may not make practical sense. If you're 449 in a pileup, however, that extra 3 dB may make the difference between working the station or not. One-half S unit in the ARRL November Sweepstakes won't help much when signals typically are very strong, but it may be of particular consequence in a DX contest.
Increasing power from 750 W to 1500 W is relatively painless. Stacking Yagis is not so simple. You can quickly analyze the benefit of an amp and, if so inclined, add one to your station at modest cost and effort. You may be motivated - and have the resources - to stack two Yagis. On the other hand, you may not have the real estate. Then again, you may be able to do both of these things and, in the process, gain 6 dB - one full S unit - of signal improvement! This sort of outcome makes the cost-benefit analysis more compelling.
Gaining 3 dB in a modest station is pretty straightforward. But what if you've worked hard and put together a competitive SO2R station with a couple of towers supporting monobanders? The next 3 dB in that scenario is likely to be extremely expensive and time consuming, and it may even require a move to the country. How do you objectively analyze what to do next to gain that 3 dB advantage?
The Operator Enhancement Corollary
This is where the "Operator Enhancement Corollary" (OEC) enters the next 3 dB equation. The OEC assumes that I have the talent and drive to be a really competitive operator but need a station to match my abilities. I'm willing to make the commitment of time and resources to achieve the goals I've set. My business and family life can be prioritized to accommodate this indulgence. The OEC allows us to make more emotional judgments about spending $5000 for a transceiver or $900 for an SO2R box. These types of enhancements do not fit into the 3 dB improvement analysis easily, because you can't measure their effect with a field strength meter. You probably won't double your contest scores by spending $300 for headphones when your $30 set has worked satisfactorily for years. So, the OEC places a subjective burden on each of us, assuming we have to justify our station enhancements to ourselves or a "higher power" (e.g. spouse?).
I have always been on a tight budget. The original K5RC/K5GA multiop station was built in the late 1970s with an initial outlay of $1600. Most of the towers were scrounged or donated, and I repaired radios at night to buy cable clamps and coax. The 3 dB rule wasn't a huge factor, because our benchmark was a tribander and a two-element 40 meter Yagi from my first station. To achieve the next 3 dB over the seven-tower station was going to require a monumental commitment of time and money, however.
The I-Want-It Factor
Serendipitously, about the time the K5RC/K5GA station was peaking in its potential, NA5R came on the scene and wanted to build a "no-compromises" multiop contest station. The design called for 200-foot towers and stacked Yagis on every band from 80 through 10 meters. The 3 dB and OEC factors were no longer statistically viable measures as we embarked on that project. A third and more powerful corollary had to kick in. This is called the "I Want It Factor." While the motivation for the NA5R/K5RC station was to provide an extremely competitive environment for a cadre of up-and-coming operators, the rationale to expend what some might consider an obscene amount of money can only be explained by the I-Want-It Factor.
For the complete version of this article as published in the NCJ, view the pdf version.