Monday, June 22, 2015

What did you do this weekend?

Well I made APRS contact with the space station so.... That's cool right!
I also tried for a few other satellite passes on SO-50 and FO-29 but they were all bust. In fact, the last FO-29 pass, my lithium battery I use for my 817 took a huge dump on me and completely died.  I wasn't sure it would even recover during charging but eventually it took the power and charged back up, but I'm sure its on its last legs.  That makes 3 LiPo batteries I've killed off now.  I should probably be more careful.

6 Meters was also open a bit on Sunday and I made quite a few QSOs on CW, SSB, and JT65.  It really is something when 6 is open.  No noise at all, and even with a wonky antenna (like a 20m hamstick) the contacts come pretty easily.  I might have to look at putting up something more suitable for the band if it keeps opening up like this!

Fun weekend anyway, hope yours was good too!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Proof is in the pudding - or the logbook in this case

I woke up this morning and grabbed my phone as usual to read my emails I got over night and all that jazz and decided to check the satellite passes for the day.  I checked FO-29: nothing today wort trying, AO-7: probably not worth trying either, mode J is far easier, SO-50: OH DANG! there's a pass in progress!  She was about 1/4 of the way through the pass so I jumped out of bed, threw on some pants and grabbed the Elk, TH-D72 and dumped my connector adapters out, found the SMA-UHF connector and wham, bam, thank you ma'am I was ready to go.

I got out to the balcony, found the sat and worked a guy in TN in no time flat!  Oh if I had only known working SO-50 could be that easy!  It sure helps when you have an antenna that is put together right.  Its hard to believe I managed any contacts at all now that I know what I do!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Tuning an Elk....or something like that

You all certainly remember my escapades from a few weeks ago working FO-29 from the roof of the parking garage.  Well it turns out I was having a few issues with SWR but I just chalked it up to crummy coax.  Then I tried to work SO-50 in the parking lot at work with one of my co-workers but it turned out to be a terrible demonstration too!  And finally, this last week, I gave FO-29 another shot from work and it too was a general failure with reports of a "weak" signal.  Now, don't get me wrong, 5w into a busy satellite isn't "big gun" at all and I'm used to weak signal reports but I should have been doing better.

So I threw out a quick feeler on the contest group to see if anybody had an SWR meter for VHF/UHF.  Sure enough, someone had one to loan and I picked up a Rig Expert AA-600 the same day.  It's a pretty slick piece of kit!

I put the ELK on the meter and sure enough, SWR was way out of spec.  No amount of fiddling made any difference.  I couldn't figure it out.  I went online and started checking some pictures and noticed something.  I was pretty sure my antenna elements were not on right!

Sure enough, the guy who sent me this antenna must have put it together wrong and since I didn't know any better, I did too!  He had put all the elements on one side on the same boom (i.e. all the elements on the left were on the top boom, and all the elements on the right were on the bottom boom).  They should have been staggered - every other element on the opposite boom.

I sat down, swapped out the screws, and hit the meter... Eureka!  The SWR showed <2:1 on both bands finally.

While I was at it, I figured I'd put my HT antennas on the meter too: 
Diamond SRH77CA (that doesn't look too great...)
Much better on 70cm...

TH-D72A stock ducky (YIKES!)

Ehhh pretty bad here too
So interesting results.  I would have expected the Diamond antenna to be a lot better on 2m.  I suppose it could be the bevy of adapters I needed to get the thing on the meter to begin with.  It does seem to work pretty well anyway. 

So that's it for now, listen for me on the next satellite pass!

Monday, June 8, 2015

RFI-Gate 2015!

You remember when I mentioned I was getting into something on 80m in my last post?  Well, it turns out it was my system: my subwoofer for the surround system in the living room was going boom-boom and once I figured that out, I thought I was home free!  Yet, it turns out, I was not.  The Reddit round table (or whatever it is called) on Sunday night was in full swing and I had just finished contacting a guy in Arkansas on 40m when my wife heard a knock on the door.  I had my headphones on so I doubted her but sure enough, a glance through the peep hole and there was someone there!

Turns out its the guy from the 2nd floor apartment downstairs.  Yep, you guessed it, I was getting into his system.  He's is a young guy, my age probably, and interested in tech stuff so I invited him in to see the station and my antennas and since he was nice about things, I offered to help solve the problem this week.

I dug through my junk drawers and found a couple snap on ferrites and when I got home from work today, I went down with him and had a look at his setup.  I was getting into his powered computer speakers so I knew I could take care of things if I got the ferrite in the right spot.  A couple quick trips up and down the stairs, and phone calls later, and we had squashed out the RFI on 40m.  Unfortunately 80m was still causing problems and I had run out of beads.  I never have been super active on 80 so I don't consider it a total loss and I may just give up on that band.  Maybe I'll try low power CW only and that might keep me out of his system.

Just keep this in mind when dealing with RFI complaints - if you can make it so you can both be happy, all the better!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

80m = no good. 6m = good.

We finally finished unpacking the living room and kitchen this weekend so we took the boxes and materials back to our storage unit and while we were there, I grabbed my other 2 hamsticks I had in a box there for 40 and 80m.

I got right to tuning and much to my surprise, the whip I was using on 20m managed to work perfectly on 80 and 40m, giving me a low SWR match on both bands somewhere near the middle of the band.  Unfortunately the bandwidth on both is too short to go without a tuner near the ends of the bands but it isn't anything my 590 can't handle.

Things seemed to be working pretty well on 40m but it was the middle of the day so I didn't really play around with it too much.  I got the 80m antenna up and it too seemed to be working ok but when I took my headphones off I noticed I was getting into something and I think it wasn't my something... so I think I'll have to put off 80m for now!  It is no loss, 40m will be a lot of fun itself and I can probably squeeze out 30m too.  

I did hop on a bit Sunday morning and I saw spots on the DX cluster for 6m so I tuned around a bit with my 20m stick tuned up on 6 and heard a few stations from the Midwest popping up but I was unable to raise any on voice or CW, then I remembered someone mentioning they were running JT65 on 6m and tuned up to that part of the band and sure enough, I heard the familiar tones of our favorite JT mode.  I walked away with a handful of QSOs from 9 and 8 land at 20w, which is pretty cool!  6m really is a Magic Band and if you have not tried to get on before, I really recommend it!  It doesn't take much antenna; when the band is open, its open so just about anything will work.  So keep an eye on the cluster and don't be afraid to hop on sometime.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

QRV from the new apartment

In addition to the fun at NR5M last weekend, I spent part of Sunday getting my station up and running at the new apartment.  This mainly amounted to mounting and tuning my 20m hamstick and running cable to the radio.  This doesn't sound like much on paper but it was a lot more engineering than that.

I started by scraping a bit of the paint off of the balcony railing as it would serve as the counterpoise for the hamstick.  The bracket is held to the railing with a small clamp.  Initial testing showed that it was secure enough to withstand some stormy weather.  I'll probably still take the antenna off the mount if things get really windy.

I whipped out the FG-01A analyzer from YouKits and got the tuning just right but as expected, the SWR was a little high at 2:1.  A well tuned, high efficiency vertical will have a fairly low feedpoint impedance and I was showing about 23 ohms.  The plan was to run RG-6 (75 ohm TV coax) so that'd give me a pretty bad match at around 3:1 VSWR.  The coils in these compact mobile antennas can make them look a little long so adding some shunt capacitance at the base can help bring the feedpoint up into the proper range for good SWR without sacrificing much efficiency.  I grabbed my junk box caps and started trying them out while monitoring the SWR at the end of the feedline.  I found that 100pF worked perfect and got me right at 50 ohms at the transmitter end of the feedline. Unfortunately all I have are little 50v caps so hopefully this one will not blow up too quickly.

Back to the coax for a bit: it isn't uncommon for hams to use 75 ohm coax since it is usually super cheap (sometimes free) and has excellent low loss characteristics.  The only drawback is that it is not quite as easy to put connectors on, due mostly to the aluminum shields.   I found a video on youtube though that explained a good way to put a PL-259 on it so I gave that a shot with (at least temporary) success:
Up until now, everything you've read was pretty easy.  The hard part was going to be figuring out how to get the coax from the balcony to my desk, which is about 50' away.  And I'm on the 3rd floor.  And I don't want to just have coax hanging outside, drawing attention.  Not to mention, how do I get the coax from the balcony to the window of the shack, 30' away, while I'm up 3 stories?

There were a few options.  I could pull the cable through the window closest to the balcony and run it inside to the shack, but that is probably the least preferred option for obvious reasons.  I could run it mostly outside but snake it in and out of the windows across the living room wall, but then the coax has to be crushed in the sill many times.  Also not a very good option.

I was thinking more and more about the last option and it hit me, if I could somehow hold the coax on the sill outside  the window, it would be invisible from the ground and mostly invisible from inside.  I'd need some kind of hook to hold the coax against the bottom of the window but still be able to close the window.

Now, we all have times that we doubt our abilities and I have that as much as the next guy, but there are also times when you do something that makes you think "I am pretty cool!" and this happens to be one of those times luckily!  I devised a way to hold the coax to the window sill without it being visible from the ground and without impeding the operation of the window: zip ties.  I looped the zip tie around the coax and squished it in the window sill under the screen.  This gave the zip tie enough to grip to and hold the coax in place but still small enough that it did not bother the window at all.  It's best understood by this picture.

I tied off the coax across the sill 2 times on each window and it looks awesome!  Here's a couple shots from the inside of the apartment and from the ground so you can see what the layman would see.  It is pretty inconspicuous.  I think the only way to improve the look would be to put some tall plant in the corner of the balcony to disguise the antennas a bit but I'm not sure it'll draw too much attention as-is.

Once I got everything up and running, I jumped in the WPX contest with 3 hours remaining and worked 69 guys with 65 mults in the log for just shy of 10k points.  Not bad for a very casual single band operation at 100w.  Plenty of DX in the log too which is great news.  The balcony faces the NE so I should have a good shot to EU.  I ran WSPR at 5w for a while on Monday and here's a snapshot from the day:

I'd say the antenna is working pretty well.  Noise is low here, typically below S2, and as far as I know, I have not caused any interference.  Win-Win!  I'll keep you updated as the station continues to evolve and if any exciting DX comes in!

CQ WW WPX Contest at NR5M

This weekend was the CQ WW WPX contest and I was invited to go down to Hempstead, TX (about an hour outside Houston) to operate at the NR5M super-station.  I drove down on Friday night (3 hours and 40 minutes or so) so I missed the first few hours of the contest.  When I arrived, the sun was just setting and I'm sure I had a stupid look on my face as I saw the towers rise over the horizon.  What a sight to behold.  I was ready to quit driving so I didn't stop for a picture unfortunately.  

The station is set up primarily for Multi/Multi style contesting.  Each position has an IC-7800 or 7700  (more on these later) for the runner and an IC-756 Pro III for working mults.  I suppose you could do SO2R but none of them were set up that way as far as I know.  microHAM interfaces controlled the hardware and software lockouts between the mult and run stations which was neat.  I know we tried to do some of the 2 operator style operations at N0MA, but without the lockouts, coordination had to be better and without practice, its a little tough.  Alpha 77S amplifiers on all the stations put us at 1,500w everywhere.  

I got a feel for the layout a bit then sat down with K5GN, David, to work mults on 40m.  

David was a referee at the World Radiosport Team Championship in 2014.  Let me tell you, he is an amazing contest op.  The picture above is him at the run position on 40 while I was sitting beside on the mult position.  We worked this way for a couple hours until he had to get a bite to eat or something when we switched spots.  I was still pretty rusty but I had a decent pace going and the mults were weak and few so David sat on my call frequency and listened on a different beverage than I was; a sort of 2 person diversity receive I guess.  Remember, the 2nd radio is a Pro III.  Not particularly known for its astonishing receiver.  Still, David would hear stuff in the noise or pull callsigns out of pileups like magic.  Its almost like he had a 6th sense for signals below the noise floor.  I was really impressed and he was an amazing coach too.  He was very encouraging and I learned a lot in the few hours we worked together on 40m.  He left in the morning so I didn't get to pick his brain any more unfortunately.  

Main points of help were being more confident that my copy was correct, asking for fewer repeats means more qsos.  Less hesitation when replying to a station or providing a fill.  I know some of this was nerves and unfamiliarity with the station operation and computer macros for keying.  I caught on a bit as time went on.

More after a photographic break...
30-ish Green Heron rotor controllers?!
IC-7800 and Alpha 77S at each station with stack controllers from Array Solutions
Here's just a few pictures of the antennas from the parking area by the shack.

The blue house in the distance is the operator's quarters where you can rest

Downtown Dallas as I returned home right at sunset.
We rounded out the contest with over 22 million points, demolishing the previous W5 record of 13 million.  Even after errors we should be on the books for a long time.  I only operated Friday night and most of Saturday morning and early afternoon before I went home Saturday night.  We had spent the last weekend moving to the new apartment and I was coming down with what I think is bronchitis now so I wasn't really in the shape to pull another late night.  Plus the bands were slow and signals were weak and I just wasn't having too much fun of it.  I guess I'm just not really cut out for 48 hour contests.  Maybe if I had more time to recover.

So what did I get from this operation?  I learned that there are lots of aspects of N0MA that I miss, but some that I don't.  I miss the guys up there, they were a lot of fun to operate with.  I miss being competitive but treating a victory like a surprise rather than a requirement.  I like NR5M though.  The antennas are unlike anything I've seen or used before and the operation is smooth and not nearly as chaotic as things can be at N0MA.  There were some hitches at NR5M but the extremely highly redundant antennas helped keep that from being a big issue.  At N0MA if we lost an antenna for some reason, it'd probably be the only one on that band which would require immediate action.  It required more work and participation for sure.  I should have helped out a bit more while I was up there.

I was pleasantly surprised with the operation of the IC-7800s.  They are not top 10 radios by any means but they certainly held up well in the multi/multi environment.  Interference between bands was a total non-issue (surely due in part to great external filtering on all the feedlines) and inter-band interference was low and typically somewhat manageable depending on which radio you were listening on (the 7800 completely destroyed the Pro III receiver while I could usually survive on the 7800 if the Pro III was transmitting nearby).  All the controls on the 7800 you would need are at your fingertips, I didn't have to touch the menu system which I think is a very important feature of a contest radio, especially one I'm not familiar with (like the K3).  I still find it terribly annoying that radio companies are doing passband tuning instead of width/IF shift like my 590 does.  Passband tuning makes it a lot more difficult to quickly null out offending QRM in my opinion.  The band scope feature on this radio is about as useful as others in this class.  Built-in one's just don't do much for me.  A true IF pan-adapter will destroy this thing with ease.  Long story short, if I were offered a free 7800, I'd be happy to have one.  I would never buy one though.  Still, if you're in the market for a contest category radio, and have access to one, give it a shot, you might like it more than I did.

In closing, I ask myself if I'd go down again for the next big contest, and I am not sure.  It is a very long drive and I think I do prefer a more casual operating style, but it may be a different group of operators at the next one too!  I guess we will see what happens next.  It was nice to be asked to join the group and I'd certainly consider it again.