Monday, May 8, 2017

Contemplating Remote Ops

Well, it's been quite a while since my last post, and unfortunately there's not much good news to report.  The city council decision to deny my request for ANY antenna has stood and I think I've given up pursuing any kind of external antenna at the current QTH.  We love our house and it will suck to move again but luckily with the way the market is, we still stand to make a fair bit when we do sell.  That said, we'll still be stuck here for another year until we can avoid capital gains taxes from selling.  All the better, values will continue to rise so that helps ease the pain some.

I have been able to do some operating in the meantime.  N3BBQ lent me his MFJ magnetic loop antenna and I've had that in the attic for a few months.  When it works, it works pretty well, and I've had several QSOs on it but nothing spectacular by any means.  Most of the time when I turn the radio on and tune around, either the noise level is too high to bother or I just don't hear a thing so my motivation to actually get on has been quite low.

I did toy with the idea of remote operation and actually setup RFCforb with KG6EYC out in CA and made a few contacts using his station.  It worked surprisingly well but I don't want to tie up his station and it was quite clunky to operate from macOS which is my preferred OS for my radio stuff.

So right now I've got to decide if I want to limit the majority of my operation to contests at N3BBQ (which are actually really good) or if I want to invest in the Remote Ham Radio infrastructure.  I've spoken with the guys at RHR a few times at Dayton and their system looks really neat.  The whole thing is based on the web so you can run the station from ANY operating system, and even the demo videos all show macOS, so that would be a good fit for me.

The system cost is not terrible at $99 per year plus a per-minute charge depending on the remote station you chose - beams and power cost more.  If you don't plan on doing contesting from the remote stations, the cost is pretty nominal, although its hard to estimate how much operating I'd do.  As a CW operator, I might have some difficulty enjoying operating without a real key.  The default way to send CW with RHR is by keyboard input in the web form.  I've tried this when I was practicing >40wpm with the QRQ guys but it really does not interest me very much.  There is a way to incorporate an entire "real radio" feel to the RHR experience though, with an Elecraft K3/0 mini.  The K3/0 even adds a local sidetone, RX audio and everything, just like you're sitting right at the remote radio.  This seems like a very viable option for me, aside from the $700 price tag for the K3/0.  Comparing to Elecraft's other offerings, such as the KX2, $700 seems a little steep for a faceplate and a USB controller.  That said, its the only way to get that tight connection to the radio operation.

So what do you guys think?  Should I spring for RHR and see how it goes?  I really wish they'd offer a monthly option so I didn't have to do a whole year at a time, I don't like that much commitment.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

A long overdue post: State of the Station

I'm sure many of you have heard through the grapevine (Reddit and Twitter) that I am currently engaged in a battle for my antenna.

A bit of background:

We chose this property very carefully.  A lot not subject to the overlords of an HOA, large enough to support a modest antenna installation.  A tower.  A receive antenna.  It met every requirement.  I read the city ordinance and while it was not ideal, I felt it met my needs.

As you know, I put up my Gap Titan DX in June, which I believed to be within my legal rights to do.  It has now come to pass that the city, and my neighbors, do not share this belief.

A few weeks after I first put up my vertical, a city code enforcement officer came to visit and informed my wife that the antenna was in violation of city code and would have to be removed or risk fines.  The same day I went to city hall to discuss it with the city planner.  Ultimately he and his staff came to the conclusion that my vertical antenna was (by their definition) an Amateur Communications Tower and would be subject to the zoning ordinance.

OK.  I didn't agree with this ruling but I had intended to submit an application for a legit Tower at some point down the road, it just meant I would have to do that now rather than later.  I put together a proposal for a 45' tower with a tri-band yagi and my ground mounted vertical.  My intent was that I would be able to have one or the other or both installed.  You know, flexibility.

So that was my proposal.  I submitted it and sat back and waited for the comments to come in.  Naturally, on my birthday, I get a message from the city planner that the comments have passed the threshold to require a super majority vote by the city council to approve.  The comments from my neighbors were all predictable: what about my home values... what about safety... etc.  All baseless and irrelevant.  It upset me to some degree because I just don't know why everyone cares so much but I also knew the law was on my side.

It finally came time to have the first public hearing at the Planning and Zoning committee meeting.  I gave my spiel and answered a few benign questions.  Only two neighbors showed up to speak against me and they both sounded more crazy than anything, and luckily the committee saw that as well.  They passed a motion to recommend approval to the city council 6-1.  I was surprised!

Fast forward 2 weeks and it was the day before the city council meeting.  That evening someone posted on the neighborhood Facebook page that there was this meeting the next day that everyone should attend, "THIS COULD PASS!" Dread rose within me.  I wasn't so confident anymore.  I knew there was a risk that my neighbors would band together to fight me and it looked like it was happening.  Of course I could have planned ahead better and had some support from other hams in the city but it really didn't look like there would be much opposition after the sparse turnout at the P&Z meeting.

The next day, at the city council meeting, they showed up in droves.  I think at least 10 people.  Again, I gave my statement, this time much better prepared.  I addressed all of the questions I was asked at P&Z and the comments from the neighbors.  It didn't matter.  I needed 6/7 council members to support me; one of them was absent, and another one seemed to have a personal vendetta against me when she asked me if a falling tower could hurt someone in 90 mph winds, as if you'll be just standing around outside (or in your house for that matter) during a tornado.  Then neighbor after neighbor came to the stand and proceeded to raise ridiculous concerns about safety, one going as far as saying he was afraid my antenna would fall in his brand new pool over 100 feet away!  To make matters worse, I was given no opportunity to refute any of their complaints.  The council voted to deny my application 6-0.

I sent the city planner a note when we got home and asked what the path forward from there was.  He said I can go re-apply with something different, suggesting I ask my neighbors what they would allow, or sue.

I met with a lawyer yesterday.  More to come as things develop.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Check out Peter Parker VK3YE's New Book

Hand-carried QRP antennas: Simple antennas and accessories to operate from almost anywhere by [Parker, Peter]

I just noticed Peter Parker, VK3YE, of Youtube fame just put out another book focused on QRP operating. It's called Hand-Carried QRP Antennas.  If you have watched any of Peter's videos you know he's always experimenting with different pedestrian mobile and portable antennas on the beach down there in Australia with great success.  If his videos are any representation of his writing, I'm sure the new book would be a good read for any QRP portable enthusiast.  You can buy it for the Kindle on the US Amazon store:

Sunday, August 21, 2016 is now Live!

I recently took ownership of and it now will bring you to my .us domain so if you have ever found yourself looking for me at .com, now you don't have to worry!  All content on .us will stay here, as the .com just redirects you to my .us site anyway!

I hope to have some new content soon but things have been pretty slow on the radio front so nothing to report right now!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

SOTABEAMS Laserbeam Side by Side Comparison

I posted a video to my youtube channel showing the SOTABEAMS Laserbeam-817 filter next to the Collins mechanical CW filter:

If you're interested in an installation, check out my service here.

Monday, July 11, 2016

This Battlestation is Fully Operational

After I left you on the last post I had decided I was going to run a 240v AC line to my shack as well as a secondary 120v, 20A line for my computer and radio stuff.  The idea was to get all this on line before the IARU HF Championship contest over the weekend so I got up early Friday (before my wife got up and complained that the power was off) and got to work.  It took a whole lot longer than I had planned but the finished product is pretty clean and runs the SB-200 really well.  My idle HV now sits at 2500v instead of 2400v and only sags to 2100v instead of 1800v.  

In my last post I mentioned that I had planned to try out those Svetlana tubes I got at Hamcom last year in my SB-200.  I swapped them out before the contest started and they seemed to tune up just fine, providing about 500W out on all bands with 80w of drive.  I ran the whole contest with this setup.

The conditions were not very good until around local grey line when EU started coming in on 40m and 20m.  Up until then, I was working almost exclusively NA stations which is pretty boring for a DX contest!  Operations were pretty tame and according to N5EIL, the Reverse Beacon Network was reporting only 800 some unique calls operating in the contest which is pretty small number.  None-the-less, I really enjoyed operating with the amp and the new antenna and got about 73,000 points from 440 contacts.  I'm really finding this Gap Titan to work really well on 40, filling in several slots for DXCC on the band.  Until now, I've never had a decent 40m antenna.  Even the dipole I had up in Iowa was too short for any effective operation on the band.  

The only thing that bugged me during the contest was the louder-than-ever AC cooling fan in the SB-200.  Sunday I decided I'd look at fixing it.  It's pretty trivial to remove the fan, just remember to shut the power off and let the amp sit for a while to bleed off the HV.  I took the fan out, oiled it a bit and put it back but in all that, I actually made the fan louder.  I needed a better solution.  I ran to Fry's and picked up a few 80mm 12v computer fans and set to wiring them in.  The easiest way to get 12v DC in the amp is to tap off the filament voltage (6.3v AC) and rectify it. (see image below) I used double sided foam tape to stick the fans on the inside of the tube chamber where the old fan sat and ran the wires through the mounting holes for the old fan.  I hooked up the rectifier on the bottom of the chassis and measured about 15v DC on the output.  Looks like I'll be over-volting the fans a bit but I have spares so if they fail, no big deal.  
Read more about the DC fan and other mods at PA0FRI's SB-200 page
Keep in mind, in order to measure all this stuff I've had to move the amp to the operating position, plug it in, and power it on.  There are LETHAL voltages present inside the cabinet.  I had the fans hooked up and they were spinning.  They were very quiet.  I thought, "hmm how much air is moving now?" and made the (nearly) fatal mistake of sticking my hand inside the chassis to feel the air flow.  I must have let my finger hit the filament clip (+2,500V) because in a moment I saw a flash of plasma, the undeniable sound of arcing, and that scent of lightly burnt flesh.  My left arm went numb for about 10 seconds but I walked away from that incident with a few 2nd degree burns on my middle, and index fingers, and my thumb.  BE CAREFUL AROUND HIGH VOLTAGE!!!  

I almost didn't want to share this bit because it's probably the most stupid thing I have ever done but maybe my tale can help keep someone else from making the same mistake.  

After I left things for a couple hours to nurse my hand (and my mind) I went back (with proper precaution) and luckily the amp survived the event.  I put the Centron tubes back in and buttoned everything up, applied power, and was happy to see that the amp had not been destroyed.  The breakers had tripped which probably prevented the whole thing from being far worse.  Even more, I was happy to see that the Centron tubes were working far better than the Svetlana ones, providing 100w more output on all bands, at half the grid current, which meant I could drive the amp with 100w instead of 80w.  Looks like the NIB tubes will go back on the shelf for backup.  I let the amp sit for an hour or so and I was very pleased with the reduced noise - the amp is no louder than my computer fans now - and cooling performance.  With the old fan, the top of the case would be quite warm to the touch, even when idling and now its only a few degrees over ambient. 

The last thing to do before everything is perfect is to figure out how to keep the room cool.  During the contest, my shack got up to 85 F quite a few times while the rest of the house was in 79 F range.  Unfortunately the only thermostat in the house is in the bedroom, on the other end of the house.  Running the furnace fan helps some but I think I need to balance the vents some more to make it really effective.  Just new house things I guess!

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Burning down the house!

I ran by HRO after work yesterday and picked up the 2kw gas tube for my Alpha Delta lightning protection in anticipation of firing up my SB200 for the big IARU contest this weekend.  The little amp has not been powered up since we moved from Iowa and I was a little apprehensive about turning it on again for the first time.  Luckily my fears were unfounded because it fired right up without any issue.

I made a few new pieces of coax to get me QRO handling capability - I was only using RG58 from my radio to the entry panel - and got everything hooked up.  I started tuning the amp on 20m, and watched the power meter go almost 700w.  I thought, "Oh wow!  This antenna loads up better than my hex beam!"  And then I adjusted the meter for SWR and saw the failure in my ways.  I was getting 5:1 SWR, something had gone wrong!  I grabbed the antenna analyzer and saw my 20 and 40m SWR were both very high, while the other bands seemed OK.  Connectors on the new coax all seemed fine so it must have been the antenna...

So I went out to inspect and it only took a moment to see what had happened. 

This wire was attached to the bottom of the 20m element on the antenna, dangling between the spreaders for the 40m radial loop.  Apparently this little bitty stuff (and its insulation) can't handle a few hundred watts while touching other metal parts!  The insulation had burned off and caused the 20m element to short out to the 40m element.  I'm lucky I didn't burn anything else up!  I replaced the wire with some much, much heavier stuff with nice thick insulation and rotated the loop a bit so it fell evenly between 2 spreaders, maximizing the space between them.  It shouldn't happen again but I'm going to look into a more sturdy solution that doesn't rely on a flexible wire.

With that all fixed up, the amp was showing me 400w out on 20 and 40, just in time for the 0300z CW Ops mini CWT.  I ran most of the time and walked away with 52 contacts, mostly on 40.  I've been really happy with this antenna on 40m.

I still have those 527b tubes I got at Hamcom last year I'd like to throw in and test so I may do a little post on that tonight or tomorrow if I remember.

So I guess the station is primed and ready for the big contest this weekend.  I hope to hear you all on the air!