The long dry spell is over

scqso-dfarg-11

The beam at Dutch Fork works wonders with 5 watts!

Wow. I just realized I haven’t posted in early July. That’s quite a dry spell, and so much has changed since then:

  • I am no longer president of the Columbia Amateur Radio Club, as my year term expired, and I didn’t opt for a second.
  • I am no longer employed with the school I’d worked at for the past six years.
  • I haven’t done any meaningful ham radio in ages.

Well, one thing hasn’t changed, and that is that I STILL don’t have an antenna up here at home. When the system failed back last July, I kept putting off the installation of a new antenna and coax owing to the brutal southern heat. As we transitioned into fall and winter, there were other priorities. My rig has gone unused for quite a while.

It’s hard to say what happened. My interests tend to swing wildly. Being president of the radio club was something akin to “seeing how the sausage was made” and I found myself planning meetings, developing agendas, building programs, and a dozen other things that basically shifted my radio interest from operating to administration.

Then there were other hobbies: Astrophotography, my vintage bulletin board system, learning Python, horology, picking up the guitar again, scriptwriting, and hell, metal detecting. While I wasn’t on the radio, I took beautiful images of the night sky, my BBS grew exponentially, I started coding an adventure game in Python, I collaborated on two feature-length screenplays, expanded my watch collection and met some interesting relic hunters. It’s been a busy year!

I’m still involved in public information with the club, and I am still grinding out the monthly newsletter, but I have enjoyed being just another “bum on the bus” at recent gatherings.

But I’m ready to get back to the radio. Saturday I met with “The Steves” — KI4VGA and W4SJD, at the local Waffle House for breakfast, after which, we headed over to the Dutch Fork Amateur Radio Group’s shack in Little Mountain.

I kept it simple: Yaesu FT-817. However, I was able to plug into the 20m beam located some 70-80 feet up a tower. Even 5 watts does wonders on a beam like that. I never even considered needing more power as I operated PSK31. I was simply testing my station when I sent a CQ out and someone immediately responded off the backside of the beam. We aimed towards the EU and I called CQ, working England, several Italian stations, and a Canadian.

Just for fun we clicked over to SSB and I one-shotted the first station I heard, a gentleman who was operating for the Vermont QSO Party. All three of us worked him in succession at 5 watts SSB. Further up the dial, I located a Minnesota QSO Party station and we repeated the process.

We also logged some QSOs with Switzerland. The only thing we never managed was breaking a pile-up into Portugal. Even so, it was a great little outing and not bad at all for an hour and a half. Once I arrived home I logged the QSOs and I already have some confirmations on LOTW.

I hope to get rolling at home again soon. I’m currently investigating the possibility of putting a small Mosley beam on the roof. I even have the wife’s permission!

Small steps.

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QRP Saturday, Part 3

I haven’t actually written parts 1 and 2 in a “QRP Saturday” series, but I might point to this post and this post as evidence of my recent weekend exploits 🙂

I was up early this past Saturday and decided I would take down the Buckmaster OCF dipole and do several things: One, check the condition of the antenna, coax, fittings and ropes, as the antenna has been hanging for nearly a year now; two, get the dipole up another 10-12 feet; and three, while the Buckmaster was on the ground, string up the home-brew TV twin-lead antenna and see how it loaded up on bands beyond 20 and 40 meters.

I lowered the Buckmaster and everything appeared to be in good shape. The coax connecter had a little play so I snugged it back up. The RF choke was looking a bit sloppy, so I worked it back into a nice circular shape. Ropes all looked good.

I decided I would toss a line over the next big limb on the tree so I could hoist the OCF up another 10+ feet. Using a partially-filled water bottle as a weight on the end of a length of thin nylon cord, I tried several times to sling the cord up over the limb. My trajectory was good, but I didn’t have the height. I tried to conjure up all my masculine energy and explode with one giant heave that would enable the line to coast up and over the limb on a true course.

The unintended effects of this burly endeavor were two-fold: One, my weighted line shanked wildly to the left, as my clumsy release was way too late. Two, as I torqued my body counter-clockwise to generate the needed thrust, I managed to over-rotate and began losing my balance. My left foot remained planted and suddenly supinated, turning inward and immediately sending a hot, throbbing pain into my ankle. The momentum continued carrying me around until I landed with a heavy thump sideways into dead leaves, moist dirt and what was certainly dog poo.

I managed to pull myself back up to a vertical position and assess the damage. Mostly, my pride was wounded, but my ankle hurt like hell too. I wondered if the neighbors on either side of me had noticed the stunt. I was determined to get the line up in the tree though, so I persisted. An hour later, I hadn’t made any progress and gave up.

I did hoist up the home-brew antenna and connected it to the FT-817 for a fine hour and a half of sunny operating on the back deck. The twin-lead antenna tunes to a flat SWR from 40M to 10M. I wasn’t as lucky on 6M, as the 817 was showing 2-3 “bars” of SWR even after a successful tune cycle. I suspect it would work, albeit in a compromised fashion. I didn’t have my meter out there with me, so I don’t know exactly how bad the SWR really is on 6.

There were several nice QSO parties going on, so I plugged in the Heil Traveler and went to work, first making a SSB contact on 20 meters with PI4DX out of the Netherlands. Anytime I make a contact with this little radio, I’m impressed. But I’m ASTOUNDED when my signal makes it across the pond!

I tuned around 20 meters a bit and managed to grab three more stations, two from the Vermont QSO Party and one from Minnesota. I tried 15 meters and picked up another nice Minnesota station. The final “test” of the day remained on 10 meters. The 10-10 International Net was holding a contest and WA7NB was booming out of Arizona. It took me a few tries, but I finally made contact. He had a perfect copy on my convoluted call sign too.

I spent the rest of the evening with my swollen ankle on ice, wrapped in a compression bandage. Fortunately, by Sunday I was up and walking around normally and it looks like there was no serious damage.

FT-817 power levels and a possible fix…

When I run digital modes with my FT-817, I keep an eye on the output power with a little cheap wattmeter from MFJ. I’ve consistently noticed when I first start operating that I’m pushing exactly 5 watts out of the rig at high power. That’s good, because this is a 5 watt radio…

But after about 10 minutes of operation, I consistently see that power level drop to half. Increasing the audio input into the rig from the Signalink will bring the power close to 5 watts out again, but at the cost of overdriving the ALC, which is going to screw up my digital mode work. Since this has always happened consistently after operating for several minutes, I figured it had something to do with the radio warming up and creating some sort of instability.

I’ve sort of accepted this as a quirk of the 817 on “key-down” modes, but I’m getting aggravated with it, because I want my watts back. It’s getting harder and harder to make QSOs with these gators running 45+ watts on the JT65 frequencies. I need all the power I can squeeze out of this radio.

After last night’s disappointing run, in which I completed exactly ZERO digital contacts in attempts on multiple bands, I decided it was time to do some research. I came across this thread, that suggests the problem can be fixed with a menu setting.

The issue apparently stems from the 817 aggressively applying “Overcurrent Protection” when the radio reaches operating temperature. The poster goes on to detail a procedure to adjust the protection in such a way as to allow the radio to deliver optimum power while still protecting its innards from overheating. Of course, tinkering with hidden service menus can screw up a rig (Service menu docs are available here), so I’ll need to investigate this procedure further before I proceed.

Of course, there is debate on whether the 817 should even use the full 5 watts for 100% duty modes like PSK and JT… I have good success with 2.5 watts sometimes, but knowing I could increase the power a bit for difficult contacts would be helpful.

A Buddistick on the beach

Running QRP on the beach. Ham radio at its finest!

An acquaintance got married over the weekend, so a group of us who attended the wedding gathered near Charleston on the Isle of Palms for a weekend of relaxation. I hadn’t been to the beach in a while, and I certainly didn’t have any ham radios the last time I was there. I decided to bring my go-bag containing the Buddistick vertical antenna and my Yaesu FT-817 in hopes of working a few stations.

Saturday morning I went down close to the tide and setup for 20 meters. I found a nice beach chair at the condo that had a built-in cup holder on the arm. This was the perfect support for the Buddistick, as I was able to run the mast through the cup holder and down into the soft sand. I found a nice chunk of driftwood to rest my counterpoise wire on. I got some strange looks from vacationers on the beach too. Most people assumed I was a surf fisherman.

As soon as I turned the rig on strong, clear signals erupted from the speaker. I didn’t bother with the antenna tuner. SWR wasn’t completely flat, but I figured I couldn’t be too far off. Anyway, it was time to finally test the “saltwater amplifier” effect that I’ve heard about so often.

Tuning around, I heard strong stations for the Texas QSO party. I immediately worked NX5M and NR5M on phone. Tuning around a bit more, I caught Anthony, VA3AVT calling CQ out of Ontario. He responded on my first call, and indicated my signal was only about an S1-S2, but still readable. We exchanged a weather report and I briefed him on my working conditions. There’s just something pleasing about telling a contact that you’re sitting on a beach with a Buddistick stuck in the sand using only 5 watts of power.

I ventured back down to the beach around 8 p.m. later Saturday and made another TQP contact, AD5WB, before retreating back into the condo after nearly being eaten alive by swarming insects. Other stations of interest heard included several stations from the Azores, and the always booming signal of Barrak, 9K2UU, out of Kuwait.

I have to say, this was one of the more sublime experiences I’ve had with ham radio to-date. It really doesn’t get any better. I’ll remember to bring bug spray next time though…

JT65 power calculator

I was doing some research on digital modes today when I came across this great JT65 power calculator:

http://dwestbrook.net/projects/ham/dBCalc/

Basically, you feed it your power level, for example, 5 watts, then input your signal report from a recent QSO, for example, -06, and the app will calculate how much power you actually needed to complete that QSO successfully.

Last night I parked on the 40 meter JT frequency and called CQ for a half hour or so. I had four stations respond to me, all from the US. The “worst” signal report I received was -06 from an Indiana station, with the best at -04 from a station out of Kentucky. Now, both of these reports are excellent as far as I’m concerned. When I run 2.5 watts and work Europe, I typically have signal reports closer to -15 to -18. So last night on 40 meters, I was definitely getting out with a “booming” signal.

And that’s where the calculator comes in handy. Did I actually need to run 5 watts to make stateside contacts? Heck no. According to the calculator I could have worked that Kentucky station with less than half a watt and would have still been comfortably heard. See the chart below:

Next time I work 40 again, it will be at much lower power, and hopefully reduce wear on the FT-817’s transmitter. But it’s also good amateur practice to only use a level of power needed to complete a QSO. Last night running 5 watts was just downright wasteful.

Little Mountain Letdown

Setting up atop Little Mountain. My Buddistick is in the foreground (obviously!)

I ended up making the journey to Little Mountain alone on Saturday. Nestled in my rucksack were 50 feet of RG8X, the FT-817ND and antenna tuner, a notepad and the Buddipole vertical antenna. I couldn’t have asked for nicer weather — about 80 degrees, clear, with blue skies and white clouds. It almost felt like a late fall morning, as the humidity was low and the temperatures were moderate for this region.

I located the access road to the top of the mountain on Google Maps and I didn’t have any problem finding it upon arrival. “Road” might be an exaggeration, as it was barely wider than a bike path. I drove uphill a bit and the path ended at a chain-link fence surrounding a large broadcast antenna system. I managed to get the car turned around and pulled off into a clearing, where there was ample shade and level ground. I was initially struck by how peaceful the site was. I could even hear church bells ringing from down in the town below. Very idyllic.

I set about methodically deploying the Buddistick and had no issues there. I decided not to use the 8-foot shock-cord mast, simply because I didn’t have anyone there to help me guy it off. I used the small tripod that came with the kit and anchored it down with some limbs of a fallen tree. I tuned the Buddistick “by ear” as described in the instruction manual. No problems there. I pulled out the recommended length of counterpoise wire, but without an antenna analyzer I could only try to get in the ballpark in regards to the proper length.

At any rate, once everything was connected, I was copying stations on 20 meters quite well. I intended to call CQ on the QRP calling frequency of 14.285, so I tuned up with the LDG, and self-spotted my frequency on Facebook in case a few of my buddies were near their rigs and wanted to give me a holler.

I started calling CQ.

Before I proceed, I guess I should let it be known than I’ve never had a successful phone QSO that originated from calling CQ. Pathetic? Yes. If I wanted to get technical, I had many QSOs from calling CQ on winter field day at a GOTA station, but we were using the club call, W4CAE, that day, and I had elmers guiding me every step of the way.

My attempts at CQing have been negative ever since. I don’t think I have a poor-sounding CQ preamble… after all, I have a background in broadcast radio from my college days. I just don’t think people find responding to a KK4 station in the Southeast very exciting on a day when there were dozens of special event stations up and down the dial.

But I called CQ over and over again on Saturday. I tried to remain upbeat and “be the radio wave.” No, I’m not Chevy Chase from Caddyshack or anything, but I often find a confident attitude can help break pile-ups. Seriously.

I heard several tune-ups on frequency so I kept calling. No response. Then I heard someone humming or singing in a strange way, as if to mock me. This type of response has become the norm on my CQ attempts. So I stopped calling and tuned around a bit, thinking I might nab a few special event stations.

Something didn’t seem right on the receive audio. It sounded very grainy and buzzy, like electrical interference. Sure enough, I’d setup directly under high-voltage power lines. Activating the noise blanker helped a great deal, but didn’t completely solve the issue.

I fooled around for about another hour, then broke down the station to head back to Columbia to meet with a friend. As I unplugged the feedline from the antenna the PL connector on the coax separated, with the center pin getting stuck in the Buddistick. Damn! I’d never even used this cable. I prized the connector free of the antenna with a pocketknife I decided to bring on a whim. Nothing on the antenna was damaged but the cable will need a new connector.

So I didn’t log any QSOs from the mountain, but I enjoyed a nice mosquito-free day under clear blue skies, sitting in the shade with a radio and watching the clouds drift by. Can’t ask for more than that.

First QRP SSB QSO!

Propagation was insane this evening and it worked in my favor to score my first phone QSO at 5 watts on the FT-817. I heard Alex, YU6DX out of Serbia, on 20 meters. He had a clear and loud signal into the U.S. so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to see if I could make contact.

As folks often say about QRP, it requires patience. I called for about 15 minutes without getting acknowledged. I was about to cut the rig off for the night, but I tossed out my call once more. Bam! He copied “delta sierra” so I repeated my call. Bam! A perfect copy of the entire call this time. My signal report? 57! 57!

I couldn’t be more pleased with the FT-817, and I’m very glad to finally get that complete phone QSO in my log. That was 1,000 miles per watt!

I also added another DX entity tonight, working Kostas, SV2CXI, out of Greece on 17 meters. That QSO was made on my FT-847.

Very interesting propagation tonight — many stations heard on 10 meters and a few on 6 meters during a few hours of sporadic-E/multi-hop. Here’s hoping for a few good QSOs tomorrow on the mountain.

Weekend destination: Little Mountain

Little Mountain, S.C., the highest point in the Midlands.

If the weather is nice and whatever sort of Cocoa Beach Influenza I picked up in Florida doesn’t have me laid up on Saturday, I plan to make the drive up to Little Mountain, S.C. and attempt to work SSB on the FT-817. Think of it as a SOTA-lite expedition, as Little Mountain isn’t actually in the SOTA database, so there’s no real opportunity to “activate” it.

At worst, I’ll get valuable field experience with my equipment. I haven’t even tried to set up and tune the Buddistick yet. Yikes!

Little Mountain is actually a small town in the South Carolina midlands, but it gets its name from the monadnock hill, Little Mountain, which is in fact the highest point in our state’s midland region at an elevation of 813 feet above sea level. There’s also a rather large radio tower atop the mountain, which houses at least one amateur repeater that our club uses when providing communication for cycling events in that area. On a good night, I can easily copy that repeater from my home QTH some 40 miles away.

A buddy of mine (who I’ve been trying to recruit into ham radio) is making the journey with me, so it would be great if we could actually log some successful QSOs. I hope the added 800 feet will help my little 5 watt phone signal get out farther.

JT65 is like fishing

I’ve changed my strategy on JT65 a bit. Now I ONLY call CQ, rather than try to “search and pounce” on other stations. And the strategy has paid off, as I scored four QSOs tonight on four CQ attempts.

I couldn’t believe my luck: One right after another, I exchanged reports with KD8BIN, out of Ohio, KI0J, out of Colorado, WR7K, Washington State, and I had a second QSO with ND2K out of New Jersey.

I had similar luck last night also, and even added a new DX entity to my log, YL3BF, out of Latvia. I’d tried to work him before last week and only managed a partial QSO, so it was exciting to finally manage a complete contact.

I missed out on HF work over the long weekend as my wife and I took a trip to Florida — Disney World in fact. I’d done a little research on ham radio at WDW, but I only took my VX-7, intending to work a few of the repeaters in the Orlando/Disney area. From our car, using a mag-mount antenna, I brought up WD4WDW, a repeater that’s part of the Disney E.A.R.S. program, but didn’t manage a contact. Later in our room, I wasn’t able to bring up the repeater with the stock duck antenna.

The Buddistick also arrived, along with the shock-cord mast and guying kit. I haven’t even attempted to set it up yet, but depending on the weather and how I feel (yes, I returned from Florida with a cold and a scratchy throat, so digital modes are all I feel like working at the moment), I may run it up to Little Mountain this weekend with the 817 and see what I can stir up.