It’s been a while since I blogged. Once you retire, yourday can be filled up even more than when you’re working — depending on how you approach it. I thought I’d queue up a few posts on what’s been keeping me busy. One of these is ham radio…
Amateur Radio experimenters were the first to discover that the shortwave spectrum was not the wasteland experts of the time considered it to be but a resource that could support worldwide propagation. In the rush to use these shorter wavelengths, Amateur Radio was “in grave danger of being pushed aside,” the IARU’s history notes. Amateur Radio pioneers met in Paris in 1925 and created the IARU to support Amateur Radio around the globe. Just two years later, at the International Radiotelegraph Conference, Amateur Radio gained the allocations still recognized today — 160, 80, 40, 20, and 10 meters.
That experimental spirit still lives on today, with new modes and techniques that can have a huge impact in a short period of time — like FT8.
The number of ham radio licensees in the US is at an all-time high.
In the previous post, I described the stealth antenna I was using. Here is a bit of background on techniques to understand how well it is working and compare performance against other hams.
I’ve been operating the last several months on 40, 30, 20, 15 and 12 meters — just casual operating with no contests but Field Day. I’ve also made a few dozen contacts on 80 meters and even tuned the antenna up on 160, just to see if the antenna will work. The following is a graph showing the distribution of confirmed contacts between May and November 2018.
With the sun spot cycle in the doldrums, I’ve only made a few contacts on 10 meters, but in all cases the tuner allows me to get a 1:1 SWR ratio. I have been able to have QSLs confirmed in 60 countries in LoTW with just casual operating. This apparent success did make me want to look into how well it was doing against other ham’s installations.
At the time of my first random length stealth antenna, I didn’t have the advantage of FT8 and the ability for a more direct comparison of performance to other stations near me. One great thing about WXJT-X (the current program supporting FT8) is that you can do a quantitative comparison of the received performance, if both stations log the stations you hear into PSKReporter.
When set up correctly, WSJT-X will log the stations you’ve heard into the PSKReporter site. You can also look at the stations tracking what they have heard into PSKReporter to see who has heard your QSOs. It just happens automatically behind the scenes.
Using this information, you and your neighboring hams can compare the stations heard, on any single band or multiple bands. You and your buddies just need to agree on a time and band and then operate or passively monitor for a defined duration. You can compare what each of you heard, by entering each of your station’s call sign into the PSKReporter website and generate a report. Armed with this data, you’ll now have a definitive comparison of your antenna performance against the guy who said, “It will never work.”
The same can be done using your transmissions and seeing who has heard you, all over the world, at any time in the past.
Like many aspects of the hobby, you learn a lot about what’s
possible by experimenting and taking the road less travelled.
I haven’t written a post in a while, so I thought I’d write a couple about the amateur radio activities I’ve been up to recently.
Like many hams, I live in a location where the Home Owners Association (HOA) forbids antennas. In fact, my last three houses have been in areas with these restrictions. Getting around those limitations of visibility, cost and spousal acceptance have always been viewed as a personal challenge. To pile on another layer of constraint, my current and previous house also had radiant barrier installed. Radiant barrier makes the house more energy efficient, while at the same time provides my own personal Faraday cage — even cell phone signals can barely penetrate the electro-magnetic mote that surrounds my house.
In talking with other hams in the area about antenna options,
they said that I would need to run a tuned wire to a tree or install a sly flag
pole vertical or perform some other stealthy magic to make the electrons wire-walk
their way into the heavens. Being a ham, I wasn’t deterred and decided to
experiment and find out for myself other options that work.
I wondered, how a random length wire would perform if I just laid it on the roof shingles and used an automatic antenna tuner outside the house, to make the coax and my rig happy. A few hams told me “That will never work.” or “You may get it to tune up, but you’ll never talk with anyone.” Never to be slowed down by the harsh reality laid in front of me by others, I charged forward undaunted. My philosophy is: any antenna is better than no antenna. So, I grabbed my ladder, coax, some wire and climbed skyward.
The roof of my house has a ridge vent which looked like the
ideal place for the coax to reach the outside. The house itself is a wood frame
building. Fortunately, the RG-8X lying around the shack was almost the exact
same diameter as the gap in the ridge vent. I snaked the antenna wire down into
the house, all the way to ‘the shack’. When I built the house, I had enough
foresight to install a ‘tech tube’ from a wall box up to the attic, so the
process of getting the wire to the shack was relatively straight forward.
The next critical component was the automatic antenna tuner (in my case an MFJ-993BRT). I had a ridge line on a dormer of the house that is ideal for the tuner to straddle and provide stability.
The dormer also provided camouflage to make the tuner impossible to see from the street (see figure below). All it took was some galvanized flashing material, some screws from the local hardware store, a bit of planning, sealer and labor and my tuner was firmly ensconced on the roof away from prying eyes.
The next component was the wire itself. I selected a stealthy 22 gage black wire – I was never going to run more than 100 watts, so that wire gage should be sufficient. Yes, you can carefully do the math and cut the wire to a resonate length but the interaction with the underlying roof shielding will likely render those calculations moot. I was also going to use the antenna on multiple bands, so a random length perspective will have to do. I went with the traditional adage of “more is better” and ran the wire along the roof crest to the edge and then down the side of the roof – hot gluing the wire to the shingles all along the way, when needed. I live in a hurricane prone area, so anything I can do to keep the wire from flopping around is a worthwhile investment. In total, the “active element” is more than 70 feet long. I also attached a counterpoise to the appropriate connecter on the antenna tuner.
The counterpoise was only about 20 feet long, running along a gable of the house. I was careful to not have either wire run alongside the coax going into the house.
Once the installation was complete, I scurried down the ladder full of anticipation. I made it to the shack, plugged everything in and fired up the radio for my first QSO. Back in 2010, I lived in Texas and primarily ran PSK. The first 3 stations I worked were in South American, on 20 meters. I declared: “Good enough, I am not touching it.” That installation functioned well for about 6 years, providing thousands of contacts.
Like many things in life though, change happens. In 2018, I
moved to South Carolina. Since the previous antenna worked so well, I thought
I’d create a similar configuration here. This time I have a slightly smaller
house, but one that is a bit taller.
Currently, I have an ICOM 7600 as my main radio and I typically run around 35 watts for digital modes. I’ve been operating the last seven months on 40, 30, 20, 15 and 12 meters. I’ve also made a few dozen contacts on 80 meters and even tuned the antenna up on 160 just to see if it will work. My next post will go into a bit more about how it performs and how to compare antenna performance using FT8