Antenna Adventure and Stuff

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Like most amateur radio operators I tend to accumulate a lot of stuff. I’ll find something and think ‘oh, that might be useful some day’ or ‘wow, that’s a good price I should get that because I’ll use it some day’. You know the kind of thing. The end result is I have more PL-259 connectors than I’ll ever use in my lifetime, spools of coax cable, rope, miscellaneous spools of wire, bits of this and that, oddball electronics, rather intimidating looking radios, test equipment and tools…

Making things worse is I’m fascinated with antennas and how radio waves propagate, so I have stuff used to make antennas, and even complete antenna systems that I’ve picked up along the way. Including the one in the photo, a Gap Titan DX vertical antenna that’s been laying in a box upstairs since I got it about three or more years ago.

It was intended to replace the Comet 250 vertical I’ve had since I first got my license. Now the Comet works. Sort of.  It’s dirt simple to put up, being little more than 21 foot long aluminum pole that bolts to a pipe hammered into the ground. But let’s face it, it isn’t really a very good antenna, especially at lower frequencies. It was intended to be a stop gap measure, something I could use to get on the air quickly and easily, with the intention of eventually replacing it with something else.

I eventually put up an OCFD that’s my primary antenna, but I kept the Comet up more for reasons of nostalgia than because it worked, which it pretty much didn’t. Oh, I made some contacts using it, but the intention was always to replace it with something better like the Gap Titan, or a vertical from DX Engineering that I picked up around the same time.

Eldest son showed up yesterday and said the Comet was coming down and we’re going to put that Gap Titan. Period. Okay… We worked out in the driveway during the hottest day of the year so far, gulping down water, sweating through our clothes, and finally got it put together. Mostly. It isn’t that difficult to assemble. The instructions are phrased a bit oddly, but if you take your time and pay attention to the diagrams it isn’t hard. And this is about as far as we got because now we are at the point where we have to put the counterpoise together, and that can’t really be done until it’s up because the counterpoise consists of four long aluminum rods about four feet long that are linked together with copper wire and goes around the bottom section of the antenna.

Then we realized that where we wanted to put it, where the Comet is now, isn’t going to actually work because we’d badly underestimated the size of the counterpoise. The Comet, being little more than a big stick with a can on the end containing the matching coils, takes up almost no room at all, and is bolted to a piece of pipe hammered into the ground. It has no counterpoise, no radials, nothing. Just a big stick, like I said. This, though, was going to require a space of about 8 feet across.

I wanted to keep it low to the ground despite the fact that would not help it’s performance. That would mean we wouldn’t have to guy it, it would be easy to take it down if necessary, and it would be easy to adjust. We considered putting it in different parts of the yard, and that would have worked, but that counterpoise would always be awkward to deal with and almost certainly someone would run a lawnmower or something into it. And we’d have to make a new feed line and bury it, and while I probably have about a thousand feet of coax laying around the house, none of it is rated for in-ground use so I’d have to get more, and we’d have to dig a trench and, well, this was starting to look like more work than we really wanted to get involved with.

And then there was the safety aspect of the whole thing. I rarely put more than 30 watts into the Comet, using it mostly for low power digital communications like PSK. Besides, the Comet can only handle about 200 watts anyway before the coils will melt down or something. The Gap, on the other hand is rated for a full 1,500 watts output, and I often use amplifiers putting out 600 – 1,500 watts when conditions warrant it. So getting it higher up would be advisable just in case some goof ball decided to grab the antenna just as I key a mic and dump 1,500 watts into the thing. You can get some nasty burns from RF at those frequencies and power levels.

So eldest son decided the best thing to do was go up. Keep it in the same location, but up above the roof of the garage where it would be out of the way and where it would probably work better anyway. But that meant we had to put up guy lines to keep it from falling over, so he’d have to go buy… No, you don’t, I told him, and rummaged around in my boxes and came up with a complete guying kit, including a few hundred feet of nonconductive line, tie downs and other goodies. And then he said well, it would be nice if we could put in a tip over mount so we can lower it down in case of storms and stuff so I should look into that. And, well, a trip to the famous “box o’ stuff” (well, actually many boxes) turned up a tip over mount originally intended for a DX Engineering antenna that would work… Sometimes it pays to hang onto all that stuff. So all we really had to buy was some sturdy pipe or something to get it about 10 feet up so it would clear the garage roof, and he went off with the truck in search of that.

Now I have absolutely no idea how he’s planning on doing this. As MrsGF pointed out, he’s the genius in the family and it’s best to just leave him alone and let him do it because he’s generally right. So we’ll see what’ll happen.

If we get a chance to actually do it. It looks like more storms are on the way, and working on antennas with thunder storms in the area is generally considered a bad thing to do.

Miscellaneous Stuff & Retired?

IMG_0375Cactus

I think Mr. Spiny the cactus is about to bloom! The cactus has been doing really well out there tucked up against the side of the house but it hasn’t blossomed in two years. It is currently loaded with new pads, but I noticed some of the new buds looked different, and may be flowers, not pads. I really hope so. The flowers on this plant are absolutely spectacular.

Whitefish Dunes State Park has become one of my favorite places. It has about 880 acres of shoreline along Lake Michigan up in Door County, and it’s well worth the price of admission. I’m not sure what the cost is because I get a yearly pass as part of my conservation patron license, but I think it’s about $8 for a day pass.

It’s hard to pick out a single photo from the park that is representative of how beautiful it is, but perhaps this one will do:

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People seem to think Wisconsin is a rather dull place, with flat land, corn, cows and football. But we have more than 14,000 lakes, plus Lake Michigan. We have cliffs, rivers, forests, water falls… Well, you get the idea.

Alas, I’m not sure how long the state park system is going to continue to exist, though. The current administration down in Madison has cut off all state funding for the park system. It’s only funding now is what it can generate from entrance and camping fees.

Lichen

I continue to be fascinated with lichen for some reason. If I’d ever actually gone to the botany class I signed up for in college I might actually know something about it. But I find the colors, the forms, and everything about it fascinating, and if you’d look through my photo library you’d find a lot of images of lichen and mosses. Most people find the photos rather dull, without the splashy colors of my flower photos, but I think lichen has it’s own unique beauty. Like this, for example

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The subtle shadings of greens and yellows and browns, the amazing shapes. Like I said, I’m fascinated with it.

Storms

We’ve been getting a lot of them of late. We’ve had severe thunderstorms roll through here two or three days in a row now, and we’re getting a bit tired of it. Here at the house we’ve avoided the worst of it, but there have been trees taken down, power outages, minor flooding and building damage all over the area with every one of these. It’s kept the SkyWarn people busy, as well as the utility crews trying to keep up with the damage.

I was really glad we had the backup generator yesterday. Power was out for about 45 minutes and if I hadn’t been able to use the generator we’d have ended up with about a foot of water in the basement because of the heavy rains. We got over an inch and a half of rain in about half an hour here. The sump pump was kicking in every 2-3 minutes all the while.

We actually have 2 generators. One is a little 2KW Yamaha inverter that was originally intended just to run the radio equipment for field day or in emergencies for ARES operations. The other is a big Generac 9KW that was intended to power most of the house. The intention originally was to put a big connector on the outside of the house going to the Generac and using it to run the whole house. As long as we don’t use the ovens, turn on every light in the house, etc., it would have enough capacity to keep everything going. But we never got around to installing the bypass switches and connectors necessary. And when we do have a power failure, the little Yamaha can keep the sump pumps going as well as the radios and a few lights. It’s also much, much easier to move around and get started. It also uses a hell of a lot less gas and is much, much quieter.

IMG_0377Roses! The first roses of the season have popped open at last. I’m not a huge rose fan. I like them, but generally I find them a bit fussy and fiddly to deal with. The one we have in the front of the house takes care of itself pretty much. It just keeps coming back year after year, surviving drought, wet, cold, heat…

That’s my kind of plant – just stick it in the ground and ignore it and it takes care of itself.

Oh, and while I’m on the subject of plants, we found this incredible tree up in Door County as well when we were up there on Monday. Neither of us had ever seen anything quite like it before. Covered with these beautiful red, white and yellow flowers.. Absolutely breathtaking. I don’t know what it is. Have been too busy (i.e. lazy) to actually do research to look it up.

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Retired

I turned in my resignation at work last week and I am still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I am unemployed. Willingly unemployed. It doesn’t seem right somehow.

Well, it isn’t like I was putting in a lot of hours at the job anyway, to be honest. The position I’ve been in for the last two years or so was part time, and more or less on an “as needed” basis. I worked for events at the theater, filled in when one of the day guys was out sick, or there was a situation that required extra help, that kind of thing. A lot of weeks I didn’t work at all and it was rare for me to put in more than 20 – 30 hours a month.

Still, not having a job? It feels — strange. Feels, oh, not right somehow.

 

Amateur Radio Tools and Test Equipment Part Three: Test Equipment

(Note: This rather quickly turned into an article about stuff you don’t need and why you don’t need it, rather than about stuff you do need. So it goes…)

Now there is a whole slew of test equipment some people claim you need. And you go out and spend your hard earned money on it and find that well, no, you didn’t actually need it. The fact of the matter is that unless you’re really into electronics development work, need to diagnose and repair some rather expensive and complicated equipment, you don’t really need much more than a volt/ohm meter and a couple of other items. And this is coming from someone who admits he has a — a problem, shall we say, when it comes to tools and test equipment. Basically I see a new tool or piece of test equipment my eyes glaze over, I start to shiver uncontrollably, instinctively reach for my credit card…

What do you really need? Well, at the top of the list is a decent volt/ohm meter of some sort. Usually abbreviated as VOM or DVM for the digital versions, or multi-meters. It’s pretty much an essential tool. But which one do you get? They come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, all kinds of different options, and prices that range from little more than pocket change to “OMG who the hell can afford that”.

You don’t need to spend a fortune on a VOM, but you don’t want to get one of the bargain basement varieties out of the $2 bin at the lumber yard either. For the average electronics hobbyist you can get a perfectly good VOM for around $30 – $40. I wouldn’t spend more than $150 or so on one for one unless I was, oh, repairing equipment on a professional basis or something like that.

Which one do you get? Well, if you’re me — all of them… Okay, that’s an exaggeration butScreen Shot 2017-03-18 at 7.43.09 AM
the fact is that I have about a dozen of the dopey things laying around, from small pocket models smaller than a deck of cards to bench top models and even rack mounted units. Including one of these over there on the right. I don’t think I have it any more and it never worked in the first place and I have no idea where the thing even came from because I don’t remember buying it. (I think people break into my house not to take things, but to leave me things so they don’t have to pay recycling fees…) And it wasn’t even a VOM come to think of it but some kind of frequency counter or something…

Never mind, let’s get on with this.

The kind you do need is your basic VOM, something like one of these over there on the left. IMG_0020The Fluke is the one that lives on my workbench and that I use the most often these days. The Radio Shack model… Well, heck, I probably have a dozen RS meters because when I was a technician out in the field things happened… Oh, brother, did things happen. And RS stores were just about everywhere and the stuff was cheap and reasonably good.

Anyway, something like that Fluke will set you back about $150. The RS model is a lot less. Think I paid about $40 for that one something like 15 years ago. It seems about as accurate and useful as the Fluke, so why did I buy the Fluke? Well, it’s — it’s so shiny

They both do pretty much the same things for the most part. Both have replaceable probes/leads. And yes, you need that. You do not want a meter that has the leads wired directly into the meter. Accidents happen – melted probes, broken, frayed wires, melted wires… Stuff happens. (You did remember to unplug the equipment and discharge those high voltage caps, right? Hmm?)

Another piece of test gear that is pretty much essential for the amateur radio operator is something called a dummy load. No, this is not a truckload of ventriloquists dummies. Nor is it a load of politicians. It’s a sort of, oh, let’s call it a radio black hole.

When you’re testing and/or working on a transmitter, you have to actually transmit with it. And you need to hook the output of your transmitter up to something that can suck up the power or it can either damage your transmitter or send potentially illegal radio transmissions out into the air and enormously irritating the FCC. Or your neighbor who suddenly finds all of the electronics in his/her house going wonky.

A dummy load is really just a big, heavy duty resistor or resistors that absorb the power being dumped out by your transmitter and converting it to heat. Nothing magic, just basic physics. You can probably build your own if you like. There are tons of examples out there. Or you can buy one. Ones that can handle under 100 watts of power are out there for well under $100, some down in the $30 range.

If you fiddle around with amplifiers like I do, you’re going to need something that can handle a lot more power because those big HF amplifiers can potentially put out well over 1,500 watts. One of the cheapest methods of dealing with it was the so-called “cantenna” which was basically a paint can with a big honking (that’s a technical term, honking, you know, like ginormous, or widget, or doodad) resistor sitting in a gallon of transformer oil used to cool it. They’re still on the market and they do work pretty well. You can pick them up for under $100.

If you don’t like messing around with all that oil and stuff, you can get fan cooled dummy IMG_0027loads that can handle higher power, but you’ll pay for it. Something like the Palstar over on the right will set you back around $375 or so. A bit less if you can find one used. I think MFJ makes one as well.

Which one do you need? Well, as much as I like the DL2K I’m the first to admit that you don’t need one unless you do a lot of fiddling around with high power amplifiers. At the time I picked this one up I was doing just that and it was very, very useful. But most people don’t mess around with amplifiers that often and you can get away with something a hell of a lot cheaper. Even if you do use amplifiers, one of the “cantenna” type dummy loads will probably work just fine for you at a quarter of the cost.

That’s the thing with some of this equipment. It’s very handy to have around, and IMG_0017sometimes you absolutely have to have it. But you’re going to use it so rarely that you wonder if it’s worth the cost. It’s like this thing, my antenna analyzer over there on the left. It is a genuinely useful gadget for analyzing the performance of antennas, feed lines, helping determine antenna lengths for specific frequencies, etc. but how often do you really need one?

They aren’t exactly cheap. A good one will set you back about $300 or more. And while they are very useful indeed, I hesitate to recommend you buy one because chances are good you don’t really need one. I picked it up because I love messing around with antennas. I have three antennas in actual use at the moment and have about five more I want to put together and set up or am planning on building and experimenting with once the weather gets a bit better. So for someone like me having one of these makes sense. But even I don’t use it all that often. In fact, as often as not I lend the thing to other amateur radio operators who are setting up antennas so they don’t have to go to the expense of buying something they’re only going to use once or twice.

That brings me to this thing, another piece of test equipment you probably don’t need but really, really want, the oscilloscope. Look, I know you want one. You really, really do. It has all those fun IMG_0019buttons and knobs and that fancy display and it’s just so cool. But do you need one? Probably not. I’ve had this thing for like three years now. How often have I actually used it for anything serious? Twice. Twice in three years. Sheesh…

This isn’t the first ‘scope I’ve owned, either. I’ve had various “old school” CRT based models of various vintages over the years, and to be perfectly honest, I’ve almost never used any of them. They look really, really cool sitting there on the workbench. Sometimes I’ll turn it on and smile at it, pet it, scratch it behind the ears, tell it that it’s a good ‘scope and give it a treat, then turn it off and go back to whatever I was doing. But actually use it? But owning an oscilloscope seems to be, oh, like some sort of right of passage for a lot of amateur radio people. Having one of these sitting on the workbench means you’re “serious” about it, not just fiddling around.

That’s the problem with a lot of the test gear out there. It’s often something you’ll only use once or twice, and that’s it. So is it worth investing hundreds of dollars in something you’re going to use once in ten years?

Unless you’re really into circuit design, equipment repair, experimentation, development work, etc. most of the fancy test gear you see out there isn’t going to be very useful.

How often are you going to need a spectrum analyzer? Probably never unless you’re repairing a lot of equipment. Or a function generator? I’ve got one of those as well. I’ve never used it. At least that one didn’t cost me a fortune because I built it myself.

Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy the stuff, but make sure you really need it and can afford it before you pull out the credit card. You might also be able to find a super cheap version of the test equipment that isn’t very sophisticated or even isn’t very good, like some of the cheap oscilloscope kits out there, but which will work well enough for what you need it for.

You can often borrow the stuff from a local amateur radio or electronics hobbyist if you can find one. We’re typically friendly people and once we know you aren’t going to go running off into the night and selling off our stuff on eBay or something, we’re generally more than willing to lend you stuff.

 

Amateur Radio Tools & Test Equipment Part Two: Soldering and Power

Ha! You thought I was going to get bored with this and there wouldn’t be a part two, didn’t you? Well there is a part two, so let’s get on with this, shall we?

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Can you say “horrible mess” boys and girls?

Almost any kind of fiddling around with electronics of any sort is going to require soldering sooner or later. Soldering is the joining of two or more bits of metal together via the application of heat and solder, a metal which has a lower melting point than the two bits of metal being joined. The solder serves two purposes: First it physically joins the two parts together. Second, it provides electrical continuity, a path for electricity to flow. It requires the use of a heat source, i.e. a soldering iron or pencil, and the solder itself.

Solder is usually an alloy of lead and other metals, or one of the newer lead free solders that generally include antimony, copper, silver, zinc and/or other metals to replace the lead. Silver solder, a mixture of silver and copper, is widely used in reflow and wave soldering, and often for hand soldering as well. Because of the health issues related to lead, many manufacturers are moving to the use of lead free solder. Lead based solder is still widely available and is still legal, but I would not be surprised if it is phased out entirely in the fairly near future.(1)

Now I’m not going to launch into a tutorial on how to solder. There are hundreds of the things floating around out there on electronics web sites, YouTube, etc. Some of them actually know what they’re talking about. I’m going to talk about the equipment you need to actually do it. And the first item is a soldering iron.

A soldering iron or soldering gun or soldering pencil is the essential tool. It is the device

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I’d love to see someone try to solder SMD chips with this puppy.

that actually generates the heat that is required to melt the solder. Oh, look, there’s a soldering iron over there on the right. The big can thing is, by the way, a blow torch. My, isn’t it a handsome thing, all 19th century looking and steampunky and all that.

Well it is a soldering iron, but not exactly the kind we’re interested in, now is it? I think we’re interested in something a bit more modern and which won’t burn down the house if you actually try using it the way this one could. So let’s look at this one instead, shall we?

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The very first soldering kit I bought was essentially this exact same set from Radio Shack back around 1970

This is a cheap Radio Shack soldering pencil from a hobbyist soldering kit that I picked up for… Well, I forget what I paid for it but it was under $30. And with Radio Shack going bankrupt (yes, again) if there are any RS stores in your area you might want to run out and see what kind of deals you can pick up. It came with a clip on heat sink, needle nose pliers, side cutters and a few other goodies. RS has been selling this same basic kit for something like 40 years. The soldering pencil is cheaply made and often doesn’t last very long, but if you’re just looking for a cheap way to solder a few joints this will get the job done.

If you’re going to do any kind of serious electronics work, though, you’re going to need something like this over here on the right. That’s my Weller variable temperature soldering station with a digital readout for the temperature. It is a lot more money than the RS special, going for around $140 or so,

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The Weller has been going strong for 5 years now

but I’ve had this one for about 5 years now and it’s still going strong and works quite well.

Two things you want to look for – a variety of different tips for different soldering jobs, and variable temperature. You need different tips for different types of soldering, from needle sharp tips for small components to spade type tips for desoldering. And the temperature control is, I feel anyway, essential. Different formulas of solder have different melting points. You want it hot enough to adequately melt the solder while at the same time not too hot to avoid damaging the equipment you’re working on.

A couple of other things before we move on here. You see a couple of other items in that photo, a thing that looks like a rather odd syringe, and a golden ball full of what looks like hair.

The ball thing is actually a tip cleaner. The ball holds steel wool. The hot tip is rammed into the steel wool, cleaning it of accumulated solder, flux, etc. Some kind of tip cleaner is essential. A dirty soldering tip does not conduct heat well, and heat is what it’s all about. The cleaner the tip, the better.

The blue and chrome gadget is what is generally called a solder sucker, a tool for removing rather than applying solder.

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Desoldering wick or braid

I find that I’m often using my soldering equipment for removing solder rather than applying it. You’ll find you have to desolder components from a circuit board before you can make a repair or modification. The only way to do that is by melting the existing solder and removing it somehow.

The sucker works by applying a vacuum which sucks up the solder. There are different types. Some use rubber squeeze balls, some use a piston powered pump like this one, others, much more expensive, have electric vacuum pumps. The other way is to use solder wick or braid. This is a metal braid, usually coated with some kind of flux to attract liquid solder better. The braid is pushed down onto the cold solder with the tip of the soldering iron when then heats everything up and the braid absorbs the liquified solder.

If you do a lot of desoldering, you might want to get an actual desoldering system. But for most of us good old desoldering wick or a solder sucker is good enough.

Let’s move on to one final item in this discussion about soldering, and that’s this puppy, IMG_0030the ubiquitous soldering gun. These things are designed to apply a lot of heat to large objects, quickly, and as such they are virtually useless for most electronic soldering jobs. They’re too big, too awkward, apply too much heat. Using one of these on a circuit board is sort of like using a 12 gauge shotgun to hunt mice. You can do it, sure, but there isn’t going to be anything left of your quarry when you’re done.

But there are times you need something like this. Especially if you’re trying to solder PL-259 connectors. Your average soldering pencil just doesn’t supply enough heat quickly enough. By the time you’ve heated the connector up enough to solder it, you’ll discover you’ve also melted about two inches of the insulation on the coax as well.

Now there are other things I haven’t touched on that are related to soldering, but which I’m not going to get into. Like SMD. SMD stands for Surface Mount Device. Discrete components (even entire IC chips) are now often mounted not via good old fashioned through-hole connections, but on solder pads on the surface of the board. While this is great for robotic assembly systems, it’s not good for people who want to try to repair the blasted things or have to otherwise work with SMD technology. Dealing with resistors, capacitors, diodes and other components that are about the size of a quarter of a grain of rice and mounted on the surface of a board on solder pads, well, it isn’t exactly a great deal of fun. Working with SMD can be done, but it takes practice, a steady hand, and a pretty good magnifying lens, preferably with a built in light.

Then there is the question of fumes. There is no denying the fact that some of the fumes given off by solders and fluxes when heated are not healthy for you to breathe. Even some of the plastics that the components are made from can give off fumes that are toxic. If you’re just soldering a joint or two it isn’t bad, but if you’re doing a lot of it, you’re going to want to look into a good venting system or a fume extraction device of some sort.

Now let’s look at power.

Power. As in electrical power of course. You need it.

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Very soon your house wiring will look like this

Now with most devices you just plug the thing into a wall socket and turn it on. But sometimes things are that simple. Once you get into amateur radio and/or electronics, you will quickly find out that different devices have different power requirements. Odd ball voltages, weird batteries that no one carries, and odd power connector plugs. Sometimes very odd power plugs.

Now a lot of amateur radio equipment runs on 12 volt DC. My Kenwood TS-2000 transceiver requires 12V, my antenna tuner runs on 12V, my big dummy load runs on 12V.

And to complicate things a bit more, 12V doesn’t actually mean 12V. For reasons I won’t get into here (you do have that google thing, right?) most 12V devices actually want around 14V, and if you try to feed them less than that some very strange things can happen.

Now if you do have 12V equipment you want to run, what do you do? Go out and get

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Typical 12V power supply on a very dirty work bench

yourself a car battery or something? Well, you could if you really wanted to. It would work. For a while. But you’re going to need a 12V power supply similar to this one over on the left. This particular one has a handy Amp meter that tells you how many amps the device(s) connected to it are drawing, and a meter showing the actual voltage the power supply is producing. This particular power supply allows you to adjust the voltage up to about 16V if you need it for some reason.

You can get power supplies with all kinds of bells and whistles on them, but you don’t really need most of them. You can get switching power supplies, transformer power supplies… Generally the switching power supplies are a lot lighter, but they have more electronics in them that can screw up. Transformer based power supplies generally work well, but can use significantly more electricity than switching supplies. Which one you choose depends on what your preferences are, budget, etc. Before you buy one go check out the reviews on eham.net or other sources first.

Once you do get a power supply, the question of how to get that power to the equipment that needs it comes up. Most 12V power supplies only have one or two supply points on them, and generally they aren’t the most convenient things in the world to use. You basically shove a couple of wires into holes and have to tighten down screws to make the actual connection. It’s awkward, and if you have more than one piece of equipment and only one power supply, you’re going to wear those screws out pretty fast switching things around. So I use one of these for 12V power.IMG_0028

This particular unit is a Rig Runner from West Mountain Radio. It’s basically just a power strip, but for 12V rather than 120V. The main line from the 12V power supply is plugged into the outlets on the far left, and the other connectors then distribute that power. Each of the outlets is fused for various amperage requirements. If you’ve never seen that kind of connector before, don’t worry, I’ll come to them in a minute.

Now power strips like this are available from a variety of companies. MFJ makes them, as does West Mountain. Or you can make your own easily enough.

Now let’s talk about those connectors. If you haven’t seen those before, they’re called IMG_0029Anderson Power Pole connectors, and they’ve become something of a standard method of connecting power to devices in the amateur radio community. ARES has declare them to be the universal power connector out in the EmCom world, and I have to admit they make life a hell of a lot easier. No more stripping wires, fiddling with electrical tape and all that nonsense. Just install them on the ends of your power leads and you’re good to go.

The drawback is that while they’re simple to use, they do require a special crimping tool to install them on the ends of your wires. A good one like the one in the photo there can set you back a hefty chunk of money.

But if you’ve ever had to fiddle around in the cold under the dash of a car trying to strip insulation off wires, wrap wires with electrical tape, well, that kind of thing gets old fast.

Let’s talk about 240 volt for a moment. The only reason you might need 240V in your shack is if you’re going to be running a 1,500 watt output amplifier. If you want to fire up a big old tube amp and pump enough energy into your antenna to melt the vinyl siding on the neighbor’s house, hey, who am I to tell you not to? But do you really need it? No.

If you really need to put out more power, a 500 – 600 watt amplifier will generally run pretty well on 120V. A lot of the high output amps can be rewired to run on 120v, although at reduced output. So no, you don’t really need 240 volt in your shack.

 


  1. I am not going to get involved in the heated argument of lead versus lead-free solder. While many claim that lead-free solder works just as well, is just as reliable, and is just as easy to use as the lead type, there are probably an equal number of people who will claim the lead-free solders are utter garbage. I switched to using lead-free solder for plumbing something like thirty years ago and I’ve never had any problems with it. While I still use lead based solder for electronics, that is due to the fact I have about fifty spools of the stuff laying around the house.

Amateur Radio Tools & Test Equipment Part One

I thought it was time to answer a few questions about amateur radio that I’ve gotten over the last couple of months, specifically about what kind of tools and equipment you need if you want to do some serious fiddling around.

Someone once told me that most hobbies are little more than an excuse to buy lots and

Screen Shot 2017-03-11 at 8.33.49 AM

Admit it, you really want one, don’t you, even though you don’t know what the hell it is.

lots of tools that you’ll never use, and for a lot of people, like me, that’s pretty much true. It’s even worse for me because I build furniture as well, so in addition to a whole slew of tools and test gear for amateur radio that I almost never use, I have a whole slew of tools for wood working that I almost never use as well.

One thing they don’t tell you when you get your amateur radio license is that you will immediately be overwhelmed with an intense desire to buy tools and test equipment that you never knew you had to have before.

Do not resist this urge. You have joined the dark side. You are ours now… Ah, oh, sorry. Slipped off there for a minute. Happens sometimes. Solder fumes, I think. Now, where was I? Oh, yeah, tools for amateur radio and fiddling with electronics.

Since amateur radio is about electronics, you need the basic gear that all electronics

IMG_0022

Small hand tools. You probably already have most of ’em, but you probably can’t find them either, can you?

fiddlers need. The stuff isn’t expensive and is widely available. You probably have a lot of it already. Wire strippers for stripping insulation off wires. Unless you want to use your teeth which is really isn’t recommended. Not unless you really want to pay for sending your dentist’s kids through college.

Needle nose pliers, two sizes and two types. Medium and small, and straight and curved. Wire cutters (no, nail clippers will not work!) are essential. Screw drivers are essential as well, both straight and philips, and you might as well get those funny torx ones too while you’re at it. A set of nut drivers will come in handy, needle nose vise-grips are often very useful, especially the small ones.

Do I really need to tell you not to get the bargain basement variety out of the one dollar bin? Hmm? They don’t last and can actually damage the stuff you’re working on.

Oh, some type of non-conducting probes with pointy ends come in handy for digging around through rat’s nests of wiring, prying components up off of circuit boards, etc. Non-conductive because while the nice women and men in the ambulance are more than willing to try to restart your heart after you’ve jolted yourself senseless, sometimes they can’t get you jumpstarted and… You’re life insurance is paid up, isn’t it? Hmm?

That’s the basic hand tools. out of the way, sort of. Most people who’ve done any kind of messing around with anything (no, not that kind of messing around. My, you have a dirty mind, don’t you?) will have the basic tools already in the cupboard, or under the sink, or in the basement. If you can’t find them, don’t worry. They’ll turn up sooner or later. Usually after you’ve bought another one to replace the one you lost.

Let’s assume you have the basic tools in hand, and look at things specifically related to electronics and especially amateur radio, shall we?

Tools and test equipment generally fall into one of three categories: Things you absolutely, positively need to have, things that are nice to have but you can probably get along without them at least if you can borrow it from someone else, and things you pretty much will never need unless you’re into some kind of exotic and unusual kind of activity. Like,

well, this, for example. I can firmly attest to the fact that a set of scale calibration weights is pretty much useless in amateur radio. I keep telling myself I should schlep them around to hamfests along with all of the old laser gear I have laying around, but I can’t bring myself to get rid of the stuff because, well, there might be a scale I really need to calibrate some day, or I might run into a 30 year old laser I can finally use that stockpile of tubes and power supplies I have laying around. You never know, right?

So let’s concentrate on stuff you actually need first. And if you’re in amateur radio, right IMG_0039up at the top of the list is this, an SWR meter. Having one of these is pretty much essential. While a lot of modern transceivers have SWR meters built into them, a lot don’t, especially mobile and hand held transceivers. You really do need one of these. They don’t cost all that much, you can get a decent one for well under $50. It isn’t just essential for tuning antennas, it can help prevent you from seriously damaging your transceiver if something goes wonky with your antenna system without your knowledge.

And while we’re on the the topic of SWR meters, let’s talk about jumpers. This is a short piece of coax with a PL-259 connector on each end (or whatever connector you need) that connects between  your IMG_0035radio and your meter or dummy load or other test gear. They look something like this, and you’re going to want to have a few of them ready to go. Of course you won’t be able to find them when you need them, but that’s the way it goes.

A lot of people make their own. Or claim they do. But soldering PL-259 connectors to coax is such a pain in the neck that I suspect most people just buy them pre-made. You don’t need really super hefty coax for jumpers. They’re generally only 2-4 feet long, so any losses are going to be fairly insignificant.

If you’re cheap, like I am, you can make your own, but don’t make the mistake I did. I picked up an entire spool of LMR-400 coax a few years ago, so rather than spend actual money to buy jumpers, I made ’em out of the 400, neglecting to take into consideration the fact that people tend to move test equipment and radio gear around and LMR-400 doesn’t actually bend very well.

While we’re on the subject of coax, let’s talk about, well, coax. While you can use things like ladder line to connect to your antennas, most amateur radio operators use coax cable IMG_0031because it’s more convenient. Now you can buy coax from a lot of different sources in various lengths, with the connectors of your choice already installed, or you can save a few bucks by buying the cable in bulk and then making it to the specific length you need and installing your own connectors. The type of connector used for most HF and VHF antenna lines is called the PL-259(1), and you either love them or hate them. Well, no, I don’t know of anyone who loves them. Most people either hate them or, well, hate them. Unless you have a lot of practice installing connectors on coax, you may save yourself considerable grief, the use of language you do not want your spouse/children/pets to hear, burns, solder all over the floor, melted coax, etc. and just spend the extra money and buy it pre-made in the length you need.

But that being said, it’s not all that hard to install the things, it just takes patience and practice. There is also an alternative to soldering the connectors, and that is crimp connectors which use a special tool to crimp(2) the connector onto the line instead of soldering. And while a lot of amateur radio operators swear that crimp connectors are utterly worthless, the fact of the matter is that they have been in use for decades and work pretty darn well and seem to be as durable and reliable, when done correctly, as soldered connections.

When it comes down to it, you don’t absolutely, positively need to be able to make your own coax, attach your own connectors, etc. It’s nice to be able to do it, but you can get the stuff in any length you need, with connectors already attached, and probably attached a hell of a lot better than the average amateur radio operator could do it.

To be continued…

 


  1. I know some guys who will drop five or six grand on a new transceiver or amplifier, and then complain about spending money on high quality coax connectors and buy the cheapest garbage they can find. And then complain later about corroding connectors, solder not adhering to the connector, threads on the collar stripping… Sigh. Do yourself a favor. If you make your own coax, don’t go cheap on the connectors.
  2. Stay tuned! There’s a photo of a crimping tool coming up later in this! Maybe. I think, anyway. Not sure because I haven’t written that bit yet.

 

 

Fun Stuff

I’m a tinkerer. I love fiddling with stuff, playing with gadgets, and building my own stuff. I’m always scrounging around for interesting little gadgets, widgets and components to messscreen-shot-2017-02-25-at-9-46-26-am with. A while back I picked up a bunch of these LED lighting panels and I’ve been fiddling around with them and I like ’em so much I thought I’d tell you about them.

My office/radio shack is a bit of a black hole when it comes to lighting. The room doesn’t have ceiling lights so we make do with a floor lamp and some desk lamps, but I wanted some under-counter style lighting to make it easier to see the controls on my radios because it was impossible to put a desk lamp near them.

These are 12V LED lighting panels designed to replace dome lights in vehicles. They come in a wide variety of styles and sizes. This particular model comes with a fuse and adaptors to replace the incandescent lights in a car or truck dome light, but it was the LED I was interested in. They’re fairly cheap. I just looked ’em up and they’re going for $8 for a pack of two on Amazon and you might find them cheaper if you look. There are a lot of these out there from various manufacturers and distributors, with prices all over the place. Mine came from a company called Cutequeen Trading (yes, that’s the real name).

For the size they put out an amazing amount of bright, white light. One of them in the recess my TS-990 lives in was more than enough to light up the whole front of the rig plus most of the desk around it. They have a peel and stick adhesive back. Just peel off the protective paper, stick it up, hook up the wires to a 12V source and you’re good to go.

Where do you get 12V from? Well if you’re an amateur radio operator you probably already have a 12V power supply because a lot of amateur radio equipment runs on 12V. In my case I have a big 12V supply that feeds a distribution box with Anderson Power Pole connectors already in place to feed other equipment. I just wired up a plug to fit, added a toggle switch from my junk box to turn it on and off and was ready to go. They only draw about 0.4 amp so the power consumption is fairly modest for the amount of light they produce.

One gotcha was I found if I fed it directly, the thing got real hot real fast. Not to the point of burning my hand if I touched it, but painful. I ended up putting a small resistor in line to drop the voltage a bit (think it was a 480 ohm but not sure now and I’m too lazy to go dig into the wiring behind the desk to look). That kept it from getting hot without reducing the amount of light.

Another issue is that the point where the wired connect to the panel are a bit fragile and won’t tolerate a lot of movement. Avoid putting any stress at all at the point where they connect and they should be okay. I’ve heard from other people fiddling around with LED panels like this that this is a fairly common problem.

I could see these easily being used for interior lighting in an RV or enclosed trailer. It would be very easy to turn several of these into an under-counter lighting system in a house if you have a place to tuck a 12V power supply out of sight. Find a cheap, rechargable battery, some kind of box, mount a few of these on the box and you’d have a fairly inexpensive and pretty bright portable work light or flashlight.

So get out there and fiddle with stuff.

Radio Stuff. Emphasis on Stuff.

So let’s talk amateur radio for a while. Especially about stuff. As in where the hell did all this stuff come from, anyway?

I semi-retired a year or two ago. I generally have my summers off and only work for special events in the theater, fill in if someone calls in sick, deal with emergencies and things like that. Which means I should have lots and lots of spare time to fiddle with radios and stuff like that, right?

Yeah, right…

This morning was the first time in probably a month or more than I had all the equipment

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Damn, that’s a terrible picture

turned on and actually used it. Much to my surprise it actually all worked. I didn’t have anything start on fire, no smoke, no cats came leaping out from under the desk with all their fur standing on end. I didn’t even have to resort to strong language. Amazing.

I finally put a decent cable on the iambic paddle to replace the cobbled together POS I’d thrown together so I could test it when I first got it.

Then I remembered I don’t do CW in the first place. So how in the world did I end up with not one but two Vibroplex CW keys?

It’s like a lot of other stuff I’ve accumulated over the years. I just — just have it for some reason. There’s a 500 foot long spool of LMR-400 coax sitting in the basement. I just ran across a bag of 50 very good quality PL-259 connectors in a drawer the other day. Right after I’d just bought a bag of 25 of them because I needed one and didn’t think I had any. Under that bag was a VOM I don’t remember ever buying. Which is okay. Can’t have too many VOMs, right? Maybe? I mean, everybody needs six or seven volt ohm meters, right?

Eldest son stayed over night a couple of weeks ago and found a new, never used GAP Titan vertical antenna in the box under the bed in the spare room upstairs. Oh, that’s right, I picked that up about three years ago and never got around to putting it up because it was easier to just string up a dipole. Then I stumbled over a DX-Engineering vertical with the complete mounting kit and all the accessories down in the basement. All still in the boxes. Which I bought because I forgot I had the GAP antenna sitting upstairs.

Where did all this stuff come from? How did I end up with two HF amplifiers? Suppose I could sell one of them, but how the hell do you ship a delicate, 100 pound amplifier full of vacuum tubes and a power supply as big as my head?

Some of the stuff I do need. The big dummy load I use for testing, the big antenna tuner. The oscilloscope comes in damned handy sometimes.

But how did I end up with 200 Anderson Power Pole connectors?

I’m convinced people are breaking into the house late at night and instead of stealing stuff, they’re shoveling more stuff in here.

Granted, some of the stuff is genuinely useful. I picked up some LED light panels intended to replace the dome lights in cars. Got those for about $2 each and they’re great for undercounter lighting. Especially if you already have 12V power supplies running to power other equipment like I do here.

But what in the world am I going to do with all those relays I salvaged from the old boiler controllers when we installed the new heating system at work?

And where in the world did that bloody great IBM mainframe tape drive come from? Okay, so it’s really neat to watch it thread the tape through itself using puffs of air to guide the tape, but come on… I suspect eldest son snuck that into the basement when I wasn’t looking. He’s even worse than I am when it comes to snagging stuff like that.

I was looking for the cable cutter the other day, opened the drawer, and there were six laser tubes rolling around along with front surfaced mirrors and other associated stuff. Found my weight set that I used when I serviced, tested and certified scales. Don’t know why I have that either. Get rid of it? Well, what if I ever need to test a scale, hmm?

 

I need to get rid of some of this — this stuff.

But not my collection of M&M dispensers. No sir… And I really do need six volt ohm meters. And I’d like to hang onto that extra transceiver just in case. And, well, you never know, maybe I’ll actually use that whole drawer full of PL-259 connectors. And the laser tubes…

I’m doomed, aren’t I?