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.

Changes… And New Toy… And My Mind Wanders. Again

IMG_0167This is my new toy, a Raspberry Pi 3. If you want to experiment with building evil robotic minions to help you to take over the world, this is a good place to start. It has a 64 bit, quad core ARM A53 processor running at 1.2 GHZ, a gig of RAM, 4 USB ports, an HDMI port, LAN port, WiFi, reasonably good graphics and sound, and runs a version of LINUX. It can connect to the outside world to enable the computer to hook up to sensors, relays and controllers to make evil robots to allow you to take over the world, control devices, record data from sensors and all sorts of fun things.

And it costs a whopping $35. Less than what it would cost me to get a good meal at that fancy restaurant a couple of blocks from here. Hell, less than what just a bottle of wine would cost over there.

Now this, on the other hand… Well, not on the other hand because you couldn’t pick it up with one hand, but you get the idea. This is the first computer I ever owned. It is a Ohio Scientific C2-8P, and if you’ve 2ecd9544af30be5a0d4d8f7926065484never heard of it, I don’t blame you. Ohio Scientific is just one of many, many computer makers that tried to get into the home and small business market back in the late 1970s through the mid 1980s, and failed. It did better than a lot of them did, but eventually it failed, along with Atari, Commodore, Apricot, Coleco, Exidy, Franklin, Panasonic, Radio Shack/Tandy, Sinclair, Texas Instruments… Well, the list goes on and on.

Mine wasn’t even as good as the one in the photo over there. Mine was an early version that didn’t have the fancy paint and logo on the front. And it was nasty. It was about the size of a microwave oven, packed solid with circuit boards the size of a sheet of paper, each of those stuffed with chips of various types, all hooked together with miles of ribbon cables and wiring.

Mine was kind of odd. Kind of? Ha! It was seriously odd. I’d never seen anything like it before or since. I suspect it was an experimental unit that had been heavily modified. According to the photocopied documentation I got with it, it could support three different processors, a 6502, 6800 or 8080. Or maybe a Z80. Don’t remember. It was a long time ago. They were selected via a rotary switch on the back???? Really? Seriously? I never knew for sure. There was only one CPU board in it when I got it. There was a big rotary switch on the back but it wasn’t wired to anything. I think they had some kind of scheme where the switch would select one of 3 CPU boards connected to the backplane, but since there was only one CPU board and the switching system wasn’t connected I have no idea what the hell they were trying to do.

Why 3 different CPUs? I suspect they intended to use it as some kind of development and/or testing system for different types peripherals. The documentation I had was originally typewritten, with hand written notes in the margins, and then had been photocopied. It was interesting, that’s for sure. Large parts of the machine were wire wrapped and hand soldered so someone had been in there fiddling around. A lot.

It came with a whopping 4K of RAM. I spent hours hand soldering chips to the memory board to bring it up to 8K. The company I bought it from found an extra 8K RAM board for it and gave that to me. It was, of course, unpopulated, so I spent many more hours hand soldering RAM chips to the extra board.

Data storage was on a cassette tape. It read/wrote data to a cassette tape at a whopping 300 baud using the Kansas City Standard (if you know what that is, you really, really need to get out more and get a life). That’s 300 bits per second… Oooo, the excitement! To load the editor/assembler program so I could program in assembly language took 20 minutes. Video was black and white, text only, going to an old Panasonic B&W TV set that I had to re-wire to handle the video input from the computer. The company I bought it from offered to give me a “real deal” on the matching 8 inch floppy drive system for it. I passed because I could have bought a pretty good car for what they wanted for the thing.

What did it all cost? By the time I got it up and working (sort of) I probably had well over a grand invested in the thing.

In a way it was completely worthless, that computer. I never actually did anything genuinely useful with it. But on the other hand, if you count the intangibles it was worth every penny because I taught myself programming in BASIC and assembly language on that beastie. I learned how to solder IC chips to circuit boards. I learned how to hunt down failed components (capacitors failed all over the place on that thing for some reason). I learned why storing data on cassette tape is very, very nasty. Trying to get that thing running and keeping it running taught me more about the technology than all the computer science classes I took in college.

And I learned how to make my own Faraday cage because it put out so much RFI it screwed up every TV and AM radio in the area when I turned it on and had build one around it just so I could use it.

Now, where was I? How did I get off on this? Sheesh, I was going to talk about changes in technology, make pithy remarks about how almost no one back then foresaw how computer technology would evolve, morph into what it is today where computers are literally everywhere, in every aspect of our lives.

Instead I end up doing this ramble down memory lane babbling about a relatively minor player in the early computer market… Sigh.

Damn, I hated that computer. Wish I still had it.

 

 

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

IMG_0026

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

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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

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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.

 

 

Drones: Do You Need One on the Farm

So I ran across this little item over at AgWeb, the website of the Farm Journal:  How Much Should You Pay for a Drone? – News | Agweb.com and it was a huge disappointment because it’s one of those so-called articles that just doesn’t really tell you anything about drones, what they can be used for, how they work, and gives you pretty much no information at all. So let’s take a look at drones, what you can do with them, how they work, look at the photographic and video capabilities of the different models, etc.

Oh, and there may even be video! Oooo! Well, there will be if I can figure out how to upload video to this thing. But let’s get on with this, shall we?

What are you going to do with the thing? – Well, that’s not my problem, now is it? I’m sure you’ve come up with some kind of excuse to give to your spouse to explain why you dropped $1,500 on a drone, and for all I know maybe you really are going to use it to scout crops or track down missing cows or inspect roofs or something like that and you aren’t at all going to use it to annoy the cats or race other drone owners or build 3D obstacle courses in the back 40. Let me give you a bit of advice, though. When it comes to just having fun, the smaller, less expensive drones are generally more fun to play with than the big ones. They’re faster, more maneuverable, and don’t do as much damage when you hit something with one. Also a lot cheaper to fix. You fly a $50 Walmart special into a tree it’s going to be a lot less financially painful than flying your $2,000 DJI camera drone into a silo or something. So if you’re just looking to play, start small and cheap.

(Oh, and if you are tempted to try to play with cats with one of these things, here’s a word of advice: DON’T. Just don’t. Seriously. Those props spin at hundreds and hundreds of RPM on even small drones. And while they don’t have a lot of mass, those props can slice, dice and otherwise do very nasty things to living tissue.)

That being said, they can be useful in agriculture and other serious applications. Agriculture because this is grouchyfarmer.com after all and I need to put some kind of farming reference in here, don’t I?

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In case you were wondering, this is what the top of an old silo looks like

They are genuinely useful for inspecting roofs and a lot of roofing contractors are using them for that. They’re useful for scouting crops, finding trouble spots out in big fields. And they’re using them to try to find lost cows, and if you’ve ever had to try to find a heifer running around in a 40 acre corn field, you can understand why. They’re very useful for looking at the roofs of old silos as well. Exactly why you might want to look at the roof of an old silo is something you might wish to discuss with your therapist. But just in case you do, here’s one to get it out of your system. Ooo, exciting, isn’t it? And here you thought drones were just silly. I mean, just look at that! A silo! From above! Ooo!

Okay, now I’m just getting silly, aren’t I?

Money: So, how much is one of these puppies going to set you back? Well, it depends on what you want to do with it and how well you want to do it.

Now, if this editor put this photo in the right place, over there on the right is a Hubsan drone, one of the first video capable ones I bought, along with its controller on the left. It’s a nifty little gadget which streams video directly from the drone’s built in camera to a live video display built into the controller. It records video to a SD card that is inserted into the controller. Something like this goes in the $150 – $200 range, and it is about the bottom end of the scale for something that will give you some useful photo/video.  Well, almost useful. Okay, be perfectly honest, it’s completely useless for anything serious.

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TIny battery means tiny flight time for a drone. Hubsan gets about 4-8 minutes.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great fun to play with it, but it’s basically a toy that shouldn’t really be used except indoors. You can fly it outside, but if you do all bets are off. The range of the controller and video transmission is limited, just a couple of hundred feet at best, the video quality is, well, pretty miserable, to be honest, and flight time with the tiny batteries is about 4-6 minutes maximum. It’s also extremely unstable in even a light breeze.

Now if you’re flying around in the living room or kitchen taking photos of the dust on top of the cabinets, a 5 minute flight time is no big deal. But if you’re trying to fly around a 40 acre corn field, well, forget it.

If you’re going to do something serious with it like crop scouting, building inspection, etc. you’re going to be up in the $1,000+ range almost immediately. And even then you have to be careful, because what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. In order to keep costs down, a lot of these drones are “bare bones”, no camera, no camera mount, not even a controller. You’ll need to purchase a camera like the GoPro, and use an IOS or Android tablet or smartphone to actually operate the thing. So be careful. Before you buy one make sure you know what is actually in the box so you don’t find out the hard way that you need to drop another $500 or more just to get the thing in the air.

Video/Image Quality: Then there is the video quality on these itty bitty drones. It’s not exactly good, to be honest. Especially if you get them near the limit of their range. Let me give you an example.screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-7-22-36-amscreen-shot-2017-03-05-at-7-23-21-am

The top image is a still from the video feed from the Hubsan drone. The bottom image is the same scene from approximately the same altitude and location but taken with my Yuneec drone. You may notice just a wee bit of difference between the two images if you examine them very closely.

Let’s see if I can figure out how to put video into this to give you a better example of the difference between the toys and the more professional versions.

The above is video from the Hubsan from about 150 – 200 feet in the air above my house. Oh, dear. This should have been well within the stated range of the controller, but obviously it was already at the limits of its communication range. If you can see through all of the static, you can also see the drone is bouncing around a lot, even though there was only a light breeze. It was almost impossible to keep under control and I barely avoided crashing the thing.

The video above is from about the same altitude and same location taken with the Yuneec, and under wind conditions that were actually worse than they were when the Hubsan was in the air. Again, as was the case with the still images, you may notice a bit of difference in the quality of the two videos if you examine them closely. Just a bit.

There is also a bit of a difference in size between the cheap drones and the Yuneec Typhoon I own, as you can see here.

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That’s my Yuneec with a microdrone sitting on top of it to give you an example of the sizes of these things. The Hubsan that was used to take the still images and video is a bit bigger than the red microdrone shown here, but not by much.

Let me guess, you just came up with an idea to turn a big drone into a flying aircraft carrier for micro drones, didn’t you? Hey, go for it. Who am I to tell you not to do it?

Flying: Okay, so, how do you fly one of these things? Well, it turns out they are ridiculously easy to fly. They basically fly themselves. Especially the big ones. Built in gyros, motor controllers and onboard computers and GPS do all of the work for you. In fact, if it weren’t for all of that technology built into them, they’d be completely unflyable. The basic controls are generally a joystick for up, down, left, right, spin, that kind of thing.

The Yuneec, for example, will just hover wherever you put it. Park it over a specific spot 50 feet in the air, take your hands off the controls, and it will just stay there until the battery runs out, automatically maintaining it’s position and altitude. Even if a significant gust of wind comes along it will stabilize itself and return to its set position. There’s a panic switch. If you lose control of it, lose sight of it or something, press the button. It will go up to a height of 60 feet, return to it’s launch point, and land itself.

Well, if there’s nothing in the way, that is. This unit doesn’t have collision avoidance systems like some do so it can’t avoid obstacles.

The point is that just about anyone can fly one because they essentially fly themselves. The more sophisticated models allow you to plot out a flight plan on a map, and the drone will fly the route all by itself.

Still, you can get into trouble with the things. If the drone goes out of range of the controller, all bets are off. Some models will return to their launch point if they lose communications with their controllers, but a lot won’t.

Wind can be a real problem. The bigger ones are amazingly stable even in a good breeze, but I would not want to fly one if winds of more than 20 mph or so, especially anywhere near a structure or tree.

Regulations: Well, there are a lot of them. And there is still considerable confusion despite the FAA recently updating and clarifying things. If you’re just a hobbyist flying them for fun, you don’t need any special licensing or permits except for registering the drone with the FAA if it exceeds a certain size/weight category. The Hubsan shown above does not need to be registered. The Yuneec does because of it’s size and weight. If you’re flying for a business, you need a Remote Pilot Airman Certificate and have to pass a TSA background check. I won’t go into all of the rules and regulations. You can find them at the FAA’s website: https://www.faa.gov/uas/getting_started/ That will give you all of the information you need about how to stay legal.

So let’s wrap this up: Prices on these things are fluctuating all the time. You can get some real deals on even the better quality drones if you keep an eye out. I dropped about $1,500 on the Yuneec drone I’ve shown you here, but I’ve recently seen it going for under $700 because Yuneec is coming out with new and improved models. I don’t know what the used market is like, but I’m sure there is one. I’d be very cautious about buying a used one, however.

Recommendations: Ah, well, that gets a bit difficult. I’d like to recommend that if you’re interested in a camera drone you start with one of the cheap, small models before you drop a thousand bucks or more on one of the big ones. But it’s difficult to do that because they are entirely different beasts. The small, cheap drones are suitable only for flying indoors, are often twitchy to control. The slightest breeze can send them tumbling out of control. The cameras, if they have them at all, are virtually useless for any kind of decent photography or video. They are basically cheap, unstable toys. Don’t get me wrong, they are a lot of fun to play with, but that’s all they’re good for, play.

Drones like my Yuneec are much more stable, easier to fly outdoors, can handle wind better, feature gimbal mounted high def cameras that provide good video and still photos, but they are much, much more expensive than the $59.99 specials at Radio Shack or Amazon, or even the $180 Hubsan I have. So if you buy one and now decide it’s not something you want to do, well, now you’ve spent over a grand that you could have used to pay off your student loans or something, and you’re going to be mad at me because I recommended it.

Let’s say you’re thinking of doing actual serious work with it, like scouting hundreds of acres of corn or soybean fields. If you’re thinking of that kind of thing, well, even something like my Yuneec isn’t going to work all that well for you. Yes, it’s a damned good flying camera platform with a good, stable camera. But you only get about 20 minutes out of a battery so you’re going to need a lot of pre-charged batteries to scout any kind of significant acreage. You can’t pre-program a flight plan into it…

If you want to seriously do that kind of thing for a large far, you’re moving up into an entirely different and more sophisticated level of technology and, of course, an entirely different price range. For that kind of capability you’re getting out of the $1,000 – $1,500 range and getting into the $3,0000+ range and you might be better off getting one of the professional crop scouting services to come in and do it for you.

Addendum: I really need to point out that the claimed flight times for drones are often wildly optimistic. If the manufacturer claims you can get 30 minutes flight time from a fully charged battery, you can generally assume it’s going to be closer to 20 or even 15 minutes out in the real world.

The same is true for the claimed range of the controllers. As with battery life, the range of the controllers are estimates at best, and done under ideal conditions, not under the kinds of conditions you will find out in the real world.

Internet of Spies

If you’ve followed my blogs for any length of time you’ve probably heard me making disparaging remarks about the so called “Internet of Things”, this idea that one day everything will be networked to everything else, and oh, the fun we’ll have!

Your refrigerator will order your food when it gets low. Your cupboard will order food when you get low on staples. Your toilet will monitor your health and report the data to your doctor. Your bed will monitor your sleep habits. You can turn the lights on and off in  your house with your phone. You’ll be able to control the heat and cooling in your home from your cell phone. Your counter top will nag you “Are you sure you really need that cookie? Hmm? Mr. Scale tells me you’ve put on a few pounds…”

Now if you are one of the people who think this is the best thing ever, I have a question for you: Have you actually stopped to think about any of this nonsense?

Let’s have a little chat about the IOT, shall we? Let’s start with this little tidbit:

Bundesnetzagentur removes children’s doll “Cayla” from the market

Now, if you clickety click that link, you’ll find that the Bundeswhatever, a German regulatory agency, banned a children’s doll, declaring it to be little more than a concealed surveillance device because, well, because it pretty much is. Designed to interact with children, it uses an internet connection to monitor everything being said around it, sending it off to some server somewhere. It has little or no security, you don’t know where the information being gathered is being sent or what is being done with it. But you can be sure that someone, somewhere, is probably making money off it by selling the data.

And in case you think this is an isolated incident, it isn’t. Similar complaints have been made about an interactive Barbie doll. Security investigators found that it was a simple matter to use the doll to steal WiFi passwords, login information, files from computers linked to the home network… Fortunately the company that made the software was good about fixing the problems. But legally nothing is being done about what the company actually does with the data because here in the US our government’s policy is that privacy is a wonderful thing, but if someone can make money off violating your privacy so that money can to be used to buy politicians, well, where’s the harm in that, right?

Vizio was just fined $2.2 million for “smart” televisions that were spying on people. The company had installed tracking software in its televisions that tracked everything the owners watched, without telling the buyers of the sets it was doing it. There was a case a few years ago where an internet connected toy in the UK was serving up sexually explicit ads on the toy.

Now consider devices that are even smarter than that, that collect data about your eating habits, what you’re buying at the store, your physical health. There are dozens, hundreds of companies that would love to get their hands on that data to directly market things to you, that would benefit from knowing what your health is like, etc.

Even if the device isn’t actively spying on you, they can be troublesome. If we’ve learned anything about the Internet over the years it’s that it is not a safe place to play in. If a device can possibly be hacked, it will. If not for profit, than just for the sheer pleasure of vandalizing something.

You come home from work and find your garage door open and the garage cleaned out of anything of value because someone hacked your cell phone enabled garage door opener. Your house was emptied too because someone hacked your IOT enabled security system. Oh, and to make things even more fun, they hacked your heating controls and turned your furnace off in January and your house is frozen, the water pipes burst. And just to rub it in, your IOT enabled lights are flashing obscene messages in morse code.

I know this is getting a bit on the long side, but let me babble on here for a while longer before I wrap this up.

Now I readily admit that some of this technology is genuinely useful, especially for someone who is disabled or otherwise challenged. But a lot of it, even most of it, just isn’t. I don’t need to have an app on my cell phone to run my furnace. I have a device hanging on the wall that is connected to nothing but the furnace itself that does it for me. If I want to turn the AC on before I get home from work I can use a non-connected programmable timer that costs less and isn’t hackable.

The same is true of most of this stuff. I don’t need it, you don’t need it. Oh, it may be convenient, but is the convenience of being able to unlock your door with a cell phone worth the security risk? Not really.

It’s all marketing. Most of the convenience, security and safety issues being promoted by the developers of IOT technologies is illusory. The fake fears, the phony convenience, all standard marketing techniques to try to convince you that you really, really need this stuff.


Addendum: Then there is the deliberate outright spying… Like this case in Pennsylvania.

If you can’t be bothered to follow the link to the Wikipedia entry on the case, here’s a run down. A school in Pennsylvania loaded the laptops of all of it’s students with spyware that was capable of monitoring everything the students did for “security” reasons.

Including surreptitiously turning on the cameras in the laptops and recording videos and still images of everything. Including the students in their own homes, in their own rooms, in their own beds. They found over 700 still images that had been captured of one single student, even of him in bed sleeping and changing clothes. And those images were given to other employees of the school district. Since the cameras were active in the bedrooms and homes of other children who had the computers, one can assume that videos and images of them changing clothes, in the nude, etc were also captured. The school turned out to be doing this not just to students, but to teachers as well.