Rabbits, Cans and Antennas

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 6.07.48 AMWhile we live in town, we live in an area with large house lots, many trees, lots of bushes and a lot of rather lush vegetation, so we have the curse of the gardener, rabbits. Last year the little buggers ate all of my red runner beans almost as soon as they sprouted. There are mornings when I get up and I’ll see a half dozen of them in our yard or in the neighbors’ yards grazing on whatever the four legged locusts can gobble down. They’re getting more and more brave, too, coming out by mid afternoon in some parts of town. One of my neighbors tried live trapping them but had no success.

IMG_0891So to keep the little four legged vacuum cleaners out of our veggies we resort to fencing and one of the things MrsGF and I did over the weekend was put one up to keep them out of our produce. We got new fencing this year to replace the nasty looking chicken wire we used previously. It’s only 2 feet tall, a dark green color to make it less intrusive looking, and it’s fairly easy to put up. Hopefully it will keep the little stinkers out of our just barely sprouting beans.

Now you probably see all those #10 sized cans in there and you may not know about this trick. This is something MrsGF introduced me to years ago. When you first put seedlings out into the garden it’s something of a shock for them. They’ve just come out of a damp, warm, cozy little greenhouse and now are stuck out in the cold, cruel world and have to fend for themselves. The cans help to give them some shelter from the elements and protect them from the previously mentioned rabbits. Just get some empty #10 cans, cut the bottoms out of them, and push them about an inch into the soil around the newly transplanted seedlings. The only thing you have to remember is that when you finally pull the cans out after the plants are established is to give the can a twist before lifting it up or it can pull up large clods of earth which can disturb the roots.

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There are big changes coming for this area back here shown above. Right now it’s largely just decorative except for the lettuce bed behind the big rock. The problem back here is this area is really low and is almost underwater in the early spring, which makes it hard to grow anything except grass. That’s why we put in the raised beds which are off to the right out of sight. MrsGF and I decided this whole area is going to get raised up, perhaps yet this year if we get the time. We’re going to get decorative retaining blocks like the ones currently surrounding the lettuce bed, pull out all of the plants we want to keep, and then make the whole thing into a single raised bed about a foot above the height of the lawn.

Antennas

Well, we’ll have to move the antenna parts you see off to the right before we can start anything back there. Hopefully that tower you see laying back there that has been going to be put up “real soon now” for about 5 years will get put up this year. Maybe. And the GAP Titan vertical antenna will replace the Comet vertical as soon as I can corner eldest son and guilt him into helping.

The antenna tower… I traded a deep cycle marine battery for that with one of the ARES guys. He needed a battery for the power system in the emcomm trailer, he had this tower laying around that he just took down, so we made a swap. The tower was supposed to go up at the end of the garage and be the support for various antennas, including one for broadcast TV so MrsGF can watch PBS in the evening. (The problem with digital TV versus the old analog is that with the old analog if you were in a fringe reception area, you still could see and hear something. There would be static, yes, but you’d still get a watchable picture. If you’re in a fringe area with digital, you get nothing). Eldest son keeps claiming he’s going to help get it up the next time he gets over here.

Antennas are really my biggest problem when it comes to amateur radio. I play around with them, experiment, etc. but I haven’t come up with anything really any better than the off center fed dipole currently strung up from the garage to a couple of trees. It works reasonably well, but is way too low to the ground. And the biggest problem is that one leg of the dipole runs to a tree in the neighbor’s yard, and the neighbor is moving, so that means the antenna has to be moved too.

Like a lot of amateur radio operators, I’ve accumulated a lot of junk related to the hobby, including several different types of antennas. And despite claims from the manufacturers of many antennas, most of them don’t really work all that well. It’s basic physics, really. In order to be efficient, antennas for radio frequencies down in the shortwave (HF) portions of the amateur radio bands, like down in 80 or 40 meters, need to be pretty long. Your cell phone has a really, really tiny antenna, because it works with very, very high frequencies.

Antennas for the frequencies I work with are huge. We’re talking 80, 90 feet long or longer. My OCFD, if laid out straight, would be 135 feet long.

So if it needs to be that long, how can that GAP Titan antenna laying out there be only 21 feet tall? Well, it cheats, basically. It uses various tricks to make itself work better than it really should at first glance. It looks simple, but it isn’t. It’s actually a very complicated piece of equipment with various radiators and stubs and, well, antenna stuff. It would take more space than I have here to try to explain it all.

What it boils down to is you can’t get something for nothing. You can’t fool physics. You can make smaller, shorter antennas, but you sacrifice efficiency when you do that. I wince when I see some of the ads for some of the antennas on the market because I know the claims being made for the are pretty much bogus.

Amateur Radio & Gardening, Hey, Why Not

The weather has been amazingly pleasant for a change these last few days. Everything is growing like crazy as you can see from the photo of the hosta garden in front of the house that I took yesterday. Wonderful plants, hostas; decorative, resilient, with so many different shapes and types it’s hard to keep track.

IMG_0875The corner garden here has been completely redone. In the past it was mostly herbs and decorative plants, but this year we more than doubled it in size, hauled in a tons of compost (well, my aching back claimed it was tons) and it’s being switched to mostly vegetables this year. MrsGF put in something like 20+ pepper plants of varying types (can you tell we like peppers?) plus two blueberry bushes and a couple of rows of beans down along the front. The soil in there is so utterly horrible that I did something I very rarely do, I raked in some commercial fertilizer as well. We’ll see what happens. It will either be wildly successful or everything will die off.

IMG_0873We were not going to make the same mistake we did last year by crowding too many plants into the two raised beds. It’s very tempting when putting in seedlings to crowd them in because it seems like there is so much wasted space, and forgetting just how big those plants get when they’re mature. We only put 6 plants in each of the beds this year and I hope that will help to eliminate some of the issues we had last year. While we avoided the dreaded blossom end rot last year, we did have some fungus problems because the plants were so crowded together.

IMG_0881And then when I was walking around the yard yesterday I nearly stepped on this guy. Yes, we have snakes in Wisconsin. You wouldn’t think they could survive our winters up here, but several species do quite well. Heck, until the 1950s or 60s we still had timber rattlers around here. This little guy… Little? Ha, he was a good two and a half feet long. He scared the heck out of me although I’m sure nearly being stepped on while he was sunning himself in the grass scared him more.

Amateur Radio Stuff

IMG_0863After the fiasco of wrecking the fold down mount for the GAP antenna, I put the crappy old Comet 250 vertical back up, hooked up the coax, went inside, checked to make sure everything looked OK, turned on the transceiver and — and immediately made about 6 different contacts all over North America with the thing on 40, 30 and 20 meters, running about 40 watts of power, less than it takes to run a modern lightbulb.

Sigh… radio propagation is weird sometimes.

I’ve been getting more and more interested in QRP operations. That’s amateur radio slang for very low power. QRP operators put out 5 watts of power or less. Often a lot less. The guys who are really good at it often operated with less than one watt of radiated power. They often use transceivers they built themselves or got as kits that can be ridiculously inexpensive.

There is a ‘gotcha’, though. Trying to make contacts using voice at those low power levels is damn near impossible. If you’re going to run QRP, you really need to go with good old morse code, or CW as it’s called.

Now I’ve thrown myself at CW on numerous occasions over the years, and failed miserably in learning it. The recommended techniques, the tapes, the CDs, none of them have worked. It all sounds like pure noise to my ear.

But then I ran into an IOS app called “Ham Morse”. It does have the more traditional teaching method, which doesn’t work for me. But what does work is that Ham Morse can also tie into the headline news feeds of various news organizations and sends the as CW at whatever speed you’re comfortable with. And guess what? For me, at least, this works. Now that I’m trying to copy actual meaningful text instead of single letters or groups of letters that have no relationship, my weird brain is actually starting to make the connection between those strange noises and the text.

The result is that I can copy CW at up to about 6 – 8 words per minutes. Maybe. Sometimes. Sort of. I’ve been listening to a lot of CW down on 20 meters trying to make sense of it all and despite all of the odd abbreviations and symbols and prosigns they use, I’m starting to pick some of it up.

Anyway, one of the reasons I’m interested in QRP is that the equipment is small, the antennas are small, you can operate with nothing but a relatively small battery. The whole kit can be thrown into a backpack easily, set up and taken down quickly. It’s ideal for someone who spends a lot of time on a bicycle like me. Would be great fun to sit out on the trails making contacts on summer mornings with just a wire hanging in a tree and a couple of watts of power.

http://offgridham.com/

I don’t make a lot of recommendations for websites or products or stuff like that, but if you’re at all interested in QRP operations, battery technology, solar power technologies and amateur radio, click the link up there at offgridham.com. Chris over there has provided a wonderful resource. He delves into alternative power technologies like solar, evaluates and discusses battery charging systems, battery types, etc. While it’s oriented for amateur radio, the material he covers is going to be of interest to anyone who is interested in unplugging from the power grid.

And that’s all for now.

Oh, I keep forgetting. I have email here. If you have questions or stuff you don’t want to put in the comments, you can reach me at old.grouchyfarmer@gmail.com

 

Amateur Radio Stuff: It was one of *those* kinds of days…

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Gap Titan DX vertical antenna only not so vertical

Eldest son came over yesterday to help me get the Gap Titan antenna put up at last and for a while all went well. We got the tilt over mount installed, finished putting the antenna together except for the counter poise, got it bolted to the mount and started to tilt it upright and…

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The mounting system just couldn’t take the strain. The mounting bolts bent and one broke off.

And quickly discovered that the “heavy duty” tilt over mounting system wasn’t really all that “heavy duty” and couldn’t handle the stresses of even the relatively light weight Titan antenna.

It should have been able to handle it easily. The size and weight of the antenna was well under the specified limits of the mounting system. But we ended up with bent bolts, bent parts and everything had to be brought back down again rather quickly.

Enormously disappointing, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. The mounting system was advertised as being able to handle a 40 foot un-guyed vertical and the Titan is considerably smaller and lighter. But I should have known there would be problems as soon as I saw the small size of the bolts.

So it’s back to the drawing board as we brainstorm to try to figure out a way to get this thing in the air in the location it has to be placed in. It’s really frustrating to have a new antenna laying in the back yard and not being able to use it, especially one as expensive as the Titan is.

FT8 mode continues to generate controversy in some circles despite the fact it is now the most popular mode in use on the HF bands, and by a pretty wide margin. I’ve used it quite a bit to make contacts, but that’s really all it’s good for, making a brief contact. You can’t actually use it for exchanging actual information. It’s restricted to sending a maximum of 13 characters at a time (I think) if 15 second data bursts. The typical FT8 contact consists of exchanging call signs, location grid reference, a completely meaningless reception strength report in dB, and that’s it.

For a bunch of people who are so heavily involved in communications technologies, they don’t seem to actually like communicating. Rather curious, that.

That being said, I have been trying to talk to someone, anyone, this morning, and with very poor results. I fiddled with FT8 this morning for a while, made a few contacts, and rather quickly got bored with it all. I tried PSK for a time, and found absolutely no one on any of the PSK parts of the spectrum. Then I switched to CW, something I very rarely dabble with. I ran into a few people zipping along at 25+ words per minute, way, way too fast for normal human beings to copy. I called CQ at a more reasonable 10 wpm and got zilch. You’d think there’d be more people out there on a Sunday morning, but it seems not. Either that or band conditions are too poor.

Indoor Tulips & Assorted Stuff

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MrsGF has been just as sick of looking outside at the brown wasteland that is March here in Wisconsin as I have, so she shoved some old bulbs into pots and put them in a sunny window a few weeks ago and this is what we have now. Great fun to see tulips starting to pop open again.

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That’s not to say that there aren’t things growing already. She was outside looking things over yesterday and discovered that the chives are already six inches tall over in their protected corner. They’re always the first things to spring up and they’ve been ridiculously prolific. We put those in shortly after we bought the house so they’ve been going strong for almost 20 years now.

The big question now is sod, as in how are we going to get rid of it. There is a pretty big section of lawn we want to rip out to expand one of the gardens here, and getting rid of

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This was the little Massey. Fun, useful little tractor but keeping it in town was a bit ridiculous

the sod is always a pain in the neck. I sold my tractor a couple of years ago. After selling the farm we kept the little Massey for a while, but keeping it was a bit silly. It was mostly in storage over at the farm of a friend about 8 miles from here and there it sat until we needed it perhaps for one afternoon a year. So keeping it and its trailer was ridiculous. So it looks like I’ll resort to the good old fashioned dig it up with a shovel method as soon as the frost is completely out of the ground.

MrsGF and I were sorting through seeds and tentatively making plans earlier this morning. We were thrilled when Eldest Son gave us literally a whole shopping bag of seed packets for Christmas, but we have to be realistic. We can’t grow all of it as much as we’d like to. And there are quite a few that we don’t really like or couldn’t use. Neither of us like melon all that much, and it takes up a lot of space, so those got set aside. Same with eggplant. Don’t get me wrong, eggplant is a perfectly delightful vegetable. But that one summer our eggplant was so ridiculously prolific that we got so sick of eating eggplant that we can’t really stand looking at them any more.

We brought up the little portable greenhouse rack we use to start seed and MrsGF is in the process of starting trays of seeds even as I write this.


Amateur Radio Stuff

I’ve been having a lot of fun with the FT8 mode over the last couple of months. Even with my seriously bad antenna system I’ve had a couple of hundred contacts and have managed to hit something like 35 different countries, including some really long distance contacts with Hawaii, Alaska, Japan and Tasmania.

I’ve even started playing with PSK again and have made a few contacts with that mode as well. Unlike FT8 you can actually chat with people using PSK. Unfortunately it seems most PSK users have jumped ship for FT8 and seeing a PSK signal on the bands has been a rather rare thing. Even more annoying is that the powers that be decided that on 17 meters the frequency recommendation for FT8 mode is the same one as the PSK allocation, so PSK on 17 meters is a lost cause because the frequency is swamped with FT8.

antennaI’m hoping to get this puppy up in the air this spring. It’s already mostly assembled out in the back yard and we have all the hardware for mounting, including the tilt-over base. It’s a GAP Titan multi-band vertical antenna that should help to give me a significant boost over the OCFD I currently have hanging out there now. This one is going to replace the Comet 250 vertical I have and which is… Well, let’s face it, the Comet isn’t that good of an antenna. It can only handle about 240 watts and to be perfectly frank I’m amazed the thing works at all.

I also have a 40 foot antenna tower laying out in the backyard that will hopefully get set up sometime this summer. Of course I said that last summer, too. And the summer before that…

 

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.

Finally!!!

I just realized I haven’t posted anything here in months. I am truly ashamed of myself. Really I am.

Well, okay, not really. It’s just that it’s been one hell of a busy winter. And bloody cold. We had over 50 days of temperatures below zero, and it took it’s toll on everyone and everything. Water supply froze up out at the farm, non-starting cars, water main breaks here in town… So let’s see if I can get caught up a little bit here.

This is the Jeep. Got that late last fall. I was looking at a Dodge Dart, a nice, sporty little commuter style car with good fuel economy, useful, fairly comfortable to drive. So, of course, I came home with this.

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A 2013 totally over the top Jeep with a lift kit, 35” tires, rock guards, skid plates and a soon-to-be-installed 9,500 pound capacity winch.

And yes, it’s generally that dirty. In fact, the poor thing has been covered in mud, snow, salt, slush and miscellaneous debris since I got it.

I finally got the Yaesu 7900 dual band transceiver installed in it yesterday. Moving with my usual lightening speed, it only took me four months to get the thing installed. Well, it’s been bloody cold around here, and trying to install radios when your fingers go numb literally within seconds of taking your gloves off isn’t a good idea. But now it’s March and it’s getting warmer… Yeah, sure it is. Was 20 degrees yesterday. So much for spring. Had to fire up the big kerosene heater in the garage for half an hour before I could even start.

Had to get a new antenna mount and antenna for it. I’d been using a mag-mount on the Magnum, which won’t work on the Jeep because it’s a sort-of convertible. There’s a T-top over the passenger compartment and the whole back roof of the thing comes off after removing about six bolts. So the mag-mount was out. Finally got a tailgate mounting bracket and I’m finally back on the air. which is a good thing because I’m a storm spotter for the local ARES/RACES group and it’s damned hard to spot storms when you can’t communicate with the EmCom center down at the sheriff’s department.

I’ve managed to pick up a ton of various radio equipment over the last few months. Most of which I can’t use because of the antenna situation around here. The performance of the Comet vertical is, well, let’s just say not very good and leave it at that. I want to get down on 80/75 meters, and the poor Comet just doesn’t hack it. It’s so inefficient on the lower bands I might as well be dumping my transmitter directly into a dummy load. I also can’t use the big 1,500 watt amplifier I picked up recently because the Comet can only handle around 250 watts.

I have two antennas laying around I want to try. I picked up another vertical, this one far more efficient and able to handle legal limit, and an off center fed dipole. Both are theoretically able to handle multiple bands without an antenna tuner, and both are able to handle full legal limit power. 

Again, though, the weather hasn’t been cooperating. Aside from one day when the temperature actually flirted with 50 degrees, we’ve been in the deep freeze around here. Trying to hang dipoles from trees, running nearly a hundred feet of LMR-400, assembling 31 foot long vertical antennas and tuning them with temperatures barely up in the 20s isn’t exactly my idea of fun, so I’m impatiently waiting for warmer weather.

Speaking of radio stuff… 10 meters has been absolutely crazy the last couple of weeks during the daylight hours. This is a screen shot from the Kenwood 990’s waterfall display:

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The ‘old timers’ tell me this is the best they’ve seen 10 meters in decades. I’m monitoring the PSK part of the band right now, around 28.120.150 and I’m seeing wall to wall PSK traces on the display. Lots of eastern European countries coming in at the moment. Last night around 7:30 PM local time I even saw a few coming in from Japan when the band was apparently closing down for the night.

It’s Alive!

Eldest son Steve and I spent Friday getting the temporary mount for the VHF antenna set up and the cables run, and then spent Saturday getting the Comet HF antenna assembled and attached to a temporary mount and the cables run for that.

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Here’s the temporary grounding rod with the lightening arrestors installed. Trying to drive a 6 foot long grounding rod through the frost layer was entertaining, to say the least, but we got the thing in at last.

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Here’s the temporary mount for the VHF/UHF antenna. Basically it’s just screwed to the side of the garage. With the weather the way it’s been recently there’s no way we can get up on the roofs to do anything, so we have to settle for temporary mounting until the snow and ice melts and we can do more permanent mounting systems.

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Another temporary mounting, this one for the Comet multi-band vertical. Basically it’s just an 8 foot pipe driven into the ground for a temporary mounting mast. Not exactly an ideal setup, but it will work until we can get a permanent antenna system installed this spring.