First Look At The Alpha Mag-Loop Antenna

The antenna with the optional “booster loop” allowing operation on 80 & 60 meters installed, with it’s tripod and mast.

If you’ve come here looking for pictures of flowers and nature and me babbling about gardening and farming, you might want to skip this one because this entry is entirely amateur radio related. I want to talk about mag loop antennas. I’ve been fascinated with mag loop antennas since I first heard about them, and have always wanted to build or buy one to experiment with. I finally broke down and bought one from Alpha Antenna.

I’m not going to explain what a mag-loop antenna is. If you’ve read this far you either already know or you’ve already used Google to look it up. I’ll just say that these compact, efficient antennas have become extremely popular, especially in the QRP (low power) amateur radio community, and for good reason. But mag-loops do have some issues. There are always trade offs in the world of radio. First they have an extremely narrow bandwidth, making it necessary to retune the antenna if you change frequency. And second, they are generally only rated for low power transmissions. They’re usually considered to be QRP (low power) antennas. Mag loop antennas can be built that can handle impressive amounts of wattage, but there are problems that are difficult (and expensive) to deal with.

I should explain why I picked the Alpha rather than one of the other antennas on the market. The Alpha can handle more power than many other mag loops on the market, up to 100 watts on SSB, 50 watts on CW, and 25 on digital, depending on the frequency being used. This is more than what a lot of the other ones can deal with, at least in this price range. It works from 4o meters to 10 meters, and with the Booster Cable, can even work down on 80 meters. A lot of mag loops only work from 20 to 10 meters, and most have no options to extend their range down to the 80 meter band. The Alpha I bought also included the tripod, mast, and other parts necessary to fully assemble and use the antenna. Basically it is a complete antenna system. All you have to do is put it together, hook up your coax and begin using it. It was everything I really wanted in one convenient package.

You can order it directly from the company, but I bought mine off Amazon. Retail price is $500 including the main antenna, the booster cable, tripod and mast and a carrying bag. (Note: I have no connection to either Amazon nor Alpha, do not get paid by them, do not get special deals or anything else. I paid full retail price for the antenna and ordered it through normal retail channels.)

There’s enough room in the bag that it would hold just about everything I’d need, the 818, SignaLink, cables, battery, etc. plus the antenna itself.

The antenna comes in its own gym style carrying bag with the Alpha logo on it. Everything, including the tripod and short mast (basically a selfie stick, and Alpha refers to it as such), fits neatly in the bag with room left over.

Once you unpack everything from the bag, this is what you get:

This is the entire antenna, including both the normal loop, the “booster cable” loop for 80/60 meter operations, the tuning box, the tripod and mast, and the plastic bag containing nylon clips to position the antenna, a sheet of instructions, and an extra “T” coax connector.

Note the extra “T” coax connector in the plastic bag. I had no idea why that was included, but a bit of research turned up why they tucked that in with the rest of the antenna. That’s being included because Alpha had reports of bad T connectors in the recent past. All previous owners of the antenna were sent new T connectors and they’re including spare T’s just in case.

Assembly is a piece of cake. Being a typical amateur radio operator I, of course, never looked at the instructions until after I’d put it together. (I really should stop doing that, shouldn’t I?) Even so, it took me all of about five minutes to get it fully assembled and ready to go. And, amazingly enough, I even got it right the first time. Alpha has a video up on youtube showing how to assemble it, including how to add the Booster Cable for 80 meter operations. Just click the link there to see it. It’s all very straight forward.

Note that the loop does not have to be perfectly circular to work properly. As long as it’s reasonably close, you’re good to go. Note: Yes, that is the world’s ugliest recliner back there behind the antenna. And the less said about that sofa, the better. We can’t have nice furniture because we have cats who think they own the house and its contents and we’re just there to feed them and occasionally provide them with entertainment when they’re bored.

The photo above shows it fully assembled, without the booster cable, in my dining room. The loops are all made of LMR 400 coax, which is extremely stiff and has no trouble holding any shape you want to bend it into. Use some caution when you’re coiling and uncoiling the coax. It can be awkward to work with because of how stiff it is. Note the two plastic clips holding the large loop in the proper position above the small loop. 6 of those clips are included. The other four are required for use with the Booster Cable installed. This is the antenna with the “Booster Cable” installed.

The booster cable is connected in series with the regular large loop, so you now have a double loop instead of just a single loop. All the proper connectors are already installed on the ends of the cable so you don’t need adaptors.

Without the booster cable installed it’s impossible to use the antenna on frequencies below 40 meters. And I should point out that with the booster installed it’s impossible to use the antenna on frequencies higher than 40 meters. So you can either work 80/75 to 60 meters, or you can work 40 to 10 meters, but not both.

Overall quality is quite good. The coax is genuine LMR 400 from Times Microwave. The small tripod is more than sturdy enough to handle the antenna. The mast/selfie stick is sturdy enough to handle supporting the loops. Once it’s set up the mast and tripod are very easy to adjust if necessary. The connectors on the coax and on the tuning unit look to be of good quality and appear to be silver plated. I did not open up the box to look at the variable capacitor, but others have and if you want to see what’s in there, you can find photos and videos on Youtube and other sources. It looks well made from quality materials and should provide years of reliable use.

I should point out that if you’re using it outside and there is more than a gentle breeze you’re going to have to stabilize the tripod somehow. A stiff breeze will blow it over.

The first thing I did after putting it together was hook it to my antenna analyzer to see how good of a match I could get on the frequencies I normally use.

Now most of you reading this probably know this already, but just in case I’ll mention it. You never use your transceiver’s internal antenna tuner or an external tuner, with a mag-loop antenna. You adjust the antenna for a proper match by turning the knob connected to the variable capacitor inside that little gray box. And getting a match can be very touchy sometimes depending on the antenna, the type of capacitor being used and other factors. Now I don’t have any personal experience with mag-loop antennas before getting the Alpha, but from what I’ve heard from others, tuning the Alpha is no worse than tuning any of the others, and actually a lot easier than some reports from other models.

BTW: If you do any kind of fiddling around with antennas, an antenna analyzer quickly becomes your best friend.

I don’t use 80/75 meters much, and have no plans to use it for QRP, but since I already had the booster cable installed for the photo I checked that first. I didn’t have high hopes for a decent match down there, but much to my surprise the Alpha with the booster installed indicated an SWR of a bit over 1.1:1.

I took the booster cable off and set it up the way I would normally use it and looked at the rest of the HF frequency range.

I got excellent, or at least decent, SWR all across the amateur radio bands with one exception, 12 meters. No matter what I did I couldn’t get an SWR of less than 2.5:1 on 12 meters. Considering that I’m getting matches of 1.5:1 or better, usually much better, on the other bands, I’m assuming that there’s something wrong with what I’m doing and I’ll look into it further when I get some time. It’s entirely possible that I simply missed the “sweet spot” when trying to tune the antenna because I was in a hurry to get it hooked up and on the air.

Now, the question is, of course, does the thing actually work as an antenna? The answer to that question is an emphatic yes!

I don’t have my Yaesu 818 yet, so I tested it with my Kenwood TS-990, with the antenna standing on it’s tripod right behind me in the office where I could easily reach the knob to adjust it. Once I got a few glitches straightened out (My fault, not the antenna’s. Turned out the coax I was using had a bad connector. Once I re-soldered that all was well.), I gave it a try on 20 meters using FT8 with the 990’s power turned down to 8 watts and the SWR adjusted down to 1.4:1. And this is what popped up on PSK Reporter a short time later:

Now FT8 is a pretty efficient mode, but still… Damn. I was getting reception reports from all over the country while putting about 8 watts into an antenna sitting on the floor behind me in the office.

I moved up to 10 meters. Now 10 meters has been in the doldrums because we’re at the bottom of the solar cycle, but you never know. After adjusting things tried with the 990’s output set to 6 watts. I honestly didn’t expect to see anything pop up on PSK Reporter, but low and behold, when it cycled through, there I was, with reception reports popping up all over the place.:

Reaching Texas, Kansas and a large part of the east coast with 6 watts output using an antenna sitting in my office? Yeah, that’s not bad at all. Okay, I am officially impressed.

So far I’m very pleased with this antenna. More than pleased. In fact the few times I’ve had a chance to operate this past week or two, I’ve been using the loop exclusively when I use FT8. Getting it tuned is a bit fiddly, but as I’ve gained experience with it I’ve found I can tune it reasonably quickly and easily. (More about that in a minute.) I can’t wait to have a chance to really work with it and see what it can do out in the field. Once the Yaesu 818 gets here I’m hoping to throw together a complete portable digital system compact enough to throw into the back of the car along with my fishing gear and making some contacts out in the wild, so to speak.

Let’s talk about tuning mag-loop antennas for a moment. I mentioned before that you do not use an antenna tuner with these antennas because they have their own built in tuners, that variable capacitor. That’s how you adjust ’em to get a match. And these antennas are very, very touchy when it comes to tuning. They are very narrow bandwidth to begin with, and moving the dial a fraction of a degree can make a huge difference in the SWR.

I used an antenna analyzer at first when testing. It’s pretty easy to dial them in that way, but connecting and disconnecting an analyzer is a pain in the neck, and you don’t want to have to lug one along if you’re going portable. There is a technique to make it easier to set them up. The trick is to hook it up to your transceiver, set your transceiver to the frequency you want to use, and then listen to the receiver as you turn the dial on the antenna. (Hint: Turn that knob slowly. It is very, very easy to slip right past the sweet spot if you turn the knob too quickly.) As you get close to a match there will be a sudden increase in noise coming from your receiver. When you reach that point watch your S meter or listen to the noise level to bring that noise to a peak. Once you do that you’ll be pretty close and you can use a test transmission to dial it in for the best SWR before you being actually trying to make contacts.

Another issue with tuning is how the antenna reacts to being close to y0ur body. The mere presence of your hand near the antenna when turning the knob is enough to alter it’s characteristics in some cases. Since you have to bring your hand close to the antenna to adjust the tuner, this can mean that as soon as you take your hand away from the antenna, your SWR will change, sometimes significantly so. If that kind of thing happens, you can often compensate for it. I quickly learned to stop tuning a bit before or a bit after the ideal SWR in order to get a good match once I took my hand away when that happened. Interestingly, it doesn’t happen all the time. This is due to a phenomenon known as body capacitance or hand capacitance. The human body can act like a capacitor. The actual amount of capacitance varies depending on environmental conditions. So depending on conditions, just bringing your hand close to the antenna can cause it’s characteristics to change. Don’t worry about it. It doesn’t happen all the time, and if it does, you’ll learn to adapt.

So overall the Alpha has been a lot of fun to use. Only time will tell how it holds up, but it looks to be well made and certainly it works as advertised. I’m really very, very pleased with it so far.

Later — Look what the nice UPS driver just delivered today !!!

The 818 is here! I still have some bits and bobs to put together before I’m ready to take it out on the road. I want to do digital modes, and that means I need a laptop, and the elderly Toshiba I was planning on using looks like it is instead headed for the recycling center, so I’m going to have to scrounge up a laptop. I’ll need make or buy connector cables to hook everything up to the laptop and SignaLink. Then I’ll need a power supply of some sort. The 818 does have it’s own battery, but the SignaLink requires a power source and I’d like to have a central power source to run everything. Nothing serious but it’s going to take some time, which is in short supply right now because we’re up to our necks with landscaping and gardening projects and house updating projects and other stuff at the moment. Until I get all the bits together I need for digital operations I may try it with the Alpha on SSB and see what happens.

I’ll keep you posted as “The Great QRP Project” progresses

I thought I’d have time for all this stuff once I retired, but it turns out that between things MrsGF wants me to do, landscaping, gardening and other things going on around here, I actually have less time for playing radio than I did before I retired. How the hell did that happen?

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.