Stuff

If you live in the midwest in the US you don’t need me to tell you that the weather hasn’t been very good. Unusually cold temperatures and seemingly non-stop rain has been hitting large parts of the midwest. Corn and soybeans were, for the most part, planted late or even not at all. Ohio seems to have been hit the worst. Looks like almost 25% of the Ohio corn crop isn’t going to be planted at all. The situation with soybeans isn’t quite as bad, but the numbers there aren’t looking very good either.

The exact numbers are uncertain because a lot of farmers and people in the ag industry are being openly, even brutally skeptical of the data coming out of USDA. There are claims USDA is including acreage that has been planted but is under water and will never grow, acreage that has been planted with cover crops instead of corn because it’s already too late to plant, etc.

I can’t confirm or deny any of those suspicions. All I know is that when I ride around the countryside I’m seeing a hell of a lot of fields that look like the picture there on the left; lots of mud, lots of standing water, and lots and lots of weeds. It is too late to do anything with fields like that except to try to plant a cover crop to keep down the weeds and prevent erosion. You aren’t going to get any kind of economically viable crop planted in this area, this late in the season.

What about hemp, you ask?

Well, okay, you didn’t ask, but I’ve had a couple of people ask me about what the situation is with hemp. It is now legal to plant, harvest and process hemp here in Wisconsin, and despite the fact that a lot of people have been hyping the hell out of it and claiming that it is going to be the savior of agriculture, well, hemp, so far at least, has been pretty much a total bust for those few farmers who’ve tried it. Raising hemp for grain was a total loss last year from what I heard. Because of wet fall it was almost impossible to harvest the stuff. And what they did get harvested was hit by mold because of the damp weather so they couldn’t sell it at all.

Instead of depressing stuff, how about some pretty flowers instead? This is alyssum growing in my backyard. Wonderful stuff. Beautiful tiny, tiny flowers that produce some of the most amazing scent imaginable. I love this little plant. Those flowers are very small, about the size of a match head.

Raising it to produce CBD oil didn’t work out too well either for a lot of farmers. One farmer I heard about did successfully get his crop in, but trying to actually sell it was a different story. It seems no one actually wants large amounts of the stuff. Or none that he could find, anyway. None of the CBD oil producers he’s dealing with seem to want more than a few pounds of it at a time, and you can’t make money that way. His problem is marketing, of course. It sounds like he jumped into production before he was even sure if he could sell the stuff.

Hemp isn’t going to be “the savior” of agriculture. It is, at best, going to be just another crop that some will have success with. And all of the hype about CBD oil seems to be mostly that, hype, with few actual facts to back up any of the claims. There seems to be some indications it can help with epilepsy and discomfort from arthritis, but that’s about it.

Antenna Stuff

Strange things are growing in my backyard behind the garage. No, that’s not some kind of weird sunflower, that’s a GAP Titan DX vertical antenna which has been laying around for years now. Eldest son and I finally got the dopey thing put up over the weekend. That thing has been laying around for, oh, lord, has it really been three or four years? Sheesh… Talk about procrastination…

It replaces the Comet 250 vertical that was back there since 2013. The Comet – people like to complain about it but to be perfectly fair it wasn’t a horrible antenna. It is exactly what they claim it is, a multi-band vertical that doesn’t need radials or a counterpoise, that works from 80 to 10 meters without an antenna tuner, and can handle up to 250 watts. It is unobtrusive, the neighbors probably won’t complain about it, and under the right conditions it will even work as an antenna. Sort of. Not a very good antenna, true, but it will work.

The Titan has a pretty good reputation. It too is an all-band vertical, but you can see that it isn’t exactly simple, with all kinds of stubs and wires and stuff coming off it. But it is much, much more efficient than the Comet. And I can feed this one up to 1,500 watts if I want to without damaging it, where the Comet, well, I heard reports that if you tried to put more than 100 watts into the Comet you’d melt down the coils. Anyway, I still have work to do on this one. I need to get the counterpoise installed, need to get some connectors on it, need to tune the stubs. Hopefully it won’t take me another four years to get it hooked up!

It’s up high enough so it won’t interfere with the flowerbeds behind the garage. The counterpoise will take up a bit of space so I imagine MrsGF will not like that, but I’m hoping to get her to upgrade to a general class license now that she’s retired and if she does she’ll get as much use out of that antenna as I will.

Speaking of flowers, (well, okay, I wasn’t speaking of flowers but what the heck) the lupins have just gone nuts this year. They’re everywhere. It looks like someone bombed the entire backyard with seed. We didn’t plant any of these, they just came up by themselves. Not that I’m complaining. Those flowers are spectacular.

Let’s see, what else? Oh, yeah…

Stuff On The Air

Amateur radio operators can be a bit, well, odd, shall we say? (Personally I suspect it’s solder fumes.) Some of them seem to be obsessed with lugging their equipment out of the safe environment of their basements where spouses have exiled them and into the great outdoors with the intent of doing “Things On The Air”. They do SOTA (summits on the air), IOTA (islands on the air), POTA (parks on the air) WPOTA (Walmart parking lots on the air), and, well, the list goes on and on.

I’ve decided to join the ranks of these intrepid and brave explorers going to exotic places and sticking still more letters in front of “OTA”, risking life and limb outside of the safety of my normal operating location. Yes, I’ve started FPOTA! Front Porches On The Air! Ooo, the excitement! Ah, the thrills!

The plant there is important. It adds about 0.001 dB to the gain of the antenna.

Well, okay, I’m being silly here. (But to be honest I’m getting really tired of these “OTA” things and people running around “activating” parking lots and hills and parks and bridges and I don’t know what all else.) Still, we had a very rare nice day so I set up the mag loop and the 818 out on the front porch with a cup of coffee, a copy of “The Bathroom Reader” and and contacted, well, no one, to be honest. Chris over at Off Grid Ham tells me he’s been having similar results and not to feel too bad about it. Propagation on the HF bands pretty much sucks because we’re at the bottom of the solar cycle.

By the way, if you’re at all interested in solar power, batteries, solar controllers, and alternative ways of keeping your radios running, battery charging systems, etc, Off Grid Ham is the place to start.

The Great QRP Saga Continues

If you’ve been reading this nonsense for the last couple of weeks you know about my efforts to put together a portable QRP (low power) radio setup that’s small enough I can throw it into the back of the car and take with me when I go fishing and stuff so I can do PTOCCOTA (Picnic Tables Of Calumet County On The Air). Okay, I’m being silly, but I have long wanted to have a nice QRP set up that I could take along with me to play amateur radio while out enjoying the glorious environment of Wisconsin’s great outdoors and it’s swarms of blood sucking, disease carrying mosquitoes and ticks.

I’m mostly interested in digital modes of communications like PSK, FT8 and JS8 because despite the fact my hobby is communications technology, I don’t like to actually, well, talk to people. Yeah, I know. Weird, isn’t it?

So as you may recall, the ancient Toshiba laptop I was going to use decided it was time to go to that great recycling center in the sky. So I’ve been scrounging around for a cheap (emphasis on cheap because I already got way too much money invested in this project already) replacement and came up with this:

It’s a refurbed Lenovo that I picked up for $300 and, frankly, it’s ridiculously nice. I mean this thing looks and feels literally like brand new. There isn’t a single scratch or smudge or physical defect anywhere on it. Has a core i5 processor, 8 gig RAM, 500 gig SSD drive, DVD drive, 4 USB ports and seems entirely too nice to lug around out in the field. I have FLDIGI, JS8Call and FT8 software installed on it already. And I think I have the right cables to hook everything up to the SignaLink and the 818. So this weekend I’ll be taking over the dining room table for a few hours and see if I can actually get all this to work together.

I am not looking forward to that because, well, it’s embarrassing. I’ve been working with computers since 1979, both hardware and software. I’ve been fiddling with radio for even longer even though I didn’t get my amateur radio license until 2013. I was an electronics technician. I repaired laser scanners, set up computer networks, worked with ridiculously complex point of sale systems. So I ought to know this stuff, right? But whenever it comes to trying to hook a computer to a transceiver it quickly turns into an extremely frustrating experience. It never, ever works the first time. Or the second. Or the third. Or the fourth… Well, you get the idea.

I spent days trying to get Ham Radio Deluxe to work with first my Kenwood TS-2000 and then later with the Kenwood TS-990 and a RigBlaster Advantage interface. It was so frustrating that at times I was ready to just give up and then, for no apparent reason, the damned thing would just start working, with the same settings and cabling that didn’t work the day before… Arrgghhhh! The last time I had to rejigger stuff was when I got the new gaming PC and was trying to hook that up. Same settings, same cables, same everything, and, of course, it wouldn’t work right. Ham Radio Deluxe worked just fine and dandy until I wanted to transmit. Then it would key the transmitter but nothing actually transmitted… I struggled with that problem for way, way to long. And then it just started working for no apparent reason… I still don’t know what the hell happened there.

Anyway, enough of that. I’ve been boring you long enough with this stuff. Hopefully come Monday or Tuesday I’ll be able to report that I’ve got the 818 working flawlessly with the ThinkPad and I’m making contacts all over the place.

I doubt it, though.

Fiddling With the Yaesu 818ND

Yes, it’s more amateur radio stuff. Hey, I got new toys so I have to play with ’em, right? Anyway, this is not an equipment review. I don’t do those. Doing a proper equipment review requires proper test equipment, extensive knowledge, patience, and a lot of work, and I don’t have any of that stuff. Well, okay, so I do except for the patience thing. And the work thing… I have mentioned I’m one of the laziest people in the state, right? Besides, the 818 has been on the market for some time now and it’s been reviewed by people a lot better than me. Even by people who actually know what they’re doing. Which I don’t. What I do is play with stuff, mess around with it, use it, fiddle with it. I look at stuff not like a reviewer, but as someone who actually uses the equipment I talk about.

Disclaimer: I suppose I should stick this in here because it seems every other person I know these days is trying to be an “influencer” and get companies to send them free stuff and make gazillions of dollars on the youtubes and myspaces and facefarts. I don’t get paid by anyone to do these. The equipment was all purchased by myself, through regular retail channels (in this case Gigaparts). No one gives me free stuff or discounts or anything like that. I am not an “influencer” because apparently you have to be A) young, B) good looking, and C) morally and ethically compromised to be able to do that crap, and I don’t fit in with A, B or C. Although if Kenwood would want to give me a new 890 or Yaesu has an extra 101 laying around with one of those fancy $1,000 microphones, I might be willing to reconsider the whole ethics thing.

Anyway, let’s get on with this, shall we?

Of course it didn’t take me long after getting the Yaesu 818ND in my hot little hands to be overcome with the desperate need to actually play with it. So, while enduring scathing looks of disapproval from MrsGF, I temporarily took over the dining room table to fiddle with it. First with 8 AA alkaline batteries powering it and then with the included rechargeable power pack, and then the next day with an Astron power supply feeding it a more adequate amount of juice.

The 818 is definitely a fun little transceiver, and it is also definitely annoying at the same time, although I’m sure the annoyances will fade as I become more familiar with it. Well, some of them, anyway.

I did read the manual before I set it up and tried using it. Despite what I said in the last post where I implied I never read manuals, that’s not true when it comes to things as complex as transceivers because there is always the possibility of actually damaging the equipment if you do something wrong. Not that the 818 is difficult to set up and get going. Basically you just hook up an antenna, plug in the mic, use the internal battery or connect to a 12V power supply, and it’s ready to go. But if you want to actually do anything useful with it, well, read the manual first!

Speaking of the manual, it’s about average for the kind of thing that comes with amateur radio equipment these days. Which means, of course, that it isn’t really very good. Oh, all the essential details are in there. Sort of. If you managed to pass your general class license test you should be able to figure it out. Maybe.

Like most modern transceivers, the 818 is almost ridiculously complex, which means there are lots and lots of settings and functions to play with, and in order to get at any of them you have to delve into the menu system which I’m not even going to try to describe. I’ll just put it this way, if you lose the manual, you’re screwed.

I want to talk about the annoyances first. I should point out that I really, really like the little 818. It is a nifty little QRP transceiver that does everything I want it to do and more. But there are always annoyances with any piece of equipment, and this one is no exception. And all of them pertain to the user interface, so to speak, not how the radio actually works as a radio.

The most obvious and visible of the annoyances is that LCD display. Take a look at that closeup up there. If it looks a bit dim and fuzzy, that’s because it is dim and fuzzy. It is, frankly, awful. I’m sorry, but it is just utterly terrible and it shouldn’t be. I don’t know if it’s just mine or if this is true for all 818s. This is not a cheap piece of equipment. This thing sells for $650. But that LCD looks like something they swiped off a disposable $5 handheld game. In normal room lighting or in the shade or evening outside, with the backlight off, it’s almost impossible to read it at all. Even with the backlight turned on it’s difficult to read unless I’m directly in front of it at the proper viewing angle. Out in bright sunlight it isn’t bad, but still, there is simply no excuse for that on a piece of equipment this expensive.

Then there is the Squelch/RF/AF gain knob. Like a lot of knobs on transceivers these days it is a double knob. There is a sort of collar around the base of the knob that turns which is the RF gain adjustment, while the main knob is the AF gain. It’s, well, floppy is the only way I can describe it. If I put my index finger on the tip of it and move it, the end of the knob can wiggle back and about 1/16th to 1/8th of an inch. It feels cheap, like that $5 kid’s toy mentioned earlier, and this is more than a little troubling because it makes me wonder how long it’s going to last.

The collar around the base of the knob controls the RF gain and it’s damned near impossible for me to turn it. It’s positioned awkwardly. I can’t actually grasp it. I have to put the tip of my index finger on the side of it and try to push up and down to move it. More often than not I end up moving both the RF gain and the AF knob at the same time.

Interestingly enough, the SEL knob on the left side of the radio is rock solid and exhibits none of the floppiness of the AF gain knob.

Then there are the buttons. They are very small, which is understandable because this is a very small radio. But the buttons are also either recessed into the bezel or there are plastic extrusions surrounding the buttons, which makes them damned near impossible for me to push with a finger tip. I either have to try to use the edge my fingernail to push the buttons or use the eraser end of a pencil.

The only reason to recess the buttons like that is to protect them from accidentally being pressed. But exactly how would they be accidentally be pressed on this radio? You aren’t going to be operating this thing while it’s in your pocket. In fact, I can’t think of any circumstances when it would actually be in operation when there it would experience conditions that would cause a button to be accidentally pressed. If it’s in a carrying bag, sure, it might jostle around to the point where something in the bag could make contact with a button, but the radio isn’t going to be turned on and operating if you’re carrying it in a bag. So what, exactly, are they protecting the buttons from?

Like most transceivers these days, the little 818 is loaded with bells and whistles, all of which are accessed via a system of menus. The menu system is, well, all I can say is that it’s no worse than any other I’ve worked with. You’re going to want to keep a copy of the manual with the radio itself, or at least a cheat sheet with the more commonly used menu items written down. You can get a PDF file of the Yaesu 818 manual here directly from the company’s web site. Once you get to the 818 page, click on the “Files” tab and it will take you to a download page where you can get it as a .PDF in English and several other languages.

Using the 818

As you can see from the lead photo, I’ve had the 818 set up and running on the dining room table (while enduring some rather irritated looks from MrsGF, but then she’s an amateur radio operator as well so she understands that if I have a new piece of equipment laying around there’s no way I can keep my hands off it).

The 818 operates either from it’s internal batteries (either 8 AA alkaline batteries or the included rechargeable battery pack) or an external 13V power supply that can handle at least a 3 amp load. When operated with the internal batteries the 818’s transmit power automatically drops to 2.5 watts. You can override this in the menus, but don’t bother. If you try to transmit at 6 watts with the radio on it’s internal batteries it will just turn itself off because the batteries just don’t have enough power to handle that kind of output power.

I put in 8 AA batteries and fired it up and played around with it for a while to get familiar with the menu system, with the Alpha mag loop antenna hooked to the rear antenna connector.

Once I had the antenna tuned, I was faced with a noise level running about S8 to S9+. Now that isn’t at all surprising. I don’t exactly live in a radio quiet zone here. I have a huge cattle feed processing facility just down the street from me, a shop that does powder coating and painting for a major manufacturer of lawn equipment, and about 5 blocks away Sargento has a huge processing facility. Then add in all the electronics here in the house which includes a half dozen computers, networking gear, printers, WiFi points, etc., and, well, some days it gets pretty bad around here. Some days are better than others, it all depends on what equipment is running where. But an S8 noise level is pretty typical.

Now with my Kenwood TS-990 I can generally deal with that kind of thing thanks to some pretty sophisticated filtering. With the 818, well, not so much. I was able to pick up a few very strong CW stations and one or two SSB conversations on 20 and 40 meters, but then I had to pack it all up because it was time for dinner. (I really, really need to stop procrastinating and get the shop in the basement set up!)

Next morning I tried again, feeding the 818 with an external power supply instead of batteries, and was determined to sit down and do some serious goofing around with the little transceiver. That’s the jury rigged setup you see in the lead photo up at the top of the page. And yes, that’s a DX Engineering sticker on the Alexa thingie sitting there. Every time I order something from DXE they send a fistful of stickers and, well, I have to do something with ’em, so they’re everywhere. I tried putting one on MrsGF but she was a wee bit irritated. Tried to put one on one of the cats and she got even more irritated. So after several bandaids to cover the scratches (from the cat, not MrsGF. MrsGF just gives me one of those looks and I know it’s time to stop whatever it is I’m doing.) I only put them on inanimate objects now.

I was picking up several decent CW and SSB transmissions, well above the S7 noise level, which was encouraging. I tried replying to several CQs from other operators, and got nothing in reply. Wondering if I was putting out anything at all I put MrsGF on the 990 in the other room and, well, just about blew her ears out. Forgot to turn on the attenuator. Sigh… Still, the 818 was transmitting. I tried calling CQ on SSB for quite a while on 20 and 40 meters and got nothing.

Hard to tell in the photo but the poor thing is covered with dust from disuse. Still, considering how bad I am at CW that’s probably not a bad thing.

I dragged out the CW keys and dusted them off. I mean seriously dusted them off. Oh dear, had it been that long since I used ’em? How the heck had they gotten so filthy? They were in a drawer, for heaven’s sake. And cat fur? Really? How the heck did they get covered with cat fur in a drawer? Do the cats like open up all the drawers and look for things to shed on?

Anyway, I dialed down to the frequencies where the QRP people allegedly hang out and fiddled around with CW for a while. Nothing there, either. Sigh…

Getting discouraged I went in the other room and fired up the TS-990 again on the dipole antenna in the backyard. If there’s anybody on the air who can be heard, that sucker will pick it up. And, well, nothing. Tuning from one end of 20 and 40 to the other and nothing. Well, almost nothing. Just a few signals way down in the weeds. Oh, and FT8. The FT8 portions of the bands were lighting up the waterfall like a Christmas tree. (Has everyone moved to FT8? Seems that way sometimes)

Still, the experiment did give me an excuse to clean up the straight key and iambic paddle.

So I know the 818 receives (although after about 5 minutes I really, really missed the filters and noise reduction systems on the TS-990). I know it transmits. I know the Alpha antenna works because I’ve been using it on the 990 with considerable success. It’s just that the gods of propagation have a grudge against me, I guess.

I’m still waiting for the connectors and other things I need to get the 818 on the air with digital so I can’t try FT8 yet. Oh, and I still haven’t come up with a laptop yet.

I suppose I should to a better test. Dial the 818 down to 1 watt, put MrsGF on the 990 in the next room (with the attenuator on this time) and see what kind of signal the 818 is actually putting out. But that’s going to have to wait until MrsGF lets me use the kitchen table again.

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?