Good grief, it actually works!

The Yaesu 818ND (that tiny black box leaning up on the gray box with the tiny blue lighted display), a Yaesu SCU-117, patched together with the laptop running FT8, feeding the alpha mag-loop antenna standing off to the left out of sight, and the darned thing actually works!

And I made a contact with the thing. Well, sort of. KI4FOG came back when I called CQ but wasn’t able to complete the contact, but still I’m pleased.

Then I looked at PSK Reporter to see if I was getting out and I was even more pleased.

I know that doesn’t look very impressive but you have to remember I’m running a whopping 2.5 watts into a loop antenna that is standing 5 feet underground in a basement. Considering all that, getting out at all is impressive I think.

Once I get a decent battery system set up and get outside with this thing, this is going to be fun!

Catching Up: Ham Radio and Tomato Soup

I mentioned before that I wanted to move out of the office/library/radio shack area that I currently share with MrsGF, and into a new workshop in the basement. Things have been rather busy here (plus I’m probably one of the laziest people I know, which doesn’t help) but things have been slowly moving along. The goal is to get everything moved and set up before the snow flies.

It’s at the point where I can start moving some stuff in there. I have all my tools, most of my test equipment, soldering equipment and some of the electronics moved down there now. I’ll probably start moving some of the radio gear down there too this week but my primary station, the TS-990 and the Yaesu VHF/UHF gear will stay where it is for the time being. The VHF/UHF gear will probably remain up in the office because MrsGF is the one who uses it the most anyway.

It’s still a mess in the basement and I’m still trying to figure out the best way to lay stuff out. There is still a ton of junk out of the frame of that photo that needs to get moved before I can move everything, but it’s getting there. Most of the ‘heavy lifting’, as they say, is done. And I need to add about 3 or 4 electrical outlets on that wall, plus a 240V outlet for the amplifiers before I can get the rest of the radio gear set up.

It’s been taking a long time but, well, hey, it’s still summer (technically anyway) and I have a lot of other stuff going on, but it’ll get done. Maybe. I did get that GAP Titan antenna up, after all. Took me 4 years, true, but it got up finally…

One very inconvenient thing is that I’m at the point where I really, really need to get into my woodworking shop (that’s through the doorway on the far left) so I can build frames, shelving, etc. to make the new electronics/radio shop convenient to use, but the woodworking shop is packed full of computer junk belonging to my son that hasn’t been moved out yet. Oh well, we’ll get it figured out.

The Great QRP Project

(Definition – QRP is amateur radio jargon for low power communications, usually transmitting with 5 watts or less.)

I’ve had the Yaesu 818 and the mag-loop antenna for some time now and they’ve been fun to play with, but the ultimate goal was to put together a QRP (low power) digital communications package that I could throw into the back of the car and take along when I go fishing or out taking photos. My favorite modes of communications are PSK31, FT8 and JS8Call, so I picked up that refurbished Lenovo laptop you see in the photo of the workbench.

I made some changes in the overall configuration. I was going to use a SignaLink interface to connect the laptop to the Yaesu because A) I had one on the shelf, and B) because, well, because I had one. But then I found out I also had a Yaesu SCU-17 USB interface and, well, where the heck did that come from? So I’m going to go with that instead.

(Side note: Where the heck does some of this stuff come from? I swear I sometimes think people are breaking into the house and instead of stealing stuff, they’re leaving things here.)

The SCU-17 comes with about a zillion different cables to hook it up to just about every imaginable radio, computer, etc. Except, of course, the one that I actually needed. That required cable was, of course, an “optional accessory”. Sigh… Nor did I have the connectors I needed to make one myself. Besides, my history of making specialty cables myself is, well, a bit embarrassing and the less said about that, the better. So off I went to the GigaParts website to order one and that should be here today (he said keeping his fingers crossed). (It came!! Hooray!)

Anyway, with any luck I should finally have the whole thing up and running properly by this weekend. Maybe. I doubt it, but hell, one has to be optimistic, doesn’t one?

I wanted to have the whole thing up and running before Sept. 21, which is WIOPTA (Wisconsin Parks On The Air), an event where amateur radio operators lug their radio gear out to parks, endure bad weather (it’ll probably snow), mosquitoes and ticks which will give you several exotic diseases that you can’t pronounce, and probably get you arrested because anyone with all that weird electronic gear must be guilty of something.

But then I found out only state parks qualify for the event and, well, the heck with that. I thought they meant any park in Wisconsin so I’d planned on doing it at the local one here in town. State parks only? Hmph… They charge money just to get into those places. Yeah, sure I get in for free because I’m a “conservation patron”, but still

(Side note: I should point out that being a “conservation patron” in Wisconsin has absolutely nothing to do with actual conservation. Conservation patron is a combined hunting and fishing license. Basically if it is legal to kill some animal in Wisconsin, whether it swims, walks or flies, the Conservation Patron license lets you kill it. This is why we need words like “irony” in the language.)

(Side note: I should also point out that I don’t actually hunt. Or do much fishing. So why do I have the license? Mostly to irritate people.)

(Side note: I really need to stop this side note nonsense.)

Tomato Soup

The tomatoes are finally starting to ripen up and even as I write this we’re canning tomato soup. If you’ve never made your own tomato soup with home grown tomatoes, you have no idea what you’re missing. The only problem with this stuff is that once you’ve tasted it you’ll never be able to tolerate the commercial canned stuff again.

So, how do you make the stuff, you ask? Here’s the recipe. Note: This recipe is admittedly huge. This will turn out about 10 quarts of soup. We generally only make a half batch at a time. If you want to do that, just cut all of the quantities in half.

Ingredients

  • 14 quarts tomatoes
  • 7 medium onions
  • 2 stalks celery
  • 14 sprigs parsley (dried is OK)
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 14 tablespoons flour
  • 14 tablespoons butter
  • 8 tablespoons canning salt
  • 12 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons black pepper
  • *Vinegar (to taste but go easy because lemon juice will be added later)
  • Lemon juice as needed (see method)

Method

Wash tomatoes. Cut into large chunks. You do not need to peel or seed the tomatoes as it will be processed through a food mill. Peel onions and coarse chop. Dice celery and mince parsley (if fresh). Put in large pot with bay leaves. Cook until celery is tender.

Typical food mill. An angled blade inside forces the food being processed through a strainer in the bottom of the pan. There are hooks to rest it on top of a pot. The liquid and pulp is forced through the strainer into the pot, leaving seeds, skin, etc. behind.

Process everything through a food mill. If you don’t have a food mill, you can force the mixture through a sieve but that’s difficult to do and very time consuming. Food mills are fairly cheap and you can pick them up at any store that carries canning supplies or on line.

You put the food mill over a large pot or bowl. The soup mix is ladled into the mill. Turning the handle causes the mixture to be forced through the strainer in the bottom, leaving seeds, skin, etc behind. It’s a bit of work, yes, but it goes a lot faster than you’d think and the results are worth it. The seeds, skins, etc. that are left behind can be composted.

Put the strained soup back in the pot and bring to a gentle boil.

Take the flour and butter and blend together to make a smooth paste. Add a bit of tomato juice. Add the butter/flour mixture to the soup and whisk vigorously to blend it in thoroughly. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly to prevent scorching. Add salt, sugar and pepper.

Note – the original recipe called for 12 tbl of salt which I think is way too much. I cut that down to 8. and you could go even less if you like. Seasoning can always be adjusted when you heat the soup before serving

Note about vinegar: There are a lot of different varieties of tomatoes with different flavor profiles. Depending on how sweet your tomatoes are, you might want to add a bit of vinegar to give the soup a bit more of a ‘bite’, so to speak. You can also add some red pepper as well. The thing to remember is this is your soup, so you can season it any way you like.

Canning

You can use either quart or pint jars. I prefer pints, but it’s up to you.

We sterilize everything when we get started with this. Jars are not only washed but are rinsed with boiling water and the jar lids are put in boiling water. Is that necessary? Maybe? Why take a chance, though.

Fill jars to within 1/2 inch of the top. Add one teaspoon of lemon juice to each jar. This is not just for flavor, it’s for food safety reasons to make sure the soup has enough acid.

Wipe off rims of the jars. Put on lids and then screw on the rings and tighten snuggly.

Actual canning is going to depend on the type of canner you’re using. I strongly recommend using a pressure canner for this stuff. I know some people say you can just use a water bath, but pressure canning is actually faster and safer, so that’s what we do here, use a pressure canner.

pressure canner

Read the instructions that came with your canner to make sure you are setting it up right.

Put the jars in your canner and start the process. We follow current recommendations which is to process it at 11 pounds pressure for 15 minutes. If the pressure goes a bit higher than that it’s perfectly fine, but it shouldn’t drop below 11 pounds for the entire 15 minutes.

Here’s a batch I just pulled out of the canner a few minutes ago.

I think I’ve been babbling along for too long already here, so I’m off to irritate the cats for a while, fiddling with radios, etc.

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.