I’m on Top

I don’t know how I managed to do it, but I have the highest Google ranking when you search for “amateur radio blog” or “ham radio blog.” Here are the next five:

Of course, by the time you read this, the order may be totally different. That’s just the way it goes with search rankings.

Making the Ground Plane Antenna Tunable

While I’m still seriously considering putting up a a beam, I’m having a fair amount of success with my simple ground plane antenna. The biggest problem with the ground plane, though, is that I’m limited to a single band–20m–and if 10m is open, there’s no way for me to get on. It’s also not a very robust installation; this is something I’m going to have to do something about sooner or later.

So, this got me to thinking about how I could improve the antenna. One thing that would be simple to do is to make it usable on 20, 17, 15, 12, and 10 by making the lengths of the elements easily adjustable. Since the antenna is currently made of wire, I was thinking of some kind of reel mechanism to shorten the elements. That would work, but it wouldn’t do much for the robustness of the antenna.

Then, I thought about using aluminum tubing. Tubing would not only make the antenna more robust, but perhaps also improve the bandwidth of the antenna. A quick search of the eHam forums turned up a discussion on where to buy the tubing.

Each element would be made up of two or three pieces of tubing that would fit into one another. To change bands, all the user would have to do is slide the pieces in or out to the appropriate length. To make tuning quick and easy, the user would mark the antenna with either a permanent marker, or if he really wanted to get fancy, with some kind of label.

One thing I haven’t quite figured out how to do yet is how to terminate the elements and connect them to a coax connector. With wire, it’s pretty easy to do. With aluminum tubing, less so.

Yet Another Idea
In the April 2003 issue of QST, the Hints and Kinks column had an item titled, “A Push-Button Memory Antenna Tuner for $2!” Written by W0FM, this item describes how he uses cord stoppers, those spring-loaded plastic or metal thingies used to control the length of drawstrings, to adjust the length of dipoles. I think this could also work quite nicely for the ground plane antenna.

I’m going to buy a package of cord stoppers and play around a little. As W0FM points out, it might make a good Field Day antenna.

A Bunch of Animals?

Who says hams aren’t a bunch of animals? In the morning, I worked W3BEE, and in the afternoon, I heard W1HEN in a QSO. I tried to contact W1HEN when his QSO ended, but he flew the coop too quickly.

For my next trick, I want to work W0DOG, W1DOG, W5DOG, W6DOG, W7DOG, W8DOG, and W9DOG.

The guys I really pity, though are W2ASS and W5ASS.

Tips for the Casual DXer

If I was serious about DXing, I’d probably go out and buy a big linear and put a ten-element Yagi up on a 50-foot tower. I’m not all that serious about DX, though. I’m more of a casual DXer. My current station consists of an Icom IC-735 running between 50 and 100W into a 20m ground plane antenna. I work some DX when band conditions are good, and when they’re not, I’m happy working US stations.

I imagine there are a lot of casual DXers. Casual DXers have neither the time nor the money to build a true DX station and track propagation reports, but enjoy working foreign stations when they can. For these folks, I have a few tips:

  1. Use the right band. In general, you should use the highest frequency band that’s open. If the 10m band is open, get on 10. You’ll get the most bang for your buck on 10 and 15 when they’re open, than you will on 20 or 17.
  2. LISTEN! This is a corollary to “If you can’t hear ‘em, you can’t work ‘em.” I’ve worked many DX stations by just tuning around and pouncing on them when I hear them calling CQ. In many cases, I was the only one to return their call.
    Listen even when the band seems to be quiet. Sometimes this means that the propagation is such that it’s skipping over the domestic stations and DX conditions are good. I remember one evening tuning around for a while, and almost giving up when I heard a Spanish station calling CQ with a 599 signal! I answered his call and he gave me a 579 report. We had a very nice QSO on a “dead” band.
    Also, listen for really weak signals. I’ve worked a couple of DX stations whose signals were almost unreadable, but for one reason or another, were able to copy me just fine and gave me quite respectable signal reports.
    Get a good set of headphones to help you dig out the weak ones. I bought a pair from Radio Shack after reading the reviews on eHam.net.
  3. Be patient. If the DX station doesn’t come back to you on your first call, hang in there and try again. A lot of times, DX stations are interested in working as many stations as possible, meaning that they’ll rip them off one right after another. If they’re not extremely rare, or the band is not that active, the DX station will quickly work all the strong stations and after a while it will be your turn. If you tune away too quickly, you’ll never get your chance.
  4. Hone your CW skills. It really is true that it’s easier to work DX on CW than on phone. There are several reasons for this. First, there are fewer stations clamoring for the attention of a DX station on CW. Second, weak CW signals are more readable than weak phone signals. This is important if you’re using 50-100W and even more important when you’re using a QRP rig.
    You hear a lot of DX stations operating at 20 wpm or more. While most of them are courteous and will come back to a station calling at 12 or 15 wpm, it’s very satisfying to be able to work them at the speed they’re calling CQ.
  5. Work the contests. Contests can be intimidating, but your best chance for working new countries is during the DX contests. During these contests, you’ll not only hear a lot of DX stations on the air, they will be eager to work you. Making US contacts is, after all, how they score points.
    You don’t have to work the entire contest, nor do you have to send in the logs for scoring. Figure out what information they’re expecting you to exchange with them, either by listening to several contest QSOs or by reading the rules in QST or on contesting.com, then just jump in and start working stations.
    Another benefit of working contests is that it seems to help improve your code speed. My theory is that during a contest you’re concentrating more on the contest than you are on the code, and this helps break down the mental barriers we erect to increasing our code speed.

Having given you these tips as if I were some kind of expert, I’d like to be able to report that I’m DXCC with a couple hundred countries under my belt and a boxful of DX QSL cards. Of course, I can’t, though. Since getting back on the shortwave bands in August 2002, I’ve logged maybe sixty countries and have only a handful of QSL cards. After all, if I knew the exact numbers and had QSLed a higher percentage of my DX contacts, I wouldn’t be a casual DXer anymore, now would I?

A Couple of Cool Websites

In searching for the e-mail address of a guy I just worked, I happened upon a couple of cool ham sites that I’d never visited before:

1. www.hamdata.com. This site is a compendium of license statistics. For example, the current homepage notes that

Since amateurs can no longer be licensed as Tech Plus, Novice, or Advanced, the number of amateurs holding these license classes is decreasing. Over the past 6 months the Tech Plus class is decreasing at an average rate of 31/day, the Novice class at 16/day, and the Advanced class at 4/day.

It also notes:

Over the past 6 months the Technician class is increasing at an average rate of 59/day, the General class at 6/day, and the Extra class at 5/day.

There’s also a page that lists the number of amateurs by state. Michigan, for example, has, 22,700 hams as of March 7, 2003.

2. www.vlf.it. This is an Italian site devoted to the very-low, ultra-low, and extremely-low frequency (VLF, ULF, and ELF) bands–basically anything below 22 kHz. Most of the articles cover antennas and receiving techniques. Also includes a page with links to many other LF websites, including those that describe amateur radio LF operation. The site’s host is Renato Romero, IK1QFK, an Italian amateur.

Another Lesson Learned: An Update

Despite the higher SWR I mentioned in the previous entry, I’ve been operating with my ground plane antenna. The SWR measured with my antenna analyzer was somewhere in between 1.5:1 and 1.6:1, which is still relatively low. Certainly, I didn’t think I’d harm the rig.

After dinner today, I went down to the shack, and noticed that the SWR had crept up a little bit more. Now the analyzer showed an SWR of about 2.0:1 near 14050 kHz. I decided it was time to do something about this.

I got out the ice chipper and went out into the yard. It took me about 45 minutes to chop out the eight feet of coax that was under ice, but I got it out.

And what do you know? Now, my SWR is back to near 1.1:1. How do you like that?

Another Lesson Learned

Last fall, when I put up the 20m ground plane antenna, I honestly meant for it to be only a temporary installation. I was just playing around with the antenna and didn’t expect for it to be up very long. The antenna worked better than I expected, though, and the couple of weeks turned into a couple of months, and then winter came along. And as cold as it’s been this winter, there’s no way I could have dug a trench for the coax.

So, the coax just lay on the ground as it snaked its way into my shack. Up till now, though, everything’s been working just fine. The SWR was very low across the whole band, and I was having great results on CW and even worked a little SSB with it.

Tonight, however, after not operating for nearly a week, I noticed a big difference. Instead of an SWR of nearly 1:1, I’m measuring an SWR of about 1.6:1 at 14050 kHz and nearly 2.0:1 at 14300 kHz. What changed?

I went outside to see if perhaps one of the radials had become disconnect or mangled and make sure that the radiator was still vertical. Those looked OK, so I took a look at the coax and found that the coax is now under about an inch of ice. It’s possible, I suppose that either the ice is affecting the characteristic impedance of that section or that water has seeped into the coax.

I suppose that it’s also possible that the connector connecting the coax to the rig is bad–I had disconnected the coax before going out of town–but I rather doubt that. I have disconnected and reconnected that connector several times already with no adverse affects.

I guess that I’m going to have to wait for the ice to melt before I know for sure if this is the problem. I tried chipping away at the ice, but then I got scared that I’d damage the coax for sure doing this. And to top it all off, we’re supposed to get another five to eight inches of snow tonight.

The lesson I’ve learned is, “Don’t be lazy.” After deciding to keep the antenna up, I should have found a better way to run the coax into the shack. If I’d done this, I probably would not be having this problem right now.