Friday, December 11, 2015

One Solution to Spectrum Pollution

I finally got around to reading the December QST and was very interested in K1ZZ's editorial "Of Frogs and Canaries".  In it, he lays out the growing problem of spectrum pollution from "unintentional emitters" - devices ranging from "variable speed motors in residential appliances and industrial equipment, solar controllers and inverters, unshielded data networking cables, and switchmode power supplies including the ubiquitous “wall warts,” to name but a few".

Many of us have experienced man-made noise from various sources, including plasma televisions and CF or LED light bulbs.  Not many years ago I was blessed with a typical S1 to S2 noise floor, but no more.  Now it's more likely to be in the S3 to S5 range.  I've not found anything in my home that is a primary culprit, so I have to presume that all my various devices - in combination with my neighbor's - are the cause of my higher background noise levels.  I have ham friends who have complained about noise levels much higher than what I experience, so I imagine things will only get worse over time.

I don't have a globally effective solution to the spectrum pollution problem, but I do have a solution that any of us can individually employ.  Operate outdoors, away from the various noise sources.  It's not necessary to go hiking in the wilderness, although many do.  Even operating from a picnic table at a local park can greatly improve things.  It's surprising how being just a few hundred feet away from noise emitters will allow you to hear stations that would be below the noise floor at your home station.

It's not even necessary to purchase new equipment to give field operations a try.  Most any modern radio can be turned down to 5 watts output, giving you an opportunity to operate from a couple of gel cells for at least an hour or more - long enough to see for yourself the difference that operating outdoors can make.  You probably wouldn't want to carry your big rig very far into the woods, but driving to a park and carrying your equipment from your car trunk to a picnic table should be doable.  Many of us have done exactly that for Field Day, although power is more often provided by a generator.

If you find that you enjoy the new-found pleasure of relatively noise-free operating, equipment advances over the past few years have made it possible to purchase lightweight, multi-mode radios that operate for many hours entirely on battery power.  With a lightweight dipole or end-fed wire antenna, your entire station can fit in a small backpack with room to spare.  Once you become familiar with your particular station, setting up can be accomplished in a matter of minutes.  Tearing down and repacking is similarly easy.  Spending a few hours playing radio and enjoying the outdoors was never so much fun!

If you're unfamiliar with this style of operating, ask around at your local ham club and I'll bet you'll find at least one or two who enjoy field operations and can answer questions you might have.  If not, there are many sources of information on the web.  A good starting point is my humble Google+ community - QRP Field Ops, accessible at this URL.  Depending upon where you live and your tolerance for cool weather operating, you can operate outdoors anywhere from a few months to year round.  Spectrum pollution got you down?  Get outdoors and enjoy operating in the field!


Monday, October 5, 2015

My Top Ten QRP Operating Tips

In early 2015, Grant McDuling VK4JAZ asked me if I would provide my top ten QRP portable operating tips for a book he was writing. Grant is a member of the QRP Field Ops Google+ Community that I own and moderate. Needless to say, I was very flattered that he would ask me for my thoughts and I was pleased to oblige, although I had to include home tips to reach a total of ten - plus a bonus tip. He and I agreed that I would retain rights to my contribution with the thought that I would republish them in the future.

Well, the future is now. In no particular order, and updated just a bit from the list in Grant's book, here are my top ten (plus one) QRP operating tips that I’ve found help to improve my chances for success or enhance my enjoyment.  I operate QRP both at home and portable out in the field, so I’ve included general tips and then grouped tips specific to one or the other.  I hope you find something to help you too.

General



  1. Learn CW.

    This is my number one tip.  Like all hams licensed prior to the introduction of the no-code technician license, I needed to learn Morse code at a minimum of 5 words per minute to pass my Novice test.  Unlike many, I then immediately forgot what I’d learned because using a key didn’t interest me as much as using a microphone or keyboard.

    That all changed years later when I became interested in QRP.  CW’s effectiveness at low power is unmatched by any other mode except perhaps the digital ones such as PSK31.  Many contests and special events are exclusively CW, so you’ll be reducing your operating opportunities if you don’t have at least some proficiency with the code.

    If you don’t already use CW, there are a number of instructional methods available to you.  I used the K7QO code course available through the FISTS CW Club and found it to be a great way to learn.


  1. Join a QRP club.

    If you are fortunate enough to have a local club that is oriented toward QRP operating, I urge you to join.  If you are not so fortunate, there are a number of organizations with national scope that would welcome you.  Examples include the QRP Amateur Radio Club International (QRP ARCI), North American QRP CW Club (NAQCC), and Four States QRP Club (4SQRP).  They and others all sponsor contests and operating events and provide information to new and experienced hams alike via their web sites and publications.

Home



  1. Use sound card digital modes.

    Digital modes such as PSK31 are very effective at QRP power levels.  They can be challenging to use in the field because of the need to have a computer or other device for decoding the signals, but that usually doesn’t present an issue when operating from home because a personal computer has become a common feature of most shacks.

    I use Fldigi software for my digital activities in the shack.  Available for Windows and Linux machines, it supports every digital mode I commonly use and many more that I have yet to try.  Other popular applications for Windows machines include DM780, part of the Ham Radio Deluxe suite of applications, and DigiPan, one of the easiest applications to configure and use.

    Unlike other modes where brief contest-style contacts are common, I find that digital modes lend themselves to ragchew QSOs. There are a fair number of hams who use their software macros almost exclusively to provide canned QSO responses, but many others are interested in more casual keyboard contacts.


  1. Take advantage of contest logging software.

    Logging in the field is commonly done on paper, unless you use a smartphone or a small notebook or tablet computer.  For just a few casual contacts this works great and some are able to use this method for all their operating activities.  At home during major contests or events, I find that paper logging becomes very unwieldy.  There are a variety of contesting and logging software options available to ease the chore.

    I use N1MM Logger+ software.  It has many advanced features for dedicated contesters but I only use the basic functionality of entering contacts, avoiding duplicates, and generating a Cabrillo log for submission at the end of the contest.  I also export my contest log into an ADIF file for submission to Logbook of the World and eQSL.  For digital mode contests, it also interfaces directly with Fldigi.  Fldigi by itself has some contest logging capabilities but I much prefer N1MM Logger+.


  1. Turn down the power at your home shack.

    There are many occasions when you need more than 5 watts.  Emergency communications and putting a new DX entity in the log are a couple of examples.  For more casual operation, it’s easy to continue your QRP activities from your shack after you come in from the field.

    Most QRO transceivers allow you to turn the output power down to 5 watts or less, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how well you’re able to communicate at the lower power level.  There’s only a 13 db (about 2 S-unit) difference in received signal strength between 100 watts and 5 watts.  If you were S7 at the receiving end with 100 watts, you’ll be about S5 at 5 watts.  As long as that doesn’t drop you below the other station’s noise floor, they’ll still be able to copy you just fine.

    For hams in antenna restricted communities, running QRP to an attic or other stealth antenna is sometimes the only way to continue to operate.  A side benefit is that the low power levels are unlikely to cause interference to telephones, garage door openers, and other home electronic devices.


  1. Put a tuner at the feedpoint of your antenna

    My home antenna is an approximately 90 foot long inverted-l fed with about a 75 foot run of buried RG-213 coax.  It isn’t resonant on any amateur frequency so, if I used a tuner in the shack, I would likely incur significant feedline loss due to the mismatch.  That’s a real problem when you’re starting out with only 5 watts.  To rectify that, I mounted a remote autotuner at the feedpoint.  I use an SGC SG-237 autocoupler but there are a number of other manufacturers and models you can use.  The SG-237 gives me an acceptable match at most frequencies between 160 and 6 meters.  The antenna itself isn’t all that efficient at certain frequencies, but at least I’m not warming the earthworms with coax loss.

Field



  1. Build some of your own equipment

    There’s something special about making contacts using a radio or accessory that you built yourself.  I frequently operate using one or more of a ZM-2 Z-match tuner, a Serial CW Sender, a PAC-12 multiband vertical antenna, and a Z100 Tuning Aid.  I built these and other pieces of equipment from kits and, while several of them are no longer available, new kits are frequently released.  I always seem to have something on the bench or ready for the bench and look forward to putting what I build to use while out operating.

    If you can’t find an appealing kit, opportunities to homebrew keep increasing.  Many publications feature articles with schematics and basic construction information.  Using Manhattan or ugly construction techniques simplify building and even making your own printed circuit boards is getting easier.  Using an Arduino or other popular microcontroller makes it possible to add complex features with a minimum of effort.  Much of the needed software has been written by others and placed in the public domain.  Many times, all that is needed is minor modifications to the software to get things operating just the way you wish.


  1. Operate during contests and events

    Contests and events are ideal for QRP field operations and I try to participate in as many as my schedule allows.  They generally increase activity on the bands and provide an opportunity to make a number of contacts in a short period of time.  And if, like me, your code speed is at the lower end of the spectrum, the exchange is predictable making it easier to accurately copy the needed information by listening to a few contacts being made.  You’ll also find most operators are very willing to slow down to your speed when you finally throw out your call.

    QRP ARCI sponsors a number of contests of varying lengths throughout the year that are targeted to QRP operators and typically feature bonus points for operating from the field.  Other annual events such as Flight of the Bumblebees, NJQRP Skeeter Hunt, NoGa Peanut Power Sprint and many others combine contest style operating with multipliers for operating in the field.  They are generally shorter events, usually 4 hours, and are a lot of fun.

    If your preference is for a longer operating period, QRP To The Field and QRP Afield are both 6-12 hour events and the 24 hour ARRL Field Day has a class B category for one or two person operations using battery power that provides a 10x multiplier.  I’ve found with Field Day that there’s not much need to start operating at the beginning of the contest.  For the first 8-10 hours, the big guns are blasting away and it’s difficult for a QRP signal to compete.  After they’ve all worked each other, their ears suddenly become much better at picking out a 5 watt signal.  By starting my operating late at night and continuing through the end of the event, I can be much more productive. An update to this is that I found a better antenna allows me to compete earlier in the day on Field Day. This past June, I used a full-size 80-40m fan dipole and had excellent results with it. It's still much easier to make contacts after the big guns are done blasting away, but I found I was able to have reasonably good success in the Saturday daylight hours.


  1. Use efficient antennas

    It seems as though no topic will start a “vigorous discussion” among hams faster than antennas.  Whatever you decide to use and whether you purchase a commercial product or build your own, it’s important to use the most efficient antenna possible that meets your operating requirements.

    My experience is that, if where you operate has adequate trees for supports, it’s hard to beat a resonant dipole.  A bonus is that one is very easy to construct.  For single band use, a short length of small diameter coax works well as a feedline.  A non-resonant antenna such as a 44 or 88 foot doublet can be fed with twin lead or window line and a tuner for a multiband solution.

    You can also eliminate the feedline altogether and use an end fed antenna and tuner that connects directly to the antenna jack on your transceiver.  An end-fed half wave (EFHW) or a zepp-style antenna such as a W3EDP works well, as does a vertical wire fed through a 9:1 unun.  The length of wire used with the latter varies, with operators reporting success with various non-resonant lengths between 30 and 60 feet.  A side benefit is that only a single support is needed for all of these.

    If no supports are available, a ground mounted vertical antenna with radials can work very well.  I’ve had success with both a commercial Buddipole configured as a vertical and a PAC-12 multiband vertical.  The PAC-12 was no longer available commercially but plans are available online.  I now see where Pacific Antenna plans to reintroduce the antenna following their purchase of QRP Kits from Doug Hendricks. Plans for a homebrew version of the Buddipole are also available and builders are supported via a web site.


  1. Combine ham radio with other activities

    Hams often mix their radio activities with other hobbies.  Examples include embedding Automatic Packet Reporting System (APRS) and Amateur Television (ATV) capabilities into rocketry and balloon launches.  These are mostly informal activities but there are organizations established for the express purpose of enjoying amateur radio as part of another activity.  Summits On The Air (SOTA), Islands On The Air (IOTA),  Rapid Deployment of Amateur Radio (RaDAR), and US Islands (USI) are popular with many hams.  Other hams simply bring along a small station for occasional use while they are camping or vacationing at a popular destination.

    A significant benefit of operating in the field is the lowered noise floor compared to what many hams deal with at their home stations.  Between power line leakage, a neighbor’s plasma television, and other assorted internal and external electrical noise, a ham may be faced with anywhere from an S5 to an S9 noise floor and sometime more.  By getting away from these urban noise generators, it becomes a pleasure to operate without having to strain to pull a station out of the noise.  Another benefit, particular for those hams who live in an antenna-restricted community, is the ability to erect a better antenna in the field than they might have at home.


  1. BONUS TIP Put together one or more go-kits for field operations

    There are few things more aggravating than arriving at your destination, setting up your station, and finding that you left a critical item at home.  To help avoid this situation, I’ve prepared several different go-kits for my field operations.  Each is designed for a particular purpose and I’ll describe them in some detail.


  • For a short hike where playing radio isn’t the primary purpose, I use a Condor every day carry bag.  Essentially a scaled down messenger bag, I pack it with essentials and other things I might need along the way.  A pouch large enough to hold a Nalgene water bottle attaches to the outside with MOLLE straps and a Baofeng dual-band HT clips on to the straps.  Inside is a first aid kit for dealing with blisters or small cuts, a small flashlight, a Leatherman multi-tool, a butane lighter, and other assorted odds and ends.

    There’s just enough room left to hold a small transceiver with earphones and paddle, a lightweight resonant dipole and/or EFHW and tuner, a 12 volt AA battery pack, and a small notebook and pen or pencil for logging.  Any time I have an opportunity to get outdoors for a few hours, I can fill the water bottle, toss in a granola bar or two, and I’m set for making a few contacts somewhere along the way.


  • For single day outings where radio will be the primary activity, I use a LowePro Photo Traveler 150.  It’s a great size for carrying my KX1 or KX3 along with a paddle and earphones, 7 Ah LiFePO4 battery, a linked dipole and W3EDP antennas, a throw bag and slick line for getting an antenna up into the trees, a microphone if I’m carrying the KX3, and a mini-logbook with pen or pencil.

    If I’m operating a sprint or other event, I’ll also usually carry a Palm PDA with Dave Ek’s GoLog software and its associated Serial CW Sender.  Although the software was designed primarily for Field Day, I find it to be flexible enough to be used for most contests and events.  Since I’m typically operating picnic table portable with this setup in an area where I can drive to the operating position, I also bring along the Condor bag.


  • For Field Day or other extended periods of operating, I generally use my Kelty Redwing 50 backpack.  It’s large enough to easily carry my SG-2020, a Heil headset, a paddle, a small notebook computer and sound card interface for operating digital modes, a folding solar panel and charge controller, a PAC-12 multiband vertical and 44 foot doublet antennas, and a ZM-2 Z-match tuner.  If needed, fiberglass poles for antenna supports strap to the outside.   I separately carry a small insulated cooler with two 7Ah AGM batteries.  If I’m driving to the operating position, I’ll toss both of my other go-kits in the car.


  • Whatever you decide to use for your go-kit, the key is to pack everything you need to operate and leave it there.  RF adapters, cables, feedline - anything and everything necessary to avoid that shock when you discover the item you need is missing.

    An exception I make to this rule is the radio itself.  Except for a single-band transceiver carried in my Condor bag, my other radios usually reside in my home shack.  They’re pretty hard to forget when packing for an outing though, and I can’t financially justify owning multiples of each just to have one always packed and ready to go.

    For a significant trip, it’s a good idea to set up everything prior to your departure and make a couple of contacts to be sure everything is working.  Afterwards, repack everything and you’ll be assured you have all you need.


  • A final recommendation is to travel light.  Many people, myself included, tend to start out carrying way more than what they need - especially if you have a relatively large backpack that you use for shorter outings.  The designations used by backpack manufacturers help to feed this habit.  For example, my Kelty Redwing 50 is commonly referred to as a daypack, but packed properly it will hold enough for a several day outing.  When I started using it, I tended to load it up with everything I thought I could possibly use or need for any imaginable situation. The weight wasn’t too bad at first but quickly became very heavy to carry.  I soon learned that having some extra room in the pack didn’t mean I had to find something to fill up the space.

72, Jim - K0RGI

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Improving Participation in QRP Field Events - A Modest Proposal

I posted a few days ago asking how others treat contacts from stations who are participating in a different event.  I received a couple of excellent responses from Greg N4KGL and Myron WV0H that detail what are likely the only two viable options:
  1. In S&P mode, work and log the other station as long as you can elicit the correct exchange back from them
  2. In calling mode, work and log any station that provides the correct exchange, no matter what event they are operating
I'd mentioned in my post that I was frustrated with hearing so many stations working other events but not finding stations working QRP Afield, even when calling CQ.  I wasn't sure if that was due to a lack of participation or spotty propagation.  It could be a combination of the two or even something else such as poor weather conditions in large areas of the country.  We don't have any control over propagation or weather but it is worth a conversation about how to improve participation.  I don't have any great insight into causes and possible solutions, but maybe something I write will resonate with others.

It's not at all necessary to have an official event in order to enjoy operating your radio in the field.  Many hams who hike, bike, canoe, ride motorcycles or pursue other outdoor activities simply carry along a small portable radio with them.  They may stop somewhere along the way or wait until setting up camp for the evening.  Sometimes operating is their primary objective and other times it's ancillary to their travels.  Either way, they typically just toss a wire into a tree and start looking for a contact.

Other hams will organize their field operations around an operating event.  I fall into this category, with much of my outdoor operating concentrated on weekends when events are scheduled.  What I find attractive about these events is the sense of camaraderie I get from participating with others in a common activity.  What I don't find attractive are the occasions when it is very difficult to find someone else on the air who is participating in the same event.  Quite often, I'll hear dozens of stations operating various contests or state QSO parties.  Either of the two options mentioned earlier would allow me to log valid contacts from among these other operators, but they are stopgap measures that don't address the root cause of a lack of participation.

So how do we improve participation?  Barring cash prizes or huge trophies ;-), I don't believe that there's any one thing that will magically get hundreds of hams to head out into the field and fire up their radios.  Instead I propose a number of incremental improvements that, taken together, might increase our numbers.
  • Find a way to easily log contacts from operators participating in other events.  I'll draw an analogy to fishing to help explain the issue.  Let's say I find a nice lake and decide to spend a few hours fishing from shore.  By chance, I happen to select a spot where there is an abundance of crappie.

    Unfortunately, I'm looking for bass and there are none to be found.  The only way I can catch the crappie is to make them imitate a bass, a significant challenge.  I can also ignore the crappie, continue casting for bass, and hope that one of the crappies grabs my lure and acts like a bass.  No matter how pleasant my surroundings, if my goal is to catch bass I will leave disappointed and will probably think twice before fishing at that lake again.

    One solution is to go ahead and catch the crappie (and any other fish in the vicinity) while still continuing to fish for bass.  I don't need to make the crappie imitate a bass - I only need to understand that a crappie requires a different approach (exchange) for a successful catch.  The crappie doesn't care or need to know that I'm fishing for bass.  I may leave at the end of the afternoon with just one or two bass, but catching a few dozen other fish kept me entertained and anxious to come back another day.  I might even tell a few friends how much fun I had and encourage them to go fishing with me another day.

    In a competition, a problem with this solution is with the scoring.  If the objective is to catch bass, someone catching a dozen bass should place higher than someone else catching two dozen fish but only two of them are bass.  I'd propose that the scoring system reflect that bass are worth much more than any other fish but there is still value to catching fish other than bass.

    Another scoring problem is validating that I really caught the other fish and didn't make them up.  In larger contests, logs are cross checked and operators who show contacts that don't appear in others' logs are disqualified.  That wouldn't work in this situation because no logs would be submitted showing my catch.  Here we'd have to rely on personal integrity, something we already do by generally only requiring summary sheets rather than detailed logs to be submitted.
  • Open up events to multiple operating modes.  Most events are CW-only.  This only serves to exclude those hams who, for whatever reason, don't do CW.  With the popularity of the Yaesu FT-817 and Elecraft KX3, along with new radios being introduced by LNR and probably others, many hams own a radio that can be easily carried into the field and operate SSB.  Software available for phones and tablets open up digital modes for field use.  It makes sense to be more inclusive of different interests within a common event framework.
  • Encourage more use of themes to add interest.  A number of events already do this quite successfully.  A good example is QRP To The Field.  Paul NA5N typically adds a theme - 2015's was "Geronimo" honoring Native American heritage throughout the country - that provides for an extra multiplier to those operators who follow the theme.  Some of the contests maintain a common theme from year to year.  For example, Flight of the Bumblebees and Skeeter Hunt.  Any and all of these make participating more interesting.
Certainly these would all require a lobbying effort aimed at event organizers.  There's lots of tradition behind most events and hams are well known as being resistant to change.  But I believe that a soapbox comment or note to the organizers saying something like "I know a couple of hams who would have liked to participate.  They aren't CW operators but would love to work digital modes" might be a nudge in the right direction.

I can't believe that I'm the only one who thinks that something needs to be done before some of our events die off from a lack of interest.  Or maybe I'm tilting at windmills and people are happy with the status quo.  What do you think?  Do you have other ideas to help improve participation?

72, Jim - K0RGI

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Operating Events & Rules

The recent QRP Afield operating event raised a question in my mind that I never see addressed in the rules.  Can you make contacts with stations working a different event and submit them to the event in which you are participating?  Here's an example:

I operated for several hours on Saturday afternoon and never heard another station calling CQ for QRP Afield.  I called CQ myself on both 40 and 20 meters with no replies.  After the event, I read that a number of others had the same experience.  What I and others did hear were dozens and dozens of stations working the Salmon Run or various state QSO parties.  I finally grew bored and made some New Jersey QSO Party contacts but did not submit them to QRP Afield.  Could I have done so and stayed within the rules?

I'm interested in knowing how others address this, as it's not the first event I've participated in where the pickings were mighty slim but other contest's participants were plentiful.  For larger contests, the lack of log cross checking would likely be an issue but most of the smaller events only require a summary sheet.
I'm interested in hearing what you think.  Do organizers encourage or discourage this cross-contest activity?

72, Jim - K0RGI

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Ham Radio and Emergency Communications

I've recently seen a couple of references to a New Yorker article on the coming "big one" in the Pacific Northwest.  One of the references was in the most recent ARRL Contest Update.  Talking about an upcoming year-long earthquake preparedness exercise called "Cascadia Rising 2016", hams living in the Pacific Northwest who are interested in participating were directed to contact their local ARES EC.  Yet, in an editorial in the most recent ARES E-Letter, the author states that "we as radio amateurs are potentially critical links in the community and neighborhood disaster survival chain" and "the best approach to personal disaster management I've seen is the CERT program, and under its umbrella, the development of your own neighborhood emergency response team".

So, what's a ham to do?  As you might expect, I have my own thoughts.  First, some background.  I spent about 10 years in our local ARES organization, with a number of those serving as the Assistant EC.  During that period of time, I also completed a CERT training and certification program.  Both have their strong points but, for my money, the most useful one is being part of a CERT organization - and here's why.

Jerry Boyd N7WR, in his final "Emcomm and You" column for World Radio Magazine, said it best.  The article is no longer available in the CQ/World Radio archives - unless perhaps you are a subscriber - but was reprinted in a 2008 newsletter of the Minnesota Navy-Marine Corps MARS.  I highly recommend that you read the entire article, but I'll reference pieces of it here.  He said "it seems to me that much of the Emcomm community (thank goodness not all of it) has lost sight of its primary mission of serving the public."  He further states "Remember that Part 97 does not mandate service to public safety. It does include service to the public."

I can't find a reference to another article I recall.  It may have been one of Jerry's World Radio columns or it may have been written by another ham deeply involved with public safety communications.  Paraphrasing, the article stated that, considering the amount of Homeland Security money and equipment that has flowed into every county in the country, any Emergency Manager who was still relying on amateur radio for emergency communication should be fired for incompetence.

In my not-so-humble opinion, a ham should be prepared to assist his or her neighbors and local community with emergency communication needs.  CERT training teaches you that you need to be prepared to survive on your own for several days or longer before any outside assistance is available.  Communication with the outside will be critical.  As N7WR says in his article, "In my county (small in population and very small in terms of active amateurs) if there is an incident major enough to disrupt 'all means of communications between here and Salem', every amateur here will be needed for duty far more important than passing message traffic to the state EOC. They will be needed to assist the public, which will likely have no communications at all."

I don't write to upset anyone who is committed to ARES or other organizations, but I would urge those of you so inclined to join a local CERT team or at least be prepared to provide communications for your neighbors.  And, in keeping with the the QRP theme of this blog, don't forget that our QRP radios will work for long hours on relatively small amounts of battery power.  With a solar panel to recharge batteries, we can easily become self-sufficient communicators - a most important quality in a major emergency.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Field Day Reflections

Field Day is over for another year and, by at least one measure, this was my most successful effort since I started operating solo.  The final tally was 120 QSOs - 114 CW and 6 SSB - on all eligible bands from 80-10 meters.  This was about half again as many as I log in a typical year.  Using only search and pounce, I managed to work 44 different sections in all parts of the country.  I seemed to have a pipeline into Ohio and I had more contacts from there than anywhere else.

A big part of this year's success was my antenna.  At least, I think it was.  I suppose you never really know from just one outing but all signs point to it.  As is my custom, I used yet another antenna this year.  From past experience and reading others' Field Day reports, there seems to be two different schools of thought about antennas.  One group tends to use the same antenna configurations year after year.  I suppose these are the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" hams.  The other group, to which I belong, is always on the lookout for something new.  It seems like every year I'm trying something new and different.  It doesn't always involve a new antenna - sometimes it's just a different location or configuration of an existing antenna.

Most of my antennas are pretty simple homebrew affairs built from wire.  I've used 44 and 88 foot doublets, W3EDP end feds, horizontal loops, vertical loops, off center fed dipoles, inverted-Ls, end fed half waves, and vertical wire ground planes.  I've also purchased a couple of commercial antennas.  One is a Buddipole Deluxe that I really like when configured as a vertical but that I've had limited success with when horizontal.  The other is a Pacific Antenna PAC-12 that I built from a kit.  As a self-supporting ground mounted vertical, it comes in handy when there aren't any suitable trees for supporting a wire antenna.  It's very light and compact enough to carry along on a field outing, sets up easily, and normally works really well.

My antenna this year was a full-size coax-fed fan dipole cut for 80 and 40 meters.  The center was mounted on a painter pole bungee-corded to an elevated deck and was up about 25-30 feet.  The ends were supported by fiberglass crappie poles.  The 80 meter ends were supported by 20 foot poles and the 40 meter ends by 12 foot poles.  This inverted-V configuration provided a nice separation between the wires.  Although it is most efficient on 80, 40 and 15 meters, the internal tuner in my KX3 was able to find a match on all bands 80 through 10.  I probably had considerable feed line loss on 20 and 10 but you wouldn't know it from the results.  Here's how things turned out:

  • 80 meters was disappointing this year, something that I've seen comments about in other posts.  In past years there has been lots of Sunday morning activity but I only managed 5 QSOs.  With a full size antenna for this band, I was hoping for better conditions and results.
  • 40 meters was a good band on Saturday afternoon and evening but not so much on Sunday morning.  I put 28 QSOs in the log on this band.
  • 20 meters turned out to be the money band for me with 45 QSOs.  I had originally planned on setting up a vertical for this band but, surprisingly, the fan dipole turned out to be a winner - feed line losses and all.
  • 15 meters was spotty on Saturday afternoon with only a handful of QSOs.  Sunday was better and I put a total of 29 QSOs in the log.
  • 10 meters didn't open up on Saturday but there was some activity late on Sunday morning.  I put 8 CW QSOs in the log and then decided to switch to phone.  QRP power combined with some deep fading was a challenge but I managed to put 5 more QSOs in the log before the end rolled around.

Unlike in many parts of the country, weather conditions here in southern Wisconsin were just about perfect with clear skies and temperatures in the upper 70's on Saturday.  Mosquitoes drove me inside at dusk but it was otherwise a beautiful day.  Clear skies again greeted me when I returned to operating on Sunday morning.  Clouds moved in mid-morning but the rain held off until about 2:30 local time - long after I had everything packed up and indoors.  That's one of the benefits of operating QRP - the setup and tear down time is minimal.

The KX3 worked flawlessly, and logging on a Palm Pilot using GoLog and a serial CW sender was a pleasure.  The only thing that didn't work as planned was working PSK31.  KX3 Companion software on an Android tablet connecting to the KX3 via a Piglet worked very well but I was unable to get the KX3 configured properly to decode.  It would have helped if I'd worked out the kinks in advance.  After a bit of fiddling I gave up for this year but this will definitely be on my list for next year's event.

Whatever the conditions where you operated, I hope you had an enjoyable Field Day and are looking forward to next year.  And for those who made it into my log, thanks very much.  It was a pleasure working each of you.

72, Jim - K0RGI

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Field Day Rising

For those of us in North America, the ARRL Field Day event is right around the corner.  It's my favorite event of the year and the one for which I spend the most time preparing.  Most hams I know who participate do so as part of a club but, with one exception, I've been doing a solo effort for a number of years.  Class 1B Battery is a fun way to participate and allows for an enjoyable day of operating without the roar (or if you're lucky, purr) of a generator in the background.

I've traditionally set up for operation using the antennas I normally use for field operations - ground mounted verticals, end fed wires, and small doublets.  I've found that these just aren't very successful during the Saturday operations but seem to work fine starting Sunday morning once the "big gun" stations have all worked each other.  Unfortunately, that reduces the 24 hours of Field Day down to maybe 6-8 hours of operations.

This year I've decided to try something a bit different to expand my operating time and I plan to use a full size 80/40 meter coax-fed fan dipole.  I hope to also be able to operate on 15 meters via the third harmonic of the 40 meter section.  I'll erect the antenna using a 24 foot painter's pole for the center support and a combination of 20 foot and 12 foot crappie poles at each end.  For 20 meters, I'll put up a full size Buddipole vertical.  Although we're on the down slope of the current solar cycle, I'll occasionally check 10 meters and will quickly reconfigure the Buddipole as a full size vertical for that band if it opens up.

I know there are those who will think I should just put up a single 80 meter dipole fed with ladder line and a tuner for all band coverage, but I've always been intrigued with the idea of a fan dipole ever since I saw an FDIM presentation by L.B. Cebik about his top five backyard multi-band wire antennas.  Here's a LINK to the presentation.  I built the antenna a couple of years ago using the original center tee from my Buddipole but haven't put it to serious use since.  This year will be the test and I'm hoping it allows me to operate for as much of the 24 hours as I'm able to stay awake. LOL

I hope your Field Day plans are in progress and that we'll end up in each other's logs in about a month.  Please feel free to post comments about your planned operations and we can all learn from one another.

72, Jim - K0RGI

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Four Days In May and Hamvention 2015

I had a great time at Dayton this year.  FDIM was superb, as usual, and Hamvention was as good as it can get in the dump known as Hara Arena.  It looked like a few marginal facility improvements were made since last year.  The restrooms seemed a little cleaner and gravel had been dumped in the huge flea market pothole that's been slowly increasing in size the last few years.  Other than that, things were pretty much status quo.  Attendance seems to have stabilized and is maybe even on the upswing, and there were a few more vendors and a few more flea market spaces occupied this year over last.

The weather wasn't as good as it has been the past few years, with rain showers every day.  I got caught in one on Friday afternoon.  I'd made the mistake of thinking I could walk down one more row in the flea market before the rain hit and was pretty far out when the first drops started falling.  I made good time getting to the Arena but there was quite a traffic jam to get past a few inconsiderate people on scooters who had stopped just inside the doors, so I was pretty well soaked by the time I got under cover.  I like to think that most hams are reasonably intelligent people, but apparently there's still a lack of common sense on the part of some.

The speaker lineup for the seminars at FDIM was outstanding!  As you've probably heard by now, Elecraft announced and reviewed their new K3S transceiver at the opening session.  This was only moderately entertaining to me, mostly because I'm in the process of downsizing my shack and I really don't want to start adding new equipment - as if I could afford to just pull out a credit card and purchase one with all the accessories.  That would be classified as a major purchase at my home, subject to much thought and weighing of pros and cons.

Other sessions and speakers showed why low SWR isn't the only antenna measurement to consider, took us on a walk through the history of homebrew printed circuit boards, and showed us how an Arduino can be used to build and enhance our radios.  A bittersweet session was Rev. George Dobbs' final presentation at FDIM.  For a variety of reasons, G3RJV announced that this is his last trip to Dayton.  I've looked forward to his presentations ever since my first FDIM and it won't be quite the same without him.

I also attended a couple of Hamvention forums this year.  One was TAPR's presentation on Broadband Hamnet Mesh Networking.  It's pretty impressive what can be accomplished with an inexpensive router.  Flash the firmware with new code and it becomes capable of joining a high-speed mesh network on amateur frequencies.  They demonstrated its use for live video and voice over IP telephone.  In a disaster scenario, these and others are invaluable capabilities for emergency services teams.  Hamnet Mesh can also be used for a variety of projects in and out of the shack.  I have one of these routers that I was considering selling, but after seeing this forum I plan to hold on to it and see what I can build to use its capabilities.  You can find more information at http://www.broadband-hamnet.org/.

A second forum perhaps of more interest to us QRP aficionados provided information on the Packtenna portable antenna system.  A joint effort of Sierra Radio and Pignology, I'd describe it as a commercial quality linked dipole with accessories and a fiberglass support mast that allows for multiple configurations.  Geared toward backpack field operations, it combines light weight with the performance of full size wire antennas.  More information can be found at http://www.packtenna.com/.  There you'll find a user manual and the presenter encouraged homebrewing for those who wish to go that route.

If you've never attended FDIM or Hamvention, I'd encourage you to make the trip at least once.  I attended my first Hamvention in 2001 and started attending FDIM a few years later.  For those of us within a day's driving distance of Dayton, it's a pretty easy and relatively inexpensive trip.  For others it can be a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

Whichever it is for you, be warned that it really gets in your blood.  I had planned on my first trip being my only one, but seeing thousands of hams in one place who all share the same interests is a unique experience.  Like most hams, I have a group of ham friends who are active hams and we meet for breakfast most weekends.  Outside of that group and my family, most of my co-workers and others who I come in contact with either don't know or don't understand why anyone would spend time playing with radios.  That's never a problem at Dayton.

Hamvention and FDIM in particular also gives you the opportunity to see and perhaps speak with some of the well known names in the ham community.  I was exceptionally fortunate this year to be able to talk with several celebrities while en route from the FDIM headquarters to the Hara Arena.  On Friday, I sat next to and had a very enjoyable conversation with Dan KB6NU, author of the No-Nonsense Study Guides for those working toward their first or upgraded license.  I've subscribed to his blog for a while but didn't realize who he was until about halfway through the trip.  On Saturday, I had the great pleasure to ride and talk with Craig NM4T and Rex W1REX.  Craig is the force behind the Two Days in Huntsville QRP activities at the Huntsville hamfest and Rex is the owner/operator of QRPme.

And finally, in the "it's a small world" category, on Friday I ran across the ham who previously owned my call.  I met Greg K9QI a few years ago when I stopped to visit my friend Jim WB8HMD at the Motorola ARC tent in the flea market.  When I stopped by this year sporting a K0RGI name tag, one of the other hams there said "hey, you've got Greg's old call".  I knew it had been a club call previously, but I hadn't known that Greg was the trustee of the call.  It turned out that he wanted to get a call for a different club and new FCC rules prohibit being a trustee of more than one club call, so he had to relinquish the K0RGI call.  His loss was my gain, and I think he was pleased to know that it went from one owner of Welsh Corgi dogs to another.


Thursday, April 9, 2015

Can't We All Just Get Along?

A recent topic of discussion on QRP-L prompts me to write a few words and vent my spleen a bit.  This topic comes up every so often on various discussion lists and usually turns into a free for all, with people weighing in on both sides of the argument.  And what is this earth-shaking topic of discussion?  Of course, I’m speaking of the quality of sent Morse code heard on the HF bands.

The argument usually starts with one or more old timers (apparently defined as having been a ham since Moby Dick was a minnow) lamenting how poorly newcomers to the hobby send code, particularly with a straight key or bug, and they’re just unable to copy much of anything they send so they go elsewhere to find their 30+ WPM rag chews.

Others jump in to defend the newcomers and point out that they represent the future of CW on the airwaves, and that they deserve to be cut some slack and perhaps even be elmered by the old timers.  The discussion then degenerates into a general condemnation of operating habits by the newcomers and an apparent desire to turn back the clock to the days when “real hams” sent perfect code and practiced several hours a day to make sure no errors ever crossed their key.  A few days later, things settle back down until the next SKCC or other event brings out hordes of the dreaded noobs.

Whenever I see these posts start to appear, I’m in awe of the level of skill possessed by the old timers.  They apparently learned Morse code before they were old enough to read and have the uncanny ability to send high quality code using nothing more than 2 bare wires rhythmically touched together.  This kind of superhuman ability always reminds me of the posts where a ham talks about receiving a kit and having it built and operational in just a few hours.  “UPS dropped off my K2 this afternoon and I made my first QSO with it after supper”.  I exaggerate, but I’m sure you’ve seen similar posts.

I don’t doubt that there are hams who legitimately possess these exemplary CW skills but, to those like me who struggle mightily to reach even minor proficiency, stories like these are demoralizing at best.  In fairness, I also don’t doubt that there are hams whose fists are, shall we say, less than stellar.  I know I certainly fit into that category on occasion.  Some of the complaints are likely justified, but there seems to be more than a whiff of attitude in many of them.  Let me use myself as an example of the type of ham who might get bashed by the CW mavens out there.

I learned to send and receive at 5 WPM in order to obtain my Novice license in 1986.  A few months later and before I’d ever been on the air, I passed my Technician test, got interested in VHF packet radio, and never looked back at a key.  Sometime around 2000, I was grandfathered in for my General license when the code requirement was lowered to 5 WPM.  I’d now met all of the requirements since the Technician and General written tests were the same prior to the introduction of the no-code Technician license in 1987.  Since packet was pretty much dead by then, access to the HF bands was a blessing as it rekindled my interest in ham radio.  A few years later, I passed my Extra exam - again with only having passed a 5 WPM code test and never using the code on the air.

When I became interested in QRP, I realized that CW was the lingua franca of the QRP community because of the low power levels involved and relative efficiency of CW.  I needed to learn CW!  A few months of practice using Chuck Adams’ superb code disk distributed by FISTS provided me with the ability to copy Morse at 10-12 WPM, a speed I’ve not appreciably increased since.  I think the main reason for this is that I primarily use it only during various contests and field events.  In most cases, the exchange is predictable and I can concentrate on copying the necessary elements during previous contacts.  Once I have them down, that’s when I’ll throw out my call.  This naturally leads to using search and pounce techniques almost exclusively, as invariably I’ll send out a 12 WPM CQ and someone will come back at 25-30 WPM.  It gets tiresome to continually send ? or QRS PSE, so I soon retreat back to S&P.

When I want a rag chew, I go to the digital modes as PSK31 is also exceptionally efficient at low power levels.  I know this doesn’t help me to improve my CW skills, but reading about how much those who are proficient at Morse dislike those of us who aren’t cluttering up the airwaves just doesn’t provide much incentive to get on the air with my trusty Bencher.  My proficiency is on a keyboard.  I learned to type in high school and, like many, use a keyboard extensively in my job.  In high school in 1969, I was timed at 60 WPM on a manual typewriter.  I’m pretty sure that I can now operate a keyboard all day long at well over 100 WPM.  This all came pretty naturally to me, as I don’t recall struggling to learn to type as opposed to what I’ve gone through to learn CW.  Still, I understand that not everyone has an innate ability to touch type.

There are areas of agreement between us.  Just like the CW operators who complain about the contest-style QSOs they encounter, I’m not a fan of the macro-driven QSOs one commonly finds with the digital modes.  I had one QSO where, after the obligatory brag files were exchanged, I mentioned a little bit about the area where I live and asked about his.  His response was that he "practiced catch and release on PSK31", hoped to see my call on his screen again in the future, and signed off.  Why he hoped to see me on his screen again was a mystery to me.  Maybe he wants to bore me again with his brag file?

Fortunately, there are still those who enjoy spending at least a few minutes typing back and forth and talking about something other than what computer and digimode software they are using right down to the last detail.  And, just like the CW operators who complain about the quality of code being sent, I get a bit frustrated when I see someone on my screen who is obviously a hunt and peck typist with frequent backspacing to correct errors.  And then I remember why I’m on the digital modes instead of CW and smile.  I’m just happy that there are still those who want to communicate and not just make contacts, no matter how painful it might be for them.  They’ll get better, and some of them just might be the CW old timers who are trying to learn something new and different.  My best wishes to them and I wish that they felt the same way about hams like me.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Portable Digital Mode Operation

I've occasionally operated portable digital modes - mostly PSK31 - with an SGC SG-2020 and computers ranging from an old Pentium II laptop to an Asus eeePC.  Besides the added weight and bulk, the main problem has always been power.  The internal batteries on these devices usually only last a few hours before needing to be recharged.  These aren't insurmountable issues when operating short sprints but can really cause problems for a longer field event such as QRP To The Field or Field Day.

When I added an Elecraft KX3 to my radio lineup last year, a significant selling point was that it can send and receive PSK31 and RTTY all by itself without needing a computer.  The decoded signal is displayed where the VFO-B frequency is normally displayed but sending requires a good CW fist - something that I don't always exhibit.  To eliminate that problem, I considered purchasing a Nue-PSK or Ham Central Terminal but never got around to pulling the trigger.  Now a new solution is on the horizon.

A couple of years ago, I got the XYL a Google Nexus 7 tablet for a Christmas present and it eventually became her constant companion.  We recently made the mistake of updating it to the latest version of the Android operating system.  I knew there had been some serious performance issues when it was originally released last November, but I thought the major problems had probably been resolved with a couple of interim dot releases.  Wow, was I wrong!  In a matter of minutes it went from being a good performer to a paperweight.  We tried a number of different workarounds that improved the situation somewhat but she found using it to be frustrating at best.

More research showed that the best solution seemed to be a complete reset to factory settings and then restore her apps and backed up data.  The only stumbling block was that she'd lost confidence in the Nexus 7.  Then I had a brilliant idea - a new iPad for her, and I'd become the new owner of the old tablet.  I figured it would be perfect for ham applications.  A couple of hours later I had a Nexus 7 with reasonable performance.  I've purchased and installed KX3 Companion and HamLog and have a Piglet with a serial cable on its way from Nick at Pignology.  Reviews are very positive and I'm really looking forward to putting this all together and trying it out.  With a little luck and some nice weather, it might get its maiden voyage during the RaDAR Challenge on April 4.  It was looking a bit dicey yesterday with 6 inches of fresh snow and 11 degrees overnight but the forecast is for warmer weather so it won't last long.  I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

72, Jim - K0RGI

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Rockmite Clones

I've been seeing many posts on QRP-L and other places about various problems hams are having with the Chinese Rockmite knockoffs.  Poor quality boards, incomplete or nonexistent documentation, unworkable internal keyer software, missing or incorrect parts, little or no support, and the list goes on.  I know the price is attractive, but when you factor in the time and frustration to get it to work - if that's even possible according to some posts - the value quickly disappears.   As Ben Franklin said, "The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten".

The original Rockmites are no longer available since Dave Benson retired, but an updated version is available from Rex Harper's QRPme.  eHam reviews of the original version were superlative.  The newer version has lesser but still decent scores, and if you have problems there is support available from Rex.  Just in case you're wondering, I have no financial interest in QRPme although I have had the pleasure of briefly chatting with Rex at FDIM.

I've seen many posts lamenting the lack of availability of good quality QRP kits.  One way to ensure that this situation continues is to keep buying some of this junk and reducing the incentive for our small QRP businesses and clubs to produce more kits.  No matter where in the world you live, chance are good that you have local kit producers with well regarded and well supported products.  If you're into scratch building, there are a number of available resources on the Web where you can get help from others.  The bottom line for me is that, until these clone manufacturers get their act together and start marketing quality products, hams are better off avoiding them and instead supporting the reputable companies and clubs that have done much to help our hobby.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Bandplans and Reasonable Accommodation

I try to not wade in to controversial issues, but there are a couple of topics floating around in the amateur radio world that all hams should be aware of and then, if so moved, weigh in with their opinions.

The first is the ARRL's request for comments on proposed bandplan changes.  I won't go into detail here as the information is on ARRL's website at this link, but here's the summary:
"The ARRL HF Band Planning Committee requests your input on proposed changes to the voluntary band plans for several HF bands and two suggestions for related changes in the FCC Rules. Band plans do not have the force of law but are voluntary guidelines intended to improve operating effectiveness and enjoyment."
One of the proposed changes that caught my eye is placement of "wide" (>500 Hz bandwidth) data modes from 7115 kHz to 7125 kHz.  This overlays a popular part of the old 40 meter Novice band where there is still a lot of slow speed CW.  I believe a number of small monoband QRP rigs were offered with this frequency range and interference from these wide modes would likely make them essentially unusable.

If this or any of the other proposed changes concern you and you haven't already submitted your comments, you might want to take a few minutes and complete the survey.  It's open until April 19.

The second is introduction of the Amateur Radio Parity Act of 2015 in the U.S. Congress.  This bill, if passed into law, would "direct the FCC to extend its rules relating to reasonable accommodation of Amateur Service communications to private land use restrictions."

Many hams, myself included, have been or will be caught up in HOA antenna restrictions where they live and this bill would provide some relief.  I personally have mixed feelings about it.  While I certainly would like to use something other than a stealth antenna at my future retirement home, I also know that I along with others purchased into a community knowing full well about the restrictions.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I wouldn't be particularly pleased to see a tribander on a 35' tower go up next door to me.  I've heard all of the past arguments about how difficult it is to find a home not covered by HOA covenants, but after the fact invalidation of a private contract that I and others signed just isn't right.

Whichever side of the issue your thoughts lie, you'll want to make your voice heard.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Ham Radio Provides A History Lesson

While looking for an island where I could operate on May 9 for US Island's One-Day Getaway, I was gobsmacked to discover that the island I found has some associated history.  Or more accurately, the area near the island has some associated history.

Bowers Lake (where "my" island is located), along with the nearby Storrs Lake, are both part of what the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources calls the Storrs Lake Wildlife Area.  According to the DNR web site:
In 1832, Storrs Lake was recorded as an overnight campsite for Brigadier General Henry Atkinson and 4,500 soldiers in pursuit of Chief Black Hawk and his Sac Indian community. Among Atkinson's soldiers were his chief of staff, Lt. Albert Sidney Johnston, later a famous Confederate General in the U.S. Civil War, and a 23-year old mounted scout on 30-day enlistment by the name of Abraham Lincoln.
I listen to audio books during my commute to and from work and my current "read" is Volume One of Shelby Foote's trilogy on the American Civil War.  Lincoln's service in the Blackhawk War is mentioned and considerable time is spent on Albert Sidney Johnston, who was killed at the battle of Shiloh.  What wasn't mentioned was their connection to where I plan to operate.

Ham radio has something to offer people with a wide variety of interests, but I never thought that a local history lesson would be one of them.  What a great hobby!