Wednesday, May 23, 2018

NIL, Again: Contests and DXing

Getting a NIL (not in log) penalty in a contest can be exasperating. It's one of those things that cannot be entirely eliminated since it is mostly dependent on the other end of the QSO. As I perused the final LCR (log check report) from the CQ WW CW contest last fall I felt some frustration since I thought that I'd been making progress reducing these errors.

Consider the ways in which a NIL can occur and you'll understand the difficulty avoiding them:
  • The QSO was logged with your call incorrect and the log checker software failed to match the erroneous record with that in your log. Software isn't perfect so this will happen. There is little you can do about it other than to be certain the other station has your call correct.
  • You are running on the same frequency as someone else who you cannot hear and you think you have worked someone who instead worked the other station. Yes, this really happens and you may not notice what's going on for several minutes. All you can do is QSY and hope for the best.
  • User error results in your QSO not being entered into the other station's log. Every contester makes mistakes so this will happen occasionally. I know I've done it myself and unless caught instantly there is no recovery possible, and indeed you may be unaware of the mistake.
  • The other station gives up on you because you're too difficult to copy -- happens a lot when you run QRP -- but instead of telling you sends "TU XX9YYY" and continues onward. You think the QSO is good and log it. In my opinion this is unsportsmanlike behaviour.
When you make thousands of QSOs in a contest you should expect a number of NIL penalties. While it is possible to reduce their number with care if you want to get to zero you will also need very good luck! As one contest director once told me: don't worry about it too much, it happens to everyone. Yet it still bothers me.

I was surprised to find that I could remember a few of those NILs in this most recent LCR. A couple of them I was sure were good. But as noted above the log checker may have gotten it wrong. Although I didn't bother this time a couple of years ago the CQ WW contest director at the time suggested looking in the public logs for these NILs. It was both enlightening and perplexing. By comparing logs you can sometimes see where the software may have mismatched records but you can not see into the other operator's mind if your QSO is absent.

Learn what you can, do your best to ensure your future logs are accurate and hope for the best. Since many of your competitors are seeing similar penalties the score reduction is only a problem if you are especially negligent, in which case their lower error rate will hurt you. Perfection may be impossible but you will surely not attain it if you don't try. Accurate logging is a valuable skill for contesters to practice. I can do better.

But what if you're not a contester? Are you a DXer? The possibility of NIL still applies to you. Let's examine this with a real situation I encountered, but without revealing call signs.

A few weeks ago there was a DXpedition from a moderately rare country, one I've worked many times before. When they showed up on 40 meter CW I jumped in if only to practice my pile up skills.

After just one minute I got through -- having a yagi up high helps! The band was noisy here and presumably there as well (warm weather in both places) with the usual QRM from poor operators who keep calling regardless of the station being answered. As a result he took a few tries to correctly copy my call. Then without having ever sent my correct call (one letter was wrong) he sent "TU UP" and moved on to the next QSO.

I may have been in their log with my call correct, my call incorrect or perhaps he gave up and erased the QSO. There was no way for me to be sure. What would you do in this case? In a contest I would most likely have logged the QSO, risking a NIL, and perhaps duped him later if it was a needed multiplier.

However this was not a contest. If you are a DXer you'll have been in this situation many times and faced the question of whether to log the QSO. From my experience I know that many would log the QSO and either hope for the best or check the DXpedition's online log and try again if the QSO doesn't appear.

What would you do? Be honest. Think about it for a moment before you continue reading to discover what I did.

I erased the QSO from my log. To me that was the ethical choice since I did not hear him send my call correctly. In effect I assumed NIL or copying error, making the QSO invalid. Had this been a new country or band-country I admit I would have been tempted to log it and hope. When I hit "delete" I was motivated by the disgust I felt at the poor operating practice that left me in doubt.

A day or two later I was talking to a friend who congratulated me on working this station on 40 meters -- we tend to check up on each other in DXpedition online logs so that we know when to call each other when we hear them on. I had to tell him that, no, I didn't log the QSO and proceeded to explain why. He had a good chuckle over that one.

All of this leaves us with an ethical viewpoint on the NIL problem. During contests we expect to hear our call correctly before logging the QSO, although some don't care because it's the other guy's score that will suffer, not theirs. Indeed when you're running it is common for callers to never send your call so you can never know if you're in their log or logged incorrectly. Some always send the running station's call to remove doubt, which annoys some operators due to the two seconds it consumes.

For DXing both stations do try to ensure correct copying of our call since the penalty for a NIL is arguably greater for the rare ones. We all notice the sloppy DXpedition operators who do not strive for accuracy, leaving us in doubt and annoyed. We also notice the sloppy callers who pay little attention to whether their call is being correctly sent in their enthusiasm to work the DX.

In DXing as in contesting it pays to be accurate and to confirm or correct what has been copied.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Radials: Resonant to Non-resonant

We all know -- or should know by now -- that for ground-mounted vertical antennas the more radials the better. Specifically, more and longer radials reduce the near field ground losses by confining antenna return currents to the highly-conductive radials rather than the lossy ground below. That is, a good radial system forms a low loss ground plane.

This is highly desirable since ground loss can be substantial. This is a shame since vertical antennas can be excellent radiators at the low elevation angles needed for effective DXing on the lower HF bands which is difficult to achieve with horizontally polarized antennas. A lot of wire and ground area is required to construct a good radial system which is impractical for most hams, and so they must compromise. That compromise may be short radials, few radials or avoid vertical antennas entirely.

But for this exercise let's assume you are building a ground-mounted vertical and radial system. I'll do this for 80 meters since that's the antenna currently of interest to me. The data can be scaled to other bands if that's your interest. I will further assume that you are comfortable with the data and theory regarding near field and far field ground loss associated with verticals and vertically polarized antennas. If not there are ample and excellent resources available to you. Perhaps some of the best can be found on N6LF's web site and in ON4UN's book Low-Band Dxing. I addressed a few of these elementary items in my own small way, such as here and here.

In this article I want to focus on the effect of radials on the resonance of a ground-mounted vertical. The reason is that I am currently dealing with this issue and I have not found any easily digestible material out there that describes just what happens. In particular what it means when we say that radials tend to "resonant" when there are few and "non-resonant" when there are many.

Developing a model

Modelling a ground-mounted vertical with the NEC2 engine has drawbacks. In case this is unfamiliar to you here are some of the issues to be aware of:
  • Even with the real ground models used in EZNEC there are ground loss and velocity factor inaccuracies with on-ground radials. As the radial count increases the effects will diminish but are still difficult to quantify.
  • Ground is not homogeneous yet the model must assume that it is. At low frequencies the antennas fields can penetrate many meters into the ground, so what you can't see can hurt you.
  • Radials cannot touch the ground or be placed below the surface. They must be placed a small distance above ground for the model to work, which contribute to inaccurate calculation of ground loss and radial velocity factor.
  • Monopoles constructed with an open lattice tower cannot be directly modelled and must rely on a substitute "effective diameter". Determining the effective diameter is difficult and is more difficult yet for tapered towers, such as the one I am using in my 80 meter array, where a stepped diameter correction is impractical. It almost inevitably requires post-construction measurements and adjustments to the height to achieve the desired resonance.
  • The feed point of a real tower vertical is located within the tower base. Since the model can't deal with that there will a difference in effective lengths of the radials and monopole.
Despite these challenges a NEC2 model will still deliver excellent insights into vertical antenna design when developed with care. Although there will certainly be inaccuracies in the results the general trends and behaviours can be correct and useful.

For my model I am using the following parameters. You can adjust these as necessary to suit your own requirements for design and construction. Better yet, if you can afford it, use NEC4.
  • Monopole height of 19.9 meters and effective monopole diameter of 50 cm (20").
  • AWG 18 insulated wire for radials.
  • Radials and monopole raised 10 cm (0.0012λ) above EZNEC medium ground.
  • Segment length of ~1.0 meters. It is desirable to equalize the segment length of radials and monopole for model reliability.

Running the model

The model was run for a range of lengths and numbers of radials. The data collected is resonant frequency (X = 0) and feed point resistance at the resonant frequency. Radial length is varied from 10 through 25 meters, which covers lengths that are both above and below the resonant frequency. Radial counts are: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32 and 64. Doubling radials at each step is most illustrative since the effects are not proportional to the number of radials.

The only quirk I encountered was with 64 × 25 meter long radials which exceeded the1,500 segment limit in my version of EZNEC. For that one case I was compelled to use just 58 radials.


In the left chart the transition from resonance to non-resonance is plainly obvious for all radial lengths as the radial count increases. Notice how in all cases the resonant frequency regardless of whether the radials are shorter or longer than resonance. However the greater the radial length departs from resonance the more radials it takes to converge to the ultimate resonance that is approximately 3.680 MHz.

I added the 18 meter length radial data since that is the closest integral value that keeps the antenna resonance static with respect to radial count. The true value is closer to 17.5 meters, which would have required violating my rule of keeping segment length constant at 1 meter.

The implied velocity factor for the radials due to ground proximity is ~0.89 plus a further 0.02 reduction due to wire insulation. The true velocity factor is almost certainly lower when radials rest on or slightly below ground. As discussed above this cannot be fully modelled with NEC2. Expect the measured velocity factor be no higher than 0.75: radials resonant at 15 meters length or less.


The story for feed point impedance is more complicated. N6LF addresses this matter in detail so I will not delve into the topic too deeply. High feed point resistance is a indicator of excessive ground loss, which is not surprising to see for short radials even when there are many of them. Many radials can only partially compensate for short length.

For long radials the lower feed point resistance is not a reliable indication of lower radiation resistance or ground loss. As N6LF demonstrates the current peak moves outward from the feed point when the electrical length of the radial is greater than ¼λ which changes the character of the entire antenna.

By expecting a final feed point impedance for your vertical antenna or array you will be better equipped to plan ahead for a matching network, rather than merely hoping for a perfect match or stopping when one is reached despite it being a symptom of high ground loss or less than optimal radial currents. Requiring an L-network for a vertical network should be seen as a nice problem to have.

What does it all mean?

When your chosen radial length is substantially unequal to a ¼λ you should expect unusual resonant frequencies when you first attach a few radials and then large changes as you add more. Forearmed is forewarned so the charts above can help you to anticipate and to avoid surprises. Certainly this happened when I first lit up my 80 meter vertical a few days ago!

Had I chose shorter radials the effect could have been the opposite of what I measured, with resonance occurring above my design frequency and then falling lower as radials are added. To give a more concrete example, when I attached a long on-the-ground length of RG213 back to the antenna switch the resonance shifted upward to 3.5 MHz from 3.4 MHz. With only 4 radials the outer surface of the coax acts as a unreasonably long fifth radial and that disturbs the symmetry of the other 4. This resonance effect would largely disappear with a radial count of 16 or higher. However this is distinct from common mode current on the coax surface, a separate though related problem.

It was these experiences that motivated me to run the models and write this article. Nowhere that I could find was there a quantitative or visual presentation of the precise migration of vertical resonance with radial length and count. My thought is that if these models are helpful to me it may be helpful to you for the design of vertical antennas and the gradual deployment of radials. I certainly won't wait until there are 64 radials before I try an antenna. I doubt that any ham would!

Rely on those referenced resources and others to plan your vertical antennas to achieve the optimum number and length of radials for your individual circumstances and performance objectives. Models will help as well, provided that you take account of modelling software constraints and limitations. It is my hope with this article that I've provided one point of insight into the process.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

80 Meter Array: Driven Element Construction

I am building the 3-element 80 meter vertical yagi in stages. The first stage is the driven element, the greatest part of which is a ground isolated tower. This is the very same DMX-52 tower and floating base that I used at my previous QTH to support a tri-band yagi, wires and was fed as an 80 meter top loaded vertical (yagi as top hat capacitor).

Since the tower is ~14 meters a stinger is needed to take the antenna to a full λ/4 on 80 meters (~19.7 meters in my case). The stinger is made of aluminum pipe and tubing with the structural strength to support the wire parasitic elements. To maximize the vertical height of the wire parasites (for best performance) I added one meter of PVC pipe on top. Anything longer would become unwieldy and less robust. I want this antenna to last.

Construction, tuning and testing of the array is a large enough project that one article would be impractical so it will spread over several. Even if this array is of no interest there should be aspects of interest to any ham with an interest in building antennas and towers. If nothing else this first article may be of interest to those putting up small towers and low band ground-mounted verticals.

Tower base

My first task was to choose a site. After various considerations it ended up very close to where it was in my original site plan. The location has these attributes:
  • Well spaced from power lines (50 m), Beverage antenna field (30 m) and existing towers (60m and 70 m), while not being too far from the shack (60 m). My major concern is interactions in a couple of directions. From what I have read and from other hams with similar issues I expect my choice to work pretty well, with no enhanced minor lobes (F/B, F/R) and gain to the southeast reduced well below 1 db.
  • Minimized impact on haying. Radials and support ropes preclude farm equipment and could take ~1 acres out of production. By moving closer to the tree line the radial system overlaps the perimeter bush, thus reducing tillable land impact by ~15%.
  • Ease of access for mowing and other regular maintenance.
I staked the site to place the base, parasites, anchors and radial system perimeter, then got my shovel to plant and level the floating tower base. This was the easy part. When the guy anchors went in a problem appeared (see next section). That's why I didn't proceed with the project over the winter. I did stand the first two sections (16') and tie them down so they wouldn't be buried under the snow and ice.


When the snow melted I resumed work on the base. I used a similar method as before for sitting the tower legs on the wood base but took additional step to ensure good RF isolation from ground. A thick plastic block is placed under each leg and bolted to the base. This first requires accurate siting to the guy anchors. Not visible is a ½" length of rubber tube that pierces the plastic block and L-bracket. A rubber grommet sits atop that and a screw lightly holds it all down.

The base does not prevent the tower from overturning; that's the job of the guys. The rubber allows a small amount of rocking in high winds, prevents lateral motion and electrically isolates the tower (driven element) from ground. The driven element will be directly fed between radials and tower.

Raising and guying the tower

As I've mentioned a couple of times I ran into an apparent problem with the ground anchors late last fall and decided to be prudent and stop construction until I could address the problem in the spring. That time has come, adjustments were made and construction resumed. I'll review the problem and how I decided to proceed.

Since the load on the tower and antenna array is modest I decided to use ordinary augur-style anchors. These have a bevelled blade at the bottom that acts as both a bit and as a load bearing surface. It is best to screw them in with a augur attachment on a tractor but it is possible to do it by hand with some effort. I don't have a tractor and it seemed excessive to rent one or cajole a neighbour to help so I did it by hand.

I don't include a picture of the anchors since I neglected to take one before burying them. For a ham relevant discussion of screw anchors, and pictures, I'll refer you to W8JI. The only difference is that mine are much shorter at 3' (~90 cm) long, common in farm country to anchor fence lines. That page has related information I'll come to shortly.

After carefully siting the anchors so that they are precisely 120° apart and 12 meters from the base of the 14 meter tower I broke the surface sod with a shovel. Other than hitting rock the surface is the most difficult to penetrate since vegetation roots in soil form a surprisingly solid mass. If done carefully the sod can be put back once the anchor is in place.

The tools required are quite simple: shovel, steel bar and a sledgehammer. The steel bar should be long enough for turning torque and to push down against but not so long that it hits the ground every half turn. I used my old trusty 1" cold chisel.

Quite a lot of force may be required depending on the soil type. Even if the soil is not hard you must still press down hard as the screw is turned or the soil will be ground up and weakened until time eventually heals the wound. Minimizing soil disturbance is perhaps the most important reason to use a power augur to drive in screw anchors. When a stone interfered with progress a judicious tap of the sledgehammer on the anchor pushed it aside just enough to screw past it.

Overly disturbed soil is what stopped me in the fall. Two of the anchors had 1" to 2" freedom of axial movement in the waterlogged soil after being screwed in. Since I couldn't tell whether this was temporary or my 3' anchors aren't long enough for the soil type I elected to wait until spring to decide whether to fit the anchors in concrete to form a larger soil bearing surface.

Once the ground frost was sufficiently thawed (tested with a soil probe) I tested the anchors and none moved under load. However I partially unscrewed and redid one that I had put in at too shallow an angle. I was aiming for ~45° since the guy station is up the same distance the anchor is from the base: ~12 meters.

Newly confident that the anchors would hold I manually stood the two pre-assembled bottom sections, completed the base (see above) and temporarily guyed the tower with ropes and turnbuckles. When I reached 4 sections (~31') I attached temporary steel guys and one-by-one shifted the load from the ropes to the steel guys. I did this by loosening the turnbuckle, slipping on the steel guy over the open hook termination of the turnbuckle screw, tightened the turnbuckle and finally removed the rope.

Do this methodically or you risk the tower toppling. It only takes a few minutes so don't become careless from impatience. The picture shows the final rope guy about to be replaced. For additional safety I placed a ~100 lb stone on a lumber cradle sitting over the bottom X-braces of the tower.

Sections went up very quickly using the same gin pole used before for this tower. Since the original aluminum angle was claimed by another project I replaced it with steel angle stock from my junk pile. The gin pole worked well despite its limitations.

There was a two week delay topping the tower due to a series of late spring snow and ice storms, the need to keep the top section at hand for constructing the stinger, and to recover from a wisdom tooth extraction. It was very frustrating. When work could resume I raised the top section with stinger attached, retracted into the section so that it was not too top heavy for lifting and splicing. Lifting and inserting the stringer separately would have been awkward and potentially dangerous due to it length.


Topped; still nested & temp guys
The stinger is made of a 7' length of schedule 40 1-½" aluminum pipe (1.9" OD, 1.61" ID) and two 7' lengths of 1.5" OD tube. The pipe and bottom tube were made snug with a wrap of aluminum flashing and secured with stainless steel bolts. A short length of PVC pipe wrapped in flashing made up a butt joint which was secured with bolts. Electrical continuity is protected by coating aluminum surfaces with a thin layer of aluminum grease (Noalox brand, but there are many others on the market).

About 1 meter of PVC pipe at the top supports a guy ring and rope catenaries for the wire parasitic elements. The ropes must be attached at this time since the top of the stinger is out of reach once it and the top tower section are raised. The ropes are lightly tied to the top section until the wire elements are installed later.

Raising the top section complete with nested stinger was more of a problem than expected. It's slightly top heavy and the improvised gin pole couldn't grab it any higher. Tag lines were used to direct it around the temporary guys and then to pull it roughly vertical so that it could be spliced. Despite all the problems the entire operation took only 2 hours.

With everything up the permanent steel guys are attached and the temporary guys removed. The guys are a combination of ⅛" and 3/16" aircraft cable salvaged from their first use on this tower. The top segment is kept very short to minimize capacitive loading. The other segments are non-resonant on 80 meters and have negligible loaded per my EZNEC model.

I originally intended to guy with the black dacron rope I bought for this purpose. Instead I went with steel to reduce deflection of the structure in high winds which could stress the base and parasitic element wires. The rope will go to one of a couple of projects tentatively planned for the future.

The tower feels very solid and survived 90 kph wind when held with the second set of temporary guys at 40'. Even the unrestrained stinger did fine. I don't anticipate a problem when complete. The anchors and guys will be regularly checked for the next few months to ensure that the anchors are not shifting, especially after heavy rainfalls which can partially liquefy the topsoil.

Radials

The radials are attached using a similar arrangement to the one I improvised for the 160 meter t-top vertical. It worked so well and is inexpensive and easy to use I couldn't resist. We'll have to see how it survives in practice.

The attachment pillar is a 3-½" plastic coupler friction fit over several screws driven into the floating base. An all stainless steel (the band and the screw) hose clamp secures the radial wires and the wire to the feed point. Gripping the copper conductors between an insulator and stainless steel greatly reduces the risk of galvanic corrosion. The large diameter pillar is helpful when the radial count is high and it minimizes the deflection when a radial has to be routed around a tower leg.

To attach a radial you simply strip 1" of wire, slightly loosen the hose clamp, slip in the wire and fold it over the band. Tighten the hose clamp and it's done! For the initial test (first light) there are 4 x 20 meter long radials. All radials are AWG 18 solid insulated wire. The price is reasonable and is more than adequate for QRO when many radials split the antenna current.

First light

As first tested with my analyzer the resonance was not as expected. Resonance is almost exactly 3.4 MHz with an impedance of 50 + j0 Ω, well below the expected resonant frequency of 3.9 to 4.0 MHz with the stinger partly nested inside the top section. (If you expand the photo above you should be able to see the SWR curve on the analyzer screen, which is centred at 3.4 MHz.)

This appears to be due to the small number of long radials currently installed and perhaps I did not properly account for the tower diameter in the model. Once the situation has been fully investigated remedial measures will be taken. The impact of the former item per EZNEC is to lower the resonant frequency by 100 to 125 kHz since the on-ground radials are longer than an electrical ¼λ and, due to the low count, greatly affect resonance

Although the SWR of 1.0 looks very nice it is not. Recall that the radiation resistance of a ground mounted ¼λ vertical is typically 35 to 37 Ω, and can be lower for a "fat" monopole such as mine. The ground loss, which is in series with the radiation resistance, is therefore approximately 15 Ω. That's quite high although entirely typical for the small number of radials currently installed. As radials are added the feed point resistance will fall.

My objective is no more than 5 Ω so that ground loss is a minor factor when the array is in full operation as a 3-element yagi, whose radiation resistance is much lower than a vertical alone. This is modelled and explained in more detail in the antenna design article.

About that stinger

The final stinger height must be firmly determined before the parasitic wire elements are designed and installed since the resulting geometry determines the structure of the t-top parasitic wire elements: lengths of the vertical leg and t-top. There are also mechanical considerations I must deal with.

The driven element does not absolutely need to be resonant. The feed point resistance will be low enough when all the radials are in place that an L-network may be desirable to lower the SWR when used in the array's omni-directional mode. Provided that the resonant frequency is roughly in band that will ensure sufficient mutual coupling with the parasitic elements for the array to perform as intended.

The final call on stinger height will come after initial testing and a little bit of modelling to verify adjustments to the design. 

Getting from here to there

With the basics done I have run coax to the the antenna so to compare the vertical to the temporary inverted vee up at 32 meters. I will write up the comparison for the blog. The comparison will help to establish baseline performance to a known antenna. Once that's done the inverted vee comes down to get it out of the field for haying season. I will almost certainly put it up again to work nearby US stations in contests, with height and location to be determined.

The permanent feed point will be constructed, the stinger redone and L-network designed. Tuning requires completion of the feed point since the temporary setup will certainly have different wire lengths from the coax termination to the radial hub and to the tower (monopole). At least 16 radials will be required to erase most of the resonance-influencing effects of the radials. Again, I'll delve into this in a coming article.

With all that out of the way the parasitic elements will be hung off the driven element stinger, tuned and radials laid. As you can see there is a logical sequence of steps to go through when building an array of this nature.

Before the switching system is fully deployed I may temporarily wire it as a fixed yagi to assess performance. I will then need to complete and deploy the direction switching system, switchable L-network and switching units for the parasitic elements. All of this is straightforward but time consuming.

Unless other projects deflect my attention over the next few months the array could be substantially complete this spring. The final objective is that it be complete in time for the fall contest and DX season. That's when I find out for sure how well it performs. Either way it is going to be interesting!

Friday, May 4, 2018

Rolling Up the Radials -- My 160 Meter Season

My 160 meter season is now at an end. The radials and coax have been rolled up and put away for at least the summer. The t-top vertical antenna itself will remain in the air for a few days until I have an opportunity to climb the tower. That'll be a multi-purpose trip since I do not like to climb 150' merely to untie a rope!

As you can see in the picture there's a lot of wire involved. That's 240 meters (8 x 30 meters) of AWG 18 insulated wire. If that seems like a large amount consider that I just picked up my order of another 1,000 meters of wire to make the radials for the 80 meter array I'm currently building. With the strength of the US dollar and the overall rise in metals prices I paid 10% more than I did 6 months ago.


When I opened the box housing the L-network all was perfectly clean and dry inside. The disk ceramic capacitor in the L-network looked good despite putting up with several months of 200 watts. I was also pleased to find that the galvanized framing nails I used to pin the far end of the radials did not rust through from spending a wet winter and spring buried in the soil.

In short, nothing went wrong. That kind of luck doesn't happen often enough. That's pretty good for a temporary antenna.

Why now?

With the hay beginning to grow and the rapidly increasing risk of ticks this is a good time to remove the antenna. Warm weather QRN is making DXing quite difficult and in any case there has been a sharp reduction in activity on top band over the past several weeks. I know that this tends to annoy our neighbours in the southern hemisphere since there is less DX for them to chase. You can't please everyone.

Unfortunately I will not have a 160 meter antenna for the CQ WPX CW contest coming up in a few weeks. I can live with that since CQ WPX is not my favourite contest and I have other priorities now that mild spring weather has arrived.

No DXCC

One of my operating objectives for this season was to achieve DXCC on top band. I didn't make it although I came close. My country count rose from 32 to 96 with 79 confirmed on LoTW. That's not too bad for a one season effort with a maximum of 200 watts (100 or 150 watts in most contests). I worked a surprising amount of DX using QRP, especially in the Stew Perry Top Band Challenge. The antenna obviously works.

I would have easily exceeded 100 countries had I been running a kilowatt. Many countries were nearly worked when the DX operator could not pull through my complete call, or I could not compete in the bigger pile ups. I'm okay with that. I enjoy the challenge of chasing DX on 160 meters with less than the legal limit, so some are destined to get away. If it were easy it would be less interesting and I would have less incentive to design and put up better antennas. For casual DXing the antenna is competitive, perhaps because most hams operate top band with compromise antennas.

I have little doubt I'll reach the DXCC threshold this fall soon after I have an antenna up again. Truth is that even with the power I have I could now be over 100 had I put in more effort. DXCC was a goal not an obsession.

Contests

Apart for general DXing I desperately needed more firepower on top band to add multipliers and contacts to boost my score potential. Having worked several major contests, and a few small ones, I can absolutely declare success. Although I am not in the same league as the big guns I compare very well to others in this part of North America who are in the same power category.

My one Beverage to the northeast did marvelously well towards Europe. This was especially evident after their local sunrise when they could hear my low power signal better (lower atmospheric QRN) and I could hear their attenuated signals just riding above the noise level. Switching to the transmit antenna I could not hear most of them at all. Many multipliers entered the log that way.

The lack of receiving antennas for the other directions is a problem. I failed to make sufficient progress on this item which I'd planned to do over the winter. I have most of the material needed, locations have been surveyed and marked but I ran into delays designing and building a custom remote switching system for a collection of unidirectional and reversible Beverages.

Poor listening ability in most directions hurt a little but not as much as expected. I don't believe I lost out on many QSOs during contests. Most often I was limited by the inability of other stations to hear me, either because of my power level or their lack of good (low noise, directional) reception. When I move to QRO it will be a problem. Beverages are an increasing priority, but it'll have to wait until next winter.

Future plan

Sitting here in early May I predict that I will not have the time or incentive to come up with a superior antenna for the upcoming fall/winter season. There just so much other higher priority tower and antenna work to be done. I expect that this antenna will be put back into service for at least one more winter season. That's not so bad since it does work very well indeed.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Coil Geometry, Inductance and Wire Length

If you play with HF antennas you are certain to be winding coils, perhaps more than you'd like. They are used to shorten antennas, make traps, as components of impedance matching networks, filters, coax common mode chokes and as a helix can be the antenna itself. Although deceptively simple devices they can be the source of much angst.
  • Accuracy: There are a variety of inductance calculators for coils giving different results. I usually ignore these differences since they are typically small and often are minor in comparison to construction variation that in any case requires adjustment in the field. But there are a couple of factors worth considering:
    • Coil diameter: What is the true diameter of a coil?
    • Insulation: Is there an effect?
  • Wire length: How much wire does it take to wind a coil? Of course the trivial answer is that the wire should be long enough to reach from one end to the other! Often you will want a better answer than that when you must cut the wire before winding the coil.
  • Efficiency: Diameter, length, gauge, metal, pitch, form and core all have their effects. Lots of good stuff has been written about this so I will direct you there. Excellent resources are W8JI on coil Q, N6LF on effect of wire insulation and K9YC on ferrite cores
Rather than deal with the more technical aspects of coils -- which as noted are ably dealt with by others -- in this article I'll address a few geometric parameters that while seemingly trivial are important for building coils. Reviewing elementary knowledge can be helpful.

Coil diameter

What is the diameter of a coil? A common answer is that it is the outer diameter of the coil form. This is only approximately true. As the ratio of wire diameter to the form diameter approaches zero -- thin wire, large form -- it is effectively true. However it is not true when the coil's application is high power or high Q since the wire diameter can be a large fraction of the form diameter. The diameter to use in coil inductance equations is wire centre to wire centre.

The diagram at right illustrates the problem. The form is shown as a solid tube and the wire is shown with insulation, although there may be none. I frequently use insulated wire in my antenna projects for its convenience and to remove the risk of shorted turns in my hand wound coils.

Let's assume the coil form is 2" (5 cm) since that is one I use in some of my projects. AWG 12 wire has a diameter of 0.064" (1.63 mm), which gives a wire to form ratio of 0.032, or 3.2%. This can be quite significant. If the wire is insulated the ratio increases to ~5% (depending on the insulation rating) because the insulation separates the form and wire.

For bare copper the coil diameter is 2.13" and for insulated wire the diameter is ~2.2". If this appears surprising notice that we use twice the wire radius, which is its diameter, and twice the insulation thickness, which is one side of the insulation on each wire. An easy way to do this is to measure the full wire width with calipers and add that value to the form diameter.

Consider a coil built in this fashion that has an inductance of 3 μH for a coil diameter of 2". When you account for the wire gauge and insulation (AWG 12) the true diameter is ~2.1" and the inductance grows to 3.6 μH. That's a big difference! A small difference cause a large inductance change because the inductance of a coil increases with the square of its diameter, for a fixed coil length and turns.

By calculating coil inductance with the correct diameter you won't be for an ugly surprise when you install it in a matching network, and there adjustments will be fewer and finer. For an example look at my article on the 160 meter vertical matching network I built which required no adjustment at all. Accurately measuring coil inductance can be difficult so it's nice to know we can get the inductance right by understanding the impact of coil geometry.

Wire length

Often you'll need to cut the wire before winding a coil. That's when you especially want to accurately calculate the length of wire required. Cut it too short and you run into grief, and waste; cut it too long and some wire is wasted. Copper isn't cheap! I just ordered more radial wire and the price has increased 10% over the past 6 months.

I covered coil diameter first since you need to get that right if you're to correctly calculate the amount of wire in a coil. A naive length calculation of the wire length for a single coil term in the previous example (2" coil form) is 2π = 6.28". However since the true diameter is closer to 2.1" a better estimate of the wire length is 6.59", which is 5% higher. The wire length is proportional to the diameter.

This is significant since for a 10 turn coil on a 2" form you would end up 3.1" short using the naive calculation (65.9" vs. 62.8"). Of course you should not forget to add to the total the length of the coil tails at both ends. I tend to underestimate the tails so you may want to be careful with that.

Coil pitch (turns per inch)

A coil turn is a spiral rather than a circle. It should be evident that the length of wire in a spiral is more than in a circle due to the linear displacement of the start and end points. The linear displacement due to the coil's pitch increases the length of wire required for a given coil diameter, pitch and turns count. That is: L > TπD. But how large is the difference?

We can deal with spirals using elementary topology. Notice that a cylinder, like a steel pipe, is a rectangle folded into a circle. Unfolding one turn's worth of the cylinder help to visualize the problem and to accurately determine the length of wire in a one turn spiral.


The spiral turn of wire around the cylinder becomes a diagonal line between opposite corners of a rectangle. The rectangle's height is the the turns pitch; if there are 8 turns per inch the pitch is 0.125". The rectangle's width is the circumference of the coil. Pythagoras comes to the rescue by noting that the diagonal is the hypotenuse of a triangle. The wire length is the square root of the sum of the squares of the pitch and diameter.

Therefore the wire length of for a 10 turn coil is L = T × sqrt(P² + (πD)²). Using a pitch of 0.25" (4 tpi) and a coil diameter of 1.1" (1" form plus wire) the length of wire is 34.7". Even for this rather large pitch the spiral's length is only 0.3% (0.1") more than the 34.6" for a naive calculation assuming the a coil turn is a closed circle.

The naive calculation is perfectly adequate except for coils with an exceptionally large pitch and narrow form. The only time you are likely to encounter this is in a helical antenna. Although not really a coil (inductor) the geometry is the same.

Deformation

When you coil a wire you are often pushing the metal beyond its yield strength to get a non-elastic deformation. That is, the wire doesn't snap back into its pre-coiling shape. Deformation can occur throughout the wire diameter, being stretched into a greater length on the outside and compressed to a shorter length on the inside of the coil. However the former is more likely.

This is not a simple problem to solve, so it is lucky the that the effect is small enough in almost every case that it can be ignored. Since we improved the diameter calculation to use the centre of the conductor and the centre is approximately equidistant from the surfaces where deformation is likely to be greatest we should see little difference in the length requirement. Were the wire centre to stretch we would in fact need a tiny amount less wire to wind the coil.

Insulation adds elasticity to the wire. Bend straight lengths of identical insulated and bare wire and you'll see that the insulated wire rebounds more. The copper is still yielding on the inside but when the force is remove the elasticity of the plastic covering reverses some of that. Since it's the diameter of the conductor that concerns us we can ignore the behaviour of the insulation. It would take an extreme bend radius of a heavy gauge wire for the plastic to ripple on the inside thus increasing its effective thickness.

Toroids

Toroidal and other non-cylindrical forms add another factor for consideration. If the wire is of large enough gauge the coil will tend to follow a circular form rather than seat on the toroid's quasi-square surface. In that case with regard to wire length the diagonal cross-section distance is a good approximation to the coil's diameter, plus of course the wire itself as we saw earlier.

Smaller wire than conforms to the toroid surface can treat the coil form as a square (or rectangle), and therefore those dimension should be used as the basis for determining the length of wire required.

Getting the length right is generally more important for a toroidal coil since in almost every case the wire must be cut beforehand and wound onto a holder that can be threaded through the centre of the toroid. This is where you really don't want to underestimate the length of wire required.

Conclusion

There are several coil and wire geometric parameters than affect inductance and wire length. While some of them are quite interesting there is only one that is significant in nearly every real coil: effective diameter. As we saw, using the coil form diameter for the coil diameter can lead to significant error in the calculated inductance and required wire length.

Well, so much for this little diversion. With less bad luck than I've suffered recently I should soon be back to talking about antennas.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Deadwood

The killing field. The large tree on the
ground is the one that did the deed. The
other leaning deadwood is now cleared.
There's been a lack of articles recently for a variety of reasons. We had a string of springtime snow and ice storms accompanied by two days of high winds (up to 90 kph). Once that was out of the way I had to deal with an impacted wisdom tooth. This brought all antenna work to a halt for nearly two weeks.

Once I could get outside and do stuff again in the late-to-arrive mild spring weather there were many non-ham jobs that took priority. One of these tasks was to clear away fallen trees and branches due to those storms. Even so I have been able to do some antenna work, in particular making progress on the 80 meter vertical yagi. I'll have more to say on that in about a week.

What I thought would be one of the more mundane tasks was to inspect the northeast Beverage that goes through some heavy bush along its 175 meter length, with the far end at the edge of the swamp (bog). By mid-May this area will be effectively off limits since the growing vegetation will host some nasty wildlife. By this I mean that the bush and hay fields become tick heaven until at least mid-summer.

I had a suspicion this wouldn't be a normal inspection since the Beverage has not been performing well lately. When I approached the feed point my fears were confirmed. The aluminum wire was slack, evidence of a break somewhere. A month earlier all had been well. I waded through the bush along the antenna line looking for the problem.

Wire hanger bent when the tree fell on the Beverage
Approaching the termination the land slopes gently downward into the swamp. With the frost not out of the ground in sheltered areas run off pools on the surface. The ground is very squishy. The problem was discovered just 15 meters shy of the termination resistor.

Presumably during the storms a lot of the dead and dying trees met their fate. Trees in the boggy ground are prey to disease and rot. Many of the softwoods are skinny things with sparse leaves, unable to fare better in the saturated soil. Even so they pack a punch when they come down. It has happened before though without ill effect. Aluminum fence wire is surprisingly strong. However it is not invulnerable.

I counted five of these benighted trees in the space of less than 10 meters that had fallen onto the Beverage wire. One of them was large enough to sever it. Surprisingly a couple of the broken trees were still leaning against the wire which was still under some tension because the big tree was lying on top of it.

Manual splice: ugly but
it works, for now
A severed terminated Beverage becomes an unterminated Beverage. This is still a reasonably good receiving antenna except that it is bidirectional, only rejecting signals off the sides. A bidirectional Beverage has the advantage of covering two directions at once but with the serious disadvantage of poorer performance in the one direction you are most interested in.

The dead trees were pushed aside to rot in peace on the wet ground. After determining that the termination box containing the resistor and the ground rod connection were undamaged I retrieved the broken ends of the wire and manually spliced the break by wrapping 3" of the wires together. It held when I pulled on the wires to test the splice. Although this is not the proper way to splice aluminum wire it is a quick and easy way to temporarily put the antenna back in service.

I was not done since the slack had to be taken out the Beverage wire. All soft drawn wires will stretch a surprisingly large amount when put under high tension. It should be obvious that a wire that has been pushed beyond its breaking strength has also been pushed beyond its yield strength, which is typically ~70% of breaking strength. The 175 meter wire stretched ~60 cm (2').

Since I had only about half that much rope remaining at the termination I returned to the feed point, along the way lifting the wire off the foliage that trapped it while it lay slack. I removed the rest of the slack at the feed point and was pleased to find that my improvised splice held. Again I followed the wire to the termination and then back to the feed point to pull the wire free from twigs it snagged as it was lifted to its original height. Yes, this is a lot of work! Having an antenna farm is not for the lazy.

When night fell I was pleased to discover that the antenna was back to its usual awesomeness. Hopefully it'll survive the summer. In the autumn I may replace this antenna with a bidirectional Beverage although I am still loathe to tamper with an antenna that performs so well to Europe, which is the most productive contesting path.

This tree was too large to remove without assistance. Instead I
defanged the threat by cutting the branches which are long
enough to strike the Beverage wire when the rot progresses
to the point that the tree falls the rest of the way down.
The next day I went back into the bush with a saw and cleared away several dead and dying trees within reach of the Beverage. I want to avoid a repeat. Luckily it is only this area near the swamp that has sick and risky. Elsewhere they're healthy and strong and not too tall or are evergreens that do not have large overhanging branches.

Having lots of trees available as supports is nice provided you account for the risks. Everyone I know who runs Beverages through bush periodically clears deadwood, and yet still suffer breaks from time to time. This is my fate as well. Beverage maintenance will only become more onerous when I put up more of them.

Is it worth the trouble? In my experience: yes! Just keep these things in mind:
  • It's not a matter of if but when. Have a plan and material on hand to quickly and effectively repair or replace Beverage wires.
  • Splicing aluminum wire is difficult and there is likely no mains power nearby. Beverages made from coax that are spliced with connectors cannot take tension so you'll have to use messenger wires or replace the coax.
  • Inspect the full length of Beverages twice each year. Once in the spring after winter has done its worst and again in fall before the contest and low band season begins. Remove suspect trees and deadwood that can threaten the Beverage when they come down.
  • Be safe! Cutting down trees is dangerous work. It is even worse with deadwood since you will get little warning when a rotten limb or trunk you are sawing snaps. Trees will kick out, twist, break, pivot on obstacles and otherwise behave unpredictably when they are cut, chopped, pulled or pushed. They can be far heavier than you expect since deadwood is often waterlogged. Do not overestimate your ability to outmanoeuver a falling tree!
Get the help of a friend or professional is you are uncertain how to proceed. Don't improvise! As you would for tower work acquire and learn to use the proper tools. Beverage antennas are wonderful things but are not worth the risk of serious injury.

Deadwood cast aside to peacefully decompose on the wet boggy ground

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Plaque vs. Mailbox

Antenna and tower articles are in short supply right now because our winter weather is persisting rather than making way for spring. This keeps me more indoors than outside, with projects temporarily on hold. That will soon change. In the interim I thought the following would be of some interest.

I was surprised earlier this week when I went out for my morning run and saw this attached to my mailbox:


Contest plaques are not terribly compatible with mailboxes! Back at my city QTH plaques and parcels were left on the doorstep. In this sparsely populated township the mail carrier never steps outside of her car so you get this sort of thing happening. At least it's better than receiving an invitation to drive 13 km to the local post office to pick up large packages, which happens often.

The surprise mentioned above was not the delivery method but rather that I received a plaque for a contest that I have no recollection of winning. Opening the package I found that it is for 2017 ARRL DX CW in which I won Canada in the low power category. I then learned that my own club, Contest Club Ontario, is the sponsor. Since it is considered polite to thank the plaque sponsor I stood in front of a mirror and thanked my reflection. The plaque is my payback for buying raffle tickets to fund CCO.

Some assembly required

Unlike other plaques I've won that this one comes in kit form. ARRL has one standard plaque to which is affixed a plate bearing the particulars.

The instructions require that I peel the adhesive protective cover on the back of the plate and carefully glue it into the blank rectangle at the lower right.

This is worse than a kit that requires soldering since it is all too easy for the fumble fingered like me to incorrectly centre and align the plate. I doubt the plate could survive removal for a second attempt.

I undertook the task and managed to do a not entirely unsatisfactory job. Although I'd rather ARRL took care of this detail themselves I appreciate the recognition for my contesting effort. Even if I did pay for the plaque by buying all of those raffle tickets over the past several years.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Small Contests and Zombie Contests

I like to participate in several small contests during the year. They are a low pressure way to keep our stations and our skills in good shape, and to try out new equipment and software features. When the major contests come along we'll be better prepared.

As for why they're low pressure, consider the following points:
  • They tend to be shorter, and participants are fewer.
  • For QSO parties and country-sponsored contests you likely can point all your antennas at the start of the contest and leave them there.
  • You can take time off without losing many points since there is a smaller pool of stations to contact and propagation may not be there for part of the contest.
They are also an excellent opportunity to test yourself and your antennas:
  • There are many stations from the sponsoring region to test propagation and antennas.
  • With all antennas pointing the same direction you can easily compare relative performance at different times (band opening, mid opening, band closing), knowledge you can put to good use at other times.
  • Compare fixed yagis with rotatable yagis by seeing how many degrees a yagi can be off the side of the path until it matches a fixed yagi to that region. From here small European contests are most useful since it is common for fixed yagis to be pointed at Europe.
  • I like to call the really weak stations to see how often I can complete the QSO. This is good practice for those running low power or QRP, and for QRO operators who get many weak callers during runs. In the small contests there is less rush to move on to the next QSO.
The better ones can be fantastic vehicles to encourage non-contesters from the sponsoring country or area to be active, potentially turning some of them into contesters. This weekend I participated in the SP DX contest -- CW, low power category -- and had a great time. They did a fabulous job getting hundreds of stations on the air, many of whom are probably not contesters since they are flagged by the logging software as not present in the master database of contest call signs.

At the other end of the spectrum are what I call zombie contests. These are smaller contests that, although still sponsored, have low activity. There is little or no promotion within the sponsor's country or region, thus only the diehards bother to participate. Like zombies these contests somehow continue to shuffle along year after year despite being as good as dead.

I won't name any of these contests to avoid annoying the guilty parties. Some are so dead that you can work few of the sponsoring region multipliers because no one is active. When the 3830 reports repeatedly note a lack of sponsoring region activity you know that it's a zombie contest. No one enjoys a zombie contest so those stations are unlikely to return next year.

Many zombie contests need to die. However some can be jolted back to life with the backing of an enthusiastic group or club. As for ARRL Field Day and other contests clubs can turn the event into a group activity with a combination of organization, recognizing participation, putting fence sitters in front of radios, and even use gimmicks such as special calls for extra points. It can be done. In the US the California and Florida QSO parties are good examples of small contests with enthusiastic backing and lots of activity.

But are there simply too many small contests on the calendar? Not really since there is no need to participate in all of them. Pick those that appeal to you or take place a week or two before a major contest and go for it. Try one and discover how much fun (and valuable) it can be.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Ice Anchors

Another winter is over and with tower season beginning it is time to prepare for next winter's contests. This is an ideal time to consider an innovation in tower erection: ice anchors. They are fast, low cost and are a fantastic alternative for those that live in cold climates. So what are these ice anchors? I'm glad you asked.

But first some history of the use of ice in major construction projects throughout history. It really is a perfect material for our northern climate.
  • Ice roads: Arctic nations such as Canada build ice roads to reach isolated settlements right over top of tundra, bogs, lakes and rivers
  • Ice boats: Icebergs naturally float and have inspired the design of ice warships
  • Ice buildings: Igloos have been used for millennia and there are even ice hotels
  • Ice optics: Ice lenses can start fires and be used in cold weather telescopes
Well, you get the idea. What an exciting opportunity to finally utilize this common material for ham radio applications. Despite being literally in front of most of us all our lives we've overlooked its possibilities beyond hockey and curling. Therefore with no further delay we present the ice anchor!

The ice anchor is simply an ordinary guy anchor for big towers, but one that needs no concrete. It's so simple you'll wonder how it is that no one has thought of it before now. Don't believe me? I'll show you with step by step instructions:

Step 1: Dig a hole. This is exactly the same as the hole you'd need for a concrete anchor.

Step 2: Drop anchor into the hole and aim it at the tower. Use reinforcing since ice can be weak in tension, just like concrete.

Step 3: Fill hole with water. Pump it in or let nature do it for you if the weather cooperates.

Step 4: Sit back and relax! Winter is coming.

Once the anchor is frozen you are ready to attach guys and put up your tower! Soon your tower will be up and your antennas ready for the major contests. You can enjoy months of superior performance. Records will fall and DXCC Honor Roll will soon be yours. Should you ever move the anchors are easily removed for instant reuse at your new QTH.

But wait! There's more!

Of course this is not a year-round system. It is important that you take it all down after the contest season, before spring thaw gets going in earnest. Otherwise you may not be able to reuse the tower and antennas next year.

But surely that's a lot of maintenance to do every spring and fall. Lucky for you there is complementary technology that will convert your seasonal ice anchors permanent fixtures, saving you hours of biannual effort.

Heat pump: Install a closed loop coil system in your anchor holes and you can not only keep your anchors solid longer you can heat your home and your bath water.

XXXL Parasol: Shield your anchors from the hot sun during those warmer months.

Heavy water: Deuterium oxide (D2O) has a higher melting temperature and more mass to support especially large towers and antennas.

Who knows, someday we may see other application of ice technology in ham radio. Perhaps you'll be the first to design and build effective ice alloys that are suitable for antennas, radial fields or even semiconductors for self-cooled low noise amplifiers (LNA) for EME.

The future is now!

It's also April 1st.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

CQ WPX SSB: The Human Comedy

Those who operated CQ WPX SSB this weekend don't need to hear that conditions were not great, 20 meters was an impenetrable wall of QRM and every other QSO inflicted pain. WPX is commonly understood to be a runners delight where big power and antennas rule and everyone else scrounges for scraps. It really doesn't matter who you work so point the antennas where propagation is best and work what you can.

So rather than dwell on all of that I decided to do something different for this article. Phone contests bring out our personalities in ways that are not seen with other modes. Talking is the most natural thing for humans and phone contests provide a grand stage for the display of emotion, camaraderie, and human idiosyncrasies. Perhaps more than other modes it shows us at our best and our worst.

No contest is so busy that we can't indulge in a little people watching. Therefore with a wink of the eye let's delve into the humour of ham culture, contesting and the clash between contesters and everyone else. To protect the innocent and the guilty I will obscure identifying information.

We've worked before

I continue to be amazed at how many contesters are adamantly opposed to logging duplicate contacts. I heard several instances this weekend of the running station telling the caller that they've worked before, the caller insisting that they aren't in their log, and the runner still refuses to work them again.

This is foolhardy for the runner since it almost guarantees a NIL (not in log) penalty and wastes time arguing instead of conceding the insurance contact and moving on. I cannot imagine what these people are thinking. How can they not understand how this hurts their results?

When I informed one big gun that we've worked before and he said I wasn't in his log I made a didn't hesitate to make another contact. The dupes don't incur penalties and is the fastest way to dispose of the issue. If I truly wasn't in their log the dupe avoid a NIL penalty. On CW where the interruption cost more time I make the duplicate contact without raising the issue.

Schoolmarm

Speaking of incomprehensible behaviour, I heard one operator brusquely and repeatedly critique callers who did not use the minimum number of words to identify or complete the exchange. For example, "please copy" seemed to especially infuriate him and he'd make rude comments about their use of these superfluous words. I listened to a few minutes of this for my own amusement when my QSO rate was dreadful and I had time on my hands.

Of course "please copy" is unnecessary, but it is used by many casual operators since it seems a polite way to ask the other person to prepare to log what they're about to send. It's very natural and I hear it a lot during phone contests. Rather than complain I am thankful for the casual contesters and non-contesters who call me and add points to my log.

The last thing I want to do is scare them away. We need to encourage the casual operators for contesting to remain healthy. Even if they never develop a serious interest in contests these hams are eager to help us out and we should do all we can to help them along, including explaining the exchange and encouraging them to go forth and work others as well.

Schoolmarmish behaviour can scare them off and, worse, turning them against contests and contesters. What are these curmudgeons thinking?

Ocho

With increasing contest activity from South America I have gradually become aware that exchanging information with many of these operators on phone can be difficult. Many do not speak English and have only a thin veneer of ham English. Some English numerals are difficult for them. Eight seems to be the worst: I say 'eight' and they typically hear 'two', 'four' or 'six'.

I don't have this problem with Spanish stations (EA) so it may be due to the different accents in South American countries. It is perhaps comparable to the diversity of accents across English speaking countries, and French between Quebec and France. Decades later I still remember how the Chinese exchange students in my university classes had good comprehension of English except in one class taught by an Australian.

On Sunday as I approached 800 QSOs in my log and 15 meters was opening to South America I decided to do something about it. My inspiration was the Americans speaking Spanish to overcome the difficulty, a country where Spanish is close to becoming their second language.

I already knew to use 'ocho' for 8, but mixing this with English numerals was caused confusion. I typed 'count in Spanish' into my browser's search box and studied the list of numerals from 0 to 9. This took all of two minutes.

With some trepidation I tried out my new knowledge on the unsuspecting South Americans (but not Brazilians, for the obvious reason). To my surprise it went very well. Some were surprised by my use of Spanish for the serial number and there were nearly zero requests for repeats. No one sounded offended by what must be my atrocious pronunciation.

Because of the prevalent use of English on phone by hams across the world native English speakers often fail to appreciate the effort that others are taking to communicate with us. Learning a few words in the other ham's language isn't difficult and can make a good impression. It also increases QSO rate which any contester ought to appreciate.

The non-contesters in our midst

Tune the bands any day of the week and there is a lot of activity by many hams around the world. Those people don't vanish during major contests. Some will switch modes, others will stay off the air and a few will casually partake in the contest. Many others will continue to do what they do. Conflict is inevitable, and that conflict can bring out the worst and sometimes the best in us, contesters and non-contesters alike.

Twice when I found a clear frequency and got no response to "is this frequency in use?" and proceeded to call CQ I was soon interrupted by callers requesting that I move. In one case I was on a (normally quiet) net frequency and in the other I was near but not quite on top of an active net. Both times the callers identified and briefly explained the difficulty, with some evident exasperation since I'm sure this happens a lot during a major contest.

Without hesitation I agreed to move. They sounded surprised and thanked me for my consideration. Unfortunately there are contesters that I know who balk at the request. While no frequency is sacrosanct it is possible for contesters to exist alongside non-contest activity. I was in part motivated by their politeness and that they identified themselves. It behooves us as contesters to be considerate despite being in the vast majority during major contest. Flexing our muscle -- sheer numbers and size of towers, antennas and amplifiers -- can be tempting. Avoid the temptation.

Sometimes it does not go well. Once when I was about to call a DX station on one of the low bands someone who was in a ragchew nearby began shouting insults at anyone and everyone calling the DX station. He did not identify. The DX station obviously couldn't hear this person. Out of curiosity I checked and found that the separation between the contesters and the other QSO was just shy of 3 kHz. I suspect this behaviour was more one of animosity than QRM. The callers kept calling regardless and the hurler of insults accomplished little more than raise his own blood pressure.

There is also the conflict that doesn't happen. It is interesting to come across an ordinary QSO among the massive QRM that was 20 meters phone in this contest. The QRM raged at the edges of the pass band while the QSO went unmolested. Most people are good and respectful of others, so it is no surprise that these non-events occur. It is far too easy to focus on the conflicts that do occur. There is something within many of us that wants to reach out and latch onto every perceived injustice just so that we have an excuse to be angry and complain. That is another temptation to avoid. Some are unable to do so.

Then there are the DQRMers. It happened to me a few times this weekend and I heard it many times on other contesters. It is best to ignore it and carry on. Frankly it has little effect during a major contest when the prevailing QRM is worse than the deliberate kind. I just kept working stations and in a minute the interference disappeared. DQRMers are a small minority and can have no effect on the countless thousands active in a major contest. I feel no anger, only pity for these benighted individuals.

How's my signal?

Among all the splatter, over-compression and poorly injected digital voice messages you hear there are the many with good and even great signals. Adjusting for the operator, microphone, digitally composed and stored messages, compression and amplifier drive level in a contest environment is not rocket science but it takes time and attention to detail. The truly great sounding signals are not accidental. Someone took the time to get it right.

When it is done right the talk power is high, the intelligibility is great and the signal fits within its spectral limits. The ones who get it wrong -- whether it is by error, laziness or in an effort to be loud at any price -- hurt their rate and results due to requests for repeats of unintelligible call signs and exchanges.

A few stations this weekend after completing the contest exchange asked me for an honest report of their signal strength, audio quality and whether their frequency is reasonably clear of QRM at my end. One operator of a well-known, high-scoring multi-multi station in particular comes to mind.

After telling him that his audio was perfectly intelligible though perhaps a little over-compressed with audible popping sounds he told me he was concerned because he was being asked for repeats more than was normal. He requested that I stay with him for a few moments while he adjusted the rig. After doing so the popping was gone and the audio quality was obviously improved without noticably reducing talk power. He was clearly pleased and thanked me for my help as we went our separate ways.

While we tend to remember the bad actors more than the good when it comes to signal quality we should appreciate those who make the effort to put high-quality signals on the bands we all share. The best contesters know that their results and their reputations depend on it. I appreciate the opportunity to help others improve their signals.

Who are you?

CQ WPX is a contest where many of your friends wear a disguise. That disguise is a special call sign of some sort. A few times this weekend I was greeted with "Hi, Ron!" by someone sporting a call I didn't recognize. My response would be friendly but necessarily vague since I didn't know who I was talking to.

One old friend did identify himself and another I figured out after the contest. As for the rest, I still don't know who they were. Perhaps they enjoy confusing their friends or have forgotten in the heat of the contest that they're wearing a disguise. Do they wonder why those they greet seem a little cool in their responses?

My audience

The readers of this blog are not terribly numerous but there are substantially more than a few. Mostly I know about this by the emails I receive and web statistics. Phone contests are another opportunity for me to learn who you are.

Twice this weekend the ham at the other end of the QSO told me that they read my blog and that they actually enjoy it. Although I don't aim for a huge audience it's nice to know there are indeed real people following the blog where I tell my story and pass along my experiences in the hobby. Thank you for taking the time to let me know who you are!

Race to the finish

The start of a major contest can be daunting. Ahead of you is 48 hours of hard work, risk of the unknown, angst, regrets, hastily eaten food and disrupted sleep cycles. It's hard on our bodies and our minds.

As the finish line approaches on Sunday there is anticipation of the coming release from the effort and an urgency to squeeze in a few last contacts and multipliers. There is a palpable adrenaline rush.

I closed the contest by running on 80 meters to top up the log with nearby American stations and perhaps a little DX. My rate was steady but not fast. Then in the final 10 minutes my rate shot upward. I could hear the enthusiasm and urgency in callers' voices as they strove to pack in as many contacts as possible before the bell rang.

It was brief but exhilarating. A few last Europeans also made it into my log. Then it was over. The mountain range on the band scope instantly turned into an featureless prairie as transmitters around the world went silent at the same moment. I got up to stretch with a grin on my face. I almost regretted not putting more effort into the contest.

Wrapping up

Early reports look good for me in this contest, which is quite a surprise since I made no attempt to turn in a competitive entry. When the going got too slow I stepped away the radio, had regular mealtimes and got a full night's rest. Conditions were not great and even with a big tower the QRM was too much for 100 watts to be heard well. That made this weekend an opportune time for people watching.

If anyone reading this sees themselves reflected in an unflattering light, I apologize. No offense is intended. Occasional bouts of humourous self reflection is beneficial to our continued sanity. I make enough mistakes on my own even when I try to get it right. We're all human. It's cathartic to laugh at ourselves from time to time and, respectfully, others as well.