Sunday, May 29, 2016

Tower and Antenna Work: Getting Orgainized

Antenna and tower season has finally arrived in this northern climate. Spring has been unseasonably cool so it is nice to be able to go outside and actually need sun protection. But before we all put a wrench between our teeth and scamper up the tower it is worthwhile to think about it first so that we do it safely and effectively.

Even when we take the utmost care in ensuring the safety of ourselves and others around us the probability of something bad occurring increases if we keep having to climb up and down the tower several times because we forgot to carry the right tools and hardware, or a rope unexpectedly snags.

Some of my recent inspiration for this topic comes from minor surgery I underwent last fall. The experience taught lessons that can be applied to tower and antenna work. I'll take you through some lessons I took away from the surgical experience and relate them to tower and antenna work. The lessons becomes more acute as the size of towers and antennas increase. There is a great deal to be learned from watching any professional going about his or her job, whether they be doctors or carpenters.

Have a plan

As amateur radio operators we too often have a propensity to improvise every task whether it be tower work or building electronic equipment. It seems that drawing up a plan can make a project feel more like work rather than fun. Yet tower work is dangerous business that is deserving of a business-like attitude. This does not preclude having fun and spending time with friends.

Simple things can make a big difference. For example, picking the wrong side of the tower to haul up a rotator or an antenna. Which way is the wind blowing? Get it wrong and expensive antenna elements can be easily bent or broken when snagged in the tower or guy wires, or labour-intensive wire harnesses can be torn apart. All because of a breeze.

An antenna as uncomplicated as a small tri-bander can be surprisingly difficult to orient, stabilize and secure when you're 20 meters up a tower. VHF/UHF antennas are so light and fragile there are even more opportunities for damage. Larger antennas have a lot of momentum when they move and you have little leverage. A common error is to lift the yagi so that the boom-to-mast clamp is on the wrong side of the boom. It can be difficult or impossible to lift the yagi over the mast to correct the error.

Rotating a poorly oriented yagi can be difficult or dangerous because of guy wires or other antennas. You can end up with trap drain holes pointing up rather than down! If you force the matter prepare for trouble. Don't be afraid to drop it back to the ground and try again. Better to think it through the first time and save time and grief.

I know that it's no fun thinking through all this detail before you get to work. On the other hand you can amaze and delight your friends when, after all your fussing, the antenna is bolted in place only minutes after lifting is begun. They may even feel they're the heros. That's perfectly fine. The brighter ones will learn and start planning their own projects as well.

The total project goes faster and safely -- more time spent planning, less time spent doing, and redoing, and redoing again -- leaving more time for the important stuff: enjoying pizza and beer with your friends.


Surgery nowadays is slickly choreographed, from the time you walk in until you are discharged a few hours later. The majority of the processes followed are the same for everyone; it is typically only the surgical procedure itself that is tailored to the patient. Making a routine of tower work helps ensure that all goes smoothly and no key steps are missed.

Here is part of my routine:
  • Keep all common tools, parts and safety equipment in the same place so you know where to find them. Return them there when you're done. Toolboxes, and even boxes, make this convenient. Do this for both mechanical and electrical tools and parts.
  • Inspect the tower and environment. Is everything where it should be? Shake the tower and pull on guys and antenna support ropes. Immediately deal with anything out of the ordinary. I am especially strict about this when working on others' towers.
  • If you're working alone are you being watched by someone? You want help to come quickly if something goes wrong. It can be as simple as asking your neighbour to glance out the window from time to time.
  • Power down the shack. It is too easy for a child or pet to touch a paddle and send 100 watts (or more) to the antenna you're handling. Worse is when the tower is the antenna.
It all seems like common sense, yet many hams make it up as they go along, every single time; they will not learn. Even a modest amount of organization can mean no more tearing the house, garage and shack apart to find everything you need and redoing every task due to unforeseen difficulties. All for what ought to be a 10 minute job!


With the boxes of tools and parts in front of you walk through the plan, step by step. For each step that requires a tool or part take it and place it to one side. If you have a complete plan and you know the size of every fastener you are almost done. But there will be problems. For example, you may want to use a socket and ratchet driver for a particular bolt, then find you need a deep socket and you picked an ordinary one. You can probably think of more examples.

I do not inventory every fastener used in my towers and antennas. Therefore I expect to be surprised. To cover all the bases  there is a core set of tools I always carry in my tool belt.

The adjustable wrench should only be used when the proper wrench or socket was overlooked. But you'll appreciate it when you're 30 meters in the air and it's all you've got for that one critical and unexpected fastener.

That second wrench may be unfamiliar. The line wrench is designed for nuts that secure lines (e.g. fuel lines) to machinery. The opening fits around the line and grips the nut almost as well as a box end wrench. It is ideal for long bolt shafts on many clamps that won't take a long socket. It won't easily slip off the nut or bolt head when you need let go to reposition your hands or feet. This one has sizes 1/2" and 9/16" which are common on boom, element, mast and rotator clamps.

Removing and installing weatherproofing of connections is so common that a knife and tape are always handy. A screwdriver blade on the multi-use knife can be used in a pinch for working on hose clamps and screws securing electrical connections. Alternatively carry a socket screwdriver with multiple tips.

Don't skimp on your tools! Buy the best you can afford. I have shattered sockets, bent screwdriver blades and otherwise destroyed many tools and hardware that had no business being in my tool belt. Some were handed to me by other crew and some (I'm ashamed to say) were my own choice. Don't make this mistake. It can cost you more than just time.

Finally, carry spare tools and parts for use in case you drop one (or two or three...). It happens. Which brings us to the next topic.


Don't bet your life, or
antenna, on this rope!
You can go a long way toward having a safe project by following a few simple steps. You want to keep yourself and others safe above all else. But we are amateurs, not professionals, and we do this for fun rather than profit. If you haven't already discovered this the pursuit of fun in tower and antenna work frequently conflicts with a willingness to pursue safety procedures. When it's your station you have the responsibility to make the call of how much safety you will insist upon.

With that said here are a few items to consider. It is by no means complete.
  • Check all ropes and climbing harnesses for wear, fraying and other suspect damage. Should you be tempted to use a worn item one last time, don't! If you have to ask the question you know the answer.
  • Clear the work area of pets and children. Even when warned away they have a way of sneaking back, drawn by curiosity. There are endless possibilities for injury and mischief. Stop work immediately when they get close.
  • Everyone with work or other hazards overhead should as a minimum wear a hardhat. They are inexpensive and modern ones grip the head so that they stay in place when you (frequently) look upward. Keep a few around and hand them out.
  • Wear appropriate clothing, even in the summer heat. Showers are cheap, replacing skin and knitting bones aren't. I admit to occasionally breaking this rule to stay comfortable, and accept the risk.
  • Are tools and parts stored about your person and ropes run so that they can't dislodge, fall or interfere with your freedom of movement? If in doubt leave stuff on the ground and haul them up with the help of a person on the ground or, if you're working alone, fill the bucket yourself.
Insurance claims, lawsuits and lost friendships are no substitute for safety.

Roles and responsibilities

As soon as you're not the only person on the team it is recommended that each person's role in the project be discussed in advance. Not every ham will follow direction, so be prepared. You can usually tolerate one such person in the crew but two or more is folly. The miscreant will almost always fall in line when the rest of the crew acts responsibly.

Take some care who you invite, or if you can't exclude some people you may want to assign them non-critical tasks where they're still involved and doing useful work. When no one will listen and each insists on doing whatever pops into their heads bad things will happen. Trust me on this. It comes from personal experience.

Those on the tower call the shots. They are the ones most at risk and also have the best view of the entire operation. The leader of the team (not always the station owner) cedes ultimate control the moment the climber's feet leave the ground.


To successfully work together as a team, even when everyone understands their job and behaves responsibly, it is necessary to communicate. Most of this is talk and some is hand signals. For example, when hoisting tower sections or yagis the person on the tower can use hand signals to tell the ground crew or equipment operator how to proceed throughout a procedure. Mistakes can easily result in injury (or worse) or damaged equipment.

For tall towers or when mechanical equipment makes talking unreliable use radios. Use simplex VHFor FRS/GRS handie-talkies. Headsets (with VOX) can be helpful provided care is taken that they cannot tangle in hazards. With ham equipment and non-ham personnel messages must be relayed, which is not ideal but can work. I have done this to work through a tower removal, with me on the tower and a professional operating the controls of a crane with a 110' boom.


There is a saying: when you look around at a group of people and decide that you're the smartest person there, you're wrong. Listening to the ideas and concerns of others can avoid a lot of grief. Many times you'll continue with the original plan but other times you will be handed a better way to proceed.

I recall years ago working on a tower with an older fellow I hadn't previously met to work on another ham's towers. We ran into a dilemma while trying to lift a new long-boom UHF yagi past obstructions. I was in the lead and described my plan to get the job done. He looked down and around and respectfully suggested an alternative based on his experience. I listened and realized his way was better. We got the job done without so much as a nick on those dozens of fragile UHF yagi elements.

Measure twice

While still on the ground you went through the antenna raising procedure in your head, keeping track of where every rope and element would be at each step. All seemed well. Now you're up the tower, the crew is in place and waiting for your signal to begin. Stop. Go through it all again, using the perspective from this vantage point. Look down and all around.

Will those long yagi elements really clear that inverted vee? When the yagi is rotated so that the clamp is facing the boom will the elements clear the yagi at the top of the mast? Do you have the correct fasteners stowed in your tool belt or pockets? Will that tree branch be a problem?

You should by now know the old saw: measure twice and cut once. It applies to antenna and tower work as well as in the workshop. Resist the urge to jump into things out of enthusiasm or a desire to not annoy your friends by your delay. The 30 or 60 seconds it takes is time well spent.

Plan B

It is very difficult to correctly visualize every eventuality in advance. Expect to deviate from your original plan. Or perhaps someone makes a mistake. Getting upset and simply pulling harder on the ropes isn't going to solve any problems, but it sure can make things worse. Much worse. It is times like these that mavericks among the team are most dangerous.

When things go wrong, stop! Antennas and tower sections can happily dangle in mid-air for a few minutes while you think things through and discuss with the rest of the team. Perhaps you need to pull a tree branch out of the way or cut it off. Other times it pays to lower the yagi to reposition tram lines or to temporarily move another antenna out of the way.

Some problems can be foreseen in advance. Whether plan B is conceived before or during the job you want to have it available. Discuss and listen. When you have a reasonable consensus put plan B into effect. Professionals always think ahead to what goes wrong. If they are part of the team you need to talk to them. Regardless of whether or not the hams have a plan B you can be sure that they do.

Clean up

Don't put this off. Immediately following completion of the work put all tools, equipment and parts in their proper container and then put the container in its place. Do this even if you expect to use an item again even as soon as the next day. To do anything less is an invitation to an accident or simply time lost looking for stuff. Leave the work site as you found it. Your friends won't miss you; they'll be working on their first beer.

Trust me, when you are positive you'll find that wrench tomorrow that you set aside today, you won't. Our memories are notoriously undependable. Habit and routine are your friends.

Post mortem

Things go wrong, they always do in any large or complex project. Learn from your mistakes, don't brush them aside or hide them. Review what went right and what went wrong. Keep the good and consider how to avoid the bad in future antenna work. Write it down if that will help you to remember.

Afterwards it can help to consult with more experienced hams (or professionals) to explain what happened and how they would do it better. Even if things did go right you might have just been lucky to avoid problems. Discuss those too. Never avoid an opportunity to learn.

None of us is perfect but we can always strive to do better next time.

Community building

Not only is working alone not recommended for safety reasons it avoids two important pleasures:
  • Sharing time with our friends in the hobby through helping others and others helping us.
  • Training the next generation of hams in tower and antenna work.
Too often hams keep to themselves. Reach out. There is a lot of pleasure in showing the ropes to others -- perhaps someone new to the hobby -- and passing on our knowledge. One day that person you helped out or educated will help you when you most need it.

Keep the (non-alcoholic) refreshments flowing throughout the work. Offer them a drinks or a meal afterwards, even though many won't stay -- they have their own lives to get back to. Thank every person who helped you out, even close friends and family. These simple gestures will be appreciated.

For us northern-hemisphere denizens there are several months ahead to pursue our goals, help others and spend time with our friends. Get to it.

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