Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Land Hunting

Canada is the world's second largest country by land area with a middling population. This makes for a low population density. Visitors from Europe and east Asia in particular are often attracted to and amazed by the wide open spaces we have. It can be fun to experience their observations firsthand. If your interest is in the great outdoors the vast spaces and wilderness are an undeniable attraction.

When you live here the experience is different. Because we're so spread out the cost of travel and transportation is a consideration, and the taxes to pay for and maintain infrastructure such as electrical transmission lines and roads. Not to mention the rapid wear on that infrastructure from our extreme weather.

For hams with dreams of antenna farms the opportunities for acquiring land are good. That must be tempered by availability of utilities and roads and proximity to services and communities. If you are not retired be prepared for long commutes, or use the internet to work remotely if you can. The simple act of shopping for groceries can be a challenge.

As I reiterated at the beginning of this year I have aspirations for an antenna farm now that my enthusiasm for the hobby and contests has been rekindled. I am on the edge of retirement and what little work I do is short term consulting. I am free to move. As intimated in my previous article I am exercising that freedom.

Before I talk about the new property let's back up a few months to when I hired a realtor and they began to search out properties that met my criteria. Realtors can only help so much since this kind of hunt is typically far outside their experience and outside the search features of the listing services. Be prepared to take an active role in winnowing the choices they present you. Expect to spend time finding candidates yourself, which you then submit to the realtor so they can research them further.

The hunt was fraught with many challenges. In this article I'll describe some important ones that I encountered, both to entertain you and to provide food for thought should you contemplate doing something similar. Leave yourself lots of time to shop around. Expect frustration along the way. After endless searching out and visiting promising properties I began to worry that I'd never succeed, or that I'd have to settle for second best, or even worse.


Canada is a first-world country with all the government, laws and regulations that go along with that. There really is no escape; you cannot simply buy some land in an isolated area and start erecting towers. Well, you can but sooner or later you will be caught and come to grief. Those in authority take their responsibilities seriously and will come after you, because if they don't they will come to grief for failing in their duties.

The first problem is that of cities. Many provincial governments in Canada have over the past decades aggressively pushed amalgamation of municipalities, both urban and rural, to reduce the cost of government and simplify oversight. It hasn't gone well in many cases, but I'll skip over that subject because...politics.

What it has done is created cities of enormous land area, incorporating large rural municipalities. Since the populations of these forced marriages are majority urban the city councils tend to apply city rules to the rural areas. That this causes many absurdities has slowed the trend very little.

For me that meant escaping Ottawa. That is difficult since the city has grown so large in area: ~80 km east-west and ~50 km north-south. There is lots of suitable rural property within the Ottawa boundaries but with difficult rules regarding towers I must look further out.

All municipalities, urban and rural, have permitting requirements, though they are often far less strict in rural areas with low population density. I know many hams in rural areas that are simply told to go ahead without a permit. But not always. Make appropriate inquiries before breaking ground.

On the federal level one must get approval for especially tall towers, in particular over 30 meters, with Transport Canada and NavCan. These are for aircraft safety. In most cases they simply add your tower to navigation charts and thank you for taking the time to let them know. However if you are near an airfield, even a small one, or if you exceed 60 meters height expect some challenges.

Suitable house and suitable land

One of the great challenges in the land hunt is to find a property that is both suitable to both ham radio and for living. This is no less true if you are alone than if you have a family. This difficulty is not too surprising since getting either one right is a challenge, so passing both sets of criteria with one property is less probable.

Here are some of the solutions of hams I have known:
  • Purchase the land and build the house to your spec, including radio needs.
  • If the land is good but not the house, renovate the house, perhaps extensively.
  • Use the property only for ham radio while living elsewhere. The station is only used for contests or operated remotely.
  • Accept less than ideal house or land and live with the consequences.
Since suitable property is almost always rural it is necessary to consider proximity to shopping, services, friends and work. In bad weather (winter storms) accessibility may be slow due to long driveways and road clearing. If power lines come down rural residents are the last to be restored.

In short, be prepared to compromise. You will also have to sell your family on the positive aspects of rural life.

Hidden hazards

Large rural lots can hide a lot of things you'd rather avoid. I always walk the property to look for things the sellers would rather you didn't know about. Here are a few things I've personally encountered:
  • Garbage: Too often I've discovered garbage dumped somewhere. Their contents ranged from everyday household refuse to material from building demolition to business waste. Sometimes the garbage has been burned and left an ugly and toxic scar. People can be lazy and view their large properties as a way to dispose of material cheaply and easily and without paying for legal disposal.
  • Skull and crossbones: One one property I found a large but low concrete structure with a heavily secured cover. On it could be found the words "poison gas". What the poison gas was I never did learn although my agent did ask. Many months later the property is still on the market, at a much lower price and a new listing agent.
  • Easements: It is not uncommon for electrical lines to cross rural properties. Since population density is low this is a way to reduce infrastructure costs for the utility, and therefore (in theory at least) lower rates. In Canada and the US these rural lines are typically 14.4 kV (7.2 kV is more typical in cities). Be certain those lines do not impede your plans for towers and antennas. Also consider that easements allow utility workers to cross your property to get to those facilities, which might pose a hazard. Other easements are less common but can be significant problems. For example, pipelines.
  • Outbuildings: Barns, stables, sheds and shelters are not uncommon on rural properties. Many of these used to be working farms, horse ranches or sites for the owner's business. Sometimes they add to the tax levy. These buildings have potential uses for hams. The problem in many cases is that they are little more than safety hazards that ought to be avoided or (better) removed. One such building I found garnered this answer to our query: "take a match to it and have a jolly bonfire!" Well, no. Try that and you'll have the authorities on top of you in no time at all. This is for good reason since these burns are dangerous and release toxic gasses and particulates into the air. Further, these buildings may contain septic systems and fuel tanks. Abandoned fuel tanks may contain fuel (really!). Outbuildings can be expensive liabilities, so look them over carefully.
The lesson is that things you really want to know about are often not mentioned in the real estate listing. Indeed the seller's real estate agent may not know about it because the seller chose not to disclose. Caveat emptor! Do your due diligence. It's well worth the time it takes. No one else will do it for you.

Putting down roots
Extracted from Google Maps

Study the satellite view of a section of a large property that caught my interest. There are several large open fields separated by some trees and bounded to the north by rough bush. When I visited the fields were overgrown and the bush areas were difficult to navigate. The reality on the ground is not so tidy as seen by the satellite.

Less visible is what lurks below ground. We care about that for two reasons:
  • Ground quality for vertical, low-band antennas
  • Excavation for tower bases and guy anchors
The geology in this part of Canada is shield rock (billions of years old) overlain with newer rock, such as shale, and then soil over that. The native vegetation is forest and thin bush where rock is prevalent. Soil depth to the underlying bedrock can vary a lot over a short distance. Think of it as ancient eroded mountains buried by newer sediments and organic detritus.

When you dig a hole you may hit bedrock that is close to the surface (ancient hilltop) or it may be soil or other loose material to a great depth (ancient valley or watercourse). Bedrock is a problem. It can be removed with heavy equipment that will add thousands of dollars to your tower budget. I've been through this several times over the years, including for towers and my present house. I want to avoid bedrock removal if at all possible.

The thin rough bush to the north is a sign that there is little soil over the bedrock. In this case as in others I've investigated the soil cover may only be centimeters deep and rock may in fact be at the surface. Trees have difficulty putting down roots which is why the vegetation cover is sparse.

The ground can be tested with simple tools and some ingenuity. One is a metal probe. It is a thin, hardened steel tube with a pointed end and large handles to facilitate pushing it down up to 1 meter depth. That's about the best you can do with a hand tool. Going deeper requires a drill or a backhoe. A backhoe cannot be used on property you don't own. Even a hand probe may be looked upon with suspicion.

A less intrusive test is to take a rough level off the septic system drainage field. Modern leaching beds in Ontario must have 4' of granular sand and 1' of soil above that. Thus the surface will be at least 5' above bedrock or other native soil. If the house and leaching bed are raised well above the surrounding land that is strong evidence of rock below. Knowing your own height and standing on the undisturbed surface face the house and bed and estimate the grade difference.

For the property above I measured a grade difference of 4' implying only 1' of soil above the native bedrock. Not only that, the house dates to 1860 and has a crawl space rather than a proper basement. The crawl space is another clue. Go down there and check for bedrock. It's worth getting a little dirty.

For this and other reasons I rejected the above property. However if you would instead choose to proceed you must add excavation costs to your budget.

Draw a circle

We want to maximize the land area within a given radius of the shack so that we can reduce the length of cables to reduce loss and reduce the cost. Let's say we want to keep the towers within 75 meters of the shack (or another radius of your choice). Use the adjacent diagram as our reference.

If the lots boundaries are outside this circle you're doing well! The only problems might be plowing your driveway in the winter and ever seeing passers by. But you'll always have your radio.

Should the house be near a boundary, whether a road or neighbouring lot, half or more of the circle is inaccessible. You will also be closer to noise sources, such as neighbourhood electronics and faulty power lines.

Working farms often have houses that are close to a boundary so as to maximize productivity. On some large farms the house and outbuildings are centrally located, which is good for radio and bad for accessibility.

If there's an easement for electric distribution or other utility wiring across your property use that as the boundary rather than the conventional boundary line since it limits the available land in the same manner.

The worst case is where the house is nestled in a corner of the lot. The available area is no more than a quarter of what's possible, or < 90° of the circle.

It is certainly possible to compensate when the lot is large enough by extending the radius. The cost of transmission lines and control cables can be a barrier if your objective is to have no greater transmission loss than within the smaller radius. Consider this when you encounter an otherwise attractive property.


I am plagued with noise here in the city. This is a common complaint and one without good solutions except to move. A rural property is not just for big towers and antennas but also for hearing well. Local noise is one reason I stuck with QRP contesting the past few years since it was the only way I could be sure I could hear the stations that called me.

I studied the number, distance and direction of neighbours for every property that I considered. I set 100 meters as the absolute minimum to be reasonably assured of quiet reception. The greater the distance the better. Although one needs less than 10 acres to build a world class antenna farm more land serves as buffer for receiving. More than that, it makes the towers less noticable and that is never a bad idea; all it takes is one antagonistic neighbour to make your life unpleasant. Apart from visibility the other advantage of a buffer is less risk of EMI when running two 1 kilowatt stations non-stop for 48 hours.

Of course that isolation can impede community interaction which matters to quality of life for you and your family. This is one more area where you may need to compromise to keep peace in the family.

Seriously noisy neighbours

Neighbours can include more than people. There are numerous noise sources that ought to be avoided. Not just today, but for the future as well. You do not want to move into your ideal noise-free property and only months later have a commercial wind farm or solar farm appear next door. This is not merely an academic concern (PDF); hams I know have to deal with this threat. I am all for green energy but...NIMBY. They can be very strong noise sources due to numerous and high-power DC-to-AC inverters and generators.

Search out these facilities and try to stay at least a few kilometers away. If you're not sure drive by the area with a receiver. Even a car AM radio can be sufficient. Tune to the edges of the band (~530 and 1,700 kHz) at least 20 kHz from a broadcast station, and not while underneath a power line or near a utility pole. What you hear at MF is a harbinger of what you'll hear on 160 meters and perhaps throughout HF and 6 meters.
Extracted from Google Maps

Be especially inquisitive when you spot one isolated wind generator. They tend to multiply, and often throughout the area since it is proven to be attractive to a commercial operator and local authorities have given approval. Scour local news sites for stories about planned facilities in the area: they are often the target of vocal opposition and the resulting news stories are easier to find than official government documents.

Use a satellite map service to look for suspicious infrastructure. Solar farms are easy to spot, as seen in the adjacent satellite image. You'll have to peer more closely to spot residential solar panels but they are visible. The larger residential solar installations can be noise sources though not always. Go there and listen.

One thing I've learned to be less concerned with is high voltage electrical transmission. There are many hams near these transmission corridors, including contesters, and problems are uncommon and moderate when they do occur. Even so I want a separation of at least 2 to 3 km.

Ground truth

Earlier in this article I highlighted the value of walking the land to discover undisclosed hazards. This is necessary even when there are no hazards. Make the effort. Just 10 minutes of your time is enough to evaluate the ground truth over as much as 10 acres. Wear hardy footwear and watch for holes hiding in the vegetation!

I always study the satellite view of the property and immediate area on one of the popular internet map services. Take note of any questionable features and inspect them on the ground. Do not accept the satellite view as indicative of what you'll find: the overhead perspective can be misleading, just as it can be from an aircraft. A good example is a few acres on my new property that I am considering for a future 160 meter array. I put the satellite view alongside the picture I took on the ground, facing south from approximately the spot indicated on the satellite view.

Left: Extracted from Google Maps; Right: photo taken by me
I have yet to discover the reason this area has reverted to bush. It isn't dense bush and should be easy to clear. I would think the local farmer taking a hay crop off this land would have liked to use it.

Notice what appears to be a small hill in the southwest corner, both in the satellite view and the photograph. I waded through the bush to investigate. To my surprise it's an untended berry patch gone wild. At its highest it is ~4 to 5 meters tall, with a big tree in the centre. I was relieved to discover it wasn't an outcrop of the bedrock.

There is evidence of old paths throughout this field. Otherwise it is no different than the surrounding fields. Perhaps disinterest or a change of ownership resulted in the field reverting to its natural state. It can be used for an antenna as it is, if one is willing to wade through the vegetation. That would be difficult and unpleasant.

More criteria?

I am sure there is more that can be added to my list of criteria. You could use mine as a foundation for your own list, based on your individual needs. There is nothing definitive about what I've written. You're the one that has to live there, not me, so do what works for you.

My new property

Up to now I've said little about my new property other than the photo above. The details will come in a future article on how I propose to use the land. For the moment I will say that is just under 50 acres (20 hectares), is located in FN24 and is pretty well set up to allow numerous towers and low band antennas without excessively long cable runs. The house is a bit of a fixer-upper, and that is monopolizing my immediate attention.

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