Sunday, January 4, 2015

2015 - Challenges Ahead

2014 has now come and gone, so it's time to check back with my plan for the year to see how well I measured up. Then it's on to my amateur radio objectives for 2015.

One thing I've learned from decades in the business world is the value of stating objectives up front, making firm plans and then to measure performance against those plans. This isn't for everyone, nor should it be. For many this hobby is simply a casual pastime. Even then there is value to accepting some structure. If you can clearly express what you want to do you can articulate, and follow, the steps necessary to make those things happen. When done right it can lead to a satisfying result. Even for a hobby that's important.

2014 retrospective

My stated plan for 2014 was largely fulfilled. Not entirely of course, but enough to give myself an A or B+. Let's look at the key misses first: more power and 40 meters.

With the delay into early fall for getting the tri-band yagi raised I did not want the additional pressure from have to search for and purchase a new transceiver. Therefore I kept operating with QRP right through 2014. I was also more interested in testing my ability to score well in the fall contests with QRP than transitioning sooner to higher power.

My hopes for a gain antenna on 40 were dashed. Destructive interactions to the tri-band yagi pretty much ruled out a switchable wire yagi on the tower. With the yagi up only 15 meters there was no way to get sufficient separation from a 40 meters yagi and yet keep the wire yagi high enough to deliver better results than the inverted vee on 40. My attempt to create a sloper array just to Europe was shelved when my single sloper experiment didn't work out. I learned a lot but my station didn't end up any further ahead.
There were also areas where I exceeded my expectations. Those are also worth a look.

With the yagi in place and a poorly-performing 80 meters antenna, plus some great conditions, I was able to place high in the QRP global rankings in both the CW and SSB weekends of CQ WW. Although this remains to be confirmed after log checking I don't have to wait to declare success. The power and antennas delivered results. Any remaining problems would be in the operator, not the equipment.

Despite what I said above about my failure to build a better antenna for 40 I have come to believe the 40 meters inverted vee is doing better than expected. Although I cannot compare them directly, on the basis of results I now think it does better, broadside at least, in comparison to the delta loop that was taken down earlier in the year. It just goes to show how local ground and suburban clutter can negatively affect the DX performance of vertically-polarized antennas.

Since the yagi went up my DXCC total increased to 226, an increase of 20. Even on 80 I have managed to eke out 30 countries. My LOTW confirmations are now over 100 on 40, 20, 15 and 10 meters, and just shy of the mark on 17 meters. That's good for less than 2 years with QRP and modest antennas, antennas which up until 3 months ago were single element and no gain.

I do not have an antenna for 160 nor do I seriously plan one for this QTH. An antenna can surely be built but it would have to be a poor one. Nevertheless I decided to enter the ARRL 160 meters contest in early December for a laugh, just to see what I could do with 5 watts and no antenna. By "no antenna" I mean unscrewing the outer ring of the PL-259 of the 80 meters half sloper. It's an old trick that I've used before.

The surprise was making over 100 QSOs with this ridiculous setup. I could hear some DX, but though I worked none of it I did get as far as Oklahoma. Most QSOs were a struggle to complete, which is no surprise. Of course I was amply assisted by the big antennas and good ears of other operators. It was unexpected fun, and educational.

2015 plan and constraints

My plans for the VE3VN antenna farm in 2015 are more modest than they were for the previous year. Back then I was starting from very little so there was ample room for improvements. That is less so now, and I am running straight into several constraints on what I can or should do at this location.

First, the constraints:
  • Radials: These are not compatible with the use of my yard, nor is there really a lot of room on the east-west axis to run radials. Yet I need radials if I am to increase the efficiency of low-band antennas, and even venture down to 160 meters. My present 15 meter high tower models well on 80 and 160 as a vertical, but only with a good radial system.
  • Power: I can increase power to 100 watts but no further. I know from experience that going above this will lead to neighbourhood EMI problems on 20 and above. It could work if only used occasionally, such as to break a pile-up, but is out of the question for regular use and certainly not in a contest.
  • Noise: My immediate neighbourhood is full of noise sources. Most sound like LED light systems, but there are many more that are harder to identify. It isn't a solvable problem. Most hams face the same situation. Poor reception is acceptable for QRP since the noise mostly covers up the weak stations that would never hear me anyway. Increasing power and a large antenna investment would show a poor return. Overnight to early morning are best since that is when lights and appliances are mostly turned off. Evenings can be quite bad, especially in winter when the sun sets soon after 4 PM.
  • Tower: A permanent tower requires a concrete base. From my original site plan this could only go at site B or D due to the location of the septic system tile bed.  (Site C is where my tower and yagi are currently located, right on top of the tile bed.) Site D is preferred due to the municipal tower policy and setback requirements. Going above 15 meters height also requires "consultation" with all of my immediate neighbours for the same reason. That is more of an inconvenience than a significant problem. Even so a large tower may be a poor investment at this QTH due to my growing ambitions. Why spend all that money and still have physical limits on what I can get in the air, power limit and reception difficulties due to noise?
With the above limitations I can see myself doing the following in 2015:
  • 100 watt transceiver: I am already shopping, so it will happen. I am not only motivated by power but by the need for a better receiver. The Elecraft KX3 is a great little rig though one with serious receiver deficiencies in comparison to the best. I may detail my KX3 experience in a future article.
  • 80 meters: The ground in my yard is dreadful, far worse than the "medium" ground I typically use in my models. Although permanent radials are out of the question there is the possibility of a winter-only antenna using the 15 meters tower and yagi as a monopole on 80. Initial modelling shows promise. It is worth the experiment, once I dig up a large quantity of cheap radial wire.
  • 6 meters: This lowest VHF band used to be one of my favourites. I want to explore putting up a small 3-element yagi on one of the towers so that I can at least play around a bit during this summer's sporadic-E season. First I will have to address antenna interactions and mechanical barriers.
  • Computerization: Inside the shack there is a lot I can do to improve operator performance and flexibility with an investment into software and hardware. The present ergonomics are barely passable for contest operating.
There will also be a lot more exploration of antennas and related topics by means of computer models and other investigation. Even if I can't build much more in the near future that does not mean I can't plan, or at least play with various ideas. When I think these are of interest I will share them on the blog.

Longer-term outlook

I have a decision coming up if I intend to have better and bigger antennas: build a large tower on this property or move. Both alternatives have their pros and cons, plus large impacts on non-amateur radio aspects of my life. As someone looking to retire early I do have the flexibility to consider another QTH, one removed from my current personal and business networks. That is, if I decide that amateur radio will be a large part of my post-career life.

Like everyone, I'm not getting younger. If I want it and can do it, it is better to do it soon and enjoy up to 20 to 30 years of playing with towers and antennas and pursuing operating objectives. This might be the year I choose.

This blog

In my travels around the internet I find that most hams with an online presence choose to organize their web sites by topic or project. Those with blogs, either alone or with an accompanying a web site, seem to quickly abandon them.

I seem unusual in that I do everything in a blog. There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach. For example, if I update my experience or further research on an antenna I do so in a new article, not by modifying the earlier one. Of course I link to earlier articles where it is informative, but if you come to my blog by way of searching out the original article you might not discover the updates. As to typos...well, they happen and are rarely worth the effort to fix in already-published articles.

Despite that deficiency I have a strong reason for sticking with a blog. That reason is narrative. I believe that any passionate pursuit, be it amateur radio or anything else, contains a story. The story is often more compelling than any individual milestone or set of milestones. From what I've seen I can assume that many others would disagree, and they do so by documenting various technical or construction projects rather than why they do what they do. Typically these pages are not updated. In fact you get little insight into who these hams are or even if they're still alive!

So I will continue to focus on narrative, for which a blog is best. I recommend the use of the search function provided by Google at the top of the page to find articles relevant to specific topics. That way the blog can still be useful to those who want to find articles on specific areas of interest and care not at all about the narrative.

Dark corners of the internet

For the vast majority of my audience the following message can be skipped. It is for the small number of bad actors lurking in the darker corners of the internet.

Copies of a number of my articles can be found elsewhere with authorship removed or no links to the source material. This is unethical at best and is illegal in most jurisdictions. I spent many years of my career dealing with intellectual property matters so I am no naif. I know it happens. I am disappointed to see hams do it to other hams.

Dealing with it not always easy, so I continue to observe and consider the matter. The internet which creates this problem also makes it easy to discover that it is occurring. That is, I know where you lurk.

On the brighter side, I do welcome fully-attributed references to my articles. In return I make every effort to attribute both online and offline sources I use or extract from. That's only right.

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