Thursday, January 28, 2016

5 Elements on 15 with a Found Boom

I find myself with two 32' (10 meter) booms that are begging to be put to work. These booms are 3" OD but the walls are only 0.058" (~1/16"). While I could lengthen them with a suitable centre section of pipe that wall thickness dictates that bands below 15 meters must be excluded from consideration. Since 10 meters will be of limited utility through the coming solar minimum I therefore settled on 15 meters. So I set out to design or adapt a design for 15 meters.

The chosen design may be too specific to my own needs to be of great interest to others. Since the process of getting there can be employed by others writing about it can be useful. I'll step through my process of selecting a suitable design and how I modified it to meet my objectives.

This is purely a design task, but one that I'm taking seriously. I will go through the steps of selecting a taper schedule and employing EZNEC's SDC (stepped diameter correction). The Leeson correction works well and should lead to zero fuss construction and tuning. Hopefully construction will be in the not too distant future.

Setting objectives

For contests the antenna must be low SWR across the entire band -- 21.000 to 21.450 MHz -- have reasonable F/B and as much gain as allowed by the other constraints. Since boom length is one of the two primary determinants of maximum theoretical yagi gain, the 32' boom limits the gain to no better than 11 dbi on 15 meters. In any case the stacking gain (~3 db) is greater than going with an exceptionally large, long boom yagi (~1 to 1.5 db). I can afford to focus on better F/B and match than squeezing out every 0.1 db of additional gain.

This antenna is intended for the 45 meter tall tower I hope to raise later this year. I plan to stack them on that tower, initially fixed then rotatable. The most likely stacking arrangement will have the upper yagi at ~35 meters and the lower one at ~25 meters. They should play well towards Europe and other paths. The heights are chosen to avoid interaction with a 40 meter yagi at the top of the tower and to avoid guy wires. The stacking distance is about 0.7λ, which is near ideal for yagis with a boom length of 0.67λ.

Designing 2 and 3 element yagis is straight-forward. The search space of element lengths and spacing is easily explored. As each additional element is added the challenge to discover an optimum design rapidly increases. Even for just 5 elements the optimization search space is already very large.

Lucky for us that yagi optimization has been going on for decades. Look around and you are sure to find a ready-made design to suit your needs. You should only take care to understand what the word "optimum" means in every instance, since for some this is about gain, F/B, wide-band match, cost or wind load, or some combination of these or other parameters. If the objectives for a design are not stated you ought to be suspicious.

I will therefore begin my search with a "stock" design.

Finding a design template

There have been several generations of designs for optimized yagis. This may seem odd since physics has not evolved. It is modelling software and field measurements that have improved. For yagis we can begin with the NBS (National Bureau of Standards, in the US). For hams the next big step is found in W2PV's seminal work from the early 1980s (see the out of print book "Yagi Antenna Design"). We can do even better today. Two that are of greatest interest to me are those in the ARRL Antenna Book and WA3FET's OWA (optimum wide-band array). There are more if you want to investigate further.

Since W2PV elaborated and improved upon the NBS designs we can start there. From his (pre-NEC) software modelling and optimization he found that making the design complicated yielded only small improvements. He therefore standardized on equal element spacing and equal length directors. This limits the variables to boom length and tuning of the parasites. Unfortunately he didn't have much to say about 5-element designs -- he jumped from 4 to 6 elements -- even though that is ideal for a boom of this length. You cannot simply take a 6-element design and lop off the last director! He also did not say a great deal about match bandwidth, and that matters to me and, I think, most hams.

Modern modelling software made it easier to search the vast space of combinations of element length, placement and boom length to do better. Even so the W2PV designs compare favourably. Even so I opted for a modern design. I did so using the ARRL Antenna Book (22nd edition). Nowhere in there will you find a 5-element 15 meter yagi on a 32' boom. Yet this can be an excellent boom length for such a yagi.

Recall that a yagi's gain is primarily determined by boom length, only requiring enough elements to ensure sufficient mutual coupling to make effective use of the boom length. We then vary element lengths and spacing to get the best combination of gain, F/B and SWR for our needs. A 32' boom on 15 meters is ~0.67λ. Gain better than 10 dbi (free space) is achievable, along with good F/B.

By noting that 32' on 15 meters is the same fraction of λ as 48' on 20 meters I chose the 5-element 20 meter yagi on a 48' boom as my first template. This design shows excellent gain, F/B and broadband match across the 20 meter band. It is an easy matter to scale the design to 15 meters. Parasite tuning is ±6.6% for the reflector and director 3, with the other two directors tapering in length toward the centre frequency.

Adapting the design to the boom

I scaled the element lengths and spacing by multiplying by ⅔ (14 MHz divided by 21 MHz) and adjusting fractionally to squeeze down a further 6" by moving director 3 inward. I used the element taper schedule in the ARRL Antenna Book for a heavy duty 15 meter element.

In the model I built one element for the taper schedule and selected a segment length of 6". The segment length for the element tip will vary somewhat from that value. The centre "tube" for the element-to-boom clamp is one wire of one segment spanning the centre of the element and joining the element halves. I then copied the element for the other four elements and adjusted all element tips to the calculated (scaled) lengths.

It is unsurprising that scaling is insufficient since element diameter and taper affect resonance. By inspecting the modelled gain, F/B and impedance I determined that the performance I want at the 21 MHz frequency is found at 20.6 MHz. All the elements were therefore scaled by 20.6/21.0 by shortening the tip lengths. When scaling antennas always multiply and divide by a scale factor; never add or subtract a fixed amount.

Half element taper schedule:
  • 3" length of 3" diameter, to account for the 3" x 6" element-to-boom clamp
  • 27" length of ⅞" tubing, half of a continuous 54" length for the centre section of the full element
  • 36" length of ¾" tubing, which is half of the visible portion of a continuous 112" length that is inserted through the ⅞" tube
  • ½" tubing for the element tip, adjusted to the required element length, not including the portion hidden within the ¾" tube
The driven element is cut in the centre and insulated from the boom for dipole feed and hairpin termination. A ¾" fibreglass tube or rod spans the centre of the driven element for mechanical strength.

Element half-lengths and spacing from the rear of the yagi are as follows. The tip length is the half-element length minus 66" (the rest of the half-element) plus 3" for overlap.
  • Reflector: 144.11"; 0"
  • Driven element: 135.7"; 48"
  • Director 1: 133.8"; 106.5"
  • Director 2: 131.75"; 239"
  • Director 3: 126.77; 378"
The scaled frequency range is 525 kHz on 15 meters, which exceeds the required 450 kHz. This allows latitude to optimize the SWR.

The hairpin is a shorted ~400 Ω stub 11.5" long, made from ½" tubing spaced 4" centre-to-centre. The stub should be several inches longer to allow for adjustment with a shorting bar. The feed point will out of reach when mounted on the tower, but that's a topic for another day.

With different stub parameters the length will change. The inductance of a short stub is proportional to the length and inversely proportional to the nominal impedance. This handy approximation only applies to transmission line lengths that are short relative to wavelength.


The antenna is remarkably consistent across the band. Unsurprisingly it behaves very much like the 5-element 20 meter yagi it is based on, the performance of which is shown above in the YW screen capture (YW is yagi design software included with the ARRL Antenna Book). A example of the azimuth pattern is shown at right.

The ARRL optimized design has parasite tuning of ±6.6%, measured for the reflector and director 3. The other directors fall in between, and the director spacing is quite wide. This is an antenna that will require wind load and weight compensation so that it is mechanically balanced.

Radiation resistance has a steep drop at the high end of the range where gain reaches a maximum. The antenna is tuned to ensure that this point occurs above 21.45 MHz. Doing so gives us the best conditions for a broadband match with a simple network. R and X components of the feed point impedance vary little across the band.

The completed yagi model has a forward gain that gradually rises from 10.2 dbi at 21 MHz to 10.45 dbi at 21.45 MHz. F/B stayed in a range between 22 and 26 db, which is excellent. F/B was measured at the maximum side (back) lobe rather than the exact rearward direction since the side lobes change position with frequency. I believe this gives the best idea of its QRM and QRN rejection potential.

Plots of gain and F/B appear further below, compared to a variation of the design. These performance figures agree well with the 20 meter yagi this antenna is based on (shown above in the YW screen capture).

The hairpin (beta) match was calculated at the end of the process, once the yagi was completely designed. As can be seen from the EZNEC plot below it does very well indeed without the contortions I went through with the 40 meter 3-element yagi I recently discussed.

The SWR is below 1.3 across the band, which is ideal for broadband transmitters and amplifiers. With a smidgen of transmission line loss the SWR in the shack will be even lower. There is no need for an OWA design and the added load and cost of a couple resonator. However we do want to use low loss coax to ensure that our design and construction effort is not wasted!

Optimizing further

It is tempting to push the design further to try and get closer to the theoretical maximum gain of ~11 dbi. We can't push too much or we'll lose the excellent broadband match and F/B. High gain is associated with high Q. It is also inadvisable to play around too much with element spacing and tuning since manual design of this nature is not conducive to getting good result. This antenna is already heavily optimized and very sensitive to small changes. I know, I tried!

We do have some room for adjustment since the match is so good; some increase in antenna Q will still result in an acceptable broadband match. To ease into this I tightened the parasite tuning from ±6.6% to ±5.5% by shortening the reflector to 143.38" and lengthening director 3 to 128.68". This includes shifting the entire yagi (adjusting all elements) down by ~100 kHz in order to centre its best performance within the band. Adjusted directors 1 and 2 are 134.47" and 133.07", respectively.

A further tightening of the tuning to ±5% degraded gain and F/B. Small changes to the lengths and spacing of the other directors degraded gain and F/B. I doubt we can do better even with serious optimization modelling.

The match requires a driven element length of 135.8" and a stub length of 9.8". The SWR is little changed, except for the beginning of a sharp increase at the high end of the band. It is still a very good 1.6.

Comparing the gain and F/B of the two yagis is instructive. While I was able to improve the gain as much as 0.2 db in the CW segment that advantage disappears for SSB, where both yagis are roughly equivalent. F/B is similar for CW and the lower SSB segment and then becomes as much as 4 db worse higher in the band. However the difference is quite small.

Choices, choices

In my opinion the differences do not clearly favour one design over the other, and both are excellent. The ±6.6% yagi is more consistent across the band and may be acceptable for that reason alone. Luckily I am in no rush to finalize my choice.

When I get to the point of building these antennas I will have more to say with regard to construction, tuning, installation and stacking. I am looking forward to building this antenna.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

CW Switching with PTT

One of the features of the K1EL WinKeyer that I recently purchased is PTT transceiver keying. I enabled this feature for the first time in the NAQP contest two weekends ago. I did this via the N1MM Logger+ contest software, which only enabled the feature during contest operation. It all worked very well indeed, and enhanced my effectiveness in the contest. This feature is a keeper in my station.

If you are unfamiliar with the use of PTT for CW operation, and you like the advantages discussed below, read on. I'll begin with a review of what PTT (push-to-talk) means in the context of CW -- until fairly recently PTT has primarily been used for phone modes -- and how it compares to other transceiver switching techniques.

As a former boss of mine, a very successful entrepreneur, was often heard to say: "timing is everything." This is very true, whether we are talking of business, personal life or...CW. The advantage of PTT is all about timing, as we'll see.

Receive to transmit, and back again

There are several techniques for switching a transceiver between receive and transmit when using CW. These are:
  • Break-in (QSK)
  • Semi-break in (VOX equivalent)
  • PTT
If you use full QSK you can probably skip the rest of the article since you already use the superior method! This assumes that your rig is capable of QSK and, if you use higher power, that the amplifier can tolerate rapid switching. QSK is a delight to use in DX pile-ups and contest exchanges since you always know what's going on and can instantly react. I love this feature of my Elecraft KX3 since it works so well. But that's QRP, for which solid state QSK is cheap and effective.

It is more typical that transmitters, especially where an amplifier is involved, are incapable of QSK, or it involves the annoying clacking of relays. For long years the switching method of choice has been semi-break in (VOX in older rigs), in which the transmitter turns on when the key is closed and returns to receive following a hang time after code transmission has ended. The hang time is set with a pot in older rigs and a menu item in newer ones.

Although semi-break in works well in typical daily operation there are disadvantages:
  • You cannot hear what is going on while your are transmitting. During the excitement of DX chasing and contest you will often double with other station (both transmitting at the same time).
  • On some rigs, and especially where an outboard amplifier is in use, the first code element may be truncated or missed entirely due to slow turnover between receive and transmit.
  • Hang time may be tied to SSB VOX timing or must be set to a fixed duration, and is not scaled to code speed or responsive to operating conditions.
Setting up

I use a Y adapter on the PTT jack of my FT-950 so that both the WinKeyer and a foot switch can control PTT for CW and SSB, respectively. Until I put in the Y adapter I temporarily used VOX on SSB, which though not my preferred choice on phone the inconvenience was minor since I operate SSB less than CW. The RCA connector and a bit of software configuration is all that is needed to enable PTT. Well, that and disabling break-in with the push of a button on the rig's front panel. The rig's internal keyer must also be disabled when using an external keyer such as the WinKeyer.

Wired back panel of my WinKeyer; for SO2R the second rig has its own set of connectors
When properly configured key closure is detected by the keyer rather than the rig. The keyer closes the PTT line to the rig when the first code element is sent.

Alternatively, some operators use the PTT line for the amplifier and use semi-break in on the rig since the cascade of relays from time of key closure can truncate the first code element. I've heard it happen numerous times during CW contests where high speed is the norm. I don't need to deal with this problem right now since I do not have an amplifier.

You can set a parameter to delay the start of sending by a few milliseconds to ensure proper transmission of the first code element. This isn't necessary on my rig, and should not be on any rig. It is in any case an imperfect solution since the timing offset is unnatural at more than a small number of milliseconds. Set this delay to zero unless you suffer from a sequencing problem with a external amplifier, as described above, yet you still want the full benefit of PTT.

My current WinKeyer settings in N1MM Logger+

Take care that you do not inadvertently use PTT mode when break-in or semi-break in is enabled on the rig. It can result in some puzzling results. My FT-950 has a front panel control for break-in (QSK or semi, depending on menu setting), by which I can easily switch to PTT at the start of a contest.

Paddle operation and setup is a little more complicated with PTT. With memories and software-generated message the keyer knows precisely when the message starts and ends, but not so with a human operator. There are settings to get the timing of PTT switching to suit your needs.

Most important is the hang time. This is the delay from completion of a code element, with neither paddle closed, before switching the PTT back to receive. It is similar to the hang time (or VOX delay) for semi-break in. The WinKeyer uses a variable timer based on keying speed, which is better than a fixed hang time.

Advantages of PTT

I quickly appreciated PTT as I began operating in NAQP.  Good results are most evident when playing memories and software-generated messages. In contests, where everyone is quick on the trigger, you are almost assured of never missing a single dit of the other operator's message due to the hang time delay of semi-break in.

Of course it doesn't help if the other guy starts sending before you've finished, which does happen! Other than that situation you never again have to ask for repeats or wonder if he copied the first letter of your call as A or V: you'll hear those first dits even at 40 wpm.

When you do need to reach for the paddles to send a custom message, or simply to say hello to a friend during the contest, you'll appreciate the speed-responsive hang time discussed above. I recommend using this feature rather than alternatives since it works so well, no matter the speed at which you're sending.

Beyond contests

Several days after NAQP I decided to enable PTT full time. The advantages of PTT also apply to DXpedition pile-ups. Since I've been mixing it up with the horde calling K5P, VP8STI and others this past week it was a sensible step to take.

Now I miss very little of what the DX station is sending. By hearing more of what he's transmitting I more often copy the call sign (or fragment) of the station he's calling. I can therefore better identify the frequency of that station and adjust my transmit frequency accordingly.

I have also reduced the times that I have fruitlessly called when the DX has already responding to another station. This is often done by the sending of a call sign fragment at 35 wpm, which you can easily miss with semi-break in. PTT gets you in and out of the pile-up faster and more successfully. Although I cannot claim that PTT helped put K5P and VP8STI in my log this week I am certainly more effective in the pile-ups.

So even if you're not a contester there are reasons to make the switch to PTT. If your keyer doesn't have this feature this should prod you into upgrading. You may be surprised by how big a difference ~100 milliseconds can make to your operating. Of course you can go full QSK and do even better. But buying a new keyer is more economical than buying a new rig.

Friday, January 15, 2016

K5P: It Should Not Be Easy

There is a great deal of interest in the ongoing K5P DXpedition to Palmyra Atoll. In these first few days of the 2 week operation there is a pervasive din of complaint. They are too weak or they are only working the other guys. There is something wrong, but not with K5P. The problem is us.

Who ever said that working DX was meant to be easy? If it were easy what would be the value of DXCC and achieving DXCC Honor Roll? None, that's what.

Accomplishments easily achieved are the ones we least remember and cherish. Working K1N Navassa Island was not noteworthy for me since it is almost in my backyard and I used 100 watts. Well, except for perhaps 80 meters. Working FT5ZM Amsterdam Island with 10 watts, including 40 meters with an inverted vee, I can justifiably be proud of. It required a serious effort.

I, too, have yet to work K5P. That's okay. There is yet time for propagation and luck to perform their magic. Even if I fail to work them that is acceptable to me. It is one more country I can anticipate for the future, perhaps at least 10 years hence. I expect to work hard for it, not have it come easy.

In any important objective in ham radio, as in life, it is the pursuit rather than the catching that is the most fulfilling. For me, QRP with small antennas was like that: making contacts, working DX and winning contests. It added spice to my renewed interest in ham radio after being QRT for 20 years.

The funny thing is that working rare DX is easier today than ever before. One big driver is money: people around the world are more affluent than ever before. Towers are higher, antennas are bigger and rigs are better and more powerful. There is also the ease of travel and the wealth to mount DXpeditions to remote areas of the planet. Spotting networks relieve us from most of the tedious effort of finding the DX.

The sense of entitlement exhibited by some is disappointing. I do hope that those who endlessly complain about K5P learn to adjust their expectations and enjoy the chase. That the K5P operation is restricted to small antennas only enhances the challenge and excitement. Adding a counter to a DXCC total is not what it ought to be about. Consider it an incentive to improve one's skills and to build bigger, better antennas.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Spying on Antenna Farms

Let's have some fun to start off the new year. Have you ever tried looking at your or someone else's antennas on one of the mapping services? I have done so several times. It is surprising what you sometimes can, and cannot, see in those satellite images.

Since the viewing angle is usually quite steep towers, houses and other structures can appear strangely unfamiliar. Some, like Google, will give you a bird's eye view by massively processing the images. But for this exercise I'll stick with the "raw" images from Google Maps. Let's see what we can learn from those images. Are my antennas real? Are yours? We can find out.

Google Maps satellite image of VE3VN
The image at right is a cropped screen capture of my house and part of the lot from Google Maps, at maximum magnification, on January 5, 2016. However, that certainly is not the date of the satellite image. The watermark says 2014, which will be later than the true image date.

Although the resolution is barely adequate there is a great deal to see if you take some time to analyze the image. I'll walk through this so that you have more tools at your disposal for analyzing images of your own antenna farm, or others.

Antenna size

There is a correlation between true size of antennas and towers and what their owners claim. Most hams are honest reporters but there is a tendency to exaggerate as their size declines. The satellite images help us to verify the truth of those claims.

HF yagis are usually easy to see in these images. Only under ideal conditions will wire and VHF/UHF antennas be well enough seen to be evaluated.

At first I thought the adjacent image was of the boom on my Hy-Gain Explorer 14, with the elements washed out. A closer examination of the tower shadow and the image detail reveals that the image is older. That's the 30' Golden Nugget tower supporting my 4-band TH1vn (modified TH6 driven element), oriented broadside to Europe and the Pacific.

Some wires are visible. The sunlit portions of the ⅛" guy wires can be seen going north toward the house anchor and also southwest and southeast to their tree anchors. The inverted vee is not visible, although you can see the shadow of the house-bracketed 14 meter tall mast that supports it.

Tower height

This is a more difficult challenge. Restricting ourselves to linear measures on the image -- Google includes a scale on the image -- as our only data it is impossible to determine tower height. You must also know one or both of the satellite position and image date.

If you know the satellite position you can calculate the viewing angle. With that and the projected linear length of the tower the true height can be calculated with simple trigonometry.

If you know the date you can calculate the solar elevation from the time of day (shadow direction, like a sun dial). Measure the length of the tower's shadow (assuming level ground) and the height can, again, be calculated with simple geometry.

When Google constructs a bird's eye view they make use of the satellite position. You could try to figure out tower height from that construction. I haven't tried that. If you try it be aware that the images are distorted when processed in this way in order to provide a "sensible" result. Linear measures are often unreliable after image processing. Look closely and you'll see numerous instances of distortion in bird's eye view and Streetview.

Yet there are ways. These are somewhat in the manner of that old joke: how do you measure the height of a building with a barometer? For example, infer the tower type from the image or outside information. If the resolution is sufficient you only need to count off a few of the horizontal tower members on the tower's shadow and combine that with the dimension data from the spec sheet. Count them all or use the shadow length to calculate tower height.

Other height-measuring techniques using the satellite image are left as an exercise to the reader.

Dating the image

When was it taken? Can we find out? Often the answer is yes. I've left enough evidence of my antenna comings and goings on this blog that we can estimate the date. Although this is almost entirely useless for spying purposes it is interesting (to me at least) so let's proceed with this topic and see what a simple picture can tell us. At stations going through lots of changes you might even catch antenna work in progress, as we'll see.

First, we're facing north, so the sun is behind the satellite. Although there are many trees at the edges of my property, with branches often meeting in the middle (squirrels love it), everything of importance is sunlit. That is very helpful.

We can locate the satellite. Follow the shadow of the tower to its base. Compare the projected length of the tower to the shadow (~0.2), do a little trigonometry, and we see that the satellite is ~10° east of the zenith point. Image processing stretches these images so that the trapezoidal projection of a square patch of ground due to the oblique viewing angle can be stitched together with others to form a contiguous map. Some distortion can creep in, although it should be small in this image since the satellite is close to the zenith.

The TH1vn dipole was put up in early summer 2013 and taken down in early summer 2014. The image had to be from those 12 months -- the 2014 watermark is consistent with this. Notice that the dipole is sitting directly atop the tower. The extended mast for the 40 meter delta loop is not present. Since the delta loop went up in late October 2013 either the image was taken between July 2013 and early October 2013, or June 2014 as it was being disassembled. That the greenery is in full display confirms this.

The direction of the shadow tells us the image was taken shortly after 2 PM EDT. As for the time of year, well, the tower is 30' tall, the house is ~47' from the tower base and my latitude is 45.5° (grid FN25). Since the shadow is ~36' long the sun's elevation is ~40°. It's close enough to local noon that we can say the sun is slightly south of the celestial equator. Therefore it is most likely early fall of 2013.

Now I draw your attention to a small detail. Look at the upper roof. There is a faint arc running from the fireplace chimney on the left to the roof edge on the right. I quickly ascertained that it is a rope I had rigged as a safety line. The rope was arranged so that when clipped into my safety belt I could stand at the edge of the roof, and move right or left, without worrying about falling. This allowed me to safely work on the mast and inverted vee.

An blog article from September 2013 shows that I was putting up the first version of my multi-band inverted vee, including the mast. The bracketed pipe went up earlier in the summer and was first used to test a 20 meter delta loop. The shadow of the antenna mast is visible on the lower roof. There is no sign of the delta loop. This narrows the date range.

I left the safety rope on the roof for some time since I didn't want to redo it each day I was up there. Tuning the antenna and adjusting the mast supports dragged on for a while. It is therefore quite possible that it was a few weeks past the equinox, as initially estimated above. It is also possible that my measurement of the shadow or recollection of the distance between house and tower is inaccurate, or even that the aforementioned distortion is present in the image. So it could have been mid-September, right around the equinox.

Are you feeling yet like Sherlock Holmes?

Checking out the competition

Out of curiosity I checked out a couple of large stations located on rural acreages. I was to be disappointed. Instead of antenna farms all I saw were empty fields. Either there were no antennas or someone paid off Google to hide them from prying eyes.

Google Streetview image of VE3VN, dated August 2014
Of course it's the former reason. Acquiring satellite imagery costs money and fewer people want to explore open tracts of land than urban areas. Images of rural areas are infrequently updated to manage business costs. Looking closely for the dated watermarks confirmed this. The satellite images were quite old, predating tower construction.

Google Streetview did better, when their camera-equipped vehicles drove down those rural roads. Even there I ran into a peculiar problem. When I turned a corner the number of towers changed! I backed up and looked at the dates of image acquisition. They were different by two years. Less travelled dirt roads were covered later by Google.

The Streetview capture of my QTH is just above. It is dated August 2014, which is just after the DMX-52 was installed in July but does not yet have any antennas, which went up in September. Here you can clearly see wire antennas. If you are lucky and a recent Streetview image is available it can easily be superior to satellite images.

So go ahead and give it a try. Test your detective skills. See if the antennas some ham is bragging about are as advertised. They may be downplaying their size in an attempt to lull competitors. Now we have the tools to check on them from the comfort of our shacks. Satellite images are also useful for exploring land for a future antenna farm.

Monday, January 4, 2016

2016 - Changes Afoot

2015 was a pretty good year for me in amateur radio. I continued to have good success in the major contests running QRP; DX results rolled in; antennas were improved; and multiple purchases of antenna-related hardware put me in good stead for my future plans.

I expect 2016 to, at first, unfold in a predictable fashion. There are contests to enter and DXpeditions to work. The rest is tentative. This may be the year that I move to an acreage and build a proper antenna farm. It is what I've been planning for. Yet there is always more to life than amateur radio, so other priorities may intrude and cause delay. Since those are all no more than possibilities as of now I am free to follow my amateur radio ambitions for the near future. I place the probability of a move this year at 70%.

First a brief recap of 2015 events at VE3VN, in particular how I did in relation to my plans at the start of the year. I'll mostly skip over contest results and the like since that is certainly of little interest to anyone other than me. Should you wish you can compare how I did in comparison to my plans and expectations.

2015 retrospective

My earliest act was to purchase a FT-1000MP so that my daily operations would no longer be QRP. However I continued to operate QRP with the KX3 in major contests. My reasons for this are simple enough:
  • I have lots of QRN from my neighbours lights and other appliances. This is a plague for many hams these days. With QRP there is a virtual guarantee that any station that answers my CQ in a contest is one that I'll be able to hear! At 100 watts or more that is not true, even with good receive filters.
  • With small antennas I can be more competitive in the QRP class. Hams with better antennas rarely operate QRP. It does happen, and when it does I lose badly. But mostly I am able to compete with others similarly equipped.
  • There is virtually no possibility of being an RFI hazard for my neighbours when I operate flat out for 24 or 48 hours contests. Since I appear to have had no issues at 100 watts I expect to do more low power contesting this winter.
I extended my activity to new bands. I returned to 6 meters for the summer sporadic-E season. Even with a small, and compromised yagi I was able to work several countries in Europe and the Caribbean. Using the internal transceiver tuner I made my first QSO on 12 meters at year end, and similarly worked several stations on 6 meter aurora propagation.

As planned I made small but important improvements to my low band antennas. My activity, and results, on 80 and 160 meters increased with my new 80 meter vertical. Although not resonant, the vertical works better on 160 (with the rig's internal tuner) than what I could do before. The new 40 meter inverted vee worked out better than expected since it does better to Europe than the old inverted vee.

Progress toward my future antenna farm went quite well. I now have in storage a 150' commercial-grade guyed tower, a 2-element short yagi for 40 meters and 2,000' of Heliax. I chose to forgo other opportunities since it is too difficult to move and store large amounts of hardware with my current living arrangements. There will always be other opportunities.

2016 plans

There will no new antennas at this QTH in 2016. My energies will be directed toward my next QTH. Tweaks to current antennas are acceptable but that's it. If I do put my house on the market it is likely that the towers and antennas will come down sooner rather than later, and probably no later than early spring. That's only a few months away!

Other than the truly unexpected it is only events in my personal and professional life that are likely to stand in the way of my radio ambitions. There is the possibility that I will have to stay in the city for at least another season if certain matters develop.

Inside the shack I intend a few experiments to pave the way to future improvements. The FT-950 (an interim and adequate rig) is part of that plan since it is better for contest work than the FT-1000MP it replaced. I am deferring the purchase of a top-end transceiver until I am out of the city, since local QRN prevents me from hearing better at this QTH. A good receiver would be wasted. I am leaning toward the Elecraft K3S, but I remain flexible in case something more suitable comes on the market when I am ready to buy.

This year I will experiment with more station automation, such as computer integration and multiple rigs, to bring my contesting abilities to a more modern standard. Constraints I face include my operating desk, which is not computer friendly; for example, there is no good place to mount a monitor. Another constraint in the ancient laptop I use in the shack: it's under-powered for more than basic contest logging; and has only 3 USB ports. But it does have battery backup. Changes may be deferred until after I move.

As for contests, as I hinted after CQ WW SSB my interest in QRP class is waning. For SSB especially but also for CW. I intend to do more contesting with 100 watts even though I have no hope of placing well with my small antennas. Consider it as ongoing training for when I do have better antennas. This is one of several reasons why I replaced the FT-1000MP with a FT-950.

At least I'll be leaving QRP with a bit of a bang. From an early view of my log check report I will repeat as world #1 in SOAB QRP in CQ WW SSB. For the CW weekend I hope to repeat as #1 in North America, and should do so unless my error rate is high (quite possible since I was not at my best that weekend).

While I am not a fervent DXer I very much enjoy chasing rare DX, whether or not they're countries I need. Since returning to the air in early 2013 I have worked 260 countries. I chose to restart my count rather than include what I worked before 1992, including some very rare ones. Not only would the paperwork of doing a combined tally be unpleasant (I also dislike QSLing, and avoid it when I can) I found it interesting and motivating to start over from zero rather than 300+.

Upcoming DXpeditions to VP8, KP5 and possibly P5 are on my calendar for January and February. I hope to work them on as many bands as possible. P5 would definitely be an all-time new one (ATNO) for me.

Blog and contact info

Activity on the blog should continue at a similar pace in 2016. I see that I average one posting a week, and that seems to strike the right balance between use of my time and how often I have anything of interest to say. Should I move this year expect a lengthy interruption.

Although I have no new antennas planned for this QTH (assuming I do move this year) you can still expect antenna articles -- more in the way of modelling rather than construction. Many of these will be focussed on larger antennas for the planned future stations, with excursions to related topics. Expect more about 40 meter yagis in particular.

This year I've resolved to consolidate the diverse email accounts I use for personal and professional activities. Although some of you have seen how one or more of my addresses resolve to another account, you should not use that account. For the present you will get best results using my call sign at There will be no announcement when I discard obsolete email accounts.

In closing

A few days ago, as I was listening to a few of the northeast US super-stations working Asia long path at sunset on 40 and 80, the lights around the neighbourhood turned on and blanketed the DX with the pulsations of cheap switching power supplies. It was very frustrating, even though I had no hope of working those Asians with my small antennas and 100 watts. I hope to leave all (or most) of this behind when I leave the city. It's one more motivation to accelerate my retirement plan.

I was out of the hobby for over 20 years while I pursued other life objectives and ham radio was an unwelcome distraction. Since I've rediscovered my love of the hobby I realize it has to be a bigger part of my life. The passing of friends and family during the past year drives home the message that for all of us time is limited. If I don't pursue my dreams now then when? The golden age of baby-boomer driven amateur radio activity won't last forever. Right now may be as good as it gets for contesting and DXing.