Sunday, June 25, 2017

Planting the LR20 150' Guyed Tower

As I write this the foundation work for the LR20 150' tower is complete. Really complete. It has been a long road, one that began in November. At the time I planned and expected to have the tower ready to be raised before Christmas. As I mentioned at the end of the article about planting the Trylon Titan tower we got socked with an early winter storm that forced many woes. Suffice to say the tower did not go up this past winter.

Yet we went ahead. It didn't work out well. In this article I'll let you in to the full story, warts and all. Aside from the many problems encountered, and overcome, much went right. Regardless it is a story worth telling. I haven't seen many articles on the internet that described the full procedure of planting a large guyed tower in amateur stations. Just small snapshots.

Yet it's a major project that can provide many lessons to those who want to do the same. I hope you enjoy it, and perhaps learn a few things. That includes the things you should not do.

Hiring out

A local tower construction and service company, Ontower. They are happy to offer their services and expertise to local hams who have turned to them for assistance. This has become common as the ham population ages and fewer are able to help out their friends as they have in the past. In any case it is only a minority of hams with big tower experience. I have put up high guyed towers but I do not consider myself an expert.

I got to know them over several months. They were free with their advice and sensitive to the needs of non-commercial projects. It also helped that they have the equipment and parts on hand to put up towers far bigger than my own. So we came to an understanding.

Act 1 - Clearing a path

The day before the big day the weather unexpectedly turned. The ground was covered in snow. They were unable to drive their truck and backhoe float across the hay fields to reach the tower site. The backhoe operator used its small blade to plow a 250 meter path to the tower base, and then to each of the anchors. Wherever there was a turn a clearing was made to allow for the large turning radius of the truck and trailer, and also for the arrival concrete truck.

Tower work in Canada, eh?

By the time all was done the fields were crisscrossed with paths made by the backhoe and by people walking from point to point. So far so good. It wasn't to remain that way. The day warmed and the snow began to melt.


I surveyed and staked the field in advance. The crew of two brought a small backhoe. I could have hired a large backhoe but there is an advantage when the equipment operator and crew don't just have experience digging holes but digging holes for towers. Their backhoe had just enough reach to excavate the 6' depth of the anchor holes.

Other than exchanging a few ideas at key points they knew exactly what to look out for and what to do. There were no mysteries to be explained. Our only serious concern was whether we'd hit bedrock since their machine could not cope with that. My luck held and other than some large rocks the excavation for the base and three anchors proceeding without drama.

We did have contingencies in mind in the case we did hit bedrock. For the base it is possible to anchor the pier to the bedrock, at some trouble and expense. Or if the level was sufficiently below the frost line to modify the base to suit. For the anchors they and another expert I consulted suggested sitting the anchor on the bedrock and adding overburden on top and ahead of the anchor (building a mound) to compensate. An anchor's tension limit is not set by its depth but by the mass and solidity of the soil it is pushing up against when the guys are under load.

The excavations were greater than the specification for this size of LR20 tower since the anchors they supplied and the squares and hoops for the rebar cages were for a 350' tower. This requires more concrete, which is an acceptable trade off.

Rebar cages and concrete forms

While one person operated the backhoe the other built the rebar cages. I did the cutting and bending, leaning on my experience and tools from building the Trylon base.

They supplied the square wooden case for the base and round tube for the pillar. For the anchors we dispensed with cases; what they call "mud holes". The downside of the latter is that the holes are inevitably larger than required and require more concrete to fill. It's a trade off: more concrete or more time and expense to build and work with casing. It doesn't have to look pretty.

Left: anchor and rebar in mud hole; Centre: anchor cage almost ready to go; Right: forms and rebar for base

Notice that the anchor has two large buttressed vertical plates. When under tension the load is distributed over the reinforced concrete, preserving its rigidity. The reinforced base platform distributes the load over a wide area of undisturbed soil. Numerous J-rods bound with circular ties run the height of the pillar to preserve pier integrity under vertical load.

But are these reinforced concrete foundations up to spec? There is no clear answer to this question. Tower manufacturers have become increasingly coy on this point. No one prescription or set of options is sufficient for all soil conditions. And that's what counts. Commercial towers require soil tests and the services of an engineer to specify the foundations for the prevailing soil and environmental conditions, including seismic activity and ground water.

What I have done instead is to oversize and overbuild the base and anchor foundations. I also know that the soil in this area is very stable and the water table is deep. There is an extended period of saturation in heavy rains and spring thaw. The top soil is less than 2' (60 cm) deep, below which is a dense mix of clays and rock. It is so hard that shovels barely dent it, even when soaked in water.

Aligning the anchors

Overnight most of the snow melted, turning the fields into a muddy mess. Half a day was spent finishing the forms, setting the anchors, levelling everything and aligning the anchors to the base. The alignment was done by sight to ensure the anchor rods pointed directly at the base. An inclinometer was used to set the vertical angle of the rods according to the tower spec.

They recommended against using the anchor plate as an equalizer plate since it adds a potential point of failure. Instead the plates were welded square to the rods. With the vertical angle correctly set the pre-load tension on the guys will net to zero vertical force on the anchor rod.

Of course with maximum antenna wind load at the top of the tower there will be an upward force when the wind blows. However that is true whether or not the plate pivots. As they explained, with a round bar for the anchor this is well within the load spec for the material. Alternatives that some use, such as angle iron for the rods, overbuilding is required to maintain anchor integrity.

Concrete - Uh oh!

Early afternoon of the second day we were ready for concrete delivery. Or so we thought. The plan was to have the concrete trucks -- we needed two in sequence -- drive across the hay field and pour directly into each hole in turn. Two time-separated pours were planned for the base, a point which I'll return to later in the article.

Unfortunately by the time the first truck arrived the surface was softened by melting snow and stayed wet due to the heavy overcast. The driver was dubious but trusted the crew since the companies regularly worked together on tower sites. But the final decision was mine. Hoping for the best I gave the go ahead signal. That was a mistake. As I've said before, hope is a 4-letter word that it is best to avoid.

The truck didn't get far. No matter how many tires the load is spread over or how many axles are driven (they have this option) 60,000 lb needs a strong surface for support. I found myself in a difficult spot since I was responsible for getting the truck out of there.

Happily I was dealing with professionals. Ontower got a local construction firm to send out a front end loader. It had two tasks: quickly unload the concrete and pull the unloaded truck out of the mire. While we waited for it the concrete truck driver told me dark stories about the cost of freeing a stuck concrete truck or a ruined truck due to the concrete setting. I reciprocated with how stories of how technology would enable driverless trucks and put him out of a job.

A little laughter goes a long way when you are in a tight spot waiting for rescue to arrive. Every so often he'd interrupt the conversation to add water to the concrete to keep it from setting.

Eventually the front end loader arrived. I have to say I was very impressed at how well it all went from that point. That scoop you see holds a lot of concrete and had no problem going over 200 meters of muck to dump the concrete into the excavations. It took fewer than 20 trips to transfer over 7 cubic yards of concrete. An hour later the concrete truck was empty and towed back to the road. Two anchors were complete. But it was late in the day and we had already cancelled the second truck. The remainder of the concrete work would have to be rescheduled.

There was the unanticipated effect on the anchors of pouring tons of concrete from a height. Front end loaders are not gentle machines. The anchors shifted slightly and were no longer directly pointed at the base. The error was approximately 2°. None of us caught the mistake until it was too late. We discussed it the next day and decided that it would not be a serious problem. The anchor was oversize and round and the deflection would be modest when the guys were tensioned. I still worried about it, but nothing could be done. At least not yet.

Intermission - Winter doldrums & spring floods

We tried to reschedule the concrete work several times, included the depths of winter. The weather did not cooperate. Not only was this job delayed so was the concrete work for my garage. The early end to the season inconvenienced many in the construction trade.

Concrete work can be done in frigid weather if you are willing to pay up. After several weeks we decided it would be best to put the work off until the spring. Although a sensible decision there were a couple of factors not taken into account. First, the excavations and forms were stable when the ground was frozen and ice filled the holes. Spring thaw changed that. Several cubic yards of topsoil slumped into the holes, covering the forms and rebar and allowing the water level to rise higher. Second, we had a record breaking wet spring.

So the delay continued. It continued so long that the work had to be fit into their summer high season. I did what I could by periodically pumping the water and removing some of the slumped material. Saturated topsoil is a gummy soup that is pretty much impossible to shovel. There was also the danger of additional slumping while working below ground. I had to give it up and wait. Besides which I was getting tired of removing ticks that leapt onto me with glee from the head high hay. Protective clothing was little help.

Act 2 - Getting it done

Finally the great day arrived. A new crew arrived and so did a large backhoe with front end loader the same size as the one we used in the fall. Although this machine was a significant expense it meant we could clean the holes, deliver the concrete and back fill all four holes in one day. This time everything went according to plan. It was also an opportunity to renew my respect for heavy machine operators. He demonstrated a care for the work and fields and an artistry in how he went about the job.

The first job was to clean the holes. This involved carefully scraping off the overburden to expose enough of the forms and rebar that they could be lifted without breakage. Mission accomplished. But it was tense and dirty work. The bucket you see is ~3' (1 meter) wide and required gentle manoeuvering. Those machines pack a big punch.

I took on the job of cleaning the rebar so that the crew could do more important work. I ended the day covered in muck, as was the crew. Something died inside the base hole rebar cage which added to the unpleasantness. As if that wasn't enough didn't I already mention the ticks? What I go through to boost my contest scores!

While marking the lines to the two misaligned anchors the senior crew member noticed that if the base was moved 2' (60 cm) he could get all three anchors pointed at the base. That's why the base excavation seen above was extended. Many problems can be solved when you have the right tool at hand.

The backhoe bucket is so large that the anchor hole had to be widened even more than before. A form was prepared in advance with scrap lumber they had on hand. This saved some money on concrete, but require a lot of shovelling to back fill around the form. Without it the form would burst or float on top of the concrete.

The base is done differently. First the forms were rebuilt. Concrete blocks are used as rebar chairs. They must be concrete to ensure a good seal that will repel water infiltration. We used 20" tube for the pillar which is the minimum to sufficient concrete around the rebar. Previously we used 24". It is higher than required so the vertical rebar isn't visible. It'll be dealt with later.

The second frame shows concrete delivery using the "small" scoop. Once the concrete for the platform is poured it is enclosed with plywood. The hole is then back filled halfway and the concrete for the pillar is poured with a shovel. Only a few feet of unsupported tube is exposed so that the concrete does not burst the form.

Afterwards the hole was fully back filled, then compressed and levelled. Extra soil for all excavations (displaced by the concrete) was dumped off the edge of the hay field. Under the crew's direction the areas near the anchor plates were untouched. This will be filled by shovel to avoid damage by the backhoe.


The vertical rebar in the pillar is not centred while the concrete is poured. That's difficult to do. Instead the rebar is manually centred when the pillar is almost full. The concrete holds the rebar in position as it sets. The same procedure was use for my garage pad. That crew lifted the mesh as the concrete was poured to, again, avoid the problems of using chairs.

The final act was to push in the tower 1" round pier pin into the centre of the pillar and level it. It is a myth that concrete is self levelling. That only works when the concrete has a lot of added water, which slows curing. One of crew dribbled some water over it and used a trowel and a small level.

Three days later I drove out on the tractor, mowing tick-bearing hay along the way. I cut the form from the pillar and inspected the result. It looks good! You can see the top 4' of the 10' ground rod that the backhoe operator helpfully pushed in with the bucket until it hit an obstacle. Later I'll try to pound it in further with a sledgehammer.

Looking back, or, to err is human

Many things went right and many things went wrong. My first mistake was being overly ambitious about getting this tower in before winter. It cost me some money and a bit of grief but did not in the end cost me any time. If I'd moved more cautiously it would not have been done sooner.

Another thing I'd do is start with the big backhoe rather than try it with the less expensive small one. I was tentative in the beginning since I wanted to reduce the expense if a smaller machine could do the job and also limit the loss if we hit bedrock and had to resort to an excavator with a rock breaker. Should there ever be a second big tower on this property I now know what to do.

Relying entirely on the judgment of professionals is not always recommended. An important lesson I've learned is that although they are good at their jobs and give good advice they are perhaps too sensitive to the customer's costs and wishes. That is, they have learned in their careers that they must work quickly and get approval for anything that entails extra money or time. Risk doesn't always get the attention it deserves.

I had a few "Gimli Glider" moments with the concrete. Although Canada is a metric country there is a lot of building material that is measured the old way. Thus I am used to ordering concrete in cubic yards. But the concrete company works in cubic meters. They will do the conversion but you must be careful that they in fact do so. For the final stage I needed 4 yards, and I added a half yard margin. The order was relayed through the crew to the operations manager to the concrete company. They assumed and delivered 4.5 meters. The unused concrete was delivered elsewhere. We're working on getting a refund.

The ground in this region becomes saturated quickly in late fall and doesn't percolate downward until late spring. For all the pumping I did to get the work going again the holes completely dried on their own by the time the work recommenced. Fighting with water is a losing game. There are more powerful pumps around than the sump pump I used, but they're expensive even if only rented for a day. I spent an hour or more yesterday disassembling and cleaning the sump pump so that it will again be ready for emergency backup use in the house.

Looking forward - plans to raise the tower

I have not yet finalized how I will raise the tower. I could call in the professionals, which would be quick if more costly (and less fun) than calling in friends. Going the professional route would also require having everything prepared in advance, including all the guys, hardware, tower section repairs, prop pitch motor assembly and more.

Alternatively I can call in a small crane to lift the first 40' so that the bottom guys can be attached. I would then continue upward by gin pole. The method that involves the least equipment is to drop the base section on the pin and temporarily guy it until the tower is high enough that the first permanent set of guys can be installed.

I have decisions to make. Since the concrete will cure faster than I make my choices I can proceed whenever I'm ready. It would be nice to wait until the ticks are gone or the hay is harvested.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Antenna Swap: How They Play

I write this article with a light heart since at long last there is significant progress on my 150' tower. That story I will leave for another time since it is an interesting and lengthy tale. With that progress note I will return to my most recent antenna project. It has now been close to a week with the new antennas on the Trylon tower, enough time to speak about how they are performing and my immediate plans.

6 meters with the redesigned A50-6

On the very first DX opening I worked 9 new countries, and another the next day. This brings my total to 30 DXCC countries on 6 meters. This does not include the many more countries I worked back in the 1980s. I chose to reset my DX counters to zero when I returned to the hobby in 2013 after a 20+ year hiatus.

From my experience in the pile ups and marginal openings that the A50-6 up almost 24 meters is competitive with respect to big guns in this area of the continent. While there are better equipped stations and sporadic E propagation is fickle enough to confound easy comparisons I feel confident in stating that I have a very good signal on 6 meters.

Looking north from the top of the tower
The pattern is sharp, the F/B excellent and the SWR is not perfect but reasonable. Compared to testing on the ground the frequency of minimum SWR moved upward from 50.3 MHz to 50.9 MHz. Either the gamma match was disturbed while lifting it or there is interaction with the TH7 antenna lying 2.5 meters below it. I may yet push the A50-6 a little higher on the mast.

This success is despite using 40 meters of ancient RG213 that has more loss than new coax. Compared to the AVA7 Heliax I intend to use on VHF I estimate at least -2.5 db loss. That hurts a little, especially on transmit. In addition to the main run there is ~6 meters of LMR400 equivalent Ultraflex for the rotation loop and run up the mast and down the boom.

The old RG213 is contributing to the impedance problem since it measures ~47 Ω. For now I am using the rig's ATU to allow full power at the low end of the band by taming the ~1.7 SWR.

To alleviate common mode I used two snap-on ferrite cylinders at the feed point plus a 1-turn coax loop. It isn't perfect but the best I could do with what I had on hand. The clean pattern I am experiencing is a good sign.

I am eagerly anticipating the remainder of the sporadic E season. Unfortunately it is unlikely I'll have the AVA7 installed before band fades away. That requires a trench, burying it and other cables that are not yet in hand, and figuring out how I will terminate the ground end of the Heliax. I am not sure I want to bring this 1-⅝" coax through the wall and into the house! I would like to do all coax terminations and switching outside the house.

TH7 performance

This long boom tri-band yagi is performing about as well as expected. The difference between it and the short boom Explorer 14 it replaced is not something that is evident without a carefully done A-B test. This is impossible since I cannot have them both up at once. Suffice it to say that it certainly seems to perform at least as well. That's good.

What isn't good is that the match on 15 and 10 meters is not as it ought to be. On 15 meters the SWR minimum is at 21.375 MHz and on 10 meters it is 28.550 MHz. Both are too high and are not what they should be based on the measurements from the manual. On the other hand 20 meters resonates exactly as it should.

It is possible that there is a trap problem or I have somehow made an assembly error. Another area of concern is the rotation loops for both it and the 6 meter antenna since both run near the phasing lines between the two driven elements. This may be creating some imbalance and thus mismatch, and it would tend to be more noticable at higher frequencies. But I really don't know.

What I will do is raise the TH7 several inches to provide more clearance from the tower top. This will allow routing of the rotation loops in a way that would reduce interaction with the phasing harness. It will also reduce the likelihood of the rotation loops snagging the tower legs.

It is conceivable though unlikely that the balun I installed at the feed point is part of the problem. I replaced the Hy-Gain BN86 voltage balun with the more appropriate current balun from Balun Designs. It is wider than the BN86 so the arms of the feed point had to be spread a little.

Aside from that it fits surprisingly well and is a superior solution to common mode than a scramble wound coax choke. Although I do notice less computer and other local noise on receive compared to the scramble wound coax I had on the Explorer 14 there are likely too many variables to confidently say that the balun has significantly improved common mode rejection.

Loss of 40 meters for the summer

Taking down the XM240 certainly reduces my capability on 40 meters. This is acceptable for the remainder of the summer months when low band activity is lower than other times of the year. The only significant impact that I see is during next month's IARU Radiosport contest. Since I haven't decided whether to enter that contest I am not too worried. In a pinch I can put up an inverted vee.

The yagi has been disassembled and will remain in storage until I decide what to do with it. For expediency I may put it up at the top of the 150' tower. There is also the possibility that I will convert it to a W6NL Moxon. I'll wait and let circumstances dictate what I'll do when the time to act arrives.

An antenna for 40 meters at the height it was on the Trylon -- 21 meters, or λ/2 -- is needed for contests since it is a good height for short haul paths such as the US, Caribbean and even Europe. I intend to address that lack with a side mount antenna (to be determined) on the big tower.

Mast and tower load

With the swap of antennas on the Trylon I am now more comfortably set for storm force winds. The high wind load of the TH7 (approximately 12 ft²) is right at the top of the tower, which is far better than the 10 ft² of the Explorer 14 that had been 2 meters up the mast.

The wind load of the A50-6 is 3 ft² and it is only slightly higher than the Explorer 14 former height. Better yet, the maximum projected areas of the antennas are orthogonal to each other: on the elements for the TH7 and on the boom for the A50-6. Therefore they are never both present at one time.

In advance of doing a detailed calculation it appears to the best to turn the antennas orthogonal to high winds so that the booms face the wind. Back in the 1980s I had a similar arrangement with a TH6 at the top of the tower and the A50-6 10' (3 meters) above the tower, on the very same mast. That tower was lighter duty than the Trylon yet survived some fierce wind and ice conditions.

However that is no guarantee of future success. All is takes is one strong gust of wind to take it all done. If you wait long enough there will always arrive weather conditions that will take down any tower and antenna combination. The more conservative your approach the longer you will wait. All anyone can do is make that wait longer than your lifetime, and do regular maintenance.

One point about the current arrangement bothers me: the TH7 boom. The XM240 it replaced has a larger diameter boom that has also been strengthened per W6NL's prescription. Although thick walled the TH7 boom flexes quite a lot in the wind. When combined with the brake play of the Tailtwister rotator there is a substantial movement of the antennas and mast when the wind rises. Although not an immediate concern this sets up the possibility of oscillatory load adding to ordinary wind load. I plan to watch this closely.

Part of the larger plan

With the completion of the change from temporary yagis to a more permanent arrangement I am one more step along the road to realizing my antenna farm plans. For the summer my attention will be focussed on the big tower.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Tractor Pull

Putting up modest towers and antennas can be done with a little muscle. Gather some friends, set up a pulley or gin pole, and haul away. Some food and drink afterward completes a fantastic day of learning, fun and a bit of work for you and other local hams. I highly recommend it. Just be sure there's at least one person there with the expertise and standing to successfully direct many hands.

As the towers and antennas grow in size and weight there comes a point where human muscle is not enough, or there is insufficient safety margin. There are too many hams unwilling to use safety equipment (even if only a hard hat and gloves) or too willing follow their own whimsy rather than the team leader. It's a disaster waiting to happen. Don't be afraid to handpick your crew from among those you trust to do the job right.

When I raised the Trylon I dispensed with a crew entirely until it came time to top the tower and put up the 40 meter yagi. This suited me since it was winter, my new property is a long drive for my friends and I wanted to do the work during weekdays when most people are at work. I overcame the challenge by designing and building a winch driven system for lifting heavy tower sections and antennas.

It worked well but was slow going. By relying on muscle to operate the system a 4:1 mechanical advantage in the winch was mandatory. It took a lot of cranking. It was safe and effective though slow. There are better ways. Those involve engines or motors, whether used in a crane, winch or...a vehicle. Thus we come to tractors.

I've used small garden and lawn tractors and far larger farm tractors to raise towers and antennas. All can work well if you use them appropriately. Power is both a blessing and a curse. Countless people have been injured or killed by machinery improperly employed or maintained.

Over the winter I purchased a garden tractor for mowing the large country property I own. I made sure when I shopped that it also would be up to the task of plowing snow and doing tower work. Luckily the parents of a business colleague were retiring from a hobby farm to the city and had a lightly used garden tractor to sell.

A deal was quickly made and I arranged transportation. The tractor sat unused for the remainder of the winter. Amazingly it promptly started in the spring despite being out in the weather with no more protection than a tarp and without recharging the battery. It has since been used for its primary job: mowing the grass. I have also driven it into the hay field to create (hopefully) tick free paths to my tower excavations.

Ropes and pulleys

Using a tractor or any powered vehicle for hauling objects up and down a tower requires a few simple techniques. However they are very important for a safe and successful procedure. In the following picture the key aspects are visible.

Ground crew: Brian VE3CRG on the tractor and his wife Mollie who handled the tag lines

This is the Cushcraft XM240 immediately after it has been lowered by the tractor. The tractor held it above ground while the fragile capacity hats were removed. Notice the pulley attached to the bottom of the tower. The pulley two things. First, the forces at the top of the tower and mast (where there is another pulley) are kept vertical. Otherwise the bending moment on the tower could cause structural damage. I discussed this topic some time ago with regard to gin poles.

Second, a garden tractor is not so massive that it will maintain contact with the ground were the rope to angle upward. The pulley translated the vertical force to horizontal so that the tractor has maximum traction.

The pulley is attached to the tower since it is a convenient and strong place to take the large forces involved. The pulley pivots upward approximately 45°, so keep that in mind when choosing an anchor point. Since the antenna is only 75 lb (35 kg) I went with the simplest attachment option: ¼" aircraft cable with a couple of cable clips. A better choice is a chain to reduce chafing and stress for heavier loads. The only suitable chain on hand was used to couple the rope to the tractor frame.

Some go further and fabricate a heavy gauge steel bar across the tower base which eliminates pulley motion upward. Although the cable could be made shorter to limit upward motion its length reduces chafing of the rope against the side of the tower. This method has a limit since if the pulley moves up too high the tractor can lose traction.

Measure the work area

Before using a tractor in this fashion you must clear a path for it that is reasonably flat and long enough radially outward from the tower base. If you run out of room you're stuck with an antenna dangling midair and no where to go but back where you started.

The XM240 was mounted 21 meters (71') above ground. I measured 30 meters (100') out from the tower as the starting point for the tractor to lower the antenna. This is not only to ensure that the tractor does not run into the tower before the antenna reaches the ground but also to keep the tractor out from under the antenna when it drops to the ground. In the picture above the tractor started its journey at the line of trees in the background. You can see the tire tracks in the grass.

The rope is 200' (60 meters) of ⅜" nylon. This is the minimum recommended for this operation. With the pulley mounted 75' up there is 150' required to go up and down the tower and 30' on the ground for the tractor to stay clear of the antenna. Another 5' to 10' is used for harnesses to the antenna and tractor. Very little is left unused.

To lift the TH7, which is about the same weight and breadth as the XM240 the process is reversed. The tractor pull starts at the edge of the antenna and backs away to lift the antenna. Whether lifting or lowering the tractor operator is facing the tower and rest of the crew.

Power is dangerous

As I tell the ground crew: you can't argue with 22 horsepower. When something goes wrong and you put up a fight the tractor always wins. When antenna hardware snags in the tower the tractor keeps moving. When a crew member gets tangled in a rope the tractor keeps moving. When the antenna or tower section strikes the pulley atop the tower or gin pole the tractor keeps moving.

Modern small tractors for residential use are surprisingly forgiving machines. Say you brush against a building, tree or large rock. Often the tractor will "see" the resistance and let the clutch spin. While this helps keep the crew safe it should not be relied upon to avert a disaster.

Older tractors are less forgiving: they'll just keep going. That's when someone can be seriously hurt. For large farm machinery or a truck there are fewer if any safety features, and the power is far greater. You are better off employing the smallest machine that will get the job done.

I've used garden tractors to successfully lift 200 lb tower sections. Only use more powerful machines when the operator is sensible and experienced.

Tag lines

Use tag lines to direct load around obstacles and to prevent snagging hardware on the tower, guys and side-mounted antennas. Tower sections require only one tag line while yagis should have two. For tower sections tie the tag line near where the lifting rope or cable is tied but on the opposite side. For yagis place one on either side of the boom cradle. The two 100' tag lines are visible in the picture above.

It is generally better for only one crew member to handle the tag lines. Little force is required so this is not a problem. When there is a person on each tag line I can almost guarantee they will find it difficult to coordinate their attempts to steer the yagi..

The crew handling the tag lines will be the first to know when the load snags on something or is about to do so. Give them the authority to stop the operation immediately when they detect a problem. The tractor operator must be prepared to quickly react.

Crew taking a well earned rest

Tractor power is of no use if the wheels spin on the ground. Excess power only makes the problem worse. Garden tractor engines are designed to use the power for mowing, not so much for hauling.

On wet grass or snowy ground a small tractor can easily lose traction under load.  This occurs more often when lifting rather than lowering.

On uneven ground if one drive wheel has poor ground contact the differential will spin the lifted wheel and apply no torque to the other one. A tractor with a more sophisticated drive train is desirable if it is available. Otherwise plan the route for the tractor will extra care.

When traction is lost determine the cause. Many problems can be solved with more weight over the wheels. Some tractors provide an area where weights (stones, bricks, etc.) can be placed. In a pinch have one or two crew member jump onto the back of the tractor.

If you can't solve the problem you'll likely have to lower the load back onto the ground and try something different. Larger tractors are unlikely to lose traction with the weight of loads hams typically lift, however there is greater risk of injury and damage from all that power.


I cannot overly emphasize the importance of communication between the tower crew, ground crew and tractor operator. Agree on hand signals or voice commands beforehand, and practice if you can. Handheld radios can be very helpful. They don't have to be ham band devices. However you do it remember that tractors are loud and so you cannot always rely on shouting to get the message across. We want the tractor operator facing forward at all times so that they can see and respond to directions from other crew members.

Although we are all friends there must be a command hierarchy. In this hierarchy the tractor operator is at the bottom. That is, when anyone else tells them to stop or go they do so. Make sure he or she understands this. Don't assume they'll obey. No one, no matter how responsible, should be allowed free reign over the power they are handling.

As with all tower work the highest authority goes to those on the tower. Next in line is the ground crew. As already mentioned, last in line is the tractor operator. This arrangement strikes a balance between vulnerability and the potential to cause harm.

Don't hesitate to call a temporary halt to the operation if anyone is having difficulty coping or there is a point of confusion. Everyone should have this authority and not be timid about using it. The tractor operator should know how to lock the wheels when necessary.

We did have a few instances of miscommunication even though we all understood what needed to be done. Corrections to our procedures were made as we went along. No harm was done.


In the picture the TH7 dangles atop the tower under tractor power, and a properly set brake. After taking this picture I climbed the tower (wearing a hard hat) and bolted the antenna in place. We used the tractor to adjust the antenna height by a few inches to put it exactly astride the mast bracket.

The A50-6 was hand lifted since it is light and relatively fragile. It is best to avoid tractor power in this and similar cases. Always use the right tool for the job. It went up first since it goes highest on the mast. The TH7 must be carefully handled so that it does not tilt upward and strike the smaller VHF antenna.

It was getting late so we quit once the antennas were in place and the tractor and ropes put away. The next day I went up on my own to finish the job. This involved pushing the 6 meter yagi higher up the mast, removing the pulleys, pointing the antennas, attaching the rotation loops and testing that everything worked. Back on the ground I disassembled the XM240 and stored it and the Explorer 14 out of the way until they are again needed.

Both antennas use the RG213 runs I already had on the tower. This was not my intention. I ran into some difficulty preparing Heliax runs in time. I'll deal with that later.

In my next article I'll report on how the antennas play. For now I will only say that I am generally pleased with their performance. For the foreseeable future these are the only yagis going on this tower. Other than perhaps a 2 meter yagi for VHF DXing. This is part of my broader plan for the station.

Next tractor job

I will next use the tractor with a gin pole to construct the 150' tower. Each tower section weighs 120 lb and there is additional hardware that is similar weight. With an experienced crew the tower should go up quickly, with the tractor providing most of the muscle.

I may use the tractor to tram yagis to the top and sides of the tower. Muscle power will be used to raise Heliax and other fragile station components. Sometimes 22 HP is too much power.

I love a crew that tidies up the job site without being asked

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Spinning My Wheels

Activity on the station is happening yet I have little to show for it. Ambition and property are not enough. With little accomplished in the preceding weeks there is little to talk about in the blog. In any case summer is a time for being outdoors rather than sitting in front of a screen. Not all of my outdoor activity is amateur radio related.

I decided that rather than go quiet I would give a progress report of sorts. This is perhaps boring reading. All of this nothingness is however necessary prelude to concrete steps in fulfilling my ambitious plans for 2017. So if you can handle a little bit of boring reading continue onward and you'll see what has been going on at VE3VN.

Big tower

Nothing of note has happened. True spring weather has arrived and the ground has solidified enough for heavy equipment to work in the hay field. Unfortunately it didn't happen soon enough. Now the company doing the foundation work is busy with commercial projects. They are searching for a hole in their schedule when they can get over here and finish it off.

I have abandoned my own futile attempts to clear the winter-damaged excavations. The slumped soil is too waterlogged for shovel work. I had hoped to clear enough debris to ease the removal of all the steel in the anchor and base holes. Now we'll have to use the backhoe and risk damaging it, and taking time to repair the damage.

Growing hay between me and the 150' tower excavations

A further problem is that the hay is growing very high due to the record breaking wet spring. I cleared a few paths but it is still difficult moving around. Hopefully the hay will be harvested later this month. Worse still is that the high grasses are full of ticks. Even with protective clothing they find a way through. It is no fun dealing with these stealthy disease carriers. For the same reason I have put off work on the Beverage and other low band antennas until late summer.

The tower itself requires minor repairs to several sections which I've deferred until the concrete work and back filling are completed. I can only wait at this point.

Other towers

I like to trade favours by doing tower work for others. This may take the form of helping me with my tower work or other assistance. I never charge money. I never even expect favours to be returned though they almost always are. It's simply about hams helping hams.

I wrote about one small tower that I took down recently and I have another larger tower to take down in the next week or two. The make of tower is unknown so I had to take measurements on site and build a gin pole for it. This tower, too, is slated to go to another ham I know.

Preparing coax

Before going to Dayton I took a detailed inventory of all the Heliax in my possession. Some of the used runs have connectors on only one end because the other end was cut where it entered a building. All the coax, including my own ancient runs of LDF4, must be tested and refurbished, and connectors added as needed.

Testing Heliax in the garage. Notice the antenna analyzer. Gin pole construction on the left.

Most of the Heliax has N connectors, including a few UHF-N adapters, but some use 7-16 DIN. There is some weather damage that requires repair. Unlike braided coax water typically does not penetrate far into Heliax. But it still requires removing the connectors and cleaning them, cutting off the damages sections, then putting the connectors (or new ones) back on. It's a lot of work.

The cable itself must be tested, both before repair work and after. Large, heavy rolls of Heliax dwarf the test equipment. Larger equipment, such as transmitters and power meters must go to the coax since the Heliax cannot be brought into the shack! Luckily my garage is now built and electrified, and that is where the work is being done.

For the rotation loops I am using LMR400 equivalent Ultraflex cable. I have had too much trouble with RG213 in this application during the winter when the cold temperature stiffens the plastic.

Ordering aluminum and steel

Big yagis need a lot of aluminum for booms and elements. There is also the cutting and machining of plates and channels for the multitude of clamps. I have an assortment of surplus pipe arriving shortly that will serve as both boom material and potentially as part of a full size 40 meter yagi. However that yagi project is being deferred to the future.

As I proceed through antenna modelling and mechanical design of yagis for this year and next I build spreadsheets to count up the sizes and lengths of aluminum and some structural steel I'll need. Since tubes and pipes come in standard lengths I have to figure out where the cuts are to made in advance so that I make maximum use of the material. Tubing and pipe isn't inexpensive.

I have in hand all the guying hardware for the big tower, and also for the future 80 meter array. That's a lot of steel. I'll have more to say on this later since it is an important and interesting topic. Building of the guy cables, complete with breaking into non-resonant lengths will only be done after the tower concrete work is done. I tend to practice JIT (just in time) for all my projects.

Antenna swap

The Hy-Gain Explorer 14 and Cushcraft XM240 on the Trylon are coming down very soon. These were temporary antennas to get me through winter and spring contests and general operating. Both will be going elsewhere, once I have more towers raised.

Friends are coming over to be ground crew for this. Both antennas are heavy enough to benefit from mechanical assistance. This time I will dispense with the winch and human muscle power and put my garden tractor to work. I'll take some pictures and perhaps write an article about how to do it.

Once these antennas are down I'll be raising antennas that will be more permanently attached to the Trylon. These are my recently redesigned and rebuilt Cushcraft A50-6 and the Hy-Gain TH7 I have had in storage for past year. The TH7 is assembled, tuned and mechanically refurbished. I completely replaced the boom truss since the old hardware was badly rusted and missing a key component. In Dayton I purchased bag fulls of replacement trap covers and element tips for my several Hy-Gain yagis and for the XM240.

TH7 ready to go

The TH7 will go just above the tower top plate (where the XM240 currently resides) and the A50-6 will go about 3 meters above it. In future I may add VHF and UHF yagis in between. Both antennas will be fed with Heliax: LDF7 for VHF/UHF and LDF4 for the TH7. If I don't have time to prepare the Heliax I'll stick with the RG213 runs for the present. The Heliax can be put up later.

I desperately want the 6 meter antenna before I miss more of the Sporadic E season. The redesigned A50-6 up 24 meters should do well for long haul DXing. The TH7 is for general operating and for short haul paths, such as the US and Caribbean, during contests. Bigger and higher antennas for Europe and long haul DX (low elevation angles) will go on the big tower.


That's a 10' (3 m) long ground rod
Towers and lightning are inseparable. Protective measures are mandatory with size of towers I have going up. I've been planning how to go about the task to assure that protection with a reasonable amount of cost and effort.

As a first step I have grounded the Trylon and the bracketed tower for internet access. Pounding a 10' ground rod into the ground is not easy. I would whack at it with my sledge hammer a little each day. The hardened tip of the rod can break small rocks on the way down.

Eventually I got it in all the way. Fasteners are commercial quality and supplemented in some cases with stainless steel parts to avoid dissimilar metal corrosion. I have an ample supply of heavy gauge copper wire that I've saved over the years.

Locations for trenches for cable burial are being planned. I have a difficult job with that due to the many trees (roots!), a stone wall ringing the house and farm equipment working the fields. Although no cables can be buried for their full length I expect to be able to bury them all from the towers for some distance. That will help dissipate lightning discharges. I will rent a trencher to do the hard work.

Depending on how I do antenna switching and control the protections added near and around the house are not final.

Renovations and much more

A big distraction is the ongoing renovations of the house. Although not directly related to ham radio this is added a lot of stress and demands constant attention. This phase of the renovations should be complete before the end of June.

Aside from living space disruptions and endless decisions to be made the renovations have incurred some small disasters. The worst was failure of the sump pump system that resulted in shallow flooding of the basement. I was not pleased. Once the workers leave I will have more time and energy to devote to the station. I am not operating much these days.

The only part of the renovations which is radio related is ensuring that partitions and services in the basement are compatible with the main shack to be located down there. It will be have at least two operating positions for contests and amenities for the operators. Power for amplifiers, stations and work bench has been planned with the help of an old ham friend who is a retired master electrician.

A 50 acre property requires more maintenance than a small city lot. Although little of it requires regular attention there are several acres that need to be maintained. None of it is difficult, it is just something that consumes time and the purchase and maintenance of gasoline powered tools.

I have landscaping and other grounds projects planned, though I expect not this year. This year is dedicated to towers and antennas. Renovating the rest of the house will happen no sooner than this coming winter, once the outdoor station work is finished for the season.

And of course it is summer after all and that means simply getting out and enjoying the weather. I do not apologize for putting amateur radio aside when the outdoors beckons. The station work will get done. It is a hobby not a job.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Entertaining the Neighbours

Here we are now, entertain us
While I was effecting repairs earlier this spring there were a few workers below who were building my garage. Several times I noticed them looking up towards me. During breaks they'd sit there having a smoke and again gaze upward. They seemed especially interested when I manually twirled the stack of yagis back and forth through their full rotation to test the coax rotation loops.

The crew lead had a smile on his face when I was back on the ground and commented on how much fun I seemed to be having. Curiosity is natural and I'm used to this kind of attention when I climb towers. In turn I often found myself watching them go about their jobs, also out of curiosity, and with a eye to learning how they do what they do.

Even without any nearby neighbours in this remote rural area a few times while on the tower I noticed passing cars slow down to watch me for a few seconds before continuing on their way.

I was reminded of this behaviour once more when I recently took down a small TV tower that a fellow ham had his eye on. He wanted it and the owners wanted to be rid of it. For me it was the pleasure of helping others and distracting myself from the ongoing delay in resuming my own tower work. The rain is pouring down as I type these words.

This last case was a picturesque neighbourhood on a lake shore with a mix of permanent and part-time residents. As we got to work a small crowd gathered. Several of the owners' neighbours came by to chat and watch me work. What was for me a routine task was for them a novelty. Over the 45 years of being a ham I've become used to this sort of thing.

I first noticed this phenomenon back in 1974 when I put up my first tower. Nearly every time I climbed the tower I noticed a few people come out on their decks, sit with their chairs in my directions and quietly watch. Occasionally I would catch a glimpse of a face peering out at me through a window. This suburban area of bungalows in Winnipeg (VE4) was newly built so there were no trees to impede the view.

As I did an increasing amount of tower work for others, back in Winnipeg, then Ottawa and elsewhere, the same thing would occur. Inevitably there were watchers in the neighbourhood. A few would come over to chat with the tower owner though most were content to sit and watch from their own yards.

In the early days I admit that I was annoyed by the attention. I couldn't help wondering if they were hoping I'd fall, damage houses through carelessness or had other unworthy reasons. Perhaps they were busybodies looking for a reason to call the authorities and make trouble for me. Those were the days when TV RFI was a commonplace phenomenon and I was always a bit on edge when meeting the neighbours. Being young and unsure of myself didn't help.

Over time I learned to relax. In conversations with some of the watchers I learned that to most people towers are quite intimidating. A few told me of their concerns of an accident occurring and couldn't help paying attention in case their assistance was needed. Others told me of their fascination with an activity that, to them, appeared both dangerous and intriguing. No one was against me.

At worst I provided a mild form of entertainment and at best it was an ice breaker.

I will now preach. But just a little bit. While entertaining the neighbours is harmless it also serves as an opportunity to demonstrate that amateur radio operators are considerate, dependable and knowledgable neighbours. Over the years I have taken to improving my safety practices and those I work with, especially so when working on others' towers, and even more so if the tower owner is not a ham. I have discovered a sense of duty for our hobby.

It inspires confidence when we show up with and use safety equipment. This is not limited to climbing harnesses. Hard hats are incredibly cheap and I make sure I have enough on hand to pass around to the ground crew. I insist on their use. I explain to everyone, including spectators, what I am doing and why I am doing it. This includes the deployment of safety lines and other precautions to prevent property damage.

There will always be those without an interest in the details, though most appreciate that explanations are given. They may only be interested in understanding that the job is being done competently despite being performed by amateurs. In this most recent job I went so far as to explain why some of the equipment I use would never be used by professionals due to increasingly strict workplace practices regulation.

Well, that's enough preaching. Be safe out there and be sure to use tower work as a form of community outreach. We want hams to be seen in a good light. So don't mind the attention we attract, or the entertainment we provide.