Thursday, May 26, 2022

50 Years a Ham

In the previous article I mentioned that I attended the Contest Dinner at the Hamvention last week. One of the things they do is to find the ham that has been licensed the longest. If you've been a ham 25 years you stand up. As the years are incremented more and more hams sit down. When it came to 50 years, I didn't sit down.

It's a little scary to think about: 50 years. I was licensed in 1972 at the age of 15. The certificate was issued on May 24. I suppose it was technically wrong to keep standing since I was a few days short. But what's a little "rubber clocking" between contesters.

Although I was licensed 50 years ago, I have not been continuously active. Indeed, even in those earliest days I had a receiver but no transmitter. What operating I did was from our high school club station in north Winnipeg until classes were dismissed in June. It wasn't too long before I had a small 807 transmitter and a 20 meter dipole hung between a clothesline post and the eave of our bungalow.

I was again mostly inactive when I moved to Ottawa in 1979. Apartment life is not conducive to putting up antennas. For 5 years I only operated the occasional contest from other hams' stations, and those were almost exclusively multi-ops. It was nevertheless a productive time since that was when I fully developed my tower and antenna skills. It was just that I did it for others and not for myself. It was quite a thrill to be 100' up in the air for the first time.

In 1992 I tore down the station I built in 1984 and 1985 to build a new house. My interest in amateur radio had already declined and at that time I gave it up entirely. Radio was a distraction from the important things a 30-something cares about: career, women, sports and other pursuits. Worse, every local contest station I had once operated from had been dismantled and there were few if any multi-ops that needed me.

When I decided to retire in late 2012 the itch returned. Soon I was playing with radio in a small way: QRP and simple antennas. In early 2013 I started this blog. Hundreds of articles followed, at a rate of about one per week. That same rate continues pretty consistently. Many of the early articles I come across I don't even remember writing!

The contest bug bit again and with more resources and no dependants I was free to indulge myself. In 2016 I moved to this QTH and starting building towers and antennas in earnest. One consequence is that articles about small antennas mostly disappeared. It is possible that some readers drifted away when that happened.

I certainly won't have another 50 years. I am well past my "best before" date. I remain healthy and enthusiastic, so I will continue as long as I can. There is much more about this hobby to enjoy in the coming years. As with many older hams I know, the physical and intellectual demands of performing well in contests and the DX pile ups keeps us alert, involved and interested in life. 

Amateur radio is a great hobby and I intend to stick with it to the end.

Monday, May 23, 2022

Hamvention Returns

I had no plan to travel to Ohio for first Hamvention since the pandemic. I'm busy and I had my doubts whether it was yet advisable to participate in a mass event. A few days before the Hamvention, friend and fellow contester VE3PJ asked me to fill the gap left when one of his group had to cancel. Well, what's the point of retirement if I can't make decisions on a whim. I said yes and left the pieces of my prop pitch motor strewn across the work bench.

The 3 of us (me, VE3PJ and VA3WW) left very early and arrived very early. Despite not being a morning person I have to concede this was a good plan since we missed the traffic through Toronto and at the crossing into the US that others had to deal with. We had time on Thursday to meet with others for dinner after relaxing at our accommodation.

That is, of course, one of the pleasures of a large event: meeting people. Hams are so dispersed that opportunities to meet with hams from far away are well worth the effort. It was fun bumping into contesters with familiar call signs in the flea market, fora and vendor booths.

I won't delve into a detailed telling of the weekend. That's boring, and I've done it before. I'll just include one picture: that of the head table at the contest dinner on Friday evening. You can find details of who was there elsewhere. I was one of many to win a door prize.

I had a plan for how to spend my time even though I hadn't planned to attend. We hit the flea market first thing and I ventured out there again at intervals to dicker over items spotted on my initial walkabout. Then I went to speak to the vendors.

Among the vendors I played with potential shack equipment and spoke to the reps to learn more. There are good products available, and there are many with flaws. Nothing is perfect. In particular I am investigating transceivers and amplifiers to modernize the station. That is part of my 2022 plan.

I made no major purchases. There was that I considered, which turned out to be pointless since it was unavailable. Products that are back ordered due to ongoing supply chain issues were not available at Hamvention. These included transceivers, amplifiers, antennas, rotators and a plethora of smaller products. The temptation to spend was extinguished.

At the flea market, prices for used equipment and ancient boat anchors were often inflated beyond any justifiable reason. Those products did not move quickly or at all unless the sellers saw the light and dropped their prices Saturday afternoon before the rain storm struck. Many didn't learn or didn't care. The price of a new product is a poor guide to its value, new or used.

I stuck to small items that I needed and that could be found or negotiated for a fair price, used and new:

I stopped at the 3Y0J (Bouvet DXpedition) booth to chat. I also purchased a raffle ticket to help with their expenses. One of team took a selfie of the two of us to send to my friend Cezar VE3LYC, who is a member of the DXpedition. I haven't received the picture so I couldn't include it in this article.

Perhaps it's my imagination (although others I spoke to agreed) there were more young people at Hamvention. Indeed, there were a promising number of them at the Contest Super Suite. It was great to see them there and enthused by contesting. Some are active on CW. If I'm right, radiosport is likely to be a key component of bringing youth into amateur radio.

This was my first "super spreader" event since the start of the pandemic and I have to wonder whether I'll develop symptoms. I'm fully vaccinated so I'm not worrying about it too much. Neither did most everyone else. I estimate mask wearing by attendees, vendors and booth personnel at no more than 2% to 3%. Most were thrilled at the return of large hamfests despite the risk.

Our trip home was uneventful except for one worry. A severe storm front traversed Ontario along the lake shore from the southeast and then across eastern Ontario and west Quebec. Ottawa was struck hard. There were deaths and power is still out to well over 150,000 residents. It was similar to what I experienced in 2014 with a new tower up but no antennas on it yet. The tower survived.

Reports have been trickling in. I already know of several hams who have lost towers and antennas. There are sure to be more. I was extraordinarily lucky that the storm split into two and bypassed my area. I was able to track the storm in real time from the Hamvention by using my phone.

I came home to find nothing amiss, not even a twig on the ground. Power was uninterrupted all weekend. Despite building my towers and antennas to survive this degree of abuse it only takes one miscalculation or wind gust to cause a disaster. This time I was spared.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Diagnosing Prop Pitch Motor Trouble

Last winter I mentioned that the prop pitch motor for the upper yagis of the 15 and 20 meter stacks would not turn when the temperature was below 0° C. That this is the freezing point of water was suggestive but not definitive. With an upside side down prop pitch motor there is a risk of water infiltration through the oil seals. Despite the care I took to block water from getting into the hub there remained a risk. Now that warm weather has returned it is time to investigate.

The motor was previously repaired and thoroughly cleaned when a bearing malfunctioned. Whoever had refurbished the motor for rotator use in the distant past used a combination of open and shielded bearings. There is no reason to do this unless absolutely necessary (e.g. RPM rating). The default choice should be fully (double) sealed bearings. They cost only a little more and they are far more reliable in a dirty environment and in our climate with extremes of temperature and humidity.

I suspected the same inappropriate choice in the gearbox, but at the time I was loathe to undertake the more difficult disassembly and reassembly of the gearbox. As with most equipment, the former is always easier than the latter and many have run into trouble putting them back together. There is ample if incomplete information to be found online, and the variety of motor designs can make every rebuild unique to the hobbyist who may only ever see just one of these units.

The time has come to dive in. The motor had been greatly modified by an unknown ham long ago, as they must be, from its virgin condition. From an exterior inspection I could see that the brake and its wiring had been removed (very good), the wires to the motor contacts redone (good), and the oil seals replaced (very good). The rest was unknown.

Before beginning disassembly I read all that I could about reassembly. I did not want to find myself with a repaired motor that I could not reassemble! Satisfied with what I learned I proceeded.

In this article I will describe what I discovered inside and how I went about diagnosing the motor's performance troubles. The rebuild and reassembly are yet to be done. 

I am no expert on these motors so this and subsequent articles are not intended as an instruction guide. All I can hope is that my limited experience may help those willing to get their hands dirty. I have not found a definitive guide, just a diversity of incomplete and disjointed articles. Perhaps what I have to say can fill in a few of the gaps that puzzle others.

Removing the motor from the tower

The previous times I removed the motor I left the mast free spinning. I cannot easily do that now that the yagis are connected. The coax rotation loops would have to be removed or they'd be torn apart. The simple means I previously used to keep the mast from spinning failed: rope to tie the 20 meter yagi boom to the tower shredded after several days; and, a thin wall steel angle bracket from the mast to a tower leg fatigued and broke. The continual abuse of wind torque from large HF yagis should not be underestimated.

I designed a more substantial grip this time around. After two weeks it is continuing to perform very well. A ¼" steel plate is attached to the boom with ½" u-bolts and a 1.9" aluminum pipe ties the plate and the tower. Steel chain supplemented by steel wire, a rope and shackles tie the pipe to a tower leg.

The cradle I originally built to support the motor under the plate during installation and removal procedures was left in place last year. All the steel is galvanized so it can handle the weather. This is easier than carrying it up the tower every time it's needed. 

My helper that day was surprised that I didn't lose so much as a washer when removing the motor. That's unusual! Knowing my track record, he wore a hard hat.

My improvised water seal passed a quick visual inspection. I revised that opinion when I discovered that the motor exhibited obvious signs of rust and water fouling of grease inside the crown gear hub.

How much water got past the oil seals and into the gearbox could not be determined until it was opened. I hoped for the best.

Opening it up

The first step to disassemble the gearbox is to remove the 9 bolts that join the hub with the bell gear, the ring gear and the planetary gear assembly. In an original, unmodified motor the 9 nuts are wired to the bolts to prevent movement in the high vibration environment of an aircraft engine. Ordinary grade 5 ⅜" bolts and nylocs were all I had to deal with (see lower right corner below).

In this picture you can see the separated halves. Notice the excess grease and the multitude of water beads on the grease. Rust stains were visible in multiple locations, but all were easy to wipe off. The base metal was unaffected. The accumulated rusty and oily water was poured out.

The ring gear flange between them has gaskets on each side so it may need to be pried loose. Repair the gasket if necessary. The ring gear and gaskets looked good so I put them aside.

It is worth noting, should you ever get confused during reassembly, the larger gear of each of the 3 low-speed planetary gears engages the ring gear and the smaller gear engages the bell gear. There is an alignment procedure to reassemble the gears, which I'll defer to a future article about reassembly.

In an unmodified prop pitch motor it is necessary to remove a variety of electrical and mechanical parts in the hub assembly. Since it can be difficult, I was happy that I didn't have to deal with that. Removing the bell gear and hub from the housing was easily accomplished with a mallet firmly applied to the hub with blocks of wood supporting the housing flange. The rubber oils seals have a firm grip on the hub. That grip makes it quite difficult to turn the bell gear by hand so don't be concerned by that.

The housing, hub and bell gear were cleaned of grease and most rust stains. In the picture the outer seal has been pulled from the housing. It looks and feels like an original. The inner seal is visible inside the hub well. It is clearly not the original. Since it's in good condition and is difficult to remove I left it alone. I may need to replace the outer seal.

I had to go back up the tower to retrieve the drive shaft to investigate how water got past the seal that I made. There's a picture of how I designed the seal in the original article. An inspection revealed no mechanical deterioration since it was installed. Water got past it anyway and I needed to know how.

I repeatedly poured water down the top end of the pipe to see where it went. It all exited from the side drain holes and down the bevel gear splines. That's as it should be. No water made it past the welded barrier inside the bevel gear's inner cavity.

My suspicion is that the water that flowed off the splines and onto the plastic collar would, at least some of the time, travel inward rather than outward. Wind may be a factor. There is some evidence of debris and rust stains on the hub's crown gear that is consistent with the possibility. 

I will look into a better way to spill the water off the splines to ensure water can't flow inward towards the hub. I will also cap the top end of the pipe so that less water can follow this route. There is more design work to be done but it's a solvable problem.

Inspection and initial cleaning

When it was refurbished, an extraordinary quantity of grease was packed into the gearbox. You can see some of that excess in a picture above. That is never necessary. A light coating on moving metal is all that's needed. The rest is wasted, and I wasted time and material removing the excess. All the rust found inside was residue when the rusty water that got in evaporated. The base metal in a prop pitch motor is highly resistant to rust. The stains were easy to remove.

Staring at the gearbox is not a good way to diagnose problems. Neither is moving the parts by hand. About all I got out of it was greasy fingers. I continued the work wearing latex gloves. At this stage I did not use solvent since the bearings are all open and removing grease from critical areas would reduce mobility and mask the underlying problems. I learned to live with the greasy mess.

Deep freeze

The weather is warm and the problems only manifest at freezing temperatures. Every home, including mine, has a suitable test facility: the kitchen freezer. With the major components separated, I wrapped each one in a plastic bag and left them to cool overnight in the freezer. I suggest you check with your family first before doing this to prevent domestic conflict!

The components sent into the deep freeze were the motor, high-speed planetary gears and low-speed planetary gears. The motor was first disassembled to check for water damage. Happily there was none other than rust deposits on the sealed bearing closest to the gearbox. The motor performed perfectly after being in the freezer overnight.

Before separating the planetary gear assemblies I cooled it in the freezer as a single unit. The next morning it was not possible to manually turn the main spindle. The problem was definitely in the gearbox, as I had suspected.

The planetary gears were separated by removing the pinned nut from the spindle (mentioned above). I used trick I found in an article. I loosened the nut by restraining the shaft with a long screwdriver inserted though an opening in the low-speed planetary gear housing and into the low speed planetary gear. This is easier than making a special tool to grip the other (drive) end of the shaft.

Problems were found in both planetary gear assemblies. In the picture, the low speed unit is on the left and the high speed unit is on the right.  The labels show what I found. Notice how frost formed on the bare surfaces of the cold metal. Even with perfect water protection there will inevitably be some water inside due to condensation.

I concluded that the planetary gears need to be fully disassembled for cleaning and repair.

Repair plan

As I write this, I have removed a few of the suspect bearings. As expected, several of them are rough or fully seized. The only reason they turned at all was because the high motor torque made them spin on the supporting pinions. The well lubricated pinions appear to have survived the abuse.

Whether good or not, I will remove and replace all the bearings with sealed units of suitable specifications. The bearings on the shaft and the high-speed planetary gears are the most critical selections since they spin as fast as 9,500 RPM.

Suitable grease for the shaft, pinions and gears must be found. The grease must adhere well, have a high temperature range and (for the high-speed planetary gears) perform well at high speeds. More than one grease may be appropriate depending on where in the gearbox it is used. There is no shortage of available products and I just need to conduct a few hours of research.

Grease, water and rust residue must be removed from all parts. A pail of solvent should suffice for most of the parts. Once cleaned, grease can be applied and the new bearings installed. I'll come up with a better waterproofing design and then test it rather than leave it to chance, the way I did last time. I may need a garden hose to simulate wind driven rain.

All of this work will take time, and it is unlikely to be completed until June. This time of year that is not a problem since there are few contests of interest to me and I am more focussed on 6 meter DXing and not HF. I have enough flexibility with the antennas on 15 and 20 meters to satisfy my short term operating needs without being able to turn the upper yagis of the stacks.

Expect another article when I'm done with the repair and reassembly.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Radiosport: The Future of Amateur Radio?

Amateur radio in 2022 is quite different from how it was decades ago. Many of us don't notice some of the important changes because they've been gradual. New hams only clearly see what is and not what was. Change is relentless, whether we like it or not. And change it must if the hobby is to survive when those of my generation age out of the hobby.

In the 1970s the HF bands sounded very different than today. Finding a clear frequency in the CW or SSB segments on 20, 15 or 10 meters, when they were open, was not easy! Hams were talking. There were conversations -- some short and some long -- and traffic nets going on wherever you tuned. DXpeditions were annoying to many hams because they took up valuable real estate. Contests caused many to rage.

In Canada we were privileged in that most US hams were not permitted SSB below 14.200 MHz. Even so it could be tough to find a frequency to chat with friends. Newer hams might find this surprising since the situation today is very different. Although I must say that the lower HF bands were not so different than they are now with respect to activity level, be it SSB or CW. Calling CQ DX on 80 or 40 meters CW is about as likely to get a response now as it was decades ago.

Getting back to the high bands for a moment, I am struck by how little activity there is most of the time. Tune the VFO across 20 meters on most days and you will hear a lot of hiss and a few QSOs. That said, if you call CQ, and especially if you're spotted, you will get a response. Most QSOs are short, rarely more than a signal report and name, and both parties move on. There are fewer conversations. I don't particularly mind since I've never been overly fond of rag chewing on any mode. When I operate FT8 on 6 or 160 meters, it is no different than my typical CW QSO of exchanging call signs and signal reports.

Of course not all of us have the same interests or the same operating preferences. Differences are not absolute since we may do the same things but in different proportions. For example, I may chase DX for 50% of the time and contests the other 50% of my time on air. Your split might be 80% and 20%, respectively, and perhaps 10% to 30% of that for general conversations.

When I look at the hobby I see several categories of hams. They are distinct but there is a lot of overlap since few rigidly stick to just one style of operating.
  • Communicators: those who like to chat with other hams
  • Technologists: builders, experimenters and those who simply enjoy using technology
  • Public service: provide communication at non-ham events and during emergencies
  • Radiosport: competitive radio, including contests, DX or other award pursuits

Crossover is common though not always visible. There isn't much "communication" happening during the frenzied activity of a contest, but it is happening. Contesters are very social and talk to each other a lot on non-radio channels, social gatherings and in the team spirit of clubs and multi-ops. At hamfests, club meetings and at events like ARRL Field Day, hams of all interests socialize. 

Sometimes the mixing isn't without a little friendly teasing or friction. I have seen Field Day planning get heated when the contesters want to maximize the score, the public service conscious focus on operating procedures and emergency power and equipment, and the communicators just want everyone to have fun, family included. We still manage to get along most of the time.

Our distribution among the categories is not what it once was. It has changed over the years and it is continuing to change.

  • Communicators: once prevalent it is now less so
  • Technologists: the percentage may have changed little, but the technology focus is different
  • Public service: there remains a core need but daily traffic handling has become quite rare
  • Radiosport: more popular now than it once was

When I became a ham 50 years ago the bands were full of communicators. Kids my age started as communicators but many soon shifted to technology and radiosport. My initial draw was the ability to communicate. It was jaw dropping to hear a voice, in real time, from another country far away and, more incredibly, be able to talk to them. 

Recall that there was no internet or smart phones. Computers were large mainframes that were rarely seen. It was difficult to call someone beyond Canada and the US on the phone. Communication was a unique attraction of the hobby. It was possible to talk to hams in "enemy" countries like the USSR.

Today, communication by amateur radio is less of a draw. You can still see a kid's eyes light up that a box and a bit of wire can be used to speak to someone far away. Since there are now many easier ways to do that, that aspect of the hobby doesn't hold the attention of most for long. Technology is often the bigger draw or, perhaps if guided by an adult family or community member, many get hooked on public service. Interest in radiosport is more likely to arise after becoming licensed.

In may respects amateur radio is more a hobby now than it has ever been because there are everyday alternatives to what it offers, and those alternatives are commonly seen as superior. People still sail sailboats, program Amiga computers and play vinyl disks, but it is out of personal interest rather than necessity. 

By 2050 I expect there will be tube rigs lovingly maintained by aficionados, and there will be CW heard on the air. These activities are likely to become anachronisms and not mainstream. You will have to search for others with similar interests. Call CQ on CW in 2050 and I suspect you will be unlikely to receive a reply unless you have made a schedule with someone with the same rare interest.

Public service is gradually fading. In the developed countries, emergency radio systems and equipment are far better than they once were. Trained professionals can increasingly do most of the needed communication without calling on a volunteer force of communicators. Systems interoperate better than ever so that police, paramedics and public agencies can coordinate directly, whether by voice, email, video or other digital modes. Having hams as a fallback won't soon disappear but we will gradually decline in need and importance.

Technology will likely remain a draw to the hobby. These days it is more about software, exploiting the internet to augment operating activity, making controllers for remotes and so forth. Some continue to enjoy designing analogue circuits and building kits. Antenna experimentation also appears to be holding steady even though modern modelling tools have removed the mystery that once pervaded the field. All that said, the proportion of hams who have technology as their main pursuit does not appear to be increasing or decreasing.

Finally we come to radiosport. Regardless of your feelings about it, it is one activity that has been growing. There are more contests than ever, and activity in each shows steady growth. Participation is even up among the older generations who are looking for new ways enjoy their retirement. Competition has always been a draw for youth, be it sports, games and, yes, amateur radio. It was the same for me and my friends when we were new teenage hams.

Radiosport goes well beyond weekend contest activity. You are likely involved in radiosport even if you don't think of it that way. Consider the following:

  • POTA, SOTA, F&F 
  • DXCC and its many sub-pursuits: bands, modes, QRP, etc.
  • IOTA, VUCC, WAS, oblasts, counties, and other "entity" awards
  • QSO parties, regional/country activities, special event stations

Radiosport is claiming a large and growing share of our on air activity. For me and many others, it encourages skills development and station improvement. Some are motivated to develop innovative and sometimes controversial technologies to improve scores and chase awards. Others focus on improving their skills rather than increasing their dependence on technology. 

As amateur radio ages gracefully and becomes a less critical resource during disasters or to simply communicate across our vast world, expect radiosport to dominate. Amateur radio may become an activity like sailing once its vital role in society has been replaced. It's a monumental change for amateur radio that worries many who love the hobby. Yet change can also mean that it survives well into the future. Amateur radio is educational, competitive and challenging.

Of course there will still be communicators simply because both technology and radiosport need an outlet: technologists want to put their skills to practical use and radiosport participants need to talk to others. Beyond that? Not a lot is my guess. Expect the bands to be far quieter in 2050 except when a radiosport event takes place.

Absent the transition to radiosport, amateur radio may well fade into the history books within a few decades. Embrace change and share your joy of the hobby with others to keep it alive. It's worth saving and radiosport may be the best way to make that happen.