Wednesday, March 14, 2018

More Pile-up Techniques

After a period of relative quiet this month numerous DXpeditions are on the air. It's been a lot of fun. While only one new country made it onto my list (9M0W, Spratly Islands) quite a few new band slots have been filled. Particularly challenging has been the highest bands and the low bands, and in the case of 9M0W finding just the right combination and band and time to find effective propagation in this time of zero sunspots.

More so than in the past I am able to rely on brute force to get through the pile-ups. Antennas up high is a great help even without the aid of high power. About half the time I must still rely on agility and technique to get through the pile ups quickly. This is not strictly necessary since all these DXpeditions are one to two weeks long and eventually the depth of callers will thin and even those with small stations, and QRP, are likely to get through.

Jumping in early is more about the fun of the chase and honing my pile up skills. There is always more to learn. Some pile up skills apply equally to chasing contest multipliers, so this is good practice. In contests the technique must adjust for pile ups on the DX's transmit frequency; that is, no split.

This is an opportune time to review a few advanced techniques applicable to DXpeditions and contests. For many veterans there will be nothing new to read here. It can still prove helpful by reminding ourselves of what lurks in the bottoms of our toolboxes, digging them out and blowing off the dust. For some readers the information will be new and therefore of greater interest. Search this blog and you'll find similar articles covering a variety of pile up techniques.

Brute force

When propagation, antennas and power favour you it is best to rely on brute force to get through. Learn the DX operator's pattern -- listening frequency change between contacts -- then find the current lucky DXer and transmit where the DX is most likely to listen next. Don't worry about the presence of many others doing the same since you count on your superior signal to stand above them all. Or at least enough of them that you'll get through within a minute or two.

You may be thinking that this is hardly a pile up technique! Yet it is. Even if you have a modest station there will be times when propagation favours you and brute force works. When it does it is the most reliable and predictable way to get through pile ups fast. Spending time jumping around will only slow you down.

Leave the more advanced techniques for when you really need them. On the other hand, the big guns have to be wily when propagation is unfavourable and brute force doesn't work. For us in North America this is common when propagation favours Europe for DXpeditions such as Spratly Island. The reverse is true for Pacific Ocean DXpeditions.

Going below

Many DXers hamper themselves by collaring themselves the same as dogs restrained by invisible fences. On CW the spectrum within 1 kHz of the DX transmit frequency is avoided since it is a guard zone to prevent QRM on the DX who is operating split. There are times when the prohibition can be ignored to increase success if it is done respectfully and carefully.

Pay attention to whether the DX operator ever works stations below the edge of the 1 kHz guard zone -- listen and you'll notice that some use larger guard zones, such as 2 kHz, and on SSB it is typically 5 kHz or more. Should you probe below without that indication try to keep the split to no less than 800 Hz, and 900 Hz is a better limit if you want to be heard. I strongly recommend you never transmit closer to the transmit frequency even when the DX operator shows a willingness to listen there or bedlam can ensue.

This technique works because the majority strictly respect the guard zone regardless of the DX operator's observed behaviour. As I said, be careful when you do it. Don't QRM the DX!


A typical listening pattern for the DX operator is to shift the listening frequency in small steps. When he judges that the split is great enough he'll do one of two things: reverse direction or jump back to the edge of the guard zone. You usually notice this has occurred when your natural inclination to QSY up results in your inability to hear the station being worked.

When you determine that the listening frequency has been "reset" to the edge of the guard zone you have learned an important datum. The next time that invisible line is approached that is your signal to QSY to the edge of the guard zone and wait for the reset to occur. Should there be others doing the same it can help to move up slightly from the edge (say, from +1 kHz to +1.1 kHz). Also consider dropping into the guard zone slightly (+0.95 kHz) per the previous section.

There is another time when a reset can occur and catch everyone sleeping. This can be your opportunity if you stay nimble. The DX operator may show evidence of frustration when copying become difficult because the pattern is well understood by many and they then keep calling despite the attempt to focus on one identified caller. They may QSY randomly or they may do a reset.

Other indications of an impending reset include when they stop to identify several times or seem to be responding to no one for a while. In the latter case they may be changing operators. It is well worth the gambit of QSYing to the edge of the guard zone and calling there. I did this with one of the African DXpeditions currently active (I believe it was TN5R) and put them in the log with just one call precisely 1 kHz above the transmit frequency.

Calling in the hole

I discussed this item in the context of CW DXing. It can also be applied to good effect when encountering SSB pile ups. The technique also happens to be easier to apply.

A typical SSB split operation will announce a range of where the DX station will be listening. For example. 5 kHz to 10 kHz above the transmit frequency. On 40 meters and sometimes 80 meters the range will be similar but with a greater separation to take advantage of the frequency allocations available in different ITU regions.

What you will soon discover is that the bulk of the callers will transmit exactly at the boundaries of the range; that is, 5 kHz and 10 kHz up. In wider ranges, every 5 kHz. There is some sense to this behaviour because SSB requires greater signal separation to avoid an impenetrable wall of QRM. Many DX operators tend to jump in 5 kHz steps and we respond in kind, and so we all become accustomed to it.

Of course many of the pursuers are listening to learn the split of the last successful caller which results in deep QRM centred on these discrete frequencies. As often happens the DX station will work numerous stations at one frequency before listening elsewhere in the range, making the QRM worse for a while.

When brute force is not an option there is a way, obvious perhaps, to get through. That is to call in between those discrete steps. For example if the range is 14.195 MHz to 14.200 MHz, most of the callers are exactly at those two frequencies and you should call in the hole at 14.1975 MHz. Since this is 2.5 kHz from both those frequencies it is relatively free of QRM. Keep calling there. When the DX operator finally spins the VFO you'll be right there.

It's as simple as that. Even dogs have figured this one out. Ever notice how it is when they want attention that they're underfoot when you turn around? That's no accident!

The secret

Calling this next one the secret is a bit of a joke. It isn't much of a secret despite so many hams being unfamiliar with it. I don't mind sharing it since, even worst case, my readership is modest and, frankly, most won't use it anyway. Thus there will be little impact -- perhaps I'm being too cynical.

It is most useful in CW contests where even the most wanted multipliers operate simplex. When the pile up is on the DX station's transmit frequency the DX station has difficulty isolating one station (often it's the loudest one) and few in the pile up can hear the DX station underneath the QRM. Everyone's rate suffers. Discipline is usually good since otherwise no QSOs take place.

Unless you're that loudest of stations you are faced with a challenge. Since you aren't the loudest what you want to do is sound different. You do this by offsetting your transmit frequency. The shift must be enough to be distinctive yet still within the DX station's receiver pass band. Many DX stations are looking for that difference as well and will use their RIT feature to allow a wider shift.

In the former case a shift of at least 50 Hz is necessary but probably no more than 100 Hz. Aim for the high side (positive offset) since most receivers place the BFO at the bottom of the pass band (USB reception) and lower pitched tones are not as easily noticed. Don't be afraid use a negative offset since they may be using LSB reception (e.g. Elecraft transceivers).

Try it. You'll be surprised at how much of a difference it makes. If you've ever been on the receiving end of a pile up you'll know that all those zero beat callers are nearly impossible to separate, yet a shifted tone that's weaker than the others will be copied at least well enough to capture part of the call sign. It is for this reason that N1MM Logger contest software introduced jitter by default when clicking on a spot to minimize the risk of zero beating. Most rigs are so frequency precise that otherwise everyone clicking on a spot will end up 10 Hz of each other!

When the DX station is in on the game and you are paying attention you'll notice how he will split further and further, and then suddenly shift to the opposite offset. The vast majority of callers never seem to catch on. Get in the game and in moments you'll be trawling the bands for the next multipliers and leaving the messy pile up behind.

That's all there is to the secret. Have fun with it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

SSB Low Power: The Muddy Middle

I operated part time in this past weekend's ARRL DX SSB contest. This was a decision made before the contest since I knew that 150 watts, even with good antennas, would be a struggle in a SSB DX contest of this magnitude at this point in the solar cycle. However I left enough latitude in my schedule so that I could operate more if I changed my mind.

Of the several technical problems that appeared soon after the contest started most aggravating was a (still unexplained) distortion of the computer-based digital voice memories, making them unusable and CQing unpleasant. I ended up operating a little over 11 hours until I pulled the plug late Saturday evening. Although my alarm was set to allow me to catch the pre-sunrise low band openings I had no desire to continue and went back to sleep.

To explain my attitude let me start with an anecdote. Soon after Saturday sunrise 20 meters opened strongly to Europe. I positioned myself a little below 14.150 MHz, the edge of the US phone band, to call CQ to see what would happen. After a few CQs a German station replied. When we were done he said "I will spot you". I continued to CQ for another minute with no replies. Then bedlam descended. For the next 15 minutes I had a deep pile up of European callers at a rate of 4 to 5 QSOs per minute. It didn't last.

The rate abruptly dropped to no better than 1 QSO per minute and then died completely. It seemed I was done despite the good conditions. Never again was I able to effectively run to Europe, or to anywhere else for that matter. Further running attempts on any band rarely netted more than one QSO.

This is not necessarily a terrible thing and few would sympathize with my inability to run DX stations. Indeed from what I heard on the bands even the big guns in the US and Canada were not achieving high rates. For me and the majority of participants, even those with QRO, this was a primarily S & P (search and pounce) contest. Often a frustrating one at that.

It is an indication of the challenges anyone will encounter in SSB contests at this stage of the solar cycle. With 10 meters almost dead and 15 meters little better the main stage is 20 meters. The band is intensely crowded and the QRM overwhelming. The lower bands fare worse. On 40 meters the available SSB band segment is narrow, the noise higher and the MUF drops low a few hours past sunset. The lower bands are challenging for SSB DX at any time due to the higher noise level and the relatively poor antennas that are typical.

We must get used to this for the next few years in SSB contests. More stations are crammed into smaller spaces resulting in massive QRM as stations squeeze far closer together than 2.5 kHz. As I tuned across the bands it was difficult to hear any but the biggest guns. There are smaller stations to be found, if you can hear them underneath the tightly packed big guns. Highly directive antennas can sometimes help but on the low bands at least they are not practical for most.

As a result you can't run with low power and S & P turns only turns up the stations you've already worked. Smaller stations can't easily find each other. That is, unless you're the only one on from a country and can attract a constant stream of multiplier hunters. Entering an 'assisted' category alleviate much of the drudgery, which I may do.

Therefore QSO totals are low and hunting for multipliers becomes the primary pursuit. Those running QRO fare relatively better. Even for those with modest antennas the addition of an amplifier can deliver a large dividend. Low power combined with big antennas cannot do the same since it is quite difficult (and expensive) to deliver an additional 10+ db that an amplifier offers with the flip of a switch. Unfortunately when everyone is tempted to run QRO we get a tragedy of the commons where the sum of sensible individual decisions can ruin the bands for everyone.

Well, that's contesting. You play the hand you're dealt or exit the game. I choose a middle position, playing where I can excel or altering my objectives. This contest ultimately bored me since with a better antenna farm I want to do better than scrimp for QSOs the way I did when I ran QRP. Back then the high bands were great and I could run with 5 watts on SSB. Now I can't run with 150 watts and better antennas. SSB low power stations are in the "muddy middle" where they cannot effectively run yet must not stick with S & P since that will not bring success.

Propagation is determined by the sun and ionosphere, not our antennas and transmitters. We build what we can and adjust our objectives to the prevailing conditions. When it stops being fun it is better to step away from the radio, or at least change perspective and objectives.  One cure that works for many is to join a multi-op. That way you share the burden of poor rates and you get to take frequent breaks without affecting the final score.

Long term burn out is a symptom of forcing yourself to stay when it isn't enjoyable. This weekend I chose to step away from the radio. Had I stayed for the duration perhaps I would have placed well, but I simply didn't care to do so.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Big Station, Big Maintenance

For those of you prone to vertigo I apologize for the picture. It isn't gratuitous; I have a point to make. This picture was in the second last slide in a talk I gave on station building earlier this winter. The topic was maintenance.

The more towers and antennas you put up the more maintenance is required. Although also true for the quantity of equipment you have inside the shack there is an added component of danger, difficulty and expense with the former. Never forget that. There are substantial benefits to building your station with a eye on minimizing maintenance. It can never be eliminated so be prepared.

I was reminded of that this week when a problem occurred on top of my 150' tower. This was a potentially disastrous problem. On Monday I noticed that the top yagis were pointing towards an unexpected direction. As I gazed upward I noticed that the action of the wind was slowly turning them, first in one direction and then the other. Obviously something bad had happened.

Binoculars showed nothing amiss. I could not climb just then since it was immediately before sunset. The next day, with the wind howling but with unseasonably warm weather, I went up there to check it out. Before doing so I tried to arm myself with information by corresponding with another ham with extensive prop pitch motor experience and with the style of drive system I'm using.

Once up there I quickly saw what had gone wrong. The six sets of bolts, lock washers and nuts securing the motor flange to the drive platform had all unscrewed. The bolts fell out the bottom with the lock washers and nuts stranded up top. The loose motor allowed the mast to spin freely and yanked the motor wires out of the splices to the main cable run back to the shack.

The two bolts that landed on the drive shaft bearing were enough to temporarily secure the motor. The next day I climbed up with new hardware and electrical tools and fixed everything. Tower time was 2 hours, plus 90 minutes the previous day. The wind was howling which made the job unpleasant and difficult since I had to fight that wind to turn the mast and antennas to a better position for attaching the wiring. You can be sure that this time I made certain to properly torque the grade 5 galvanized fasteners.

This was also an opportunity to fix the coupling to the direction pot which will save me some grief. The fewer times I have to climb the tower the better.

This fiasco was, of course, entirely my fault. I am not ashamed to say it. We are all human and we make mistakes. How I made this mistake I don't know other than recalling the urgency to complete the project in December as the weather deteriorated day after day.

Mistakes at the top of 150' tower in winter are not like a mistake on a 50' tower or inside the shack. All mistakes and failures are aggravating but most do not involve dangerous repairs. On the bright side the weather was warm and the yagis -- TH6 and XM240 -- are pretty well torque balanced and so did not turn hard in the wind. All coaxial cables were undamaged.

The bigger your station the bigger your problems. If you seriously want a big station prepare yourself. There is lesson in this: build it to last. That was the message of the slide in my talk with the vertiginous picture. The picture shows me climbing the mast of the big tower to release the coiled up coax from the XM240 feed point. Although impressive in a way not even I want to do it often!

It is well worth the expense to buy or build the very best up front to reduce maintenance events. Use the best parts and methods and you can increase MTBF (mean time before failure). The initial expense will be recouped many times over the coming years. You do not want to be climbing towers and making repairs every week or two. It not only puts you at risk it is expensive and, perhaps most important, it can put you off the air just as a major DXpedition or contest occurs.

If, like most hams, you do not climb towers you must factor that into your calculations. Educate yourself about materials and engineering needed to build survivable antenna systems. Otherwise you are at the mercy of others and their opinions, and you will not know enough to distinguish good advice and workmanship from bad. What you don't know will hurt you. Money spent in no guarantee of quality. It helps a great deal if you are able to climb although it is not mandatory.

Do it right and be careful out there. Spring antenna season is nearly here.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

ARRL DX CW: Antenna Lessons

I had what I consider a successful operation in the ARRL DX CW contest this past weekend. From early reports my competitive position is good despite not likely to win my category of single operator, all band (SOAB LP). Since my station is new and incomplete and my experience with putting it to best effect is a work in progress it was an ideal opportunity to learn and adjust my station building plans. Lessons were learned, several of which I'll share in this article.

There were of course a series of problems which seem to crop up during contests and not at other times. A few of the important ones I'll briefly mention to get them out of the way; I don't want to dwell on them unnecessarily.
  • Prop pitch rotator: Sometime during the first night a fault occurred and I didn't realize it until I have overturned the rotator by 100°. Since the indicator pot decoupled back in January and it's too cold to climb I got into the habit of counting seconds to set the position. This is more difficult at night since confirmation of direction is more difficult. Luckily the problem was in the shack and I got it fixed Saturday morning, at the cost of 30 minutes of prime time operation.
  • Noise: That power line QRN that was cured a month ago? It came back Sunday. Obviously something out there is still amiss. I'll try to better localize the source before calling the utility to deal with it.
Now I'll move on the what I believe are the important lessons that I learned. I am restricting this article to antennas rather than contest operating techniques. I may get those in a subsequent article. Contest operating with big antennas is not the same as it is with small or modest antennas.

Europe on the high bands

For contests there is no question that for us in North America it is Europe that provides the bulk of the QSOs and multipliers. They are numerous, active in contests and not so far as to be difficult to work. A log analysis shows over 75% of my QSOs were Europeans. It should be obvious that Europe is a priority in my antenna plans.

As I previously noted the lower antenna (Explorer 14 at 34 meters, fixed toward Europe) always outperformed the higher yagi (TH6 at 43 meters) on 20 meters. This has more to do with height (elevation angle) than gain since the lower antenna has lower gain on 20. For the same reason the higher antenna does better to Europe on 15 meters. I am now revising my opinion.

The optimum elevation angle for a particular path varies widely depending on MUF (solar flux, time of day and time of year), absorption at D and E layers (geomagnetic storms, etc.) and other factors. This weekend, especially on Sunday morning, the antennas were more equally matched to Europe on 20 meters. Indeed when I tried the high yagi the run rate increased; this did not happen on Saturday morning. While insufficient as proof it is very suggestive the greater height does have value on 20 meters towards Europe even when the antennas seem to be the same on receive.

A few decibels difference is often not obvious when receiving due to the heavy QSB typical at HF. However on the other end it can draw in more callers.

As expected the high antenna always outperformed on 15 meters to Europe for the limited openings we had during the contest. There was no 10 meter opening other than working CR3W and hearing but not working CU4DX. Unsurprisingly they were favoured by the higher yagi.


On 20 and 15 meters the TH7 at 21 meters always outperformed higher yagis to the Caribbean and Central America. Often the difference was 2 to 3 S-units. This weekend the TH6 at 43 meters was always better on 10 meters, no doubt because the MUF barely reached 28 MHz on this short DX path.

Although there are relatively few stations active from these areas it is important in contests to quickly bust the inevitable pile ups and move on to make other QSOs. I quickly learned this lesson and would keep the TH6 turned south or south-southeast to search for and work those multipliers. Switching from the high yagi to the low one often resulting in just one call to cut through the pile up despite running only 150 watts.

Compared to most of the US we have a better shot at the Caribbean on 20 and 15 meters when the solar flux (MUF) is low; many in the US are in the skip zone on this short path. For the longer southerly path, even as close as the north coast of South America the higher yagi is better on all the high bands. The optimum range for a low yagi is narrow but important.

Longer paths

As ought to be expected the high yagis were the go-to antennas for longer DX paths on the bands from 40 through 10 meters. Whether CE, LU, VK, ZL, JA, DU, UA0, ZS and others the difference was never less than 2 S-units and could be in excess of 5 or 6 S-units. These antennas were a big help in putting many Japanese stations in the log and distant multipliers I would otherwise be unable to work or not be able to work so quickly and easily.

40 meters

As my antennas improve I learn more and more about this band. It can be interesting. It is also important to a contester at this stage of the solar cycle since it is the second most productive band for QSOs and multipliers.

First off let's look at the 80/40 inverted vee (apex at 32 meters). Put bluntly it was almost totally useless. On all DX paths the XM240 at 46 meters was always the superior choice except when the direction was directly off the ends of the elements, including when off the back of the yagi. Two element yagis (other than the Moxon) have poor F/B, yet even with 10 to 15 db rejection it still outperformed the inverted vee.

I only using the inverted vee if it was inconvenient to move the XM240 a few degrees to catch a multiplier. The inverted vee remains valuable for working short paths within eastern North America.

The path to Europe and other points eastward opens in mid-afternoon. I was able to begin working (and running) Europe around 2100Z, which is 90 minutes before sunset. This was not possible when the yagi was at half its current height. Stations running a kilowatt could work Europe a full hour before I could. Height and gain can overcome the pre-sunset path loss and higher received noise in Europe. This isn't possible with the inverted vee.

Speaking of noise, another way I fought QRM and atmospheric QRN on 40 meters after sunset was to use the northeast Beverage. The SNR on received signals was better and was a definite help with the weaker signals. The beam width is too narrow for working anything other than Europe since on 40 meters the 175 meter long Beverage is 4λ.

80 and 160 meters

As everyone knows conditions were poor to middling for most of the contest. Although disappointing it is a situation everyone experiences and so does not mean a great deal. For me the big impact on the low bands was that the extra decibels of path attenuation put my 150 watts below the noise for far too many stations.

Not only were my QSOs and multipliers low on these bands I only improved my 160 meter DXCC count by two. Although both my 80 meter (temporary inverted vee) antenna and 160 meter antenna offer decent performance it is obvious that I can do better.

Another challenge I faced on 80 and 160 meters was skew path propagation to Europe and perhaps other directions. This is reportedly not unusual during a geomagnetic disturbance. With just the one Beverage (northeast) all I could say for sure during the contest was that at times it did no better than the transmitting vertical antenna on receive. I learned about the presence of skew path after the contest from the reports of others.

While running low power the occasional ineffectiveness of a receive antenna is not a disaster. It will prove problematic when I return to QRO operating since my signal will attract weaker callers if I don't have receive antennas for other directions.

Station automation

This is a work in progress. At the moment I have little more a manually controlled remote antenna switch (2 x 8) and N1MM Logger with CAT control of one rig. I still do not have all the equipment to do SO2R and automatic antenna selection.

It is very easy to choose the wrong antenna when you're tired or in a hurry, both of which are common in a 48 hour contest. Since the SWR protection kicks in this is only a time waster rather than a potential disaster. When I go QRO the same event can become more serious. Manual switching is time consuming and deflects my attention from focussing on operating.

SO2R requires more work. The SCU17 interface for the FTdx5000 died so the one CAT cable I have goes to it rather than the (idle) FT950, as I had intended. I do not have a headphone mixer to listen to both radios at once or band pass filters to protect the receivers. All this and more are still to be done. Up until now station automation has been low priority in comparison to antennas. I need to practice doing SO2R, which is a skill I do not yet have.

Once I have SO2R working I will also be in a position to invite others to do a multi-op contest. Without SO2R I was unable to capitalize on many opportunities this past weekend to run on 20 or 40 meters and concurrently hunt for stations on other bands. That put me at a competitive disadvantage.

Antenna conflicts

With a limited number of antennas it is perhaps not unexpected that I would encounter conflicts. For example, in late afternoon I want the XM240 (40 meters) pointed to Europe and the TH6 (20 meters) pointed to Japan and the east Asia. My current choices are to lose time rotating the yagis back and forth or use sub-optimal antennas. Either way QSOs and multipliers are negatively affected.

If I had a second tower such conflicts can be avoided. There is the added benefit of increased isolation between antennas. It is common that serious contesters have at least two tall towers. With tow of them one is typically dedicated to 40 and 10 meters and the other to 20 and 15 meters. Although there are still conflicts they are less serious. A rotatable multi-band yagi or a few fixed yagis at an intermediate height can resolve almost all the remaining conflicts.

Impact on 2018 antenna plans

Many problems can be addressed with a second tall tower. That is in my plans although I am undecided whether to do it this year. My concern is that the effort required to put up a tower of between 120' and 140' will mean little time left to design, build and test antennas. Further, the choice of rotatable, fixed and stacked yagis for 40 through 10 meters depends on whether I have one tower or two.

I definitely plan to stack yagis on 20 and 15 meters for additional gain towards Europe and to match elevation angle to the prevailing propagation as it changes. Now that I know for certain that more height can be beneficial to Europe on 20 meters I am rethinking my plans for side mounted yagis and the rotatable antenna at the top. Depending on whether I go with a second tower the yagis will either be mono-band or multi-band.

On 40 meters I would like a fixed, reversible northeast-southwest (Europe-USA) 3-element yagi up ~25 meters. Regardless of whether I can fit in a rotatable yagi better than the XM240 up top into this year's schedule the added performance and flexibility provided by the fixed yagi will be a help during contests. My preference is for a tubing antenna rather than wire (inverted vee) to reduce interactions, improve performance and avoid additional anchors in the hay field. I am currently investigating designs and material choices.

80 meters is an easy decision: build the vertical yagi. In contrast I remain uncertain how to deal with 160 meters. The vertical I have up at the moment will have to come down by May at the latest due to the arrival of haying season and because it will interfere with work on yagis on the 150' tower. If nothing better comes along in my plans it will go back up in September or October, deferring a decision at least one more year. My expectation is that this is what will happen.

Reversible Beverages remain my preferred choice for low band receive antennas. Paths for two of these have been surveyed and most of the material purchased. On the critical path is the design and construction of a remote switching system. Until I have that ready putting up the Beverages is low priority.

Other than antenna plans I have been getting into the specifics of station automation equipment design. I am closely reviewing commercial products and public designs while also injecting my own ideas on what will work best for me. The final product will combine commercial and custom hardware and software. I don't know how far along I'll get by the fall contest season.

I have a challenging year ahead of me. No matter how much I accomplish I'll be in a better competitive position for next season's contests.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Twisted Inverted Vee

Several weeks ago a problem showed up with one of my 40/80 meter inverted vee antenna. I first noticed it when the SWR on 40 meters was unusually high. At first I assumed it was due to weather since moisture or ice on the wires will affect resonance, and we get lots of both in the winter. I let the rig's ATU calibrate to the new impedance and continued operating, expecting the impedance to return to normal later.

When the problem persisted after two days of fair weather I decided to look into it. Or, if you like, I looked up at it. What had happened was immediately evident. On one leg of the vee the wires for the 40 and 80 meter antennas twisted. A closer inspection with binoculars revealed that the twist was comprised of 3 or 4 rotations. The picture is annotated due to the poor resolution; I had no intention of climbing up there for a better view.

In an article last fall I explained how this was to be a temporary antenna until I could put up permanent antennas for 80 meters and a lower one for 40 meters. I built it very quickly, using existing 80 meter and 40 meter inverted vees from my my stockpile, tying them together and constructing a set of spacers made from small PVC pipe (3 per leg). Small ropes extend from the bottom spacers, positioned at the ends of the 40 meter wires to the ends of the 80 meter wires. As I said, it's very simple.

Unfortunately I made a bad decision on the ropes used to tie the antenna to anchors on the ground. I went with expediency rather than good sense since I was so pressed for time. I had hundreds of feet of ¼" polypropylene twist rope for which I had no other use. It has been in storage for many years. Why I originally bought it I no longer recall.

I cut 75' lengths and completed the antenna. Since twist rope of this type develops a torque when put under tension we had quite a job preventing the antenna from twisting when first installing it. When it seemed stable I let it be and hoped for the best.

But hope is a 4-letter word. After a late January day with strong winds the twist reappeared in one leg of the vee. The twist is approximately 3 meters from the feed point, between the top and middle spacers. The middle spacer is ~5 meters along the antenna, near the middle of the 40 meter wire.

Although an inconvenience, and not a disaster, the result of this accidental experiment is instructive and merits a brief article. It is worth thinking about should you ever run into a similar problem with one of your antennas. So let me step back and describe where I started.

As with any fan antenna of this type the elements for the lowest frequency are almost totally unaffected by those for the higher bands. It is the higher bands that see the impact. The reason is that the ends of a dipole are most susceptible to capactive coupling to adjacent elements; that is why capacity hats must be placed far along an element to be effective. For this antenna the susceptible band is 40 meters. The resonant frequency on 80 meters was not noticably affected by the fan arrangement. In contrast the 40 meters resonance moved well below the band due to that coupling by increasing the antenna's electrical length.

I knew this would happen and that there would be no time to tune the antenna after raising it. The difficulty is overcome by use of the rig's ATU. However there is some challenge when switching between the inverted vee and XM240 on 40 meters since the SWR curves are so different. For operational simplicity I currently reserve the ATU for the inverted vee and disable the ATU when switching to the yagi. It's an acceptable inconvenience for the short time the inverted vee is expected to be in use.

When the elements twisted together the impedance impact showed up on 40 but not 80 meters. Some change on 80 must have occurred though not enough to require reprogramming the ATU. Interestingly the 40 meter resonant frequency didn't move far. Perhaps that's because the end of the 40 meter element is still properly separated from the 80 meter element. Instead the negative impact is a substantial decrease in the SWR bandwidth.

The resonant frequency moved downward at least 75 kHz and the 2:1 SWR bandwidth decreased to ~150 kHz. When undamaged the SWR at 7.0 MHz was ~2 and ~2.5 at 7.1 MHz. I have done no further investigation to determine why the impedance changed in this particular fashion since it is of limited interest to me. In any case modelling the twisted elements is almost certainly beyond the capabilities of NEC2.

While not an ideal situation it does not hobble its performance. Single element antennas can survive a lot of abuse since even drastic impedance swings due to rain, ice, tangling and environmental coupling do not affect the pattern. If the loss due to a higher SWR is managable there is no need for emergency repairs. The same cannot be said of directive arrays whose patterns and impedance are very sensitive to changes.

I never did fix the problem and frankly I can't be bothered to spend more effort on it. The antenna works and that is what matters for the few remaining months it'll be up there. The anchor for that leg is frozen to the ground (two large rocks) and there is the risk of making the problem worse by trying to untangle it from the ground. It isn't worth the trouble and risk of climbing the tower in winter weather.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

80 Meter Vertical Yagi: Revised

As I write these words it's -21 C and the wind is howling. There is no antenna work getting done. I am well behind schedule with my winter projects due to the severity of the weather. In time it will moderate and work can resume. Until then I am limited to what I can do indoors. One of those is sitting at the computer and modelling antennas.

Since I was planning to begin construction of the 80 meter vertical array in the winter I have revisited my original design. Changes have been made. Please refer to that article for design and construction details not included here, and for additional background. I won't unnecessarily repeat myself.

For the first change the tower (driven element) will be a little shorter. This means that the "stinger" at the top will need to be ~6 meters tall rather than just 1 meter to be λ/4 on 80 meters. Adding a switchable section on top to have a 160 meter vertical is physically unreasonable with the now much longer stinger. I had hoped to use the extensive radial field on 160 meters, keeping land use and cost to a minimum. This plan has also changed.

For contests I do not want to be in a position where I cannot be on 80 or 160 meters at the same time, whether for SO2R or multi-op. For the next few years over the duration of the solar minimum these may be the only two productive bands for several hours at night.

The other reason is that I have been unable to come up with a design to switch between 80 and 160 meters that does not compromise performance on 80 or 160 meters or both. Whether it be a trap or mutual impedance with an isolated pole and top hat for 160 meters there are negative impacts on the 80 meter array's pattern and bandwidth. To be clear, it can be made to work, just not to my satisfaction.

With this exclusion I am free to focus on 80 meter performance. Despite this the physical design still constrains the electrical options. When I first developed the model I did not own this property and could not predict the specific layout of the property and my site plan for towers and antennas. I am in a better position to do so now.

Elements of the redesign

A casual search for additional sections for my small tower -- as the main support and driven element -- didn't turn up anything suitable or economical. Since the tower is currently 14 meters tall (6 x 8' sections, with splice overlap) and a λ/4 on 80 meters is ~20 meters a "stinger" of ~6 meters length is required. This is straight-forward. However the original plan for a 20 meter tall tower allowed for an isolated stringer for a 160 meter vertical with a capacity top hat.

The wire parasitic elements will continue to be supported from the top of the stinger. Due to its lower height (14 meters vs. ~25 meters) the wires cannot simply be wires hanging from support catenaries. I am therefore using angular T-top verticals. The array will closely resemble the original design by K3LR, details of which can be found in ON4UN's Low-band DXing book.

This adds some uncertainty to the NEC2 model due to the odd shape of the parasitic elements. This must be compensated for during construction and testing with an antenna analyzer. I found this with the similarly shaped 160 meter antenna I recently built, which resonated ~80 kHz lower than the model. Interestingly there is a chart in ON4UN's book that  recommends dimensions that appear to be more accurate than what I can model with NEC2 (EZNEC). I expect the same for this antenna.

There are two additional changes I'm making. The first is to exclude SSB. This simplifies the design and construction without giving up too much with regard to my operating interests. I can always add it later. The array will be an omni-directional single element vertical between 3.65 and 3.8 MHz. When receive directivity is needed it can come from the Beverages (still to be built).

A further change is to radial system. Rather than busses at intersections of radials between the 5 elements I will put down 5 independent and overlapping radial systems. This is difficult to model so I can only rely on reports that performance is not compromised. My reason is solely to simplify construction since creating the bare copper busses and the multitude of soldered connections, and not with lead-tin solder, is a lot of work. The price is the amount of radial wire required. I can change to a bus system later if I wish or if necessary to optimize performance.

Developing the model

The array is designed to act as both a 3-element vertical yagi and as an omni-directional λ/4 vertical. Since the yagi performance is narrow band it is designed for CW only. However as a simple vertical it can be more broadband than that, and indeed can be made to work well from 3.5 to 3.8 MHz. Therefore the first objective is to resonate the driven element more centrally in the band; the L-network -- switched in for yagi operation -- is easily adjusted to accommodate the higher resonance of the driven element.

After some modelling work I settled on 3.6 MHz as the resonant frequency for the driven element. The match is very good, deliberately favouring CW and the DX & contest segment of 80 meters which is what matters to me. You can choose another frequency without affecting yagi performance since a matching network is required regardless. Keep in mind that a matching network may be required as the radial system is improved beyond that in this model since the feed point resistance will drop.

The impedance is dependent on the ground system since the ground loss is in series with the radiation resistance. For this model I used MININEC ground in EZNEC and inserted a 5 Ω load at the base of all 5 elements to emulate a very good radial system. This is far easier than creating a radial field for all 5 elements in the model yet gives results that are close to reality. The load resistance can be adjusted to test the antenna's predicted performance with other radial systems. There are tables of approximate equivalent resistances of radial systems (length and number) to be found in several places, including in ON4UN's book. I'll have more to say later about the radial system and its effect on the antenna.

The next step was to design the wire parasitic elements, including their vertical and T-top lengths. Spacing to the driven element in all cases is 10.5 meters, or λ/8 in the CW segment of 80 meters. Since the array is reversible different director and reflector spacing is not possible. Consequently there is some loss of performance (gain and F/B) relative to an optimized (unidirectional) yagi, though not enough to be of practical concern.

As I saw with my 160 meter antenna the model for an element of this style is not accurately modelled using NEC2. Two reasons of which I'm aware are the acute interior angle of ~45° on the low side of the T and the effect of ground.

The error can be corrected during construction by floating all the other elements including the driven element (disconnected from ground) and adjusting the wire element to self-resonance at 3.68 MHz, as a director. Symmetrical trimming of the two halves of the T is recommended. With the 2.1 μH reflector coil in line at the element base the self-resonance is 3.45 MHz. First tune the wire element as a direction and then with the coil in line adjust the coil, not the element, to tune its self resonance as a reflector.

Since the radiation resistance of a yagi is lower than a simple vertical a matching network is required. I used TLW (comes with the ARRL antenna book) to design the network based on the EZNEC reported impedance. The designed network is inserted into the EZNEC model to confirm that the antenna is now matched. In practice you'll want to measure the array's impedance once it's built and then design the L-network to transform that impedance to 50 Ω. As you can see coil Q is not critical as there are no large losses in the small transformation ratio required. I used a "low pass" L-network to help attenuate harmonics for SO2R and multi-op contest operation.

Within reason the director and reflector self resonant frequencies can be adjusted to centre the array on another band segment without going to the trouble of a complete re-modelling. The reflector coil value stays the same. A small improvement in gain and F/B can be achieved by tightening the tuning of the parasitic elements. For example, lowering the reflector coil to 1.8 μH gives several more db of F/B and ~0.2 db of gain. In this case the director self resonance should be lowered ~30 kHz.

The SWR bandwidth will be narrower. That may be a fair trade-off since the SWR bandwidth of this antenna is superior to the original. For this specific case the designed L-network still works well.

I modelled the elements with insulated AWG 14. The vertical length of the wire elements is 10.2 meters and each half of the T is 6.3 meters. The vertical length is a compromise between minimizing the length of the T (capacity hat) and minimizing the distance from the tower than the element must be anchored. I want to keep the anchors within the radial field to reduce the amount of land dedicated to the antenna which would otherwise have to be taken from the haying.

If one is careful the tuning is only required on one parasitic element. The others can then be cut to match it. Even so it is probably wise to measure and trim them all to resonance to avoid surprises. Either way it is done the reflector coils ought to be adjusted to accurately resonate the elements as reflectors.

Model performance

SWR, gain and F/B bandwidth are better in this antenna than in the original design that used straight parasitic elements. Unfortunately the gain and F/B are not as good over most of the operating range. The difference is not severe but requires consideration. Peak gain drops from 4.5 to 4.2 dbi, which is close to negligible and does not overly concern me. Peak F/B drops from well over 20 db to only 15 db. That is perhaps the only negative performance impact of note

Let's look more closely at the numbers, in particular in comparison to the original design. I kept the 5 Ω equivalent series resistance of the ground loss to ensure the comparison is valid. While not charted the SWR bandwidth is superior to the original design. The T-top elements at least achieve that much.

Although the loss of F/B is disappointing the overall performance change is neutral in my opinion. You may feel differently. While the wider bandwidth is not consequential to a pure CW operator it does matter if your interests include digital modes and SSB. With coil switching to support the SSB segment (as in the original design, and which can be added to this one) it can be a good performer from 3.65 to 3.8 MHz. Perhaps one day, but not initially in my case.

F/B performance is less of a concern where this array is primarily devoted to transmit and a separate, multi-direction receive antenna system is available. Those using a 4-square antenna on 80 meters often reporte they only occasionally use their receive antennas since the 4-square's F/B is quite good. That is one comparative disadvantage of the yagi array.

Before constructing the model I speculated that the F/B would improve. The reason is that the top of the T of all the wire elements lean towards the driven element, thus increasing capacitive coupling with the driven element. This is how the Moxon works where critical coupling serves to equalize current, a necessary condition for a high F/B (field cancellation). Of course there are 3 elements, not 2, so perhaps the better comparison is a Spiderbeam style of yagi.

Obviously this didn't happen. Looking at the element currents it is clear that the elements are nowhere close to critical coupling as the tips come no closer together than 6 meters (~0.07λ). Another hope dashed on the shores of reality.

I notice that the March QST has an article on a 3-element vertical Moxon yagi. Unfortunately I don't have it yet since it would be interesting to compare. If it looks promising I may model it and compare to what I this yagi design. Should that happen I'll write a follow up article.

Ground sensitivity

It is no surprise that the quality of the radial system and the conductivity of the ground below have a strong influence on the efficiency of vertical antennas, especially ground mounted verticals. For every antenna we have to find an acceptable trade off between cost & convenience versus performance. Directive arrays such as the vertical yagi and the 4-square are more affected since their lower radiation resistance results in greater ground loss versus a simple vertical for any given radial system.

Compared to perfect ground this vertical yagi and the 4-square have approximately the same peak gain ~6.5 dbi. The 4-square has better F/B and both F/B and have a much wider bandwidth. On the other hand the vertical yagi is simpler, cheaper, more amenable to experimentation, direction choices and the addition of more directors. For me these make the choice easy. The majority of contesters I know choose the 4-square since their primary motivation is competitiveness without undue time spent on experimentation and home brewing the control system.

When ground is imperfect, as it always is, the 4-square has greater efficiency than the vertical yagi for any given radial system. The vertical yagi's radiation resistance is lower due to the closer element spacing -- λ/8 vs. λ/4 -- and the consequent higher element currents lead to higher I²R ground loss. The better the radial system the less the difference. Providing you are committed to an extensive radial system there will be little efficiency difference between the two antennas, even accounting for the dump load (up to -0.5 db loss) in the 4-square.

As ground quality improves the vertical yagi's peak performance moves lower in frequency. As with any yagi the frequency of maximum gain is correlated with minimum radiation resistance. For this antenna that occurs below 3.5 MHz. Over a perfect ground this vertical yagi's gain peaks ~3.47 MHz and the peak F/B rises well above 20 db at 3.525 MHz. If the antenna is built with a superior radial system, one with an equivalent series resistance of 3 Ω or less it can be worthwhile to shift its tuning upward by 30 or 40 kHz to exploit that change.

With the very good but not great radial system in my model -- 5 Ω -- the modelled ground loss is -2.4 dbi, although it varies with frequency, increasing towards the bottom and top of the operating bandwidth. EZNEC reports quite high loss as the frequency increases, exceeding 300 watts at 3.65 MHz. This isn't bad. You can always add more radials over time if desired.

The above chart compares base element currents for the original and new versions of the array, both with 3 Ω equivalent series resistance for ground and 1,000 watts, to match the values I chose in the original article.  It is possible to greatly reduce ground loss by improving the radial system for the driven element. In fact the loss becomes quite low when the driven element ground resistance is lowered to 2 Ω and the parasitic elements to 5 Ω.

Review the original article and note that it is more important to lower the ground loss in the driven element since its current is always higher than in the parasitic elements, which is unlike the 4-square whose elements have no unique identity. In its omni-directional configuration the ground loss is lower.

For a fixed amount of wire the performance can be optimized by putting more of that wire into the driven element radial system than the 4 parasitic elements. This is not a 4-square where the elements should be treated equally! You'll even gain some performance benefit by use of wire thicker than 14 AWG in the parasitic elements; I'll be using 14 AWG wire since that's what I have on hand.

Radial topology

By using MININEC ground the details of the radial system can be glossed over by substituting fixed load resistances between each element and the perfect ground. That detail cannot be avoided when designing the actual radial system. Aside from the size of the radial system to achieve the target ground loss the topology is important since the radials are longer than the distance between elements. That is, they must either overlap or be connected.

I modelled connected and overlapping radials quite some time ago in an attempt to determine whether one is better than the other in phased and parasitic vertical arrays. Although there are measurable and significant differences in the radial current amplitudes and distribution in the end it seemed to be one of small differences rather than one topology being obviously superior. In both cases the currents on radials between active elements can become quite complex, and perhaps not intuitive, due to the superposition of fields of the mutually coupled elements in the return paths through the radials and ground beneath.

Overlapping radials are easier to construct but more expensive. The capacitive coupling between crossing radials is only significant off to the side where currents are lower and voltages higher at the crossing points. Radial interconnection, via busses or directly, is difficult in practice and forces return current to zigzag at the interconnection points. This is difficult to model and compare.

My present inclination is to go with overlapped radial fields for each element, based partly on my (inconclusive) models and not well quantified data (to my knowledge) from experimenters. I intend to keep it simple and create a thick radial field for the driven element where the potential loss is greatest and sparser and shorter radials for the parasitic elements. I want them shorter so that the land impact is minimized. Long radials are not a problem for the driven element since it's at the array's centre.

Should I be unhappy with the results I can revisit the decision and redo the radial field.

What is the reality of performance?

Modelling is not the final word on an antenna of this type. Ground influences, radial topology and the environment have significant impacts that are very difficult to model. NEC4 can do better than NEC2 though even that has limits. Relying solely on models to characterize performance and comparison to the 4-square (this array's nearest competitor) may be unwise. How will they perform in practice?

Perhaps the greatest problems with comparisons are propagation variability and instrumentation for measuring differences. Direct A/B comparisons are typically impossible since no one I know has both a 4-square and a 3-element vertical yagi for the same band.

F/B on both antennas is sensitive to tuning. I wonder how many 4-squares are tuned so well that F/B measures at or near what is theoretically possible. Maximizing F/B is difficult in any antenna since balancing phase and amplitude so that near perfect cancellation of fields in the reverse direction occurs. Consider than 30 db of F/B requires 99.8% field cancellation! That is a challenge even with commercial phasing and switching systems.

Claims of 25 to 30 db or more of F/B should be looked at critically. How was it measured? With an S-meter? That is a sure path to overstatement. S-meters are not linear and follow no standard. There are a few recent model SDR receivers that do better by digitally compensating for the analogue data coming from the receiver. Unless you have and can confirm calibration no S-meter should be relied upon for a dependable measurement.

We have also seen that the vertical yagi F/B is sensitive to ground loss, and therefore the quality of the radial system. More and longer radials improve gain and F/B. Even so it can never reach the performance of a well-tuned 4-square. Even then the performance bandwidth is narrow. Many owners of 4-squares find that no separate receive antenna is necessary other than in exceptional cases since the directivity is quite good. That's persuasive.

A vertical yagi will require resorting to a separate highly directive receive antenna more often than with a 4-square. I believe I can live with that. I may change my mind after building and living with this antenna for a while. Unlike in an earlier article that derided the importance of F/B the viewpoint I espoused is less supportable on the low bands where good directivity is needed to copy under the prevailing low SNR conditions.

Construction plans and testing

The construction and testing sequence is laid out above in the modelling section: tune the driven element after construction it and its radial system and then move on to the wire elements, tuning each of those with all other elements floating. Only then should the system be driven as a parasitic array and the L-network designed and built.

I will initially use 20 meter long radials for the driven element and 15 or 16 meter radials for the parasitic elements, as reasoned above. My aim is 32 radials for the driven element and 16 for the parasitic elements. Doubling the number of radials to improve performance can be accomplished later by placing a new one between each pair of existing radials.

Directions covered by the array do not have to be at 90° intervals, unlike the 4-square. The only constraint is that the director and reflector must be in a line with the driven element (tower). My choices (already surveyed and staked) are: 50° and 230°; and 160° and 340°. The first pair covers Europe and most of the US and Pacific. The second pair covers Japan and east Asia, and the Caribbean and South America. From here those are the most productive directions for contests. The beam width is wide enough that there are few coverage gaps, and one can always resort to the omni-directional mode.

As mentioned at the beginning the weather turned foul very quickly in December. I did manage to get the tower anchors installed mere hours in advance of the initial blast of frigid temperatures. During a brief January thaw I tested the anchors and found them to be inadequate. The screw (auger) anchors have to be longer and/or wider to withstand the wind load. Altering or replacing the anchors is not difficult but it cannot be done in the winter. Hence construction is delayed by a few months.

Once the tower (driven element) is up and the radials rolled out I will compare it to the high inverted vee so that I have data on how they compare. After that the inverted vee will be removed, at least for the time being. The tower has to be cleared of obstructions to raise side mount yagis, a priority this year.

Spring is coming

Sunday, February 4, 2018

CQ 160 With the New Antenna

Last weekend I entered the CQ 160 CW contest with the objective of running up my DXCC total and working whatever else I could find when I wasn't doing that. I not only had no intention of being competitive I didn't even notice the point structure until after the contest started. It seems that this is another contest in which US and Canadian scores are not comparable due to the population asymmetry. In that it is no different from CQ WW.

By not being competitive I was free to operate when I pleased, in whatever manner I pleased, and to walk away from the rig when it stopped being enjoyable. The last occurred when the availability of stations to work dropped off. This is typical of single band contests and in contests like ARRL Sweepstakes where you can only work a station once regardless of band. For that reason I kept to regular meal times knowing that the majority of stations would be there later.

DX results

If you peruse the claimed scores on 3830 you'll notice how it played out. My country total was  relatively high compared to my peers (single op, low power) while my QSO count was low. That is as it should be. Conditions to Europe were especially good the first night (as most participants noted) and I had no trouble running Europeans as the sunrise line swept across the continent. Indeed many stations were worked well after their sunrise. Out of 666 QSOs 130 of them were 10 pointers (between continents), the large majority of which were European. That's pretty good for 150 watts.

The final tally was 51 countries worked (not including VE and K) and boosted my DXCC count to 82 on top band. It has since climbed to 85 (LoTW shows 60). My goal of reaching 100 countries by the spring is well on track.

This is further confirmation that my antenna works, and that it very competitive with other stations. There is no surprise in this since most hams have great difficulty putting up an efficient low angle radiator on 160 meters. Another way of putting it is not that my antenna is great but that others' are so poor. Imagine what 160 would sound like if everyone could put up an effective antenna!

Running up the QSO total

If you peruse the results posted to 3830 you'll notice that many report having been active for only a brief period, some no more than one or two hours. To have a chance of working those casual operators you must be active for the maximum allowed under the rules -- 30 hours in this contest for single op entries. These stations are difficult to work them they do not call CQ and only work the stations they find or want. You must run to have a chance, hoping they find and call you during the brief time they are on.

After the first night when the majority of serious competitors have been worked it can make for seriously low rates and boredom. Yet it's necessary. Operating assisted can relieve much of the boredom since you can take a break from continuously CQing to QSY, work the fresh meat and then return to running. I learned to do this pretty well while operating this contest from a multi-op station.

For unassisted stations such as myself last weekend running can be as exciting as watching paint dry. That is why I kept stepping away from the shack. New stations are always showing up and running can be resumed later with decent rates, for a little while at least. Search and pounce is largely pointless since there are so few unworked stations that are running. Some operators combine running and hunting by going SO2R or SO2V. I didn't do this despite having this capability with the two receivers in my FTdx5000. I'll consider doing so in future.

The point is that running is mandatory, no matter how boring it gets, if you hope to do well. I avoided this for the most part since I was not aiming for a winning score.

The terminator is your friend

The proximity of the terminator, whether sunrise or sunset, at both ends of the path can be critical to understanding propagation on 160 meters. This is because atmospheric noise strongly determines success.

For example, I can hear Europeans on my Beverage antenna well before my sunset even though absorption is quite high in the sunlit hemisphere since noise and signals are similarly attenuated. Unfortunately the reverse is not true in Europe where night is well advanced and they are receiving atmospheric noise from all directions. Hence they cannot copy signals from North America. Even after our sunset terminator passes the inequity of noise levels continues for at least another hour, after which copy becomes equally good (or poor).

As sunrise approaches Europe from the east their noise level drops. At this time they begin to be able to copy weaker signals from North America. This most likely explains our success with working Europe after our midnight, and even after the sunrise terminator has passed for some stations in Europe. This is where directive receive antennas show their mettle by making it possible hear the Europeans who are then better able to copy us.

With my northeast Beverage antenna many of those who replied to my CQ in the contest at that time were barely above the noise level. Without the Beverage they would not have been copied and some might not have been heard.

Many of the so-called gray line contacts on the low bands can be attributed to reduced atmospheric QRN at both ends of the path rather than propagation enhancement. However the latter remains an important factor in many if not most cases.

Future work planned

Spend any amount of time on the low bands and you'll soon learn who the alligators are. Those stations everyone can hear yet they copy only the strongest signals. Sometimes that's due to man-made or tropical/summer QRN while other times they do not have directive receive antennas, even a small one such as pennant or flag that can fit in a small space. In a few case it's because they run excessive (and illegal) power.

I am well set up to receive European signals that are close to the noise level. I now need more Beverage antennas to cover more directions. This will be especially important when I make the move back to QRO operating since a bigger signal attracts more and weaker callers and I don't want to become one of those alligators. I want to be able to work them.

I have been surveying routes for the Beverages and making a list of parts to order to construct a remote switch to select among the Beverages. The next one will be a reversible Beverage made with coaxial cable. It is more complex than a unidirectional Beverage but saves a lot of effort overall. I have several resources from which I am adapting the design. When it's done I'll write an article about it. If it works well I'll build another, otherwise I may go back to unidirectional antennas.

My next article will be about antenna design rather than operating. Those appear to be the most popular of the articles on this blog and are the ones I most enjoy writing.  Spring is coming and I want to be prepared.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Phantom QSOs

I live in an RF quiet environment. Or at least I do now that the local utility has fixed an intermittent source of power line arcing. Because it's so quiet I hear things that others do not. Indeed I can hear quite a few stations that cannot here me at all, which is especially true on the low bands. For example, in the run up to CQ 160 contest I could copy many European stations on my northeast Beverage a full 2 hours before sunset.

Having decent antennas does not compensate for being -10 to -13 db from the QRO of many (most?) stations on 80 and 160 meters. I also have to contend with the fact that the vast majority of stations do have local QRN that raises their noise floor, making it difficult to impossible to hear similarly equipped stations. In severe cases they can copy no one. A good recent example was the 6O6O DXpedition from Somalia who often had such strong QRN in Mogadishu that they simply shut down for hours at a time.

Unfortunately QRN from many sources in our modern civilization has become unavoidable. For the majority in urban and suburban locales it must simply be dealt with. It is no surprise that many stations, and not just on the low bands, cannot hear many of the stations that call them. QRO helps them to be heard with the small antennas they can fit within their properties, but that helps not at all on receive. Nulling loops and other compact directive receiving antennas cannot perform miracles.

As a result they have difficulty working the DX or contest QSO they are chasing. It is perhaps no surprise that some will take shortcuts to achieve their goals. By this I do not mean the cheaters using remote receivers that are easily accessible over the internet -- that's an entirely separate discussion. What I mean are those who complete their QSOs with a wish or a prayer. Let me give you a few examples.
  • In the 160 meter Stew Perry Top Band Challenge there was one European station I called that managed at first to successfully copy my VE3 prefix and nothing else. This QSO would be a challenge regardless since I entered as QRP (5 watts). After a few more tries he started guessing. I attempted to correct his guesses, which he also couldn't copy. Eventually he settled on a particular call and stuck with it, going so far as to imagine the exchange and log it despite my repeated attempts to correct him. I didn't log the QSO.
  • Several times while tuning 160 and 80 meters CW I would come across a QSO between a North American station and a DX station where one or both has difficulty copying. Whether it's QRN, local QRM, a power difference or an antenna difference I couldn't know. I can copy both perfectly well which gives me a front row seat to what follows. One station sends the incorrect call and other can't tell it's incorrect. They proceed to complete the QSO after numerous turn overs, with one or both call signs incorrect! I've heard the same with contest exchanges.
  • In a DX pile up there will occasionally appear a caller who obviously does not hear the DX station very well for whatever reason. I hear a lot of this on split operations since I have dual receive, with one receiver to each side of the headphones. That operator proceeds to imagine that the DX has responded to him, despite (obvious to me) that it is another station that the DX is responding to. Usually there is some similarity between the call signs, which creates hope for our intrepid DXer. The phantom QSO is completed and logged without the DX operator's awareness.
As I said this is more common on the low bands although it does happen on higher bands. Hope springs eternal, I guess. Be sure that this doesn't happen to you. If you do not positively copy the other station sending your call sign and exchange don't let your hopes and imagination run wild. You will be disappointed when the QSO doesn't appear in their log.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sound of Silence: QRN Eliminated

Back in December I mentioned (and showed a picture) of power line noise I have been experiencing at times throughout 2017. Now it's gone. To refresh our memories here is the noise on 6 meters with the yagi pointed directly at the noise source.

That's bad, real bad. As the frequency is decreased the noise gradually declines in signal strength with increasing loss of pulse definition. On 6 meters through 15 meters the noise could be mostly removed with the noise blanker, at the expense of inter-modulation distortion (IMD) products. This gets particularly ugly when faced with contest and pile up conditions.

Interestingly there was no impact on 80 or 160 meters. On 40 meters the yagi saw the noise as an deterioration of the noise floor, but not whten using the inverted vee.

Now the noise is gone. From the discussion I had with the utility crew I suspect it will not be back.

This is an exceedingly uninteresting picture, and it's just how I like it.

I have to say that the local electrical utility, Hydro One, was very responsive and helpful. This is welcome since we have among the highest electricity prices in the country. On top of that we face high distribution fees in our "rural, low density" township.

As a general rule utilities like to find and fix problems like this one. What they don't like is wasted labour costs spent searching for and not finding the source of the problem. This is why it is helpful to first localize the problem before calling them out. The intermittent nature of so many power line equipment problems can then be eliminated as a time waster. The crew lead told me that there is quite a lot of old and problematic equipment out here that they would in any case like to replace. My call had the effect of giving them a reason to do so.

I did not localize the problem since I am not equipped to easily go out with portable equipment that can find problems like this one. What I could do was accurately determine the direction from my house. In our low density neighbourhood this was enough since there is very little distribution equipment compared to towns and cities. In fact I could point them directly at the most likely culprit.

Although the noise was not present when the crew arrived with their bucket truck they went right to work. They found and replaced two cracked insulators, isolated the lines from rotting wood posts and replaced old switches just in case they were contributing to the problem. As they worked the noise appeared, disappeared, came back in spurts and then disappeared for good. I could listen as they worked since the power wasn't disconnected on my segment of the distribution network.

Then they switched off my power and went north to replace suspect switches at two other transformers. I have had weak power line QRN in that direction a few times so perhaps that will also disappear. Time will tell. Is there still some power line QRN? Yes, but just weak source or sources that are not serious problems. At least not at present. As equipment ages and deteriorates the future appearance is more a matter of when not if.

Rural distribution is typically 14,400 VAC, twice that in urban areas. It can run as high as 28,800 VAC. The higher voltage is more prone to causing arcs when equipment deteriorates. I don't know the distribution voltage on my road. I ought to have asked.

Now I have one less worry when I switch on the rig. The only serious noise remaining is from the Ethernet cable drop from my terrestrial wireless ISP antenna. I may deal with that later this year. It is now a minor problem since I mostly use the antennas on the new tower which are quite a lot farther from the house. All the LED lighting I have been installing has been clean, as is the new heat pump. A year ago I replaced a dimmer switch that created a lot of QRN on the low bands.

I am getting closer to having a QRN free QTH. Listening here in the relatively empty farm and bush country is wonderfully quiet. You can't work them if you can't hear them. Now I can hear them. They don't always hear me, but that's to be expected.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

2018: Unfinished Business and More

2017 was a big year at VE3VN, though one with even bigger objectives. In January of last year I had just topped the Trylon with a small tri-bander and a 40 meter yagi and then was left spinning my wheels after the aborted first attempt to plant the foundation for the 150' tower. Ongoing delays in putting up the big tower pretty well defined the entire year. My ambitious objectives for 2017 were only partially fulfilled.

As the so-called polar vortex descended upon us before Christmas, bringing my late year antenna projects to an abrupt halt, I could do nothing but wait it out. Over the holidays I could have done quite a lot indoors to progress matters while waiting for the weather to improve but the reality is that I did very little. I needed a rest.

Now that the weather has improved and my enthusiasm is perking up it is time for my annual look back and plan forward, something that has become a regular feature of this blog. Writing it down may do more for me than you, by forcing me to face certain truths about what I can do and what I should or should not attempt.

Hopefully readers will gain something from it as well, in particular those who have ambitions to improve their antenna farms. If this sort of article bores you I won't be offended if you choose to skip it. Perhaps I'm the only beneficiary is me. Putting plans in writing forces me to carefully think and decide whether the plan is doable and encompasses my interests and capabilities.

With that introduction let's plow onward.

What went wrong

Without question the most vexing item to plague me in 2017 was the necessary time to raise the big tower. There were a few things that caused the delay:
  • Our wet spring was a record breaker. Excavation and below surface work could not be resumed until June. It was originally slated for late 2016 when an early winter storm interrupted the work. If that had been done the tower would have been raised months earlier.
  • Let's face it, we're all getting older. There are fewer hams willing and able to help out than in the past. The situation is not getting better. I nearly succumbed to hiring the work out professionally even though I am fully capable of working on the tower. The friends who did come out to help were a real blessing. Even so they are limited in how much time they can spend here. Excellent weather was wasted when they could not make it.
  • I care about doing a proper job. That entailed quite a lot of research, backtracking when I was unsatisfied with a tool or procedure, and long hours. On the plus side I am have no fears that the tower will come down in the first serious storm to come along. Since maintenance is the bugaboo of large antenna farms it pays to get it right the first time so that you don't have to redo it again and again.
  • The active flora and fauna in a hay field create their own hazards. Wading through the high hay inevitably means dealing with ticks until early July at least. After that the black flies, mosquitoes and their larger cousins were so fierce as to frequently drive me indoors. Even if I cleared the field it would only reduce the tick population and help not at all with the rest. That would also annoy my neighbours who rely on the hay to feed their livestock.
During the quiet times between bouts of tower work I did quite a lot of antenna modelling and exploration of physical design alternatives.

Unfinished business

Although much of my 2017 plan was not completed there are a few projects that were started and then rudely interrupted. Weather was the main culprit. Cold, windy, snowy conditions hit fast and hard in December and did not let up. Apart from a few warm days recently the bitter conditions have resumed. The following items must wait for spring to arrive.

I had hoped be far enough along with construction of the 80 meter array that it could be used as a simple vertical over the winter. I succeeded with putting in the screw anchors for the guys just in time. When the weather warmed I stood up the first two tower sections and used rope as temporary guys. When I returned the next day to finish insulating the legs from ground I discovered that two of the screw anchors had moved. After further testing I decided that the anchors are inadequate for the prevailing soil conditions; the sub-surface soil turned into a slurry that demands deeper anchors with more bearing surface. That job is not practical in the extreme cold.

Cable burial had to be deferred when the frost penetrated the ground and didn't relent. Until April I can only hope that the deer don't abuse the Heliax buried under the snow and ice. All of the cables are suitably rated to survive the winter.

Terminations of the many runs of Cat5 control cable are open air rather than sealed in boxes at the towers. The few connections needed right now are manually spliced and roughly weatherproofed. Fine work of this type is too difficult in cold weather since much of it must be done with bare hands. The gel-filled cable can handle a moderate amount of moisture exposure without damage.

80 m array

The 80/40 meter fan inverted vee is temporary and will come down later this spring. I want it for long enough to compare it to the 80 meter vertical array that I am building, or at least in its preliminary omni-directional (single element) configuration. This is necessary intelligence to predict the array's performance and determine whether I still need a horizontal 80 meter antenna for short path and select DXing conditions.

The design of the 80 meter vertical yagi array has refined and compared, on the computer, to the 4-square array for a range of ground types and radial systems. I plan to devote an article to the revised antenna within the next month.

Design of the switching system has lagged. It's simple enough but it has to be fully specified and then built. The feed line and control cable to feed the array is ready to be installed once the weather improves. These, too, require trenching and burial.

I expect to have a horizontal antenna for short path work to complement the vertical array. I haven't yet decided exactly what and where. There is a dependency on high band yagis for which I want to avoid destruction interactions when they are on the same tower.

New tower

As I reread my plan for 2017 in preparation for this article there was one item that had me laughing: putting up a second big tower. In retrospect my optimism was, to put it mildly, misplaced. Yet for 2018 this is back on the table. Indeed without a decision my antenna plans cannot be finalized. That is, what do I put where?

There are considerations of stacking and interaction to be thought through. Otherwise I'll find myself putting antennas up then taking them down again within the year. That amount of churn may be acceptable for this winter on the existing big tower but it should not become a habit!

If it does go up it will be placed approximately south of the house in the spot reserved for it in my original site plan. This location has its good and bad points with respect to antenna interactions between towers. The main negative is that yagis on the towers will in certain cases point at each other when working Europe or the US. On the positive side this is an ideal orientation for low band wire yagis by running a rope between the towers.

Should the tower go up I already have one in reserve at an attractive price. I haven't bought it yet and the seller will give me first refusal in the unlikely case another buyer appears. The tower is identical to what I already have -- Leblanc & Royale LR20 surplus broadcast tower. I can use the same tooling to raise it and custom attachments will fit both.

It will not be as high. My aim is between 120' and 140' to allow stacking on 20 meters and 15 meters. The existing tower can then be dedicated to 40 meter antennas and then either tri-band yagis or 10 meter antennas. Wires antennas for the low bands will fit in somewhere. It is common practice for those with two towers to put 40 and 10 on one and 20 and 15 on the others to minimize interactions. In addition the 20 and 15 meter antennas tend to point in the same direction for much of the time, and this arrangement is helpful in that regard.

My decision on the tower is pending. There is more to think through before committing to it this year.

Yagis for the high bands

I had big plans for yagis on the big tower last year. Instead all I could do was put up the tri-band yagis I had on hand in the rush before the winter closed in for good. What I have is effective though limited in capability and flexibility. High band yagis are now a priority.

For the next 3 years I can get away with nothing more than what I have on 10 meters. All the openings are marginal and fleeting, and therefore addressable with a tri-band yagi up high and another down low. Indeed it is likely that I will still have a tri-band yagi on top of the big tower rather than a mono band yagi (or yagis). If I get another tower up then I can alter this plan. But if I do that I suspect I'll have little time (again) to build and raise antennas.

This brings us to 20 and 15 meters. Yes, there are other bands up there -- 17 and 12 meters -- which are not contest bands and therefore lower priority. Assuming I have no more towers this year I want to get at least one long boom 20 meter yagi and two on 15 meters fixed on Europe, and if I can I will make one or two of them rotatable. Alternatively I can pick up a cheap TH6 on the used market and stack it with the top TH6, substituting it for the Explorer 14 up ~115' (34 m).

The 5-element 15 meter yagi I designed for the boom tubing I have on hand is still a possibility. So are other options. This is a decision I must defer for a while longer. What I will most likely have to choose between is mono-band or tri-band yagis but not both since having both near each other cause unwanted interactions.

The bottom line is that I must remain flexible for the next several months until other plans solidify. Rather than overreach as I did in 2017 I will be pragmatic and seize opportunities as they appear.

40 meter challenge

I am shelving plans for a full size 3-element yagi on the big tower. I may do so eventually but not until I am truly ready to tackle a project that large. Instead what I'd like to do this year is to build a full size fixed 3-element yagi at ~80' (25 m) switchable between northeast and southwest. This will give me excellent coverage of both Europe and the US under most conditions.

A fixed yagi simplifies design, construction and installation. If all goes well I can put a similar antenna up top next year or later. Stacking the two is a possibility if they are sufficiently similar or identical. I expect the XM240 to remain on top for at least this year. It could be moved elsewhere, possibly converted to a W6NL Moxon for increased agility on 40 meters.

My preference for the fixed yagi is to use dipole tubing elements on a boom of at least 40' (12 m). A wire fixed yagi is less desirable due to the decreased average height and clutter in the hay field. Of course the first problem can be remedied by raising the apex, though at the expense of interactions with planned side mount yagis for the high bands above it.

I have most of the aluminum on hand for the boom and element centres, but not the smaller sizes. There are numerous other construction details that I need to work through. I don't mind spending some money on an experiment provided it doesn't get out of hand.

I will rework earlier models of wire yagis, shortened element yagis and full size yagis for now, and leave the final decision to the summer with construction slated for late summer or early fall.

Receive antennas

The Beverage I put up last winter continues to perform exceedingly well. Unfortunately it is only useful for working Europe and other regions in that direction. For contesting that's still a lot since it is a very productive path. Now my problem is all the other directions. There are several options that are compatible with my situation.

I have ruled out a vertical circle array. They are expensive, complex, can only be optimized for one band and require pre-amps that (according to others) often overload in the presence of a kilowatt on another band. This is unfortunate since they are reported to work better than Beverages.

Although simple and cheap, high performing Beverages have their challenges. For one, installing and maintaining them in the bush where I most want to put them is difficult, trees fall on the wire (this has already happened though without serious damage) and having enough of them to fully cover the compass without encountering siting problems and common mode risks due to the coax running from each to a control box. I will need to design and build a control box and remote switch.

I am currently investigating reversible Beverages to reduce the magnitude of the problem. Since running parallel wires through the bush is really difficult I am tentatively planning to experiment with a reversible Beverage made out of coax. It will either be east/west or north/south. Achieving good balance in the transformers seems to be the key requirement to ensure good directivity. I can do this while the weather is frigid, only risking frostbite!

If it works well I'll do more of them, though possibly not until the fall.

Station automation

Remote antenna switching, automatic antenna selection when changing bands, rotator control, filter selection, SO2R and more fall under this topic. That's a lot to do. I've begun some of it with a remote 8x2 antenna switch, although with a manual selector in the shack. Automation is not only convenient but also necessary for effective contesting when SO2R and multi-op.

I don't expect to get very far this winter. Since I plan to mostly build rather than buy the control systems I have purchased an Arduino and accessories to prototype simple items such as band decoders, antenna selection and control of the prop pitch rotator. Design of the systems and integration with the station are the major challenges. Writing the software is straightforward since I have done quite a lot of commercial software development and the academics to back it up. It should be fun.

I am as yet undecided whether to build or buy, or have a mix of both. It's a question of time versus money and customization to my own needs and wants.

As a consequence of automation I will to consider the impact on amplifiers and antennas. I will have to decide to spend more on a broadband solid state amplifier (or two) or have to fiddle with their tuning if I opt for cheaper and more robust tube amps. Antennas should have low SWR across the band for automation to be simplest. Otherwise broadband amps will complain and both transceivers and tube amps will need to be adjusted when changing bands, changing frequency and switching among antennas for the same band.

For the winter I will mostly stick to experimentation and prototyping, aiming for implementation in the autumn.


This is the year I intend to return to QRO with at least one amplifier. There is no definite schedule. I will react to opportunities as they arise. Two amplifiers will eventually be needed for SO2R and multi-op contests. Two 240 volt circuits will have to be installed.

Choosing those amplifiers will be challenging. Ideally they will be solid state, no tune amplifiers capable of full power at an SWR of 2. They can be expensive. Amplifiers that require tuning, including economical tube amplifiers on the used market, are more flexible.

The latter would require extensive station automation so that band and antenna switching only requires setting the dials on the amps, otherwise time is wasted and costly mistakes are more likely.


If time allows I'd like to put up a 2 meter yagi on the Trylon just below the 6 meter yagi. That will serve me well for playing in VHF contests and occasional DXing. The original plan to use my roll of AVA7 (1-⅝" Heliax) for these antennas has changed. I will instead reserve that coax for the new tower to reduce loss on the high HF bands. It's a matter of my personal priorities.

The VHF yagis will most likely share a single run of LDF5 Heliax with a switch on the tower. I have no compelling reason to operate on 2 and 6 meters at the same time.

Last but not least: self improvement

Building a world class antenna farm with equipment and station automation to match is not enough. If you were to put a typical competent contester at the controls of such a station they would lose. Every single time. Too many imagine that if they had a big station that soon the walls would be covered in plaques. Not so.

Contesting is a skill that requires talent and constant practice. In that respect it is no different from an elite athlete or a highly performing tradesman or professional. It only seems easy in our imaginations. Skill improvement and operating techniques are beneficial for the little guys as much as for the big guns. Do not excuse yourself from making the effort.

That is a roundabout way to say that I am becoming a major impediment to better contest results. Although I have extensive contest experience and would even class myself a good operator there just is no comparison between myself and the upper ranks of the contesting world. I will have to improve. That became particularly clear to me this past weekend in the NAQP CW when I found myself in a team with a few of the country's foremost contesters and competitors in the forthcoming WRTC 2018. It was a humbling experience.

Operating a big station is very different from doing a contest with low power (including QRP) or modest antennas. The required intensity is unrelenting. As one big gun told me: you always have to be running. You have to be there CQing or the casual operators won't have an opportunity to call you. With a big signal your log will fill with QSOs and multipliers without scouring the bands.

They do of course also hunt for QSOs and multipliers, but they do so concurrently on a second rig. SO2R is mandatory. Liking SO2R and running is optional, but you must do it. I do not yet have the equipment or skills to do SO2R. That is in my 2018 plan. First I will start with simulations then advance to smaller contests. Even if I never equal the best at the craft (likely) my score potential will greatly improve. Station automation will support what's needed.

Old dogs can learn new tricks. Never stop learning.