Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Skip the Software for Programming Your Radio

I finally made the plunge and dumped my over complicated feature-rich HT and bought a shiny new Yaesu FT60r. The venerable king of dual-band HTs--at least in my mind. I always look for a few key things in a radio: it must be robust, it must run on easy to find and readily available power sources, and it must be relatively easy to program...by hand. The FT60r fits the bill. It is built like a tank, runs on inexpensive battery packs or AA's (at full 5W output no less), and it can be easily programmed without software.

Last night I spent an hour or two programming in all my local repeaters, simplex frequencies, and public service channels. I did it all with the manual in one hand and the radio in the other. Why program by hand? Because now I know my radio inside out. I can program anything I want on the fly, without the manual or need of a computer. So, when I'm working comms for a bike race and net control decides to use a cross-band repeater or I'm in a strange city and I catch wind of an active net, I can quickly and easily program the channel, even if it is an odd split, has DCS and PL tones, or whatever else. I don't need a computer, I don't need the manual. I KNOW how to do it. I think you should too. 

Sure, software in convenient, until you need it and either don't have it with you or can't get it to work properly. I can't tell you how many times I've run into issues where I needed to make a simple change on my HT and needed to take out a student loan to figure out how to complete the task. So I would wait. I would go home, power up the computer, be forced to go through 27,000 "critical" software updates, try and remember which port my programming cable worked on last time so I could fashion a guess at which one might work this time, find the last file I uploaded, make the changes, send them to the radio, shut everything down, power up the radio and realize that I had nothing programmed now, power everything back on, start over... After a few attempts, I would give up. I have enough frustration in my life to add any to my hobby, so I decided to go simple.

I imagine that people wonder how to tackle a long hand-programming project, so let me give you a few pointers:

Plan your Program on Paper (or Computer)


I have 152 channels programmed on my FT60r. That's a fair bit to tackle in an evening, but I did it. Print out a spread sheet with all the required information (i.e. RX Frequency, Repeater Offset, PL or DCS tone Frequencies, etc..). Print out two copies, one to cross out as you go and one for reference later. Spend time programing five or six channels at a time and then check your work. I small mix up can be caught quickly that way rather than a hundred channels down the road.

Plan for Operational Efficiency


My first elmer taught me a trick that has stuck with me. When I program a repeater into my radio, I add a channel above and below it. The channel preceding the repeater is set to simplex on the repeater's input frequency. So, if I have a hypothetical repeater on 146.625 MHz with a standard negative offset, I would set the proceeding channel to 146.025 MHz Simplex. Then on the channel after the repeater, I program the repeater's output (in this case 146.625 MHz) also simplex. Then I set the radio to skip the channels before and after the repeater when scanning. Why would I go through all this trouble? I'm glad you asked.

So, I'm out in the field and talking to my buddy or net control or some random other Ham on the repeater, when I notice that there are a lot of "breaks" happening. Maybe we've been chatting too long. So, on his next transmission I rotate the dial back a click and see if I can hear him on the input or the repeater. I can. So I suggest that we QSY to a nearby simplex frequency and let the repeater cool down. OR. A massive storm is under way and I'm net control for the local SkyWarn team when the repeater goes down. I quickly spin the dial one click forward and keep communicating critical information to the team. 

Because I set the radio to skip the simplex frequencies on either side of the repeater channel. I am assured that I will be on the right channel when my radio is scanning and I hear a friend throw out his call. I can stop the scan and talk away unencumbered.

If your radio's memory system utilizes memory banks, now is a great time to set your channels up accordingly. I set the channels I use most often into Bank 1, local Emergency and Public Service Channels go into Bank 2, Bank 3 holds other channels I use from time to time, and Bank 4 is everything else. By using the banks, I can weed out unnecessary scanning depending on the intended use of the radio on any given day.

Have a Highlighter Handy

A radio manual should be dog-eared, highlighted, annotated, and stuffed with post-it notes. Most people will suggest that you carry the manual with the radio. While that is sound advice, it is rarely practical, so a well studied manual, that resides in your mind's eye, is your best bet. When you find those little "ah-hah" snippets in the manual, please highlight them, star them, underline them, and dog-ear the page. Flip through your marked up manual once in a while and you are sure to remember the pink starred post-it-noted line on page 106 that tells you which button to push.

So that's it. That's why I think you should program your radio by hand, with a good solid plan in hand. That being said, programming software is not evil, in fact it can be quite handy, but not as a substitute for actually learning how to use your gear. Have fun programming.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Winter Wonderland

The QTH is warm and cozy, but everything outside is frozen. It seems like the bands are as well. This AM a few stations were floating in, but most of them were from Europe and about to go QRT by the time I got on the air, so I switched it up.

I heated up the iron and turned on some old-time Christmas tunes. I soldered away and wound a toroid or two in hopes of getting my new QRPP beacon on the air before the new year. The build is going slowly, but that's because there are so many other things going on this time of year. I don't mind. I love the Christmas season and with three young children, it's a magical time of year, full of plays, shows, rides in the car looking at decorations, and of course...sledding.

I've been pretty lax on my CW lately. I fear I've forgotten more than I remember, so I guess it's about time to get back into it. I really want to be proficient enough to have a few QSOs before the New Year. I had no idea how difficult it was going to be to learn Morse code. I feel like I've tried everything available to me. CDs, apps, on-line tools have all proved useful, but not complete. I really wish I had someone local to work with, but I've visited two clubs in the area and honestly...I want no part in them. One is run like a prison camp and the other is exactly the opposite. Is it impossible to have a Radio club that is both fun and organized? I'm losing faith.

Winter has always been a time of rumination and soul-searching for me, so I apologize if this post is a little too much of a downer. Like all things in life, Ham Radio has seasons and maybe winter is for rebuilding and reinventing. If that's the truth: I've got some work to do, but first, I'm taking my kids out back to go sledding.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Back to Work

Lately, I've spent most of my limited radio time playing with a new antenna and tweaking my QRP rigs. It dawned on me this past weekend that I haven't worked on my CW in quite a while.
If you've read anything on this blog before, you'll know that I am new to CW and that I have been trying to learn the code at 13-15 WPM in hopes of getting on the air without the need to immediately re-learn at a faster speed. I knew at the start that this would make the learning slower and more challenging, but I was dedicated to the process...for a while.

Life has a way of getting between my responsibilities and my hobbies, but things in our house have quieted to a dull roar. The kids are back in school and there is a sense of "normal" again. "Normal" means regular bed times for the kids and an extra hour or two of uninterrupted time for me and the wife. I've been trying to remember to turn off the TV and work on the code. I think it's beginning to pay off.

I jumped back onto http://www.lcwo.net this morning. It has been over a month since my last login, so it took me a few minutes to remember where I was. I dialed the speed back from 15 WPM to 13 WPM and started over at lesson one. Twenty minutes after beginning, I was back through lesson three with 100% copy and 70% copy on my first attempt at lesson four.

I plan on spending the next two weeks, "hitting the "books" hard." I really want to be able to work some of the upcoming sprints and contests on CW. Also, with my tower project on financial hiatus, I want to have a better shot of completing my DXCC before the 2014 Dayton Hamvention. Obviously, CW will help greatly in that regard as I am limited to two wires and possibly a home-brew vertical for operation this winter.

Learning the code is difficult, but I can already feel the glory of knowing it. In fact, I'm becoming so enamored with CW that I find I hardly even pick up the mic anymore in lieu of listening to the slower speed sections of the bands. I'm sure that I will fully embrace the life of a dedicated Morse operator, but I need to focus on really learning to hear over the next two weeks. Wish me luck.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Ten Tec Rebel 506 Has Arrived

Here is a very quick look and listen to the new Ten Tec Rebel 506. I literally un-boxed it, made a few connections, and shot this video in a hurry. Check back in a few days to see my progress in making this rig sing

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Your Ten Tech Order Has Shipped

Woo Hoo! I've been waiting for my Ten Tec Rebel 506 since Dayton. I'm so excited to delve into this new experimental QRP rig and see what kind of awesomeness I can pull out of it. I have so much planned already.

I've been experimenting with an Arduino Uno for the past few months in preparation for this rig, which has a chipKIT Uno 32 (Arduino based but much more powerful) micro-controller as a brain. I've learned a lot about what can be done. There is a LOT that can be done to personalize this rig and make it a QPR Holy Grail.

I'm planning on getting started as soon as this my new rig arrives. Here is a quick laundry list of add-ons and upgrades I'm considering:

  • LCD display (maybe replaced by a touch screen display in the near future)
    • Frequency Readout
    • Power Output
    • Battery Level
    • SWR
  • CW Memory Keyer with a knob speed control
  • Morse decoder (Wait for it...)
  • On board one-button logging, using an internal clock and the decoded Morse (BANG!)
  • A waterfall display
  • Built in QRSS 
Anyway, there are a few of my dreams for the winter projects. Hopefully, I'll be rporting on their successes here shortly.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

2 Strikes, Then Out of the Park!

I've been working on my Hendricks PFR-3 Build for several weeks now. Admittedly  I was nervous to test everything after assemble and put off casing the unit until this past weekend. Before I put it in the case, everything was working great! Then, just after I turned the last screw on the cover...nothing. The receiver was dead. Power output went from 4.5W on 40m to barley readable. from 5W on 20m to 1W. I was pretty bummed out, but I knew that it had to be something silly, so I tore it back out and began poking around.

That was four days ago. By last night, I had fixed a few solder joints and got 5W or so out on every band. However, for the receiver  I was out of ideas. I sent an email off to Steven Weber, KD1JV. By this morning, I had an email waiting for me. He offered a few suggestions that I implemented after work this evening. Still nothing. So I sent him another email begging for help. A response came ten minutes later (now that's what I call customer service). It seems I had my wires crossed, both literally and figuratively. One of the toroids in the RX section was mis-wound and I had crossed the primary and secondary thereby bypassing the tuning capacitor. No wonder the receiver was deaf.

It's too late to box the whole thing up again tonight, but by tomorrow, I will have officially completed my first kit radio. I am so excited to use this radio out in the field. It's going to be a real charge when some other camper or backpacker asks me what I'm doing. I can't wait to tell them that I'm talking with someone far away on a radio I built in my shack.

Friday, June 28, 2013

RM11699 is a Well-Intentioned Bad Idea

I have been an Emergency Communicator. I understand the limitations of what can and cannot be communicated via amateur radio during emergency activation. I also believe that Mr. Rolph AB1PH has the best intentions in his Petition for Rule Making to the FCC (RM11699). I still think it's a bad idea to grant amateurs permission to transmit encrypted messages in any form other than remotely controlling equipment.

There are many things happening in an emergency, many of which SHOULD be encrypted for the protection of those involved. However, messages of this magnitude, should ONLY be handled by professional Emergency Personnel with the ability to act on the encrypted information. Such messages are in NO WAY the responsibility of amateur communicators. 

Amateur Radio has proven itself over and over as a viable and robust emergency communication tool and it should continue to serve the public in times of need by opening communication, "when all else fails." But, the moment amateurs are asked to shoulder the weight of highly sensitive medical and tactical communication, it is no longer amateur communication. In asking the FCC to grant the right to transmit and receive such communications, amateurs would open themselves to the full ramifications of mishandling said communications, which they are not--nor should they be required to be--trained to handle. Amateur Radio is first and foremost a hobby. Albeit a hobby that can serve the public in times of need.

It is my hope that the ARRL and the FCC consider the weight that this petition asks them to bear and that it is ultimately denied. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Quick and Dirty Field Day Doublet

Last night I got home with a few hours of daylight to spare (thank you very much Summer Solstice) so I decided to throw a quick and dirty doublet together for Field Day. Like most hams, I have a few (unless you ask my XYL, then it's hundreds) boxes of random "junk" laying around that I use from time to time to experiment, so I pulled out a few bits and pieces to put the antenna together. In case you've never built a doublet, here are my reasons for doing so and the theories that I employed.

There is a lot of confusion surrounding the terms "doublet" and "dipole," so let me wade into the murky waters and explain the difference as I see it. Technically, there is none. They are two names for the same thing. However, the difference, in common parlance, lies in how you feed said antenna and whether the antenna is cut to resonance for a target frequency. 

Typically, a "dipole" is a resonant antenna for a given frequency and is fed with coax. There are many purveyors of 40 meter, 20 meter, 10 meter, etc. dipoles that include a PL259 connection at the center connector to attach your coax. These dipoles are typically resonant near the center of the given bad and give adequate bad with to allow the ham to operate anywhere on the bad without the need for a tuner. Try to load them up on another band then their design frequency however, and noise, smoke, silence, and cursing often occur. 

"But I have a fancy built-in tuner in my rig, so I can load that 40-meter dipole up on 6 through 160, right?" 

Maybe, but the impedances of other bad on a resonant dipole can be amazingly high. So, in short, it's not a good idea to test fate. There are however tuners that will allow you to load up on other bands, but the signal losses of doing so offer drastically diminishing returns. In other words, you might be able to tune that 40-meter dipole up on 160-meters, but it might work as well as loading up a Soup Can. 

A Doublet (again, I'm speaking of "Doublet" as is generally understood. Both "dipole" and "doublet" mean the same thing), is a little different. The basics are the same. You generally cut a doublet antenna to be a half wave long on the lowest frequency you plan to operate. Impedances on other bands will still be amazingly high, but the losses will be much lower and turn our "Soup-Can" into a usable, although compromised, antenna. How? I'm glad you asked.

By using ladder line or open wire feed-line (two wires separated by spacers) the signal losses are dramatically reduced. The ladder line is then fed into a Balanced Line Tuner (or a 4:1 Balun) and then coax to your rig. A Balanced Line Tuner like the CG Antenna Ltd. Remote Auto Tuner is placed where your ladder line meets the ground and powered by a battery (in my case an SLA battery which is charge by a 5W Solar Panel (Pics coming soon) or by a "Bias Tee Power Injector" such as the MFJ-4116. When the auto tuner senses RF energy it quickly measures the SWR and makes the necessary adjustments to put it back in a usable range. Remote auto tuners like the CG can seamlessly deal with the wild impedance differences between bands and allow you to operate on 6 -meters one minute and 40-meters the next. So now you can pick a Saturday and knock out that DXCC you were thinking about getting someday. Maybe, but there are a few other things to consider.

Our 40-meter Doublet and subsequent Balanced Line Auto Tuner are doing their job singingly, but it is important to realize exactly what they are doing. Like a 40-meter resonant dipole, our antenna will project the bulk of it's RF energy 90° to the antenna in both directions, in other words, off the sides of the antenna. This is assuming that the antenna is flat-top and at least 1/4 wave (33 feet or so) above the ground. When we move dow to 20-meters, our antenna will still put the bulk of it's energy out at 90°, but as we go higher in frequency (17-meter, 15-Meter, 12-Meter, etc.) our two predictable lobes will start to break up and lose energy. by 15-meters, there will essentially be 4 lobes at 45° each. I wish I had the ability to plot this out for you, but at the moment I don't. Suffice it to say, that you must consider the trade-offs when ever you deploy a multi-band antenna. 

Wow, that was  a lot of theory to get to my application. So, I decided to deploy a lightweight 66' (half wave on 40-meter) doublet fed with 300Ω Ladder Line. I built this antenna to use for Field Day 2013, but it will also be used regularly when operating portable with my Hendricks PFR-3. That being the case, I wanted it to be pretty bullet-proof without adding too much weight. Also, I wanted to save the nice 500' spool of antenna wire I have to complete an 80-meter full-wave loop this summer. Luckily, my fellow Ham and father recently unloaded a spool of hefty speaker wire on me.

I found this Wireman 814C in a box and drilled the holes a little wider to accommodate the wire. I soldered everything up, added some shrink-wrap (in case it stays up longer than planed) and put it away for the weekend. 

As you might notice, I need to buy a heat gun as my lighter really charred the shrink wrap, but at least it's still functional. I'll report back on how the antenna performs, but in the meantime, I hope I've given you some food-for-thought on dipoles vs. doublets.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

New Mobile Shack: Nothing Goes as Planned, Right?

With all intentions of following my plan for an install on my new car, I dove in between rain storms over the past two nights to get everything mounted and ready for years of mobile VHF/UHF enjoyment. About ten minutes into the project, it became apparent that things were not going to go exactly as planned.

The antenna mount I chose (see THIS post for details and links on the gear I used) mounted up in a heart beat. I only moved it once so that the antenna (when the trunk is opened) would not slam the roof of the car, potentially causing damage to one or both. I took a piece of ground strap I had lying around the garage and slipped it under the mount to bond the antenna to the radio and the farm of the vehicle. In hind site, it was a pain to run all the ground strap, but it was also well worth the effort as everything is quiet and appears to function very well. It's always amazing how much a solid ground plane work in your favor.

With the antenna mounded, it was time to run the feed line and ground strap, which took several attempts. Every time I thought I had found the perfect balance between keeping cable out of the way and being able to close the trunk, I found I was mistaken. After half an hour or so, I got it right. Again, I'm glad that I took the time to do it right. 

Next, I mounted the radio body to the car under the back dash. Unfortunately, I stripped a few screws in the process, which meant re-drilling. Just when I buttoned it up I realized that I hadn't laid the ground strap under the bracket. So off it came again and then back together. By this time, it was nearing midnight, so I wrapped it up.

The next morning, I re-thought the idea of fabricating an in-cabin mounting bracket. I just didn't have the time to do it well. Luckily, my father (also a ham) has a barn full of random bits and pieces. I called over to say, "hi," and have him rummage through boxes. :) He found just what I needed and dropped the pieces off later that day.

I mounted everything up quickly and set off to run the power and signal through the cabin and firewall. Oh boy, that was fun. Luckily, I was able to follow the hood release cable through the firewall and with a hour or so of tugging and contorting myself into ungodly under-dash positions, I had power. 

With the install done, I powered up the laptop, loaded a few frequencies, and programmed the radio. I'm happy to report that it is quiet, effective, and seems to work well, in spite of the fact that I still haven't received the planned antenna. In the meantime, I had another dual-band NMO to attach to the mount for testing and such. 

This is the first time I really took the time to do a mobile install correctly and I'm very happy with the results. I think my wife was even impressed that there weren't tangle wires snaking in every direction like my previous installs. The whole thing looks good, is out of the way while easily within reach, and works well. Sometimes the plan has to go out the window to get things right I guess.


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Field Day Approaches

Field Day is NEXT WEEKEND! Wow, that came fast. It feels like yesterday that I was bemoaning the fact that I had to work the entire weekend of FD2012. This year, I don't and I've been preparing my family for my absence long enough now that they roll their eyes when I continue to remind them. So I'm in full planning mode.

I was hoping to run QRP CW as a 1B station this year, but I've been slacking a little in the learning department and my CW is still way too shaky to commit to an entire weekend of CW only. I will still try to gather a few CW contacts with patient ops, probably in the wee hours of the morning when the pile-ups are few and far between and less people will be listening to my shaky fist. For the most part, I'll be operating SSB. 

I've thought long and hard about where to celebrate this year's festivities, but my equipment is weighing down (literally) my options. Because I will be working SSB, I only have a full size 100W rig available. While I have no problem losing the computer and paper logging (see THIS post), my transceiver alone will draw more power than I can easily carry. Since my house is 100% solar powered during the day, I may operate from the QTH and utilize a bank of AGM batteries I have stashed for just such an occasion. That feels a little boring though. Maybe I'll set up a tent and "camp out" for the weekend. I have 9 acres to spread out in and plenty of trees to test out some quick and dirty antenna deployment options. Who knows?

It's times like this where I really miss being a part of a club. I still have had zero luck getting in touch with anyone listed on the ARRL club list for Northern NJ. I'm hoping to wrap up my mobile install tonight, so I can start monitoring the local repeaters and maybe find a few other like-minded hams to steer me in the right direction, or to start a new club with. Until then, I need to get ready for next weekend. 

What are your plans for Field Day?

Friday, June 7, 2013

New Car New Mobile "Shack"

There are so many things to consider when buying a new car, but the whole time I was shopping for my new ride, I was envisioning my next mobile "shack." For the last 7 years, I have been driving a lifted Jeep Rubicon. It has been a great vehicle. I've put nearly 200k miles on it and never had a major issue. It was a radio-lover's dream. There were so many places to put gear, antennas, etc. that it now resembles an AWAC more than a passenger car. My new ride…not so much.

I ended up purchasing a 2013 Huyndai Elantra CoupeMy decision to buy a this particular car was a mix of priorities: fuel efficiency, warranty, and price. This car will run out of it's factory warranty just before my son gets his driver's license. When he does, it will still have a few years of warranty on the drivetrain, so… While those were major factors in the purchase, I would be lying if I didn't mention that it was the only small commuter type car I looked at that had a reasonable platform for mobile Ham communications.

I'm not sure how new your vehicle is, but flat surfaces to mount radios are scant on newer cars and trucks. Furthermore, flowing body lines and side curtain airbags make mounting antennas a challenge. So I began looking into ways to mount my radios, antennas, GPS, etc. that were wholly different from what I was used to. The Elantra has a largely flat dashboard. My GPS will live there, rather than semi-stuck to the windshield where it always decides to fall off during complex lane-changes at unfamiliar exits. My radio's go in the trunk.

This choice was different for me. While I've always had a VHF/UHF Dualbander with a removable faceplate, I've never needed to separate them. On this car, it just makes sense. By mounting the radio under the rear window, I will only need a few feet of feed line to the antenna (more on this in a moment) and I can ground the radio, mount, and antenna all together to the body and frame of the vehicle. I never had to worry about so much paint on my Jeep, so this will allow me to grind some away without alerting the XYL. 

I'll be performing the install in stages to avoid angry calls from creditors and allow me to perfect one or two bands at a time. This weekend, I'll be running power directly from the battery, fused on both positive and negative to the trunk. While I have all the panels pulled to do so, I will also run the seperation cable from my FT-7900 as well as a CAT5 cable for a future separation of either an FT-857 or Icom IC-7100. One last cable to make the run will be coax, to accommodate another external antenna for my BC-396XT, which goes just about everywhere with me. For this keeping track, I will not be running any cable for audio. Instead, I will be mounting an external speaker above the trunk in the passenger compartment, just like an old police cruiser. 

Once that is done, I get to the fun part. I'll be breaking out the Miller Passport and welding up a mount that will attach to the front passenger seat bolts. Yes, I know they are available commercially, but mine will be much cooler and manly; trust me. When finished, it will hold the face plate from my FT-7800 with room to mount a second (future) faceplate and give me a location to hang a mic and my BC-396XT. If I'l feeling extra saucy, I may also include an iPhone mount. 

The antenna mounting, will be a whole different game. For the moment, I will be using a Comet SBB-5 NMO 1/2 wave on a Diamond K400CNMO comet mount. Eventually, I will drill through the trunk lid, but I want to wait for a better idea of what HF antenna I'll need to mount before committing to something permanent. As I mentioned before, the mount will be bonded to the body and farm of the car, hopefully giving me a solid ground plane. 

So that's the plan. I'm curious to hear what other mobile installs Hams have done lately. I'm especially interested in how you have gone about grounding trunk lid antenna mounts. If you have anything to share, please do. Now, where did I put my welding helmet?

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Not so Common Sense Tips and Tricks for Public Service

If you follow me on Twitter (@rocknrollriter), you may have noticed that I got a little bit bent yesterday morning by a thread on eham.com. If you don't follow me on Twitter, (please do) then let me explain.

In the Emcomm thread, (a hotbed of seething, snarling, nastiness anyway) a relatively new ham asked a rather benign and open-ended question. Actually, it wasn't even really a question. He asked what tips and tricks more experienced hams had for someone just getting into emergency communications. He then subsequently got blasted for not using common sense, told to use Google, and was essentially called a moron for not framing his question correctly.

It made me angry, so I responded in kind. In hindsight, it probably wasn't the best way to deal with the situation, but it is what it is. I called out "the old guard" and said that they shouldn't bemoan the fact that no one with a newer ticket wants to come to meetings, help out at events, or activate rare DX when they are constantly barked at about the old days. I also pointed out that newbies rarely have the frame of reference to ask the "right" questions; whatever that means. Further more, the reason common sense isn't so common anymore is because hams weren't willing to give advice and make it common. Most of all, I told them that it was childish to treat people this way. 

My post was heated, and that wasn't good. Luckily K7RBW was kind enough to offer a constructive response that helped save the discussion from heading down the toilet. I also received a response from K1CJS that was well considered. There is a lot of information, both good and bad, floating around about any given facet of Amateur Radio. One has to narrow it down, or the answers are muddy at best. With that in mind and in the spirit of goodwill, here are the top ten lessons I've learned while using Amateur Radio in Public Service:

1.) Always have three ways (or more) to get power

Batteries run out, AA cells disappear quickly, the power grid is always spotty in an emergency, generators run out of gas. If you don't have redundant ways to secure power, your operation will suffer. Personally, I carry 5 ways to power an HT and 3 to power my mobile rig.

For the HT: I carry a fully charged battery in the unit and another in my go-bag, an AA cell holder, a cigarette lighter adapter, a wall-wart charger, and a fully charged 7.5aHr SLA battery with a 10 watt foldable solar panel.

For the mobile rig: 12v Power supply, a large 50aHr gel-cell marine battery, and two long extension cords, one for a 120v outlet and one with battery clips for the gel-cell or a car battery. 

2.) You NEED an LED headlamp with a spare set (or six) of batteries. 

You will need light, you will need your hands, and you may need your teeth at the same time…trust me on this one.

3.) Never go ANYWHERE on a deployment without:
  • ID
  • A copy of you Ham License
  • A copy of your ARES, RACES, or MARS ID
  • A multi-tool
  • Some duct tape (wrap it around an old Hotel card key)
  • A pencil (pens always fail on deployment, a pencil can always be sharpened with that multi-tool
  • Paper you can spare
4.) A small, cheap mag-mount is your friend

Stick it on a car, motorcycle, file cabinet, or cookie sheet and you've just doubled the power of your little rubber duck. When you forget it on said car, motorcycle, file cabinet, or cookie sheet, you haven't lost $130 on a Diamond 5/8 wave base antenna.

5.) 19" will let you talk pretty far

If you forgot your mag-mount antenna, broke it; or it just drove away on a car, motorcycle, filing cabinet, or cookie sheet, 19" of still wire (even a coat hanger) soldered to the center of a panel mount PL259 connector and one to four 19" radials attached mechanically or soldered through the screw holes make a pretty darn effective antenna. Check THIS out.

6.) Get your inner MacGyver on

You would not believe what that guy could do with a paperclip. Look HERE! Likewise, you would not believe what a little can-do attitude and brain-power can do to fix an otherwise dire situation. Hams are a very resourceful bunch. Don't give us a bad name by giving up when all else fails. A small container of random connectors, fuses, paperclips, zip ties, velcro, blah, blah, blah is a godsend in a pinch.

7.) Find every fuse on every piece of gear that you'll bring...

...now put twenty thousand of each one in your go-bag. Okay, twenty thousand my be excessive  but bring way more than you think you'll need. I've always found that I usually blow at least three until I figure out the problem.

8.) Sometimes being in Emcomm means taking out the trash

This one goes straight to my heart. You're their to serve the public, so serve them in whatever way is needed, when it is needed, for as long as you are able. If you are looking to play with your radio in a bad situation, stay home. Most of the time emcomm is about communications, but sometimes it's about taking out the trash. If you're not willing to do both, then your thoughtful support from home would be better for everyone.

9.) Be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem

Much like the last tip, when you are in a public service capacity, help out, with a positive attitude, stay out of the way, keep your nose where it belongs, and bring the gear and knowledge you need to take care of yourself for the duration of your service. The last thing anyone needs is a volunteer who was there to help suddenly needing rescue or a diaper change. 

10.) At minimum, carry three radios

You will obviously need your HT and or Mobile rig. In addition, I always carry a FRS/GMRS (make sure you are licensed for one), and a digital trunk-tracking scanner. Also bring the peripherals  manuals, power supplies, extra batteries, headphones, etc.. It always seems that someone in the command chain believes that FRS/GMRS and Ham Radio are one and the same. They will need you to relay communications between someone with one to someone with the other. Be a part of the solution and have one of each, so you can accomodate them. A trunk-tracking scanner is also nice to have, especially if you're savvy enough to program it on the fly. You will be able to monitor what is happening, who is coming, where the trouble is, and myriad other things.

THIS IS IMPORTANT: If you are scanning, do so through headphones. I carry a single surveillance-style ear-piece. Why? Because people will be listening over your shoulder. Chances are they are in the middle of the emergency and stressed out of their minds. They will read all kinds of things into the radio traffic and it will cause them more harm than good. Also, there may be information shared over the scanner that is more personal than during normal radio operations. It is important to let the communications happen without causing secondary issues.

These are the top-ten tips and tricks that I have learned while serving the public with my amateur radio. Whether you are supporting a run, bike ride, or full-scale city evacuation, I believe that these things will help you out. I hope they do.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Hoping to Get Clubbed

I recently re-joined the ARRL. I let my membership lapse two years ago during a time of financial trouble and a waining interest in anything and everything beyond surviving. Now that I'm on a more even keel financially and emotionally, it felt like it was time to get involved again.

I was perusing the site last night, looking for a radio club near my home in Western NJ. I was surprised at how many clubs were listed within 25 miles or so of home. I was also surprised by the numbers listed in the membership fields; especially since I cannot seem to find anyone anywhere on any repeater in the area. So I decided to check out a few of the club websites and plan to attend a meeting in the near future. That is when things really got weird.

I visited seven club websites. Not one…not a single one, had anything remotely recent posted. Some of the sites had not been updated since 2008. So, back to the ARRL list I went. Only one of these clubs seemed defunct. All the others had submitted annual reports in late 2012 or early What is going on?

I searched around a little more and jumped on QRZ.com to check out the listed officers of the clubs. Most appear to be active. Seriously? Why is there no club love? That got me thinking back to my first/last/only club experience. I joined the EDCARC (El Dorado Amateur Radio Club) shortly after I received my Tech ticket. I found them on the ARRL list, emailed then President Don Brooks, KJ6YST and received a warm and timely reply. I showed up at the next meeting, was met by Don, introduced to several club members and brought into the fold. At the next meeting I was asked to, "bring some new blood," to the Board. I accepted gladly.

For the next two years, I was very active with the club. There were weekly nets, monthly board meetings, monthly club meetings, and eventually ARES meetings, trainings, and nets. We had regular outings, field days, and public service events. There were people my age, much younger and much older. We all got along, learned from each other, and had a ton of fun. Then I got a new job and I was able to attend less and less. I missed it…a lot. In fact, I still do. Which is why I wanted to get into a new club ASAP, but apparently things are different here.

That got me thinking. Maybe I should start my own club. Then I considered how little time I have now and that idea went away. So then I thought about what I WANT in a club. I always find that defining what I want or what I believe should be, is a good way to frame the idea. Here's what I came up with so far:

  • Meetings should be social events, not a second job. They should be fun to attend
  • The bulk of the time spent should be on furthering the hobby, not servicing the club
  • Atmosphere should be fun and inviting
  • The club should attract people I would want to hang out with otherwise
  • Information should be redly available and regularly updated
  • Dues should only offset costs that are REQUIRED: e.g. renting meeting space, upkeep of a repeater system, printing or web-site costs, beer (just seeing if you're paying attention)

I'm not sure there is a club that meets these criteria, but I'm hoping there is. If not, I'm hoping that there are some other hams locally that are looking for similar things in a radio club, because I'm getting pretty bored playing radio all by myself.

What are you experiences in radio clubs? Have they all been stuffy haunts of rules and regulations? Have they been fun and informative? Do you belong to a club? Why or why not? Am I off the mark in what I hope to get out of a radio club? Am I missing something? Seriously, I'd like to know.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Shacked Up

I spent a bit of the long weekend getting the shack back together. It needed it. It came out--surprisingly enough--much like my sketch. I still have some space for a power meter. I’m seriously considering the Daiwa SX-200, but I’m open to suggestions. (hint hint, comments, hint hint). I’ve read that it does very well both at 100W and at QRP levels and since I do both, that appeals to me. 

With that project wrapping up, it’s time to get back to the list and focus my attention on the ARRL Field day coming up in June. I want to finish my Hendrics PFR-3 and get some air time with it before the 22nd. I think I’ve decided on using the LNR EFT 10/20/40 Trail Friendly antenna on a hex beam push up mast, that ended up on my doorstep via a fellow ham. The only thing I need to figure out, it how to best rig and guy it.

With the bands falling apart, at least at my location, I’ve had some time to really work on my CW. It’s time to get some real air-time QSOs going. I’m focusing on sending this week and plan on actually transmitting my first CW CQ sometime next weekend. Ah, butterflies. I have to say, it’s exciting to get this close to a goal I’ve had for so long. All I have to do now, is figure out where to tune for the best chance of meeting a patient CW Op to wade through a mirky first QSO with me. Luckily, I’ve learned at about 13 wpm, so it won’t be too drudgingly slow. 

Before I get to all that, however, I must get to work. Argh! This whole having a career thing can really get in the way of a guys hobbies.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Shack in Progress

I have mentioned before that I recently relocated to New Jersey. The move has been, for the most part, a good one. However, as a Ham, it's been a great one. Still, there is a lot of work ahead.

My "shack" in the last QTH, was a small desk crammed into the corner of the master bedroom. As you might imagine, late night contesting was out. Not only were my operating hours limited, so was the freedom to create a desirable operating position. The XYL is fairly supportive of my Ham passion, but not at the expense of aesthetics. So, when we moved to the new QTH, I was prepared to move the "shack" to the garage (a luxury we didn't have at the last place), but shortly after moving in, my wife mentioned that the hallway closet was, "...pretty big and should fit all your ham radio crap." SCORE! I had a room, with her blessing, in the house.

I painted the walls and stuffed a desk into the closet, set up my Icom IC-7410 and began listening. At first, I only had an attic mounted G5RV that gave me nothing but S9 +10db noise. A week or two later,  my Dad (W2PJM) arrived with a tennis ball gun under his arm and a smile on his face. "I've needed an excuse to try this thing out. What do you say?" He asked.

"Where's my antenna line?" I replied. Now I have an OCF up about 50' running NE to SW. It gets into Europe and across met of the US. I'm happy with it. That's not to say that more antennas aren't coming soon. In fact, better than the closet shack, I have a space less than 200' from the house to put a tower. And…the tower is sitting here waiting to be erected; ASAP. Since that project may take a bit, I decided to refocus my attention on the shack.

The more I have operated in that tiny little space, the more I like it. It's quiet, warm in the cool months and cool in the warm ones. The layout, however, sucks. So I've started to redesign it. I've been sketching up plans and making sure to leave some space for the K3 I'm asking Santa for. I've attached the sketch for no other reason than to archive my hair-brained idea of what it may look like.

I've had a few people ask what gear I'm using, so here is the current lineup:

Icom IC-7410 HF Tranciever
Yaesu FT-2800 2-Meter Tranciever
Uniden BC-396XT Scanner
Yaesu VX7R Tri-Band HT
Hendricks PFR-3: Build in progress
YouKits HB-1A
Bencher Paddles
American Morse Porta Paddle
Alinco DM-330MVT Power Supply
Heil Traveler (rewired for my Icom)
A decrepit Thinkpad that needs to be replaced ASAP!

So, that's my shack. Pics of the finished product should be up by this weekend.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A New--to Me--Ham App: Ham Morse

I've been using an IOS app called Dah Dit to work on my CW for several weeks now. It has worked wonderfully. I was able to learn the characters easily, but the app lacks when trying to learn to hear words.

If you you haven't learned CW yet, there is a dramatic difference in identifying a character and deciphering a complete word. The dahs and dits all seem to flow together at first. So I have been looking for something to fill the hole and keep me moving forward. Well, I think I found it.

Ham Morse by AA9PW is another Morse Code IOS app. The difference, at least for me, is that it is focused on sending letter groups, call signs, and words. You can set it up to send random words, random callsigns, mock QSOs, or even the daily news. I've been working with it throughout the day through my handy little bluetooth earpiece (so know on else can hear). It's been working very well. By playing with character speed AND spacing, I am making progress.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Coming Down / Setting Up

With the Dayton Hamvention behind me, it is time to think about the future again. I have lots of fun new gear and a few more tricks to try out on the air, but I'm the type that needs a goal...even in a hobby.

Goals are funny things. Sometimes, they motivate, other times they stifle. In this case, a goal reminds me that I have something to work toward. Without something to work toward, I often forget to pursue things that matter to me, for things that have deadlines. I'm not sure if that has to do with my upbringing, my need for success, or a hole in the ozone layer but a good solid goal keeps me engaged. I like to be engaged, especially if I'm doing something fun.

The notable date on my Ham calendar is Field Day. Having recently moved to New Jersey, I haven't found a club yet. Furthermore, I doubt I'll be able to get involved in one before Field Day, since all the ones in my area only seem to meet when someone signals them from Gotham City. I have not been able to locate a single one with a set meeting schedule or location; instead, they seem to roam the New Jersey pavement like nomadic hobbyists in search of a purpose. Since I'm not sure which bat-signal to follow, I haven't yet figured out where to go and meet these wayward Hams.

Being club-less (there I go, making up words again) and dead-set on operating abroad, I'm setting my sites on a little QRP Field Day atop a semi-local mountain-top. When I say "mountain-top" I mean the tallest spot in NJ, which is a little less than 2000' lower in elevation than my last QTH. This brings up a few challenges to overcome in the weeks ahead.

  • I need to get my power setup built and tested. I have all the parts for a great little solar/battery setup, I just need to put it all together into something that doesn't look like a pile of electrical intestines torn from Robbie the Robot.
  • I need to finish my PFR-3!
  • I need to actually get on the air and have some CW QSOs. I don't expect to be hosting huge pile-ups on Field Day, but I don't want to sound like an idiot either. I've been in learning mode so long that its about time to try and use it.
  • I need to test out a few antennas to decide which will serve best for that particular weekend.
For the minute, those are my Ham Radio goals. They're sure to change, but at least I have some direction to aim my "beam" as it were. Before I get to all that however, I have to get to work so I can pay for all the new toys I acquired in Dayton.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Day 2 Download

Day 2 of Hamvention started late. The lack of sleep for the trip in left me way too tired to start early this AM. I arrived a little after 10 AM an the sun, hidden above the clouds, had already heated the sauna that is the Hara Arena parking lot. But, in spite of the heat I dragged on. It didn't take long to find something I couldn't pass up.

The Radio Shack DSP (21-543) was hidden behind a pile of boxes on a small table under a tent behind another booth tucked behind a camper...you get the idea. I saw it and asked the gentleman if if worked. "Like a charm." At $20, I didn't even blink and paid the man. It's a good thing I did too. Just as I left the tent, another ham passed me and I heard him ask the man if the DSP was still there. Sorry buddy, the time to buy a gem is when you find it.

I've never had the opportunity to try one of these units, but I've read a bit about them and I needed an external speaker for my PFR-3 project anyway. So I was happy to begin with. Tonight, back at the hotel, I dialed in some CW on 40m. It was, like expected, full of noise, but I engaged the DSP and the audio popped out. I'm very happy with the initial experiment and I really can't wait to try it out at home.

My next find took me a while. I cruised the flea market baking (more like steaming) in the overcast air/water/sweat. Them I spotted someone selling a complete Hendrics QRP rig. As u stopped to admire it, I noticed a You Kits HB-1a, after haggling a bit, we made a deal. Score!

A Presley and a lemonade later, I was back to "work." Next on the list were a few cables, connectors, odds, and ends. Along the way, I ran into some friends of friends and shot the breeze before remembering that the DX Forum was about to start.

I arrived just in time to secure a seat (the room fills FAST) and only had to wait a few minutes for the first speaker. The presentations were all excellent, but AA7JV hit it out of the park speaking about the PT0S DXpedition. He said something that will stick with me, "Male your expedition relevant or you're just a tourist playing with your radio." I need to remember that as I start heading out to operate QRP remotely. Relevance is an important part of keeping people listening for that little 5w signal.

Well I'm wiped and heading to bed. 73 WE2F

Friday, May 17, 2013

Dayton Day 1: Wanna See My Booty?

Well, day 1 is in the bag and I'm smoked! My feet are feeling it, but I ended up with some great new gear. Before I tell you what I got, here is the disclaimer: no prices, my wife might be listening. :)

CG Antenna Ltd. Remote Auto Tuner

At a fraction of the cost of most remote auto tuners, I cannot wait to see how this performs. Look for a detailed review in a few weeks when I have a full wave loop on 160 attached to this tuner.

MFJ-888 Frequency Counter

Now that I'm building transceivers, I really needed this.

American Morse Porta Paddle

Had to have a new key for my nearly finished Hendrics PFR-3, right?

Anderson Power Pole Connectors

I can never have enough of these. I also picked up a Red-Dee 2 PS-4 Power Pole splitter, so I can charge HT and run my QRP rig from my solar/battery setup.

Weaver Throw Weight

This is cool. It's a small canvas bag loaded with lead shot. It will be a small simple addition to my field kit. Getting wire antennas up will be much easier with this guy.

EndFedz EFT-10/20/40 Trail Friendly Antenna

This little guy was the find of my day. I have a soft spot for EndFedz in the field. They are simple, easy to set up, and the work. This model is their newest addition and, as you can see, it is tiny. It will handle 10 watts and fits in my pocket along with my wallet. Which is so empty now that the last sentence might not mean too much.

Tomorrow, I'm focusing my energy on the flea market. I know there's a gem hiding out there with my name on it. Now I'm heading to bed.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

In Defense of Paper Logs

I love my paper log. In fact, I'll probably never give it up. Why, with all the fancy computer logging software available, would I subject myself to such antiquated and technologyless (Look, I made up a word) form of tracking contacts? Glad you asked.

I've only been a ham for four years now, but I have been asked at nearly every turn why I continue to use a paper log. Last year, I attended a club radio event at a children's festival that coincided with the California QSO party. Being that we were their to demonstrate amateur radio and there were literally hundreds of stations looking for El Dorado County on that day, I worked both the event and the QSO party…with my paper log. Within a few hours, I had logged nearly one hundred contacts. One of the club members looked over my shoulder and remarked that with a computer, I would have much less trouble checking dupes and keeping accurate on my count. He also pointed out that it would be much easier to upload a digital log to the contest afterward. He was right on all counts, but it didn't change my preference.

I spend all day at a computer. I am constantly looking at a screen full of numbers, spreadsheets, technical documents, Facebook, Twitter, HTML, blah, blah, blah. When I get some time to spend with my hobby, the last thing I want to look at is a computer screen. I think that there are three primary reasons I like a paper log so much better:

1.) They let me focus on the contact and not the computer.

I don't know about you, but I cannot abide a messy spreadsheet. So when I'm logging on a computer, all of the spacing must be exact, caps in the right place, and every cell filled to the brim with useful and properly spelled data. In my paper log, it could be chucked scratch, but at least the time, band, and call-sign are there. But more importantly, there are usual notes floating around the page about what I was hearing on the bands beyond what contacts I made. Which brings me to number 2.

2.) My paper log holds more useful information than my computer log.

Look through my HRD log and you can see who I talked to. Look through my log book and you can see what the band sounded like on June 3 of last year. What was the QRM like? Where were the strongest contacts originating? What rare DX was operating? Who couldn't I reach, even though they were 20db over S9 and only running 100 watts? That information is priceless in adjusting my station to reach out and touch them on the next chance. Now, I am aware that I could have a note file up on screen that let me capture all of this information at the same time. But, this brings me to reason number 3.

3.) My paper log can go anywhere, any time, and doesn't eat batteries.

Of all the things I love about my paper log, the thing I love the most is its simplicity. It doesn't require power, it fits in my backpack, and I can use it as easily in a tent as in my shack at home. It is a go anywhere solution that doesn't require schlepping an extra 10 pounds up a mountain for a SOTA activation or an impromptu QRP expedition to a local park. And I fI turn on the radio just in time to hear that one rare entity calling CQ, I don't have to wait for my computer to startup to log the contact.

In the spirit of full disclosure: there are times when I power up my computer and use it for logging. There is no way I could keep an accurate log for a Club Field Day for instance. There are too many contacts happening too quickly and the pile up won't stick around if I need more time to write. They have their time and place, but for my time, it will always be a paper log.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Accounting Before Dayton

     The Dayton Hamvention is this weekend. I, along with thousands of other hams, will be in attendance. Also, along with thousands of other hams, will be deep in debt by the time I leave. Not really, but it is a candy-store atmosphere and I have a shopping list an arm's length longer than my budget.

     Before I leave this Thursday afternoon, I am doing the normal things: packing, programming for the repeaters along the way, and preparing my wife for what might follow me home. I've also decided to prioritize my list into three categories:

  • What I "Need":
    • A set of CW paddles (new or used, but must be light enough for QRP expeditions
    • Anderson Power Pole Connectors
    • Dual Time Zone Digital clock
    • New paper log book
    • A copy of The Complete DXer
  • What I Want:
    • A Watts Up Meter 
    • A pair of 4.5Ah Gel Cell or AGM Batteries
    • Heil Proset
    • A Tribander for the tower I'm planning on erecting this summer
  • If I Find a Bag of Money Along the Way:
     What do you think of my list? Am I missing anything? Do you have a bag of money you're looking to dump on a worth ham?

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Learning CW: Rock-N-Roll Style

     I have wanted to learn Morse Code since my first ham club meeting. I lived in Northern California when I first got my ticket and attended the EDCARC (El Dorado County Amateur Radio Club) regularly while there. At my first meeting, we watched a video about the K5D DXpedition  to Desecheo Island. As soon as I watched those ops pounding out CW, I wanted to know how to do it. So I did what any other newb does, I asked the guy sitting next to me and the guy sitting next to him. Over the course of an hour, they told me three ways that were the "only" way to do it. Frustrated, I tried all three ways and failed.

     Over the four years since then, I have tried every software, CD, mp3, and web-based course that promises to have me pounding brass with the best of them in less than forty-eight hours at 25 wpm. By the beginning of 2013, I was ready to do just about anything, short of sacrificing my first-born to lear the code, but it seemed hopeless. So I decided to figure out my own method. So far, it's working WAY better than any other method I've tried so far.

     So what's the secret trick? I'm not sure yet. At least, I'm not sure if it's going to work out in the end. I just know that I am now understanding most characters at 20 wpm and I am able to pick out words after two or three trys rather than banging my head against the shack wall in dispair. I downloaded DahDit for my iPhone and started listening to the characters at 20 wpm with the spoken character before the tone for the first fifteen minutes of my morning commute. During the first fifteen minutes of my commute home, I switched the spoken characters to after the tones, giving me a chance to hear/guess the characters coming. I did this for three weeks so far and just started listening to random generated words at lunch time and before bed.

     Why do I think this is a "better" way to learn the code? I don't necessarily. It's just better for me. Next week my new CW rig (a Hendricks PFR-3) should be complete*. I'm also heading to the Dayton Hamvention, where I plan on picking up a set of paddles. Once I have both, I'll begin sending into a dummy load until aI'm ready to get on the air; hopefully within another week's time.

     I don't know if my method will work for anyone else, but it's working for me. The point is: no one has the "best" way to learn the code, because we all learn so differently. However, I do believe that it is impossible to learn it (well) in forty-eight hours or less. It may take weeks, months, or even years. It may take trying hundreds of methods, but like all things worth achieving, putting in the time will eventually pay off.

*More on this in a futre post

A Bit of Ham with a Dose of Rock-N-Roll

     I love being a ham. I love being a musician. I love working in live production. I love writing.  I love being a husband and father. That sums me up pretty well. So why this blog? Why now? Thanks for asking.

     I have been involved in many facets of amateur radio for the past four years and I've noticed a trend. There are generally two camps: the preppers and the fuddy-duddies. It seems like the majority of the people I have met in this hobby are awesome, interesting, and fun people; yet the only thing I seem to find on the web about ham radio is: how to prepare for the doom coming soon to a neighborhood near you or diatribes on how much better radio was way back when. There is great information coming from both camps, but neither of them are very fun to read. Hears the deal, I'll always choose fun over good information; especially when it comes to my hobbies. Since I was having such a tough time finding anything informative, interesting, AND fun, I decided to do it myself. So that's what this is all about.

     I hope you enjoy what you find here. If you do, please drop in from time-to-time, comment, email me, answer my CQs (seriously,, please answer my CQs) and feel free to speak your mind, ask a question, demand an answer, or wax eloquent on the details. I welcome you all. But please, no fuddy-duddy, prepper-intense doom-and-gloom, just light-hearted fun discussion about one of the greatest hobbies in the world.