Monday, August 5, 2019

FFFs during my summer holiday

During my summer holiday in France I was radio-active from various FFF locations - six in total. I usually visit four parks in two /P days out but conveniently this year both campsites we stayed on were inside nature reserves.

I have not made that many QSOs from the campsites as (1) it was by times too hot to do anything, (2) I was in a tent where my favorite mode phone gets annoying for the surrounding quickly and (3) my family expects me to socialise with them in stead of other hams.
We stayed a bit longer in the Dordogne region so I was on the air from that campsite a few times.

In total I logged 805 QSOs from 43 DXCC on 20 and 40 meter:
  • FFF-0031 Park National La Brenne (campsite) - 85 QSO FT8/CW/SSB
  • FFF-1167 Natura 2000 La Brenne - 144 QSO SSB
  • FFF-0057 Vallee de l'Anglin - 126 QSO SSB
  • FFF-2352 Basin de la Dordogne (campsite) - 194 QSO FT8/CW/SSB
  • FFF-2568 Vallée de la Vézère - 121 QSO CW/SSB
  • FFF-2570 Vallées des Beunes - 135 QSO CW/SSB
Eight OMs made it to all the locations: EA3EVL, EA7YT, OM1AX, ON4ON, PD7YY, S58AL, SP8LEP, YL2TQ.

DX was hard to find. Dov 4Z4DX made it a couple of times but from the other end only KD1CT made it across once and only barely so. I tried to get Chuck KO4SB in the log but there was no way - not even a CW whisper heard on both ends. Summer season in a solar minimum is not my favorite time as ham (as holiday maker though..). Luckily there was some sporadic E to create a bit of local fun with signals popping up and strong skips to specific areas.

Convenient picknick table in FFF-0057
In the shadow at a lake in FFF-1167 
Bit of walking required to get into the woods at FFF-2568
FFF-2570 was easy to activate once I found this parking area 

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Chilling in France

May and June have been rather busy. Apart from the normal daily routines there was an expedition weekend to GJ with my team in May and a special castle event I organised for the whole of June. Both brought a lot of radio fun and of course a lot of organizing and administration (logs, awards, QSLs, PR).

For a few days now I have been chilling on a campsite in France. The first stop is in the center of France and as it turns out (I did not plan this) the camping is inside the frequently activated nature reserve NP La Brenne (FFF-0031). I have put up a wire for 20m and did some data and CW yesterday. Conditions were not good judging from the activity level on CW. There was more activity on FT8 but that mode cannot capture my attention for too long.

Tomorrow I will go out portable to activate two nature reserves in the vicinity that have seen little activity: Natura 2000 area of Brenne (FFF-1167) and Vallée de l'Anglin et affluents (FFF-0057).

This weekend we will be moving further south to the Dordogne for 2 more weeks of camping. I will again be inside a nature reserve (again a nice surprise) and this time it is a new one: Bassin de Dordogne (FFF-2352).

I expect I will go out /P from there at least once, depending on how the weather develops. The first days look like it will be above 40C. This means sitting very still in the shadow and / or laying in the swimming pool the whole day.

Monday, June 10, 2019

QRO portable

Most of my QSOs I have made while out portable. At home I only have a simple antenna: a wire running from the attic window into the garden. Quite early on I found that to work interesting DX stations I had to have a better setup. At around the same time I discovered the WWFF and COTA/WCA programs. A portable journey had begun.

Why bother about the setup?
My radio time is rather limited. This is one of the reasons I want to make the most out of the trips I undertake. The other reason is that I like to give chasers all over the world a chance to collect references in the (worldwide) award programs I participate in as activator. 

Trying many antennas and setups I moved from simple wire antennas via a home made cobweb to the folding hexbeam. That one still is my favourite DX antenna. I use that one if I have the time and know there is enough room to set it up. For low bands I use verticals, a c-pole (40m), delta loop (40m) and dipoles (center and end fed). 
For ease of deployment I have lately started using a linked dipole in inverted V configuration for 20-80m. I am quite pleased with the performance and the ease of changing bands.

With antennas you are faced with the next challenge: height. I started out with an extended Spieth mast (14m but very thin top) and Spiderbeam 12m mast. Fine for end fed's (vertical / sloping) or high band dipoles but once you get to 40m and below you want more height. So I moved to 18m and later even 26m Spiderbeam masts. The 18m version is the one I take out by default. I added some features to make it easy to deploy on your own in the field.

Power - applied and transmitted 
Last but not least there is the question of power. I moved to LiPo and LiFePO4 batteries for my radio's years ago. The capacity / weight ratio is unbeatable. With LiPo's you can run 100w for hours with little added weight.
Moving towards the solar minimum I was looking for a bit more TX power. I started with a cheap RM Italy amp and then moved to the Ameritron ALS500m. It provides a max output of 400w - which is exactly what you are allowed in PA.
I purchased a lead acid battery of 145Ah to power that amp - with the idea that this would allow full day operations (like when I am on expedition with my team YNOMY). However this has two downsides: the battery is *very* heavy and it only supplies 12v or even less under load. At that voltage the amp - designed for 14Vdc - is putting out probably something like 250w.
For a while I looked into voltage booster solutions but I did not manage to build something that was practical and reliable at the same time.

By the end of 2018 LiPo's had become far less expensive than when I started buying them and I had collected a few already (sunk costs). So I decided to see if I could power the amp with LiPo's. The big advantages being that the amp would run at the designed 14v with far less battery weight.

In preparation of the YNOMY GJFF expedition I built three extra batteries from individual LiPo cells I bought in China. During the expedition we have run the amp for two days on LiPo's and the radios on LiFePO4's, using the 145Ah lead acid battery as recharging unit. This worked brilliantly.

HobbyKing 16Ah LiPo, DIY 20Ah LiPo and DIY 20Ah LiFePO4

The capacity required to run the amp for a given period of time depends on a number of variables, like the mode used and how much you transmit during that time. A couple of portable activities have learnt me that I need one LiPo battery (16/20Ah) per 90 minutes of SSB activity. 
In GJ we had four 16/20Ah LiPo's and when we drained one, we recharged it from the Lead acid battery (using a balanced charger). In the end we never drained all batteries as we had a recharged battery ready when we drained the next.

Note that with the Ameritron amp you can choose two approaches. The standard power leads consist of 4 wires (2+ and 2-). This means you can attach two LiPo's and run them in parallel. This is a way to extend your operation without needing to switch batteries in between. I chose a different approach. I left the original (longer) leads and added a short extra power lead (fused). The wires are just long enough to rest the battery on top of the amp [Pic to be added].

Beware of low voltage
It is important to keep an eye on the voltage level of your batteries if you intend to use them more than once. You can buy battery alarms that monitor each cell in the battery. They will give off an alarm you cannot miss (think of fire alarms in your house) once a cell reaches a set minimum. I recommend you always have an alarm attached while using a LiPo / LiFePO4 battery.
For LiPo's in general 3.2v is used as a safe lower limit per cell. I think it is conservative and in this particular case too conservative as the current drain is high. This means that the cells will show a voltage dip from which they will bounce back a bit once you disconnect the battery. I therefore use 3v as the cell minimum for the LiPo's.
The LiFePO4 cells can go a lot lower. I set the alarm for 2.5v per cell - still quite conservative.

This setup is effective. Apart from direct experience (hardly scientific) I do once in a while get a chance to compare my results with other stations out in the field on the same day. As PAFF and COTA-PA coordinator I receive a lot of /P activity reports and logs. 99% of the time I was not out myself but the times I was, there was bound to be someone else out as well. In those cases the difference shows both in QSO rates as well as in distance covered.
This setup is also bulky. Last time I had to walk quite a distance in the sun with the radio, the 18m mast, the amp, batteries, antennas, chair, food and drink, and it was killing. Transport-wise there are still a few improvements I can and plan to make.

Lots of heavy stuff!

Friday, February 15, 2019

C-pole antenna for 40m - a dx profile at low heights

Yesterday I went out to test my newly built c-pole antenna. I have used one in the past but found out it had some construction errors - the effect of which was somehow hidden by the balun I added ( a couple of coax turns on an FT240 core). The balun did get extremely hot even with 100w - a sign something was wrong - and once I replaced it, the SWR went through the roof. 

I used an online calculator ( that turns out to give the wrong dimensions - at least for 40m. I did not notice it before but when using it again for my new version I found that adding all the various dimensions resulted in significantly less wire than the calculator specified as "total wire needed for antenna". So considerable tweaking in the field was necessary to get the antenna resonant (think of adding more than 1 meter of wire to one end).

New c-pole antenna in action

This time I used two short cheap and light fiberglass fishing poles for the horizontal spreaders. I cut them to the right length and ran the antenna wire through them. I used the caps on both ends to position the wire - making a hole in each cap and a knot in the antenna wire at each cap. Apart from their low weight and high stiffness an extra advantage over the PVC pipe I used before is the fact that the fishing pole can be (partly) retracted - decreasing the size of the collapsed antenna.

To complete the antenna I constructed a W2DU style balun. It is light and simple and still provides more than 20dB common mode suppression at 7Mhz (if you use the right beads). 

The first time I brought it out I used all my time to get the dimensions right. In the end I got the antenna to dip around 7.1 Mhz with an impedance of something like 49 Ohm - perfect.

The next opportunity to go out was yesterday. I tried the antenna from a nature reserve, to see if I could get a decent amount of contacts on 40m. It was too early to get any serious DX but I did log 150 contacts up to 2500km. So it did seem to tx and rx.

Comparing C-pole to EFHW, Inverted V and Delta Loop
The c-pole is an addition to a range of antennas I have for /P operation on 40m. I mostly use either an (almost) vertical end fed half wave or an inverted V - depending on how much space I have to set up the antenna and what kind of radiation pattern I am looking for (more NVIS or more dx). The final option I have is a delta loop (more or less corner fed - so vertically polarised). The loop is more complex to set up than the others though.

All these antennas can be used when I have my 18m Spiderbeam pole with me. They are all omni-directional but have a different radiation pattern in the vertical plane - with the vertical, c-pole and delta loop in one category and the inverted V dipole in another. 
Using my 18m Spiderbeam pole the antenna patterns (over local ground conditions) look like this:

  • Pink is the inverted V. It has nice NVIS qualities with a lot of gain on high angles of radiation (5.4 dBi straight up) but at a takeoff angle of 15 degrees only -5dBi.
  • Blue is the delta loop. It is almost the opposite of the inverted V dipole. It has most gain at a takeoff angle of 20 degrees (3.3 dBi, 3.1 at 15 degrees)
  • Green is the (almost) vertical end fed half wave. A bit less pronounced than the delta loop. It has a max gain of 1.6 dBI at 15 degrees.
  • Red is the new C-pole. It has a max gain of 2.1 dBi at 15 degrees. 

Looking at the three antennas with a "dx profile", the delta loop is the clear winner. It has more gain on low angles but also significantly more gain than the other two at higher angles. It is a bit more work to set up though and needs space.

The reason I started looking at my c-pole again is that there are situations in which my 18m pole is not available (I could not take it, or - in a team expedition - it is in use with another antenna). The next option I have then is my 12m Spiderbeam pole.
Now things are a bit different. For one, the delta loop is not an option anymore. The half wave vertical is also out of the question. That one becomes a sloping end fed half wave with quite a different behaviour.

Using my 12m Spiderbeam pole the antenna patterns (over local ground conditions) look like this:

  • Blue is the inverted V. It is still radiating most of its energy up at high angles but the max gain is now down to 1.8 dBi. Gain at 15 degrees is down to -9dB.
  • Green is the end fed half wave sloping. It is now also radiating more at high angles with a max gain of 3.8 dBi straight up. Gain at 15 degrees is -1.4dBi
  • Red is the c-pole. Max gain is now 1.7 dBi at 20 degrees and 1.4 dBi at 15 degrees. 

The C-pole does not seem to suffer that much from the change in height. It actually performs a bit better on the higher angles without losing much on the lower angles. 

Comparing the C-pole at 2 meters off the ground and 7 meters off the ground shows that this antenna is better off on my 12m Spiderbeam pole:

Red is the C-Pole with the top at about 11.5m and Blue is the same antenna with the top at about 16.5m. At low angles almost no difference but at 45 degrees the lower C-pole has 7 dB more gain (at 60 degrees the difference adds up to 13 dB).

Looking at the radiation shape of the higher C-pole (in blue) you can see a central lobe that you can expect to grow when you put the antenna even higher - and it will. However height is not a variable I can influence that much. It will be somewhere between these two extremes.

The practical test showed that the antenna works - I logged a lot of contacts with good reports and the SWR is now perfect - and the model shows it is a decent addition to my set of antennas, especially when I am constrained in height.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Looking ahead at 2019

Discussing plans for next year with my YNOMY team brought me to ponder what radio-activities I would be going to undertake. I have rarely been in the vicinity of my radio this year and I think next year will be the same. Conditions are such that I can hardly make any interesting contacts with the setup I have at home. At the same time my work commitments limit the /P opportunities. I hope to be able to go out some more to activate some nature reserves or castles than I did this year. Perhaps I will re-use some of the special calls I used in 2017 (P*44FF). 

As I look ahead, I can see three highlights on the horizon: 

1. YNOMY expedition
LX and HB0 were so much fun that we have decided to spend another weekend in May together in some relatively remote place activating nature reserves. We have some ideas where to go to but more details will follow once we finalise our plans. 

2. COTA-PA special event
The world castle award program turns 10 years in June. The COTA-PA program - the local castle award program for PA - will participate in the festivities. I am currently organising a group of operators to use a number of special callsigns in June for the celebration.

3. Summer holiday
The summer holiday always gives me time and opportunity to go out /P. I will be in France this summer and expect to activate some nature reserves there.

Not on this list is the PACC - our national contest. I have been participating with my YNOMY team for the last 5 years and we won the last 3 times. Looking ahead at 2019 we found that we lacked motivation to go for a fourth win. 
We did not make any changes to our field day setup - so there is nothing to test and learn. As it is a field day setup and as we enter the contest to win, it is a considerable effort. Repeating last year is just not enough fun for us to put that much effort in.
We might return to the contest in a couple of years if conditions improve - as that will change the contest dynamics and gives us an opportunity to improve on our own highscore (in points).

Perhaps the end of the year will give me an opportunity to go /P for a change. At the moment planning the May expedition is the major source of radio fun. 

Thursday, November 29, 2018

SWL-ing the DX cluster

Our radio hobby has many different sub cultures each with their own challenges and rewards. You can climb mountains carrying your radio equipment, collect lighthouses from your armchair, participate in contests until you lose your voice, provide emergency communication (or just endlessly prepare to provide it), design and build equipment, etc.

Some of these I find more interesting than others, but I can relate to the enthusiasm people have for all these activities.

There is however one activity that really puzzles me: SWL-ing the DX cluster
What could be the fun in that?

I think I have an extra hard time in relating to this activity because I consider an accomplishment something personal - something you do to please / prove something to yourself.
I mean, I can imagine it is great fun to use a remote super station in another country to chase DX. Nothing wrong with that. But when you use this setup to boost your own score inside the context of the DXCC program (or any other program for that matter), you lose me completely. Without a split personality I cannot phantom how you are going to fool yourself - I mean, you were there...

In this example - using a remote station while trying to fool yourself - you at least have the fun of making radio contacts. So, there is some fun in the doing. Now imagine you try to fool yourself but you choose an activity that is as boring as can be: SWL-ing the DX cluster.

How does it work?
Well, imagine you are an SWL and you like to get some credits for one award or the other. Instead of turning on the radio though, you open a DX cluster page on the internet. Now you either wait for the right station to be spotted (depending on the award you are looking for) or you search for it in the recent spot history. As soon as you find a candidate, you write a QSL card to that station claiming to have heard a QSO between him and the spotter.

Quite straightforward really.
If you keep up the good work you will end up with all sorts of awards.

That is really cool - knowing that you did not qualify for the award and that you spent your time copying text from the internet.


How do I know this activity actually exists? I have an old account on a cluster node that I started when I had my novice license. The user name on this node still is my old call. 
Once in a while I use this cluster node in the field (it is listed in an app on my phone) when spotting for a special event. In case I am the operator, I get the QSL cards.

So.. if the cluster-copying SWL forgets to check QRZ carefully, I will get an SWL card claiming my previous (now inactive) call worked me, while I was operating a special event.... go figure. 
And yes, there is actually an SWL - DH5FA - that has managed to send me such a card. Even more peculiar than that, he has sent me more than one (for different special calls) - even though I warned him after the first one.

My fellow earth dwellers never cease to amaze me..

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

5b dxcc

This weekend I reached the "5 band DXCC" level. Quite a remarkable milestone considering the journey...

Where it started
When I came back to ham radio in 2010 I was eager to work as many DXCC as I could. I started with a shortened dipole in the attic - very far from ideal - but each and every country was a new one. Even with limited radio time my progress was smooth and I was happy for a while.

I upgraded my license in 2011 adding a load of new bands and with that the challenge increased: I would have to collect at least 100 DXCC on each (why?... I don't know, that is how addiction works).

My antenna changed into a wire behind the house running from 8m high to 2m high in a corner of the garden. An upgrade from my in-house dipole and an opportunity to add a few more DXCC.

Chasing /P
In the mean time I had developed a new addiction: activating WWFF nature reserves. Going /P inspired me to develop better antennas. Portable operations have their limitations (especially if you look at it from your multi tower station) but in my case I saw opportunities I did and do not have at my QTH.

From a mobile whip I quickly moved to vertical end fed antennas that already were more effective than the wire behind my house. And as time went by, adding more DXCC meant going out /P.

I took the opportunity of big contests - with lots of DXCC's active at the same time - to make my /P DX hunting as effective as possible. All the while trying to improve my /P station.

Beaming with delight
In 2012 I had one of my most pleasant chases when I went out with a 4 element beam for 10m (a band still open at the time) during CQ WW SSB . I added 24 atno's and 14 new bands, working a few hours on Saturday evening and a few hours the following morning. I don't think I have ever worked so many new ones in just two time slots.

Although the 10m beam was instrumental in the fun that time, it was also the first time I used the folding hexbeam that I just finished building in the week before the contest. This became and still is my favourite /P antenna. It has helped me work DX even now, at the bottom of the solar cycle.

With the hexbeam and a small mobile amplifier I added to my /P setup, I went DX fishing during a few other contests the next year. I scored 10 atno's and 22 new band dxcc during WPX in 2013 with the hexbeam, 4 atno's and 27 new band dxcc during EU HF contest  in 2013 and 6 atno's and 24 new band dxcc during CQWW SSB 2013.

3 band DXCC
By August 2013 I had logged more than 100 DXCC on three bands: 10, 15 and 20m. 17m was the candidate for the next 100 and I think I reached that somewhere in 2016 (time to play radio had been rather limited in the interim and I had not been out to actively chase DX /P).

By 2016 12m was no longer a feasible candidate to reach 100 DXCC as the sun spots had disappeared and I had failed to give that band enough attention in the preceding years. So my focus shifted to the lower bands. In 2016 I went out again during a CQWW SSB. This time focusing on 40m and 80m. I was only able to add 4 new DXCC to 40m, while adding 12 new ones to 80m and 28 new ones to 160m.

This left a challenge with still quite a few to go on 40m. The most feasible new ones required different operating hours than I could use from home (with the whole family asleep). So it looked like I needed another contest and /P operation. However I did not find the time. 

The final push
Then came last weekend with yet another CQ WW contest. I had not planned to be particularly active. There was no time to go /P but I did have some free slots to switch on the radio at home. Somehow I had brought my total to 96 DXCC worked on 40m in the meantime. With no expectations at all I started chasing some new ones I could hear. With the simple setup at home I could not reach all of them but with some persistence I was at 99 DXCC on Saturday evening. Of course this was not going to be the end result of the weekend. I continued my chase on Sunday in between other obligations and by the end of the day I was at 102 DXCC with an amazing JT and KL7 in the catch (thanks to their antennas).

Next up: 80m.. only 50 DXCC to go.