Monday, September 28, 2020

Building a new lithium battery

For years I have been using lithiun batteries to power my radio equipment when portable, both LiPo and LiFePO4.
If you want to know more about these different types read this post I wrote a few years ago.

I started out buying batteries from HobbyKing in China. Then I decided to build a few myself with pouch cells I bought from AliExpress. 

Recently I lost two LiPo pouch cells when I abused a battery - forgetting to attach the under voltage alarm. Another LiPo cell of a different pack turned out dead without a clear cause. I ordered a new cell but they are quite expensive. Losing three of those cells in a short period of time I suspect I might have to replace more in the future. So I started looking for other solutions with cheaper building blocks: smaller cells.

LiPo cell after abuse

Looking at smaller cells I first stumbled upon the 18650. A popular Li-Ion battery and quite small but you need a lot of them to get a useful capacity as they are around 2Ah a piece. However I found more practical LiFePO4 cells with a 7Ah capacity: 32700. I bought a set of those with strips of nickel attached to the ends for soldering as I do not have a spot welder (yet).

The voltage of four of these LiFePO4 cells is too low for my amp - that is why I opted for LiPo up till now - but as the amp is designed to handle up to 18V a battery of 5 cells would do the job. So I decided to go for a 5s3p design (5 cells in series and 3 in parallel).

Building a 5s3p battery

I bought a BMS as well with the idea that it will protect the battery from under voltage. And it allows me to charge the battery even with a simple (non balancing) charger. I was hoping that a BMS is more effective in balancing than the chargers I have - that take quite some time to balance an unbalanced pack.

Completed battery with BMS

Testing the battery my first lesson was that you cannot charge a battery that has a BMS with a smart charger. The BMS starts kicking in when the first cell approaches its maximum. The charger notices the increasing resistance and shuts down with an error ("connection break"). 

Charging through the BMS with a smart charger 

Time for Plan B I used a 12V source and a step up converter to 18V to act as a "dumb" charger. Meanwhile I checked the charging current and the voltage of the individual cells to see what was happening. 

This time the charger patiently waited for the BMS to allow for a current to run. The BMS would drain the cells for a bit and then allow a charge current until one of the cells hit around 3.5V and then the cycle repeated. However it did not seem to be able to bring the cells closer together. After an hour there was still a spread of 0.2V between the cells. 

After letting the pack sit for a while I found out that the BMS aims to keep the cells at around 3.4V (on my V-meter). So during charging - aiming for 3.6V - a cell might go higher but the BMS will continue to discharge it until it is back at 3.4V again.

I will have to see if this noticeably impacts the capacity of this battery pack. When I have some more time on my hands I will run some tests and see how it behaves under the stress of powering a 400w amp.

Friday, August 7, 2020

40m wire antennas compared

Before going on holiday I managed to get some life into my old C-Pole using a new home made choke. I re-tuned the antenna (with some challenges) but did not get a chance to use it. 

In the past I did use it quite a bit and was pleased with the results but as always - this does not tell you a lot. HF conditions vary too quickly and dramatically to base any evaluation on single antenna experiences. You really need simultaneous A/B testing.

A gap in my schedule allowed me to go out and do some testing of different wire antennas for 40m. I ended up testing a C-Pole versus an end fed halve wave more or less vertical and the same C-Pole versus an inverted V dipole.

Test setup

I used two identical WSPRLite beacons that transmit with 200mW on the WSPR frequency. 

  • The C-Pole was set up so that the feedpoint was at approx 2m above ground (that would be your typical setup with a 12m pole, like the Spiderbeam I have - with the top of the antenna at 11m). 
  • The EFHW was attached to my 18m pole and therefore almost vertical. The last 3-4m I set up sloping so that the feedpoint was at approx 1.5m above ground.
  • The Inverted V was set up so that the feedpoint/apex was about 13m high. 

The test period was the end of the afternoon. Not the best time for 40m and certainly not the best time to test DX performance. However it was the time I had available. 

C-Pole meets EFHW vertical

The first run was the C Pole vs the EFHW vertical. I let the beacons run for about an hour. After that time I had:


On first glance the EFHW vertical seems to fare better. It has been heard more often. However both antennas reached the same amount of spotters. So nothing too dramatic here.

Now looking at the SNR reported by the spotters there is more to say about the difference.

Let's start by looking at the raw data of reports by the spotters (plotted by the distance from my test location).

The orange dots seem to go higher (SNR in dB on the Y axis) at every distance (in KM on the X axis) but with all the individual dots it is still a bit messy. 

I then averaged the reports per spotter to decrease the amount of data points. Again it looks like the EFHW performs better.

Finally I calculated the average difference in signal strength per spotter of the EFHW over the C-Pole. This clearly shows the EFHW beats the C Pole on almost all distances and sometimes by a fair margin. The outlier is S51RS at 950km. That is the only spotter favoring the C-Pole significantly.

So if you have enough height available the EFHW is the one to choose out of the two at least for the ranges tested today. This is what I expected from the theoretical analysis I did some time ago.

An interesting followup would be to see how the EFHW would perform with the same top height (sloping from the 12m pole or tree branch). With a slingshot one can easily get a vertical wire up 20m, so I would normally aim for that height with this antenna.

C Pole meets inverted V dipole

Now how about the inverted V? This one adds another element to the game as it is horizontally polarised (as opposed to the vertical EFHW and the C-Pole).

I chose a height around 13m (not fully extending the 18m pole). In retrospect I might as well have gone 2 meters lower to compare the antenna if set up on the same 12m pole as I used for the C Pole antenna. Here we have a slight advantage for the inverted V.

Running the beacons for just under an hour I had:

Inverted V1146219

The inverted V got one extra shot so it is hard to tell from this first glance which one performed better.

The raw data again gives a picture that is hard to interpret quickly:

So moving on to the average per spotter. This shows that the Inverted V seems to beat the C-Pole on most occasions. 

Moving one step further the indication is confirmed. The Inverted V wins almost everywhere. The biggest outlier again is S51RS.


I did not test the inverted V against the EFHW vertical directly. However looking at the differences per test, using the C-Pole as "a reference antenna", there does not seem to be a lot of performance difference within EU. I would have expected the inverted V to do slightly better than the vertical on the shorter distances (with its higher radiation angle) but that might be only noticeable on even shorter distances.

So, this time I learned that within EU the C-Pole loses against an inverted V at more or less the some top height and loses against a vertical EFHW with the feedpoint at more or less the same height. 

One question remains - as the antenna's have different radiation patterns - would any of these clearly beat the others on multi hop DX? The simulations I did previously would suggest that the C-Pole would have an advantage over the inverted V because of more low angle radiation.

If it turns out the C-Pole does not "deliver on promise" there, then I cannot see a lot of situations where I would choose it over one of the other designs. Only if the footprint needs to be minimal and height is restricted (*).

This last question requires a new test around gray line time - when I can't use my favourite test ground as it is only accessible in daylight. Something to put on the "to do list".

*) Another one: would the C-Pole beat a shortened 40m EFHW of equal height - so approx. 12m? I have such a wire with spool that I used in the past for my 10-20-40m EFHW.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

FREE month

Last month I spent more time on the radio than the preceding twelve months combined. I was on the air as one of ten stations with a special call in the P*75FREE(DOM) range to commemorate the end of WW2 in The Netherlands in May 1945.

Planning the event at the end of last year we had ideas to be active as a group or subgroup during the month with a large event from a war museum. They were happy to accommodate us a whole weekend. However COVID-19 changed all that. 

Initially I went out /P alone to a couple of PAFF nature reserves but as the month progressed we decided to do a smaller group activity with three operators from a nature reserve (PAFF-0168). We were able to set up two stations - one 40m and one 10 to 20m using the portable hexbeam. We changed the latter into a 60-80m station in the evening.

Hexbeam set up in a nature reserve with PD75FREE, PG75FREE and PH75FREE running two stations

Through email and Telegram chat the FREE stations kept in touch on the progress, the conditions and notable experiences. It is nice to see how working as a team motivates one to be more involved and spend more time behind the radio. Each participant made different choices based on preferences (like more or less digi) and set-up.

Another motivating factor were the most active chasers that tried to find us on each band and mode and even contacted us by email or Facebook to share their enthusiasm and look for opportunities to work us with OH2YV as the most striking example. His dedication was extraordinary. He finished first by a stretch only using phone and CW (so missing all possible digi points most other chasers did collect). 

All in all we made 25.000 QSOs with 13.000 stations. I was not the most active by a long stretch but still made a nice amount of contacts spread over the bands and modes (giving serious chasers a chance to accumulate points). There was a nice bit of sporadic E in the second half of the month, allowing for short skip on 20 and 40 but also openings on higher bands up to 2m.

In three pictures an idea of my activities (star = digi, dot = phone/cw):
VHF and high HF: 2/4/6/10/12/15m - sporadic E fun within EU

17/20m gave both Es and some F2 DX

Low band (30/40/60/80/160m) throughout EU and one DX on 40m to PY
To be able to work the chasers on low bands and further than the first hop (DX was challenging), I went out one last time in the last weekend of our activity to a piece of wasteland where I could set up an antenna for 160m. PD7YY joined me to see if we could work DX on 40m as well - and we did with PP7DX making it all the way.  

18m pole with low band wire antenna's and our YNOMY flag

After finishing collecting all data and producing 400+ awards the following challenge is QSL-ing all our chasers. For now the radio will enjoy some rest - probably until I go on holiday. I hope to be able to go camping in France - like previous years. We'll see how things progress in this peculiar period.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

C-pole tuning part 3

This weekend I went out to test my C-pole with a new 1:1 balun. As I blogged before I ran into trouble with this antenna and the common mode choke I constructed in W2DU style.

To rule out any balun influences I had decided to tune the C-pole last week using my VNA without any balun present. My idea at the time was that this would give me the most clean picture of the antenna and would rule out any failure of the balun ruining the tuning process. Smart move? No. (but I learned something).

While working on the "naked" antenna I was amazed how much off it was. To me at the time it seemed strange (I tuned it before didn't I?) but it did explain why it failed in operation. So I continued re-tuning the antenna - moving the feedpoint a considerable bit along the one leg of the folded dipole (basically the C-pole is a dipole with the ends folded in a square shape towards each other).

After 1,5-2h of pushing the antenna up and down again I had a perfect match in the 40m band. One happy camper.

At home I tested and optimised my 40m balun. Ready for the final assembly and testing.

This weekend I had some time to go out to bring it all together and enjoy the fruits of my labour. However when I set up the antenna with balun I found.... it was way off. Go figure.

Tuning the C-pole yet another time

Discussing this with my YNOMY team members we came to the conclusion that the common mode current - considerable in this design - influences the measurements of the VNA. So tuning the "naked" antenna was a stupid idea and the time spent tuning was actually time spent detuning it.

A frustrated ham is never going to be the best person to work on any project but I did decide there and then to re-tune the antenna one more time. I was almost finished when I too hastily bumped the VNA against the pole. The center conductor of the SMA plug attached to the VNA broke off and is now securely in place in my VNA port - making it neither a female nor male connector (gender neutral - a modern concept). That concluded the tuning process for the time being.  

Gender neutral SMA connector

So now I have to replace the SMA connector on the VNA. That connector - I found - is soldered into place with lead free solder that I cannot remove with my soldering iron as it just does not heat up enough.
Luckily Marcel PG8M told me he both has the connectors and a proper soldering iron. So now I have to find the time to go over to his place and have him repair the damages (keeping a safe distance all the time of course).

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Cooking on a choke

Out portable with my (relatively) new C-pole antenna last week I ran into trouble. After about 30 minutes signal levels dropped dramatically indicating something was wrong. I saw the SWR skyrocket.
Walking over to my c-pole I felt the common mode choke was boiling hot. So I changed antennas and continued my operation.

Back home I began my investigation in what went wrong. Immediately there were two suspects: the antenna (high swr for some reason) and the choke (too low choking impedance).

The antenna was fine when I used it the first time and I did not change anything in the mean time. So the choke seemed a more logical candidate. The purpose of the choke is to minimise the amount of common mode current that you will generate with an unbalanced antenna like the C-pole. If the choking impedance is too low however there will still be a considerable common mode current left that will generate heat in the choke.

W2DU style choke with ferroxcubes beads
On this latest homemade version of the c-pole I use a W2DU style choke that I constructed myself using a number of ferrite beads. The type and amount I used I based on the factsheet. On paper the choking impedance was OK but I can't remember if I really tested it. Checking it now I measured a whooping 400 Ohm of impedance - far too low to stop the CM current flow (I wonder if the heat impacted the ferrite?).

Removing turns of RG58 from two stacked FT240 toroids

On my first C-pole I used a different current choke, designed on the basis of the excellent information by the late G3TXQ. I used two FT240-43 ferrite toroids stacked with a couple of turns of RG58. It is bulkier and heaver though than a W2DU choke, that is why I changed it.
That toroid based choke also became very hot on my first c-pole but I later discovered the antenna itself had an issue - causing high swr - causing high voltages over the choke.

So I returned to this old choke - abandoned but not scrapped. I measured it and it had an interesting profile. It was particularly useful in the 80m band range (5k Ohm) but certainly not bad in the 40m range (2.5k Ohm).

Measurement #1 of the choking impedance and transmission loss on my balun

I decided to take it apart and remove one of the RG58 turns. As expected the choking maximum moved up. The profile now suited a 60m antenna perfectly while impedance was higher in the 40m band. After removing two more turns I got a maximum in the 40m band. The choking impedance is now more than 5k Ohm there. That should do the trick.

Measurement #2 after removing 3 turns of the coax

When I have the time I will go out /P with my C-pole to check it without a choke - just to be sure it still is resonant in the 40m band - and then add my old toroid based choke. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Recent PAFF activities

Covid-19 has motivated me to go out portable again after months of little to no activity. Apart from some field tests I went out for two PAFF activations. One to PAFF-0016 (Sallandse Heuvelrug) that I visited once before in 2012 and one to PAFF-0055 (Deelerwoud) that I had visited four times already as it is near to my QTH.

The PAFF-0016 activity was on the Saturday afternoon during WPX SSB. There was no choice in the matter as I was out with my family and there was only that particular afternoon available. I was doubtful about my chances to work a nice number of stations (my target is a minimum of 100), but it was even worse than I feared. In 2,5 hours I only logged 26 QSOs from 13 DXCC. That is by far the lowest number I have logged during a WWFF activity.

It started out alright with K2VV (Missouri) as the first chaser coming back on 20m but then the contest QRM became stronger and stronger. The higher bands were closed (4 QSOs on 17m in 30 minutes), so I tried some (fake) CW on 20m. That gave me a few new chasers but that was slow with 10 chasers in 30 minutes. In the end I went down to 60m to add another 7 QSOs before calling it a day.

QSOs from PAFF-0016 - nicely spread out but only a handful

My visit to PAFF-0055 was the next Saturday and was completely the opposite. There was a contest that weekend but it would only start at 16h UTC. That gave me some time to use 20m and 40m before QRM started. 
The 6th chaser to return my call was Norm N9MM from Texas. That was good propagation news as TX is not regularly in my /P logs. Two more DX surprises were a new JA chaser and Paul VK5PAS who I had not heard for 3 years. 
Europe was well awake and the skip zones of 20m and 40m overlapped nicely. It was busy throughout. I logged 156 QSOs from 32 DXCC in just under 2 hours even though I had to change antennas for 40m as I seemed to have burnt the common mode choke of my C-pole...

QSOs from PAFF-0055 - activity level that makes an activator smile
That last activity was motivating which is good because I have a busy month of May ahead. I will be active with a special call - PH75FREE - commemorating 75 years of freedom (after the end of WW2). I hope to do most of the activity /P.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Up a tree - part 2

After dusting off my EZ-hang slinghsot I replaced the old and in the meantime shortened fishing line with new fluorescent line (0.25mm). I started out with 120m but that was a little too much for the reel so I cut it back to 100m.

I was wondering what the effect of the different sinker weights would be in practice - which one would travel higher and how would they behave once up in a tree.

Slingshot with 1.75oz sinker
Slingshot with original sinker

First I did some simple shots across a field. It turned out both weights ended up at around the same distance: 50m (170ft) with a maximum of 54m for the 1.75 oz weight and 58m for the original 1oz weight. I would say comparable.

Lots of nice branches
Then I selected a few nice trees to compare the two sinkers further. Again the difference in height reached was not really significant. Both ended up around 25m (80ft) with the 1oz weight reaching the highest branch at 28m (90ft). This corresponds to the highest mast I have (26m) so more than acceptable.

Two differences were significant to me:

1. the original (yellow) sinker was easier to find (higher visibility thanks to the paint)
2. the heavier sinker came down smoothly every time while the original one had to be helped down more than once (tugging the line)

So I think it is a matter of painting the heavier sinkers and I am good to go.

Another thing I will optimise are the rubber bands of the slingshot. They can be stretched quite lightly even up to my maximum reach. As it turns out (as with everything you dive into) there is a whole unknown territory to explore when it comes to designing good slingshots. Another thing to put on the to-do-list. On top of that list is figuring out why my 40m c-pole antenna kills current chokes. More on that later...

The "chosen one" in action