Tuesday, September 27, 2016

First DL activation - Geldenberg DLFF-0213

On last notice an appointment was canceled leaving me with time off on Friday afternoon. This gave me the opportunity to go /P again after some time of radio-inactivity.

I live close to the border with DL and there are a number of DLFF references nearby but for some reason I never activated any of them. I decided this needed to change - so I headed out to Kleve to activate Geldenberg DLFF-0213.

As conditions have been horrible I took my amplifier with me, to enhance the chances of being heard. I decided against taking a beam as that would mean bringing a lot of heavy stuff and losing more time setting up and breaking down the station.

After a detour because of a blocked main road I quickly found a good operating spot. I started around 12:45 UTC on 20m. The band was already open to east coast US to my surprise. I stayed on 20m for an hour logging 78 chasers. Not too bad.

18m pole with EFHW antenna
Somewhere in this first hour a car pulled into the parking space I was in and someone walked up to my station. I guessed right when I asked him if he was Axel DL1EBR. I just spoke to him before (as I did many times before from various nature reserves), and he lives a few kilometers from the nature reserve I was in now. It was nice to be able to connect a face to the voice I already knew.

After 20m slowed down I set up my inverted V and tried 40m. It was already very lively and in over an hour I logged another 99 chasers. Then I tried 15m before heading home. It was barely open but I did log a few stations including a ZS4 - the odx this time.

In total I logged 180 chasers from 34 DXCC with 3 P2P contacts.
It was fun, thanks to all the chasers that called in & Axel who came by in person.

Monday, August 29, 2016

VEFF experiences

From the end of July up till August 14 I traveled through VE3 (and a small part of VE2) with my family. I visited family in Toronto and made a round trip from there up to Manitoulin Island, Algonquin Provincial Park and into Montreal. From there we went back to Toronto via the 1000 Islands area.

My idea was to take my radio with me and to activate one or more nature reserves.

Before heading over to VE3 I contacted the VEFF coordinator - Dave VA3RJ - to find out what nature parks would be on my route. Dave took the opportunity to revise the VEFF list, adding a number of provincial parks in VE3.
He also helped me a great deal by highlighting all nature reserves close to the route I would be travelling.

Although customs was suspicious, I was able to bring my radio on the plane. I took my Yaesu FT857d, a HyEndFed transformer and a collection of wires for all HF bands. As I could not bring a pole I relied on my hockey ball and nylon wire to get my antenna up in a tree.

First activity: VEFF-0158 Blue Jay Creek Provincial Park 
The first place where I was near a nature reserve and was able to plan a time slot for radio-activity was on Manitoulin Island. This enormous island is very sparsely populated and would be a nice IOTA candidate if only the lakes surrounding it would have contained salt water - they don't.

The island is on the Canadian islands award list however and features three VEFF nature reserves. Two of those were 1.5h to 2h drive away (yes, it is a large island) and one - Blue Jay Creek Provincial Park - was less than 30 minutes away. So I chose Blue Jay Creek, even though it was impossible to enter this park by car.
I suspected I might end up in a reserve I would have to enter on foot, so I bought two lawn mower batteries (12v and not too heavy) before we headed to the island.

Entrance road leading to the edge of Blue Jay Creek (4x4 advisable..)

The Blue Jay himself

Set-up reasonably comfortable - end fed wire up in the tree  
I did check the propagation predictions so I had a vague idea of when the bands would be open to EU but I had no idea what kind of activity levels to expect. I was not disappointed. EU was open from the start for more than 3 hours. What did surprise me was the low activity level from NA. I tried 40m for a while but logged only 2 stations.

In 4 hours I logged exactly 100 calls - 56 EU, 38 NA, 4 SA en 2 AF. ODX was 8200km into RA6.

Second activity: VEFF-0334 Oxtongue River & Ragged Falls Provincial Park 
The second opportunity arrived when we were staying in a cabin just outside Algonquin Provincial Park. That is by far the largest park in Ontario. As it is huge I expect it stands a good chance to be activated by someone else in the future, so I chose a smaller park that borders Algonquin: Oxtongue River. 

Working from an airconditioned shack
Oxtongue river (worth a canoe trip)

and the Ragged Falls
As you can see I was in a beautiful area but radio-wise it was a disaster. In Blue Jay Creek I was near a large body of water (Lake Huron) and that must have played a role. Or radio conditions were just really bad this time. EU was really weak. After 4 hours I had logged a whopping 27 contacts. I feared I would not be able to reach the WWFF minimum of 44 contacts (let alone the 100 I always aim for). After 4h I found that 40m picked up with stations from the US. In another 2h I logged 26 more stations, bringing the total to 53 (in 6! hours) - 21 EU, 30 NA, 1 SA and 1 AF. ODX was S5 at 6800km.

This was by far the slowest activity I experienced ever. I think it is even worse than running the PACC contest in the early morning hours.

Third activity: VEFF-0023 Frontenac Biosphere
On our way back towards Toronto we stopped in a very nice house not far from the 1000 Islands national park (St Lawrence NP). I was thinking of activating that one, when I found out the house itself was located in a VEFF nature reserve: Frontenac Biosphere.

That was as conveniently as it can get. I had bought a power supply locally and found a 110V outlet at the back of the house, where there were a number of suitable trees for the end fed wires. This allowed me to operate until late without disturbing the family.
I planned to have a longer activity starting around the time 20m would open to EU and continuing until 40m would open to EU. I learned from the first two activities that there was a gap when 20m would close to EU, and before 40m would pick up in NA. This time I would not waste an hour logging close to nothing, but I joined my family for dinner instead. The luxury of operating from the place you are staying.. a whole new concept I enjoyed a lot.

I used my HyEndFed trafo with the original "multiband" wire - 12m of wire with a coil at 10m. Resonant on 10, 20 and 40m. It is not very long on 40m but a very practical solution in between trees.

View from the EFHW trafo up in the trees

Enjoying a beer while the ants enjoyed my nachos

This fellow was climbing up my leg before inspecting the radio - a walking stick. Dave VA3RJ told me you hardly see them as they only come out at night. 
I started on 20m and found that conditions were far better than at Oxtongue River. I could copy EU much stronger - though not as strong as at Blue Jay Creek. 20m was open to EU until around 23h UTC. I logged a number of NA stations and when 20m became slow I went for dinner to come back to 40m when it was lively in NA. I continued and started to hear EU stations from around 4am UTC.

One of the first stations I logged on 20m was Danny ON4VT. When he came back to me on 40m more than 9 hours later and reminded me of the fact that he had already slept in between, I decided it was time to go QRT.

I logged 113 contacts this time - 49 EU, 60 NA, 3 SA and 1 AF. ODX was 8200km to PY1 with an interesting 7300km to YO on 40m.

This way the radio brought a nice little extra to a great holiday in VE. Thanks to Dave VA3RJ I had various options available for activations - making it possible to blend them in with all the other family activities.

Thanks to all chasers who came by and kept me busy out in the middle of nowhere.

Friday, July 29, 2016

First VEFF activity planned - VEFF-0158 on Aug 1

After meeting up with family, we are now on Manitoulin Island. There are 3 VEFF reserves on the island. One is near to where I am staying: VEFF-0158 Blue Jay Creek Provincial Park. 

Today I went over to check the area out. It is difficult to reach over off-road tracks and will require me to walk the last bit - as the track stays on the edge of the reserve.

After a few km's of gravel road, the last bit is even more off-road.

I counted on this though and bought a car battery from Canadian Tyre on my way to the island. Now I only need to find a proper tree for the antennas and some shadow. 

The weekend we will be spending enjoying a native's festival. If all goes well my first activation will take place on Monday Aug 1 from around 20h UTC.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Looking forward to VEFF

In 1,5 weeks I will be travelling to VE for the first time. I will be visiting my brother in Toronto and then travel around Ontario for 2 weeks with my family.

Discussing the various VEFF locations Dave VA3RJ (VEFF coordinator) decided to update the Ontario reference list and he helped me find a large number of provincial parks along my route.

After contacting several agencies (border police, customs, airline) it seems I am OK with bringing my radio. I am not comfortable with taking LiPo batteries as I expect I will run into problems checking them in. So I will have to either buy a power source in VE or use the car (which means I can only operate from a park if I can get in by car).

Checking the propagation forecasts it will be challenge to work EU with only 100w and a wire antenna. I hope I will attract some (new?) NA chasers as well.

There are VEFF locations near all the stops I have planned. However, there is a lot more to do and see and my travelling companions will not be particularly enthusiastic if I am away all the time. So I will have to see when I have the opportunity to go /P. 

If I have internet access I will post my plans to Twitter and the WWFF facebook page

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Great news: first place in PACC

Today I received incredible news. Together with two friends I secured the first place in the Dutch ham radio contest PACC using the special call PA55A.

We - PD7YY, PG8M and myself (aka YNOMY DX Group) - entered the contest for the third time. With good preparation, dedication, lots of fun and some suffering (freezing our hands off in rain and wind) we scored the highest amount of QSOs and multipliers of all single tx contestants.

I am really pleased we managed to pull this off with the minimal means we used - a temporary stations with wire antennas on a desolate campsite.

This goes to show that state of the art equipment is not the key differentiator.

Nice :)

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Power sources for portable operation

When you start to go out on portable activities, you are confronted with the question what power source you should use. In this post I will share the choices I made working barefoot. 

The reason to share this info now is that I am in the middle of constructing something for my new mobile amplifier.. but more on that in a future post.

Introducing the challenge
The challenge depends on your operating conditions. Suppose that you are not going to work QRP and you will not be in or near your car. This is the situation I faced when I started activating special locations like nature reserves and castles.

Working with a 100W set, the power source you are looking for needs to supply you with approx 16A @13v, for a long as possible but with minimum weight. The good news is that there are a lot of other crazy hobbyistes out there that face the same challenge. You will find them when you search for "RC" - remote controlled cars, planes, helicopters and more recently drones.

Working barefoot: LiPo and LiFePO4
These people have turned to LiPo (Lithium Polymer) and LiFePO4 (Lithium Iron Phosphate) batteries for their power.  LiPo and LiFePO4 have the best power to weight ratio of the power sources I compared. 

Although both are Lithium based, there are some differences between the two:

  • LiPo batteries consist of a set of 3.6V (3v-4,2v) cells (between 3V - discharged and 4.2V - fully charged).
  • LiFePOo4 batteries consist of a set of 3,2V calles (between 2,8V - discharged and 3,6V - fully charged). 
  • LiFePO4 batteries have a higher number of recharge cycles (approx. twice the number of LiPo recharge cycles)
  • LiFePO4 batteries are intended for high power applications. They exhibit a more constant discharge voltage and are considered to offer better safety than other Lithium-based batteries.
  • LiPo batteries are relatively cheaper and lighter (relatively = at the same capacity)

With this list in mind I initially chose to go for LiFePO4 batteries. The biggest I could find were 9.7Ah, capable of delivering 10C (meaning that the peak current is 10x the capacity). With a weight of around 1kg, they fit my requirements well.

After 3 years of working with these batteries I have found that the capacity has deteriorated to the point that it starts to annoy me. I can barely run an activity of 2h on two batteries.
When adding a new battery to my collection, I chose a LiPo this time. The main reason to choose this battery over a new LiFePO4 is that I found them in larger capacity (16Ah).

LiPo and LiFePO4 sizing
When you are going to select your battery you need to understand one more thing: a code with #S#P. This tells you the amount of cells the battery has in series and in parallel. The amount of cells in parallel is not that interesting, as it is the given design for the capacity you are buying (and that number is clearly defined in mAh). The amount of cells in series is more interesting as it tells you what voltage range the battery will operate in. There is of course not one voltage for a battery. It varies along its discharge curve. The good news is that the discharge curve is rather flat.

Discharge curve for a LiFePO4 battery (@ different currents)

Discharge curve for a LiPo battery (@ different currents)
Your radio is most probably happy to take 12-14V. With a LiFePo4 you should therefore go for a 4S version. The voltage of this battery varies between 14,4V (full) and 11,2V (discharged) - most of the time around 12,8V.

If you decide to go for a LiPo battery, then you can either go for 3S (voltage between 9-12,6V) or 4S (voltage between 12-16,8V). Looking at the discharge curve, you will find that with a 3S battery you will quickly drop to a voltage where your radio might not operate anymore or with less output. I used this with my FT-817 and it is a workable solution. At a higher current draw with my FT-857 I found that the battery was unusable too soon. I therefore decided to go for a 4S version. 

LiPo voltage conversion
If you have chosen a LiFePO4, you are ready to go out and activate whatever place you want to. If you went for the LiPo S4 you have one more challenge to go: your set probably won't like the 16.8V of your fully charged battery. So how do you bring this voltage to an acceptable range?

I chose a buck (step down) converter to do the job. You can find them on ebay rather cheaply (imo) as complete modules with adjustable output voltage. I only added a few capacitors and now have a steady 13V LiPo battery with 16Ah capacity.

DC-DC voltage step down conversion

LiPo and LiFePO4 connectors
One other thing to look at are the connectors of the battery. They come in different shapes. Most commonly used are the XT60 and the bullet connectors. The latter are used on higher capacity batteries.
I decided to standardise on one type of connectors - in my case the bullet connectors (as you can see from the buck convertor). So I have made conversion cables to go from different types of connectors (XT60, banana plugs, car cigarette lighter) to bullet connectors.

That is about it regarding power sources for portable operation. In a future post I will zoom in on working with an amplifier while working portable.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

PACC 2016 with YNOMY

Studies have taken a lot of my spare time the last 12 months, so there is not a lot of radio news to share. I did however participate in PACC 2016 contest with the YNOMY crew.

We participated with the special call PA55A from the same camping ground we used in 2015. That year we finished second and were comfortably warm during the contest (as opposed to our first attempt in 2014) - good reasons to go back to the friendly camping owners. Although they look at us warily when they see us struggling setting up all those wires in rain and wind, we are most welcome to use their grounds.

The setup we used was comparable to 2015 with separate wire antenna's for 160m, 80m and 40m - using three fiberglass poles - and a hexbeam for 20m, 15m and 10m. We used one radio and a small solid state amplifier that gave us about 300w peak on most bands.

Another thing that was comparable to last year and the year before was the weather. It was cold, windy with some rain and snow. The pictures below give you an impression of the state the field was in.

It does look like we did well. We learnt our lessons from our attempts in 2014 and 2015. The preliminary results (from the log robot) place us in #1. Not bad at all. Now we have to keep our fingers crossed that we did not make any major mistakes. Last year we had very few errors. So let's hope the contest turns out to be comparable to last year on this level as well.

Muddy field - probably good for the reflection of waves though....

In the end everything was covered in mud - not just the shoes