Saturday, November 3, 2012

Ham Radio: A 2m Base Station Set Up

I posted some general information about my most recent work to get an amateur radio station up and running yesterday. Now I'll go into some specific detail on my 2m set up, which is up and running in a good enough state to get me through winter (I think.)

Interleaved Effort
The work I describe here happened in parallel with work on my HF station work. While I was up on the roof running antenna cables, I was running both sets of cables. While I was clearing shelf space for placing rigs and power supplies, I was clearing room for both. Fortunately it's worked out, even if it meant being a little less focused at times than I would have liked.

Building a Solid Station
Since I live in a gulch, with 100+ foot tall trees all around, getting a VHF signal from my house to anywhere is a challenge. While I managed to check into a net with a handie-talkie and a ground plane on a broomstick, this is not a plan for routine operation. I managed to check into a couple of nets with this configuration, but the signal reports were less than sterling, I had to chase around with the broomstick to try to find the best places for contact, which changed each time I tried. And having to go out into weather wasn't an appealing prospect.

To get a signal out of here, it was obvious I needed a few things. Like a rig with more power, a proper antenna, and, of course, a good low-loss feedline to tie them together. In other words, everything.

The Antenna
My initial thoughts were to mount the home-made ground plane on something better than a broomstick. But then further help came from a visit to the home of Bill, W6WEM, to have a look at his ground loop antenna (which I still hope to reproduce on my property, though it may wait till next spring.)

He had an unused pair of J-Pole antennas, one for 2m and the other for 440MHz. I don't have a rig for 440 yet, so it's laid aside (my daughter Amaryllis may have plans for it, we'll see.) But the 2m J-Pole I had immediate use for.

I scared up an extensible fiberglass pole that's about 10 feet long, and managed to attach it to a high eave on my garage good enough to stay through good weather. First, I connected to the J-Pole with an RG-58AU stub and an adaptor to go between the PL-259 on the antenna and the BNC on the cable. That went to a BNC to SMC adapter on my Handie-Talkie. I stood on the roof, with the HT just a little too high up to be comfortable, and managed to get into one of the two nearby repeaters I'd hit before with the broomstick groundplane.

With a new feedline, I would be able to raise the antenna higher, and who knows, maybe even talk from inside the house!

The Feedline
The 40m dipole I'd put up before hadn't gotten me any contacts yet. And it had my best piece of feedline for VHF, about 60 feet of RG-8 cable. I also had about 75 feet of some double-shielded 50 ohm cable, some Belden CATV cable on a par with the best RG-58. I could use the Belden cable on the 2m antenna, but its losses at 147MHz would be a lot higher than the RG-8. And the losses of the Belden would be not much more than the RG-8 at the lower frequencies that the 40m dipole would be used at.

So I decided to put the Belden cable on the 40m dipole, take off the RG-8 and put it on the 2m J-Pole.

I then used a collection of adaptors to get from the RG-8 to my HT without breaking the antenna connector (hopefully, though it may of weakened it, as it now needs repair, but I blame it getting caught under the car seat for the likely cause of the actual break.)

The Rig
Next was getting more watts. I bought a new rig, a Yaesu FT-2900R on sale at Ham Radio Outlet. It goes up to 75 watts. Almost certainly overkill, but then it would also have some value if I hooked up a beam and tried to get some DX over FM. Too bad it's not all mode. But that can happen later. Maybe I can even get somewhere with my old Kenwood TS-700A someday, with the other modes.

But for now, I decided to get the FT-2900R. I could have added PL to the old Kenwood and had 20W out, but it's receiver isn't very sensitive. By the time I've added PL and added hardware to compensate for the Kenwood's receiver, I'm within kissing range of the price of a new rig that just does the job for FM. So I went with the new rig. A new all-mode rig would have been nice, but wasn't available at the price of FM-only.

And the Rest
I managed to make out like a bandit at the SFARC annual white elephant sale (as well as getting some bucks into the club treasuring for the pleasure.) I got an MFJ-941C antenna tuner, a couple of nice power supplies (one still in the box), and some other fun bits.

Right now my HF rig and the FT-2900R are sharing a single power supply. The new one in the box is going to become my 2m rig's dedicated power supply.

I also have a place I've made in my in-home office, near my computers, that I've set the rig. I went up on the roof and moved the antenna cable to the other side of the house to meet up with the rig. I used the same feedthrough I made for the living room window in my office to bring it in, though the long-term plan is to bring it in through the crawlspace of the house.

All Together Now
Last week I went up on the roof and did something about the wobbly mount I had the J-Pole on. I put a proper antenna bracket pair on the house, and set the fiberglass pole, at full extension, into it. It's good for winter. The other setup lasted through a couple of windstorms, but frankly, I was surprised it did.

Last Thursday I got all the bits put together and checked out. I managed to check in that night to a regular 2m net for SFARC. Woohoo!

Everything is in a state that it can stay that way all winter, if need be. I'm planning some more minor changes to make things nicer, but it's all usable as is. Nothing is balanced precariously, or too fussy. I'm cleaning out a corner of the room to make space for a dedicated table for amateur radio now, and planning to reroute the antenna cable and put in a disconnect switch for lightning safety (I manually disconnect it when it's not in use, now.)

So I can say that for the first time I've got a real station set up. It's taken almost a year since I got my license to do so. But it's done.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Ham Radio-Continued Incremental Improvements

It's been a while since I've posted an amateur radio update.

I had my rigs set up temporarily in my living room when I last posted. They got ousted over the summer, for the sake of letting visitors feel that they're not in imminent danger of electrocution when they come over. ;)

That was fine, my intention was always to move them out into a dedicated space in the garage. My plan for the summer was to clear out a section of the garage, put in some flooring and walls and build a little sound studio in a corner. Then reality struck.

Robbers Fire
First, we had a wildfire. That had me putting my effort into outdoor work. I'd already taken care of the normal maintenance for the property, but when a wildfire is within a mile of your home, suddenly you start seeing a lot more that can be done. So the work in the garage was deferred for the duration.

A number of our friends came over one day to help out, by the time we'd finished the property was in good shape. The hardest part there was, once the chainsaws got fired up, getting them to stop while there are still some trees standing on the property. ;)

Home Repairs
Next was some planned home repairs. Which turned out to be more extensive than planned. I started expecting to replace the sill plate on our patio. That work grew significantly once I got started, and it ate up all the time and money I expected to put into both the original repair and building up my ham shack in the garage.

Meanwhile, my radios were stacked in a location where I couldn't use them, and the antenna cables were run to a part of the house where there weren't any radios.

After the home repairs were complete, I tried to continue with the original ham shack plan, but it just wasn't going to happen. The money for lumber and all was spent, and I just wanted to get back on the air. Also, there's a good likelyhood we're going to be moving out of this house within the next year or two, so the more elaborate set up I'd planned is looking less reasonable.

Fallback Plan
Instead, I decided to come up with another idea. But first, I moved over the cable for my 2m antenna to where I could hook it up to the radio in its current location on the other side of the house. I started to plan a new HF antenna (I still have zero contacts with the original 40m dipole I put up, mostly because I've been off the air all summer because of the points listed above.) The new antenna idea oscillated between an 80m dipole, a 40m loop, and an 80m loop. My daughter (KJ6TFT) and I went out and measured tree locations on our property. It was a low-energy activity that let me start getting my ham mindset going again.

Among the things I was looking for was an antenna that would tune up on more bands. My coax-fed 40m dipole would do 40m and 15m, but after a couple of near-but-not-quite contacts on 10m I wanted something that could radiate more efficiently on other bands. There are a number of ways to manage that, and I've gotten halfway there on more than one. :)

And there was still the issue of having a place to put my radios.

Well, the further along I got, the clearer it became that if I was going to get anywhere, I would have to divide my work into two lots: stuff that had to happen before the winter weather set in, and stuff that could be done regardless of weather.

The end result was that after playing around with fishing line and a bow and arrow for some hours, while seeing the first storm coming in on the weather reports, that I dropped the new antenna project for the time being and focused on making improvements in my present antennas to change them from the "get on the air, quick" configuration from last spring into a "likely to stay operational all winter" configuration.

As it happens, that turned out to be the right decision.

I'm running long, so I'll save details for later. But last night I was able to check into a 2m net for the first time in months. I'm using a set-up that can keep me on the air all winter, at least. There are a couple of tweaks I still want to make before there's snow on the ground, but none of them are critical, just things to make the setup nicer.

Also, I've made some changes to the 40m antenna and I should be able to get on the HF bands again with a temporary set-up this weekend, and I should have things settled into something I can run with all winter within the next week. The antenna looks better than ever to my antenna analyzer, and I'm hoping it gets some signal out. I expect to be putting a call out to some locals over 2m to see if I can arrange my first HF contact within the next few days. At worst, I'll fall back to making some 2m simplex contacts and start collecting grid squares. I may only have a J-Pole, but so far I've only got one square (CM99mb), so anything is a step up.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Raising Money and Beautifying Public Libraries

Public Library Promotional Posters by Bradley W. Schenck

Brad Schenck is an old friend of mine, and a great artist. He and I are both lovers of literature, and of places that bring literature to people, like public libraries. I spent my childhood ransacking any nearby library's collections of science fiction, fantasy, and science books. I would never have been able to read and learn so much if I'd had to track down and buy those books.

At one point, everything I had to read came from a Public Library Bookmobile that stopped in my neighborhood every week. That's how I first read George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, as well as Richard Adam's Watership Down.

Even in the age of the internet, books hold a unique place. Libraries provide resources both for getting information to people, and for helping people learn what information they need to acquire knowledge they seek. And libraries mean a lot more than books these days. They are also an entrance to the information that is on the internet, helping people get information past the confusion of advertisements, unreliable web sites, and social media noise.

Brad's started an IndieGoGo campaign to produce promotional posters for public libraries--his own as well as those of contributors. And to raise funds for libraries. Plus, you can get copies of the magnificent posters for yourself.

Brad's Own Words
Have a look at what Brad says, then consider throwing in a few bucks. Or a few more.

A Larger View of the Posters