Categories
Ideas

Backyard Radio

After three weeks in lockdown it’s beginning to feel a little like Groundhog Day.

Up at 6am and while the coffee is still brewing I record my temperature, blood oxygen level, heart rate, and blood pressure. Then a quick scan of the overnight virus stats. New confirmed case counts and revised death count. After that, it’s the 10 second commute from the kitchen into my home office where I settle down for another day of working from home. Lunch and a mile long walk is at noon and then it’s back to the office to complete the workday. After dinner there’s another walk and then we’re in for the evening where it’s reading or television before bed time.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

All my HF activity now takes place outdoors with a battery and the KX3 since I haven’t replaced the fallen HF antenna – and may not. I’ve been looking forward to spring when I can carry this gear to nearby parks and other recreation areas but right now that feels like non-essential travel so I’m making do in the backyard. It’s not bad, I enjoy spending more time outside and am even considering leveling up to a more comfortable arrangement out there. Maybe a screened enclosure with a better table and comfortable chair. I wish I had acres from which to choose a prime radio location, but mine is a small, city lot.

Nevertheless, outside seems preferable to inside.

I already have a few wires randomly tossed into trees for just this purpose. And given that the kitchen, refrigerator, and bathroom are all within easy reach of the backyard, it’s a comfortable contrast to working from a park or trail.

Plus, forgetting to bring along a necessary connector or cable isn’t such a calamity when you can pick them up a few steps away and use the opportunity to refill a cold drink. If thunderstorms roll in, I step inside where, if I had a larger antenna, I would disconnect it and stay off the air anyway.

Obviously the backyard isn’t a replacement for taking radio to the field where more interesting sights and sounds of nature can be enjoyed in places like State and National Parks, etc. But I’m finding the space just beyond my door to be an overlooked opportunity as it provides fresh air, sunshine, and a lot of convenience. It’s the perfect location to setup and test field equipment and portable antennas before toting them to distant vistas. And there are plenty enough birds, squirrels and rabbits who stop by for a visit on a daily basis to make peace with nature.

BOTA – Backyards on the Air might one day evolve into yet another popular and enjoyable facet of the hobby. But for now, let’s just keep this quiet and between us. Someone is bound to throw a fit if it’s ever discovered that the best looking shack to ever to grace the cover of CQ magazine was a picnic table in the backyard on a sunny afternoon with an icy pitcher of sweet tea setting by the logbook.

Categories
General

Lock Down

Day seven of the lock down for me. Initially, it was a strong recommendation. Now here in Indiana it’s a firmer suggestion, though no one is getting tossed in the hoosegow for violating the order. Naps and a lot of reading have filled my days. The television is an annoyance I can do without for long stretches of time. The hardest part so far has been not constantly checking my retirement accounts as I watch plans to retire in less than a year dissolve into the virus stream.

I suppose life and pandemics are what happen while you’re busy making other plans. There were many things we could have done to better prepare, but we didn’t, not the government, not me. I’ve been dreaming of moving to a small cabin in the middle of nowhere, maybe in the Upper Peninsula, but have never gotten round to it. Social isolation isn’t just a near-term goal for me, I expect to spend the rest of my life in its pursuit. Assuming things ever get back to normal, if that’s even possible now.

That’s mostly because I don’t see this pandemic as a once in a lifetime event. There are now 7 billion of us sharing this planet and almost half of the people who live here can, on a whim, hop on a jet with carry-on luggage and exotic germs and travel wherever their heart desires, and I don’t see that as a good thing. Globalism has always been a bad idea that looks even worse in light of this novel Coronavirus. I expect another pandemic sooner, rather than later and I don’t see the government taking interest in planning ahead for any threat they can’t see or bomb so we’re doomed to repeat this history and very likely in my lifetime.

And gloomy as that sounds, it also assumes the virus to be naturally occurring.

For all I know, this one could have been concocted in an Army laboratory as a bio-weapon. I don’t have the necessary expertise to determine that for myself. I’m forced to trust someone else to inform me about the origin of a contagion. Do I trust sources on Facebook or Twitter to inform me? The media? How about the orange-tinted fellow who once claimed this whole virus episode to be a left-wing hoax intended to hurt his re-election chances?

Do you trust politicians to tell you the truth? I don’t.

Antennas & Bad Timing

Having all the antennas down a couple weeks before the beginning of a global pandemic was either plain dumb or really bad timing. I’ve been pulling new feed line this week for the VHF/UHF stack. But it’s springtime in Indiana so it’s nice one day and rainy for three in a row. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak and I’m finding it tough to complete those kind of projects despite having plenty of spare time to do it right now.

On the HF front I’ve taken to the field. The “field” being the backyard where the KX3 and AX1 antenna continue to impress me. And that’s handy since I noticed a recent post from Larry, W2LJ about the upcoming QRP to the Field (QRPTTF) event now being a backyard special this time due to the virus and social distancing.

Things to Read

Lots of interesting links are appearing online probably due to us having a little extra time for the hobby. For instance, you can download the book, 200 Meters and Down, the definitive early history of amateur radio. Paul Harden, NA5N made his design plans for one damn fine looking TFD antenna. CQ Magazine is making the March and April 2020 digital editions of that publication free for download. You could download the excellent March 2020 edition of Cheese Bits newsletter from the Mt. Airy VHF Radio Club. And one more, the latest edition of the 432 & Above EME Newsletter is waiting to be downloaded. That should keep you busy and out of trouble for at least a day!

Reason to Melt Solder

If you ever assembled a 4SQRP Cricket transceiver, you might be interested to learn about the club’s latest offering, the Cric-Key designed by Dave Cripe, NM0S. The Cricket series consists of low cost entry level minimalist CW transceivers. This NEW kit is designed to complement the popular Cricket series of QRP transceivers with a useful and easy-to build keyer circuit. It was intended to be a build project at the annual OzarkCon QRP convention until fate changed those plans. It’s twenty-five bucks USD plus shipping and will give you reason to melt a little solder while stuck at home.

Stay safe, stay healthy, stay isolated, and wash your hands.

Categories
On the Air

QRP Dreaming

With no antenna in the air for more than a month I’m getting a little stir crazy. Sure, I played with the KX3 using the telescoping AX1 portable antenna from the kitchen table last month, but ain’t nothing like the real thing.

Having had all the radio silence I could stand, I strung a random wire up a 30-foot mast that’s still attached to the back of the house on Sunday morning. The AH-4 antenna tuner liked it well enough on 30 meters that I decided to try to make my first FT8 contact of the New Year.

Mission accomplished. A few watts to the (mostly) vertical wire using FT8 yielded more than a dozen contacts on 30 meters and another handful on 80. One of those contacts with fellow ham-blogger Steve, K9ZW who was enjoying a snowstorm in Wisconsin while I watched it rain here in Central Indiana.

I wasn’t surprised at this modest success. Having been a QRP-only operator from 1997 until 2015 I’ve worked more than enough DX with low-powered kits and oddball wire antennas to have long ago become a believer. Though after nearly 20 years of this kind of activity I found it difficult to not become jaded about the efficacy of five watts and a wire.

But lately I’ve been taking fresh inspiration from Rich, KY6R who has started making a habit of trolling the bands for DX at QRP, while experimenting with various oddball antenna designs, I find myself thinking about a return to the minimalist radio lifestyle…

I dream of an Inverted-L to best take advantage of the low-bands from my small lot and build around the fully loaded KX3. All the equipment is powered exclusively from batteries that are charged via the Sun. I chase the DX Marathon using QRP CW every year while riding out the balance of time remaining in my lifelong ham radio adventure.

I’d never tell anyone that whatever particular joy they take from this hobby is not real ham radio, but success, however you define it, with a minimal station is as real as ham radio ever gets.

Categories
On the Air

NAQP Indoors

The CW version of the North America QSO Party took place yesterday. I’ve always enjoyed the NAQP because of the 100 watt power limit and the easy exchange. But at this particular moment in the transition state of my shack and antenna garden, there’s nary an aerial installed on my property right now. Nada. Zip.

So while I was aware that the contest was taking place, I busied myself with other tasks. But then I got to thinking that I do have the new portable AX1 antenna for the KX3. It’s a short and stubby little fellow that covers 20/17 and with the addition of the AXE1 extender, it’s supposed to cover 40 as well. Hmmmm…

Out comes the KX3 from the protective pouched I stored it in a few months ago. The 12V/6Ah (LiFePO4) battery from Bioenno had held its last charge. I unpacked the AX1 and extender, stretched a single counterpoise wire across the floor from the kitchen into the living room. Things setup on the kitchen table and with the telescoping antenna fully extended and the KX3 on the table, the antenna was just a few inches from the ceiling.

I turned the transceiver on, fairly certain that I would be able to hear stations using an indoor antenna, but had very low-expectations of being heard. Fifteen minutes later I had five stations in the log. All on 40 CW with just 5 watts out using the small antenna. An hour or so later I went back to the well and worked five more. Later in the evening I went back a final time hoping to work another five and call it quits. But signals were much weaker now and I only managed three more.

I ended the day with 13 stations in the log. Six different states (PA, FL, MD, VA, NC, MN) plus one Canadian (ON). The SFI was 73 and I thought conditions on 40 were a little better than normal.

And mind you, this wasn’t an effort where I had to call and call to be heard. All told I had less than an hour of time at the table. Most answered my first call, only a few required a single repeat.

I’m still grinning about the performance of the AX1 with the extender for 40 meters. Surely a wire antenna would easily outperform it, but I bought it specifically for those times when I just want to walk into a park or the backyard, plop the KX3 on a picnic table and make a few contacts without having to install another antenna. 

This combo sure seemed to work admirably, from inside my house and now I’m anxious to get it outside to see if it can drop my jaw again. Maybe on Winter Field Day

Categories
Ideas

Building Stuff

It would be easy to declare that the weather has been “weird” around here. But that’s lost all meaning since it’s been this way for much of the last decade. And then there’s the weather in Australia that makes our anomalies seem tame.

But lots of rain and temperatures in the 50-60F range during most of December and January in Central Indiana isn’t normal. A lot of folks seem to be loving it. Those who whine at the first appearance of a snowflake. Weak humans. Me, I enjoy winter weather and am disappointed, but it’s more than that.

It would be like if all the birds fell out of the sky dead one day and local residents celebrated the reduction of bird poop to scrape off their automobiles, without considering for even a moment, why the birds died. I don’t think these warm winters without snow are anything to celebrate, I think it means something bad is brewing…

No matter, 50F and nearly constant rain has kept me in the house more than I would like and that has triggered the desire to build something, like maybe a new kit. Here’s one that’s created a lot of buzz so I ordered one to give me something to do on these long, sickly warm, and nearly always moist winter evenings when the sun goes down at 5:30pm.

Like most hams, I’ve become an appliance operator. The excuse for not building things anymore is much the same all over, it’s become too difficult to find parts so why not just purchase commercially manufactured equipment? And that lame excuse has prevented me (and maybe you?) from taking part in one of the more interesting facets of the hobby that I used to enjoy, building stuff.

But it’s not only the excess indoor time that has me anxious to fire up the soldering tools. The January 2020 edition of the Cheese Bits newsletter included an article by Rick Campbell, KK7B entitled Hot-Rodding Radio Gear – a bit of nostalgia AND some observations on current trends in RF design. Campbell has gone back to educating students in an “attempt to pass along skills and attitudes that will help the next generation of Analog/RF/Microwave engineers progress into the mid-21st century”

It’s a great article and I recommend you read it, but it includes rather pointed commentary that hits home:

In the Sputnik era, every radio amateur knew how to start with a CW transmitter and modulate the final amplifier to put a voice signal on the air. Those questions were on the exam. Then came SSB and VHF-FM, and endless editorials about how radio amateurs need to embrace new technology and abandon outdated modes. Yes, SSB ushered in a new era in amateur radio—the era when 100% of radio amateurs became appliance operators. A decade later, FM did the same thing to VHF. Be honest: when was the last time you made a contact with an FM or SSB transmitter you designed and built?

The latest trend in RF engineering is use of COTS, “Commercial Off The Shelf” hardware. Not only have radio amateurs become appliance operators, but professional radio “designers” just string together a set of available commercial modules. Who designs the modules?

Ouch. That hurts a little, but he’s not wrong. And while assembling a little 30 meter transceiver kit doesn’t rise to the level of RF design, anything that produces solder smoke in the shack is better than living the life of an “appliance” operator on a full-time basis.

Categories
Asides

Four Days in May

Registration for FDIM 2020 opened yesterday and I’ve signed up to attend for another year. This will be my 20th FDIM, I’ve only missed a couple since I began going in the late 1990’s. Hosted by QRP-ARCI, it’s the “it” conference for serious QRP enthusiasts.

They take an extra day (Thursday) and tack it on to the three-day weekend that is the Dayton Hamvention creating “four days in May”. Having had decades of practice, the ARCI folks have turned this into one successful production. With a day-long slate of speakers and evenings filled with additional activities, plus the chance to belly up to the bar with a whole lot of like-minded, low-power enthusiasts, what’s not to like?

The Holiday Inn in Fairborn has been home for the event for a long time (remember when we used to meet south of Dayton?) and it’s a wonderful venue with plenty of nearby (walking distance) dining choices. It once seemed rather “remote” when Hamvention was conducted at Hara Arena, but now that the big show moved to Xenia, it’s right on the way.

Registration is open. When you sign up, you include details if you want to book a room, the hotel will then contact you a week or so later to confirm your reservation (and you will get a special rate in the block of QRP-ARCI rooms). The Saturday night QRP banquet requires additional tickets.

Take a look at the list of those already signed up to go. Hope to see you at FDIM in May!