Journeying into HF

Updated: Oct 2017, CC BY-SA
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1) Well now …

My upgrade to General (June 2017) means I'm embarking on another exploration. I'm guessing this journey is going to last years, and I figure I'll share some of the highlights along the way.

1a) First things first: a radio

A funny thing happened after I got my new license … the corner of my desk in my woodworking shop that is dedicated to ham radio didn't get any bigger! So I spent a lot of time thinking about how I was going to shoehorn a new radio into that space, especially given that so many HF radios are big rigs. Finally I stumbled across the Kenwood TS-480SAT.

Kenwood TS-480SAT

Kenwood describes this as a portable transceiver. Though it's certainly a lot bigger than the TM-V71A that I have in my car, it is considerably smaller than most other HF transceivers (with the exception of the Elecraft KX2, but the sheer size of that one's price tag tipped it clear off the scale for me!). With 100 watts of power output and a built-in antenna tuner, I figure the TS-480SAT might be just about the best balance between compactness and features that I'll be able to find (and afford).

TS-480SAT: 7-3/16″ W x 3-1/16″ H x 13-5/8″ D; 8.1 pounds; 300 cu in
TM-V71A: 5-1/2″ W x 1-11/16″ H x 8-3/8″ D; 3.3 pounds; 78 cu in

Because my shop is so full of woodworking tools, I have to make use of every cubic inch. So I made a little shelf to hold my radios and related equipment, which sits on a corner of the desk in my workshop.

Kenwood TS-480SAT

1b) Second things second: an antenna

Another funny thing happened after I got my new license … the ground beneath my feet didn't get any less rocky! So I needed to come up with an antenna solution that gives me the flexibility of being able to explore many of the HF bands, while being portable enough that I can put it up and take it down relatively easily and quickly so that I'm not continuously daring Zeus to smite me.¹ It also needs to be as compact as possible when it's down so I can store it in my shop easily.

1] I read recently that Colorado is ranked 2nd in the U.S. in lightning deaths, which doesn't surprise me given the sheer number and ferocity of thunderstorms we experience here, for example, I was startled awake in the middle of the night recently by a terrifyingly bright flash of lightning followed almost immediately by a deafening boom, and then by a sizzling sound coming from a transformer on top of a nearby power line pole. Whoa!

This one actually was easier to solve than the radio because some time ago I had come across and been impressed by the Buddipole. At that time, I didn't think I'd ever get into HF, but still I saved a link to the Buddipole website just in case I ever wanted to find it again. Good thing.

Mounting the antenna

For mounting the Buddhipole to my deck, I got an Erva Pole Adapter⩘ , which has a 1/2″ MIP thread that fits perfectly into the 1/2″ FIP bottom thread of the Buddipole VersaTee. I bolted the adapter into an Erva Pole Extender⩘  that I can slip into the top of an Erva Long Pole⩘ . I use the same long pole that I use for mounting my existing VHF/UHF antenna, since I use only one of my radios at any given time. See the Antennas section⩘  of my Shack page for more info about my mounting setup.

Buddipole VersaTee with Erva Pole Adapter

I put up the Buddhipole for the first time this evening, configured for the 20 M band. As soon as it was up, I went to grab my camera. In the few moments that took, a couple of our neighborhood goldfinches were already checking out the new antenna. I hope they're properly licensed ! ²

Buddipole with goldfinches

2] As fun as that was to see, it made me wonder whether RF can harm birds. We have a lot of songbirds around our place, and I definitely don't want to hurt them. I searched online and did a bit of reading; as far as I have found so far, it shouldn't hurt them. Whew!

A ham-handed manual rotator

By the way, because the Buddipole dipole is directional, I had to tweak the Erva pole system so that I could point the antenna in a specific direction and keep it pointed that way. I ended up drilling eight holes into the bottom of the pole extender that attaches to the VersaTee, as well as one hole into the top of the long pole that the extender fits into. That way I can point the antenna at one of the four cardinal directions (N, E, S, W) or four ordinal directions (NE, SE, SW, NW) and use a pin through the appropriate holes to keep it pointed in that direction.

Since the long pole is held in place by guy wires hooked to an eye bolt, it won't rotate after it's set up. That means once I align the antenna the way I want—usually east/west (arms aligned north/south)—it will stay put. If I want to point in another direction, it takes me just a couple minutes to make the change. Certainly not as fancy as an automatic rotator, but it does the trick.

A bit of lightning protection

And I have tried to put at least some lightning protection in place. I got a couple ground rods and tried dozens of spots in a ten foot radius from where my coax enters my shop. In a couple spots, I could drive it in only a foot; in a few other spots I found, I was able to drive the rod in two, three, and even nearly four feet, then bonded them all together with some heavy gauge copper wire.

I attached the bottom of the antenna mounting pole to one of the rods. Finally, I added an OPEK LP-350B - Arc-Gas Lightning Transient Voltage Surge Protector⩘  to the Bulkhead Coaxial Connector that runs into my shop, and tied that into the nearest ground pole.

I'm not counting on this patched together system for full lightning protection—I'll still pull my antennas down whenever there's a thunderstorm brewing—but I hope it will provide a bit more protection.

2) Off to a slooooow start

This is definitely the most challenging ham radio-related thing I've tackled yet. I've been playing around on 20 M off and on for the past couple of weeks, mostly in the evening. A lot of times, I don't hear anything at all. Once in awhile I pick up a pretty clear transmission (Southern Colorado, Arizona, Ohio, North Carolina).

Until now, I've only ever heard one side of the conversation, which makes it a bit challenging to pick up the flow of the conversation. Since I'm trying to understand the conventions of how hams talk to each other on HF, this has made the learning curve a bit steeper, and I won't feel comfortable transmitting until I do understand those conventions a bit better.

I've been trying with my antenna pointing in different directions. Yesterday evening, I tried with the ends of the arms pointing SE/NW—which I think means I'm aligned best with signals coming in from the SW/NE—and I had the best results so far. (That's the alignment in the photo above with the goldfinches.) I'm kind of surprised because I had guessed that an E/W alignment would've given me better results.

2a) Software Defined Radio (SDR)

Another approach I've been trying is to use SDR to find activity on the band. I picked up an AirSpy/Spyverter⩘  combo and installed SDR#⩘  on my Windows 10 laptop. So far, though, I've had better luck finding activity by searching for it with my radio than be spotting it via SDR#. I may not have things configured correctly—there are a lot of settings I don't understand yet—so I'm going to need to keep playing around with that to see what it can do.

AirSpy and Spyverter combo

Spinning head

To be honest, I've found this all a bit frustrating so far. Frankly, between the added complexity of the radio itself and the many obscure settings of the SDR, my head is spinning even more than the tuning knob on my radio! Fortunately, there's a very experienced ham in town, Paul, KØDJV, who has an amazing shack with a very cool hex-beam antenna, and he's been mentoring me a bit. Hopefully with his help I'll get a better handle on all of this soon.

2b) What a difference a few hours can make!

After writing about my frustration, I headed out to my shop for the afternoon and began having some success. Perhaps Sunday afternoon is a good time to find traffic? Maybe conditions are better? Whatever the case, I hear a lot CQ calls and even heard both sides of several chats. In addition to some of the other states I've picked up previously, I heard California and British Columbia.

I also uninstalled and re-installed SDR#, and began having better success with it, too, getting just about as good of results with it as with my radio, and being able to see traffic on the waterfall for the first time. Perhaps I had previously messed up the configuration, or maybe something had gone wrong with the first installation attempt? Regardless, it was nice to see it working!

3) Taking a break …

As I said previously, HF is definitely the most challenging ham radio-related thing I've tackled yet. I've been working away on this since taking the General class in the spring, but still haven't got it working to a satisfactory degree. Since that "What a difference a few hours can make!" evening, I tried again multiple times with little or no luck. I probably need a different antenna, but don't feel like spending more money or expending more effort on this right now.

I got into ham radio for emergency preparedness reasons. HF seems interesting, but it's definitely a branch off from my main goal. While I've been puttering around trying to get HF to work, I've set aside several other pressing projects and rewarding passions—including digital voice—so I think I'm going to return to those for a while. Perhaps I'll give HF another try when the sunspot cycle is in a better place.