ON5ZO – OQ5M

SFI > 250 or bust!

After a more than five month hiatus on the bands (read it here) I made my reappearance last week in EUHFC. Of course I could not let WAE CW fly by without logging some QTC. The annual CW contester’s delight. I knew daylight propagation would be limited to 20m and that it would be a case of making the most of the nighttime 40/80 activity. This means a nightshift in the shack after a dayshift working in the house. Normally I would be asleep and charge the batteries for a few hours before the start of the contest (2 AM local time).

Not so this time. My in law’s invited us for an evening dinner on Friday and I didn’t want to be a party pooper again like so many contest weekends before. So I accepted the invitation and we got home around 11 PM. In itself it shouldn’t have been a real problem: I was home before the start of the contest and after sunrise I could easily sleep a few hours. That was the plan. But once again there were external factors. I picked up my oldest son at the airport Thursday night. Actually Friday morning. He spent a week abroad with his uncle and nephew and his plane landed at 1 AM. That means I got home on Friday around 3AM. I had to get up early since the cabinet maker would deliver the cupboards and drawers for the new kitchen. And I still had to move stuff to make room for this delivery. Then the carpenter announced that he would come and install part of the kitchen on Saturday at 8 AM. That kitchen project should have been finished a week ago so this contester is a victim of his delay! To make things worse: 8 AM was the time I planned to land in bed after a night of WAE. I had told him he didn’t need to bring a helper since I could easily give him a hand myself. As this means I had to help the first night would simply pass by without a single QSO. I had to be fit on Saturday and get up around 7 AM.

On Friday I also had to raise the tower again and put up he 80m wire and an extra RX loop towards JA/ZL. All that with almost no sleep the night before. And knowing it would again be late that night when dining at my XYL’s parents. Preparing the antennas Friday noon went smoothly, as usual. Putting up the RX loop I took down five months ago did not present a problem. Only it turned out to be deaf. I opened up the 9:1 transformer box and a soldered wire had come loose. The permanent 270° RX loop worked fine. I decided to abandon the second RX loop. I ran short of time since I needed to take a shower and get on the road for the family dinner. After that excursion I slept throughout the night and on Saturday I worked on the new kitchen until about 3 PM when the carpenter called it a day. Finally I could start the contest.

But I wasn’t in a hurry. The cluster showed only activity on 14 MHz. I wasn’t really thrilled. Instead of starting the contest I decided to replace the 9:1 transformer hoping I could pull more nightly far east DX out of the noise. I put my spare unit in place but that one turned out to be dead too. Same story: a solder joint that came apart. It’s not that I can’t solder. Actually I’m quite handy with the soldering iron. It’s that for almost every project I quickly throw together a conceptual prototype. If it works, I will then finalize an operational field unit. Many times this proof of concept is a success. But then the flimsy and sloppy prototype never gets the finish it deserves and is put to use in its uncompleted state. In this case the problem was the lack of mechanical fixation of the binocular core inside the box and the absence of a decent strain relief on the thin wire of the core’s windings to the terminals. Manipulating the box and shacking it made the soldering come loose. I recently bought a new hot glue gun and I applied liberal blobs of glue inside and outside and everything is mechanically stable now. The dielectric properties of the glue might be catastrophically on UHV and microwave but for the low bands, it shouldn’t be a problem.

During all this troubleshooting it was raining cats and dogs. My rain barrel (400 liter) connected to the garage’s gutter was already flowing over. Before reinstalling the fixed 9:1 transformer I saved about 150 liters of fresh rain water from overflowing into the sewer. I filled two masonry tubs that I could use later to water the tomatoes, zucchini and pumpkins. After this I was soaking wet so I traded the cold outside shower for a warm inside shower and a new dry outfit. Hail to the new bathroom! After that I mounted the ‘beefified‘ 9:1 transformer and a quick check on the shack’s end of the line confirmed that all was fine now. Maybe it was time to actually start logging contacts?

I didn’t bother to listen to 15. I didn’t even plan to listen on 10. I called CQ on 20 and you know what? The rotator controller started going bananas when I keyed the rig (and amp). I can’t seem to get a break here! I knew I had encountered this before but I didn’t remember when or how it got fixed. Luckily I do these write-ups and queried google for ‘on5zo rotator rattling sound’. The result told me this problem occurred in WAE CW 2016, exactly one year ago. Back then I solved it by breaking up and reconnecting the male/female plug for the rotator control cable in the garage. So that’s what I did again this time. I cleaned the male pins with steel wool and sprayed a dose of ‘electrical contact cleaner’ on it. I’m not too keen on using this spray as it makes dust and dirt stick on potentiometers and the likes but there were no exposed or moving parts here so I figured ‘why not?’. I never had the problem again during the rest of the weekend. The plug had been exposed to humid air and dust from sawing and grinding in my workshop/garage/storage room for over five months. So in the future I should remember to brush up the pins after they have been unused for a while.

Now how ‘bout some actual contesting? He timestamp for the first contact says 17.13 utc. I wasn’t in a hurry. I stayed on 20, where else? I think the only thing I managed to work on 15 was a 4X. For low A and K index values, propagation was really a stinker. Things improved slightly later that evening. By 23.30 (1.30 AM local) I got tired. Too little sleep and too much work the days before. So be it. I programmed the alarm for 40/80 on Sunday morning. At 03.30 utc I was QRV on 80. I must admit that the signals that called me on 80 were quite good. Mostly USA and Canada. That VP9 was sweet. Only there weren’t many people around on 3.5 MHz. The usual suspects, some even loud enough to swiftly copy some QTC. Once again VK4CT’s skimmer heard me on 80. Why don’t I log more VK?

Things got better, louder and faster on 40. But it slowed down there too with not much life on 20 yet. So I took a long break. Completely in line with the laid back spirit of how I decided to approach this WAE CW. Back in the shack I was amazed to hear a loud JA on 20. If there’s DX in the cue, you must call CQ. And soon I decided a CQ on 15 couldn’t hurt. RBN didn’t show global openings but one never knows what the bands can bring. In this case: middle east and nearby Asian multipliers. An HS and a YB. Nice for the mult, too weak for QTC. Then another break and in the afternoon I actually ran USA on 15. It wasn’t a hoot and it didn’t last long so I ended up on the inevitable 20m band again. The later it got, the better the band got. I was working USA, PY and JA at the same time. I tried 40 to the East well before my sunset which brought me the same YB mult as on 15 in the morning. Thank you YC1ME. I ran some more 20 and logged mults and QTC. Glad to see I could still rake up QTC without doing any CW for over five months. Apart from EUHFC the week before.

Then the following sequence of events happened: Log a just-out-of-EU mult on 80 (TA7), work four South-American mults in a row on 15, log a bunch of mults on 40, run 20 again to the west for more mults and QTC. By 22.12 utc it was time to settle on 40. More USA, more QTC, more mults there. The last twenty minutes of the contest were spent on 80. Two more mults: PY and EA8.

Result: 472 QSO and 643 QTC. VFO not even dialed to 28 MHz this weekend. Not my best result by far but given the propagation and the situation of the work in the house and the family obligations I didn’t even bother. I enjoyed the time I was on the air and I’m glad to see I have got this QTC thing mastered. Many years I have wanted to do WAE SSB for once. I think it won’t be in 2017 either.

I haven’t done any operating since late February. I just didn’t have the time, the courage, the energy, the will. But I did plan to be active in EUHFC which is a kickass contest. The tower and all my antennas have been down for over five months. I did let the amp run idle two times for a few hours and did a quick check of antenna SWR after a gusty period. But that too has been a few months ago.

I delayed the setting up. Thursday it was raining and the wind blew hard. Friday it was hardly raining but not dry and there was some wind. In fact I was just looking for excuses not to  start cranking up the tower. Oh how I long for a station that has access to ten bands with good antennas that just needs a flip of the switch to get it going. The forecast didn’t mention rain for Saturday so I might as well do it then.

Come Saturday, it was raining when I woke up. Bloody forecasters and their lousy forecasts. Take breakfast. Read mails. Fill in the paper’s crossword puzzle. Watch a YouTube movie. Procrastination is what they call this with a fancy word. Half past nine I decided to give it a go. If I didn’t participate in this contest either, I might as well quit the hobby altogether.

First thing to do: hook up all cables and coaxes in the garage. I discovered a new coax that I had installed with the XYL but I can’t even remember when we did that. I did remember why it was there. Some future RX antenna project. Won’t be now. Then crank up the tower. But first untangle all the ropes and remove spiders and crusty bird poop. A lot of dirt accumulates over five months. My youngest son, now five and a half year old, decided to come help me. I let him handle the remote control of the winch. He can manage to keep a push button activated while I look for possible troubles. The tower went up without a problem. Together with my kid I pulled up the 80m wire and then the 160m wire. A quick check in the shack revealed that everything was just like it was and supposed to be. No skeletons dropping out of the closet.

I had no expectations nor targets except to see if I still could copy CW and have some fun. It sure would be glad to maintain my goal of 100 QSO/hr averaged over the contest but I had absolutely no clue what to expect after a five month hiatus on the bands. It seems that five months without CW is not detrimental to my skills to copy calls and numbers up to about 40 WPM. Enough for contesting. I was off to the races.

I started on 20 meters. I knew that 10 would be dead: that dreaded A-index stood at 3 which is fatal to an already lame band. Contrary to what I usually do, I didn’t even try 15 at first. Signals on twenty meters were good and the rate was nice too. Then I remembered the real time online score board and opened it in a browser window. I decided to join the fun. It enhances the game of contesting. It really does. Even with my non-competitive approach I tried to keep my position in the ranking.

I was home alone: kids were out, XYL was out. The dog was in. The cats were outside. Nothing could distract me and I had a great time and I could keep the rate slightly above 100/hr. I took a few five minute breaks to get some relief and take a snack. Twenty was the place to be and I had limited success on fifteen too. On ten meters I tried to  get all I could but the signals were weak and rapidly varying between S5 and inaudible during an exchange. I hopped back and forth between the bands and then it was time to drop to 40. Just as I started it started raining. An intense shower caused strong QRN so I decided to move to 20 again. A few more showers came and went. The online lightning map showed some dots around me but not many and far enough not to worry too much. There seemed to be strong thunderstorms to the east and west of me (North Sea, northern Holland, Austria) which caused some noise on the lower bands.

I chuckled when watching the RBN after my first CQ on 80. It got picked up by VK4CT’s skimmer. Poor propagation, summer in Europe, still daylight in Belgium and yet my 3.5 MHz signal makes it to Australia.

I had fun and came short only a dozen contacts to reach 1200 QSO for that 100/hr average. But close enough given I only used one radio and didn’t make the most of the allowed band changes. I consciously avoided looking up previous results so as not to spoil the fun factor. But towards the end curiosity got the best of me and I looked at last year’s 3830 report. That was ‘my best score ever in this contest’. What a difference a year makes! Same guy, same antennas, different propagation.

I had a good time in this enjoyable contest. The real time score board was a bonus once again. It felt good to back on the air after a few months.

Hey I already did a post with this title seven years ago.

What’s wrong with amateur radio?

When I was almost three decades younger and as many decakilograms lighter I was subscribed to a skateboarding magazine which featured a readers input page titled ‘What’s wrong with skateboarding?’. This struck me as a magazine dedicated to something offered its readers a page to vent their issues. By the way this taught me more English than the schoolbooks and three hours of English class every week. Now what has this to do with ham radio?

My last post here was three and a half months ago. My last QSO was more than five months ago. I didn’t emit a mW of RF in over five months. That is, to say the least, a very extraordinary situation for ON5ZO. I just couldn’t be bothered. Why? I don’t know. Actually I think I know.

It’s a combination of various things. A very shitty period at work, as a starter. That affected everything. The poor propagation wasn’t inviting either. Furthermore I have this ‘been there, done that’ feeling about the hobby. Combined with the steep decline of the solar cycle, there was little incentive to lure me into the shack. Once in a while I peeked at solarham.com to see A/K values that probably turned the ionosphere into a dummy load. Occasionally I looked at the online DX cluster and saw some whopping activity on 50 MHz. But I don’t have an antenna for that band.

Another important  factor in this huge dip in radioactivity is a major renovation project. In April I took down thirty six square meters of old and discolored wood and plastic ceiling. Then we had these ceilings redone with plaster board. I had to sand down the joints and paint these ceilings with two coats of primer. Right now I’m painting the finishing layers.

In July we started round two of the project. I tore down the bathroom, toilets and kitchen to bare walls and floors. Then we removed 36 m² of floor down to the concrete base plate of the house’s foundation. We took out every inch of galvanized pipe and replaced it with modern insulated plastic plumbing and new brass distribution taps. About time as these steel pipes had accumulated a lot of dirt and rust inside after forty three years. And the galvanic coating was gone over almost the entire length. A major leakage in progress.

I also did a substantial upgrade of the electric wiring with a new distribution panel and circuit breakers. A must if your better half doesn’t settle for less than a furnace that dissipates 18 kW (!!!) ‘pot down’. The kitchen now has dedicated circuits for each appliance. The old plumbing and electrical wiring had been a thorn in my eye since we bought the house but this was the only way to get it right: strip down to the concrete and remove everything. And after fifteen years we finally had the guts and cash to do it.

This project took a lot of my time and energy to prepare. Calculate, plan, draw plans, find contactor and suppliers, get price quotes, study (plumbing isn’t my thing). Pick taps, sinks and shower from the catalogue. Shop around for a new kitchen and appliances. What color will the new floor be? Tough negotiating when your wife has a completely different taste. We hired a contractor to do the heavy work and supply the equipment but I helped out a lot and did all the electric work. Actually I took only one day off in five weeks before this weekend. Summer holidays my a##. But it’s a once in a lifetime project so I needed to get it right.

And now we have new floors everywhere except or the living room which we’ll tackle next year. We have new toilets and a big shower with modern tiles on the wall. The coming week the cabinet maker will install the new kitchen. The steam hood and the Madam’s Mega Furnace are up and running already. Glad to eat a freshly cooked warm meal again. And what a luxury to actually have a toilet and a shower again. I had to make the best of life without these things for two weeks. No comment.

So this is why there was zero activity coming from ON5ZO’s radio shack. I did some ham radio related stuff though. For the eight year already I checked the logs for the UBA DX contests (SSB + CW). Most things are automated and I even added a small improvement to the code to make the manual work easier. The code can track most bad QSO but there is a small fraction of contacts that needs to be checked by a human. It’s about 1000 QSO for SSB and 2000 for CW. That is less than one percent of the total contacts.  

I was also contacted by two people who claim they have a shoe box of QSL for me. One from my previous club and one from my current club. The first box got discovered by accident and must be standing there for a few years already. Add to that the huge backlog of QSO cards that I have here and I’m facing a boring and obsolete job.

And there is a stack of four unopened QST magazines waiting to be read too. I really drifted far away from the hobby.

What’s wrong with ham radio? Nothing, but sometimes you need to step away from it to see it.

You might be a ham for too long if you keep looking for the name of a Polish sausage when doing a crossword puzzle. That has to be kielbasa right? Only that has one letter too many. Gee I only now one Polish sausage, and that’s kielbasa. The more I filled in the other empty grids, the more the sausage resembled the word chorizo. But that is a Spanish sausage. The word was described as ‘Sp. Sausage’.

Then it hit me. Sp is short for Spanish. Not SP for Poland. Too long in the game…

A message about a contest that ran three weeks ago. How much overdue can you possibly be?

The CW part of the UBA DX contests is quite popular. As are most CW contests. So I wanted to take part in it. I have done it full time (24h) a few times but my guess was that it wouldn’t pay off this year. After all people end up on the lower bands much earlier because the higher bands dropped out. The result is that the low bands run dry much sooner. So that is why this year I ran in the 12h category. Like I usually do.

As predicted: ten meters was closed. Really closed as no skimmer RX picked me up when I launched a few CQ CQ. Except for two locals but that doesn’t count. Fifteen was slightly better than I anticipated. Which seems only normal. I don’t expect much anymore of that band. Yes the glory days are behind us. Nothing we can do except wait wait wait…

I can’t remember much anymore. No details but it was fun and in the end I logged more than 900 contacts. Which will probably yield another plaque in the 12h high power category. At least judging from the claimed scores.

It’s been a long time since my last post here. It’s been a long time that I actually made a contact. ARRL DX is a fun contest and it’s always nice to work USA regardless the band and mode so I decided to play. Nothing serious, just for fun.

I was a bit disappointed by the poor conditions on 160. Caribbean stations were quite loud but of no use in this contest. Late December and early January were pretty good from here to the East Coast and even deeper into the country. But this time signals were weak. Also on 40. The big guns didn’t rock the S-meter as they normally do. I was quite pleased with how 80 played. Fifteen was not good but I thought it would have been worse so I was glad to work a few states beyond the 6000 km range there. There was nothing to be heard on ten meters. Down and out with 28 MHz I guess. That leaves twenty meters as the ‘money band’. But openings are not that strong anymore and the path between the West Coast and here is definitely shorter that a few years ago. C’est la vie.

I was glad to work John K3WWP again. I have been following his QRP adventures for a loooooong time. More than fifteen years, possible more. At first I heard someone calling but it was a weak signal. The K3 prefix, the QRP-feel of the signal and the persistence to keep calling lead me to believe it had to be K3WWP. Bingo. Sure enough John mentioned our contest contact.

I took a break on Sunday evening when twenty faded. My plan was to return for the last hour of the contest to run 40. But I fell asleep and didn’t bother to return to the shack. I ended up with just over 1200 contacts. I didn’t operate much because I wasn’t in a competitive mode. But it was fun when I was around.

Not much more to say. Just quoting myself from last year’s write-up:

It has now become clear that no spot means no rate. Period. People just hop from spot to spot. Many times I called CQ for a few minutes without answer. At last someone finally worked and spotted me, and then you work a few dozen stations in a few minutes until the effect wears out. Then it’s slow again until the next spot.

The new year continues to bring some low band fun. On several occasions I heard nice signals from the US of A on Top Band and I worked quite a few. Two new states on 160: Utah and Missouri. Maybe more but I didn’t keep track. I’ll find out when I upload to LotW.

The direct QSL cards are coming in already and I received a few emails too for QSL cards and LotW uploads. Strange, because each morning there are at least two other Belgians on 80/160. Let’s hope that the conditions like I experienced a few times over the past two weeks will return in the upcoming contests. ARRL DX CW could give 160 WAS as serious boost.

Again I worked a few dozen JA on 30 which might soon initiate a steady flow of direct QSL request from Japan. I could have tried 30m for USA but that is late at night, before their bedtime. I chose to go to bed in time myself and get up early. I shouldn’t end the holidays more tired than I was when they started.

One morning the amp showed much reflected power on 80. How could that be? SWR had risen to 1.9:1 where it was 1.2:1. Although Top Band shares the feed point, it was not affected. As it turned out the 2.5mm² copper wire and the radials turned into a pencil sized popsicle. The ice had detuned the antenna. When the sun was up I lowered the wire and pulled it back up. The ice cracked and some pieces fell on my head. I took a broom and walked along the elevated radials to remove the ice. Antenna back to normal. Later that day bigger chunks of ice fell off the yagi and 40m dipole. Those pieces were bigger and made more noise as they hit the frozen lawn.

There was another technical issue. I put up a 30m vertical dipole that is rather close to the shack. Usually I use a horizontal dipole farther away. Whenever I keyed the rig, the WAN connection dropped. This is not a biggie. During for the short while I’m running 30m I can do without internet and all its applications. But there are other people in the house who like to read their mails and surf the web after breakfast. I have used this antenna in the past but I have replaced the router / Wi-Fi access point a few months ago. At first I didn’t blame this device. Since the LAN part of the network was working fine and the router told me that ‘WAN cable was not attached’, I suspected a problem with the TV coax cable or the cable modem. I tried google to find a link between cable access and 10 MHz but I didn’t find any.

One dit and the WAN link dropped, and a LED on the modem went out. It took half a minute to recover. One morning I took the effort to actually check the purpose of the LED on the modem that went out as soon as I touched the paddles. It was in fact the LED that indicates whether the modem is connected to an Ethernet device. Or if the UTP cable was plugged in or not. Hmm. I took a few clamp-on ferrites and choked the DC power lead and the UTP cable coming from the modem. I placed the ferrites as close to the router as possible. That cured it. I could now crank up the power to a full kilowatt and still the WAN link wouldn’t drop. Before even 100W broke the connection. This box with two dozen ferrite clamps has served me well over the years. Another legacy from my days as a broadcast tech. I can tell you that the box doesn’t contain two dozen clamps anymore. Many are in use in the shack to cure RFI problems. With success!

Three things I remember from almost four weeks of having fun on the low bands:

  • I’m addicted to the RX loops. They really help. Maybe two or three QSO could not have been made without it, but it sure made the other contacts much easier.
  • Top Band propagation has been more than OK lately. To my standard that translates to: working into USA almost daily. Everything better is a treat. Like the HP1 and P4 as new countries. I hope these conditions stay during the coming contests. Especially CQ 160 and ARRL DX CW. Asking for improved propagation might jinx it.
  • On many occasions the RBN shows that the bands are open for DX. Yet there is no one active. Or at least nobody capable of and willing to transmit. This is especially true on weekdays. Weekends are better.

Since the holidays are over, I took down the antennas and lowered the tower. I feel that I was becoming too hooked on the bands again. So I might overdo it. Cold turkey for three weeks until the UBA SSB and CQ 160 CW contests.

A new year is just an arbitrary transition. So I picked up my 2017 HF activities where I left them in 2016. That is: on 160, 80 and 30m. I hang out on the other bands more than enough already in the contests. And for the low bands, I need the antenna tower cranked up. Which is the case now. I’m having holidays and there is no wind. I’m not active during the day though. Mostly too early in the morning when I wake up and my housemates are still asleep. I don’t set an alarm but my biological maybe-there-is-DX-on-the-low-bands-bell rings. Sometimes I try the bands late at night before going to bed. I like this pattern this time of the year. And in this stage of the solar cycle. I did set my alarm once this week. For a sked with my long time pen-pal (mail-pal) W1EBI. He recently renewed his 160 antenna and Top Band turns out to be a slot that we haven’t worked each other. He’s in my log 152 times already and this QSO on one sixty is #153. I got up early and he stayed up late.

I’m not particularly keen on 160. It’s a tough band. Propagation is spotty and when the RF is able to travel to some DX place you need good antennas to effectively get it there. And even then signals are not strong and the other side also needs good stuff to get the job done. I know that some low band literature calls operating the higher bands ‘like shooting fish in a barrel’. But I like to be sure I will eat and not bait the line in vain to catch nothing in the end.

But I also like to do something I don’t do too often. So I hang out on 160 for a while. And I worked quite some DX there. The year started good with a new one Top Band: HP1XT as QSO number two for 2017. I kept thinking: why does that Polish guy send a dit too much? But it was indeed HP for a new DXCC. Later on I worked P49X. I thought I had a P4 from working all these contests but LotW says no. So that makes two new countries on 160. W00t!

I worked some more Americans too. The problem is that most sane people are in bed so I don’t work too many. Shooting fish in a barrel during the day on 10m with SFI = 150 is more productive. Ain’t gonna happen soon. So I worked an new state on 160. AA7A brought me AZ. I didn’t keep track so maybe there are more new states for 160 WAS. I’m at 34/50 now. But I’m not chasing the WAS 160 award. Just like on 80, KH6 and KL7 will be virtually impossible. I heard a KH6 on 80 once. In an ARRL DX CW contest. Just my luck. WAS 80m is now at 45/50. This week I worked K7CF on 3.5 MHz. He’s in Idaho. Yet another new state. And it’s getting better. Five minutes ago I discovered that I recently worked Kansas for another new one on 160m: KU1CW in the Stew Perry contest. So it’s safe to say that the low band propagation is seriously picking up. And that my modest stuff works for modest DX.

That also leads to some frustration. Every day my signals are picked up by RBN skimmer receivers in remote places. Yet no one comes back to my CQ. I have mentioned it in a previous post: it seems to me that activity during the week is declining in favor of the contest weekends. Two days ago the propagation on Top Band was really good to the USA. Yet it were the same four Americans who were spotting the same dozen Europeans for two hours on end. If that kind of conditions had been present in a major contest, we would all feast on the low bands multipliers. I admit that I’m guilty too. I don’t have to work for two weeks and I’m on the bands. But as of next week, my activities will yet again be limited to the contests.

Below is an RBN map of this week. Time is just after my sunrise  which is 7.40 utc or so. Normally a PJ2 and KP3 skimmer pick me up too but not at the time of grabbing the image. At my sunset, VK4CT copies me too. But not while he’s in daylight. Anyway it doesn’t happen too often that I’m heard in ZL on 3.5 MHz.

Image from www.reversebeacon.net

But then this passes on the spotting network:

Image from www.dxsummit.fi

I heard that someone was calling me. Presumably this one. But I couldn’t even make up a single letter or number. This has been a problem from the beginning with this antenna. I’m better heard than I can hear myself. Alligator. I could pinch off 3dB of the transmit power. Maybe the other side was QRP? I put up the RX antennas. It didn’t help for this one. Miracle antennas – do they exist?

Yet another year has passed. A year that started bad for the hobby and the OM. Storms, lightning, a general lack of interest and energy for the hobby. A ‘been there, done that’ feeling. All this made for little activity the first half of 2016. Luckily the tide turned and I found a renewed interest in the hobby by not setting goals except for having fun. And from July on, there has not been any interference from the weather either.

The QSO count for 2016 is on the low side. Even lower that I estimated. The reason is that I didn’t do much before July. I also didn’t do all band efforts CQ WW (more than 8000 QSO in 2014), and I skipped WPX and ARRL. These contests usually provide a few thousand contacts too.

The breakdown by band clearly shows the decline of the solar cycle. Look at the 10/12m numbers. But then again: almost 600 QSO more on 30m than in 2015. That is a clear sign of ON5ZO having fun as a casual DXer. This is also reflected by the huge number of contacts on 50 MHz. A 600% increase compared to 2015.

The breakdown by mode is not worthy of its own image. Telegraphy still the way to go: 74.33% of my activity is CW. I made 215 RTTY contacts in 2016. That’s a lot if you know that I only made 270 RTTY contacts between 2010 and 2015, with two years of zero RY QSO. Again a sign of me just hanging out making some noise on the bands.

I made at least one QSO on 52 different days.

The last QSO of 2016 was ZL3NB on 30m. Nice DX on my favorite band. What will 2017 be like? It started out great with a new one on Top Band…

The weekend of December 10th I finally put up a second loop to compare to the short beverage. For this I made a third 9:1 transformer and provided a 450Ω termination. The loop hangs on the ‘auxiliary tower’ and favors USA just like the beverage. Once again one of my boys lent me a hand. It was the impatient one. “Here son, hold these ends up for me.” While I was marking the middle of the wire to serve as the loop’s apex, he decided that it took too long and that the wire could be used for rope skipping.

To do a real time A/B comparison I needed a switching system. My first thought was to use my old A/B switching relay. The one I used before 2011 to switch the sloping dipoles for 40m. The problem was I needed to make a new interface to do the switching and provide DC power from the shack to the relay. But then I got another idea. Why not simply use the stackmatch? That one has A/A+B/B switching capability and I had a button box with the necessary cabling. Yes I have a stackmatch. Only used once though. Back when I was still ambitious.

That weekend I did some 160m SWLing. I heard three Belgians call CQ on Top Band and get answered by many Americans. It was soon clear that in all cases except one, the loop had a better S/N than the beverage. Only one station was louder on the beverage but still too weak to copy. On a few occasions I could copy the W station right away when the ON I was SWLing upon had troubles hearing him. Or maybe I’m just better at taking calls in CW. Anyway the loop is a keeper. Furthermore it doesn’t need a coax running over the front lawn and the driveway.

I did some more SWLing the day after. Again two of the same Belgians were working USA. I was limited to SWLing because the TX antennas were down. Since the WX forecast didn’t show any significant wind speeds, I decided to crank the tower up to the max and pull up the 80/160m vertical wires. I have a calm period at work with some free time so why not do some low band DXing? Standing by as an SWL is not for me. I want action.

Of course I didn’t work many Americans. Not because of bad propagation: a few east coast skimmers picked me up. Simply because the bands are virtually empty on weekdays. I admit that most if not all of my operating is done in the weekend contests. It seems that more and more people limit their radio activity to the weekends. By this time I had connected the JA/ZL loop to the stackmatch. So I can now listen to both loops at once and select A or B alone. This helps on all bands from 160 to 30m. I haven‘t tried the other bands since my yagi is OK and I’m not interested in the regular bands outside the contests.

On a few occasions the morning path to JA provided a bunch of contacts from the land of the rising sun. My sunrise and their sunset more or less match and it’s a path that works best from 07.30 to 08.15 utc. Because the pulleys and support masts were in use for the 80m and 160m wires, I had to take down the WARC wire dipole. I put up a monoband 30m dipole as a vertical dipole. Top about 18m high and the bottom about 3m above the ground. It helps to have a whole range of antennas coiled up in a box.

Then came the next weekend. My initial plan was to participate in the 9ACW contest. But even though I had marked this on the calendar, the XYL managed to schedule a social event on Sunday. The good thing was that this weekend also had the Stew Perry contest. With the tower and the low band antennas up, I decided to play in Stew Perry and do some SB80 in the Croatian CW contest. Nothing serious. The goas was to fill the log with as much DX as possible.

Stew Perry rules stipulate that cluster assistance is  a no-no so I decided to submit a checklog. While a noble effort to keep this an old skool contest, I find it a bit naïve. Over here everyone uses the cluster and people just submit the log. Maybe just a few people deliberately cheat by using spotting assistance and claiming unassisted. But the vast majority doesn’t read rules, doesn’t care, and just submits unassisted anyway. Mainly because the default setting in the logging soft says ‘unassisted’. As I’m typing this, the preliminary results are out and I managed to be the best DX for AA1K. My best DX is K0RF who is 7851 kilometer away from here.

Saturday afternoon only brought me EU on 160m. There were one or two spots for JA stations but I didn’t hear them. A44A was loud, and possibly a new DXCC for me on 160 but kept CQing in everyone’s face. Late in the evening P4/DL6RAI was loud. But he kept calling CQ and he didn’t reply to any of the callers from around here. Strange and most of all too bad for the DXer in me. I also worked a few Americans. Those closest to EU of course while their sun was setting. But it wasn’t much and the signals were not what I heard while SWLing the week before. I made a quick 80m run in the 9A CW test and then went to bed. The plan was to get up early and try 160 again.

The morning offered much more Americans and they were much louder. Groovy! I could not log stations deep into the continent. The usual W1-2-3-4. The odd Texan. I worked K0RF at 06.54 and at 08.02 I logged NP2X for my last DX. I quit a few minutes later because the band died. That Sunday morning didn’t provide any new contacts on 80 in the 9ACW contest. I made a dozen QSO on the other bands just to hand out points to the signals I heard on the 21 and 28 MHz bands. UR3GU asked for a QSY to 160 which I was glad to do.

There had been a problem when I was using the K3’s second receiver with the JA/ZL loop on 80m. The internal relay started rattling. That is a problem I discovered and solved a few years back. But it returned. To make a long story short: the DMM showed the relay wasn’t activated when it should have been. One of the solder connections had come loose, presumably because of insufficient strain relief on the PTT cable. A touch with the soldering iron and all was fine again.

That’s typically me: I make something conceptual, as a quick prototype, to see if it works and whether it solves my problem. Then I get ecstatic when it does but the temporary ‘proof of concept’ prototype is never replaced by a decent thing. I now added a few wraps of electrical tape as strain relief. That should keep it going for another few years.

While I was troubleshooting the device, I started philosophizing. The first thought was: why didn’t I draw a schematic of this when I made it? I’m pretty sure I drew one, but it got lost or thrown away. It’s not a complex thing but I route the 13.8V in an unconventional way from the PSU to the PTT back to  the relay in order to save a plug and not having to drill an extra hole in the little box. And now I forgot which wire went where so it took me five minutes to reverse engineer my own device. I was looking for a small LM7805 regulator TO-92 style on the small perf board PCB. The reed relay is 5V and the PSU gives 13.8 V. As it turns out, I didn’t use the regulator but a combination of resistors to make a voltage divider with the relay. A schematic would have shown this right away. Then my mind took a leap to the next thought. An ode to the joy of basic electronics. Twenty years ago I was studying electronics. Time sure flies. It were the only three years between kindergarten and a higher education degree that I actually liked going to school. The fun of learning things, understanding them and putting them to use. Ohms law. Basic analog circuits. Once again I used these skills to solve a problem. And I probably would never have become a ham radio nutcase with another degree.

While screwing the lid back on, my thoughts landed. How can you enjoy ham radio to the max without basic knowledge of electronics? I’m not talking complex RF design or crazy VHDL stuff. Just the basics. I would never have understood the Elecraft note about the rattling relay in the subreceiver. I would never have been able to come up with a simple solution, order the right parts and do the basic engineering. Which is a far too expensive word for this relay gizmo. How much current will the relay draw? Is that within PTT specs? What resistors do I need to put in parallel and series to get the voltage down from 13.8V to 5V? Won’t these resistors become too hot? How to use the DMM to track down problems? You don’t need to know it all per se, certainly if your social network (the real one, not the fake cyber one) counts some tinkerers. But I can’t detach electronics from ham radio. With the lid back on the aluminum die cast box and all cables connected, it was time to spray some RF in the ether.

Apart from trying to work DX on 160 I mainly hung out on 10.1 MHz. I like the predictable paths. JA in the morning with some ZL/VK in the mix. I haven’t tried the long path W6/W7 long path opening in the evening this year. With a single element fixed antenna, I cannot focus on any path but it is a long path opening. Too early for the east coast as it’s still broad daylight there. But it is sunrise on the west coast. But 30m is a crazy band that redicules the laws of propagation. I worked a ZL and two JA at 11 utc last week. That is my local noon! With a few hundred watts and a simple vertical dipole. And an RX loop, it helps. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: 10.1 MHz is the best and easiest band to work DX. If you care to learn CW.

I’m typing this on Christmas day. Earlier this week, the forecast predicted a storm for the north sea and heavy gusts for the inland. I decided to be safe and lowered the tower on Thursday. It was all the way up and loaded with wires for 80/160/30. I didn’t have the time to be in the shack – closing the schoolyear’s first trimester and family obligations of the season. That means I didn’t do the RAEM contest this year. Too bad for me as it’s one of my favorite events. The WX forecast is set to calm again and my holidays have yet to start so I might as well crank up the tower again and work some DX. I hope the holidays will draw some more hams into their shacks. I already said that many times far away skimmers pick up my signals yet no one answers my CQ. I am part of the problem: I’m not active on weekdays either. But it’s a shame that my 80m signal is audible in VK, ZL, JA, USA and Central America but I only get called by a few Europeans. Though it’s hard to be part of the solution. On weekdays I too am kept hostage by agendas, time tables and schedules. And to survive this, I need to be in bed when the other side of the globe is calling CQ…

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