Yesterday morning I woke up and fired up the shack. There were plenty spots for DX on 20. Even some loud Left Coasties. And beyond. KH6MB was ‘like a local’ but since I just got out of bed, my brain-to-finger coordination lagged and apart from a 589 I sent some gibberish in stead of complementing him on his signal, as intended.
At the same time, an Italian reported a loud KH6 beacon on 17m. Italy is not Belgium and I only have a simple inverted V. What if the Italian has gain galore? Still I hate being on a regular band outside of the contests so I went to seventeen to check it out. Not much beacons to be heard. Except the W6 beacon. Not loud and barely any movement on the S meter but I copied the callsign. So I fired up the relentless CQ machine. It took a while for the first reply to be copied. A Ukrainian? Hey I copy W6 so I won’t settle for less! A couple more rounds of CQ ammo fired into the ionosphere. Then I hear WH7 but fear it’s a WS7. Too good to be true? But I’m sure I heard an H and not an S. So I reply to WH7W who kicks the S meter’s butt up seven notches or more. Wow! A true KH6 and very loud, out of the blue. We complete the QSO and I wonder what his setup is but I don’t want to risk sending another batch of early morning rubbish so I finish the contact. Another Belgian station is spotted on 20 by a plain W6 but I smile: I just got called by KH6 on 17 with a simple inverted V about one wavelength high. The rest of my CQ only yields local EU stuff or a close UA9.
Philosophical note: suppose WH7W calls CQ on 17 and then gets spotted, he can work a big fat messy EU pile up for at least an hour. But I don’t get to work a big pile of Hawaiians. Not even a bunch. Not even two. Nevertheless: Mahalo WH7W for making my day!
This morning V31PA/P was on a noisy 40. I logged him and soon after he complained about QRN on the band so he said he’s QSY to 14007. I awaited him but that band was noisy too and he wasn’t loud at all. To say the least. No wonder: /P in Belize… JY9FC was there too and loud. ‘There’ being the same band but another beam heading of course. After a couple of shots he asked for USA only. USAUSA PSE EU LATER. Some SP9 didn’t quite get it. After a few minutes I went back and he was working EU again. Soon I logged him. After checking it turns out I already have JY confirmed on seven bands CW. And 38 QSO with JY in total. Who would have guessed? JY9NX was very active a decade ago.
Time to try 12m. Two or three loud EU, some medium-loud UA/UR. MJ0CTR didn’t hear me. Let’s try 17 again. Same situation, except for a lonely JA. Back to 12. Wow, an E4 spotted. Loud and working EU. But I ran out of time for this one. More DX later? Let’s hope!
Elecraft has ‘reverse-charged’ (or how do you call that?) my credit card as a refund for the bad KPA-to-K3 cable they sent me. Thumbs up to the customer care dept. As always with Elecraft. Lesson learned: just DIY simple stuff i.s.o. whining about ‘no time’. Just delay (or drop altogether) some other job in favour of homebrewing ham radio stuff.
Although the KPA-500 amp made a quick to and fro to have it repaired in Italy, I didn’t feel like mounting the transformer back in and test it. It had been waiting for that for about three weeks. I finally tackled that job earlier this week. Once you know how, it’s a breeze. I didn’t RTFM to remove the transformer since I was in a hurry to get it shipped. At first I couldn’t get it out and in the end I dismantled the amp too far. Now I just looked at the assembly manual. It has a few pictures that show how easy it is. As with all Elecraft documentation. Lesson learned: no job is too simple not to RTFM.
Then I put the amp back in the shack and played on the HF bands. The amp now works without a glitch and communicates with the K3 in both directions. It’s really great to have a 500W rig, so to speak. The lazy operator like me can just click from spot to spot and go from band to band without having to worry about band switch, plate or tune or even drive power levels. Fingers crossed, let’s hope I’ve seen the end of troubles with this device.
The magnetic polarity of the sun is about to flip! Of course us observant radio freaks know all this but now it is picked up by the mainstream media too. So this reversal takes place at a solar maximum? Great! This means propagation should be peaking? Super!
I can’t say I had much fun on the bands lately. Outside the contest periods of course. This AM I didn’t even get picked up by a skimmer on 24MHz. I feel sorry for those with a barefoot rig and a 20 feet high ground mounted 9-band vertical without radials (as advertised). If five full sized elements on a 0.6 λ boom and all this raised more than two wavelengths above ground (OB11-3 on 10m band) and a kW barely make it outside EU… At a solar max!
It’s not that there is no DX. But it’s scarce, never loud and mostly NOT to be found on 10/12 meters. Even the fifteen meter band isn’t great. I admit: one day is better than the next but on average, what has cycle 24 offered us of big sustainable DX openings on above 21MHz? Quarter 4 of 2011, from September to late December. Early 2012 was already much less. Over the last weeks or even months I noticed a lot of days with high A or K values. A = 23 as I type this.
I’m not the only one to mention this. PA0O and NU8Z talked about it too. I came on HF right at the peak of cycle 23. With one simple low inverted V and 100W through the TS-850’s internal ATU, I could work everything between 10MHz and 28MHz. Especially after I discovered the ‘10dB CW gain’. After 2002 things went downhill pretty fast. All according to the solar cycle’s textbook. From 2003 on I started building my station here and projected what I had witnessed from propagation in 2001-2002, onto a tower and big yagi. But we had to go through the desert for a few years. It lasted long and it didn’t pick up quite fast.
I was so happy these three months late 2011. I spent a lot of time in the shack. Finally it was worth the while to delay other things and get into the chair. That simple inverted V here on 24MHz gave a firm boost to my DXCC on that band. Those who were there in CQ WW SSB that year will remember the endless stream of DX on ten meters! Then it shut down two months later never to open up that wide again. I think the SFI level then was the highest recorded in this cycle.
So now the actual peak is here? Not impressed. I had more fun on the low bands when 160 was peaking and the cycle dipping than I’ve had so far on the higher bands since 2010. And I’m not even a low band lover. And I don’t have big antennas on 160/80. But it allowed for some new ones to be logged and low band DX on an almost daily base.
Glass half full of half empty? Right now W2LJ is having QRO fun with QRP power and he’s right: we gotta make the best of it. If we want SFI = 250 then we might as well collect stamps or cigar bands, or start knitting socks. Apart from contesting I put my money on 10 MHz / 30m for the coming decade. And OT1A sees it coming too and is forging plans for 40.
But silently I hope that all current predictions for the next cycle will be proven totally wrong and these frugal SFI predictors will be blushing with shame.
Aahh, the contest of all CW contests. QTC rulez! At least in CW. I wonder what the fun in SSB or RTTY is. If any. But the CW QTC makes this one of the primary events of the year for me.
Not much to say. After all these years and all these reports, chances are real I’m repeating myself. Like how it all started: already told in 2008. Or how I usually train for QTC: already told in 2011. I didn’t train this year. That’s how good I am
And I probably told the story how I got N1MM to finally support WAE in his world famous contest logger. No? It’s exactly a decade ago. The long hot summer of 2003… I bet he still has nightmares where the QTC code comes up. My bet is that WAE and the QTC interface specifically score very high on his top ten of hardest code to write. In fact it was the only reason WAE was not supported yet back then. I had made a modest start with the code so that the foundation was done and I could hand it over to The Man Himself. My hope was that my start was an incentive for him to take over. I provided a separate window for QTC like I had seen in WriteLog. I used that program in 2002 with a very negative experience. Like losing QTC. Like using TAB to jump fields but the Tab Order of the controls was not in logical order. Windows GUI programmers know what I mean. This means that a TAB does not always jumps to the next field but skips a few or goes back a few. A horror scenario when logging QTC.
So I thought: let’s copy that GUI concept and make it behave better. But then Tom N1MM had a brilliant idea. He decided to leave the separate QTC window route and walk down another path by using the entry form itself and alter its behaviour in QTC mode. I still think this was a very good idea and I have loved it ever since. And have never lost a QTC ever since! I’d hate a separate window now. Although it is implemented for RTTY I believe. But now that ON5MF does CW, this RY will soon be a thing of the past (HI Jurgen ).
So a few thousand QTC later I find myself on the eve of WAE CW 2013. If it weren’t for QTC I would have skipped this one. Propagation stinks and I’d rather spend the weekend with the family. But it’s the yearly QTC bash! I took a late start and slept the first few hours. I have always been a poor strategist and always make the wrong decisions when it comes to plan off times. I didn’t expect much of propagation. But somehow there was much activity on 20 at 02.00 utc. So I started there. I was still a bit sleepy but for QSO #2 I decided to hit the ctrl+Z combination and sure enough K3IE sent me my first batch of QTC. With no specific training before (hey I think I have mastered the QTC game by now), I felt a bit worried but all things went well. Who da man? Off to the races! I could even work ZL1 on 20 LP! Then my friend K7GK/6 called me. Nice surprise Denis! I worked lots of W6-W7 and they were eager to hand out QTC. This early in the contest? That’s new! I welcome that change.
Around sunrise I discovered that 80/40 were absolutely useless. Not many stations there, CQ’s remained mostly unanswered and QRN / noise on 80 was terrible. I took a break and continued. In fact this was the way I continued the whole contest: run and ask for QTC, S&P and ask for QTC and when I was out of stations to work I took a break. In the end I took more breaks than the twelve hours provided. That’s mostly because WAE is a sloooooow contest. Thousand QSO in 30 hours. Compare that to 1250 QSO in 12 hours in EUHFC last week. When it goes too slow I have a hard time staying focused and awake.
For a few years in a row I put WAE SSB on the schedule but September is such a hectic month and it’s the same this year. Always QRM on the contest agenda. WAE CW, and I suppose this applies to SSB too, is a weird contest. Knowledge and expertise from other contests usually do not apply. You need special tactics. Planning off time is crucial.
And it’s a love-it-or-hate-it contest. A lot of the usual suspects don’t participate and you find quite anonymous players putting down good scores. Especially the CW part separates boys from men. You actually need to copy more than a callsign and a zone that is already filled in by your software anyway. If you refuse to copy QTC all together you end up down under the pack, no matter how many QSO you made.
I admit: I am biased when it comes to CW and WAE. After the major fail in 2001 (‘WTF is QTC? What do they want from me?’) I decided to make my way into the men’s row in stead of the boys queue. The more the station evolved and expanded, the more I could rake up QTC. Yes I’ve come a long way. Yes I practiced a lot in the past for those QTC. Yes I’m quite proud of it since skills are not something you can buy off the shelf or download from the Internet. Skills only come by practicing and the proverbial blood, sweat and tears. In August it’s mostly sweat.
Winning this one from EU seems hard. Competition is strong with a dozen very experienced WAE specialists all wanting to win. There usually is no room for smaller stations à la ON5ZO from common EU locations like ON in the top ten. That’s because the ratio DX-to-EU is skewed. Much more EU demanding than there is supply of DX. Add to that that you need big antennas to get out of EU. Especially when propagation is poor. But you can do very well with modest antennas from a unique DX location. Sit back and call CQ. TA or 5B are popular destinations. The drawback then is sending the QTC which seems very boring to me.
Closing note: packet spot mayhem by the end of the contest. The M/S ops and Big Gun S/O are bored after a slow Sunday and each and every cluster spot offering fresh meat is jumped upon with the big calibre shells loaded. They call and call and call and call but never seem to listen. When the calling dies there is one idiot that decides to call again which triggers another salvo of blind calling. OD5ZZ on 40. And many others. So it makes me smile when I call CQ and get called by a juicy DX mult. Like CO, KH6, V5, KL7 etc.
CU in the next one!
Checking 900 UBA DX CW logs. Good for 233 000 QSO in 2013. And a lot of miscopied serial numbers. But maybe the numbers weren’t copied incorrectly. Maybe it was a Xerox machine generating the Cabrillo file…
I almost skipped this one. It was VERY hot (32°C or more) over the last days and everything was taken down for last week’s thunderstorms. Furthermore there were new warnings for T-storms so I hesitated to put things up. By Friday night the forecast gave calm WX from early Saturday morning so I decided to go for it and raise the antennas after breakfast.
Problem: with the expansion of the garden and the big tree cut and the old fence removed, there were no branches or poles to get the elevated radials for 80/160 in the air. I dug out ye olde dual band dipole for 80/160 but I decided to stick to what I know and put up the radials anyway. They were only one meter or even half a meter above the ground but that’s not a problem. The new lot is still inaccessible so no one can trip over it or get RF burns. Strange enough the resonance points and SWR curves didn’t change much, except on 160 the dip was sharper and less pronounced. Which points to a better efficiency and less losses.
The contest went smooth and it was fun. Propagation wasn’t great yet the rate remained well above hundred. Even ten meters showed life for a while. But as always there comes a point where it inevitably slows down. The low bands were a real problem. A lot of summer noise and QRN. I had a hard time copying signals on 80m and sometimes felt like a lid. The situation was MUCH worse on 160. Add to that there was hardly anyone there…
I really like the new 3830 site. It let’s you come up with things like this:
I had a poor score in 2008 and gave up half way the contest in 2009. It’s a good thing I keep this blog because I wondered where the 2009 score was.
Gooseberry time was what Google Translate made of the Dutch ‘komkommertijd’ or cucumber time. In other words: no real ham radio news to mention.
I just processed a dozen direct QSL cards. That’s about the closest I got to ham radio.
Last week I did RRTC (650 contacts) but didn’t get around to making more contacts in the week after. Then the nice WX broke and there were threats of thunderstorms. I disconnected all cables but left the tower up 2/3rd. One night I was awaken by a modest wind rattling the window blinds and I went to the shack and booted the PC to check the online rain / lightning maps. It was a near miss. Back to sleep, all is fine.
Then by the end of last week I began to read horror announcements of severe thunderstorms, hail balls the size of ping-pong balls to golf balls and severe gales. One French meteo site even gave a +50% chance of a tornado. A tornado? In Belgium! BTW all nasty and dirty WX we get comes from over France. Nice stable WX comes from between 30° and 90°. And since I’m only about 100km or less from the French border, their forecast for ‘Le Nord’ is a good measure of things to come.
So with these announcements I decided to let the tower and all wires down on Friday. The night was calm but shit hit the fan Saturday morning. The dog felt what the online maps showed: here comes trouble! I went outside to secure some chairs and kid’s toys and you could see the storm rolling in. Not only see but feel: all of a sudden it went from no wind to a breeze to strong winds to gales in only one minute time! This is exactly what I saw (although images come from the other side of Belgium).
And this is what it looked like when the demons were unleashed (footage shot elsewhere):
I was glad I lowered the tower! But the worst had yet to come. Saturday night late. It was announced well before and there were strong warnings about severe weather. The online WX maps already showed it: a poisonous present moving in fast across the French border. Just like in the morning: calm weather, the proverbial calm before the storm. Then the grain and corn fields started to make noise. Then the trees started to wave. And all of a sudden tons of rain poured down… well not exactly down from above but parallel to the ground. As if a high pressure fire hose was squirting the house. The wind started to howl, unlike I had ever heard. And trust me, I have heard the wind howl here! The sky seemed to be lit by strong lights, it seemed like lightning never ceased. I went up to look through the shack’s window. Although the wind was blowing hard the antennas (only 8-9m high) didn’t move nor twist too much. It lasted almost an hour, going from severe to really frightening to fading away to the north-east.
When it calmed down I went outside for a damage report. Luckily there isn’t anything to report except for three bent flowers. The corn fields on the contrary showed a lot of broken and fallen stalks. Sunday morning you couldn’t even see it rained so hard the night before.
Since the tower is down and the plugs are disconnected, and there is a threat for more T-storms the coming days, I won’t be making QSO. What really bothers me is that the same scenario is announced for the end of the week, especially the night from Saturday to Sunday: just when it’s EUHFC. Maybe I should slowly start to prepare myself that I could have to sit this one out and leave all lighting-attractors down.
Back to ham radio. I just renewed my ARRL membership. I waited a long time to do so. I became a member somewhere in 2001 if I recall well, under slight pressure of the man who was my ‘elmer’ back then (QRT now). He was an avid DXCC chaser and convinced me to become one too and ARRL membership provides a discount for DXCC endorsements. Soon after I lost interest in active DX chasing and DXCC but the monthly QST provides some good reading. The ON national bi-monthly magazine is a bit light (respect due to the editors though). But twelve years later, it seems that I’ve read it all before. Or just don’t give a damn (like emcomm stuff). Even QST has lost its news value. At least for me, who spends a fair amount of time reading ham related websites, blogs, technical articles, DX and product announcements etc. I think I’m quite up to speed with what’s happening in HamRadioLand. In the past I tried NCJ and CQ Magazine too. Same story. I even tried QEX for one year – too technical for my interests and very specific topics. Maybe I should try Radcom (RSGB membership)? I used to occasionally buy a commercial French magazine called ‘CQ Radioamateur’ found in the bigger newsstands in the bigger cities. But I can’t find it anymore lately. Maybe the newsstands don’t stock it anymore or maybe the magazine is out of business? If I really wanted to get ambitious and dust off my German, I could go for DARC’s CQ-DL?
I must admit I am a very difficult customer and exhibit a very specific and determined taste. In all aspects of everyday life so in ham radio literature too.
In the mean time I renewed ARRL membership for another year and decided to think it over. Truth be told: I read QST in ‘my 1m² little shack’. I might as well buy a tablet (this one or bust) and go for digital online QST only?
Breaking news: ON5ZO’s useful antenna space doubles!
How did this happen? Gigantic thermal expansion? Did I just turn into a conquering force putting my flag anywhere I want? A sudden earthquake that moved my fences a few dozen feet outward? Or did I just buy some ground?
More than a decade ago, we started looking for a QTH. We had a few requirements. Location with respect to our roots and affordability of course. But I knew that if I ever wanted to put up a tower, some other parameters were not to be neglected. Lots of space and neighbours, or better: the lack of the latter. That means I immediately put my veto on houses under HV power lines, houses with small gardens, houses in dense residential areas. And everything else that I saw as a threat to my dream that was a modest tower with tribander.
For about two years we looked at every real estate website. We drove around every weekend looking for ‘for sale’ signs on houses. We even placed a bid on some houses but came too short. There was this ON5 who was moving to France. He sent a message to the local clubs: house for sale that comes with tower with legal permit. A permitted tower is ‘pure gold in erection’ these days in Belgium. The house was only so-so needing a lot of work to get it to meet our needs. The location was a bit impractical too. But I was blinded by that tower, and there were some other benefits that pulled the XYL over the line. I seem to remember a sauna was one of those. The owner wanted to sell to the highest bidder but hams had priority because of the tower. Maybe he was afraid that a non-ham buyer would make him take down the tower? I was the only ham to show up at the auction that December day in 2001. In fact there was only one other possible buyer apart from me. Another young couple, seeming newly weds or about to go to live together just like us. Only two parties, my odds were getting better. And I didn’t expect the other couple to be Rockefellers. I raised my hand two times as the auctioneer raised the price. But I was soon overbid by the other guy who got a positive nod of the head of an older guy in the crowd. His father? I admit, maybe our self imposed limit was a bit on the low side and not realistic. But we were not backed up by a parental checkbook like the other guy obviously was. My dad who was with me and I finished our drinks while the older guy ordered some more. They had something to celebrate.
Very frustrating always pulling the shortest straw but in retrospect it all served a purpose. One day, by accident, we drove past this QTH which had a huge ‘for sale’ sticker on the garage. Well, not really by accident: ham radio helped fate. Since we were looking for houses in this area, I proposed my club’s QSL manager to drop a box full of outgoing QSL cards in ON4KV’s mailbox. Back then he was the national UBA QSL manager. I looked up his address and printed directions. As we drove down his street, about four hundred meters lower, we saw the sticker on the garage door. We pulled over and rang the doorbell.
The owner, a nice old lady, told us the sticker had only been there for two days so far. She was a widow and the lot had become too big for her to maintain by herself. The property had yet to be listed on websites and in the classifieds. We got a tour of the house and liked what we saw. What we saw were mostly opportunities. We learned that the garden was bigger than you could tell from the street view. This was it! We jumped on the case and to cut a long story short (nothing ever goes without a bump here, especially when third parties want to make a buck too): about six months later we got the keys to the front door and called it our home. The QTH has proven excellent: a solid house to start with, a nice location, friendly people all around, lots of nature. And it plays on a ham radio level too.
So although I am blessed with quite some space here, it’s never enough for an HF DXer / contester. Or is it just me? For ten long years I was dreaming to be the owner of the lot behind us. It would allow me to put up some more simple yet effective antennas, since I am now limited along the length axis of our lot from N-E to S-W. And it would give me some more breading room because the available space is crammed with TX antennas and wires already. Of course, in my dream of owning the lot, the price wasn’t an issue. In that dream, the grass mowed itself. In that dream there was only the bright side of owning much land: bury coax and put up aluminum.
After he suddenly passed away, we learned that the man who always had taken care of the property, was in fact not the actual owner. We learned that the ownership was complex, involving a handful of families, all elderly people. Last fall they decided to let the property go and sell it. It got our immediate attention and we were excited to lay our hands on it. As the dream could become reality, I landed with both feet on the ground. We knew the lot wouldn’t come cheap. They would squeeze every Euro out of it. But that problem could be relatively easily overcome. Putting money on the bank costs more than you get in return these days. Or worse: those white collar crooks threaten to take your savings to pay for their greed induced bankruptcy. Land on the other hand doesn’t lose its value, on the contrary. But the biggest problem was: how do you keep an 80 x 50 meter piece of land (4000m²) under control? It would also mean buying a tractor to mow it. More money needed for heavy machinery. Putting sheep on it? That means a lot of work and responsibility too and I’m not too keen on becoming a sheep farmer or a shepherd. In the end we worked out a deal with a friend: we would buy the lot and register each his own half. That meant half of the price and half of the work with still plenty of room left for the both of us.
Without going into detail: we missed out on the deal with the seller and it wasn’t even a money issue this time. I had always known that buying this lot would be a one time opportunity. If it ever got sold, the new owner would never sell it again during my lifetime. And that is exactly what happened. I comforted myself: no money spent so it’s still there to do something else, no extra work maintaining 4000 (or 2000 with the friend’s deal) square meters and things would just stay like they have been for ten years. I had given up on the dream, especially after lobbying for about three or four months and getting a cold turkey.
When the new owner came to visit his purchase, the XYL dared to address him and ask if he wanted to sell part of the land to us. Sure enough, he wanted to do so. A few days later he took a ribbon and hammered some rods in the ground and delimited the part he wanted to sell. While I wouldn’t have declined some more square meters, common sense says the part he wanted to let go has the right ratio of “extra space to extra work”. We agreed on the price and started the official procedure to split off part of the big lot and merge it with our current property.
The red tape procedure took its time but in the mean time the lot is officially ours. Twelve years ago I would have screamed: “here comes Tower Two” with a shovel in my hand, but I have calmed down growing older and wiser. One tower will do. The main reason we bought the extra land is to maintain freedom. There is no way the land surrounding us in an official agricultural environment can be used to build houses on. If the law would allow, it would have been sold for crazy money and built on long time ago. Not now and most likely not in the distant future will people be allowed to build houses on it. But agricultural activity can also pose a problem. What if someone lets his horses graze on the land and decides to build a horse stable along our fence? We would lose our panoramic view and face a brick wall when looking outside from the living room. So now there is a green lawn buffering our terrace from whatever might happen. Furthermore the total QTH is now worth more than the simple sum of both values. And the kids have some more room to play, away from the TX antennas and in parental view in stead of on the side of the house.
Of course you don’t hear me say I will never put an antenna on it. But first things first. Remove the old crooked and torn fencing and have a new fence placed. And before that, a big old dying tree has to be cut. No I won’t have time to be bored soon…
If you really want to get into this posting, maybe it’s better to refresh your memory here.
So I bought the KPA-500 from what I still believe to be a trustworthy source. Hooked it up, tested it and it worked. At least: it sensed RF to track the band, and when keyed there was output according to the drive level. I was busy living life (kids, job etc) and ham radio was on the background, and I had had it with technology, parts, connectors and soldering. Enough troubles on my mind already. So I ordered the (too) expensive K3-to-amp cable because I wanted to have the amp track the K3 and create a hands off setup. And not spend time achieving it.
The first real test was the end of January: the UBA SSB contest. I used the KPA-500 for the exact purpose I bought it: give radio 2 some more punch than barefoot. The setup with cable didn’t really work well but I was too tired, too lazy and too much into a “can’t be bothered” state so I blamed the lack of RTFM and preliminary testing. The problem was a weird clicking sound in the amp when PTT’d and driven. It clicked in the headphones as well. Also there seemed to be a problem with the band tracking between K3 and amp. It didn’t work as advertised.
That problem returned in the ARRL CW and in the UBA CW contest where I used this radio more intense and so I reported it. The public Elecraft reflector remained silent on my topic so I turned to Elecraft support. As expected and as usual I got prompt reply and some hints. First of all they said they had seen faulty K3-to-amp cables in the past. The cable looks solid though and since it looks like a factory / machine made quality cable, I assumed the cable was OK. They had me open up the amp and fiddle with ribbon cables etc but to no avail. I was still busy, weary and going through the desert (i.e. a loooong dark energy slurping winter) so I could not be bothered with this device. I could not even be bothered with contesting. So it sat here for a few months. Untouched. Unused. I felt a bit stupid that I bought the amp. I was looking for some extra dB and not excessive power. My self imposed limit is 1500W. There is no RFI/TVI/neighbour complaining and nothing melts. Why push it? The OM-Power mini 1500W amp costs a few hundred Euro more than what I paid for the Elecraft amp (remember: it did NOT come as a bargain). I could drive that amp to 500W too but still have 1500W on the shelf if the main amp breaks. And have three year pick up and repair service warranty (if I’m not mistaken, but I seem to remember that).
Fast forward a few months to July 1st. Also my first day of summer recess. I decided to tackle the problem since the amp had to work and function. Be it here or somewhere else if I could ditch it. Ditching it would mean it had to work 100% anyway because you cannot sell something you know is broken. I picked up the email thread with Elecraft support and once again: no complaints when it comes to responsiveness. They still pointed out the control cable might be a bad one. I measured it through for connectivity and it seemed OK. But some pins were wiggling.
So I finally did what I wanted to avoid (but should have done!) in the first place: solder a K3-to-amp cable. Straightforward, a cable with ten wires, twenty hot kisses from the soldering iron. Twenty minutes later the K3 and the amp were talking to each other. It turned out to be a broken cable after all. In the end I bought two VGA connectors (M+F) and took a leftover end of control cable and twenty minutes later I had the equivalent of something that cost me about 80 Euros that can now be thrown into the bin. Oh my! Elecraft acknowledged this and has agreed to pay back the cost of the cable (minus S/H of course and the 21% VAT the greedy government stole from me). I still need to check back on how they will pay me back. It’s been two weeks and a half and not a word from the sales dept.
But the case is not closed. Yes the posh malfunctioning cable is now replaced with a simple homebrewed equivalent that does work. After all, my collegues in my previous life as a broadcast service engineer didn’t call me The Cable Guy for nothing! But the clicking and attempting band switching under TX remain. Back to Elecraft support. Again, prompt and thorough assistance. Check this, try that. The CPU keeps a fault log in EEPROM (flash?). If I could download that from the amp and mail to Elecraft? It turns out that early in its life the amp has been beaten up with excessive drive and reflective power / high SWR. It’s hard to tell exactly when because the amp has no clock and thus cannot track the exact time/date. But this power scam could not have happened here that’s for sure: no more than 2:1 SWR here and I don’t key the amp without a load.
Could that be the culprit? If so then the seller sold me a tortured unit. Or is the band switching when I’m transmitting caused by their faulty cable? The more emails I exchanged with Elecraft support, the more people were CC’d (engineers, developers, service techs, firmware coders) and the more it looked like the amp had to be sent in for repair.
The problem was that when transmitting, the amp acted like it sensed another frequency / band than what I was actually driving the amp with. So with PTT keyed and the amp driven, it wanted to go to 18.1 MHz. Except when on 18 MHz then it wanted to see 21 MHz. Then it sensed it was wrong after all and went back to the band I actually was on. When it happened, some relays clicked and this made my CW lose a few dits or dahs resulting in erroneous transmissions. It occurred always, sometimes after a second, sometimes after a few minutes. But no escape. Each time the amp acted up.
The first week of July I made 400 CW contacts like this. I left the Big Amp off and tested the KPA-500. I must say that apart from the switching and clicking, I liked it a lot. It renders the K3 into a 500W radio. Period. And that 500W seemed enough to break any pile up I engaged in (no real crazy ones P5-style) and I could raise some DX myself with it. The fact that this amp is so little and its integration with the K3 makes it an interesting medium power DXpedition combo. And it has 6m which the big amp doesn’t have. So I decided not to let it go and have it fixed.
Nothing left to do then than to pack it up and send it to the authorized service centre in Italy. Once again: quick and correct communication with the Italian guy running the repair shop. He told me to remove the large torodial transformer and keep that one here. This effectively cuts the weight in half. Have carrier pick up box and dispatch to Italy: 29 Euro. Three days later: amp arrives safe and sound in Italy. One week later: amp is ready, please pay 283 Euro (UPS return shipping included). Ouch. You lose some? You lose big time!
There was no cure mentioned. What was wrong then? Of course I want a detailed explanation of what was wrong and what parts they changed. But I cannot get more than this: ‘the microprocessor in the front panel was faulty’. How can this happen then? Overvoltage? Overheating? EMP strike? Or is it some I/O port that blew up? If so: could it be caused by the faulty Elecraft cable? I guess I’ll never know. So I just paid 283 hard earned Euros and hope this will cure the problem once and for all. Now I spent more money on the amp than if I would have bought it new in which case I would have been covered by warranty.
Now, to comfort myself, let’s put things in perspective. I’ve been a ham since late 1999. I’ve owned and still own quite some hi tech devices like rigs, power supplies and amplifiers. Then there’s the mechanically vulnerable setup outside: antennas and tower/rotator. What did I have to pay as repair costs over all these years?
- Had both my TS-850 serviced and repaired by Kenwood. I seem to remember this was around 50-70 Euro each.
- Blown Wimo ‘1 kW’ trap. Cost about 50 Euro, is a QRP joke inside despite the QRO label on the outside.
- Blown WARC dipole. I paid this antenna 150 Euro and it served me excellent for over six years.
- Mysterious problem with ACOM 1000 amp: cost me 250 Euro, took over three months to get it back, zero status update and each time I called the Belgian service centre myself, they pulled my leg and told plain lies. Me cross-checking their story with ACOM Bulgaria changed the tone on the phone ;o)
- Then there is my very first rig (TR-9130 VHF all mode). Can’t remember what I paid for it. I’d say 250? One day it developed so much bad solder joints that I decided to give up on it. Countless hours of soldering short ends of resistor leg through the many PCB through-platings! I just threw the rig away. I had a TS-850 in place waiting and I was about to take the Morse exam and trade my VHF call for an HF one…
With so much devices being worth so much money and spread out over more than thirteen years of intense amateur radio pleasure, I guess it’s not so bad after all. I paid much more to keep the car running over this period.
Rock <– ON5ZO –> hard / even harder place
The rock is me wanting to do a contest badly. I like the IARU HF Championship a lot. And there is no bad weather announced (no T-storms!!!).
The hard place is the fact that right now, five hours before the start, I need to crank up the tower one level, remove WARC dipole, put up 80m wire and reconnect 160m wire after I brutally cut it off* before WPX CW. And I’m not even talking about the extra vertical for SO2R.
The even harder aspect is the current state of the ionosphere. A=9 and K=3 expecting to rise over the weekend. So why do all the work again to find myself stuck on twenty meters like always. Too bad there ain’t no Single Band effort in this contest. I would have done SB20 mixed mode right away.
I could just keep the setup as it is now. Then I will be active on 10-15-20-40. Theoretically. Given the prop I’ve seen over the last days, it’ll be mainly twenty and forty. And how will 80/160 behave? I’d hate to hear the bands open and not having an antenna up. Then again, as it is now, I won’t hear a thing on 80/160 since the antenna is coiled up and in a box.
* I cut the 160 wire through brutally and took it away to force myself to finally make a decent feed point assembly where I could connect / disconnect 160 from the 80 wire without a ladder to access it and without tools to fix it. The plan was to do that early July. But I’ve had other dragons to slay over the past two weeks.
Oh well in the end I went outside and installed the whole shebang. All tower sections up. Put radials for SO2R vertical back in the trees. Put 80m wire in the air. And reconnect wire for 160. I’ve got this field day routine mastered by now. I didn’t even had to prune the 80/160 wires for resonance. SWR dip where it needs to be. So with two hours left, I was ready to go in time for lunch and a pre-contest nap.
Since I was in it for the fun and max qso rate I decided to go assisted and enter M/S. At the very last moment I realized that M/S implies mixed mode by nature. Ouch, SSB – that cannot be. So I closed the packet cluster connection and cleared the band map and went the classic SOAB CW.
I knew conditions were not good so I expected the worst. But somehow I managed to keep the average rate over 100 until 02.00utc. Then suddenly things came to a halt and slowed down. I had a hard time getting the show on the road on 80. And there wasn’t a big crowd on 160. I heard NU1AW/3 and W1AW/4 calling HQ stations on Top Band so I resumed my CQ. But only NU1AW/3 called me. No other USA worked. Oh not true: K3ZO called me and he was loud.
I used radio 2 intensively but on a trapped vertical with these poor conditions, you don’t hear much. I made 474 contacts with the second radio, that’s 22%. I even practiced duelling CQ’s a few times. That is fun and a real rate booster. If a slow bands makes for 60/hr rate, this can boost the rate back up to +100. Of course this technique needs some practicing and tweaking to keep things running smoothly and it should come as no surprise that I messed things up a bit when there were a bunch of callers simultaneously on both bands. The success of these SO2R gimmicks largely depends on the style of the other stations too. The specific contest format lends itself to these tricks: a short fixed exchange needing no repeats. I had a ball CQ’ing on 20 and 40 simultaneously late at night but I can assure you after a good hour my mind needed some time off.
I had a few +100 clock hours, with 143 and 153 being the best. Despite poor propagation, there was plenty of DX calling. HS, HL, XU, YB, DU, VU – all in a short period on 15m. I worked more than my share of JA on 15 and 20 too: 49 in total. Worked 408 Americans and 45 VE. Say what? More JA than VE? Wow! Having V51YJ call me on 40 was a treat as well as ZR9C twice on the back of the beam. More juicy stuff like YV, XE and D3 – and still we say propagation wasn’t great?
My biggest surprise was being able to stay awake. Of course when things slowed down over halfway, it wasn’t easy and it took away some of the fun. Because of the low rate and the adrenaline slowly going away, I had two occasions where I seem to have a few minutes between contacts. But I didn’t need to go to bed. Until now (21.30 local time).
Trip down memory lane: it’s been ten years already that ON4CCP / OT1A invited me to his place as OT3R to do this contest as a M/S WRTC Style à la N0AX. We got inspired by WRTC 2002 Finland but our ambitions never materialized for Brazil or Russia. We certainly came a long way, both in setup as in contest skills over the past decade. Ten years is a long time yet it seems only yesterday.
Another fun contest is history. I wanted to make at least 2k QSO and I met that target. A few fast hours, some nice DX, working friends all over the world… What more can we ask (except propagation)?
For the coming holidays, I swore myself to force myself into the shack on a daily base. So far I have been very submissive regarding this rule. And I had quite some fun at it. I made about 400 contacts. Mostly on 30 and 17. And chase those weird prefixes that seem to be around by the dozen.
This week I wanted to make a few contacts with OJ0V too. I know half of the crew in person, so it’s only normal I want to support them. I managed to work them eight times between 15 and 40. Nothing higher than 21 MHz because of stinking propagation (again / still).
I experienced a short but sweet SR/SS opening to W6/7 on 30m. Oh man how I love this opening. If only I could make an antenna with gain on 30. Actually the making would be the easy part. It’s giving it a place that’s cumbersome. Which is a nice bridge to the SteppIR DreamBeam discussion: one antenna, gain from 6 to 40.
I had some luck on 17 too. Working Americans as far as CA and WA and at the same time have JA’s call in. All on a simple piece of resonant copper wire. Working familiar callsigns is always a treat too. So when I copied AE5X on 17 I was glad to say hello. I had a few longer ‘rag chew’ QSO too. I must say that my CW has become a bit rusty to copy full conversations above 32WPM. That’s what you get when you neglect your mistress that is ham radio! Rusty but I manage. Copying calls and numbers in short bursts is easy up to 40-42 WPM. I can say ‘easy’ now because of intensive training (remember PED & Rufz?) when I began contesting and massive contest experience over the years. So two nights ago I had to keep my head straight and focus when W9FAM bombarded me with a lot of information and questions at what I guess was 36-38 WPM. I don’t want to sound like a lid and answer each ? with a helpless ?
I tried 24 MHz too but to no avail. I’m not even picked up by skimmers, except local ON5KQ and some German. It’s not that the antenna doesn’t work. I had a blast on it when the band was open. Long time ago. It’s just that propagation does not support frequencies that high.
Let’s hope for some improved propagation. I really would like to see 12m open. Ten too of course but I try to avoid the regular bands since I’m already making thousands of contacts there in the contests.
And then there’s SIX METERS… I made four contacts this past week. That’s four more than last year (zero in 2012, I was shocked). I think Ukraine might be a new one there. I don’t have an antenna for 50 MHz. By accident I discovered that my old triband trapped WARC yagi showed 2.1:1 SWR there. And the replacement homebrew inverted V for WARC shows 1.9:1. It’s not a real antenna but it picks up and radiates some RF. Again a nice bridge to the SteppIR DreamBeam discussion: one antenna, gain from 6 to 40.