Prep for CQ WW SSB

zone39I should be able to put CQ zone 39 back on the air this weekend, at least for part of the CQ WW SSB contest. I’ve had a ton of travel and a few other projects over the last few months, and have been off the air except for portable operations outside Madagascar. Timing is good this weekend, though, for me to get on the air as 5R8SV from the house in Antananarivo.

I think the ionosphere may have taken my inactivity as a personal affront, because it seems to have tanked. Not having really paid much attention to propagation conditions for a couple months, I am stunned by how far the averaged sunspot number has plummeted (to 12!).

I just ran some simulations for the upcoming weekend, and 100W with a hexbeam may be marginal for Europe, much less the US. I hope some of the higher bands will pop open here and there, but I am not expecting much.

I just looked at conditions over on solarham and hope that the choppiness of the last few days will settle down for the weekend. We’ll see!

storms-hoI should be in Madagascar in a few weeks, but I’m not sure whether I’ll be at home in Antananarivo or in the northern part of the country. There’s a chance I’ll be in Nosy Be, if so, I might be operating that contest QRP portable. While lower power might be a challenge under these conditions, Nosy Be is on NW corner of the island, and surrounded by salt water, so maybe worth a shot.

The last year of QRZ updates

jacklemurI make small status updates every month on the 5R8SV page on QRZ.com, but after a while, the page becomes too long and the info grows stale. I would hate to lose this record, though, because it’s a nice account of what I’ve been up to, so I am pasting the last year’s worth of comments below and cleaning up the QRZ page. Continue reading “The last year of QRZ updates”

40m Delta Loop

590px-Pythagoras_similar_triangles.svgThe rainy season runs from about November and sometime up to March, with peak cyclone activity at the height of summer, January and February. As a preventative measure, my next door neighbor trimmed one of the trees along our property line. I had some ropes in that tree to support a G5RV and when he gave me the heads up that crews would be whacking away at limbs, I thought it best to bring down the antenna. The G5RV never really hung high enough to work well and it stretched over the house, which may have added to noise, so I didn’t mind taking it down. Last week, I put up a new full wavelength 40m delta loop as a replacement.

I went with the delta loop because there is one large pine tree at the edge of the property and I was able to shoot a line over it with a wrist rocket. The lower corners are supported with guy lines from a telephone pole and another tree to each side of my house. The antenna is fed at the middle of the base, which is just at the edge of my roof, which makes it convenient to access. I had brought back a 50m roll of heavy duty green wire from Sotabeams in the UK. I have to remark that working with this very compliant wire was a pleasure after having made wire from household wire that loves to coil in the past.

By virtue of the position of supports, the antenna slopes from bottom to top towards the south, a bit more vertical than horizontal. Since I am feeding it from the bottom, the antenna polarization should be horizontal, but I believe that the sloping should add some directivity towards the North. I had considered feeding it up one side and using a quarter-wave of 75 ohm coax to transform the expected 100-ohm feed point impedance, but it would have been awkward to support a feedpoint at that position given what I had to work with.

I initially cut the antenna to a literal full wavelength, 299.8/7.1 * 1.05, where 1.05 was the fudge factor supplied in the ARRL antenna handbook. Initially, the resonant point was 6.9 Mhz, so I shortened the antenna in a few iterations, arriving at the intended 7.1 Mhz, where there was no reactive component and the resistive component was about 65 ohms — close enough to 50 for me to be happy to feed directly with 9913F7 coax and not worry about vSWR.

From the shack, the antenna works great with no tuner across 40m, but I don’t have a lot of experience at this point with regard to how the antenna performs. It is much louder on 40m than the hex beam, but most of the time that loudness is merely more noise thanks to the environment around the station.

DXPeditions: VK0EK and FT4JA

I am not an ardent DXer, but when an entity is only on the air every couple of decades, I’m willing to give it a try. Due to it’s remote location, Heard Island fits that description. Likewise, operation from Juan de Nova is not all that common, particularly as the Scattered Islands are the subject of a territorial dispute between Madagascar and France (and perhaps the Comoros would like a piece too).

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Immediate feedback from real time logging on the VK0EK website was very appreciated. I saw a CW contact recorded as HR8SV and was able to correct it on a subsequent attempt.

Continue reading “DXPeditions: VK0EK and FT4JA”

The other side of the wall

Space_Shuttle_Columbia_launching

I got back from a trip on Friday, woke up at a reasonably leisurely hour on Saturday and thought it would be fun to test the waters of the big CW contest going on. Almost immediately, I was drawn in and didn’t leave the chair for another seven hours. Since the CQ WW DX contest is based on zones and there just aren’t many contesters in my zone (39), it was very flattering to be the object of desire for the rest of the world, but being on this side of the DX wall is quite different from what I’m used to.

At the best of times, I was working three calls a minute in a jedi mind-trance, but that of course was not typical. There were plenty of times where I was dialing around, trying to get noticed with my 100W and two-element antenna. However, the converse was also a challenge – sometimes I would be plugging away at a good rate and then all hell would break loose. Somewhere, someone had spotted me and suddenly I would find myself lying on the space shuttle launch pad, looking up at the main engines sparking to life, while trying to hear a song playing on someone’s ipod on the flight deck. The experience of operating into a solid wall of callers added some new perspectives…

Continue reading “The other side of the wall”

¡SSB en fuego!

This past weekend was the CQ WW SSB contest — one of the big ones. I usually have a vague idea about the approach of a contest and decide whether to take part on Friday of the contest weekend, but I had marked this one on the calendar ahead of time and was prepared. Aside from setting up everything and working a bit of SSB earlier in the week, I spent some time looking at propagation and figuring out where to point the antenna at different times of day to hit both areas with high densities of hams (NA, EU, Japan), but also beam heading that would cover the most DXCC entities, the multiplier for this contest.

Continue reading “¡SSB en fuego!”

VHF Update: Repeaters, Earth and Sky

Relais 5R8ZZ
Relais 5R8ZZ

I got an email from Albert, 5R8GV, last week alerting me and other hams in the area that Serge, 5R8GX/FR5GX, had put a repeater into operation: 5R8ZZ.  The repeater is based at his house and puts out 16 watts (after filters) through a quarter-wave ground plane antenna on his roof. The repeater’s input frequency is 145.150 Mhz and the output frequency is 145.750 Mhz (i.e., set your radio to 145.750, with 600 khz negative offset). No PL tones are used; instead send a brief 1750 Hz tone to open the repeater.

Continue reading “VHF Update: Repeaters, Earth and Sky”

A quiet night at home

SurefireU2JPG
A tale of low power operation in the dark.

For the past couple weeks, we’ve been experiencing load-shedding that starts about an hour after sunset.  The capital region of Madagascar does not have enough electrical power production capacity at present to run everything at once, so there is a rotating blackout. Now that I’ve added some UPSes, this has minimal impact on my family because we have a back-up generator that comes online in under a minute — usually. Last week, the generator didn’t start rumbling and we sat in the dark [presumably] looking at each other.

Continue reading “A quiet night at home”

5R8SV: The Hexbeam is Up

hexbeam_finally_upTL;DR? See the video on youtube.

My greatest limitation up to this point has been my antenna. For a few months, I worked QRP with the end-fed LNR 40/20/10, and it did a great job, although it wasn’t up very high. Putting up a G5RV allowed me to run 100W when my main shipment arrived, but the antenna was not ideal for my location – in particular, the twin-lead feed line, which is a radiating part of the antenna, came down low over the metal roof of my house and I had to tie it off to the side to keep it from detuning. Now, however, I have a “real” antenna up: the K4KIO hexbeam is mounted on heavy duty spiderbeam 10m mast, which sits atop a Yaesu G450 rotor.

It is effectively a two-element antenna on each band (6, 10, 12, 15, 17 and 20 meters), but each band is resonant and I do benefit from directivity, particularly in terms of noise reduction. I am hearing better from every direction, but particularly Asia. I’d write more in praise of the antenna, but I’m too eager to actually get on the air and use it…


I have been posting small interim updates on the station’s  QRZ site, and as they get stale, I’m moving them over to the blog for the record. Here are updates from last October through the beginning of this month:

June 21 2015: You know the drill — I had much more travel in April and May than I would have thought possible. The hexbeam? No, still not up. I’ve done a lot of metal work for the supports for the rotor and thrust bearing, but I won’t mount them until later this year. I’ll back back in the US from later this week (just in time for Field Day) through the beginning of August. I’ve updated all my online logs and sent an update to Phil, my QSL manager.

9 April 2015: I am in Madagascar for April except for the third week, when I’ll be in South Africa (so maybe you will hear a call from ZS/AI4SV at some point). I am trying to take advantage of the existing propagation while I can. I’ve had some contacts with VK/ZL in the last few days on 10m, including a few on voice. The highlight of my week, though, was tossing out a call on six meters and having a train of replies from around the Mediterranean: Italy, Malta, Jordan, Israel and several others. The K3 limits to about 70w using my G5RV antenna, which is certainly not ideal for 6m operation anyhow. I’ve been talking about putting up the hex beam for quite a while, hopefully I’ll get it done this month.

9 March 2015: I got back to Madagascar in time to spend a few hours on ARRL DX SSB and worked about thirty stations, including the Washington, BC, and the Northwest Territories, but with a predominance in New England. Alaska continues to elude me. I’ll be in Madagascar until the 14th and then away for the rest of the month. I did manage to get the post for the hexbeam anchored two meters deep in the backyard, so when I get back, that will be the first project.

24 February 2015: Thanks to everyone who worked me this past weekend during the ARRL DX CW contest. I hadn’t really planned to participate in it, but suddenly it was Saturday, I was home, and I had a working antenna, so there you go. I was very pleased to get 496 contacts including some states and provinces that I hadn’t previously reached. Work on the hexbeam continues in the background — I just slapped another coat of paint on the support post.

10 February 2015: The G5RV has worked out well, and I have contacts on 10, 12, 17, 20, 30, and 40 meters on it. Again, my limiting factor is local electrical noise, which is very variable. At some point I may try noise cancelation with a local sense antenna.

1 February 2015: I hung the G5RV today and discovered that it barely fits on the property. The matching section comes down over the house, so rather than let it hang straight down, I pulled it to the side and suspended it from a tree branch to keep it away from the metal roof. I can only imagine what this does to the radiation pattern. I swept the antenna with an analyzer, and get < 3:1 on 80, 40, 20, 17, and 10 meters. I get high SWR on 30m, so I don’t expect to run that band, and I’ll have to see how the built-in tuner in the K3 does on the other bands. I hopped on 17m earlier this evening running 100W for the first time for this station. I ran 100+ contacts, so at least I know it is not a dummy load. I am hoping to try out the other bands after work in the coming week.

From my trip to the US last week, I did bring back the hex beam mast, so that longer term project can now move ahead as well. I also picked up a powergate, which provides battery backup. We have intermittent power losses and even if backup power comes on line, I found it awkward to be mid-QSO and lose power. If I was operating split, the K3 would forget the set up and I’d need to reprogram. Now, the radio switches seamlessly to battery until main power is restored. Finally, the TS-450SAT is now set up for digital operation. I had a couple PSK31 contacts last night and will try some more digimodes as time permits.

18 January 2014: In the US for a week of meetings: a couple days in Seattle and a couple in Washington, DC. I should be back in Madagascar at the very end of January. Barring any complications getting the spiderbeam mast through as luggage (Air France says it’s okay in terms of dimensions as a “second bag”), I’ll get to work on raising the hex beam, but this will entail digging a big hole, finding a suitable post, anchoring in concrete, etc. – I’ll get it up as soon as I can if weather cooperates. Meanwhile, I’ll try to put the G5RV in place. I’m also hoping to get a digimode radio on the air in February, so maybe you’ll soon hear strange sounds eminating from the Red Island.

29 December 2014:  It has been a little more difficult to get things set up than anticipated for two reasons: 1) worked related travel; and 2) rainy season. It only rains a couple hours on certain days, but when it rains, it comes down hard. I had anticipated making a workshop in the garage, but the floor floods briefly when the rain pounds down. Consequently, project #1 has become raised flooring and shelving in the garage. While that will be an ongoing project for the next month, I’ve started setting up the shack indoors and have created an access route to bring feedlines into the shack. I have brought the coax from the LNR end-fed antenna into the shack and it is now hooked up to the K3. The antenna only handles 25W, but that’s 5x more than what I had before, so at least I am heading in the right direction.

26 November 2014: The station gear finally arrived last week. Due to work, I’ve just started unpacking it all. Now that I have tools and materials, I can start wiring up the house as needed. This is probably going to take a while since I’ll be away on business (and vacation) for much of December. When possible, I’ll continue to operate from the porch, perhaps with a bit more power using the K3. However, now that rainy season is upon us, it’s trickier to operate from that location. I’m hoping to upload everything to date to LOTW this week.

19 Oct 2014: A bit less activity in the last week or so due to business and travel, but still accruing the new DXCC entities as time permits. Some highlights include working my QSL manager G3SWH, Phil, a mobile station in Germany, DF4TD/M and a few stations in the Oceania DX contest. No change in equpment: the main station gear is still on the way, probably delayed a couple weeks by the Air France strike at the end of September. I’ve had some discussions with a local engineering company about putting up a “pylône de télécommunications” to support the hexbeam and G450A rotor, so that project is also cooking in the background.

Solder Fan

IMG_20150528_144840 IMG_20150529_201936 IMG_20150529_201958 IMG_20150529_202007This project arose from a sudden desire to stop inhaling solder smoke. I just got back from about three weeks of constant travel around Africa with a bad head cold, cough and sore throat. After being away, I was itching to solder up something, but didn’t want to push myself any closer to bronchitis. The solution: a fan to waft away the solder smoke.

I had a bunch of waffle fans removed from computers, but some of them proved very wimpy. One in particular was super-quiet and drew about 200 mA, but was barely able to move air. Since more is always better, I dug into the junque box and pulled out a bunch of fans that I have removed from a commercial server. They were small, but powerful. Alone, each drew about a half amp and when plugged in a 12V battery (or tapped into the bench’s 12V supply), would vibrate themselves around the table. If one fan is good… four is even better.

I created a wood frame with some channels made from angle aluminum. Since the metal impeller blades are like little razors, I stapled metal mesh over both sides. After assembling the whole thing, it occurred to me that all the fans should face the same direction. Luckily, the wood glue hadn’t set by that point, and I was able to disassemble part of the frame, flip around a couple fans, and screw the whole thing back together.

With four fans running full speed, this thing is loud and produces almost enough thrust to take off. So, the interesting part of this project is not the fan itself, but the fan controller. Any sort of rheostat or linear device that would ramp up or down the drive voltage would be very inefficient and produce a lot of waste heat, so I went with a variable pulse width modulator. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I used a design described on the PC Silencio website. Two sections of the quad op amp create a triangle wave, another serves as buffer for a voltage divider, and the final section serves as a comparator to slice off the triangle wave at the level set by the voltage divider. The threshold determines the duty cycle of the generated square wave, which drives the motor at full voltage.

I didn’t have a LM324 in DIP14 layout, so I substituted a TLC271 op amp, which worked fine. For the n-channel MOSFET driving the motors, I went with an STP16NF06 (my old standby, used in previous projects such as the TEAPOT and Texas Topper Amplifier). Regardless of setting, the mosfet remains cool since it’s essentially either on or off and not hanging out in the linear range at all.

In practice, running the fans at near the lowest setting works fine for pulling away smoke from routine soldering. Since the question will inevitably arise — I should mention that in order to solder together the fan, I used a breadboarded version of the PWM circuit to run the fans so I could solder them together — thus getting around this bootstrapping issue.