June mW Sprint

The view west towards mount roseI was sent on fairly short notice to attend a meeting at Lake Tahoe, which is just south of Reno along the California/Nevada border. I had one free evening before the conference, and it just happened to fall on the date of an NAQCC Sprint. I gave serious thought to throwing a wire out the hotel window, but the surrounding mountains called to me. This was not the usual monthly sprint, but the milliwatt version, so I figured that I needed all the help I could get and wanted to take advantage of the elevation.

After some quality time with Google Maps, it looked like Mount Rose was the highest accessible peak in the area. There is a parking lot near the trails that lead to the top of the mountain, but I didn’t think a business suit and dress shoes would fair very well on the gravely slopes. Across the road from the park lot is a campground with picnic tables and tall trees: the ingredients for comfortable field operations. In principle, there is a trail that runs up from the campground to Mount Slide, which, like Mount Rose is a SOTA peak. Again, if I had the right clothing and gear I might have attempted it, but it just wasn’t going to happen this trip. I settled for the 9000+ foot elevation of the campsite.

The view North, down the slopeI tossed a water bottle with a string into a tree, fired up the FT817nd on internal batteries and tuned up with the Hendricks SLT tuner. Before the Sprint, I worked WW0SS in Minnesota on 2.5W. Everything went faster than I had planned, so I laid down on the picnic bench and basked for a while.

I started searching around just a bit before the sprint to get a sense of band conditions. When the sprint started, I alternated between searching and calling. A number of local signals masked the sprint stations for a while, particularly with the poor selectivity of the ft817 (without a filter). I heard quite a few, some of whom were operating at 5W, while others were true milliwatt (less than 1W) stations.

I kept the rig at 0.5W for the entire event, and although I had two small lead acid batteries in the radio bag, I never had to use them. The 817 was running on fumes by the end of the sprint, but I was glad to see that it could make it through two hours of minimal power operation that had included a lot of calling.

All in all, I had six qsos on 20 and 40m. I reported 5 on the NAQCC sprint page because I wasn’t sure the last qso was complete, but I heard afterwards by email from the other station and confirmed that he had, in fact, correctly copied by call at the end of the contest. I think we gave each others 339 for that contact, and I recall that we needed a lot of repeats due to a mixture of summer weather background sounds, QSB and neighboring signals.

I didn’t come close to winning the sprint or even my category, but I enjoyed the scenery and the chance to sign myself as AI4SV/7.

WV Double Whammy

A few days ago, a troublesome area of the sun rotated earthwards and belched forth a stream of plasma meant to make my weekend challenging. A second coronal mass ejection occurred shortly after, with a higher velocity stream in the direction of Earth. Both shockwaves arrived during the West Virginia QSO Party. This K-index histogram covers the period of the QSO Party up to the point that I returned home.

The WVQSOP runs over the whole weekend, but I was only able to join on Sunday. I knew about the CMEs, but figured that I’d still be able to make a least local contacts. I was also hopeful that as the day progressed, conditions would improve.

Since it was also father’s day, Lara decided to accompany me on my mad drive around WV. I had planned a course through three of the northeastern counties: Morgan, Hampshire and Hardy. Looking over reports from recent years, there were some Morgan entries, but not much for Hampshire and Hardy, which is suprising considering that both are near enough to the Baltimore/Washington corridor that it should be possible for hams from those areas to support the event.

My flight plan took me first to the Capacon Mountain Resort, a state park with some really nice facilities, but most importantly, a road that runs to the top of a 2500+ foot ridge. From the observation parking lot at the top, there is a clear shot east and west.

I set up the Tarheel screwdriver antenna and tuned around on 40m and 20m — I heard almost nothing. I know that the car station works okay — I worked Sardinia and the Virgin Islands last night on the way home from work, and I’ve had lots of DX success with the antenna. After about an hour and a half, I had one CW contact on 20m, and one very surprised voice contact on 40m. The voice contact was at least 58 from New York — he said I was the only station he heard on the air, and the feeling was mutual.

The operating location in Hampshire County wasn’t ideal, so I didn’t spend long there, and logged no contacts. I continued towards the VA border and stopped just short, on top of another ridge to get some contacts in for Hardy county. It was getting towards evening (7 pm local / 23:00Z) and 20m seemed to have some life. I worked two more stations on 40m cw, both in Indiana, and one in Kansas on 20m.  So, at the end of the day, what do I have to show for the effort? Five contacts.

Throughout the entire contest, I didn’t hear one other WV station. I had wondered why I had no logged contacts on LOTW, and only a couple that issued physical QSL cards. The low activity seems to be a combination of the number of hams in WV and their level of participation in this contest. Looking at the past logs, it looks like participants from states outside WV dominate the contest.

I’d  like to revisit the Capacon resort this summer for camping or perhaps for next year’s WV QSO Party. The one change I’d make would be a full size antenna. Even if I were to deploy from a car, I’d consider hanging some sort of wire antenna with a tree support and running the cable to the car. The screwdriver is a versatile antenna, but still physically very short.

For next year’s reference, and for anyone else who works the WV QSO Party, I’ve prepared a reference sheet of the counties in West Virginia in a more friendly format that is found on the event website.

 

New Trick: 6 meters

an old dogThis past weekend was the ARRL’s June VHF Contest, and for the first time, I got on 6 meters. None of the HF rigs in the house handle six meters. On Sunday morning, I did try plugging the Yaesu 817nd into my attic antennas, but I wasn’t able to get any of them to tune up (nor would I have wanted to try QRP through a long, mismatched feed line at 50Mhz).

Just for the heck of it, I tried the radio in my car, a headless version of the Kenwood TS-2000. I knew it would work 6m, but I was doubtful that I’d pick up much using my vertically oriented screwdriver antenna from the parking lot next to the house. That parking lot is surrounded by other houses and is line of sight to nowhere. I knew that weak signal modes use horizontal polarization on VHF, so I figured I’d have a pretty stiff cross-polarization penalty and be down 4-5 S units.

To my surprise, I heard a couple ssb conversations, right where they were supposed to be. Their grid locations were next to mine, but I was happy to hear anything. I cranked up to 100w and worked them without a problem. Next, I spun the dial down to 50.080 and started scanning for CW. I pounced on a few signals, got impatient, and ran a clear frequency for the next fifteen minutes, picking up ten additional contacts.

I had a few errands in the middle of the day, and got back into town around 6 pm. I couldn’t do much about the car antenna’s vertical polarization, but I was able to add some elevation by parking on top of the Fairfax Metro Station parking ramp. In principle, I had line of sight to mountains in the Appalachian chain. The car also has a 2m/70cm gain antenna, and I tuned around in the weak signal portion of those bands, picking up a few more ssb contacts, but no cw. I have a feeling that most people were on 6m and that the cross-polarization was a bigger issue at higher frequency.

SD VA MD IA IL DC PA MN TX WI  QC AB SK

Around 7 pm, the 6-meter band seemed to improve, and I starting hearing Canadian stations. In the next hour or so, I worked three provinces (AB, SK, and QC) and ten US states out as far as MN and TX (see the map). I am sure some of these stations had elaborate antennas, and when they would pan away the signal would drop to nothing.

This experience has convinced me that there might be signs of intelligent life at and above 50 Mhz, and that this would be worth doing again, but with better antennas. One option would be to try this contest next time (June or December) from W3NIH, using the 2M/70cm AZ/EL rotatable antenna and the STEPPR for 6m.  Another option would be to head to the mountains and see if I can put together some yagis (maybe combine it with a SOTA activation?)

In other news, I’ve been travelling a lot for work, so I didn’t write up the CQ WPX CW. I hopped in for part of the second day of the contest and logged 273 contacts. Most were entities that I had worked before, although some were on new bands. I did notice a new entity in the LOTW right after the contest, though: Saba & St. Eustasius. I guess it makes sense that St. Eustatius hears well.

 

Scoping Out Lambs Knoll Summit

a topographic map showing APRS pings from Lambs KnollThere are a limited number of SOTA peaks within a short drive of Washington, DC, and most of them, particularly the ones with zero activations,  are on private property. After spending a little time with the SOTA database, I found one promising peak less than an hour’s drive away: Lambs Knoll,  W3/WE-007. The most attractive feature is that it is located on the Appalachian Trail, and as a plus, it is line of sight to the VWS repeater.

A Google Map view shows that the trail winds back and forth, with a road running up the middle of it towards a facility on the peak. Even in the aerial photo, it is clear that there are two large log periodic antennas on that site, which turns out to be an FAA facility. By some accounts, this facility started as a Cold War continuity of government site (designated Corkscrew), but presumably, it no longer performs that function.

I drove to Fox’s Gap, along Reno Monument Road. Just off the side of the road, there is a dirt parking lot. The monument to General Reno and some historic markers are also there. The road leading to the FAA site is marked “road may close without notice”, but the metal gate somewhat up the road does not look like it has moved in recent times. The Appalachian Trail crosses Reno Monument Road and runs through the parking lot and into the woods.

The white-blaze trail winds through the woods and eventually rises towards a clearing, where large high tension lines run down the hill. The trail then continues for some distance and forks, with a blue trail running level, and the white trail continuing upward. The path becomes increasingly steep and rocky. On the day that I went, I ran into a good number of hikers on this part of the trail. At one point, the trail crosses the road to the FAA facility and then continues upward. From here, the ascent is not so steep, though, and the trail wraps around the facility.

An aerial shot fo two log periodic antennas within the compound
Log Periodic Antennas from Google Maps

At the point that I thought I’d have line of sight to Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, I was successful in hitting the 70cm VWS repeater with my handheld at 5W using my Comet antenna. From that same position (the red dot on the above topopgraphic map), I was able to get acknowledgement to APRS squirts from three digipeaters.

After climbing back down, I drove the access road up to the facility. It is a nicely paved road and winds up the hill. At the point where the power lines cross the road, a fence runs along each side of the road, blocking access to the cleared strip of land under the lines. There are gates in the fences, but they are closed. The Appalachian Trail crosses the road higher up, with some minor signage to indicate the intersection.

At the top of the hill, the road splits with the main facility to the right and an emergency vehicle entrance straight ahead. I did not approach the main entrance, but it looks to be  a remotely-controlled electronic fence, probably with a card reader and some cameras. From the front of the facility, I could not see the log periodic or other recognizable antennas.

To reduce the climb time, one could probably drive up the road, drop operators off, and park the car back near the Reno Monument. Park the car along the side of the road is not a good option. The weakness of this plan is that whomever drove the car either has to wait in the parking lot for a “pick us up” call, or has to hike the whole trail — but it would allow the operators to get into position more quickly and have a longer operating day.

There is no indicate of hours of operation along the trail — it is not a park that closes at night, but it is probably best to tackle it in the day time. There may be some sort of camping along the blue trail, although I’d just drive out for the day.

Sugarloaf & QRPTTF

French Bread Loaf, Copyright © 2004 David MonniauxThe weekend was the QRP TTF event, and this year’s rules favored stations that did double duty as SOTA (summits on the air) stations. The Vienna Wireless Society made its annual pilgrimage to Glyndon Park in Vienna, Virginia, and I was sorely tempted to hang out there and partake in the barbecuage. However, the SOTA bug still had its fangs in me, so I headed to Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland, or in SOTA terms peak W3/CR-003.

Sugarloaf Mountain is in private hands, but the land owners have opened it up for public use. The lone peak rises prominently above the surrounding farmland. Access is not bad at all — there is a road that runs up the mountain, with three parking lots providing views to the West, East, and South (towards the Potomac River). I had downloaded a trail map from the Sugarloaf website and decided to approach the summit from the Western Overlook.

The path up is well maintained, and consists predominantly of stone stairs. There’s a handrail at the steepest parts. Little kids were running up and down the stairs, impatient for the adults. I took a few breathers on the way up, but it wasn’t too bad a climb, even with equipment.

When I got up there, I found a slanting rock at the very top and made it my base. Being on the edge of the Washington Metro area (and perhaps the Southern edge of the Baltimore region), there were lots of visitors, some who watched with amusement as I tossed soda bottles with strings into the trees, and others who asked me questions about the hobby.

I set up the 20m station first, a TenTec 1320, which I had built from a kit three years ago, plus a longwire antenna and the Hendricks SLT+ tuner. The usual. Later in the day, I put up a longer wire antenna and brought out the 40m Rockmite.

Once at the top, I checked into the club via the 2m repeater, but found that the 440 was quieter. I had brought along a homemade yagi that I had used on the FM sats last year; I’m not sure it helped that much. Ian, N0IMB spotted me on the SOTA site, and that led to a short flurry of contacts on 20m.

Shortly after the first contact, there was a brief hail storm with tiny pebbly hail. I covered everything in the plastic that I had brought along, but luckily the storm did not convert to rain, and weather remained cool but clear for the rest of the day.

I set up my VX-8GR hand held on the summit, and used it to post my current frequency and coordinates via APRS. I heard confirmation tones from at least three digipeaters, but I’m not sure if anyone actually used this information to find me on HF.

My first contact, W7CNL was nice enough to spot me on 20m, and later N4EX did the same on 40. I was pleased to work three members of the Vienna Wireless Society, including Kevin WB0POH, who was operating the club station K4HTA at Glyndon Park. He later told me that he was trying out Tom N4ZPT’s new KX3. The signal was paperthin and went in and out, but we managed to complete the call. Later, I had a clear QSO with Jake, N4UY who was using an attic antenna and putting out 2W on a GM20 transceiver.  Finally, I worked Ray Albers, K2HYD from his home in North Carolina on the Rockmite.

My longest distance contact was G4ELZ Jeff from the UK. The rest of the 20m contacts were west coast US, TX/OK, or Florida. The total for the day was 22 worked on 20m QRP, and four more on 40m QRPp.  Looking over the log, I worked the following states: NJ, OH, NC, PA, NY, AL, OK, TX, FL, MI, MD, VA, OR and ID. Florida was disproportionately represented in the log because I worked a few FQP stations. I also worked a number of QRPTTF stations, plus one summit-to-summit contact with AA5CK on W5/QA-008 in Oklahoma.

I was glad to get the rockmite out for some exercise. I’ve now worked about 30 station with it, corresponding to six states. It was a rough ride with the rockmite due to lack of selectivity, and I appreciate the work of the other stations in pullings its signal out.

I stopped working on 40m when the clouds grew dark, and on my way through the parking lot back to the car, the storm broke. I avoided getting drenched by about ten minutes.

Signal Mountain Activated

some rocks
The peak of signal mountain. Photo taken from our operating position, looking north.

Our visit to Signal Mountain, Virginia was successful, and summit W4/SH-049 has been activated for the first time (and perhaps the only time for the forseeable future).  We made a total of 19 QSOs, which we thought was reasonable for our first  SOTA activiation (and not really knowing what we were doing).

On the morning of April 14, 2012, I met up with Ian N0IMB and we drove out to the site. A Google Map query for “Signal Mountain, Virginia” puts an arrow right on the summit, and there is a road all the way to the top. That road is silky smooth, but the residential road that leads to it is a couple miles of gravel and dust.  We drove in and parked about just after the sharp bend in the road. According to the terrain feature on Google Maps, this put us a couple hundred feet from the summit.

I unpacked Dolly, who in this case was not a cloned sheep, but an old furniture dolly that I have used since college every time I change dwellings. Most of the equipment went into a milk crate that was bungeed to Dolly. Given the road access, we didn’t pack particularly lightly — folding camp chairs, some folding TV tables to work on, and a couple bags of equipment and snacks. As peaks go, this was a pleasure cruise.

I led Dolly up the slope, pulling on her leash, and Ian lugged the rest of the equipment. The road continues past the peak to a fenced government facility, but we stopped at the peak and headed eastward up a gentle slope into the woods. When we got to the actual stony peak, Ian found a nice place to erect the buddipole tripod, and I set up the radios.

The buddy pole went up quickly, and we played with the counterpoise until we arrived at a 1:1 SWR on 20m (Ian made me take a picture of the MFJ tuner as evidence!). We tuned around on 20m and quickly came to the realization that our stated operating frequency was just wishful thinking. The band was humming from one end to the other with QSO Party activity. We tried working a few of the NM QSOP stations, but although they were thundering in, they could not hear the 5W the Yaesu 817d was putting out. CW was a bit better, but the stock filtering on the 817d was relatively wide.

We decided that before we really set up shop, it would make more sense to put the antenna on 17m and see if we couldn’t get out better without all the background chatter. The buddipole retuned quickly, and we were soon on the air. Our first contact was Mike KE5AKL from NM, which is quite fitting since he was the first station that I had worked as a chaser, the day before.

After that, we worked a succession of stations, some with callsigns that I recognized. The TenTec 1320 sitting next to me in my bag had, for instance, been modified according to instructions that I had found on the website of our third contact, Scott W5ESE. Two contacts, Bob WB4KLJ and John AF4PD, were from our local club, the Vienna Wireless Society, and must have been working us direct from 25 miles to the east.   Jonathan AK4NL was also a very close contact, being located on Bull Run Mountain. Our stateside contacts on 17m included VA, CO, ID, NM, TX and OR.

We were very glad to make contacts with England (G4OBK), Scotland (MM0USU), and Germany (DJ5AV).  We are particularly grateful to Phil G4OBK, who stayed on frequency after working us, followed us up frequency when we had QRM, and warned off a station who was about to transmit on top of us. The other station likely could not hear our puny signal, but could copy the solid transmission coming from across the pond.

Around three in the afternoon, we switched to 40m. It was a little more involved to move the buddipole to 40m, but we finally got a reasonable match.  Predictably, on daytime 40m, we worked primarily the US east coast: PA, VA, MA, NJ, and NY.

We had intended to work until about 6 pm, but stopped early, because we were informed that the access road was being closed up at 4 pm. In talking with some guys from the facility, who turned out to be communications professionals, we learned that the facility houses some sensitive radio equipment. Although our signals did not cause any sort of interference, we agreed that we would recommend that others not work this summit, even at QRP levels.

We learned a number of lessons from our first activation, and here are the ones I can remember:

  • It is okay, indeed encouraged, to self-spot. We had so-so cellular connectivity, but in the future, getting the word out will include spotting on sotawatch, qrpspots, and via twitter.
  • Less equipment is better. We did not use the G5RV or the TenTec 1320; while there is some value in being prepared and having redundant equipment, if I had to carry the extra gear up a more challenging slope, I would not have been a happy camper.
  • The WARC bands are your friends. Ian and I both like 17 meters. If I had to pick one band, that would be it.
  • We had originally not planned to work 40m in the middle of the day, but the east coast US hams were grateful to hear us, so I’d factor that in next time, and try to split operation between local and more DX stations.
  • Our pre-posted operating frequencies went right out the window. Also, we had too many of them. It probably isn’t practical to work more than a couple bands on a given activation.
  • 5W on voice is difficult, but still worth it – when we did connect wth other stations, most of the time we received fairly good reports, and on our end, the other stations were loud.
  • For CW, I’d prefer a radio with better filtering (or maybe a modded 817).

 

SOTA: Signal Mountain, April 14

A snow-covered mountainIan, N0IMB, and I will attempt to activate Signal Mountain, Virginia as a Summit On The Air (SOTA)  on Saturday, April 14, 2012. Signal Mountain is less than an hour’s drive from my house, and with a name like Signal Mountain, it seems the natural choice. Strangely, for being so close to a metropolitan center, according to the SOTA database,  this “peak”  has never been activated.

Signal Mountain, SOTA designator W4/SH-049,  is a 416 m tall peak located at Long -77.7033 by  Lat 38.8816 degrees.  Conveniently, judging by a google map view of the site, a road runs up to the top, although by SOTA rules, we’ll park some ways down the road and lug the equipment to the top. We don’t have mules, but we do have a hand-truck and/or a furniture dolly, so we plan not to break our backs carting the equipment up the hill. While this may not sound very adventurous for more experienced SOTA enthusiasts, this is our first activation, so we are trying to keep it simple. One side benefit is that we’ll have a stronger signal: one item we are lugging will be a gas-powered generator, and we will be transmitting at 100W. [edited: Correction – it was pointed out by a more experienced SOTA-er that this would violate SOTA guidelines – no fossil fuel generators. Well, that’s fine with us, too. We’ll use storage cells, perhaps supplemented with a bit of solar if we can put our hands on the right equipment quickly enough. This means we will not be transmitting at 100W, or at least not for long stretches. Most of my gear is QRP already, so this isn’t a big adjustment. We’ll just talk louder :-)]  Rigs will be a Yaesu FT-817 and a TenTec 1320.

Operating Plan:

We will be operating under the call sign N0IMB from 16:00Z to 22:00Z on 14 April 2012. In local time, that is noon to 6 pm. Local sunset is 7:45 pm, so we should would like to pack up while we can see what we are doing.

We will operate voice from the top of each hour to forty-five minutes past, and then switch to CW for the last fifteen minutes. Typically, we will exchange a signal report, the name of the operator, and the SOTA designator.

Generally, we’ll stick to the following center frequencies. If these frequencies are busy, look for us up or down a bit:

Band CW Freq SSB Freq
40 7.027 7.187
30 10.127 cw only
20 14.027 14.277
17 18.077 18.127
15  21.027 21.287
12  24.897 24.947
10 28.027 28.487

We picked these frequencies after looking over the operating plans for other events on the same day (such as the various state QSO parties, the QCWA QSO party, etc.) as well as international band allocations. We may try 40m early in the day before strong absorbtion sets in, but then we’ll move to the higher frequencies. We are likely to spend the lionshare of the activation on 17 and 20m. In the last couple hours, we may try 30m. We will not be operation above 50Mhz for this event. [Note: Another update – to accomodate the US band plan, we have tweaked the center frequencies from the original posting, the three affected voice frequencies are highlighted in red.]

If anyone hears use, we’d sure appreciate being spotted so other people can find us! I think we will have cellular connectivity from the site, so we will also post our band changes via twitter (@dhakajack, with the hash tag #signalmt). My twitter account feeds to this website (http://blog.templaro.com), so the tweets will be visible in the right column in the desktop view. We will not post via twitter or SMS to qrpspots since we will be working barefoot for most of the event.

March contesting

I had a great run in the March NAQCC sprint, a two hour QRP CW sprint that encourages the use of straight keys.  I am surprised (but pleased) to see that I took the top position in the W4 division for simple wire antennas. I think this speaks to good conditions where I was operating, luck in hitting so many multipliers, and the absence of other stations that typically score very well (K4ORD and others).  I know that several of the contestors, e.g., K4BAI, were already preparing for their CQ WW WPX runs,  so that might explain the absence of some of the regulars.

Speaking of CQ WW WPX…

S line station, tuner, swr meter, paper log
Upper book: antenna tuner settings; lower book: the contest log.

With a 100W station and a couple fixed antennas in my attic, I’m not much of a threat to the CQ WW WPX establishment, but I thought I’d give it an “old school” try this time.  Instead of working the contest with my workhorse Kenwood TS-450, I fired up the Collins S-line station. With the recently acquired Heathkit SA-2040 antenna tuner and the TenTec 1225 SWR meter to keep an eye on things, I had enough flexibility to work all the bands.

I had a number of other things to do over the weekend, so I put in about four hours in the contest. I went full manual — not even computer logging, just some sheets of graph paper. I worked 136 contacts, three of which were dupes (the paper-only method leaves something to be desired in terms of real time dupe checking).

According to my log, I worked the following DXCC entitites: Aland Island (Finland), Asiatic Russia, Belarus, Belgium, Bonaire, Curacao, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada,Canary Islands, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Dominican Republic, England, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Madeira Island, Montenegro, Morocco, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, the USA, Virgin Islands, and Wales.

The rigs worked flawlessly, and the warm sound was pleasant. I did a lot of repeating, and surely my signal was not very strong compared to most, but it got the job done.

Shopping in Brussels: Composants Electroniques et Jeux de Société

Overexposed picture showing conjunction of venus and jupiter above the grande place
Conjunction of Venus and Jupiter above the Grande Place

I had a couple hours on Friday to do a little shopping before meeting up with friends for dinner in Brussels. We had planned to eat near St. Catherine’s, so I took the metro there a bit early. My first goal was Elak’s electronics, which is one of the best hobby electronics stores on the planet, as far as I’m concerned. Part of the store is given over to computer components, but the rest of the store is discrete components: walls of switches, transformers, project boxes, batteries, etc. There is a center counter area where they maintain an impressive assortment of ICs as well. They carry the entire velleman kit line, plus related accessories.

The only drawback to the store is that it is in a corner of Brussels where the streets do not conform to any sort of rectilinear plan. I always get lost trying to find the store, and having a Google map in hand only makes things worse. It is like that part of Brussels does not obey the normal rules of time and space. Sometimes I try to get to it from the De Brokère metro, sometimes from Ste. Cathérine’s, but no matter what, I end up getting spun around and asking directions. When I get there and think about the path I took it all makes sense, but as soon as I leave, the store randomly pops up in some other universe.

External view of Elak ElectronicsAt least I can recognize the outside of the store when I do find it: the wall next to it has a mural with an elephant and a gorilla. The other place that has a reasonable selection of more common components is MB Tronics. When I last visited them, they had a storefront on Chausée de Louvain not far from the Meiser traffic circle, but I believe they’ve moved the store in the last year a couple blocks to the east. MB’s store hours are not quite as fixed as Elak’s, and the store does shut down during part of the summer for vacation, so Elak’s is always a safer bet.

I ended up buying a set of machine screws and a package of assorted ceramic disc capacitors. I’ve bought this screw set before, and had used them up making various projects. The screws are just the right size for most small projects, particularly the kind that you build in an altoids tin. The capacitor assortment is much better than you can find at Radio Shack. The Radio Shack bag-o-capacitors is full of unhelpfully small value components, whereas the Velleman-brand assortment has a full range (in searching the web, I note that they are also sold by Fry’s Electronics stateside). I am sure that these caps are not top-of-the-line low variance components, but they are great for prototyping.

External shot of Wonderland windowOn the way back to the restaurant, I stopped by a game shop, Wonderland, that is only a few minute walk from Elak’s. This store sells primarily  French language versions of “Euro” table top games: Settlers of Catan, Dominion, Carcassonne, etc.  I don’t think that I saw any Z-man or Rio Grande games, but that’s not a criticism as the store wouldn’t have had room for them. The games were predominantly board rather than card, and I wish I had had more time to look through their inventory. Next time I visit the store, I’ll make sure I have more time, and I will also be sure to have more room in my suitcase. They get extra credit for having zombie dice on the counter. While I’m certainly loyal to my local supplier (Area 42 Games), Wonderland may carry some games that haven’t made it over the Atlantic yet.

Winterfest 2012

SA-2040 tuner: two big capacitor knobs, one central roller inductor knob, a turn counter and a knob to select output

At the end of February, the Vienna Wireless Society held its annual hamfest, Winterfest, and this partially accounts for my absence of blog entries in recent months, as I was coordinator for the event. We had more than 100 vendors in our indoor area, another 40 in our tailgating space, and about 700 people were attracted to the event. I could go on at length about the event, and maybe I will at some point, but for now I’d like to post about the items that I picked up at the event. I’ve mentioned my acquisitions to a couple friends and want to show some pictures.

As soon as the event opened, my eyes landed on a Heathkit SA-2040 Tuner. I have an LDG AT100Pro automatic tuner and it does a great job, but for the Collins gear, I wanted a fully manual tuner. The automatic tuner makes excursions in and out of good match, and I just don’t want to subject the finals of the S-line equipment to variable and out-of-range vSWRs. I’d rather map out the setting for the band segments that I use and then manually adjust.

I had, in fact, been looking for a few months at several models of manual antenna tuner on ebay, eham, and the other usual places. The SA-2040 was high on my list. Typically they run over $100, plus shipping. When I found one at Winterfest, I was happy to see that it was less than $100, in good shape, and already had the modifications that I was considering — a knob with a thumb wheel on the roller inductor, a switch to select multiple coax outputs, and a switch that takes the input to ground. I had a lot of administrative work to do at Winterfest, so I bought it as soon as the event opened and stuck it in my car for the day.

An overhead shot of the internal workings of the SA-2040

When I got home, I took a look inside it. Truthfully, when I got home, I crashed on the couch for the day and didn’t get around to looking inside the tuner for a few days, but either way, I did look inside, and saw that it’s in fine shape. The roller inductor and capacitors are heavy duty and in pristine condition, with no evidence of arcing. The modifications look solid, and I couldn’t spot anything troubling. I screwed it back together and then started trying to figure out how I could possibly fit it on my bench.

The SA-2040 does not have an SWR meter, so I needed one. Luckily, I had ordered one several months ago from Ten-Tec as a kit: the 1225 SWR/Wattmeter. I had a good experience putting together the model 1320 QRP transceiver from Ten-Tec, and it has held up well as I’ve lugged it all over the world making contacts. The SWR kit was also a first-class affair — packed well, parts grouped meaningfully in several bags, all parts present with appropriate excess on wire, and a great manual. The wattmeter consists of a metal cabinet, a large cross-needle display, a range switch, and the option of average or peak-reading for both forward and reverse power.

Front view of the TenTec 1225 wattmeter, with meter illuminated in blue

The organization of the manual was excellent, with the usual check it and then check it again double column for checking off completed steps. There was no ambiguity in the instructions, all the landmarks were obvious, and I didn’t need to do any sort of clever interpretation or fall back on the internet to find exceptions, modifications, etc.

Calibration requires no equipment beyond a digital VOM. One trimmer pot controls internal reference voltage, and other pots are used to set the forward/reverse fudge factors for each power range. Having built the WM-2 QRP watt meter, I’d say that this one was slightly easier to calibrate. This SWR meter was a more complex build with more parts and more mechanical connections, but that is commensurate with its additional features (and I’m certainly keeping the WM-2 as well).

So, the 1225 Wattmeter was assembled over the last week and is now inserted inline between whatever rig I’m using (the first coax switch) and whatever antenna is selected (second coax switch). One fun feature of the 1225 is the RGB backlight, which can be adjusted to any color with trimmer pots. I’ve set mine to a dark blue.

TRS-80 model 100 and manualThe other item I bought was not radio equipment. Near the end of the hamfest, I walked by a table and saw a TRS80-Model 100 “laptop” computer. I’ve always thought this computer was way ahead of its time, and that it represented an important milestone in engineering, so when I saw one marked down to $50, I bought it.

This computer is powered either by wall wart or four AA batteries, has a full keyboard, boots instantly, and has a number of I/O ports including an RS-232 and the venerable S100 bus. I verified that this one is fully operational. I’m not sure exactly what I’ll do with it, but I think it was a good purchase.