Setting Up Shop

So far, the most difficult part of setting up an amateur radio station in Madagascar has been not being in Madagascar. Since I cover cancer programs through subsaharan Africa (and sometimes other places), I knew I’d be in for significant amounts of travel, but in the last two months, I feel like I’ve spent more time in the air than on the ground. Unfortunately, I haven’t had much time to arrange licensing or to set up portable stations while on the road, but as I get more familiar with some of the locations, particularly CEPT signatories like South Africa, I’m hoping to combine travel and operating. A longer term goal, though, is to make Madagascar my base of operations.

My major shipment from the US finally arrived in mid-November, after three months in transit, but I didn’t have a chance to dive into boxes until the third week of the month, just before the Thanksgiving holiday. As usual, not everything got sent to the right place: I ended up with some vintage Collins gear that I would much rather have sitting high and dry in a storage warehouse in the US versus transiting the Atlantic in crate and now sitting in tropical Madagascar. Conversely, my old tektronix analogue oscilloscope is in that warehouse, rather than with me. I suppose that just gives me leave to order a Rigol digital scope some time in the next year. Most of the other items that I had meant to ship did arrive, although it took me a while to locate them in boxes inside boxes.

The many boxes of radios, components, antenna bits, etc., piled up in the dining room had to be cleared to make way for the Thanksgiving dinner that we hosted for some other expat families and kids from the American School. The logical place to put the boxes was the garage, which I have had my eye on for a while as a potential workshop. The entrance to the garage is too low to accommodate our car, particularly with the car’s roof rack in place, so I think I am safe in laying claim to the garage, which provides a sizable workspace, has fluorescent lighting, and even has a couple power outlets.

This is after clean-up; initially, the wood was jumbled in a big pile and the blue tool box was hidden underneath in a corner.
This is after clean-up; initially, the wood was jumbled in a big pile and the blue tool box was hidden underneath in a corner.

The only drawback to the garage is that it is located at the lower end of our driveway.  Gutters draining the driveway and the adjoining garden all run towards the garage. There is a drain grate right in front of the garage, so in principle, all the water runs into the drain. In practice, however, the first half meter beyond the garage door is wet after a rain. Not just wet, but sort of muddy, with fine red silt.  I can imagine that this will only get worse as we get further into the rainy season. Some small amount of water also comes in through the ventilation holes at the side and rear, but these holes slope down and outward, and are not really a problem.

When I opened up the garage after getting back to Madagascar, the first thing I saw was piles of wood — the crates left over from the shipping process. I had asked my wife to hang onto the wood because I figured it would be useful for something. It looks like that use will be as flooring, to keep materials high and dry despite the rain. The crates consist about 1.2m x 2.4m x about 1 cm thick panels framed with two-by-fours. The sides that formed the bottom also have about 10 cm risers. I have laid these out of the floor along the sides of the room and that was good enough to keep the boxes off the floor while I figured out what to do next.

The plywood is not really thick enough to be a floor. When I walk on areas that are not directly supported, it sags and creaks ominously. However, I have many more 1.2m x 2.4m and 1.2m square panels, so I think I can fix that by doubling it up. My currently plan is to frame out the whole floor, and nail the whole thing together with double-thickness plywood. I’ll nail on the upper layer in a different direction that the lower layer, which should make it stronger and will also allow me to avoid cracks. It would be nice to have something to put over the plywood — indoor/outdoor carpet? Linoleum? I’ll have to see what is available locally, but for now, I’ll just be sure to wear shoes in there.

IMG_20141127_130806This project is going to require at least one tool that I don’t have — a circular saw to cut up the plywood. There is no difficulty in finding brand name commercial grade circular saws in Madagascar: Maketa, Bosch, and others. I had my eye on a Bosch GKS 190, but the price tag at Mr. Bricolage was high: 793,500 Ariary (at about 2600 Ariary/USD, that’s $305). However, I just found one in South Africa for 1822 Rand (at 10.9 ZAR/USD, about $167). Now…let’s hope I can get this saw back from Cape Town to Mada. I guess I’ll have to check the bag since it has a saw blade in it. Hope the saw does not disappear as the bag transits OR Tambo International Airport in Jberg. I never have felt like I needed to cling wrap a bag before, but I think I’ll make an exception for JNB given its reputation for baggage pilfering. [Note added in proof: I did cling-wrap the suitcase and can report that the saw made it safely back to Madagascar. 60 rand well spent, I think.]

So, the garage floor is project number one, but project number zero will have to be making some saw horses so I have something to saw on top of. That sounds like circular [saw] logic, but it does make sense to me. Some, some of the two-by-fours from the crates will become a pair of saw horses. If I have wood left, I suppose it may go into shelving of some form. I have an Ikea table (shown in the picture, above) that I have used as a soldering station, but I may also opt to add some bench space. If so, I probably won’t use the low grade paneling, but would go for something sturdier and more finished from one of the local brico stores.

Now, as for the station itself, it will be located in the house proper. I’ve had roughly the same station layout in Vienna VA, Brussels, and Fairfax VA. The radios are laid out on a two Ikea desks and a short storage unit, all of which are made from pine, are of the same height, and look well together. I’ve disassembled and reassembled them so many times, I can almost do it in my sleep, which proved useful this time, as the moving folks helped me by consolidating all the bits and pieces of pine furniture into one big pile. Desks, storage unit, shelving, chairs, etc., one nice big pile of pine and hardware. That was fun.

The windows in the room are hinged, and I had planned to remove one entire window and substitute a wood sheet that would be hung on the same hinges. However, in tapping on the wall, I noticed that there is a panel that leads to what used to be an air duct right under the window. I’ve now revised my plan to put a painted wood panel outside that duct with a stainless steel feedthrough plate. Conveniently, the house’s electrical ground is right next to that duct, so I can ground the plate with a very short run of ribbon cable. Incoming antennas will feed through the plate, with patch cords running interiorly up to an inside panel. Inside the shack, another wood panel will support three antenna switches, which will allow me to switch the hex-beam to one of several radios in the shack. When I’m not operating (and weather is not threatening), I’d like to route it to an SDR receiver for CW skimming.

The long term plan for mounting the hexbeam on a telescoping mast anchored in the back yard.
The long term plan for mounting the hexbeam on a telescoping mast anchored in the back yard.

Another switch will select between a few different antennas, none of which are in place yet. Antennas that are a possibility in the future: a G5RV, an 80m dipole, the 80m backyard vertical that I had up in Fairfax, and possibly a dedicated 6m antenna. These feeds would go to the antenna #2 input on rigs that have that feature. Finally, I’d like to feed through 2m and 70cm Lindenblad antennas directly to the TS2000 for satellite work. I have to make those antennas first, though. The TS2000 has independent antenna inputs for those two bands.

I’m not sure which antenna will go up first. The easiest would probably be the G5RV. My only concern about dipoles is that I would need to shoot a line through a supporting tree from my neighbor’s back yard – and I don’t know my neighbor yet. Thanks to high walls around everyone’s property, it’s not easy to meet your neighbors. Knocking on the door and asking to shoot something from their backyard seems like a tall order for our first conversation.

The hex beam is still packed up. I don’t have the telescoping mast from spider beam because it took them so long to ship it that I wasn’t able to carry it back as luggage after my most recent visit to the US. For now, I am considering mounting the antenna temporarily on a support that extends from the house’s chimney. With one guy ring near the top, I think it would have good stability until I manage to get the telescoping mast to Madagascar. For now, I’ll omit the rotor and just aim it generally in the direction of Europe. If I get tired of Europe, I can manually rotate it around towards Asia at some point.

Unless I can find someone else who wants to lug the meter-and-a-half antenna to Madagascar, I probably won’t have a chance to carry it back here until June. When it is time to install the telescoping mast, I anticipate installing a supporting four-by-four beam in concrete behind the house. That beam will support shelves for the rotor and a thrust bearing. The antenna will also be supported by two tiers of guy ropes. At least that’s the plan.

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