All posts tagged HAM

We’re all supposed to get along right? Sharing the same space, in this case amateur radio bands, in an atmosphere of respect and friendship… Until a contest is on. A Ham contest, for those who don’t know about them, is a weird hobby, a bit like train or plane spotting. People get on the air and make as many contacts as possible over a week-end. A contact lasts only a few seconds, just an exchange of call signs, and that’s it. There is no conversation taking place. There is no human interraction, so to speak. If that was all there was to it, it would be fine. People do what they want, it’s none of my business. Until their hobby is infringing on mine that is. Infringing in this case is too light a word. Until it obliterates mine for a whole week-end that is. They do this regularly.

Contesters think absolutely everyone loves contests and participates. So they park themelves on calling frequencies regularly used for low-power operations and call every few seconds for hours-on-end using hundreds of Watts, trampling on every other signal. It’s a contest, a free-for-all Roman arena, and damned be anyone who want to chat with their friends or make new ones using a respectful few Watts of power. They drool over their microphones or Morse key with bloodshot eyes. They need those points to win a new plaque or certificate for their trophy room. If the Ham radio contest was a touring rally, they’d run pedestrians over with their cars.

You would think contest organizers would police, or at least educate their members, but no. Because contest organizers are also contesters. The biggest culprit is the ARRL. Their station, W1AW monopolizes QRP (low-power) calling frequencies for hours with incessant calling using high power, and damned be anybody else. They to this all the time outside contests. How could we expect them to police contests? They even broadcast their Morse code practice daily on multiple bands. While I think that is actually useful, although I wish they used classic books instead of technical articles, it is against the law. But the ARRL is above that. Why should they worry about mere mortal radio operators using little home-built radios not manufactured by their corporate sponsors?

Contesters will also say that non-participants can go the the WARC bands, 30, 17 and 12m. Well, not everyone has those or an antenna to accomodate them. Don’t piss on me and tell me it’s raining. Why don’t we have one contesting band and you guys can all go to it where you won’t bother everybody else? How does that sound? They also say contesting is the Godsent gift to Ham radio. As if amateur radio would collapse without them. I don’t think so. I was also told “if you can’t beat them, join them.” Nope, not going to happen. Just like I wouldn’t sit outside an airport writing down airplane tail numbers all day or go to a cross-dressing furry swinger’s party… Not my cup of tea, although I’d choose the furry party over a Ham contest any day. To me, contests are pointless and weird, and that’s it, so no, I won’t participate, I’d rather watch paint dry.

Bottom line is, when a contest is on, way too often, I might as well go fishing or something, because turning my itty-bitty radio on is as productive as pissing in a violin. The lack of respect is appaling. There isn’t a wide enough stretch of frequency left free of pollution for long enough for me to contact, let alone chat with anyone.

You want to enjoy your contesting hobby? Fine with me. Just don’t keep me out of mine to enjoy yours.

I don’t mean don’t become a Ham! Amateur Radio is a great hobby and asset in emergency situations. Most newcomers go for the first and easiest license, Technician. I think it is a mistake. Technician privileges suck, excuse my French. They allow access mainly to VHF and UHF bands which depending on location can be pretty boring. Most new Ham’s first contact will be signing into a “net.” They’ll give their call-sign, get a welcome, and that is it. After that, maybe a few conversations about nothing. The first time I listened to the 2m band I heard some guy explaining how he had fixed his toilet.. Except for the occasional gem, it hasn’t gotten much better than that. Newbies buy a handheld with its little stubby antenna and get disappointed, of course.. Many will quit right then. There is more to amateur radio than a Tech license and a walkie talkie.

Ham & Wine

Ham & Wine

When I suggest to someone that they should give Ham radio a try, I always insist that they go for the General license, at least. While the Technician license allows the use of a few small portions of HF bands for Morse code and a bit of SSB voice on 10m, few take advantage of it. The General license however opens the door to a vast section of HF, which means global coverage even with the simplest radio. General isn’t difficult. With just a little bit more studying, anyone who can pass the Tech exam should pass General. The “Extra” license is harder, but still reachable by most. I passed all three in one session, so can you. Take your time and study hard, it’s worth the effort.

It has been a very long time since my last post; about nine months actually. I had even taken my blog down. The end of 2012 was not a good time for me, with the end of a relationship I though was going to be it. It nearly killed me, literally. I lost 20Lbs in a few weeks and ended-up in the emergency room. Fortunately the money I had saved for an engagement ring (I never got to ask) helped me survive the end of the year. I would have gladly broken my other femur rather than go thought that. But you don’t need or want to hear about it.. I am doing better now, but for a stomach ulcer that came back with a vengeance. During these dark few months, I simply had nothing to post, and certainly didn’t feel like it.

Ham radio did give me something to think about and keep my mind occupied. I built more kits and got better at Morse code. It was therapy in a sense. A recent week-long camping trip completed my recovery, sort of.

Dagny is gone. Someone ransacked the boat and cut out all the bronze ports, stole the chain and anchor, anchor winch and everything else of value on the boat. In the end, it wasn’t worth it anymore for me to try to salvage what was left.

The Hornet gyroplane project is on hold. It has to take second place now to a more important and useful project. I have not given up on it. It will just have to wait. I did sell the engine unfortunately (along with my beloved guitar and my planenews.com site. None of these can be replaced.) to buy that ring. What a waste.

Life goes on.. I need to take care of my health and decide where to go from here. I am thinking about either leaving the United States, or moving to another state. The way things are going around here, option one might be better. We’ll see. Bottom line is, something has to change.

It’s alive! After three hair-pulling days, the radio finally works. I received the box on Thursday night; no time then to start, but I got to it after my daily work session on Friday. Late that night, I had completed the filter board, one of the three circuit boards.

I must here explain what an Elecraft K1 is.. Though it sounds like some fighter plane name, it is a receiver/transmitter (a “transceiver”) which transmits, and receives CW (Continuous Wave) Aka “Morse Code.” It is very small, and covers up to four Ham radio bands. Mine has two, 40 (7Mhz) and 20 meter (14Mhz). The power output is fairly low (7 Watts), but that is sufficient to bounce your signal around the earth.. Imagine seeing a 7 Watts light bulb thousands of miles away! Somehow, it works. CW punches through further than “phone” (voice). The K1 is in a class of radios called “QRP,” meaning low power, usually 5 to 10 Watts. It is only sold as a kit, so if you want one, you must build it, or find a used one.. I chose to build it..

Elecraft K1

Elecraft K1

I don’t understand the fear about winding toroids. I find it very easy and relaxing; it hurts much less than it sounds. All you have to do is count how many times you thread a wire through a ferrite core. How easier can it be? Then, you burn the enamel off the leads with a lighter, clean them up with your snipping tool, and solder.. I was very exited that night about the project. I thought it would be a walk in the park.. Not quite..

The front panel was next. The only difficulty there was soldering the LCD display. Attaching the wires to the ten-turn potentiometer also required some dexterity. About wires.. There are very few in the K1 kit: The potentiometer lead wires, speaker wire, and one coax jumper on the back of the board, that’s it. Everything else is connectors. I like that. Soldering wires is always a pain in the butt.

The RF board was the biggest and longest one to build. It took me from around 10-am on Saturday to about 2:30-am on Sunday to complete it! And it didn’t work! In retrospect, I should have only completed the receiver part that day, leaving the transmitter for Sunday. When tired, your brain plays tricks on you, and you make mistakes. Everything went fine with the receiver. I heard static when I turned the K1 on, no smoke. After tuning the receiver and plugging-in a long wire, I was listening to CW on both bands. I was exhausted, but proceeded with the transmitter side. It was 9-pm already, eleven hours of looking at tiny components, placing and soldering them.. Then came the time to test voltages on the RF board. Nothing on U8! Shit! Excuse my French.. That wasn’t good. I nevertheless plugged-in the filter board to test power output. Nothing.. Followed about an hour of tinkering, swearing, manual-reading, head scratching shenanigans, of which I remember almost nothing (I had been working on it for 15 hours straight). I rewound the bi-filar transformer, reheated solder pads both on the filter and RF boards, zilch! Then I gave up, and decided to complete the build for the heck of it, and call Elecraft in the morning. Yet, after putting the speaker in and closing the box, I tried again. Power on 40m! Not on 20.. Ah.. Back to it (2-am).. I think I transmitted without a dummy load and no antenna a couple times by the way, I was so tired. Anyway, I have no idea what did it, but after countless little troubleshooting steps, and more tuning of the filter board, I finally got output power on both bands. I packed it up and went to bed with a headache and slight twitching..

Elecraft K1 inside

Elecraft K1 inside

Comes Sunday morning, I had a working K1! The only peculiar thing left to investigate is some power fluctuation.. If I set the maximum output to 2 Watts, the watt meter shows 2W at first, but then slowly climbs to 2.8. I am guessing that the final transistor produces more gain as it warms up.. I even produced about 10W tuning the filter board before the output suddenly dropped! Weird.. After tuning the filter board on receive, things are a bit more stable, still with quite a power increase as transmit time increases.. It shouldn’t occur producing CW though, as this was transmitting a continuous tone in tuning mode. We’ll see..

I spent Sunday evening listening to CW outside, with a wire strung horizontally (20ft maybe) about five feet from the ground; the worst possible antenna. Still, it was easy to pick-up signals. I even heard a guy saying he was on a sailboat, and retired three years ago (I have a Morse decoder app on my iPod!).

The Elecraft K1 kit is of very high quality; much better than any other kit I have seen so far (five). Everything fits perfectly, nothing was missing. I even had much needed left-over screws (I spilled them all on the garage floor).. The box looks great, and the way the circuit boards are positioned and fastened is brilliant. I will order the automatic antenna tuner and add it in soon. For now though, I need to finish learning code, then I’ll go for the General Ham license (CW is no longer required). The K1 was the right choice, at the right price. You get a lot for your money. It might not seem so when you buy the kit, but after building it, I find it very affordable.

To anyone contemplating building one, go for it! Build a couple kits first, like a Small-Wonder-Labs Rock-Mite, and a SOTA tuner from qrpkits.com, and you’ll be well on your way. Moreover, you can test the Elecraft receiver with the Rock-Mite! Get 50ft. of wire from Home Depot for the SOTA tuner, and you’ll be all set. Follow the manual EXACTLY. Don’t skip ahead, read every line! Double-check everything. Most importantly, don’t do what I did. That was stupid. Take your time. If you feel tired or stressed, stop, rest, and don’t get back to it until much later. I was very lucky that I didn’t fry anything. Not to mention the stress and lack of sleep.. Not a healthy way to spend a week-end..

In the mean time, like they say over there, “Everything is fine in the best of worlds.” I am a happy, proud builder and owner of an Elecraft K1. The satisfaction of building something that complex with your own hands is priceless..

After my semi-success with the DC20B, I decided to tackle the Rock-Mite from Small Wonder Labs. I also got the Mighty Box. The kit is very small and has no toroids to wind. It does however have a surface-mounted integrated circuit. Winding toroids is actually very easy. I don’t know why people make such a big deal of it. Maybe they just haven’t tried. Soldering the SMT circuit, while not that hard, was stressful. That being out of the way, the rest of the kit was a breeze. Being fairly confident of my abilities, I installed the circuit board in the box without trying it first. This way, I could use all the connectors for testing. To my satisfaction, it worked the first time!

My goal with this Rock-Mite is two folds. First, it is a stepping stone to building an Elecraft K1, which I have just started, and second, it provides me with a small emergency radio for my bug-out bag.

I can’t really compare the DC20B to the RockMite as far as performance is concerned, but building the Rock-Mite is easier, and there is no tuning required. The circuit board is slightly smaller. I replaced q6 with a 2sc799. R18=2.2 ohms for a little more power. The keyer is the Pico Keyer from http://www.hamgadgets.com.

I am very exited about building the K1. More on that later…