Shack: Where to invest?

Above anything else, amateur radio should be enjoyable. This goes for ANY hobby, if at any time you do not have fun, then maybe it’s time to get out and find another hobby. This piece is bring written because I was frustrated with my effort and performance during the NAQP RTTY Contest.

Earlier this year I was looking at the possibility of adding hardware to start an SO2R operation, especially during RTTY contests in order to maximize my score and learn how to operate a two radio set up effectively. While I have a second radio (FT-857D in my truck) as well as a West Mountain RIGblaster Pro, I have not made the jump. I am still short an antenna tuner, which will undoubtedly run a few hundred dollars.

I have turned to the NCCC Reflector and posed a few questions to them regarding my situation in order to maximize my operating time and increase my scores. Under  Shack and Antennas I have detailed the equipment I use on a regular basis.

I am very limited in terms of lot space, as the house it situated on a 50′ x 100′ lot, of which I have a swath of 50′ x 30′ that is usable space in the backyard. Now if I were to invest $1000 where should I put it? I am shying away from going with the SO2R set up because of introducing new problems, inter-station interference because my antennas are no more than about 30′ apart.

The inexpensive fix would be to increase the height of my mast and add a rotator with a thrust bearing in order to turn my hex beam. An even cheaper fix would be to forgo an personal goals and achievements and work in a team environment at N6RO or K6LRG, since they are the local stations and usually work the major contests.

The free fix to many of my problems, MORE SUNSPOTS! Unfortunately no amount of money will resolve that problem. Only patience through the doldrums of the solar cycle will reward all amateurs when the sun becomes more active.

So hopefully the membership of the NCCC will have some ideas for me in order to improve the station, which will hopefully increase my scores in all contests I participate in. I’ll share some of the details as they start to roll in.

NCCC Awards Meeting

It was with excitement and anticipation I attended my second NCCC meeting, held yesterday in Mountain View. Thankfully I was accompanied by Ken, N6RO and Chris, N6WM. Still being a rookie contester I am well behind the experience curve when it comes to many of the operators in the club. Thankfully all the members of the club are wonderful and always willing to lend a helping hand when questions arise.

This was a special meeting because it was the awards meeting, mainly Sweepstakes and ARRL DX, along with some other personal awards presented to club members. I did not expect to take any plaque or certificate home. I had a modest attempt during Sweepstakes, operating both CW and SSB, but came up 15 QSOs short of the 500 mark. That just means I try harder this year and I already know I will will achieve 500 QSOs between the two modes.

Unfortunately I think I am on one of the younger club members, among a group of older, mostly retired individuals who have nothing but time on their hands (boy I can’t wait for those days). Trying to juggle the responsibility of my family with that or work and other commitments, something must end up taking a backseat. That usually means I don’t operate at all or put in a limited effort. The only exception I make are for the major RTTY contests, which I have discussed before.

Big gun or little pistol the club is still very supportive. You don’t need the biggest antennas or have the loudest signals in order to participate and be a club member. I am still learning and absorbing what I learn in each contest. I am still learning propagation and how to improve my scores with an eye on SO2R.

Prior to operating in Sweepstakes I could not understand the lure of the contest, the same could be said about state QSO parties. But aside from the RTTY RU and CQ WPX RTTY, the aforementioned contests are very enjoyable and a lot of fun to participate in. The 7QP was my first attempt at a state QSO party. I am a bit reluctant to say I did not join in the fun of the California QSO Party in 2009. Although I am sitting here in a CA QSO Party t-shirt. Not sure what was going on that weekend, but I logged zero seat time. This year I am planning a full operation, not sure if it will be a rover station or a mixed effort from my home.

As for the awards ceremony it was great to see all the personal achievements of the individuals in the club and makes me desire to work harder and make that next QSO or find that other mult. While I have set my goals for this year no one says I can’t add to them. When SS and the CQP roll around you will see big numbers from my small station.

Big Gun and the RAC

Getting involved in something new is always an experience. Sometimes those first experiences are memorable and sometimes, you want to just forget it even happened. Today was one of those days, as I went back over to N6RO (that’s Radio Oakley), the local big gun station. They were continuing to call, “CQ RAC TEST”, which I found out was the Radio Amateurs of Canada Winter Contest. I did not know this before last night.

Prior to arriving I turned on the rig and tuned to 20m to see what I could hear. Being up at 1230 UTC, I was not really surprised to hear noise on 20M (and 40m). It wasn’t until the sun came up that 20m came to life and I was able to find a bit of activity working SSB.

This was really my first experience working SSB and it took a bit of concentration in order to pull out weaker signals, but I was able to make four QSOs before I headed out the door for N6RO (operating as N6ML for the RAC Winter Contest). Little did I realize how weak some signals would be that I would find myself calling “QRZ?”

After observing for some 40 minutes N6ML asked if I wanted to operate. So I took a seat began calling CQ. It did not take long at all before there were call signs coming at me left and right. I probably had 10 QSOs, but regardless of the number is the experience. I do feel like I could be a contributing contester to a multi/multi station.

Although my short time was not without a few slips of the tongue. I did confuse a few call signs, but who doesn’t, right? Also, N6ML was removed from QRZ for some unknown reason, so we had many stations asking for our QTH. N6ML then sat down next to me with pencil and paper and assisted in some of the harder signals we had to dig out of the noise.

All in all it was a very good introduction to contesting. Sure, I can say I have played radio during a contest, but this is the first time my 10 QSOs will hopefully help N6ML place in the RAC. As I left, they had totaled some 342,000 points on 850 QSOs. All that and there was still 7 hours of contesting left.

The Double Whammy Contest Weekend

Coming off a very enjoyable ARRL 10-Meter Contest (83 contacts) we move headlong into the OK DX RTTY Contest and the RAC Winter Contest, both contests running on 19 December from 0000z to 2359z. It was the 2008 RAC Winter Contest, along with the CQWW DX CW that gave me the contesting bug. It was also one of the few opportunities I called ‘CQ’ from N6RO, the local big gun in town. I am quite sure if my schedule allowed it, I would take part in a team effort at ‘RO’ unfortunately as my work schedule has it I find myself working Saturday and Sunday.

I do plan on participating in one or both of the contests Friday afternoon and towards the tail end on Saturday for two hours. The RAC was a great time last year from what I recall, a definite learning experience at ‘RO’ where suddenly you cannot copy a call sign the first time. LOL. Anyway, between the two contests if I am lucky I will hope to log about 200 contacts. The RTTY contest holds a bit more interest for me because I am still working towards my CQ WAZ Award and need much of Europe. The only drawback will be the band conditions to EU as the sun sets on the West Coast. Regardless it will be a good time.

Fix’er Up

I spent some more time over at N6RO with Ken, N6WM and N6ML, replacing the 20M rotor. As we got to talking, I decided to voice some of my problems, since I am still a bit lost when it comes to troubleshooting some of the ongoing problems I have in the shack. The first and most important was the RFI that bit me a few weeks back at about 500w. While I have added some ferrite toroids to the NID that AT&T has their equipment in, this has not solved the problem of about 500w of power reflected when I have the Alpha 76PA on.

One of the first adjustments I made was to move the hex beam (again!). Thanks to N6WM, I now have it mounted close to 20′ when I am operating, but it is closer to the shack. Actually it is mounted on the exterior wall off the shack. I need to upgrade the stock RG-8 coax and solder on some good silver PL-259 connectors, as K3LR does at his station. I also need to added some tinned copper braids as grounds from the amp, rig and power supply to the copper grounding bar.

I finally measured the SWR of the hex beam and the measurements were relatively flat across each band, only starting to climb above 1.5 near the edges on a few bands. I know I am loosing quite a bit with the bad cable, but I am not able to use the LMR400 I have on the SteppIR, since it is buried in conduit. I figure 35-40′ should work.

All this work and adding more 33′ long radials to the BigIR are on the list of things to accomplish before SS SSB in about 2 weeks. I am hoping to get the coax on Saturday and add the PL-259 connectors to it and test it. The ground straps won’t arrive until next week from DXE. If I am still having reflected power issues, then I will have to call in “the experts” to stop over and see what else is incorrect in my shack set up.

If there is anytime I need the amp to perform it is in a SSB contest. Sure I could go < 150w, but I want to push legal limit. I am still reviewing my performance during the CW portion of SS and wanting to implement some changes. While I am still going to set my personal goal high, there are a few things I want to accomplish. One of those things on the list knocking off the states I need for 20 and maybe 40M WAS. I would like to really push for the “clean sweep” since I missed out on it for CW. I was 10 sections short and outside of 2 of them, I probably could have worked the other 8.

Speaking of fix’er up, I have finally updated the Contesting page. While my claimed scores are nothing worth of recognition, I have listed all the contests (outside of a few) I have participated in. I am hoping to use these as a baseline and work on improving these scores. Some of the scores…well many of them are not worth even mentioning, but a contesters has to start somewhere. Since I don’t have weekends off and time to dedicate to 24-30 hours of straight contesting, I will take whatever I can get, whenever.