Back On The Bands, Part 1: The Base Station

The eagle has landed

So there I was, enjoying another mind numbingly boring day at my office when I get an instant message from a friend of mine who lives in Arkansas.

“Dude, it turns out I’m not going to Dayton after all. How about I come up to Iowa and help you get an antenna put up?”
“You wanna drive from Arkansas to Iowa to help me put up an antenna? Are you high??”
“Well, yeah! But I’ll still ready to make the drive up. What do you say?”
“Yeah, OK. Sounds good to me.”

At this point, I figured it was just the weed talking and didn’t think much of it. Well, at least until Thursday that is, when my friend sent me another message that morning.

“I’m getting kind of a late start on things, but I’m leaving here now. I should be at your place this evening!”

I guess it wasn’t just the weed talking after all.

It’s been a few years since I was active on the ham bands. The base station got put into storage, the sloping long wire fell victim to a terrible hedge clipping incident, and the mobile antenna was taken off of the 4Runner and never installed on the new Tacoma. I did manage to check in with the Maritime net on 14300 a couple of times while using a portable magnetic loop, but those check ins were few in far between.

A Comtek 9:1 balun feeds the antenna. The ground radials will have to wait until a major excavation project happens later this summer.

Earlier this year though, I found the plans for a sloping inverted L that would fit inside the confines of my yard pretty well. I could use a walnut tree at the end of the driveway to hang the elbow of the L from, and run it over the driveway and across the width of my lot to a post on the other side. This should give me great coverage on 80, and it just might even give me some capabilities on 160, a band I’ve never used.

Excited by my plan to finally get back on the air, I called up the good folks at DX Engineering and soon had a box of coax and parts on its way. Soon I would be back on the bands, burning up the clouds with my FT-2000 and AL-811H amp, and I couldn’t wait.

And then it got cold.

Ridiculously cold. So cold that you could scrape the frozen RF off of the big loop’s antenna wires cold. Well ok, maybe not that cold, but if you live in the Midwest, you know what I mean. Needless to say I didn’t get my antenna up before the ground froze solid, and my plans came to a grinding halt. The box of antenna goodies sat in the corner unopened, and waiting for better days ahead.

Finally, with my friend’s truck in my driveway, a break in the never ending rain, and three whole days cleared off on my calendar, the time to put a bunch of metal up in the air had finally arrived. I drug out the box of antenna parts, rope, fishing line, sinker, and all the other stuff needed for the project and we got to work.

As you can see, we aren’t exactly breaking any new technological ground with this one. It is, as another friend would call it, “just a wire in a tree”, or as I like to call it, my 100% organic, bio-degradable tower. It’s definitely not fancy, but that’s the beauty of radio: it doesn’t have to be fancy to work. The question still remained though: would this antenna do what I hoped it would do? I mean, I was pretty confident this antenna would give me 80, but I ran out of yard before I hit the magic 120 feet mark. Would this thing work at all on 160?

So far, i would have to say the answer is yes. As I expected, the antenna seems to work on 20 through 80 with no problems, and that’s with our currently awful band conditions. As for 160? Well, I managed to make contacts with a few locals on Sunday afternoon. Ankeny and Altoona aren’t exactly exotic DX, but they sounded like music to my ears! We’ll see how it goes this winter, but I am pretty optimistic. All in all, I’d have to say I am very pleased. I still want to add a hex beam for 20 thru 10, but until that happens, this will work out fine.

My friend made it back to Arkansas Sunday night, where we had a brief 5/7 QSO on 80m. It turns out his radio is getting into his father in law’s microphone when he transmits. Maybe I’ll have to return the favor, and drive down there to help him get his radio back on the air.

Boris remains unimpressed.

The Great Antenna Shoot Out of 2014

The Big SAL has been up and running for over a month now, and all is well. The wind hasn’t taken it down, and I’ve peaked and tweaked it to get as much performance out of it as I can. But was it worth it? Can it hear things that the other antennas can’t? With that question in mind, I have put together a few comparisons of the SAL and my other two antennas on different frequencies and under different conditions. The results are dramatic to say the least.

First, a brief description of our contenders:

It doesn't get any simpler than this.
It doesn’t get any simpler than this.

The Longwire. This antenna is about as basic as it gets. It’s a sloping longwire going from a ground rod up into a nearby walnut tree. It’s about 65′ long, slopes at about a 30 degree angle, and is about 30′ at it’s highest point. There’s no balun, just a direct solder into a SO-239 connector. It shouldn’t work as well as it should, but all in all its a pretty nice antenna. The antenna runs from North to South.

The Pixel Technologies Pro-1B

The Pixel Technologies Pro-1B. This would’ve been a godsend when I lived in Baltimore, and spent most of my time fighting the leaky transformers and transmission lines that ran down my back alley. Since it receives off of the ends, it spends most of its time oriented North and South, but it can be rotated.

You can read more about the loop, and see some of the shaky cell phone demo videos in a previous blog post.

The SAL on construction day.

The Shared Apex Loop array (SAL 20). The latest tool in my listening arsenal, and the one I’m sure my readers are about sick of hearing about. Hey, what’s not to love though? This is easily the most directional of the three antennas I have, allowing me to choose incoming signals from any of eight points on the compass. With the additional computer interface, I can also steer this antenna with a couple clicks of a mouse, making it about ideal for remote listening.

Each of these three antennas is connected to a four port Alpha Delta antenna switch, which feeds into another four port Alpha Delta switch that allows me to select one of four different radios. Only the Perseus was used in this case.

With all this in mind, let’s see if the SAL can earn its keep so to speak, or if I would’ve been better off spending my hard earned money on a dummy load and a keg of beer.

Comparison 1: Radio Vanuatu, October 29, 2014. Approx. 1230 UTC.

This video is pretty much a slam dunk for the SAL-20. It takes a signal that neither the magnetic loop or the longwire could really hear and makes it intelligible.

While I could tell something was there with the other antennas, the SAL was the only one to recover any listenable audio.

Comparison 2: VL8A, November 5, 2014. Approximately 1230 UTC

Radio Australia (VL8A out of Alice Springs) on 4835 isn’t a very difficult catch, it is very difficult to get an intelligible audio before WWCR’s sign off at 1300. Their transmission on 4840 usually overwhelms the Aussies. note the really narrow passband on the Perseus.

Comparison 3: 1030 kHz, mediumwave. November 6th, 2014. Approximately 0300 UTC.

This is another case of seeing how each antenna handles co-channel interference. In this case, it’s the 50,000 watt WHO radio on 1040, located about 40 miles to the Southeast of my location.

Comparison 4: WPSO, October 7, 2014. Approximately 0230 UTC

Not much of a comparison really, but interesting nonetheless. All three antennas had a loud copy on ESPN Radio out of Indianapolis on 1500, but I could hear something else underneath it on some of the deeper fades. When I pointed the SAL to the Southeast, I heard Greek music. After some digging around, it turned out to be 250 watt WPSO out of Port Richey, FL. The music matched up with their web stream, so no doubt about this one. No video, but I do have some audio:

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Some Final Observations

Obviously the SAL-20 is a beast, and I’m happy to have one at my disposal. Its performance and relatively compact size make it a no brainer for guys like me who do not have the real estate for a Beverage wire. No, it is not a cheap antenna, but what in this hobby is? Getting the last 10% of performance out of any hobby will cost you, and this is definitely an antenna that gets you into that last 10%. Is it better than a Beverage? No, probably not, but that would be a really interesting comparison.

There’s an old adage in the ham community that says more receive antennas are better than less, and I would agree with that. Each of these antennas has a role to play at my listening post, and each can excel under different conditions. One example of this was Dr. Benway’s recent Undercover Radio transmission on 1720. While I don’t have any audio or video of this, I found the magnetic loop to be the best performer of the three. It gave me just a little more signal strength than the SAL in a situation where I really needed it, and the longwire didn’t hear much of anything.

So yes, the SAL definitely earns its keep and then some. I’m glad I have my other antennas to fall back on, but the SAL will definitely be doing most of the heavy lifting from here on out.

I highly recommend this antenna.