Episode 11: Gearing up for fall

Episode 11: Gearing up for fall

It’s a slow time for contesting but building your station is a great way to while away the summer. In fact, come September, October and November, you’ll be thankful for every little improvement you made over the summer months.

It’s no fun climbing a tower or working on antennas when it’s snowing and minus 20 degrees outside. So get it done now and be ready for the fall contest season.

We’ll talk about summer projects and more in episode 11 of Zone Zero…

Welcome to Zone Zero, the ham radio contesting podcast.

This is Bud, VA7ST, looking ahead to the North American QSO Party CW contest, on August 5 and 6 this year.

It’s 12 hours of intensive Morse code action on all bands from 10 through 160 meters, running a maximum of 100 watts.

For my money, the NAQP contests are about as enjoyable as it gets — casual, without a lot of over-powered signals jamming up the bands. It’s a very friendly outing with a bunch of mates — all the regulars you run into many weekends a year and lots of drop-ins and others new to contesting. In fact, the exchange between stations is your name and state or province, rather than an impersonal serial number.

You can only operate for 10 or the 12 hours, and off-times must be 30 minutes or longer. How you spread out your breaks is up to you, but remember some stations might run the first 10 hours straight and won’t be on the lower bands in the final two hours. While others will be there, and the more states and provinces you can land on 80M and 160M, the higher and more competitive your score will be.

My advice is to leave yourself time to get on for the final hour, at least, and pick up the multipliers just waiting for you to show up on 80M and 160M.

As always with the NAQP, you’ll need to decide what’s most important to you: racking up the most contacts by calling CQ and letting stations come to you, or searching for as many multipliers as you can. I usually try to strike a balance between these strategies.

I am always aware of the rarity of the VE7 or British Columbia multiplier, if few of my fellow Orca DXCC operators are on the air. If BC is rare in the NAQP, I will spend a lot more time running stations – eventually, even the rarest states will want BC in the log and chances are they will find me.

That’s my theory for NAQP, anyway. Doesn’t always work out, but that is part of the fun of contesting – you never get the same thing twice, and there’s always something new to challenge your skills and strategies.

Upgrading the station

Over the past few weeks, I have been working through a bunch of projects in preparation for the fall contest season. The key projects are:

Cabling for second radio: My old second radio is an FT-920, which I love, but it is now an older rig. I’ve put it into third-radio backup position now that I have a new the new Icom IC-7100 in the shack – it’s a cute but capable little friend for the FT-920 and my primary radio, an FT-2000.

I have the I C-7100 running 6M and 2M digital audio-based modes including the new and remarkable FT8 mode and meteor scatter using MSK144 mode. Now I need to get things going for CW, Phone and RTTY.

I am slowly working away at getting the CW and RTTY cabling set up between the contesting computer and radio, which meant building an FSK and CW keying circuit into a DB9 connector, and soldering up the correct connectors for the radio end of the cabling. It’s more complicated than it sounds, but one more evening ought to do it.

6M yagi upgrade: The other project is also a VHF radio improvement. I have a three-element Steppir yagi on the tower outside, and it has a fourth element – a passive, fixed aluminum director – making four elements on 6M. But, this four-element Steppir yagi on 6M is not optimal because the stock distance between the driven element and reflector is 8 feet.

With guidance from an article by GM3SEK, there is a modification to improve the Steppir’s performance on 6M.

I have been planning to add a new fixed reflector a bit closer in, which will make the yagi perform like a long-boom four element should, with about 10.4 dBi — that equates to about 8 dBd gain over a dipole. Currently, I suspect it has about 5 dBd gain, which is okay but doesn’t squeeze everything it can out of four elements.

SB-221 troubleshooting: I also have one of my Heathkit amplifiers open on the workbench. It operates just fine, with the exception of about one second upon startup, when I see slight negative grid and plate current on the meter. That shouldn’t happen, so I need to trace the cause and fix it. Fortunately, I have another SB221 amp and the new Ameritron AL-80B to keep me company while I made the repairs.

As an active contester, I find there’s always something else that needs to be done — whether it’s antenna improvements, figuring out how to make the station layout more efficient, or just making up new cables for better reliability in the connections between pieces of equipment.

Antenna selection: In my shack, one of the long-standing challenges has been antenna switching. I have single-band dedicated antennas for 160M, 80M and 40M, but I also have multi-band Steppir yagi for 40M through 6M, plus an 8-element 2M crossed yagi.

With three transceivers, and a choice of two amplifiers for the HF bands, that makes for a lot of selection options. I have made radio operation pretty simple using a DX Doubler SO2R box to run two radios from one computer – automatically switching mic, CW, RTTY and Push-to-Talk (PTT) lines.

But that doesn’t handle antenna switching, so if I want to switch from my 40M two-element quad to the 40M rotatable dipole, I need both antennas connected to my big 3000-watt tuner and use that tuner’s antenna switch – or I manually change cables at the back of the radio or amplifiers I’m using.

It is clunky and time-consuming, and wide open to operator error at three in the morning.

So what could I do to make it all a little less complicated?

I could spend a thousand dollars I don’t have to automate things with band-tracking controllers, or I could use what I have on hand or buy a few lower-cost components – four-position antenna switches. That’s what I think I’ll do.

I have a few four-position antenna switches, designed for high isolation between ports, and so I will use one to select the transceiver/amplifier combo, going into another four-position switch to select any of the antenna options.

Well, I won’t have enough switched ports for every antenna, but fortunately the IC-7100 has a dedicated jack for the 2M and 70cm bands so the 8-element yagi can stay connected right there.

Now, a back-to-back set of antenna switches will work for single-radio contesting. If I want to operate two radios at the same time, I’ll have to continue to manually connect the second radio to whichever antenna I want it to run on. But for general operating, with the switches, I’ll have a little more immediate agility to change radios and antennas without a lot of digging behind boxes to change antenna connectors.

On the horizon

Beyond the upcoming NAQP CW contest, we can look ahead to a fun but challenging contest in mid-August. The Worked All Europe CW test has a lot of action, and many operators look forward to the traffic-handling simulation it offers.

WAE contests feature QTCs, which is the Q-code for messages or “traffic” – in this case, if a station requests “QTC?” you can send them up to 10 reports of previous contacts – each line of your QTC contains the time, callsign and exchange number of a previous contact.

Each of your QTCs counts just the same as an additional contact, so use up all the opportunities you have to swap QTCs with stations – but remember, you can only exchange QTCs with a station on another continent, not on your own continent. If conditions are poor, that makes things even more challenging.

WAE CW is all bands from 160M all the way to 6M, and it runs 24 hours starting at 1200 UTC on August 12.

So that’s it for episode 11 of Zone Zero. Get on for the North American QSO Party this weekend, or the Worked All Europe CW contest mid-August and have fun.

If you don’t want to miss future shows, be sure to subscribe to Zone Zero on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or your favorite podcast platform. Tell your friends, and come back often for more.

Now, let’s go get ‘em. I’ll see you out there!

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