Sunday, March 19, 2006

Choosing Rigs (BABIES)

Need Help in Choosing Your First Radio?
RADIOS: There are so many to choose from. For the new Ham, it would be best to stick with a reliable, time proven, name brand: (Alphabetical Order) Alinco, Icom, Kenwood, Yaesu
Base, Mobile, Mobile used as a base or an HT (Hand Held Transceiver)???
It all depends on your lifestyle and budget. If you are on the go a lot and on a budget, an HT might be a good choice. A 2 meter or 2 meter/440 might be your best choice. If you want to use it in your vehicle, a 1/4 or 5/8ths wave magnetic mount antenna for the outside of the vehicle might be the best bet. You can also get a second antenna for home use. More on the antennas later. The good thing about buying an HT is that is it portable. The drawbacks are that they have limited power output, and batteries must be recharged.
Base Station: Most new Hams start out with 2 meter operation. A fancy base station has a lot of options, but most are not necessary to Hams who use 2 meters. They are also expensive and are rarely used by new Hams.
Mobile radios: An excellent choice for permanent mounting in a vehicle and what many experienced Hams use on a daily basis while in their vehicle. There are few drawbacks and many advantages. The Mobile runs off the car battery (and the cables should run directly to the battery for best performance), the Hand Microphone is easy to use and, most of all, there is a lot more power available than with an HT. The only problem one might encounter is "noise" from the vehicle electronics, which can usually be resolved with the installation of a commercially made filter.
Mobile used as a Base: This is the rig you see the most for in-home use. It has the power needed, the features most used and runs from a 12 Volt power supply. This is also a good option as, if the A/C power fails, a 12 Volt backup battery can be used to continue transmitting in emergency situations, a primary use for Ham Radio. I have used this type of rig for years and have yet to find a drawback. You will need a 12 Volt power supply: For 2 meters, a 12 - 20 amp filtered supply should do very well.
SUMMARY: If you are on the go and will operate some from home on a tight budget, a 5 Watt HT Hand Held is your best starter radio. If you will operate from your home most of the time, a Mobile used as a Base is the best choice. New Hams with more resources should by an HT, a Mobile used as a Base and a Mobile for each vehicle. This is what most Hams end up doing during the first years. Remember, you still need a power supply and antennas!
Tip: New Hams with young children should be careful to not let kids play with the new "toy". Disconnecting the Microphone works well.


Choosing Antennae

ANTENNAS: Choosing the right antenna is one of the most important parts of good Amateur Radio operation. As with the selection of a radio, it is suggested that a well respected brand of antenna be your choice to get you started. After you learn more about how they perform, under what conditions, and then using your antenna as a baseline, you can then experiment with other antennas. Many Hams say this is one of the most enjoyable parts of Ham Radio.
Good, time proven antenna brands include: (Alphabetical Order) Comet, Cushcraft, Diamond, Hustler, Hygain, Larsen, Maxrad, MFJ, and Workman.
Suggested types of antennas for New Ham would include Verticals, Yagi Beams, and J-poles.
Vertical Antennas: The typical antenna found on vehicles, in homes on a metal sheet or base verticals mounted outside. These types of antennas have omni-directional coverage, but usually have lesser range than a Yagi Beam.
Yagi Beam: A long metal boom with perpendicular tines mounted in descending size along the boom length. This antenna is good for extended range, but has a narrowed area of coverage.
J-pole, and others: A J-pole is a simple antenna that is fun to construct. They can be purchased inexpensively, and be used inside or outside. They can be rigid, flexible or roll-up type. This antenna does not compete with most Vertical or Beam antennas, but cannot be matched for flexibility of use. Most experienced Hams have a J-pole antenna close by for emergency use.
One of the biggest challenges for New Hams is the selection of the proper antenna for the given location of use. Now that we have discussed the basic antennas available, let's list some possible use scenarios:
RURAL AREAS WITH MOST OTHER HAMS IN A LARGE CITY MILES AWAY: For the home, the best bet would be a Yagi Beam, mounted on a pole or tower. The antenna is pointed toward the city. Again, the Yagi has limited angle of coverage, but better coverage in one general direction.
APARTMENT IN TOWN WITH ANTENNA RESTRICTIONS: Within the restrictions of your home, mount a vertical antenna as high up as you can. Not all of us are lucky enough to be on the top floor of a 40 story high rise, but good results can get you into the local repeaters and some simplex frequencies. A 5/8ths wave magnetic mount antenna on top of the metal refrigerator works well. If you can't do that, find a place where a mag. mount can sit on a large pizza pan, which acts as a ground plane. If that won't work, try using a J-pole hung up vertically at the top of a wall, hopefully away from metal. Move it around to find the best area for reception. Use caution with power output when close to people.
Later on, if you get an outside antenna, you can use an antenna switch and still use the inside antenna during storms.
HOME WITH DEED RESTRICTIONS OR RESTRICTIVE COVENANTS: These are homes that have room, but erecting a pole or a tower outdoors is prohibited. In addition to the inside antenna listed above, think about being Patriotic and erecting a flag pole made of non-metallic PVC. A flag on top and a surprise inside!
HOME WITH NO RESTRICTIONS: Inside, as a backup and storm antenna with a switch, use an antenna listed above. Outside, the choices are open. You can erect a "Push-Up" pole or a tower, and put up a large Vertical, a Yagi Beam and even a rigid J-pole. Talk to an experienced Ham about grounding issues when constructing an outside antenna.
IN YOUR VEHICLE: Let's refine our earlier discussion. A "rubber duck" that comes on an HT does not usually transmit well inside a car. An outside permanent or magnetic mount antenna works well in 1/4th or 5/8th wave. The mobile unit should have the same type antenna also. If you mount a mobile or even use an HT with a small amplifier, it is a good idea to run the cable in an area that is out of the way. Many times, running the coax under edges of carpet or underneath seats is time well spent.
EXTRA GOOD IDEAS FOR EQUIPMENT: An external speaker of excellent quality is a good investment. An extra power cord for your Mobile used as a Base hooked to a large Deep Cycle battery for backup is a good idea. An SWR/Power meter. An extra battery pack and an Alkaline battery pack for your HT is a needed item. For HTs, a small external plug-in hand microphone is a good buy


Wednesday, March 08, 2006

About DX

By Chuck Lewis, N4NM
…What is it?
Just two letters; but these two little letters have excited hundreds of thousands of hams worldwide, launched expeditions to countless exotic locations and been the catalyst for many countries around the world to tear down political barriers and allow their citizens to join the amateur radio community. DX stands for DISTANCE, but DX is a relative term: DX stations might be 2000 miles away on the HF bands, 200 miles on the VHF/UHF bands, or 20 miles at microwave frequencies. Most DXers gained their experience on the HF bands from 160 meters to 10 meters. And, although those bands are what this brochure will concentrate on, all DXers share a common characteristic: the thrill of the chase, and capturing a QSO with someone who is far, far away. For us, it’s exciting to snag a new country or new island, or even a new grid square, by digging a callsign and signal report out from behind a wall of noise and interference. There’s just something special about snagging a contact with a guy in New Guinea, Japan, Pakistan or Sweden using your own rig and antennas that is hard to beat!
…What do YOU need to work it?
You do not need a big station to work DX. A surprising amount of DX has been worked from modest stations with meager antennas. A basic transceiver and some good dipoles will get you going in DXing. Some NADXC members have gotten to the 300 country level using 5 watts! Build your station as your interest and finances dictate. Adding a little more power or putting up a beam will improve your score, but if that’s not in the cards, you can still work a lot of stuff with a minimal station. Concentrate on improving your listening ability and your operating technique; it will pay handsome dividends, especially if you don’t have the loudest signal on the band.
…Where Do You Find It?
On the HF (High-Frequency) bands, you’ll find DX signals on all modes including SSB, CW, digital (RITTY, Pactor, Amtor, Packet), SSTV(Slow Scan TV) and ATV(Amateur TV), and even FM(but rarely).
For the past several years, during the recent lull in the seven-year sunspot cycle, DX could be heard on the "high-bands" (20-10 meters) only during daylight hours, and on the "low-bands" (160, 80/75, and 40 meters) only during nighttime hours. This is because energy radiated from the Sun during sunspot activity affects radio propagation (the way our atmosphere reflects and refracts radio signals), and sunspots have been on the decline until just recently. So, as the Sun becomes more active over the next three or four years, it will be easier than ever to find exotic DX on all our HF bands. The new solar cycle (cycle 23) has already begun to get DXers around the world excited with the prospects of "easy pickin’s" nearly any hour of the day on many of the HF bands. For now (Summer ’98), try 20 or 17 meters during morning, evening and late night times. Fifteen and Ten meters are usually best for Europe near daybreak and for the Pacific at dusk, and are sometimes open to Africa & Asia mid-day, while the low-bands (160-40) will be open, but noisy, at night. As Fall approaches and the Sun angle changes, the low bands will become quieter and you’ll be able to hear DX there, too. At the peak of the cycle, a couple years off, the high-bands, especially 10 meters, will allow round-the-world contacts with really low power and modest antennas. If you haven’t heard 10 meters filled wall-to-wall with strong DX stations, you have a real treat in store! Contrary to what many people think, working DX is not difficult, and the more you work, the more you will sharpen your skills. You will learn about equipment, antennas, QSLing, propagation, pileup technique, operating etiquette, and before you know it, you, too, will be a DXer! Look for DX here:
Band Characteristics Where’s the DX?
160 Late evening/night; best in winter 1820-1850 kHz.
80/75 Late evening/night, early morning; best in winter CW: 3500-3530; SSB: see SPLIT
40 Early evening thru early morning; Fall thru Spring CW: 7000-7030; SSB: see SPLIT
30 Sometimes like 40, sometimes like 20. Try it! CW and digital only; mixed anywhere
20 Open somewhere 24 hours, best Fall thru Spring CW: 14.000-14.040; SSB: 14.150-14.250
17 Sometimes like 20, sometimes like 15. Days/Eve. CW: 18.068-18.100; SSB: 18.110-18.168
15 Daybreak to Noon: Europe/Africa, CW: 21.000-21.150; SSB: 21.150-21.350 Midday to Evening: Asia /Pacific
12 Sometimes like 15, Sometimes like 10. Try it! CW: 24.090-24.930; SSB: 24.930-24.990
10 Lots of surprises! Dawn & Dusk best but improving! CW: 28.000-28.100; SSB: 28.300 & up
Start tuning around your favorite band on the frequencies your license class permits – no use getting frustrated listening to all that good stuff down in the Extra Class band if you can’t work there. But it certainly does provide an incentive to upgrade!
The most fun is to prove these predictions wrong! Band openings to a specific part of the world can sometimes really be surprising and interesting. A good DXer is a good Short Wave Listener FIRST. Listen, Listen, Listen! Tune, Tune, Tune!
…How Do You Work It?
Casual DXing is usually done like any other QSO. For example: a short response to a CQ, using your full callsign on the DX station’s frequency should result in a nice conversation. Many DX ops speak English fairly well, and can at least exchange name, location, signal report, and often will enjoy a nice ragchew. CW ops can use Q-signals even if they don’t share a common language. If you’re on SSB, give a few short calls on his frequency using International phonetics that your DX target is likely to understand: "Kilo Foxtrot Four Zanzibar Tango Sierra" is a lot more easily understood than "Kilo Fox Four Zany Tennis Shoes". Speak slowly and clearly -- none of the cutesy stuff.
Split operation: On some bands and modes, U.S. stations cannot transmit where the DX station can, so you’ll often hear the DX station announce a ‘listening frequency’. For example, F2XXX in France, CQ’ing on 7035 might say "listening 7130". That’s your cue to set up your rig for split operation with each of two VFO’s on a separate frequency. You listen on his transmit frequency and he listens on your transmit frequency. It’s a little like repeater splits, but with freedom to pick your own (legal) frequencies. This can get a little tricky until you become comfortable with the way your particular rig works in split mode. After a while it’ll be second nature, but at first, listen to how other ops are handling it.
Rare DX: Sometimes a place with few or no active hams will be visited by a "DX-pedition" with operators, equipment and antennas ready to put a "new country" on the air for the benefit of DXers around the world. Or, perhaps it’s just a case of a less rare area with especially good propagation. Whatever the reason, you’ll know something’s up, because there will be a whole group of stations calling the DX all at the same time. This is affectionately known as a pile-up. The size of the pile will be an indication of the rarity of the DX! Pileups require a little technique…here’s where you can gain a real advantage by using a little knowledge and planning:
Plan to go split: The DX will usually try to move the pile away from his transmit frequency in order to be heard over the masses, so be ready to transmit where he’s listening. It makes no sense to call him on his own frequency once he says "listeneng UP TEN", or "200 to 220", or just "UP"!
Get in step: The DX op will try to catch one complete callsign from the pile on the first call, and will try to establish a rhythm that benefits everyone with a lot of contacts during the time propagation is in our favor. So send just your full call once, with STANDARD phonetics, on his listening frequency, then listen for his response.
Play the pileup: If you can figure out what his tuning pattern is, you can often anticipate where he’ll be listening next in the pile, and slip your call right in. This works, but takes some patience. If it’s a small pile, you can try picking a spot just on the edge…move around a little. Try to be noticed. Does it sound like Bass fishing? Yup.
Time your calls: Sometimes a little delay (a second or two) will let your call stand out among the rest as they taper off. Really experienced ops seem to have a knack for sensing the most opportune time to throw out their call. This is a pretty subtle skill that will pay off if practiced.
Follow his lead: If the DX op wants the pile to move, spread out, squeeze up, go by numbers, speed up, slow down…whatever…do it (legally). On CW, try to respond at his speed.
Don’t react to others: Don’t be tempted to be a traffic cop by telling others they are on the "wrong vfo" or "up, lid!" All this does is add to the problem. If you hear an obvious jammer, work around him; he wants to get a rise out of us, and he is thwarted when we IGNORE him. Patience! Discipline!
Don’t be discouraged: Busting pileups on the first or second call is for the "BIG GUNS". The rest of us "little pistols" have to replace brute power with skill and cunning. You Can Do It. Too! Be patient. Listen. Figure out how the guy is playing the pile. Listen, Listen, Listen and LEARN.
…Now What?
You’ve done it…you worked the DX…so? Most DX chasers like to have a QSL card to confirm the deed, and if you want to apply for any of the many DX awards offered by the world ham community, you’ll need that confirmation. The most prestigious and sought after award is ARRL’s DX Century Club (DXCC), awarded for confirming contact with 100 different "entities" (call them countries, for now). There are over three-hundred ‘countries’ identified for DXCC purposes, and most are inhabited by active hams, so the first hundred is attainable with even the most modest station…especially in the next few years. If you become hooked on collecting countries, you’ll join a huge group of like-minded DXers around the world who think this is the most exciting and challenging aspect of ham radio, and who will welcome you as a member of their fraternity. You don’t need to be a big-gun; you don’t even need a hundred countries…just the desire and interest will identify you as a DXer!
…How Do You Get Help?
Elmers- You may already know what an Elmer is – a nickname for someone who is really helpful at showing you the ropes. North Alabama DX Club abounds with them, and we love to help out beginning DXers with advice, tips, technical help, and moral support. We love to watch ‘em grow!
WWW- There are lots of DX-oriented sites on the Internet. We have our own that is open to everyone (www.nadxc.org). Other prominent sites include those sponsored by the Texas DX Society, Potomac Valley Radio Club, Northern California DX Club, several European and Asian sites. All are easy to use, have helpful tips and info, and have lots of links to data, software, propagation forecasts and news.
Magazines- DX Publications abound. They run the gamut from weekly advisory DX bulletins, monthly columns in QST, slick magazine DX publications like THE DX Bulletin. NADXC also publishes a monthly summary of current DX happenings in our own monthly LONGPATH.
Clusters- PacketClusters are an excellent help to the new or seasoned DXer. Packet Clusters are networks that link up cities into large spotting networks. Hook in to our own local one on 144.93 or 145.73 and watch your screen for awhile. You will get the hang of it in a hurry. DX alerts (Spots) will appear from DXers all over the Southeast telling you what the callsign and frequency is of something they just spotted. There are also lots of other aids there, like current propagation info, an online callbook, help with hard-to-identify prefixes, QSL advice, and a QSL manager’s directory. Talk to W4NS for more info.
NADXC-The North Alabama DX Club is one of the oldest DX organizations in the South. They meet once a month at a Huntsville area restaurant, sponsor two 2-meter repeaters (147.30/90, and 147.10/70) for providing DX info, a terrific webpage (www.nadxc.org) on the internet, as well as the PacketCluster. Dues are nominal, and they are a super helpful group. They’ll help get you started on the right track, offer you a helping hand, and even tell you what traps to avoid right from the start.
Publications- Check out the stuff in ARRL’s Operating Manual, the ARRL handbook, the ARRL Antenna Handbook, or any of the others in the list of good ARRL publications. There’s help there on any subject you can think of. Don’t forget to get yourself a copy of the ARRL DXCC Countries List and see what countries, islands and other entities count for your country totals.


Split Operations - When and How?

As the spots increase, so do the number of stations who call us. The goal of the DX operator working the 'pileup' is to work as many stations as possible, as smoothly and as quickly as possible. You are the DX station - you called CQ - you made the mess - it's up to you to control it. No one is going to control it for you, and an out of control pileup is one of the biggest causes of frustration on the HF bands for lots of hams. One of the big problems with pileups is that many of the stations calling can't hear the DX because of the QRM caused by other stations calling also. The simplest and most efficient system for solving this problem is the 'split' operation - where the DX station transmits on one frequency and listens on a different frequency, or over a range of different frequencies.
When do you need to go to a split operation ? When the people you are giving reports to are not answering, or when you are not getting your report from the station you are working because of other stations who are continuously calling. Simply, when the QRM starts slowing you down. Split operation moves the QRM and you are no longer forced to wait for 20 or 30 stations to stop calling you so you can work one of them Modern transceivers today come equipped with two VFO's - some even come with two receivers. The RIT (on Yaesu rigs, the CLARIFIER) can also be used for split operations. The primary goal of a split operation is to get the calling stations (the pileup) far enough away from the DX station so that the pileup causes no interference on frequency the DX station is transmitting on.
  • For CW operations, 2 KC's is usually a good starting point. On CW, you can announce that you are listening up, i.e., QRZ 4Z5MU UP which is usually all that is need to make the pileup move away from your transmit frequency. If the pileup doesn't respond immediately and other stations continue to call on your frequency, UP 2 UP 2 UP 2 UP 2 DE 4Z5MU will usually do the trick. Simply turn the RIT on and tune up the band and listen for stations calling you, or, if you prefer, use the other VFO on your rig to receive. Tune up and down over a range of 2 or 3 KC's - fortunately there are a few DX'ers left who are smart enough to not just tune up 2 KC's and send their call a dozen times. It's hard to copy anybody even with a 250 cycle filter when 75 stations zero beat the same frequency and call you, so move your receive frequency around. By moving, you will increase your rate by working the good operators who know what TAILGATE means, and the ones who quickly figure out the direction you are tuning.
  • On SSB, the process of working a split operation is basically the same but since you need to move the pileup farther away from your transmit frequency (to disable the affect of Mr. Splatter), using two VFO's is a must. Again, most modern rigs with two VFO's have the A=B button. Press it, which sets the second VFO to the frequency and side band you are currently operating on. Tell everybody to standby, and then activate the second VFO as the receive VFO. Tune up (or down) the band at least 5 to 10 KC's, find a quiet frequency, then announce to the pileup where you will be listening. For example, if you are operating on 14.195, move the pileup up to 14.210. It's fine to move them down, but the usual procedure is to move them up. Again, as on CW, it's difficult to pick out callsigns when too many stations are calling you on the same frequency - so simply spread them out. Listen from 14.260 to 14265, or to 14.270.
Do's and Don'ts of split operation. It's very important to tell people where you are listening. As new stations arrive to join the pileup, they need to be instructed quickly as to what's going on. On CW, always include the UP after your callsign (and please don't forget to send your callsign after EVERY station you work - don't expect the new guys who just showed up to know from your fist who you are).

On SSB, simply give your listening frequency after every contact - 4Z5MU 210 - or - 4Z5MU 210 to 220. It's also important to check your transmit frequency on occasion - no matter how specific you are you will always get the guy who can't figure out what's going on and who zero beats you and calls you for an hour. You want to make sure your transmit frequency is CLEAR, that's why you are working split. If you listen on your frequency and find 3 stations calling, DO NOT work them - MOVE THEM. If you WORK them, then you'll move the pileup down to your frequency and you'll have to start over. Move them by simply announcing where you are listening - even if you have to announce it ten times - do it until they all move off and your transmit frequency is clear again. It's imperative that you keep your transmit frequency clear - if you don't, the guys who are calling you there will be joined by the RADIO POLICE. The RADIO POLICE are the guys who already worked you, or have nothing better to do but listen to you, and they will begin telling the lost souls you are listening up - next thing you know the lost souls and the RADIO POLICE have you covered in QRM. Before you begin any split operation, make sure the frequency you are going to listen on is CLEAR and not being used by other hams. If you tell people to call you 10 KC's up, remember they won't be listening where they are transmitting - they are listening to you - so don't plop your pileup down right on top of somebody else who is having a QSO. Don't get carried away with how wide of a frequency range you need to listen on - 10 or 20 KC's is usually enough to accommodate half the world.

One of the worst demonstrations of poor operating was a Clipperton DXpedition back in the late 70's. The whole world wanted to work them, and they would show up on 14.195 and start listening from 14.200 to 14.300 - which would clobber who knows how many QSO's that were already in progress up and down the band. Start listening on one frequency. If things get difficult, spread them out to 5 KC's, or worst case 10 KC's, but don't clog up half the band with your pileup. Do pay attention to your QSO rate - if you are just passing out signals reports, on CW you should be working 2 or 3 stations a minute. On SSB 3 or 4 a minute. If things slow down, it's usually because your transmit frequency is getting QRM - go clear it off.


Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Appropriate Use of Lingo inThe Voice Modes

The Appropriate Use of Lingo inThe Voice Modes
A point was raised by another operator last night about the proper terms to use on the amateur bands. The amateur bands are an inclusive area and a certain amount of freedom to use individual examples of terminology has always been a hallmark of the hobby. Having said that, however, there are good reasons to use a certain amount of standardized terms. Particularly when we are participating in disaster communications, this concept becomes vital. Even in non-emergency communications, however, the use of standard phrases makes the information we are attempting to convey easier to understand.
First, and foremost in my mind, is CLARITY. We want our message, be it a call sign, a name, or a location to be clearly heard and understood by the other operator. If we use terms or phonetics of our own design, we risk having the person listening to us get confused or get the message incorrect. For this reason alone we as operators should learn, use and stick to the accepted phonetic alphabet as published by the ARRL and other radio organizations.
Second, the use of terms peculiar to another service, such as "Personal" when we mean "Name", mark us to other operators, sometimes unfairly. Here again, the ARRL has stated in many publications, that the use of misunderstood "lingo" is poor operating practice. Even the ubiquitous "Q" signs of CW are not appropriate to phone operations. Their original purpose, as a kind of shorthand that shortened the time necessary to send a message in Morse Code, still exists, but ONLY in Morse Code. The use of QRM or QTH may be very frequent on the voice ham bands since most operators know the meaning of these terms, but a few operators insist on using arcane Q signs. All this does is confuse the other operator. If these individuals are doing this to make it appear that they are super hams, they should stop. All it does is irritate the rest of us, and slow the passage of information down due to having to repeat the term in plain English. Why not do it in plain English to begin with.
Third, as the operator who brought the subject up noted, we are under observation very often. Government agencies, relief organizations, law enforcement, fire and EMS entities are the very clients we serve when disaster strikes. We, as radio operators, must be cognizant of how we present ourselves to these agencies. That means being as professional as we can while we do our "thing", Radio Communications.
As a reminder to all amateur radio operators, here is the phonetic alphabet in its proper form, courtesy of the ARRL.
If you are telling someone your name, it is your NAME, not your "personal". If you are telling someone where you live, it is your address, not your QTH, unless of course, you are using Morse Code. Same thing for QRU. You are asking if the other operator has anything for you so just say that. Don't make the other operator puzzle around the shack trying to figure out what the heck QRU means. Same thing for QRL, QRO, QTB etc. These terms are appropriate for Morse Code, not voice comms on FM. Please do NOT use the "10-code" on amateur radio. Not even 10-4! Q-signs or codes have their place in the CW mode, but they are not really appropriate for voice communications. By the way, a frequently heard term on amateur radio is the term "73". Note please that I said "73", not 73's. The term which is shorthand for "best regards" per the latest definition from the ARRL originated with telegraphers in the 19th century. It should not be pluralized. It is "73".
OK, I have made a pest out of myself for long enough. Just remember, the purpose is to get the message across clearly, not to confound us by trying too hard to sound like an old hand. When in doubt, just say it in plain English, that usually works best.