Sunday, December 09, 2012

Flex 5000 Diary - HRD, Virtual Stuff, and Digital Modes

I'm so sorry... I have not been diligent on updating the blog or reporting on the continued progress of the Flex 5000 Diary.

Well maybe I'm not sorry? Maybe the reason I haven't done an update is that I've been having so much damn fun learning and doing new things.

Things like...
  • Testing my summer antenna projects with a Rig Expert antenna analyzer.
  • Joining the Executive of my local ham radio club (Vice President).
  • Connecting my Flex to Ham Radio Deluxe via virtual serial ports and virtual audio cables.
  • Getting things setup for digital modes and making a dozen or so contacts via PSK31.
  • Voicing a news story for Amateur Radio Newsline Episode #1831
  • Installing a Kenwood dual band mobile in my car and moving my ham plates onto the car.
With all that said the notable new stuff for my Flex 5000 Diary HRD connectivity and digital modes.

Ham Radio Deluxe is a CAT control program meant for a serial or USB connection between your CAT compatible transceiver and your computer. I was a big fan of HRD prior to the Flex when it was paired with my Yaesu via serial port for CAT control and logging.

With the FlexRadio the PowerSDR software already controls the radio and adding a second control application on the same PC creates the question 'how does a computer connect to itself via a serial port' Can you have one app using serial port COM1 and then a cable looping back into the same PC on COM2? Well that sounds silly and there is a much better solution Virtual Com Ports.

I used a program called vspMgr to create a phony pair of serial ports inside of Windows. These two virtual com ports appear to the system as two normal com ports, but in reality that are paired to each other. One sends it's traffic to the other, and the other sends it traffic back to the first. So it's the same results as two seperate com ports looped to each other, but without any cables! In this case I created a pair of ports COM7 and COM8. In PowerSDR the software from Flex I configured it to use COM7 for a CAT communication port. Then in Ham Radio Deluxe I configured it to use COM8 to connect to the radio. BANG! virtual serial port connections between two applications on the same PC.

Next step is audio links between the same two applications. This would traditionally be done via audio cables between the radio and the soundcard in or external to your computer. But using another application called VAC (virtual audio cable). I'm able to create audio links that operate exactly like the virtual serial port pairs. PowerSDR and Ham Radio Deluxe are sharing audio back and forth within the operating system with no 'real' audio cables.

Just to be clear the only physical connection between the radio and the computer is just the firewire 1394 cable, no 'real' serial cables or audio cables.

So with that completed I can fire up the Flex 5000, then load up PowerSDR software.

Then I can load up HRD to access all my saved favorites, the built in logger app, and digital modes app.

Some have commented that I don't need all of HRD and I can get away with smaller lighter applications that just do logging and digital modes, but right now I'm sticking with the app that feels familiar. This is already a lot of learning I'm doing on my own, so forgive me if I take it one step at a time.

With all these connections working it was time to load the Digital Master 780 application within the HRD package and get onto PSK digital mode for the very first time as a licensed amateur.

As you can see from the QSL cards posted below I was working Hawaii and Switzerland in the first weekend with about 30-35 watts!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Flex 5000 Diary - Troubles and Resolutions

I've learned a lot in the last 24 hours and it wasn't all fun or easy.

The Microphone Problem

I still have a support ticket open with Flex for my new radio's front microphone connector, but today I got the go ahead to open the case and inspect the ribbon cable connection from the circuit board to to the front panel.


So I re-connected it, put the radio back together and BAM, my Heil mic and hand switch are working. Dudley the Flex tech support guy is great to deal with.

The Crash Problem

Last night was tough. After a couple of evenings playing around on 80m and 40m I finally had band conditions suitable for playing around on 20m as well. So on 20m I keyed the mic and the PowerSDR software froze and died! I rebooted everything and tried again, same result. I rebooted and went back to 80m and 40m, no problems. I then went back to 20m and keyed the mic once again, and CRASH.

This pattern of crashes and reboots went on for a few hours of troubleshooting and I finally went to bed frustrated. As I sat watching TV I composed an email to the Flex owners mailing list and for the next 24 hours I got some great replies from people with solid advice and things to try.

#1 - Better Firewire Cable - So today I started by ordering a new 6 foot firewire cable from Granite Digital. This premium cable was highly recommended by multiple responders to my email. CHECK!

#2 - Better Grounding - Second I built some insanely big shielded grounding cables. One will go from my ground system to the back of the Flex (replacing the one I was using). And the second will go from the back of the Flex to the back of my PC. As multiple people reminded me an SDR is one radio made up of two components (the 5000a and the PC). I went to a car audio shop for the great flex cable and suitable connectors and I borrowed the solder pots at work to dip the ends for a nice fit and finish. Do you think I over did it? CHECK!

#3 - Shield from RF - The unanimous advice from all the hams who responded to my email was clean up the RF. So with the help of a dozen snap-on ferrite's I put them everywhere. Both ends of the firewire cable (2 per end), the PC power cord, both monitor cables, the PC audio cable, etc. I also looked at all the cables running around and tried to clean up their paths and eliminated anything not required. CHECK!

#4 - Check DPC Latency - DPC is apparently important in SDR and checking the systems DPC score is a way of knowing if your systems passes or fails. I downloaded an app called DPClat and my QuadCore passed well under the recommended level of 350 or lower (my score average between 175 - 200). CHECK!

So with all that extra work I crossed my fingers and plugged everything back in. Powered up the Flex and the PC, and loaded PowerSDR.

I don't want to jinx it, but two hours have gone by and no crashes. I tested on multiple bands with the drive on the radio set to full 100 and everything is working GREAT!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Flex 5000 Diary - Installation & First Impressions

Well the bands last night were garbage. The usual net traffic was struggling and it wasn't conditions that I would of liked on the first evening with the Flex radio.

After unboxing I took my time and put Anderson Powerpole connecters on the power cord and connected the best ground cable I have. I cleaned up all the wiring from the previous radio and tried to make the cleanest and RF free environment for the Flex right from the start.

I had already installed PowerSDR 2.4.4 prior to arrival so it was just a matter of powering up the Flex and letting the drivers install in Windows as the firewire device is detected for the first time. In my case a firmware update for the 5000 was required and installed as part of this detection process as well. When PowerSDR finally booted for the first time I paniced as the software crashed with multiple errors connecting to the radio. Since the firmware was just updated I stopped, BREATHED, powered off the radio, turned off the 12v power supply, rebooted the PC, and started everything up fresh again. This was all that was needed to initialize the radio with the new firmware and PowerSDR loaded with no other problems for the rest of the night.

After setting up the basic startup settings for PowerSDR I realized that my Heil HM-Pro and CC1Y cable did not appear to be working. I tried numerous things and eventually created a Trouble Ticket with Flex Radio Support and switched to a trusty old xlr Shure 58 and plugged into the Balanced Input on the back of the radio. No PTT, but it was workable for the evening clicking on MOX with the mouse to transmit.

UPDATE - Flex Support has already replied to my ticket and I'll try their suggestions tonight.

So now I was operational with PowerSDR and I just played for a few hours with the settings, features, filters, DSP, etc. It was just incredible and exactly what I had hoped for. As I mentioned before the band conditions were horrible but I could tell that I was getting better reception than a lot of the others and even provided relay for the first time ever on a daily 80m net.

I have three separate HF antenna systems to work with and  never have I been able to switch so quickly between then and compare their performance both by ear, and visually on the Panafall display in PowerSDR. If you had asked me before yesterday I would have been extremely confident that my 80 Horizontal Loop was my best antenna, but with the visual display options on the PowerSDR display I could see subtle differences when comparing the Loop (ANT1) to my G5RV (ANT2) on certain bands. Differences I couldn't hear, but ones I could 'see' had slightly less noise and better signal reception on certain bands. My 3 element tri-band Yagi (ANT3) also had a chance to shine while I compared it's performance on 10m, 15m, & 20m.  Thanks Flex! I love that feature.

With the built in Antenna Tuner option in the Flex it was quick at tuning every new band and frequency as I scanned around and the only time it failed to tune is when the wrong antenna was selected for the band I was trying to tune on. But even then I got to see the tuner at work and how PowerSDR warns you when it fails to tune and your SWR is too high to transmit on.

It did take a while to figure out navigation in PowerSDR with the mouse and keyboard, but it only took an hour and I was moving around the band and narrowing in on weak signals with great success and incredible clarity.

I'm lucky that in my first year as a licensed ham radio operator I've owned and played with 3 distinct generations of HF radios. A 1970's Kenwood with no DSP. An early 2000's Yaesu with basic DSP and some noise cancellation, and now a brand new premier software defined radio with all the bells and whistle of filters, DSP, noise reduction, and a top tier receiver.  WOW


Flex 5000 Diary - Arrival

My Flex 5000a arrived today in the mail. Trust me I was worried about Canada Post Expidited Parcel Service instead of a courier with overnight air, but alas the Flex busted the budget and I didn't have the extra $143 bucks for the courier.

Anyhow, exactly a week from the order date the package arrived and I rushed home from work to beat the closing time for the local village post office.

Outer packaging looked good.

No strange sounds when handling the package that might indicate breakage.

So straight home for a quick unboxing video and an evening of setup.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Flex 5000 Diary - SDR Explained

A software-defined radio system, or SDR, is a radio communication system where components that have been typically implemented in hardware (e.g. mixers, filters, amplifiers, modulators/demodulators, detectors, etc.) are instead implemented by means of software on a personal computer or embedded system.[1] While the concept of SDR is not new, the rapidly evolving capabilities of digital electronics render practical many processes which used to be only theoretically possible.

A basic SDR system may consist of a personal computer equipped with a sound card, or other analog-to-digital converter, preceded by some form of RF front end. Significant amounts of signal processing are handed over to the general-purpose processor, rather than being done in special-purpose hardware. Such a design produces a radio which can receive and transmit widely different radio protocols (sometimes referred to as waveforms) based solely on the software used.

Now that I have a software defined radio (SDR) ordered and en-route I plan to document everything as much as possible for my own benefit, and possibly others who may stumble onto these pages.

As the description above states SDR is a new generation of radio where a large portion of the electronic hardware formerly embedded into a receiver or transceiver is built in software and run on a personal computer.

This is overly simplistic, but think of it as a traditional radio transceiver chopped in two.
  • The first half is a box that contains just the essential electronic pieces of a traditional radio (for simplification let's say it's the power supply, receiver and transmitter).
  • The second half of the radio is your personal computer running a software package that emulates all the other pieces of a traditional radio that are now missing from the first half (filters, signal processing, control interface, etc). 
  • With a high speed digital connection cable between the two halves (Firewire, USB, or ethernet), we now have a complete radio again.
The Advantages of a SDR?
  • The first half of the radio can be simplied and the quality of the components can be increased because the overall cost of the hardware is now much lower. You can spend your development money on building a better receiver and trasmitter.
  • Personal computers have tons of processing power, way more then the embedded chips used in radios for filters, dsp, etc. Your home pc or laptop is able to beef up the speed and flexibility of it's half of the radio due to sheer processing power. 
  • Display and control of the radio is done on your computer screen. The bigger the screen (or screens) the bigger the interface and options.
  • Display modes, with a click of the mouse you have many different ways of viewing the signals and the entire band. 
  • Software is easily and quickly upgradeable. With every new version of the software new filters, better DSP, and improvements to the radio control interface can be released. Your SDR get's better and better with time as long a software development continues.
  • Digital, digital, digital. Even when integrating with other software applications for digital modes, CW, etc you can exchange audio back and forth in digital with little or no quality lost.
The Cons of SDR?
  • You need a PC or Laptop of decent performance to run your radio, it just won't work without it.
  • An unstable computer can result in an unstable radio. Nobody would of thought that their HF rig could suffer from a Blue Screen of Death (ha ha).
  • Power Consumption, a personal computer, monitors, SDR radio and power supply draw way more hydro then a traditional transceiver running off a 12v power supply.
  • In an emergency you have to keep the computer and radio running to have communications.

I've traded a Unimog for a New Roof and a Flex 5000

This is the last picture of me and my Unimog. My daughter Molly ran outside and took this as I was getting ready to deliver it to the new owner.

It was a tough decision to sell but I'm personally thrilled with the new owner and expect he will enjoy this truck as much as I did.

The proceeds from the sale will pay for a new roof on my house next spring, and a big new toy in the Ham Shack, a FlexRadio Systems 5000a transceiver.

 The 5000a with the ATU add-on (factory installed) has been ordered and is en-route. Fingers crossed it might even arrive today?

Monday, September 03, 2012

The Summer Build Season & My 80 Horizontal Loop Antenna

As a newly licensed amateur radio operator, 2012 has been a long list of 'firsts'. Including my first summer of building, installing, and testing antennas.

My final summer task was a complete home-brew antenna project. I had already bought a couple other antennas (G5RV, Mosely CL-33 tri-bander, and Arrow VHF/UHF vertical), but I wanted to put in the reasearch and build something from scratch.

Over the last two months I have casually gathered, built, and made steady progress on an 80m Horizontal Loop that I completed just a few days ago.

Unlike my previous posts there isn't much to show (ie photos or videos) since a long wire antenna strung up about 30+ feet in the air is not easy to see, let alone with my camera. Suffice to say here is a description and I've climbed up the ladder one more time to get a couple photos.

Corner #1 - My 40' steel antenna tower attached to the house.
Corner #2 - My wooden antenna mast that I built just for this antenna. To build a horizontal loop you need to string it up in a square shape (or as close as you can get). I had anchor point on 3 corners of the property, but this corner needed something man made, so I built this mast.
Corner #3 & #4 are connected to two large Willow trees in the south-east and north-east corners of my property. Thanks to VE7SDV (Sam) for climbing both trees a couple weeks ago.

The 270' of coated copper wire is strung around all four corners in a rectangular shape. At each corner the wire passes through an insulator to keep it away from contacting ropes, branches, etc.

At the corner closest to my house a feed point was created using a plastic wheel from an old clothes-line. I drilled multiple holes to pass the wire through and secure the ends of the full length of wire. 450 Ohm ladder line was then soldered to the two ends. Tie straps secured everything.
The ladder line makes a straight vertical drop about 6-8 feet away from the roof and exterior wall of my house. It then slopes back into the wall about 6 feet off the ground and connects to this 4:1 Balun. 50 Ohm coax completes the run into my shack and antenna tuner.

So far this antenna has exceeded the performance of the G5RV. I did some switching back and forth and it appears to be better reception. Time will tell as I've only had a couple days to test it out.

I've also cleaned up the 12v power arrangements in the shack by wiring in a RigRunner 4010S switching power strip from West Mountain Radio and switching all the gear over to Anderson Powerpoles. I had to invest in a 2nd Weller soldering iron and a nice crimping tool, but now I have a large high wattage iron for cable creation etc, and a precise lower wattage iron to tackle circuit board work.

I must say the 4010S switching power strip is very nice. In the Auto mode I can leave the power supply and power strip turned on and simply hit the power switch on my radio to trigger an automatic power up of all the other connected devices (SWR meter, In-Line Noise Module, etc).

So as the title of this post states, my first summer as a licensed ham is nearing an end. And as I have joked with others, now I actually need to start using all this gear and antenna's and starting some serious DX'ing.

No matter what the upcoming fall and winter seasons have in store for the bands, I'm pretty sure I'll be ready :)

Monday, August 06, 2012

'Poor Hams' Wooden Antenna Mast

I was researching antenna mast ideas a 3-4 weeks ago because I want to put up an 80m Horizontal Loop antenna before the fall. I have a monstrous row of trees down one side of my property so that will supply two corners of this big square in the sky. I have the steel tower attached to the house and right next to my Ham Shack so that will provide the 3rd corner and a point for the feedline to connect. The 4th corner was a problem though...

No suitable trees, a power pole nearby that services my property and the neighbors. I needed to stay away from the power lines and yet get that fourth corner of the Horizontal Loop up in the air almost 40 feet.

Steel masts, steel towers? And then I stumbled on a couple websites talking about wooden masts.

They are cheap to build, are strong enough if supported by guy lines, and perfect for something like one corner of a wire antenna like the Horizontal Loop.

Panorama of the 42' total length wooden mast
For just under $200 I bought everything I needed from the local hardware store.
  • x1 - 16' 2x4
  • x2 - 16' 2x6
  • x2 - 20' 2x4
  • x1 - 20' 2x6
  • 5/16 ready rod with washers and bolts (these were cut to bolt boards together every 2-3' along the entire length. Six-inch bolts would also do the trick with no cutting.
  • 1 tube of PL-Premium glue.
  • 6 inch threaded steel pipe with threaded end caps (tilt over bolt). 
  • one hour rental of post hole digger. 4-foot auger (longest I could rent).
  • 5 bags of ready mix cement.
  • 5 eye bolts (4 for upper guy line connections, 1 for antenna wire connection).
  • 1 pulley for the line connected to the antenna.
  • 4 insulators for between the antenna wire and the support line.
  • 2 fifty-foot lengths of poly rope.
  • A 500-foot roll of 1/8 steel cable (lots of leftover).
  • 16 crimp sleeves for cable (1/8 size).
  • 8 saddle clamps for cable (1/8 size).
  • Best as I can remember that's the entire shopping list? I already had paint.
Weekend One
  • Assemble the mast on the ground or on saw horses
  • About 2 hours of work.
  • Paint the entire mast, at least two coats.
Weekend Two
  • Dig hole
  • Remove lower bolts and bend the tower over in the tilt-down position.
  • Lying on the ground it now looks like a large -- 7  --
  • Drop the lower section into the hole.
  • Level the lower section to perfectly vertical.
  • Mix and fill the hole with cement.
  • About 2-3 hours of work
  • Let the cement cure for 5-7 days.
Weekend Three
  • Attach eye bolt and pulley to the top of the mast, attach two lengths of rope connected with an insulator at the center through the pulley.
  • Attach 4 eye bolts about seven feet from the top (into the section of three 2x4's laminated together). One on each side.
  • Attach approx 75' of cable (or more) to each eye bolt, secure the loops from crimp sleeves. 
  • For the purpose of instruction, the tilt over portion of the antenna is pointed North. The tail of the tilt over portion is pointed South.
  • Have one person hold a guy line on the East and West side of the antenna. As it tilts up these people just keep the antenna from tipping to either side.
  • I was in the North position with the main part of the mast in the tilted over position. I used an aluminum extension ladder to support the weight of the antenna. I was able to extend the ladder one section at a time to slowly lift the weight of the tower in a safe and controlled manner.
  • A fourth person was on a step ladder in the south position at the tail of the tilt over section.
  • As my section went higher, his section came lower. 
  • Eventually, my ladder was fully extended up, and the tail had lowered so the person at the back could pull down and the transfer of weight shifted. He could lower the tail completely and the tower was now vertical.
  • Quickly reinsert the bolts below the tilt over point to secure the lower section of three 2x6's back into a solid block. Tighten the bolts so friction between the 2x6's is your friend.
  • Secure the East and West guy lines first, these are the weakest directions the mast has.
  • Next secure the North and South four guy lines. 
  • Adjust each line until taut while making sure to keep the mast as vertical as possible (use a level). 
  • Approx time 1-2 hours with the help of 3 other people. The two people on the guy lines do not have to be strong, the two on the north and south positions do all the lifting.
I made a PDF of a diagram to share.

And finally, I took all my photos from the last few weeks and put them into a video slideshow with some video at the end showing off the completed work.

Readers, search the blog for multiple update articles on the history of this mast.
Use the article name as the search term 'Wooden Antenna Mast'

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ham Shack Upgrade Diary #4 - The Bench and Shelves

I have a yellow workbench/desk that I built years ago that wraps around two walls in my home office. When I decided to setup a ham shack I took out an old drafty patio door that I never used and framed in a wall where the door used to be. I then extended the workbench/desk around that corner of the room and extended it past the new wall.

Now I had bench that wrapped around 3 sides of the room and new ham shack section that I built a few months ago needed to be taken back outside and painted to match the rest of the finished bench.

The weather had finally gotten hot and dry enough and the propagation was miserable so I decided now was my chance.

Between coats of yellow paint I went out to the shop and finished the shelve that I had started for above the bench. Once it was completed I stained it as well.

After both the desk and shelf were dry I moved them into the house and got them bolted into place.

After another day to dry I finally got the shack all setup again last night and was back on the regional 80m net.

The finished upgrade project

Ham Shack Upgrade Diary #3 - The Rotator

The tower and antenna came with a broken old milk crate. Inside were two different rotators and the what was left of a controller.

Once I dug into the rubble a bit deeper it appeared that at least one of the rotators and the busted up controller were a match pair. Too bad the controller was in such bad shape.

I headed to the internet and discovered that my matched pair was a Wilsom WR-500 and they were not as common as other makes and models. Lucky for me on the first day I started looking around I found a guy on the internet selling just a controller for a WR-500 and it was in very nice shape. I won the auction for $26.00 US. The shipping actually cost me more than the controller :(.

The controller arrived a week later and didn't disappoint. It was in create condition and everything appeared to be working.

WR-500 Controller - Thanks eBay!
The actual rotator was a dirty mess so I cleaned it up and took it apart, checked the bearings, and put it back together. I ended up taking it apart later when things weren't working correctly, but it's working much better now.

Cleaned up Wilson WR-500 rotator
 One of the hardest things to find for a Wilson WR-500 seems to be the cables ends? Lots of conversations on the internet of people trying to source the connecters without much luck. I was really lucky because at the bottom of the busted up milk crate was half a cable with on of the connectors still attached.

I started to worry but then I looked at the back of the busted up controller and BAM! there was the other connector hanging in the back of the controller is about of inch of wire hanging from it (FYI the connectors are different at each end?).

I found some very nice 8 conductor cable that is slightly larger than factory spec and made up a new cable.
The new cable with the original connectors.
After that there was a little troubleshooting, a little installation and calibration, and now it's a complete new antenna installation for my shack complete with a tower and a rotator. 

Here is a little YouTube video of the entire system in action.

Ham Shack Upgrade Diary #2 - The Antenna

The new antenna is an older (exact age unknown) Mosely CL-33 triband yagi (20m, 15m, 10m). It came in pieces as the previous owner had disassembled it sometime ago.

Lucky for me the parts were all marked with either color coded paint or small marks made by the previous owner.

I used steel wool to clean off all the parts and cleared off my concrete patio to make room for the setup. With a fresh bottle of Noalox I started putting the elements back together and then the boom. Once the measurements were confirmed I start tightening all the bolts and I had an antenna ready for testing.

Thanks to Doug VE7VZ for making the trip out to Lumby and bringing his antenna analyzer along. It decided to rain at that exact moment but we soldiered forward and got it done.

The next day I was solo and it was fun and a little scary getting the antenna up onto the roof and then onto the tower. It deceiving from the photos but the boom of the antenna is just over 20 feet long, so to get it onto the roof I simply stood it on end and it reached the roof. Then I climbed the ladder and lifted it from the top (42 lbs) and set it onto the tower.

I didn't have the rotator ready at this point so my first tests were just getting the antenna onto the tower and rotating it manually.

I also took my VHF/UHF antenna and put it onto a section of fiberglass pole and stuck it onto the very top of the tower. Once the tower is extended this is getting that antenna up an extra 15 feet or so from it's original mount and cleaning up the rooftop a bit.

First install on the lowered tower (no rotator) just clears the chimney.

They look so small in the air, you need to see them on the ground for perspective.

Completed installation, fully extended, with the rotator installed as well

Ham Shack Upgrade Diary #1 - The Tower

It all started with an ad in the local ham clubs Swap and Shop. A local ham was moving and I purchased his old 40' crank-up tower, triband antenna, and a milk crate with two old rotators and 1/2 of a controller (it was in pieces).
Panorama of the freshly painted TriEx 237 crank-up tower
After I sprayed a couple fresh coats of paint on the tower I let it cure in the back yard behind the workshop for a week. Weather was horrible (heavy rain) so it took some extra time to firm up.

Finally on a sunny day I grabbed my neighbor Gerald and we put up the tower. My house is two stories tall so the edge of the roof is just over 18 feet from the concrete pad below.
Thick rubber strip supplied by Gerald was used between the top edge of the roof and the new tower

Towers Up!
You can see from the hole in my siding that I removed an old patio door and framed it in. On the inside of my house this is the location of my Ham Shack desk. I built a cable pathway in the lower center of the new wall. The majority of the wall has traditional insulation but in the cable pathway it's solid foam insulation with removable plywood covers on the inside and outside. My intention was that as needed I could drill though the pathway and pass cables easily. After a few years if it's riddled with holes or I want to start again all I need to do is replace the plywood covers and the solid foam and it's all fresh again. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A little work, a lot of driving, and a new hound

It's the May long weekend and while many are camping for the first time this year, or heading to the cabin to open it up for the season, I have completely different plans.

Today (Sat) I'm heading into work to install some great new Cisco gear in building. This is the last step to get rid of 10 year old 3COM switches and replace them with Cisco. After today everything will be gigabit, and everything will be Cisco. This afternoon it's time for a little Diablo III and programming a mobile radio for use on Sunday and Monday.

Tomorrow bright and early I'll pickup Dave in Vernon and we're making a road trip to Calgary to pickup Buckets! He is a 10 year old neutered male Basset Hound from the Calgary Basset Rescue Group (great organization, great people, doing great things!).

We are staying overnight in Calgary, getting to know buckets, and then Monday morning bright and early it's back in the car for a drive home to the beautiful Okanagan.

The rest of the family is staying home, I"ll miss the Sunday morning NORAC Net, and I'll miss the NORAC members parade marshaling at the Falkland Rodeo, but I'll have a new family member, an awesome new dog!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Custom Ham Plates

Sample Plate from the ICBC Website
I finally went and got the truck and Unimog insured for the summer this morning. I've been waiting to put their annual six month insurance package on for a while now that the snows all gone.

The Province of BC offers no-charge custom license plates to ham operators but the vehicle you want them on must be insured at the time of application. Since I originally wanted these plates for the Unimog I needed to hang on and apply after the insurance was renewed for another April-October cycle. After some suggestions from the insurance broker I've decided to put the ham plates on the truck instead, and I'm going to apply for collector plates for the Unimog since it's almost 49 years old this year.

Anyhow within a few hours of getting the insurance renewed the truck made it's first trip to the landfill, got a fresh tank of gas, and then I was back at the insurance office with the completed ham plates application.

Fingers crossed I should have VA7AEJ plates for the truck within a month.

For more information on the ICBC Ham Radio Plates program please check out this link. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

All it took was the right cable...

It's been something I've been playing with for the last week or so, but tonight all the pieces finally fell into place.

The shack today

I started by downloading a few different computer control apps for my Yaesu FT-874 and playing with them. The one I liked the most is Ham Radio Deluxe or HRD. It's got a great interface, lots of customization, a built in logger, etc. All the features I think I want (only time in this hobby will teach me what I really want or need). The first problem arose though with the CAT port on the radio and the antenna tuner.

I purchased the used Yaesu FT-847 with the matching Yaesu FC-20 auto tuner. These two units were originally sold together and in some cases the tuner was offered as a freebie bonus from Yaesu when you bought the FT-847. The FC-20 is not a great antenna tuner, but it's better than nothing (from what I've read). There is a dedicated tuner port on the back of the radio with an 8-pin DIN control cable that allows the radio to talk to the tuner, but as the original manual mentions you can't use the tuner port and the CAT port at the same time, they share some common connections inside the radio and your limited to using one or the other. I've read that their might have been firmware updates available in late models of the radio, but I had problems with both being connected at the same time. So... I had a choice, operate the radio with a tuner and no remote control software (HRD)... OR... operate the radio with HRD, and without a tuner, well you can see that doesn't work very well.
(top row left) Yaesu FT-847 Transceiver and matching FC-20 Antenna Tuner

I found a solution in the YT-847 antenna tuner from LDG Electronics. This tuner was built specifically for the FT-847 and solved the CAT port problem by not using the tuner port and offering a CAT pass through port on the back of the tuner. So you had a much better tuner, with an extra CAT port that allowed you to connect the PC to the tuner, then the tuner to the radio.

This was an unexpected expense, but I figured it was worth it to solve the problem in a manor that felt correct and not a mickey mouse solution.

The YT-847 was ordered online and arrived a few days ago. I wired everything together and encountered a problem. The remote software (HRD) would not connect to the radio? All the same cables and ports were being used, but nothing was working. I dug into the deepest corners of my office and scrounged up every serial cable I could find. Nothing worked? If I removed the new tuner HRD would connect to the radio, if I placed it back into the middle, HRD was dead?

The Yaesu FT-847 with the new LDG YT-847 antenna tuner
Digging deeper into the LDG owners manual for the YT-847 I noticed that they mentioned needing a 'straight through' serial cable from the tuner to the PC. The Yaesu manual for the FT-847 mentions needing a 'null modem' serial cable from the radio to the PC. For whatever reason, LDG uses a 'null modem' connection from the radio to the tuner, but then converts the outbound port to the PC into a 'straight through' type?

So for two days I kept trying every cable that I owned (or borrowed) and they all must have been 'null modem' cables. Correct for just the radio, but incorrect when the tuner is added. I found a 'straight through' cable online and ordered it yesterday. Today it arrived, tonight I rushed in the door and plugged it in....

POW.... YAP.... WHAM!!!!

It's all working.  

Ham Radio Deluxe controlling my Yaesu FT-847 Radio and LDG YT-847 Tuner

Ham Nation Post Show 40m Net Check In

Great fun last night watching the latest episode of Ham Nation on the TWiT network.

I finally had a chance to check in with the post show net on 40 Meters (7.268). Net controller was Mike (WT6H) and it sounds like he really enjoys doing it.

There were a ton of check-ins from all over the US and Canada. The net went on for hours and I had to wait about 90 minutes until they finally started calling for the '7's. I jumped in first I think with my callsign VA7AEJ.

I was amazed how many people are using G5RV's like myself and I really enjoyed hearing Ham Nation hosts Bob, Gordo, and George all check in as well.

More HF fun!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Ham Shack Update

Wow, it's been a busy week in the realm of amateur radio for VA7AEJ (me). Licensed less than 90 days and it just keeps getting better.

Saturday - G5RV antenna installation
Sunday - First 20m HF contacts with Mexico and then the Minnesota QSO party.
Monday - First 80m contact with the BC Public Service Net
Tuesday - HF scanning and contacts, antenna tuning practice
Wednesday - HF scanning and contacts, antenna tuning practice
Thursday - Local club monthly meeting and coffee
Friday - Purchased/gifted (thanks Dad!) complete Yaesu rig from VA7PRS, built ham shack desk in my office, installed new gear
Saturday (today) - Local club breakfast and 20m contact with North Dakota QSO party.

Not a bad week I figure. I've met so many new people the names and callsigns are twirling around in my head.

Additional bench space (unpainted) was added onto the original that wraps around two other walls in the room (yellow)

Yaesu FT-847 and FC-20 (top)  --  Kenwood TS-120S and MFJ-948 (bottom)
PC, handhelds, quick chargers, license certificate, soldering iron

Molly's latest art work for the cork board on the wall

So the new bench needs to be painted to match the rest of the bench that wraps around the room and I have some ideas for a few shelves above the new desk for books, manuals, boxes, storage etc.

The new wall behind the new section of bench is turning out exactly as I planned. The grounding system under the desk is working very well and once the shelves are made and hung up the majority of the carpentry is finished. I've punched a few new holes through the cable pathway in the wall and put up a quick 2m antenna for the FT-847.

I'll need to wait a little longer before it's safe to get up on my roof and then the antenna plans will really ramp up. Horizontal loop for HF, and likely separate verticals for 6m, 2m, and 440. Currently all that is dreaming, but sometimes dreams come true.

I'll also need to put up some white vinyl siding on the exterior to cover up the new section of wall and get it matching the existing siding. My wife is wandering around that side of the house this time of year but once it's planting and yard season, she'll want that taken care of  :)



Monday, March 12, 2012

The Ham Shack Wall, Ground, and G5RV Installation

When I got back from family holidays in February I started the construction on the future ham shack space in my home office. There was a 30 year old sliding glass patio door in my office which I never used, and it was a horrible heating leak in my home. It's been sealed with a 3M weather insulation kit for a few years now plus full length drapes that I never open. The key point is I hate this patio door, never use it, and wanted to do something about it.

So, rather than drilling holes in my home to start pushing feed lines and ground lines in, I decided to remove the patio door and replace it with a solid wall. I decided to build the wall using screws so it could be torn down easily in the future if I sell the house or want to put a new patio door back in. I also decided that the new wall would have a one foot square section that would be setup as a cable pathway. The majority of the wall is built traditionally with pink insulation, vapor barrier, etc. The square section for cables is a straight through hole to the outside with a screwed on plywood cap on the exterior and interior and solid foam insulation in between. My idea was that I can drill as many holes as I want in the designated square area of the pathway. The drill bit will make a path through the solid foam and out the other side so feeding wires through will be really easy. When the pathway is full of holes or I want to start over, all I need to do is replace the inside and outside plywood caps and the solid foam core, and start again.


On the interior of my office I now have a new 6 foot section of wall to work with. I stained it to match the other wood in my office and I'm starting to build my desk and shelves right onto this section of wall. When I'm done this temporary wall will also be my ham shack desk.

It's hard to describe my grounding system but it's working well. It connects exterior grounding rods to an interior copper pipe that runs across the bottom of the new wall just below the cable pathway hole. Once the bench/desk is built it will run underneath the length of the work surface. I recycled some big hydro high voltage connectors from an old glass plant that closed down a few years ago. Three of these ceramic insulators are mounted along the wall about 15 inches from the floor. A 6' length of copper water pipe runs through each one and the insulators keep the copper about two inches from the wall. Each connector has 8 screw down wire connection points (6 small, 2 large) for attaching your individual grounding cables from my equipment. 

With the wall completed it was time for the antenna installation. I needed to get up as high as I could in two trees so I fired up the old Unimog from it's winter sleep and backed it up to each tree. I used the high roof of the truck as a staging point and extended my aluminum ladder up as far as it would go. Nervously I climbed the ladder and strung the rope that would connect to the insulators at the two ends of the G5RV. While not the optimum height of 35 feet. I'm guessing the ends of the antenna are about 30' up in the air.

Next I assembled a bunch of sections of the army surplus fiberglass poles and made a tee out of PVC to support the center of the antenna. Three support lines off the pole support it vertically and the base is attached to a wishing well over my actual drilled well.

I built an air core choke 'ugly' balun (another first) out of an old bucket and about 100' of RG-8 coax that runs from the bottom of the G5RV's ladder line to the house and through my new cable pathway.

I should add that I did my best to make, build, all the components myself whenever possible. The grounding system, all the feedlines, etc. My soldering iron was working overtime, and I sourced the raw coax cable and connectors locally.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

QSL Cards

I just completed my first order of QSL cards. I think they look great and they feature great photos of the immediate area around my home.

500 are being printed and I hope to have them in a week. They were done by which is Vancouver based and local to my BC economy. Nice to order and buy online, even better when the money stays in BC.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Aaren vs Sponge Bob - Battle of the Belly Bumps

He pulled me out of the crowd and challenged me to a belly bump.

I approached at 50% power, I didn't want to kill him or knock him on his ass.

He faked me out and went for horny leg grab, I was defeated.

He was man enough to pose with the whole family.