Thursday, December 26, 2013

A New Years Resolution Completed (just in time)

Ice Tube Clock Kit v1.1

In the fall of 2012 I ordered an electronics kit.

I heard about the kit from Leo Laporte of the TWiT network when he interviewed the sites founder Limor "Ladyada" Fried. She was a great guest and one of the kits they mentioned was a clock made from a retro Russian display tube! The site is

Well it was earlier that same year that I become a licensed amateur radio operator and my interest in vacuum tubes and electronics was just beginning.

I had the best of intentions, this would be one of my winter projects. When I hadn't even taken the parts out of the box by Christmas it was suddenly one of my 2013 New Years resolutions that I would get it done by spring... NOT!

Well this morning (Dec 26th 2013) I woke with a grand ambition to do nothing. I have been at two family Christmas events in two days and now it was Boxing Day, also known around my house as Pajama Day! I wasn't gonna leave the house, I wasn't gonna exert myself, the only plans I had was for some TV and gaming, and relaxation. I started the morning with a couple relaxing cups of coffee, and I hopped online and spent all my Christmas gift money. Then I settled in for some video gaming until my buddy informed me that he was only gonna be available for an hour or so and then he was watching Hockey with his family for the rest of the day.

My wife and I watched a movie, and by 2:00 in the afternoon I was BORED. I went into the 'shack' and saw the old kit sitting on the shelf. I remembered New Years resolution, and I saw six days left on the calendar year. Suddenly, I did a quick inventory of tools and other required materials and I figured let's get at it. At best I might get it started and finish it sometime over the next week or so.
I took over the kitchen table and dragged a small tote full of tools upstairs. I had hoped the lighting at the table would be brighter, and the front windows might also let in some winter sunshine in.

The kit ended up being much smaller then I thought. And I mean smaller on ALL scales. The parts were smaller, the solder points were smaller, and the finished product was smaller. This meant I should have used a better light and a magnifying system of some kind, something I don't currently own.

Lucky for me I had one solder tip with a very very fine tip and I think it saved the day. The kit had no SMT parts, but it was a very tight board with very small thru-hole parts. The toughest might have been the 19 thin wires from the display tube threaded through tiny holes in a circle the size of a dime and spaced so tight together that the solder wanted to flow from one to the next. Squint, blink, breath, squint, blink, breath.

The instructions on the website were GREAT, lots of pictures, lots of warnings in places where other people frequently mess up. Having a tablet right in front of me with the step-by-step guide proved to be a handy tool.

Suddenly I lifted my head and 3+ hours had gone by. The kit was done and the clock was working perfectly. Wow that was fun, and obviously very focusing of my attention. I didn't get bored, I didn't get up and walk about, I was in a kit building trance.

Like I said, that was fun!

Now I have a cool new glowing clock on the desk in the Ham Shack. It's set to UTC, and it fit rights in.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Old Is New Again - My 2nd Station

When I got into Amateur Radio a couple of years ago the first HF rig that I bought at a club auction was a Kenwood TS-120S. This old timer is still running fine, but it doesn't support the newer bells and whistles that I tend to find more useful in my radio experimentation. Next year the Kenwood will find a more permanent home in my 5th wheel trailer as a permanent mobile HF station.

The second radio I got was a Yaesu FT-847. This was a purchase that my dad helped me out with, and the key to the deal was one of my dad's friends and co-workers George VA7PRS/VA7COP who had the radio for sale.

The Yaesu was my "go to" rig for almost a year and it's all-band versatility and more modern features allowed me to experiment with a lot of different things in my first year as a licensed operator, VHF, UHF, HF, Auto Tuners, Rig Control, etc.

When I bought the Flex 5000a software defined radio the excitement of that led me away from the Yaesu for almost a year, once again the Flex was newer and cooler and there were things I needed to learn and expand my radio chops with.

At Field Day this year I spent a few hours chatting with Ron VA7VW who is heavily involved in Satellite and he opened up my interest in ISS, Amateur Radio Satellites, and the different uses for VHF and UHF that I hadn't even dabbled with yet. Ron helped the club earn a few extra points at Field Day by digipeating a message off the International Space Station. Needless to say I was impressed, it was all new to me.

So this long intro leads me back to the Yaesu FT-847 radio sitting on my bench doing little more then basic local VHF repeater work and net control operations for the last year.

[from the Yaesu website]

The FT-847 Earth Station: A masterpiece of high-tech design and packaging know-how!
Utilizing the latest computer-aided design techniques and thousand of "chip" components. Yaesu's engineers have achieved an engineering breakthrough that was only a dream just a few years ago: a full-power transceiver covering HF, 50 MHz, 144 MHz, and 430 MHz bands in a package about 2/3 the size of an average briefcase. Ready for action on SSB, CW, AM, FM, and digital modes, the FT-847's ultra-compact size makes it ideal for serious base stations use, and well as a variety of portable and mobile applications, including Field Day, DX-peditions, VHF/UHF "Rove" operation, and RV installations. And long-term reliability is ensured by the rugged construction, featuring an aluminum diecast chassis which doubles as the power amplifiers’ heat sink.

Unmatched for Satellite Operation
The FT-847 includes crossband full duplex operation, so you can hear your downlink signal while transmitting (on a different band) on the uplink. The FT-847 is ready for operating on Mode A (TX: 145 MHz, RX: 29 MHz), Mode B (TX: 435 MHz, RX: 145 MHz), Mode J (TX: 145 MHz, RX: 435 MHz), or Mode T (TX: 21 MHz, RX: 145 MHz).

Independent display of both the TX and RX frequencies is provided, and twelve dedicated Satellite VFOs allow you to set the transceiver up for operation on a number of different transponders.

Both "Normal" and "Inverted" tracking of the uplink and downlink VFOs is available.
Leading-Edge Receiver Design
Strong enough to survive the rigors of competitive HF operating, yet sensitive enough for stand-alone Moonbounce operation without an external preamplifier, the receiver section of the FT-847 includes a low noise preamplifier, followed by a quad-FET first mixer, which provides outstanding rejection of intermodulation.

On 430 MHz, the receiver preamplifier is a HEMT device, for extremely low noise. And if you have tower-mounted preamplifiers you wish to utilize, the FT-847 can be configured to bypass the internal preamp in favor of passing +12V through your coax line to power your preamplifier.
Built-in Digital Signal Processing (DSP)
For improved interference rejection, or enhancement of the signal-to-nise ratio, the FT-847 includes a sophisticated audio DSP system. Featuring Auto-Notch, Noise Reduction, and Bandpass Filter circuits, the DSP is an effective tool for improving receiver performance.

The Bandpass Filter is particularly effective in weak signal work, such as EME (Moonbounce), as the CW bandwidth may be reduced to a razor-sharp 25 Hz, with a variable center frequency. This can yield almost 10 dB of signal-to-noise improvement over many commonly-used audio filters.
Shuttle-Jog™ Quick Tuning Aid
First introduced on Yaesu's FT-1000MP transceiver, the Shuttle-Jog™ Tuning Ring provides rapid frequency change by its unique spring-loaded design. Rotating the Shuttle-Jog™ ring slightly to the left or right begins manual scanning to lower or higher frequencies, respectively; lean the ring further, and the scanning rate increases!
High-Contrast Multi-Function Blue Liquid Crystal Display (LCD)
The large blue LCD provides high resolution and contrast for easy viewing from a wide range of angles and light levels. Dozens of status indicators keep you informed of every aspect of your FT-847's operating characteristics, with a large Sub-VFO field on the right side being particularly helpful during satellite operation.

The LCD's illumination brightness is adjustable via an 8-level dimmer function.

The Yaesu has some serious chops in areas of Amateur Radio Satellite and Earth-Moon-Earth operation. I knew I needed to get it back up and running with more modes and versatility then just local VHF stuff. So another project began.

First, my laptop was getting old and starting to show signs of it's age. Rather then investing in a new one (not in the budget) I upgraded and added more memory (4GB) and switched to a used solid state drive I got from a friend (Intel 120GB SSD). These two changes really brought the old tech to life again. I also upgraded to Windows 7.

I wanted to build up a complete second station and this included a 2nd computer/laptop. My hope was that I could leave the first station with the Flex SDR alone and not confuse the setup by trying to get one computer to control both radios. I also hope that by going with a laptop I might be able to make the 2nd station portable sometime in the future for Field Day etc.

Next I ordered a Triplexer (Comet CFX514J - 1.3-90/130-200/380-500MHz) this allowed me to split the signals from my tower mounted JPole antenna (Arrow OSJ146/440) and feed both the VHF and UHF antenna ports in the back of the Yaesu radio and work crossband if required.

Next I experimented with a Signalink USB soundcard for the FT-847 and discovered I had a situation I needed to work around.  In a perfect world I want everything to be connected all the time, and be able to switch modes of operation without switching cables and plugs.

I have a LDG YT-847 auto tuner and it's just fantastic. The CAT/RS232 port on the back of the Yaesu wires into the YT-847 as part of the tuners requirement to control the radio for a few seconds during tuning. The YT-847 then has a pass thru CAT/RS232 port on the back of it to allow you to connect to a PC and still use radio control software like Ham Radio Deluxe. This double hop of CAT connections works just great and reliably.

Using the SignaLink soundcard for digital modes I didn't like having to plug and unplug the Mic every time I wanted to switch from voice to digital mode operation. I had to go this route because the CAT port on the back of the radio was already tied up with the auto tuner connections.

So I did some more research and ordered the RigBlaster Advantage soundcard because it has a Mic pass thru port that will allow the Mic to stay connected all the time as well as providing quick switching between voice and digital modes without cable swapping.

The RigBlaster also supports radio control and has a CAT/RS232 input on the back. The output of the RigBlaster to the PC is a single USB cable that carries the soundcard data and the CAT serial communication over the single wire connection. So with the previous solution I had a serial to USB converter cable running into the laptop for rig control, and I had another USB cable coming from the Signalink for audio. Now with the RigBlaster Advantage it will handle the digital modes function with the Mic pass thru admirably and all the CAT communication functions as well through a single USB cable solution into the laptop.

   Time to start playing and experimenting  :)

Friday, July 05, 2013

My First Amateur Radio Field Day

VA7AEJ (me, on the right) Saturday evening working 80m during Field Day 2013

If you follow my blog, (ha ha, I know that's such an incredibly optimistic opening comment) you'll know that I've only been a licensed Amateur Radio operator since Christmas of 2011. This means that the summer of 2012 and the summer of 2013 are the only two ARRL Field Day events that have come and gone during that period.

Last year my local club did nothing to celebrate Field Day. So, I sat at home that weekend and casually made a few contacts as a One Delta and got a bit of a feeling of what all the excitement was about. It was a busy weekend on the bands and I enjoyed listening to people work the pileups, as well as hearing more YL's, and more kids getting onto the radios and making contacts.

This year I'm on the Executive of the local club and as a new group of members overseeing club activities one of our focuses early on was to resurrect Field Day as a club activity. Overall our club is in a bit of a slump with membership, so we tried to identify activities that would be FUN for the existing members, and might ATTRACT old and new Hams in the area to rejoin the club.

Bob VE7EZI our club president took a great "Hell or High Water" approach to Field Day, he didn't care if only 5 or 6 of us took part, we were gonna make it happen. Good for you Bob!

Bob VE7EZI and Murray VE7MH found a great new location at a local pioneer tourist attraction North of Vernon called Historic O'Keefe Ranch. This was one of the larger working ranches in our area in the 1800's and now the entire site has turned into a tourist spot with historic buildings (main house, bunk houses, general store, church, saddle shop, ice house, museum building, etc.), tours, restaurant, farm animals, exotic animals, rodeo arena, camp ground, etc.

We found a nice large flat field area at the high part of the property. It was a bit secluded, but it gave us the space and freedom to do as we wished. It was home to 4 enormous old trees spaced about 150-200 feet apart in almost a square shape, and our wire antenna guys started to drool at the prospects that the trees offered.

As a club we had some new signs made to direct the public to our location. And we (very smartly) went to the site about 2 weeks before Field Day and setup our crank-up antenna tower trailer "Cranky" which has been in storage for a few years. This turned out to be an excellent idea as lots of tweaking was done and lots of bugs that might of appeared on Field Day were dealt with. Once onsite the management at O'Keefe let us leave "Cranky" there, so that reduced the amount of hauling around we would have to do on the actual Field Day weekend.
"Cranky" setup to the left of the screen with a 3 band Yagi on top working 20m most of the weekend.

 I was so excited about Field Day I personally booked off the Friday so I could pack the 5th wheel and get onsite early. This turned out to be a good idea becasue it took us a few hours on friday night to setup our operating area by eventually parking two 5th wheels side-by-side and lashing some tarps over both of them to provide a roof.

George VA7PRS brought the other RV and it was George and I who camped onsite all weekend and provided security. George also provided coffee and donuts all weekend long :)

Saturday morning the radios arrived and we were on the air and ready for the 11am PST start time for the contest.

During the day we operated Two Alpha so that left everyone time to visit, and play around with other radio stuff. We are so fortunate to have a heavy duty amateur radio satellite enthusiast within our midst and he was onsite to teach us about satellite contacts and with his help we digipeated a message off the International Space Station!!!

All in all a fantastic weekend. I was Net Controller for the club's Sunday Net that weekend so I operated from the site and enjoyed talking to other clubs and their Field Day operations through our Silver Star repeater (VE7RSS - 146.880).

Thanks to all the NORAC members who participated and lent a hand.
Thanks to all the visitors.

Most of all thanks to my daughter Molly who camped with me all weekend, helped me a lot, and was on the best of behaviour :)


Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Ham Shack Update - May 2013

Figured it was time to post an updated picture of the Ham Shack.

Lots of changes since the last posts, feeling a bit neglectful of the blog itself actually.

Changes include...

A 10" digital photo frame streaming all my eQSL cards, much easier then printing them and storing them in a photo album. It runs on a power on/power off schedule, so it's only going during hours when I might be in the shack or have visitors.

Completed my Ham Shack Solar Power System.
  • I started with a large professional panel on the roof 250W / 30A
  • A 30A solar controller in the shack
  • 2 large deep cycle 12v batteries
  • a 12V RigRunner power strip (to power all the radio gear)
  • A 1000W pure sine wave inverter (to power the PC, monitors, and audio mixer amp)
The system can run all the shack radio gear and computer off the hydro grid entirely. During a sunny day the input power from the panel exceeds the drain of all the radio gear running. In the evenings it can run for hours on the batteries alone before needing to recharge the next day. If I want to really stretch the solar power I can turn off the inverter and just power the core HF/VHF radio gear from 12V.

Built up a proper lightning arrestor system for the antenna's and gear. This includes 4 Alpha Delta lightning arrestors mounted to a copper bus bar in a steel enclosure outside at the shack on the wall. All the antenna feedlines (HF and VHF) route to individual arrestors in the enclosure, then patch cables route them into the shack and the radio gear. Large gauge copper ground cable runs from the bus bar to ground rods just a couple feet away. The project isn't finished with weather proofing to follow, but at least it's functional now to protect from lightning and static discharges. We've already head a early spring electrical storm and another if forecast for tonight.



VA7AEJ is now a Radio Amateurs of Canada - Official Bulletin Station.

Radio Amateurs of/du Canada
RAC Field Organization
Official RAC Field Organization Appointment Description
Official Bulletin Station (OBS)
            Rapid dissemination of information is the lifeblood of an active, progressive organization. The RAC Official Bulletin Station network provides a vital communications link for informing the amateur community of the latest developments in Amateur Radio and RAC. RAC bulletins, containing up-to-the-minute news and information of Amateur Radio, are issued by RAC Headquarters as soon as such news "breaks."
            To serve the greatest possible "audience," OBS appointees who can send RAC bulletins over VHF repeaters and via uploading to packet bulletin board systems (PBBS) are of maximum usefulness and much in demand.  If possible, an OBS who can copy bulletins directly from Internet (or the Bulletin Manager) should be assigned to each major repeater in the section. Bulletins should be transmitted regularly, perhaps in conjunction with a VHF repeater net, on a repeater "bulletin board" (tone-accessed recorded announcements for repeater club members), or via a RTTY or packet (computer) mailbox, if one is functioning locally.
Duties and requirements of the OBS include the following:
1. OBS candidates are required to have and maintain full RAC membership and hold a Basic or higher Amateur Operator’s Certificate of Qualification (or equivalent, as stipulated by the Radiocommunications Regulations).  They should always operate radio equipment only within the limits and privileges of the certificate and qualification held.
2. Retransmission of RAC bulletins must be made at least once per week to maintain appointment.
3. OBS candidates are appointed by the Section Manager (or by the Bulletin Manager, if the SM so delegates) and must adhere to a schedule that is mutually agreeable.
4. OBS appointees should send a monthly activity report (such as FSD-210 under "Schedules and Net Affiliations") to the Bulletin Manager, indicating bulletin transmissions made and generally updating the Bulletin Manager to any OBS-related activities. This reporting arrangement may be modified by the Bulletin Manager as he/she sees fit.
5. As directed by the Bulletin Manager, OBSs will include in their bulletin transmissions news of local, section and regional interest.
            Recruitment of new hams and RAC members is an integral part of the job of every appointee.  Appointees should take advantage of every opportunity to recruit a new ham or member to foster growth of Field Organization programs and our abilities to serve the public.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Right Tools Make All The Difference

One of my contacts made during the January 2013 PSKFEST

In my first year of Amateur Radio I've made mistakes and learned lessons. I feel good about the experiences because that's how it's supposed to work. It's a hobby, and hobbies aren't any fun if you are an expert from day one.

In my first year I found a great local deal on coax, it was big (RG-8?), it seemed right for the job.

I ordered some PL-259 connectors, they were cheap and seemed OK.

I dug out my old Weller soldering iron and it seemed to be working fine.

After I built my feed lines I started using them and everything seemed OK.


Here is what I've learned...

I got a RigExpert AA-230 antenna analyzer for Christmas this year, it was a combined gift from my employer for 10 years of service, and I kicked in the other half of the cash as a gift to myself. One of the reasons I upgraded to this particular model of RigExpert is that it also supports the feature of a Time-Domain Reflectometer.
A time-domain reflectometer (TDR) is an electronic instrument used to characterize and locate faults in metallic cables (for example, twisted wire pairs, coaxial cables).

Using the AA-230 I started testing my feedlines and patch cables and found some problems. The two significant ones were...
  • Some of my PL-259 connectors were installed badly. Over soldering, under soldering, melting, bad trimming. You name it, I probably messed it up.
  • Some of that "great deal" local coax I sourced was 75 ohm and not 50 ohm. Without any labeling on the cable, I couldn't tell.
Over the last few weeks I've been sourcing and purchasing new and better tools for the job. Last night I sat down to repeat the task from one year ago, a year of learning, listening, and using my radio gear for numerous fun and exciting new things.

So how did it work out?

I got some excellant 50 ohm coax sourced from other hams (used) and ham dealers (new). The right cable is easier to work with, and solder with.

I ordered some Amphenol PL-259 premium connectors. Three other local club members shared in the order and the expense. Buying in bulk our cost per connector was cut in half.

I picked up a better and professional MetCal MX-500 soldering station. I bought this used for $100 this is a great quality piece of equipment. New units are $600+, these are so well built they can run all day, every day, for 10+ years. They heat with RF energy right to the tip, have automatic temperature control, don't need calibration, and ton's of tips are available for soldering, reworking, desoldering, and SMT part placement. Incredibly versatile. Not to mention they heat up and are melting solder in 3-5 seconds.

So with the right tools, the job was way quicker, looked much more professional, and with the AA-230 I can test and verify the cable is problem free BEFORE putting it into use.