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.