The Amateur Amateur: HFing and Puffing

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
May 2014

It's been a year since I lost my ability to work the HF bands. A storm came through and tore up the neighboring city of Hazelwood. Florissant, where I live, was mostly spared, but the storm did take a parting shot by ripping the antenna mast off of my house. Whoosh! Rip! Splat! Right onto the patio next door. That was the end of my HF capabilities and the beginning of my neighbor's fears that perhaps my ham radio hobby wasn't so harmless after all.

downed mast

The antenna coupler is the black box a few feet from the base.

Here's the real scoop, though, I hardly ever got onto the HF bands anyway. Most of my ham radio activities did, and still do, revolve around our local ARES team (Amateur Radio Emergency Service). It keeps me very busy and leaves me with little hobby-time left to do anything else.

But here's the thing. As soon as I couldn't get onto the HF bands, that's all I wanted to do. I'd read about special events, hear about contests, maybe see something on the Internet about an interesting station, and I'd just be itching to go down to my shack, fire up my HF transceiver, and join the fun. But I couldn't. I felt like the boy who got left behind, sitting in bed with the measles while staring longingly out the window as his friends trotted up the street to go play baseball.

There is undoubtedly a term for the condition of suddenly and insanely desiring something you never wanted before, but do now because you can't have it. That doesn't exactly descibe my situation, however, because I always did have at least a mild craving to work HF. And, at least until last May, I did have the equipment to do it.

So... what has prevented me from putting up another antenna and satisfying my HF urges? Oh, I've got a lot of excuses. The primary one, though, is that it's not so easy to put up an HF antenna where I live. It must go on the roof of my suburban house. There is absolutely no way to put up anything antenna-ish across, in, or under my back yard. And after the Big Blow last year, whatever I do put on the roof had better have a fairly low profile. One gaping hole in the roof was enough for me, and more than enough for my insurance company.

The HF antenna system I'd had previously wasn't large, it just happened to be on the wrong mast. It was a simple wire antenna connected to an antenna coupler (think antenna tuner, only located at the antenna end rather than at the transceiver end). Once the mast toppled, the antenna coupler sat upside down until the storm subsided, and during that time rain managed to get inside and ruin it. It took me a while to realize that. There was another long delay while the manufacturer inspected it and declared it defunct, and a big wait for a replacement.

I have a new antenna coupler now, the wire, the coaxial cable, control cables and everything else I need. There are just three things holding up my HF antenna restoration project.
  1. The weather
  2. A plan
  3. Willpower

Gary in attic

The attic crawlspace is filthy, stifling, and cramped.

I really don't need to explain the first one. The weather has been screwy everywhere. It hasn't been bad in the Midwest every day, but every time the weather has been nice some other higher priority task has come along.

As for a plan, I could probably cobble together something in a hurry. But as yet I haven't liked anything that I've dreamed up. You see, with an antenna coupler you don't need a lot of wire, but the more you put up the better. It's also best if you can try to make it look like a dipole. On my roof, however, difficult... very difficult. Everything I've come up with so far has one of the following problems.
  • It's dangerous
  • It won't radiate well
  • It will cause marital strife

To be fair on that last one, the whole neighborhood and the City of Florissant probably wouldn't like it either.

Ah well, on to the final holdup: Willpower. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't want to get something up and running. And it's not that I mind doing the labor (even the fiddly business of soldering connectors onto the coaxial cable, something at which I am truly inept).

No, the thing that makes me cringe the most is getting up into the attic crawlspace. That is the one place in the house that I most hate to go. It's dirty. The air is stifling. There is no season of the year in which it isn't too hot or too cold up there. And no matter how many flashlights, lamps or lanterns I take with me, it's always too dark. But worst of all, the crawlspace keeps shrinking.

Dept of Health transceivers

A nice Kenwood TS-480 HF transceiver at one of the ARES team's served agencies.

EOC transceivers

This served agency has a special Amateur Radio room with lots of equipment, including three HF transceivers.

We bought the house almost 40 years ago. Back then the attic crawlspace was, well, still dirty and stifling, but at least I could move around up there. I even went so far as to temporarily install shop lights (long since removed) so that I could spend a few days upgrading the insulation.

But now the attic is tiny and cramped and I can hardly hoist myself up there and...

No. It's inconceivable that it has anything to do with me getting older, less flexible.... larger.....

Well, I'll get it done someday.

In the meantime I have found other ways of satisfying my HF cravings. And oddly, it was ARES that did it for me.

Here's a question for you. What do you do if you want to play but you don't have any toys? Answer: You play with somebody else's toys. And that's what ARES has allowed me to do. In fact, ARES has insisted on it.

Like most other ARES teams, ours has served agencies, clients with whom we have written agreements. Some of our served agencies have their own Amateur Radio equipment. By and large they own 2 meter or dual band transceivers, but a few have splurged and purchased HF transceivers as well.

And I get to play with them.

Well, officially, I test them. And truthfully, that's what I do, but I consider it playing because I'm relearning everything I'd forgotten about operating on the HF bands.

Which was an awful lot.

There was so much that had slipped my mind, little things like HF not being channelized. The station you want to hear may come in best on some hair-splitting frequency, and you may have to transmit back on a different one.

I had forgotten that with single sideband you actually have to speak up. It's your voice that determines how much signal you put out.

And then there is the rather disconcerting fact that the band I want may not be there. If the great sky demi-god Iono (the ionosphere) is out to lunch, it's just like the Internet going down. Blip! Nothing.

But of all the quirks and vagaries of operating the HF bands, the one that most gets to me, the one that truly annoys me is the noise. I'm talking about the static, the hiss, the pops, the motor interference, the 60 cycle buzz, all of it. Maybe it's a medical condition, maybe it's psychological, or maybe I'm just a cranky old guy, but trying to sift out voices from all that cacophony just drives me bats.

It's fortunate for me, then, that modern HF transceivers have all kinds noise reducing and canceling gizmos in them. I have not looked into it much, but I know there are various optional thingamabobs and external filter whatchamacallits available as well, and that will undoubtedly be my big research project once I get my own HF station going again.

That ends my tale. There are so many interesting facets to operating on the HF bands, so many nooks and crannies, each with its own surprises and oddities. I want to explore at least some of them, and I'm sure that eventually I will.

If, that is, the attic ever lets me back in.

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

Back to The Amateur Amateur home page Back to Past Columns page Dreamhost advert