The Amateur Amateur: Backaches and Bird Poop

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
July 2014

antenna farm before changes

The antenna farm before any changes. Note the discones are supported by only one angle iron.

one discones removed from standoff

One discone down.

discones sitting on roof

Both discones down.

solo angle iron on mast

Lone angle iron, awaiting a partner.

nut, bolt, washers

The correct hardware.

half assembled J-Pole

Doing it the hard way. Half assemebled J-Pole.

J-Poles sitting on standoff

Finished, except for the screamming backache.

My last column was about purchasing an Icom ID-5100A and finally getting into D-STAR. I mentioned that I had some problems reaching the local repeaters because the only spare antenna I had available was an old Radio Shack police scanner discone. I could reach the local D-STAR repeaters, but sometimes what I heard was digitalized gibberish. It sounded rather like normal speech that someone had cut to pieces and then pasted back together in random order. Amusing, but not really intelligible.

This month's narrative is about putting up a better antenna.

I had two Radio Shack discones that dated back to when I primarily monitored police scanners, probably even before I got my ham ticket. In other words, they were old. They'd been up on my roof on one mast or another for quite some time. The last upgrade I'd made was to put better quality coaxial cable on them, but they were still bent and dinged and each had at least one or more radials missing. In short, they weren't what you would call “optimal” antennas, especially for transmitting. One of them actually was connected to a police scanner, but the other was available for whatever transceiver had the misfortune to get connected to it. After hearing what D-STAR sounded like coming in through that tired old hunk of metal I vowed to replace it.

Because the two discones shared the same standoff, I figured I'd go ahead and replace both of them. After careful deliberation, all of which eludes me now, I decided to get a pair of Arrow OSJ 146/440 J-Poles.

The J-Poles arrived in short order. They were a bit longer than I'd anticipated, but that's what happens when you don't pay attention to the specs. Still, they looked like they'd fit the bill and I was anxious to get them up. Perhaps in a month or so. (My projects never go quickly.)

Surprise, surprise, though, there was an unexpected break in the weather just a few days after the J-Poles were delivered. I took advantage of the rare rainless day and hauled the J-Poles (still in their packaging), my tools, an angle iron, and a bagful of U-bolts and other items that I might need up onto the roof.

The only thing I wasn't sure about was my stamina. My health had been up and down and all over the map due to a change in my medications, so it was entirely possible that the trip up to the roof might last only five minutes. Or less.

As it turned out I was up there for two and a half hours.

Despite all of the equipment and tools that I'd dragged up with me, this was more of a “hopeful” mission than a planned one. I hoped that I'd be able to dismantle and remove the discones. If I got that far, I hoped that I might get the second angle iron up (more about that later). And if I still hadn't fainted...

You get the picture.

Now on the roof, surrounded by ready tools and two eager new antennas, I surveyed the mast and what was on it. There was a Diamond X300A at the top, a standoff with the two discones at about eye level, and a weather station with a lot of bird poop on it near the base.

Having several antennas but only two masts, I'd resorted to building my own standoffs. The Radio Shack discones had originally been mounted on what could be called the “beta version” (you don't want to know about the alpha version). The beta version worked okay, but wasn't exactly what you'd call rugged. I'd later built another two-antenna standoff for a different mast. It consisted of two angle irons for stability and the most robust U-bolts that I could find. That baby was a lot tougher.

During an earlier antenna renovation project, I'd removed the mast with the discones on it (with some much needed but nervous help from my wife Nancy) and erected a newer, safer mast further from the edge of the roof (much to Nancy's relief). The plan was to build a second sturdy standoff, identical to the first one, to hold the discones.

That didn't work out. Basically, the plethora of radials on the discones left no room for a second stabilizing angle iron. Still, the antennas were fairly lightweight and one angle iron sufficed.

But, with the new J-Poles, I was definitely going to need that second angle iron.

Getting back to Hopeful Day, dismounting the discones proved to be a little more difficult than I'd anticipated. Oh, nothing was stuck or broken or anything like that. It was just a bit of a reach. I had to stretch to unscrew everything. Not a big deal. Or so I thought at the time.

One at a time the discones came down. They weren't happy about it. They resisted some, but finally yielded, only to resist again when I tried to detach the coaxial cables from them. But I'd brought my toughest tools with me, so there really was no contest.

Break time. The discones were down. How was I feeling? Did I have enough energy to continue?

Yeah. Let's get that second angle iron up.

And that's when I ran into trouble.

As I mentioned before, the second angle iron had been part of the original plan. I had the U-bolt, I had the nuts and bolts...

Where were the nuts and bolts? The small container I'd brought up with me had a few, but not nearly enough to complete the task.

Alright, down the ladder, off the roof, downstairs to the basement...

...all of which tired me out very quickly...

...scrounge around in the basement...

I found some nuts, bolts, and washers that might work.

Back upstairs, back up the ladder..., I was wheezing by this time. It's been a long time since I was a kid who liked to climb trees (and even then I wasn't particularly adept at it).

Okay, a short break on the roof while I caught my breath.

Ten minutes later I had the second angle iron up and had effectively rebuilt the standoff. But I wasn't happy with it. The compromise nuts and bolts just weren't... aesthetic.

I know that sounds weird, but I think that some engineering-minded neuron in my brain was trying to warn me that what I had put together wasn't going to be adequate.

So I made another trip down to the basement.

Really winded by this time, I spent quite a while going through random parts bins and such looking for anything that might work better. At least it was a relief from all that climbing.

And then, completely by accident, I found a bin that contained all of the nuts, bolts, and washers that I had originally intended to use on the standoff.

Amazing. They had been there all along. I'd just kept missing them. Perhaps being fatigued has a useful purpose after all.

Re-energized (a little, anyway), I made my way back up to the roof. I removed the less-than-optimal hardware and installed my newly-found treasures.

Ah, that was much better.

Flush with success I moved on to make my next mistake. I opened up one of the J-Pole packages and started assembling it on the standoff.

Why was this a mistake? Oh, I didn't break anything. No vital parts got loose or dove off of the roof. The antenna went together just fine and stayed in place. No, the mistake was that everything I was doing was slightly above me, so I was reaching, stretching, and quickly wearing myself out.

Once I got the first J-Pole up I took a long break (right there on the roof, I didn't feel like going down the ladder yet again). When I felt able to pick up tools again, I opened the second J-Pole package and assembled the antenna right there in my lap. Yeah, once it was ready I did have to struggle it into position and bolt it to the standoff, but it took much less time and energy than getting the first J-Pole up.

Finished! Right? No, not quite. The coaxial cable plugs, which had put up quite a fight when I'd disconnected them from the discones, put up a similar struggle going into the J-Poles. In fact, I went up the next day to insure that they were secure (they were) and to add proper weather sealant.

Now I was finished. I tested both antennas to insure that they worked, found that the D-STAR radio received and transmitted much better, and happily checked off that task from my to-do list.

Only, the project wasn't quite finished with me. I got over the fatigue fairly quickly, but I developed a backache that lasted a week. It was so intense at times that I honestly thought I might have kidney stones. I got through it with Aleve, Motrin, Advil, and relaxation techniques (not all at the same time, of course).

Now as to the bird poop, that's just going to have to wait for another day.

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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