The Amateur Amateur: Summing It Up

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
December 2014

antenna coupler

SGC-237 antenna coupler mounted in the attic

With the end of the year rapidly approaching, are you thinking about the upcoming holiday festivities? Or are you struggling to come up with gift ideas and worrying about travel plans?

As for me, being the compulsive person that I am, I'm pondering what I managed to accomplish this year. (I have all these to-do lists and I need to start checking off boxes.) With that in mind, and sticking to Amateur Radio related matters, I took a look back to see what happened during 2014.

And there was a lot.


Regular readers of this column will know that I frequently end with “... to be continued”. My stories about trying to get onto the HF bands, for example, never seemed to have a Disneyesque happy ending. No Mickey and Donald chatting amicably on 20 meters.

Sorry folks, I didn't plan to leave you hanging. It's just that many of my projects wind up on roads that don't seem to lead anywhere. Some of them zig and zag and show a glimmer of progress, but then suddenly swerve into a swampy morass. Others tend to be more like a time loop, endlessly circling back to the same problems.

I did, however, make some progress with HF. I successfully installed a SGC-237 antenna coupler in my attic and put up eighty feet of wire in a box configuration. The idea was to make a NVIS (Near Vertical Incident Skywave) antenna. As a member of ARES (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) I wanted to use it to talk to Missouri and Illinois stations during disasters.

That didn't work very well. I could hear some signals but generally no one could hear mine. I suspect that most of the stations in the region have vertically polarized antennas.

There's a second part to the whole failure-to-get-on-HF affair, which was made clear to me by Bob, WA4GDX. The 40 meter and 75 meter bands that I was trying to use simply don't work well during daylight hours.

Well, duh! I knew that. At least I used to know that. Somehow I'd forgotten that important fact. After Bob reminded me I tried listening after dark, and, oh wow. What a difference.

So, where am I with HF? Rethinking my antenna scheme and trying to figure out how to put up a vertical that won't blow over during the next storm.


Icom ID-5100A

Icom ID-5100A, finally mounted

My D-STAR project was another one where I left you hanging. This time I will say that it's not my fault.

D-STAR has caused me more exasperation than anything else I've ever tried. It's just one thing after another.

It started with me purchasing an Icom ID-5100A, a sweet transceiver, by the way, other than a rather noisy fan. It didn't, however, come with what I would consider some vital elements. It did come with sufficient hardware to get on the air, but no way to mount the unit, no way to mount the non-attachable control head, and no clue as to which of the “options” were actually needed and which were, well.., optional.

I took a guess and ordered what I thought I might need. It was a pretty good guess, but it took five months for everything to arrive. Really, Icom. You should have been honest and labeled these things with, “We don't actually make this item, but we will sometime soon”.

Okay. The radio works. I now have it mounted. I successfully set it up. I've accessed the local D-STAR repeaters and made contacts.

My biggest gripe, however, is that one of the touted features of D-STAR is that you're supposed to be able to connect it to a computer and do marvelous digital stuff.

The problem was that Icom's list of optional equipment included more than one transceiver-to-computer cable, and no clear indication of which did what. More specifically, they didn't warn which didn't do what. I went with the OPC-2218LU, mainly because the more costly item is always the one you need.

That was the right choice. But....

I don't know why, but the OPC-2218LU is a two-piece cable. I got it put together, got the driver loaded into my computer, got it all connected, and got the memory channel program installed. And it worked. I typed in the frequencies I wanted, set memory banks, and downloaded it all to the transceiver without a hitch.

It was only later that I discovered that the Icom cable was conflicting with the cable connected to my APRS station (Automatic Packet Reporting System).

Oh, I spent ages loading drivers, searching for newer drivers, trying different configurations, and endlessly rebooting my computer, all to no avail. There was always a conflict.

My suspicion is that both the Icom cable and the APRS cable are internally Prolific USB-to-serial devices using different drivers, and that my computer can only figure out how to provide one of them at a time.

messy cables

Coaxial cables desperately in need of management

During one of my many Internet searches for a solution I stumbled across the RT Systems USB RTS-05 cable, which had a note, “Alternative to ICOM OPC-2218LU”.

What the heck, I wasn't getting anywhere, so I ordered one.

It didn't work. And by that I mean that it flat-out didn't do anything. None of my computers would even acknowledge that I'd plugged it in. It wasn't a driver problem, the sucker was just plain dead.

Do I run into a lot of adversities or don't I?

Electronics course

I've written a lot regarding my troubles with learning about electronics. The last episode of this particular saga had me watching a DVD course while riding my exercise bicycle.

That didn't quite work (why are you not surprised?). It was a good course, and I certainly picked up more than I ever knew before. But the professor's pace was a bit too Speedy Gonzales for me and I frequently had to stop the presentation to replay portions. I decided that I needed to study the course in a different setting (that is, somewhere that I could concentrate and takes notes... not while trying to ride the bicycle). The course also listed certain simple experiments that the student should try, either manually or via computer simulation. I've set up an account on one of the simulation sites that the professor suggested, and all I need to do now is budget some time to watch the course properly.

In other words, learning all about electronics has gone back onto the to-do list.

cable raceway

Cable raceway, a work in progress

Cleaning up the shack's coaxial cables

This is a project I don't believe I written about, other than alluding to it in The Cable Family.

Since my shack is in the basement and my antennas are on the roof, I tend to use rather heavy (and expensive) feed line. I almost always purchase 100 feet of coax already fitted with connectors. (I hate installing connectors. But buying coax with the connectors already in place did come back to bite me once, when the manufacturer did a worse job of installing them than even I could have.)

Anyway, once the coax has been run and the antenna has been connected, I wind up whatever coax is left over and tie-wrap it together, then plug the end into the radio. I don't cut off the surplus coax. I don't want to lose that cherished connector (Precious.. my Precious..).

All of that surplus coax has just accumulated and accumulated. If anything makes my shack look junky (other than the masses of stuff on the floor, that is), it is all of these twisty bundles of cabling oozing from behind the shelves and tables.

One day I decided I just had to do something about it. Despite my aversion to messing with connectors, I came up with a plan and drew a design which would bring everything under control. All of the coaxial cable coming into the shack would get cut as short as possible and would go into some sort of switch. There would be a central location for the switches. The switches may have only one cable leading to a radio, but at least there would be an option for more. Cables to the radios would also be as short as possible. All cables in the shack would go through cable races.

So what happened?

This is a project in which (are you ready for this?) nothing has gone wrong. I got switch-central set up. I got my biggest knot/bundle untangled, cut, re-connectorized, and routed through a switch. It worked. I put up a new overhead raceway for the coax and have bought a raceway to run it down the wall.

That's about where I stopped. I need to drill some holes in the basement wall so that I can mount the vertical raceway, and from prior experience I know that punching into that concrete wall is going to be really, really hard. I have the proper drill bits, I just need the fortitude to do it. The wall has a lot more staying power than I do.

coaxial cable switch

Switch Central.. eventually

New computer

I'm not going to say much about this. I've already written about losing my shack computer to a nearby lightning strike (see Zzaapp!). You've all been through the irritations and vexations of a getting started with a new computer, or much worse, a new Microsoft operating system. (The combined worldwide stress all this has caused would probably be enough to fling the moon out of orbit.)

All I will say is that I spent hours and hours and hours..........

Fixing stuff that suddenly doesn't work

It probably doesn't matter what field of endeavor you mention, things just do not remain secure and reliable. But I tend to believe this is more true with Amateur Radio than with anything else. And when you add something, anything digital to the mix... even the San Andreas fault seems stable by comparison.

I cannot count the number of times that I've gone down to my shack just to relax, listen to a little chatter, perhaps tune across a few bands to see what's happening, only to find that some disaster is waiting for me. Something has gone wrong. It worked yesterday, but right now it's flashing a red light or sounding an alarm or displaying a cryptic but ominous message. Whatever plans I had for a relaxing evening just flew out the window.

It almost always takes days to figure out what, exactly, is wrong, find a solution, and get it fixed. More often than not it's an improper setting or quirky software or something like that. Which invariably leads me to the same question: Why did it work yesterday?

Did I wake up in the wrong universe today?

Next year

So, what do I anticipate for next year? No idea. I will, however, tell you what I've asked Santa to bring me...

Better luck.

E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman

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