The Amateur Amateur: Return to Deadzone

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
June 2018

Gary and Steve
Yeah, it will reach... if I hold up the power supply
Steve in ceiling
Connecting the transceiver directly to the outside coax

It all started when my wife Nancy (N0NJ) discovered that neither of the two Amateur Radio transceivers at Northeast Hospital was working. She was a performing a routine test of the radios by checking into the monthly Hospital Amateur Radio Net when she discovered the problem. I chronicled that event in a tongue-in-cheek column I called Big Trouble in Deadzone. I ended the story with the line, "Stay tuned for further adventures of the troubled town of Deadzone."

Little did I know how prophetic that sentence would turn out to be.

Not long after Nancy's discovery, the two of us went out to the hospital to give the radios a more thorough examination. One of them, we found, was suffering from a bad receiver filter, a known problem with that model Kenwood. Its companion radio had already developed the same problem and had been repaired. Both radios should, however, be able to transmit just fine. And yet neither could activate nor hear any repeaters in the area.

I set both radios to a simplex frequency and ran down to the parking lot of the hospital with my handheld transceiver. I found a shady spot where I could actually see the hospital's Amateur Radio antennas. I keyed up my handheld and called Nancy.

All I heard in return was a short burst of static.

"Switch to other radio," I said.

Another burst of static.

"N0NJ from KB0H. Do you read me?"

"...ming...ine.........NJ," was all that I heard.

I went back up to the conference room where the radios were located.

"I heard you fine on the working radio," Nancy said.

"I barely heard you at all," I replied.

There wasn't a lot more we could do at that point. We pulled the transceiver with the faulty filter, went home, and sent a report to Mr. P., our contact at the hospital. I connected the troubled radio to my own antenna and found that it transmitted just fine. It just couldn't receive very well. I boxed it up and sent it out for repairs. I also sent message to Steve Wooten, KC0QMU, the Amateur Radio Emergency Coordinator for the Hospital Amateur Radio Net.

Time passed. Things move very slowly in the corporate world, and hospitals are no exceptions. While checking out the equipment at a nearby ARES served agency (Steve and I are members of both ARES and HARN... Steve is in charge of both), we decided to swing by Northeast Hospital to give the Amateur Radio antennas a quick look. (See my column A Whole Bunch of Site Visits.) We confirmed that whatever was wrong involved the antenna systems, not the transceivers themselves.

Well, okay, but both of them at the same time?

More time passed. We're busy guys, and so is our contact at Northeast Hospital. But after a while, I got a message from Steve asking if I wanted to go out to the hospital with him to meet up with Mr. P. and a technician from Warner Communications, the hospital's radio contractor.

Sure thing, I said. I had something of a personal stake in the affair. And besides, I still had the hospital's newly-repaired Kenwood transceiver sitting in my basement. I figured they'd want it back sooner or later.

Coax next to lightning surge cable
Coaxial cable perilously close to lightning surge cable
Steve inspecting cable
Steve inspecting the coaxial cable

Steve and I arrived at the hospital early on a Friday morning and found that the lobby was closed for renovations. We followed the labyrinthine detours and eventually made our way to the floor where our contact, Mr. P. had his office. He was dashing from meeting to meeting, so his co-worker, Ms. S., was assigned to take his place.

Ms. S. took us to the conference room where the Amateur Radios were located. If anything, it looked even more cramped than the last time I had visited.

"I want to take a look up there," Steve said, staring at the ceiling. "Can we get a ladder?"

Ms. S. nodded and set out to find one.

Let me note here that Steve and I had different theories about what the problem might be. From what we'd been able to see from the parking lot and out various windows, the antennas seemed to be intact. We agreed that they were probably okay and that the coaxial cables were at fault. We disagreed on where, exactly, the fault was.

We knew that there was a transition from black coaxial cable outside to white coaxial inside. Steve believed that's where the problems lie. He felt that the connections had come loose, gotten fried, or failed in some other way. That's why he wanted to get into the ceiling. He wanted to locate that transition point.

I, on the other hand, had focused on the outside cables having been run very close to the lightning grounding cables. I felt that any good surge through the grounding cables would have been enough to cause the adjacent coaxial cable to melt.

Ms. S. returned with a nice rolling ladder. We had to move the furniture around to get it into the room, but did finally get it into place.

Steve scrambled up the ladder, moved a ceiling tile, and immediately found the black-to-white cable transition point. There were surge protectors between the two, and they were well grounded.

Confident that he had found the problem, Steve took everything apart.

"Everything looks okay," he said, frowning. "All the parts are intact, there are no scorch marks, nothing. I don't understand."

Things were looking better for my theory.

But Steve hadn't given up yet. He turned to Ms. S. and said, "Can you get me a taller ladder?"

Ms. S. was a wizard at finding things. Within minutes she had procured the tallest ladder that would fit into the room. Steve made his way up it, and the top half of him disappeared into the ceiling.

"What are you up to?" I asked.

"Do you think the transceiver's power cable will stretch this far?" he replied.

"Ummm, maybe, if I hold up the power supply."

Steve's idea was to connect a transceiver directly to the outside coax, bypassing the inside coax altogether. So, that's what we did.

Radny, Steve and Ms. S.
(left to right) Randy, Steve, Ms. S.
Randy and Steve examining the antenna connection
Randy and Steve examining the antenna connection

It didn't make any difference. The transceiver's signal still wouldn't get out. But, at least we had eliminated the inside coax and the lightning arrestors as possible culprits.

About that time, Randy from Warner Communications arrived. He was already aware of the problem, so Steve recapped what we had tried and had discovered.

While Steve and I are innovative Amateur Radio operators, Randy was a professional. He connected a very serious looking watt meter to the coax, took a reading, and said, "Looks like there's no antenna."

Having done everything possible inside, Ms. S. led us to the secret door that led onto the roof. We all trooped outside and made our way to where the Amateur Radio antennas were located.

"They look intact," said Steve.

The rest of us nodded.

Now, to test my theory. We examined the coaxial cables, from the point where they exited the building, all the way to the antennas. There was no sign of damage. No cuts, abrasions, or signs of melting. Nothing at all.

So much for that idea.

Randy removed one of the antennas from its mast. There was plenty of weatherproof tape wound around the connector, so another theory went down the tubes. He unwrapped it, disconnected the antenna, and examined everything.

No damage. Everything looked fine.

Randy placed a dummy load on the end of the coax, and we all went back down to the conference room.

His watt meter still showed that nothing was getting through.

Well, we had at least had found the culprit. Something was wrong with the outside coaxial cables, not the antennas. We still didn't know why, but at least we knew what needed to be replaced. Randy said that he would write up a report for the hospital. We straightened up the mess that we had made in the conference room and left.

It still bothers us that we don't know what happened to the coaxial cable, especially both of them at the same time, but I suppose that eventually we will find out.

I guess I'll have to warn Sheriff Nancy that the Deadzone Saga is not over yet.

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