The Amateur Amateur: The Curse of the Lower Bands

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
September 2018

MFJ-1796 multi-band antenna
My first HF antenna

One of the very first things that I learned when I became an Amateur Radio operator was that working the HF bands was nothing at all like playing around on 2 meters. Another thing that I learned was that the HF bands are cursed.

Let me rephrase that. My personal efforts to work on the HF bands are cursed. It's as if I had ordered my first HF rig from a mail order outfit that worked out of an ancient Egyptian tomb, and they included a curse as a free bonus. (And that would certainly explain all of the hieroglyphics on the last page of the user manual.)

I know that sounds like a flight of fancy, and I haven't actually found any desert sand or mummy wrappings inside my transceiver. Intellectually, I know it's simply that working HF is a much more complex operation than just keying the Push To Talk button and lighting up the local repeater. Getting on the HF bands takes a lot more preparation, both mentally and physically. I understand that. But, I had rotten luck with every step that I took.

It sure felt like a curse.

I guess it began with my first HF antenna. I had endless problems there, starting with what to buy. My options were limited by utility lines, vegetation, and stern warnings from my wife. The antenna had to go on the roof of my house, period, and it couldn't be so tall as to be unmanageable... or attract undue attention from passing storms.

My first effort was a multi-band vertical from MFJ. It wasn't huge, so my wife Nancy and I were able to wrangle it (she's an Amateur Radio operator herself). Together, we tuned it, trimmed it, tuned it some more, and eventually got it mounted and connected. But even with an antenna tuner between it and my transceiver, it wasn't very effective. I would only rarely hear anything on the HF bands, and transmitting through it was pretty much like sending my signals into a sack of potatoes.

I started looking around for something else to try, and wound up with a collection of really odd-looking antennas that more closely resembled bird houses with Quaker Oats boxes in the middle. These were of the "amazing-but-true" category of products that always turn out to be duds. When I tried to selling them at various hamfests, someone would always plant himself in front of my table and loudly decry what pieces of junk they were.

I finally had some success on the HF bands when I ran some wire across the roof of my house (and down into the garden) and connected it to a SG-230 antenna coupler. That actually worked, and I was happy with the results. Unfortunately, a severe storm brought down the mast containing the SG-230, and when I finally got around to examining it, it was full of water and no longer functional.

SG-230 antenna coupler
SG-230 antenna coupler.. before it became waterlogged

The curse had gotten me again.

After a long waiting period, I was able to purchase a SG-237 to replace the waterlogged SG-230. Regretably, though, I was not able to recreate my earlier wire antenna configuration. The makeshift one I set up instead barely works at all. I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out how to make it more like it used to be.

Antenna problems were not my only HF band difficulties. During the brief time that I actually had a working aerial, it was very good at making contact with every speaker in my shack. It was pretty good at getting into the phone line as well, and at one point even modulated one of my table lamps.

I know, I know, shielding, grounding, filters, etcetera. But, don't you see? Even when I succeed, there's always a new problem.

And then there was the static. QRM, QRN, one of those. My rig's filters couldn't do anything about it. I bought a MFJ noise canceler. Not only was it ineffective, its screw-in antenna didn't even fit. The static still plagues me, and there seems to be no way to overcome it.

Even when everything else works (which is rare enough), something new and unexpected always seems to happen. I'm not very competitive, so contests are not my thing. Occasionally, though, I will attempt to contact a special event station. I'm usually not successful, but I finally got a shot at one station when I heard it just coming on the air. It was the New Hampshire 13 Colonies station on 20 meters. I put out my call and the operator may have heard me, because he said, "Station ending in Hotel come back." I tried again and my transceiver shut down. I never discovered why.

It's a curse, I tell you.

I can, however, sometimes evade the curse. All I have to do is go somewhere else and use someone else's radio. Then I rarely have problems.

Let me end this tale with a strong word of advice. Don't order anything from a place with a name like "Tutankhamun International Discount Radio House". Whatever you buy will come with a guarantee alright, but it's not what you think!

(Email = [email protected])

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