The Amateur Amateur: Nibbling at the Master Plan

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
February 2019

Have to start somewhere
It was a daunting task, but I had to start somewhere.

I discussed the possible ham radio-related things I might do this year in my January column. I mentioned a variety of activities, including ideas for putting up a better HF antenna. After publishing the column, I gave the antenna scheme some more thought. And the more I thought about it, the more I added to it. The plan grew and grew, and eventually involved not just improving my HF capabilities, but also my 1.25 meter band (220 MHz) capabilities. I wanted to free my 220 transceiver from the dubious multi-band discone it was using. Flushed with enthusiasm, I went ahead and ordered a 1.25 meter antenna.

I had thought of my scheme as the "Master Plan". But once my new 220 MHz base station antenna arrived, I realized that it was more a lot of wishful thinking than it was an actual plan. For example, I had a vague idea about where I might put the 220 antenna, but hadn't actually given it a lot of careful thought. I figured I might take down one of my unused dual-band j-poles and replace it with the 220 antenna. Once the antenna arrived, I started considering the when, the how, and other practicalities of the swap.

That's when I realized I should have done some preliminary testing before rushing out and buying a new antenna.

The problem I've always had is that my house is in a poor location, near the bottom of the wrong side of a hill. I have two masts erected on the roof, with a total of six antennas piled up on them.

Yeah. It's kind of crowded up there.

Only one antenna can go at the pinnacle of each mast, which is 15 feet above the roof. All of the other antennas are arrayed on standoffs situated about halfway up the masts. They all work, but only the topmost two get any kind of decent range. My primary dual-band antenna occupies one of those coveted positions, and my multi-band discone sits at the other.

The discone is shared, via a four-way switch, with a dual-band transceiver upstairs in my study, my 220 MHz transceiver, the UHF port on my HF transceiver (yes, it covers 2 meters and 70 centimeters as well), and also the 6 meter port on my HF rig. It's really only used my my upstairs dual-bander and my 220 radio.

Okay, back to the placement of my new 220 antenna. A dedicated single-band antenna should work better than a multi-band antenna, right? What I forgot, though, was that the Master Plan called for putting the dedicated 220 antenna lower than the multi-band discone.

Narrow corridor in shack
The shack's Corridor of Doom

Oh.

Already knowing what I would find, I went ahead and ran a test to compare the performance of the antenna at the top of the mast versus one halfway down the mast. Yep, my fears were confirmed. The top-most antenna could just barely sneak a signal over the hill, and the lower antenna couldn't.

So, putting an expensive new 1.25 meter band antenna halfway up the mast would be a wasted effort.

It was time to adjust the Master Plan.

Well, the primary dual-band antenna had to stay where it was. I used it all of the time. If the new 220 antenna was going to be of any use at all, it had to take the place of the discone.

Ah. That would be difficult.

The first problem was that the discone was connected to four different coaxial cable systems. Two didn't really count, the ones leading to the HF transceiver ports, since I never used them. But I did frequently use the one leading to the dual-band radio located in my study.

Hmmmm.

Reflecting on the matter, I decided that I could share the primary dual-band antenna between the dual-bander in my shack and the dual-bander in my study. I could only use one of them at a time, as they were on different levels of my house. All I needed to do was put a two-way switch in my shack and connect both transceivers to it, and subsequently to the primary dual-band antenna. Easy, right? Just add that to the Plan.

The next part would be more complex. I would have to get on the roof, take down the secondary mast, remove the discone antenna, install the new 220 antenna, and put the mast back up.

Unfortunately, there would be complications with every one of those steps, starting with me climbing up onto the roof. Oh, I think I still have enough energy and muscle power to do so, but not in below-freezing weather. And even after the weather warms up, I no longer have my safety officer to watch over me. I will have to enlist a neighbor or bribe a ham buddy with promises of a free lunch. Even from the afterlife, my wife is firmly telling me not to get on the roof without someone keeping an eye on me. I hear her loud and clear.

Antenna switches
The finished product

Once up on the roof, there will be other issues. I will need to remove the antennas located on the standoff, and then the standoff itself, before attempting to lower the mast. It would be too unwieldy otherwise.

Then I will have to remove the nuts and bolts securing the mast in its stand. And I already know that all of them are rusted solid. I do have bronze replacements for them, but, short of waiting a few hundred years for them to crumble on their own, I'm really unsure about how to remove them. Last summer I tried WD-40. The nuts and bolts just laughed at me.

Should I look through the Harbor Freight catalog for a new power tool? I'm pretty sure my wife wouldn't have approved of me using explosives.

Well, the Master Plan was beginning to look like another one of my Long Range Plans. You know the kind I'm talking about, the ones you're going to do Real Soon Now, but privately recognize that they'll never happen.

That irritated me, not only because I really wanted to see this plan through, but also because I'd blown a wad of money on a fancy 1.25 meter band antenna. I was determined to at least get started on the project.

I'd put in the two-way switch and connect both the upstairs and downstairs dual-band rigs to it. I'd then connect the trusty primary dual-band antenna to the switch. No problem.

Problems.

The first was that there wasn't a lot of space for me to work. There was just an extremely narrow corridor, with big 12 volt batteries on the floor and cables dangling everywhere. The second was that the primary antenna's coax was somewhat longer than necessary, and a bunch of it was coiled up on a shelf I could barely see. I could simply cut it short and put a new PL-259 plug on it, but I hadn't done that sort of thing in ages.

Cartoon mouse
Nibbling at the Master Plan

I decided to mount the two-way switch first, as that didn't involve taking any steps that committed me to going all the way. As it turned out, mounting the switch was pretty easy. The only thing that made me frown was that I couldn't figure out why I had so many unused two-way switches lying around. Surely I hadn't bought them while having no idea why I was doing so. Maybe it happened during a bout of hamfest fever. I just don't know.

I looked at the newly installed switch and realized that it would complain to me every time I saw it: When are you going to use me? So, I took a deep breath and started assembling the stuff I needed to (shudder!) cut the coax leading to the primary antenna and put a new PL-259 plug on it. I really feared that part, since I'd usually had a lot more working space, and frankly, a lot more confidence.

Nevertheless, I did it. The only surprise was that the center conductor of the coax was stranded (I was absolutely sure that it was solid), but that didn't really impact the project. I had to stop and go get more tools and things a few dozen times (oh yeah, I'm going to need solder... and, oh yeah, a soldering iron...), but nothing catastrophic happened.

After I finished, I connected the antenna and transceiver cables to the switch. Everything worked. Amazing.

I'm happy that I got started on the antenna project, and that it didn't wind up as scribblings in a dusty folder somewhere.

But, I have to admit, I've only begun to nibble at the Master Plan.

(Email = [email protected])



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