The Amateur Amateur: Coming Home to HF

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
July 2020

SGC-230 antenna coupler
Installing the original SGC-230 antenna coupler

When I originally got into Amateur Radio, working the HF bands wasn't at the top of my things-to-explore list. My primary focus was on emergency communications. I eventually wound up taking the ARRL's Amateur Radio Emergency Communication Course series (EC-001 through EC-003, now renamed and renumbered). A lesson in one of the courses said to send a formal message (radiogram) to my ARES Section Emergency Coordinator.

At that time I knew nothing about the National Traffic System. I thought that the only way to send a radiogram was via the HF bands. While HF wasn't my main interest, it was on my list of things to try. So, I purchased a Yaesu FT-847 HF transceiver, an appropriate antenna tuner, and a power supply.

And thus began my never-ending trials and tribulations with HF antennas. I just couldn't seem to come up with something workable.

I won't bore you with a lot of details, as I've already chronicled many of my efforts in earlier columns. Let me just say that for suburbanites such as myself, getting an effective HF antenna up is, well, not easy. I'd say it falls somewhere between being extremely challenging and being impossible. Oh, I've managed to put up a variety of HF antennas, just rarely an effective one.

My first real success came when my brother Chris, K1KC, gave me a used SGC-230 antenna coupler. Unlike an antenna tuner, which is near or attached to the transceiver, an antenna coupler starts at the other end of the feedline and connects directly to the antenna. By design, the SGC-230 connects to a coaxial cable feedline and a wire antenna. I placed the SGC-230 box on a mast at one end of my house's rooftop and stretched as much wire as I could toward the other end. For a counterpoise I, well, draped wire wherever I could.

But hey, it worked. To a degree, anyway. What I really needed was to get on the 80 and 40 meter bands, but my wires weren't long enough for that. I could occasionally hear conversations on those bands, but buried deep in a lot of noise. No one ever replied when I tried transmitting on those bands, so I assume that I also wasn't putting out much of a signal.

80 and 40 meters were where the Missouri section ARES teams did their HF work, so my antenna setup wasn't particularly useful for that purpose. Since I could still do some HF operating, however, I played around with other things. I especially had a lot of fun with digital modes, such as PSK31 and SSTV. I even made a few overseas contacts that way.

All that came crashing down, literally, when a severe thunderstorm brought down my main antenna mast.

Pulling up wire from the roof
Pulling wire up from the roof

It was my fault, I admit it. The mast was much too high, much too heavy, and had no guy wires. Guy wires are simply not an option at my location, and I shouldn't have risked putting up such a monstrous mast without them.

It was a very long time before I was able to try to put up another HF antenna. My roof had to be repaired. I had to put up a new, much more modest mast. And I found out that the SGC-230 antenna coupler was waterlogged. I sent it back to SGC and asked if it could be repaired.

No. It was kaput.

SGC did offer me a special price on a new SGC-237, but I declined and just stuck to VHF/UHF operations. My heart just wasn't into spending a lot of time and effort trying to get back onto the lower bands.

I suspect that somewhere in my chromosomes I have an obstinacy gene, though, because failures and things left undone tend to haunt me. So yes, I did eventually purchase a SGC-237 antenna coupler.

This time I placed it in the attic crawlspace of my house rather than on a mast.

Say what? You are wondering.

Okay, I'm not an antenna expert. In lieu of having actual knowledge, I try weird and idiotic things. Occasionally they even work. The idea behind putting the coupler in the attic was to protect it from becoming waterlogged like its predecessor. For an antenna, I ran a single wire from one port of the box, out the attic vent, up onto the roof, around in a square pattern and back to the counterpoise port of the box. I'd read somewhere that such an antenna pattern was legitimate. Having no reasonable way to prop up the square, it simply lay on the roof tiles. Weird and idiotic, right?

And unfortunately, not very effective.

So, that's the way my HF antenna remained for quite some time. Basically useless.

Earlier this year I had some serious talks with Steve, KC0QMU, our St. Louis Metro ARES Emergency Coordinator. He had a lot of ideas he wanted to implement, including expanding our communications capabilities beyond St. Louis City and County. Being the number two guy in the organization, I volunteered to take on the responsibility.

Antenna wire restrung
Antenna wire restrung

One of the first things I did was to poll the membership to see who regularly used HF, and ask if they'd like to be part of an ad hoc “HF research group” to figure out what we needed to do. I got a respectable response. I put the group to work to see who could reasonably work the 80 and 40 meter bands, as I already knew we'd need to do that to contact other ARES teams in both Missouri and Illinois.

We also had a second issue we needed to research. Because of the possibility of losing even the repeaters during a heavy-duty disaster, we've worked hard on our simplex protocols. Due to terrain constraints, however, we'd have to work in “zones” rather than directly cross-county or cross-city. So the issue was, how do we communicate between zones?

We hoped to figure out how to use HF, possibly in a NVIS (Near Vertical Incident Skywave) configuration, to make intra-zone contacts. But before I made many more “try this” or “try that” pronouncements, I needed to get back on the air myself.

Now I really had to get serious about fixing my HF antenna problem.

Local hams and readers of my past columns have offered lots of advice. But I can't connect an antenna to my chain link fence, string one up in trees, or hoist a really tall mast to form an inverted V. Believe me, I've considered just about everything. What I settled on was trying to recreate a version of the configuration I had before my monster mast and SGC-230 antenna coupler came tumbling down.

I have a friend, Bob, who has helped me with rooftop projects in the past. He came over and kept an eye on me while I scampered around on the roof. (My wife always admonished me to never get on the roof without someone to watch over me. Even though she passed away, I still take her advice seriously.)

The work on the roof went fairly quickly. I cut the antenna wire into two equal-length segments, essentially changing it from a square box into a dipole. I raised one segment so that it was supported by masts containing VHF/UHF antennas and, as before, draped the other segment wherever I could. Not elegant, but it would do for the time being.

I must admit that I was surprised to find that it worked. When I fired up my HF transceiver, the noise levels had dropped considerably. And come Field Day, I was able to hear traffic on most of the bands. 80 and 40 meters were still marginal, but that's probably because my wire segments weren't long enough.

Now I can get back to the business of working up HF strategies for our ARES team.

And just having some fun.

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