The Amateur Amateur: The Box in the Attic

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
December 2020

SGC-237 in attic
The Box in the Attic

The Box in the attic is a SGC-237 Smartuner antenna coupler. It functions somewhat like an antenna tuner, but sits at the antenna end of the coaxial cable rather than at the transceiver end. Both sides of my wire antenna connect directly to it.

My earlier columns frequently mentioned the difficulties I've had trying to get a half-decent HF antenna system put up at my no-towers, no-trees, not-in-the-yard, forget-about-the-chain-link-fence suburban home. The most success I ever had was when I put a SGC-230 on a mast and attached a wire antenna to it. Call that one Box-prime. It worked very nicely. And though I wasn't on the HF bands very often, I did make contact with Cuba, Argentina, and Spain. Not too shabby for someone who wasn't even trying.

Box-prime's days were numbered, however, as the mast it was mounted on came down during a severe thunderstorm. Once I had retrieved it, I noticed that it made a sloshing sound when I shook it. I opened it, and sure enough, it was full of water. I shipped it to SGC and asked if it was fixable. No, they said. Box-prime had moved on to antenna coupler heaven.

I eventually bought the current Box (SGC-237), but was very leery of putting it on a mast, where (1) it might get rained on, and (2) the sun might shine on it.

So I mounted it in my attic crawl space, connected the two wire antenna halves, and ran them out the attic vent to go hither and yon, wherever I could string them around the roof.

Not optimal. In fact, hardly useful at all. Oh, I could pick up stations, but I could barely get out to anyone. About the only operator who could hear me consistently was Christian, K0STH, who lives just a few miles north of me. But as I wasn't a big HF user anyway, I just ignored the situation.

Until I had lunch with Steve, KC0QMU one day. Steve is the Emergency Coordinator of St. Louis Metro ARES. I'm his second banana, the Assistant Emergency Coodinator – Operations. Among the many things we discussed, we lamented our lack of any kind of structured HF plan. Knowing that we needed one, and knowing it would require a hard-driving, no-nonsense project leader (or at least a very obsessive-compulsive one), I volunteered to take on the job. (I fit into one of those categories.)

Well, gosh. I do manage to talk myself into some difficult situations. Here I had just agreed to take on the task of coming up with a HF strategy, and I barely had any HF capabilities myself. But I went ahead and polled our ARES membership to find out who else used the HF bands, and then formed a committee to experiment with various ideas.

We learned a lot (the main thing being that nobody but Christian could hear me). We still experiment. I still come up with crackpot ideas. Everyone dutifully tries them. But now more than ever, I need to get a functional antenna system up and running. I did try a few hamsticks as an alternative, but they proved to be no more effective than my Box-in-the-attic system.

Okay. Time to get serious.

SGC-237 in a box
The Box in a box after removal from the attic

Since I'd had success with Box-prime, I figured I might have similar success if I moved the current Box out of the attic and put it up on a mast (shudder!). My reticence wasn't because I thought my newer masts would come down in some future storm. They're shorter, lighter, and have much studier bases. And though I was somewhat concerned about protecting the Box from the elements, my main worry was how much effort it would take.

No, it's not that I'm lazy. It's that crawling around in the attic space is a lot more difficult for me now that it was years ago when I first installed the Box up there. It would also require at least one and probably two trips to the roof for which I would need to find a partner. It might even require a long-ladder climb up the side of the house. My muscles started aching just thinking about it.

But I made plans anyway.

Something I could do right away was to figure out how to protect the Box from the elements once it was up on the mast. It wasn't just a whim on my part. The SGC-237 manual recommends doing this. And having already seen what happened to Box-prime when it was flooded, I didn't need any more persuasion.

So, what would I need? First, a container. Second, mounting hardware. Okay, I started looking for sturdy plastic containers. What size did I need?

Hmmmm, just what were the Box's dimensions, anyway? I could look in the manual....

Or, I could climb in the attic and measure it. Foolish choice, really, but I would eventually have to make that trip anyway to remove the Box from the attic.

Okay, I would go ahead and do the attic-climb. To be totally honest, it was to ensure that I didn't procrastinate any further. Once the Box was down, I would have to get on with the rest of the project.

I knew this would be tough. I exercise, but just can't seem to build up muscle mass (fat, on the other hand, is easy). I'm older and more fragile. I break easily. So, I put on work clothes that covered as much of myself as possible. I donned work gloves. I put on knee pads and elbow pads. And to cap it off, I put on a helmet.

Access to the attic crawl space is via an opening in the ceiling of the hallway. The opening just has a slab of plasterboard covering it. I have to supply my own ladder. And the only one that (1) fit into the tight nook of hallway where the attic opening is located, and (2) is sturdy enough and will hold my weight, doesn't quite reach the opening itself. I have to climb up, move the plasterboard aside, then go as far up the ladder as I can. That will get my upper body into the attic. After that, I have to rely on my arms to hoist the rest of myself up.

Electrical box for the SGC-237
An electrical box for the Box. It was delivered in two layers of boxes, literally a box in a box in a box.

That used to work. I didn't have quite as much luck this time though. It took me several tries before my arms realized that, yes, I really was serious. And boy, they let me know for days afterward just how unhappy they had been about it.

As soon as my entire body was in the crawl space I was glad that I'd decided to wear a helmet. It saved my head about a dozen times while I was up there. Scalp wounds are no fun.

Squirming around up there was pretty difficult as well. Parts of my body just weren't getting the message that all of me was supposed to be moving. So, with all my personal impediments, it was gratifying that the hardware itself gave me no trouble at all. I was able to disconnect and remove the Box fairly easily.

Once down (and rested), I examined the Box and realized that I could modify part of my plan. Instead of feeding the coax from the transceiver and the Box's control and power wires through the attic vent to the outside, the Box's own coax and control wires were long enough to reach back through the vent and reconnect. It would save wrapping a lot of weather-proofing tape around the outside connections.

But it will require another trip to the attic.

Nevertheless, Part One was done. The Box was down.

I spent a while on the Internet finding and ordering a plastic electrical box (small 'b') that would hold the Box. I also ordered brackets to connect the box (small 'b') to the antenna mast. It helps when you know the dimensions of everything.

That's where the project stands right now. The next step: Getting the Box into the box.

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