The Amateur Amateur: It's Not Over 'Til the Fat Man Falls
By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
The problem didn't go away. It was that most irritating of all technical
difficulties, an intermittent problem.
October 23, 2006
Would you care to join me on the roof?
The day was
clear and the view was marvelous. Trees were swaying in the light
breeze. All in all it would have been an idyllic setting were it not
for the fact that I was sitting on sitting on uncomfortable asphalt
shingles, trying not to slide down the slope of the roof.
Yes, I was back
on top of my house. I was contemplating the unpleasant task of taking
down my antenna mast for what must have been the hundredth time. I
was waiting for my wife Nancy to join me, since this was a two-ham
job. My task would be to hoist the mast out of its tripod stand,
while Nancy's assignment would be to keep it steady and prevent
anything from toppling over the edge of the roof -- including me!
Nancy didn't like
being up there. Even more than that, she didn't like it that I
was up there. I hadn't ever fallen off, but I sure had dropped a lot
of stuff. Future archaeologists will find a gold mine of nuts, bolts,
tools, connectors and such hidden under the ivy in front of our
house. This being my umpteenth trip topside, Nancy probably figured
that the law of averages was weighing against me, especially since my
own weight kept climbing. If I didn't fall off the roof, I'd probably
fall through it.
actually started a few months back when I checked into our local
Amateur Radio Emergency Service (ARES) net. The first time I tried, I
couldn't even bring up the repeater. I made it the second time, but
the net control station told me my transmission was weak and
Some hams react
to statements like that by immediately disassembling their stations
and looking for the problem. Others, like me, figure that it was a
fluke and that the problem will go away on its own. After all, it was
probably a glitch in the repeater, right?
Well, of course the problem didn't go away. But it wasn't constant, either.
It was that most irritating of all technical difficulties, an
problem. Sometimes it was there, sometimes it
I found that
rapping my transceiver with my knuckles or jiggling the wires
sometimes made the symptoms go away. I knew what I didn't
the problem to be, so I kept focusing on everything else. Maybe it
was the microphone. Maybe it was the transceiver. Please let it be
but the antenna.
I think the problem is way up there . . .
If it was the antenna, I'd have to get on the roof again. If I did that, I'd
have to ask Nancy to help me. If I asked her to go up with me, I
would have to endure The Great Frown of Disapproval. Spending a
fortune on a new rig was much preferable to facing The Frown.
When I had the
intermittent weak-transmission problems, I also noticed that I'd get
a low S meter readings on incoming signals. Well, that eliminated the
microphone. It was beginning to look more and more like the antenna
system was the culprit.
I read somewhere
than an antenna system is everything from the feed line coming out of
the transceiver right up to and including the antenna itself. With my
setup that covered a lot of equipment. That gave me hope that I still
might be able to solve the problem without getting on the roof. So I
poked and prodded everything that was easily accessible.
Several times I
thought I had found a solution. I discovered that if I tightened all
the feed line connections in my shack, readings on my rig's S-meter
would often jump back to full strength and the net controller would
say, "You're coming in much stronger now." Nevertheless,
the problem would come back to haunt me again within a week or so.
I was having
intermittent troubles on another transceiver as well. It was an older
radio that had caused me a lot of vexation in the past, so I didn't
make an immediate connection with the difficulties I was having with
my main rig. The two radios were in different parts of the house. But
eventually the little light bulb went on over my head and I
remembered that both radios shared the same antenna. Okay, it was now
becoming apparent that what I had thought was two different problems
with two different transceivers was actually one
their common antenna system. And I had run out of connections to
tighten in my shack.
So I waited on
the roof for Nancy to arrive. She had only given me one of her lesser
frowns, not the Big One. And to be perfectly honest, she'd often been
the recipient of one of my own sullen looks. Frowns notwithstanding,
she had never refused a request for help on the roof, so I considered
Would you believe this feed line can disconnect itself?
was pretty tired on going up there myself. I had, once upon a time,
thought that after I'd erected an antenna, that was it. But that's
not the way it works. Antennas systems, especially those parts
exposed to the elements, need frequent attention. It's like a series
of bad movie sequels: Return of Trouble on the Roof, Trouble on
the Roof III, Trouble on the Roof IV -- the Revenge of the Squirrels.
Nancy arrived. We
wrestled with the mast and laid it down on the roof. I told Nancy
that it would take me a while to make my way through the brackets,
shields, and such and that she could leave if she wanted. She left.
Watching me swear and fight with recalcitrant nuts and bolts is not
one of her favorite activities.
Some time later I
finally exposed the place where the feed line connected to the
antenna. It was half unscrewed, the shield barely making any contact
at all. It was no wonder that I was having weak signal problems.
Frankly, I was
amazed. It was almost inconceivable to me that the feed line
connector, which had been quite tight when I'd first installed it,
had come so loose. I retightened it and sealed it against the
The whole affair
was quite a learning experience. I discovered that Amateur Radio
equipment is not static (unchanging). It is dynamic (constantly
changing), and that especially applies to equipment that is outside
I also learned
that I'd better start losing some weight, because that surely wasn't
going to be my last trip onto the roof.
Editor's note: ARRL member Gary Hoffman, KB0H, lives in Florissant,
Missouri. He's been a ham since 1995. Hoffman says his column's name
-- "The Amateur Amateur" -- suggests the explorations of a
rank amateur, not those of an experienced or knowledgeable ham. His
wife, Nancy, is N0NJ. Hoffman has a ham-related
Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail,
© 2006 American Radio Relay League