The Amateur Amateur: It's Not Over 'Til the Fat Man Falls

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
October 23, 2006

The problem didn't go away. It was that most irritating of all technical difficulties, an intermittent problem.

Gary on ladder

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.

This story 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 scratchy.

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 intermittent problem. Sometimes it was there, sometimes it wasn't.

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 want 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 anything but the antenna.

Gary on roof

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 problem on 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 myself fortunate.

Antenna and feed line

Would you believe this feed line can disconnect itself?

Actually, I 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 weather.

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 the house.

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 Web page. Readers are invited to contact the author via e-mail, [email protected].

© 2006 American Radio Relay League

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