The Amateur Amateur: Towering Prices

By Gary Hoffman, KB0H
Contributing Editor
August 22, 2007

Okay, I need to get higher. After years of fiddling with my VHF/UHF antennas, I reluctantly acknowledged that they need to go up.

This was not really a surprise to me. The pieces had been falling into place for a long time (actually, pieces had been falling off the roof for a long time, but that’s another story). I could not hit repeaters that other hams in the same city could hit. I had difficulty reaching other operators on simplex. Oh yes, the signs were very clear.

15 foot mast

Even at 15 feet high, this antenna is defeated by the hill to the south.

Comanche Lane uphill

The street has a deceptively gentle slope to the south...

Eave mounted mast

...but the incremental jump in the rooftops shows the real story.

As part of the St Louis County ARES group, I need to be able to reach as much of the county as possible. I live in Florissant, Missouri, which is in the northernmost part of the county. They say that location is everything, and Florissant is pretty much the wrong place to try to reach the whole county.

I did say, however, that other hams in the same city fared better in their efforts. Well, they do. It just happens that I also live in the wrong part of Florissant. I live on the north face of a hill. The top of that doggone hill sits between me and the rest of the county. Hey, I wasn’t an Amateur Radio operator when I bought the house. What did I know about line-of-sight radio propagation?

It's not as terrible as it sounds. I can get through to many hams to the west and southwest of my location, and I’m usually able to make contact with hams in the city of St. Louis itself. But there are a great many operators due south of me, and unless they are really close, my signals won’t reach them.

Sloping Terrain

I have gone through a number of VHF/UHF antennas. Each was more expensive than the last, but none ever solved my propagation problems. Switching to better coax helped a lot — at least there was more signal coming in and getting out. But the fundamental problem remained and I kept ignoring it. I knew that the terrain to the south of my house sloped upward, but I kept pretending that it had little impact on my signals.

My VHF/UHF antenna had been located at the top of a 10 foot mast, and the mast was held up by a tripod mounted on the roof of my house. One day I slid in another 5 foot section of mast. That helped some, but not enough.

I didn't seriously think about adding more sections of mast after that. For one thing, I would definitely have to install guy wires — the thought made me shudder all over. I didn’t like the idea, and my wife Nancy really didn’t like the idea. But aside from the guy wire issue, the existing 15 feet of mast was already difficult for us to raise and lower.

So for a long time I did nothing.

Recently, however, I started looking for alternative masts. Specifically, I wanted something that I could easily raise and lower. I envisioned a set of nested mast sections, as well as something that I could put in my tripod without difficulty. I would install the antenna on the un-extended mast, and then raise each section vertically. I was tired of trying to hoist a heavy horizontal mast to a vertical position and watching it wobble all over the place while Nancy and I frantically tried to hang onto it.

Sloping Prices

I searched the Internet for easy-to-erect miracle masts such as I described. And lo and behold, they exist! I found several mast systems that looked like they would do the job. I was ecstatic. There was just one problem: None of the Web sites displaying these wonderful masts ever listed the prices.

That should have been a warning, and indeed it did ring some alarms in my head. No prices? Just government code numbers? It sounded like the masts I wanted were going to be a bit on the expensive side. Nevertheless, I desperately wanted to solve my antenna height problems, so I dug and dug until I found out how much the masts cost.

I know that I often describe my reactions by making allusions to cartoons characters, but that’s honestly how I feel. This time I was sure that my jaw fell all the way down to the floor, made a resounding clank and that my teeth tumbled out of my mouth. The masts could not be described as expensive. Expensive doesn’t even begin to describe their prices. They were astronomical.

I spent a lot of time on the Internet looking for more reasonable solutions, but I just kept finding one-sale-and-I-can-retire type merchandise. What was going on? I had bought simple masts and tripods for less than $100. Now it appeared that the next step up was well into the thousands of dollars. Were there no intermediate products in the range of merely in the hundreds of dollars? If so, it seemed that I could not find them.

Well, eventually I did find at least one product that didn’t have such an astronomical price tag. It was in the stratosphere, though, so I was quite nervous when I phoned in my purchase. It was the most money I’d ever spent on any Amateur Radio equipment. In my wildest dreams I never imagined that a mast system could cost more than an antenna or a transceiver.

I haven't received the mast system yet so I do not yet know whether this will solve my problems. Hopefully the title of my next column will be “Success at Last!” And not “Used Antenna Mast for Sale.” Keep your fingers crossed. I’d cross mine, but my hands are still shaking.

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].

© 2007 American Radio Relay League

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