Friday, December 22, 2017

WAE DX contest SSB, N2RJ North America winner!

Would you look at that!!! Seems like I made the winner's box :)

This was a pretty tough one, as we had absolutely horrid band conditions, with a radio blackout on Sunday. It was tough going. BUT you know what they say - when the going gets tough, the tough get going. So I powered through, despite bad conditions and QRM from Ethiopia.  I savor it for now, and hope I can repeat it for next year. I guess I need to figure out where on my wall the new plaque will be going. :)

A word about band conditions - I actually prefer worse conditions as it allows me to concentrate on one or two bands rather than having to make decisions about the higher bands. It also reduces the temptation to chase after multipliers on higher bands rather than focusing on rate. No more. I am focusing strongly on running with mult chasing on the 2nd radio almost exclusively. My strategy is changing, and it seems to be working.

Special thanks to Keith, KJ8DO for loaning me his Alpha 91B amp.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

160 meters and 9 band DXCC!!!

YEAH! I did it!!!

I finally got my DXCC on 160 meters. The last entity to confirm was ZA1WW in Albania. Thankfully it was via LoTW so there was no need for a trip to the card checker.

How hard was it? Not as hard as you think, but no cakewalk either.

The key to 160m operating is listening. "If you can't hear 'em you can't work 'em" is especially true on this band. For this reason I have done extensive research on receiving antennas, noise floor and operating techniques to maximize SNR. I fought many pileups, including some rare (on topband, anyway) entities in far off places like Cote d'Ivoire, and Annobon Island.

Anyway, I enjoy this for now and bask in the glory of 9 band DXCC!!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The FT8 conundrum

As I sit here I am working FT8 on 160 meters. It's a great mode to kill time and get some DX, states or new friends in the log. But this mode is not without controversy. Let's explore some of the controversies and see what can, and should be done. Or not.

What's the big deal about FT8 anyway?

If you haven't heard of the mode, I am thinking that maybe your radio isn't working or you haven't tuned up into the digital portion of the HF bands lately. So, briefly - FT8 is a digital "sound card" mode jointly developed by two really smart people - Joe Taylor, K1JT and Steve Franke, K9AN. It's not a rag chew mode. Instead, it provides basic QSOs exchanging grid squares and signal reports. One can optionally send a short message (13 characters) but the mode really isn't for this. FT8 was born out of other similar modes such as JT65 and JT9, which were also short QSO modes, developed for weak signal work. In fact, Joe initially developed the JT65 mode for meteor scatter and moonbounce (EME).

However, the problem with JT65 was that it took a full 6 minutes to finish a QSO exchange, because each transmission was 47 seconds plus 13 seconds buffer to allow an operator to queue a response. FT8 fixed this by reducing the sensitivity a bit but speeding up QSOs by a factor of 4. Each transmission was now 15 seconds, rather than almost a full minute.

Because of this, the mode took off like a rocket. JT65 was already popular, but FT8 basically said, "hold my beer!" and swiftly took its position as king of digital modes. I recall statistics from ClubLog or somewhere else saying that the number of FT8 QSOs had surpassed those of all other modes, and this was before the software came out of the beta RC phase!

Who can blame them anyway? There are many hams who run compromise antennas and low power, and can't have stacks and kilowatts of power. My friend Eric, N2KOJ operates out of his apartment a lot using FT8, and he has little more than a hamstick mounted on his car! Even with this modest setup, he has worked Japan and many other far away places that are normally out of reach. Additionally, due to the short transmission time, FT8 brought auto sequence, which queues up signal reports and procedural exchanges and sends them in order. This means that one can simply have one click QSOs, and when it's done, click another button to log.

So it's understandable why many hams are for the mode. But there are a few who are against it. There are also some who are against using it in a particular way. Let's see what the fuss is all about.

Claim: FT8 is not "real ham radio" because it is just robotic QSOs

I would say that 80% to 90% of CW DX chasing and some phone DX chasing would fall under this category too. How many of us use memory keyers? New radios are coming with memory keyers built in. So a lot of us do push button QSOs anyway. There is no shame in this. It's what we do. I should also point out that in the heyday of PSK31, a lot of hams would make contact and then dump a whole brag file on top of you, then say 73 and move on to the next. So isn't FT8 the same thing? It's similar in that respect, I would say.

However, I can see the argument for the art of conversation being lost. It is unfortunate that FT8 will be many hams' primary exposure to amateur radio and they are not encouraged to try other digital modes or CW. So what's the solution? If you interact with hams in other venues, such as social media, why not encourage them to get on other modes? Today I see a resurgence of hams interested in learning CW, and CW can be a great mode to have a conversation. But there are other digital modes such as PSK31 (and PSK63), Olivia, Hellschreiber and even RTTY. These can give you the opportunity to make friends on air and exchange more than a signal report and grid square. 

Bottom line: ham radio is a big tent, as I had explained in another article. Don't stick to one corner! If you want to learn CW, I highly recommend CW Academy from CWOps. If you want something self-paced and online, I would also recommend LCWO by DJ1YFK.

Claim: FT8 is a low power mode! You can't use more than X watts!

I strongly disagree with this. WSJT modes are weak signal modes. There are many times I struggled to work stations even at 1500 watts. Of course, your own good judgment should always apply. Don't forget that Part 97 states that we should use the minimum power required to carry out the desired communications. Sometimes that is 5 watts. Sometimes it's 50. Sometimes it's 500. Sometimes it is 1500. It depends on the band and all sorts of other variables, such as propagation. So use as much as you need, but no more!

As always, ensure that you are generating a clean signal, especially if you run power. Overdriven audio and improperly designed transmitters and amplifiers can cause splatter and all sorts of other problems. As the licensee, you are responsible for compliance of your station's emissions. 

Claim: You need a computer to run FT8!

That is true (did you think I would say it isn't?) I could easily say that this is 2017 and that in a technical hobby, one should know how to use a computer, but I won't. Instead I will say that other modes still exist, and you can use them. I enjoy QSOs on all modes, with hams with or without computers.

However, logging on a computer has one huge advantage - you can upload your QSOs to Logbook of The World (LoTW), eQSL or QRZ logbook and easily collect confirmation for awards. 

In conclusion - get on the air!

I've said it before - FT8 helps hams get on the air, with their own equipment, even. It keeps people active and enjoying the radio magic. It's a great way to make friends as well, since many who know me online or from other places contact me on FT8. I have made many friends and I will continue to do so. Incidentally one can also use JTAlert to send text messages to other users on FT8. Yes, it goes via the Internet, but it's a way to communicate with those you make contact with. 

Ria, N2RJ

Saturday, December 2, 2017

LED lamp QRM - solved!

Last week I became really scared because I turned on 40 meters and there was AC buzz all over. I have a relatively quiet noise floor which is advantageous for contesting and DXing, and my fear was that my neighbors had bought some cheap device with a switching power supply that would spew noise all over the HF bands. Or was it the new fridge we bought? Or was it something else? Thankfully cooler heads prevailed and I went about finding the noise source methodically. Watch how I got it done!


The very first thing I did was to get a shortwave radio and verify that the noise was there. Indeed, a portable shortwave radio confirmed that it was there. Actiually, I used my Kenwood TH-D74A in general coverage shortwave mode. It works well for this purpose.

The next step was to shut off the main breaker in the house. We did that, and the noise was gone. This alone was a huge sigh of relief! The noise was inside this house, and this means I had full control over it, at least.

Then, I took the shortwave radio and began to walk throughout the house, bringing it close to things. This is a classic noise hunting technique that previously netted me a computer switching supply that was wiping out 80 meters.

I noticed that the living room produced more noise - aha! It's in here! So I began pointing to more and more stuff, switching off things one by one - TV, UPS, blu-ray (you still have one of those, right?) Then, almost quite by accident, I shut off the lights. The noise fell silent. What??? Yes, I had found the source! It turned out to be the living room lights, track lighting connected to a dimmer switch. I knew one of them had to be the culprit, but which one was it?

LED lights

LED and CFL lights get a bad rap for interference, and rightfully so. A number of tests by ARRL labs and others have shown them to be prolific noise generators. However, I had tested the bulbs that were installed here for ham radio friendliness before the return window had expired, and I returned any that were bad. What I was left with was a mix of GE, Cree and Kichler (Lowe's house brand it seems). 

The culprit was a  Cree BR30 LED floodlight. I noticed that one of them was taking 1/3 of a second longer to start. Removed it, and *poof* the noise was gone. 

Happy ending!

This lamp all of a sudden began to spew noise when it was fine for well over a year. I am thinking that a capacitor became defective over time. This would also explain the delayed starting. 

I'm going to contact Cree and see what they say.

See you on the low bands.
Ria, N2RJ