Monday, 31 March 2014

Innovantennas 12m LFA Yagi - The Review

The Innovantennas 24MHz, 3-element yagi, a replacement for an unwieldy 30m rotatable dipole, has been going together nicely over the past week or so, in between the weather.

The initial experience of Innovantennas, a company with which I have never dealt previously (and of whom I am entirely independent), has been extremely good in all aspects.  In particular, I was very impressed with Innovantennas' polite treatment of customers, even for a relatively inexpensive mono beam like this.  Far too many other suppliers seem to take customers as some kind of hobby-mad idiots who'll part with their money, no matter what.  So 10/10 for realising good service means continued purchases!

The antenna arrives (provided the couriers get their acts together between them!) in a very sturdy cardboard tube of about 2m long, which fitted in my family hatchback quite comfortably for the final leg home.

Out of the tube come several sections of aluminium alloy, some clamps and bolts.  Instructions are sent by e-mail as soon as the antenna leaves the factory, and simply referring to the very clear, labelled diagram of the completed antenna was sufficient instruction.  I had my antenna retapered to a slightly stronger tubing, and at no extra charge (which may not be available for all purchases!)

The 24MHz LFA yagi by Innovantennas pointing to the Far East.

Fitting the antenna together is really very simple indeed - once you've sorted out all the bits.  Each is accurately labelled with a marker pen, negating the need to measure, at least initially.  But I would have saved a bit of time had each been colour coded.  But this is just nit-picking.

Feedline connection is a direct 50 Ohm coax using loop connectors onto the shortest possible tails, with a coax common mode choke wound onto a piece of 4" drainage pipe (6 turns), according to the ARRL Antenna Book recommendations (the antenna instructions advise a much smaller diameter.)

One potential issue I identified straight away is the element-to-boom plates.  Some manufacturers use clamps for this, and to be honest, I think that's a better solution than Innovantennas' couple of bolts through the plate and boom, though clamps do add significant weight. 

Because the two plate bolts are drilled directly in line with one another, and have a significant degree of side-to-side movement when loose, this may give rise to skewed elements after years of buffeting in the wind.  Time will tell.  I did wonder whether staggering the location of the bolt holes would help, if they are to stick with this method of fixing the plates.  Or maybe just tighter-fitting bolts?  Indeed, after putting up the beam, there was a slight skew in the reflector plate which, though easily rectified, did necessitate some more tower luffing - never a welcome task!

I asked Justin, of Innovantennas, about all this, and his response was that the through-drilling makes for an easier build, free of measuring errors for the customer.  It's a fair point, so I guess it could be a solution to retain this admittedly error-free system whilst perhaps having a guide - even if it's just a shallow recess milled into the plate - to help stop any skewedness. Justin says that "wide washers" are supplied to help secure the load, but the ones I had with the antenna were barely larger than the nuts, with the result that some very minor deformation of the boom was evident.  Only the split-boom securing bolts had wide washers.  The next time I luff the tower, it will probably be worth fitting some wider washers under the element-to-boom plates.

Not bad for a first QSO!  Wales to UA0FA, Sakhalin Island (3700 miles) on 15W PSK-63

One thing to look out for when assembling is not to stick everything together to see what it looks like first!  In my case, I bent one of the split ends of a tube whilst moving the partially-assembled loop onto a stand, which could have led (but didn't) to a failed or fatigued element tube, although they are easy to replace.  Set out to assemble the antenna on a fine day, with everything you need to hand and do everything nice and sequentially!  You will need a whole summer's day if you take it easy.

Also make sure that, before you start assembling, you have a clear route to the tower, and for mounting it!  It's really not funny when you suddenly tangle a big yagi in a stray wire antenna whilst trying to walk through hedges to the tower!

I decided to add some conductive aluminium grease (from Innovantennas), as heavily salt-laden air will corrode the antenna quite quickly, so it's sensible to give myself the best chance of removing an element easily, should anything break or I sell the unit later on.

Don't, as I did, add the grease until you've assembled the antenna and tuned it up properly.  If you add it at the start, you'll end up with a horrendously gloopy, metallic grease all over your tools, hands, clothes and kids!  Get everything working and tuned on the ground, then grease it up!

The standard loop connectors for attaching to the coax tails were too big for the job in my view.  Being of significantly wider diameter than the bolts that run through them, they had too much potential to start working loose around the bolt.  I replaced them with the correct diameter loop connectors which, though smaller, are no less sturdy.   A small point, but we all know how 'unlikely' things become almost inevitable, once they are put up at height and inconveniently difficult to reach places!

Tuning was potentially a challenge for me, because the QTH is rather full of antennas, with a 15m loop being particularly close to the tower when that is lowered.  I decided to stand the antenna on its end (it's fairly easy to move solo), and tune it in the 'pointing at sky' fashion, resting against a timber shed.  This showed a near-flat SWR of 1:1 or less across the band - just like the marketing material claimed - though it did require a shortening of the driven element by a few percent - a total of 40mm altogether in my case.

I wonder about the robustness of the hose clamp fittings.  These are punched-through thread types, which I know from experience can be significantly weaker than stamped/impressed threads.  That is not to say they will prove to be inadequate, and if they do, they cost mere pennies to replace.

I got the antenna up on the tower and the SWR remained the same as it had whilst pointing at the sky on the ground.  As any ham will tell you, an easily-tuned antenna really is a bit of a welcome relief, and should not be underestimated as to its value in avoided tower climbing or luffing, especially when working alone as is often the case.

Performance?  Inevitably, I was up early the following morning and immediately and strongly (red waterfall line) receiving PSK-63 from UA0FO on Shakhalin Island on the Russian far east coast, followed by a much weaker RN0CD at a similar distance.  The following morning, JA8EOT was thundering in, again 'red lining' it on the PSK-31 waterfall.

Later in the day, I'm now busy working the US well into darkness on 12m.  A Florida op was laughing with surprise that I had "such a great signal", even though the beam was aiming considerably north of him!

All this with the tower merely at its fully lowered, 5m height!

One other major tests to pass at this QTH is high wind tolerance.  We can experience winds up to 80mph at any time of the year, but winters now bring up to 110mph in gusts, which are usually the most damaging aspect of gales.  Already, the LFA has flown in gusts of around 40mph, and does nothing other than gently ripple; no sign of excessive vortex shedding or other such nasties as yet.  Obviously, if you can luff your tower before winds are likely to be particularly bad, it's probably best that you do so, especially if your location receives turbulent winds, which are more damaging than a strong, steady flow.

So, whilst there's plenty of on-air testing to be - and will be - done over the coming weeks, the responsive, polite customer service, ease of build, ease of tuning and overall quality get a big thumbs up in favour of Innovantennas.  Just maybe have a think about those element plates-to-boom fixtures...

Sunday, 16 March 2014

E-Qsl-ing Crisis!

I have a problem.  In fact, you may have a problem, too!


Because there are too many competing electronic QSL services vying for our time, attention and, inevitably, money!

For years, I've been quietly using E-QSL.  This is a pretty good system, although it's not a 'blind' log, so is open to fairly easy abuse if you're that way inclined and sad enough.

...and E-QSL, and, and the bureau....

The problem with E-QSL has always been the hit-and-miss of whether the other operator is authenticity-guaranteed.  Far too often, I've filled in a log entry simply to find the other op isn't even registered, let alone authenticity guaranteed.  This has been the case with every single Hawaiian contact so far, resulting in a hugely frustrating inability to complete the WAS award, even though in reality, I've made it long ago.

The other major contender is LoTW.  Although widely used, it does approach matters from a very American perspective.  It's extremely user unfriendly and authenticity has to be checked, for international users at least, by sending a copy of the licence document to the US.  This is cumbersome.  But at least it is less likely to be prone to fraud, which is where LoTW gains its respectability from.

And now, we have a third player in the shape of  Long available as a mere 'vanity' or 'cosmetic' logbook, with no awards and easily open to fraud, filling in a QSO report was really just for show and nothing else.  But that's changed under logbook V2, which is now a blind log, and presented in a very attractive and convenient fashion.  Personally, I think it's great. 

I've been one short of WAS for ages despite bagging Hawaii numerous times - because so many aren't E-QSL (AG)

The problem with is that awards are not available, although they are in the pipeline at the time of writing (March 2013.)  But the long history of being a cosmetic log means operators are not confirming QSOs as often as makes the system useful.  In my case, only about half of the QSOs are confirmed, though the country count goes up regardless.  I would think that, with the ubiquity of on operator's web browsers, their log will, especially when awards are finally available, become the logbook of choice.  Either that, or it spurs the ARRL into making their dinosaur-like LoTW much better than its current incarnation.

So, at the moment, I'm annoyed at chasing my DX confirmations on E-QSL, and LoTW, and the bureau!  I really haven't got that amount of time to spare, so something will, somewhere, have to give...

Friday, 14 March 2014

Yaesu GS-65 Thrust Bearing

As spring advances, it's time to undertake the Annual Inspection at our radio stations.

What damage did winter wreak this time around?

Thankfully, not much. I lost both elements of a 12m vertical beam when a front that wasn't well forecast rushed by.  But they were replaced within 48 hours, being simply 7m fishing poles with wire attached.

This is what you get for about £55 (postage included).  Nicely made, fair play.

The rotator cage needed a bit of upgrading in light of the steady increase in wind strength that seems to be a feature now of a chaging climate in the UK.

I opted for the Yaesu GS-65, being modestly priced and seemingly well up to the job of steadying a typical beam down to 14MHz.

The GS-65 is simple, of course, but perfectly nicely made and very easy to install - except that, very stupidly, no drilling template is provided!   This is really annoying, because it would add almost nothing to the cost of the product, and it is a required part of the installation.

The (used) crayon template (you can print this out for your own use, provided you scale the image so that the hole centres are 60mm apart), made necessary by Yaesu's failure to provide one with the unit.  The 2" centre is cut out so as to make alignment with my cage stub mast collar easier.  Tracing paper is better than white!
In the absence of any life-size template online, you're left with no option but to turn the unit upside down, place a piece of paper (I advise you use tracing or greaseproof rather than white paper as I did) over its bottom and rub a template with a wide crayon.

So, out I went in spring weather that had by now, inevitably, turned to cold and foggy conditions, to see if  my rapidly wetting piece of paper would be accurate enough.

Well, luckily, it was. With only a very minor rotary-tool milling of one hole to make up for a slight error in my drilling, all four bolts slipped easily into their respective threads on the bearing.  The stub mast even turns all the way round, with even clearance.

I can't see that a thrust bearing for such a simple task can be anything other than perfect, and so it seems is the case for the Yaesu - despite their omission of a template!

Thursday, 13 March 2014

RadCom: Monthly Moan?

Now I've had my chance to see if there's anything worth jumping at in the classifieds of this month's 'Radcom', some comment on that esteemed publication is again due.

Radcom helps beginners onto the microwave bands - at last!

I was very glad to see the 'GHz' section take heed, as the author promised he would, of the observation that there was nothing for over a year that guided a newbie into activity on those bands.  Whilst it is impossible to cover everything, this month's scribblings for beginners gives a good few pointers of what's needed, and how one might gather the equipment needed.  I felt, at last, that I could have a go at the microwave bands now.

Other than that, this month's edition doesn't really stand out as very bad, or particularly good.  One really has to wonder, though, how many people actually build any of the obscure, typically highly specialised circuits that make regular appearances. 

So, not much of a moan this month.  How refreshing!

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Interest of the Affluent (IOTA)

IOTA, the Islands on the Air programme run by the RSGB, celebrates its 50th anniversary during 2014.

I was briefly interested in IOTA, until I found out Anglesey had been dismissed from the list because it is only about 150 metres from the Welsh mainland.  The RSGB decided to redefine the word 'island', which is normally given in dictionaries as "land surrounded by water", and not "land that has to be so far from a mainland." I quickly dismissed IOTA as being of very little merit.

To mark the 50th anniversary event, the RSGB is holding a big 'convention' at Windsor in July.

The majority of the UK population not living anywhere near London - and who bemoan the very high costs of getting and being there - will, predictably, cast yet another eyebrow skyward that the RSGB is holding this event in the big city.

But, more important than this is the clear message, intentional or otherwise, being sent out by IOTA/RSGB in the choice of venue.  Beaumont House - actually an old landed gentry estate near Windsor - is what we might call a rather exclusive place.

Secondly, the programme of events, as given in the March 2014 RadCom edition, boasts of  a "welcome of guests followed by a celebration dinner."  Sounding RSGB-familiar yet?  A bit of middle-class black tie-ism?  Surely not!

Apparently, and this is borne out by mentions on the air, a "quite large number of Americans" will be attending.  Nice, if you can afford to cross the Atlantic to one of the most expensive cities on Earth for a get-together about, erm, amateur radio.

After the meat of the 'convention' (when did we start having conventions in Britain?) has begun, you will get treated to a "Gala Dinner" with "musical entertainment".  Sounds like a right excuse to let your hair down.  Or not.

The Centenary group photo (linked directly and (C) RSGB). 

Perhaps most revealing of how the amateur radio elite has aged and failed to keep up with the times is the reassurance that a "partners' programme" is to be organised.  This seems to mean 'wives' programme', taking in a nice comfortable visit to Windsor, where no doubt the rich Americans will expect the Queen to hand them a cup of tea.

And if you're really keen, then someone will arrange an IOTA flotilla down the river, in a mini-reenactment of the miserably wet and windy Jubilee boatfest of 2012.  How terribly quaint.  How terribly old people-esque.

According to the RSGB whoop-la, trying to stir-up spending on this ludicrous celebration of nothing at all, the convention is "not just for returning visitors but for new ones who want to enjoy the camaraderie of IOTA island chasers and activators, mingling together and discussing their experiences."

The Queen's water-going vehicle will convey IOTA conventioneers (subject to sufficient interest)
Lovely, if you like that kind of thing - and you can find £249 per couple.  If you come from up north, don't have a blazer impeccably polished daily by a wife called Marjorie or something similarly 1950s, and aren't a member of the Rotary Club, then you can join the Oiks and ex-CBers Fringe Festival, I'm sure.

So there you have it.  If you are a bloke (and you will invariably be a bloke) who likes operating from an island location, you can only become a true IOTA man by being a part of the Dinner Party set.  Only rich, mostly white and retired men need apply.  Wives can visit some castles and faux olde-worlde shops.

Look again at that RSGB centenary dinner photo.  Not a single darker-than-pure white face amongst them.  And, with extremely few exceptions, all well into retirement.  That is the troubling fact that has faced the RSGB for years, and one it has failed to overturn.

Again and again, I find myself returning to the same conclusion: I like the idea and aims of the RSGB, but the way it pans out in reality smacks of something akin to UKIP - with an interest in radio.  I can't say I want this kind of 19th century ideology to continue into the 21st century.  It really has to change beyond words of intent, for fear those words simply become the marker of intransigence.

IOTA is about tents, roughing it and Heath-Robinson antennas in the wind.  Not black ties.

The RSGB is aiming to attract those visitors to Friedrichshafen 2014 (now much better than the 1940s version, where it was a Nazi resort and major hub for concentration camp workers) who may like to pop across to Blighty for a spot of tea afterwards.

So far as I'm concerned, IOTA is just another manifestation of RSGB central.  Turning a simple hobby of twiddling radios into a select society of 'respectable' people.  I should imagine that the vast majority of IOTA chasers would and will rather spend the anniversary spitting half-chewed bits of sandwich into their mics on a beach, not "mingling" on a lump of slightly higher ground above the flooding Thames in London.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Be Ham Kind, Not Ham Selfish

The past few weeks have given us wonderful propagation on the higher HF bands.  On 12m, the fun keeps going until about 22UT, with 10m staying open well after sunset as well.

Using my simple dipole-based 2-element vertical beam, I've recently enjoyed working deep into the US on 12m, principally on JT65 but also PSK and SSB.  

Whilst working one ham - KK5AA - I looked up his page.  I found there something written, perhaps during a bad day, but here as his words, as appearing on that page 06/3/14:

"JT Macros is an excellent addition also, just be very careful what you put in the macros. Someone may think they are too important to be told they have already worked you before [...] For the smallest unintentional slight,I received a nasty-gram from someone I don't even know. He became incensed when I tried to let him know during a contact that we had already worked the band in that mode. He blasted me with an email, calling me "rude" and declaring he would never answer one of my calls ever again on any band."

Well, I can understand that radio is a different thing to different people.  I also understand some people chase DXCC on each and every band, perhaps in each and every mode, sometimes taking a long time and lots of effort to do it.

What I don't understand is the sentiment that stations - that is, human beings - are only worth speaking to (or contacting by JT) for the purpose of putting the callsign in the log, and then only once.  

I'm not sure that is best described as "rude", but it sure as hell is misguided.  I work some people several times a week.  I enjoy picking them up as much as I would meeting an old friend in the street.  That's not to say I don't like adding a good DX in my log, but it's a very long way from being my priority.

This kind of approach to radio isn't, of course, limited to just KK5AA.  I often hear operators thumping a callsign into their electronic log, where the first thing they say on the return is "Hi, we've worked twice before", and then sometimes try to sound as interested as they can, moving on quickly to what is hoped won't be a repeat-caller.

I guess if you just want to fill a log book, you could take to WSPR beacon mode, and just record unique, two-way contacts that way.  Or maybe just take up SW listening, where you can fill as many pages as you like with stations you can hear.  

Nobody really cares what rig you're running, or how many elements your beam has.  That's just something to make you, yourself, feel good.  So, don't extend the rudeness by treating another operator like dirt.  Remember also that, for a number of operators, talking to someone on the radio is the only social contact they have all day, and repeat calls might in fact be exactly what they are looking for.

You wouldn't say "seen you before, get lost" to a person in the street.  So don't do it to radio ops.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Choosing a 12m Yagi

Choosing an antenna style, let alone a manufacturer, is not an easy task!

There are all sorts of antennas offered to the unwary pundit out there.  Many are frankly a pile of cheap trash, whilst others care for what they produce.

But, how do you tell which is which?

I looked at lots of suppliers, but Innovantennas offered the best service by far.

Well, you could do worse than listen to my very recent experience of dealing with Innovantennas, which is in every sense an excellent company to deal with.  I recently decided to add to the antenna farm a 12m 3-element yagi.  This is not an expensive antenna, but it is well made.

Purely on the strength of the quick, polite and helpful response from Justin at Innovantennas, I was easily persuaded to go with this company and place an order there and then.  Lead time of only a week or so, and a re-tapered version gladly made up to accommodate the rough winds here.

So, whilst I can't yet comment on the performance of the yagi, if it matches the care of dealing with the customer experienced so far, it will be a belter!

Update: I had a lot of trouble with the delivery company, and despite many attempts, couldn't get the damned antenna to arrive when promised.  A plea to Justin at Innovantennas saw him take on the battle, and I'm hopeful he'll get to the bottom of it shortly.  Enormously to his credit, there was an immediate acceptance and apology that his admin staff had wrongly claimed in an email I had been asked three times for my telephone number.  How many people admit an error at all, let alone so quickly?  On that basis, I will have no hesitation in returning to Justin when I need more antennas.