I guess I should post up something that isn’t about contesting. I am often asked about my portable setup so I figured just to post it up here to show all.
This setup works for me but it might not work for you. I attempt to pack as small and minimal as possible when it comes to portable. I know some who pack everything including the kitchen sink so opinions will vary.
Here is my portable setup
That’s basically it. Here is a break down of the above picture
Elecraft KX3 – This is the most important part. When I was getting into portable operations, I wanted a radio that wouldn’t waste energy. The KX3 was just released and it met everything that was on my list. It can use AA batteries, the antenna match option works wonderfully, it has multiple modes and nice sized screen. I will admit it was expensive but I felt if I use it 50 times, it would be worth the cost. If the KX3 is not an option than an Yaesu FT-817 will do or those CW QRP kits like KD1JV’s MTR/Sprint radios.
G5RV Jr Antenna – Some people question as to why I went with a G5RV jr antenna and the answer is simple as that I had one laying around so why not use it. When stored properly, it doesn’t really take up much room. I had great luck with it so I kept using it. However the one I had wasn’t suited for portable use. It was breaking apart and used solid core wire for the 450ohm “ladder” line.
I ended up making a smaller one. I made custom end insulators that act as winders. I also used polystealth wire and a BNC port. The new antenna is much smaller and is somewhat easier to deploy.
Here is the radio with the G5RV jr working some DX while portable in Vermont.
EARCHI end fed antenna – This is my other antenna that I use if I want to be very quick or the local environment prevents me from using the G5RV. It’s just 31 feet (around 15m) of wire that is hooked up to a 9:1 UnUn. Even though I much prefer the G5RV, the end fed works okay.
Here is the Endfed on the beach in South Carolina. Salt water works wonders. Setup was less than 5 mintues and it didn’t take up much room in the car.
Jackite Telescoping Kite Pole (Mast) – For a long time I would tie rope to rocks and throw them over tree branches. In some locations there were no trees which made it much more difficult. Even though a portable mast is bulky for me, I think it’s necessary. I ended up going with Jackite’s 31′ Fiberglass pole because it was 31′. It is designed for windsocks/kites but hams use it for antenna supports. It made portable communications much easier.
Should have added something for scale. My only complain is the caps can easily come off which sucks when you’re in the middle of the woods when it happens. Little bit of electrical tape does the trip.
Logbook – I use two logbooks during operations. One is just a regular notebook that can fit in my bag and the other is the voice recorder on my phone. That way I can make youtube videos and also go back if I messed up my paper log. The notebook is just full of scribbles. Soon as I get home I enter them into the proper logging software or website.
Foam Pad – I carry a foam pad that gardeners would kneel on. It provides some cushion and ground isolation. It’s a must have and fits nicely in my bag
Misc Antenna Items – I usually carry a roll of RG-58 with BNC ends, tent stakes, small spool of nylon high vis mason rope and bungee/tie down cords. I avoid using any type of nail or screw. I do not want to disturb the environment. I say the stretch/bungee cords is what I use the most to secure the mast to trees and/or benches.
Dedicated Bookbag – When I was at costco I saw some bookbags on sale for $15USD and couldn’t resist. I dedicated it to portable operations since I usually don’t plan my operations. When I get home after each portable operation, I make sure to organize my backpack and have it ready for the next time. I leave almost everything in the bag so I can almost grab and go since I decide to go out usually at the last second.
I’ve been trying to learn CW for a long time now. I am getting better but once I am confident that I can do CW without any kind of assistance, I will go out with a smaller rig and different antenna. I want a smaller light weight pack. I would also like to find ways to go without a mast but there are times where the area is unknown.
I felt that it was time to put some “Fire In the Wire”. However I wanted to learn about amplifiers since I have no clue how one really works other than giving my signal a boost. The original plan was to build one from scratch but after some attempt at collecting parts I decided that building one from scratch was not going to work out since I didn’t have knowledge to even start one. The next best thing was to buy an amplifier and rebuild it.
I ended up getting a Heathkit SB200 Amplifier. The reason I went with the SB200 is that it appears to have a huge following and (some) parts are still being sold for it. There are also many articles written about this amplifier and it’s still being used in a lot of stations to this day.
What is an amplifier and what does it do? Or what does an RF amplifier do since we’re dealing with RF (Radio Frequency). A RF amplifier is a electronic device that takes a low-power radio frequency signal and turns the signal into larger signal with more power without changing the characteristics of the signal . This can be done by at least a couple of different ways. It can be done using Vacuum Tubes or Field Effect transistors (FET) which act very different but produce similar results. Vacuum tubes use High voltage with low amperage and FETS use low voltage with high amperage. There are many different types of amplifiers that are divided into classes depending on the type of circuitry used in the construction and its final use.
Do you really need an amplifier? This question could lead to a lot of debate between hams. There are hams that take pride on making all their contacts by only using the power provided from the transceiver (and some using under 10 watts/QRP) and there are hams that prefer using amplifier at almost all times. It all depends on your situation and needs. I would prefer a nice antenna setup that can be directed and have gain over a amplifier but at this point in my life, it’s very unlikely that it will happen. I went with an amplifier as a “Pile-Up” buster. An example for me is when 9K2UU (Barrak in Kuwait) was on the other day. There were so many people trying to contact Barrak that it felt impossible that I was going to establish contact with him. The last time he was on I tried for over an hour to make a QSO without luck. Mostly due to the other operators using Amplifiers. This time I had the amplifier so after a couple of times of trying to contact him, I turned on the amp and made a QSO with Barrak with the first try.
So how does the SB200 work. We know it takes the signal from the transceiver, amplifies it and sends it out to the antenna. But how? The SB200 has three areas that make amplification possible. You have the power supply, input circuit and the output circuit. There is a relay that is controlled by either a switch or the transceiver that activates the amp. The signal comes out transceiver into the “Input Circuit of the amp. The input circuit consists of coils and capacitors that are adjusted and controlled from the band switch on the front panel that provide the tubes with the proper impedance. The signal then passes through the tubes where amplification takes place using the components in the tubes and the very High voltage provided from the power supply to power the tubes. After the tubes do their work the signal passes through the “Output Circuit” consisting of more capacitors and Coils to clean up the signal even more and is fed to the antenna. This is just a basic summary of how the SB200 works. There are websites that explain how amplifiers work in great detail and I’ll link to them at the end of the article.
Now to my SB200. I found this amp on the for sale section on QRZ.com. The amp needed work and thought that this amp would be the perfect project to get my feet wet in amplifier building. Thing about Heathkit amps is that they are kits. They are as good as the person that built the amp. If the original builder had no clue what they were doing (examples are cross wiring, swapping components and poor soldering to name a few), the amp will perform poorly if it performs at all.
The seller did a poor job at packaging the amp for shipping and my pants almost turned brown when I saw the box come off the truck. The seller then blamed me since “I didn’t pay enough for shipping” when it was the seller who gave me the shipping quote. The amp showed some signs of damage from shipping which appears to be cosmetic but I was worried about the High voltage power supply so I hooked it up to find that I was getting the 2300-2400vdc that I needed. A bit of relief. I’ve learned to inquire how the item is going to be shipped from now on.
When I got this amp it was in the middle of being restored. There were no tubes, the components were missing on the tube sockets and there were no parasitic suppressors (Which I was well aware). It appears that previous owner replaced the original cooling fan with a couple of PC type fans and installed a “Soft-Start” circuit as well as “Soft-Key” circuit but removed the “Soft-Key” before it got to me. The power supply that provides the High Voltage also appears to been replaced/upgraded. Since this amp was designed back in the 1960’s where the circuit that activates the amplifier used -110vdc. It would ruin modern transceivers keying circuits by putting high voltage into the transceiver. To combat this people install a “Soft-Key” which basically converts the -110Vdc to around 1Vdc which plays nice with the modern transceivers. Another modification that was done before I got the amp was the addition of a “Soft-Start” module that prevents a “Rush” of current hitting the tubes. when you push the on button, the amp is supplied with a load that is restricted for a couple of milliseconds and then switches to the full load using resistors and relays. Even though I’ve read on many sites that the “Soft-Soft” is not really needed for this amp but since it’s installed, I’ll keep it. It can do no harm.
The previous owner also shipped some components that will make bringing this amp back to life a lot easier. I received the filament choke and a couple kits from AG6K (Not sure if he still sells kits) with detailed instructions on installation.
The only thing I have to do is obtain the rest of the parts. The tubes were available from RF parts. The tubes were about $120 for the pair, A new “Soft-Key” kit for around $30 from Harbach electronics and the rest of the components were about $20 from Mouser. I have around $350 invested in this project.
After all the parts came in. I found a manual with a schematic online and used it to install all the missing parts and installed with “Soft-Start”. After installation of the parts I went back to the manual and double checked the entire installation and everything seemed to check out.
Before turning the amplifier on, I preformed some checks to lower my chances of a smoke and/or light show. The manual states to perform a couple of “Resistance” checks. The first one is to put a multimeter on the anode clip (nipple of the tube) and the chassis. When the meter stabilizes, it should read around 180k ohms. However I was seeing 240K ohms which made me a little bit worried. After searching google I learned that this is due to the replacement of the High voltage board. The other resistance test is to place an ohm meter on lug 3 (V3) of the tube and place the other lead to the chassis. The resistance should be somewhere between 5k-15k ohm. I ended up with 10K which is right in the middle.
After performing all the checks I can do with the amp off, I was still hesitant on turning the amp on since I never really messed around with an amplifier before. I wanted the amp to be checked out by someone else but I got impatient one weekend and decided to go for it. I removed the tubes from the amplifier and powered the amplifier. To my relief there was no smoke/light show and was still seeing around 2400v on the meter. I turned the amp off and waited till the caps were discharged. Placed the tubes in and turned the amp back on. To my amazment, the tubes sprung to life and produced a comforting glow. I left the amp on for an hour and nothing happened in that time so I decided to put a signal through the amp to see what happens. I went on the 20m band, put the radio into CW and did a tune. I was glad to see around 600W on my watt meter.
I decided at that point to make some contact with the amp on. Spinning around the dial I hear a Northern Ireland DX station and threw my call out. He responded to my call the very first time and gave me a report of 59 20+. That made me a very happy operator to know that my amp was working.
The only place where I have 220V that I can get to was in the basement. So that’s where my equipment was until I had the chance to get 240v wired to my office. Once in my office I wanted to really use it so I turned it on and went through all the check to find that I was not seeing any grid current show up on my meter. That started to scare me so I shut the amp off and went searching for the answer to “What’s causing this to happen?” I asked the HeathKit Amps Yahoo group and I also asked help from my local club. There was a major block in the road and it seemed that the help I was getting was leading me to nowhere. Some people said I have shorted tube(s) and others said that something is wrong with the wiring. Both can be plausible since I never really worked on an amp and I’ve heard of people receiving bad tubes. But then someone ask me if I had a dummy load. Of course I don’t! So another member of the club let me use his Oil can dummy load. When I hooked up the dummy load I noticed everything is now looking good.
I now have a working amplifier! Just in time for the ARRL DX SSB contest. I was happy that I was going to get to use my new amplifier and put it to the test. On Sat morning well into the contest I decided to start. Amp on and 20m is quite busy. I was making a good amount of contacts while only searching & pouncing until I started to hear a sizzle sound coming from the amp. Found out that one the resistors in the parasitic suppressor kit has become broken and was arcing to the resistor it broke from. That kept me out of the contest till I had the nerver to solder it back together and get back on towards the end of the contest.
I still have some issues but I am leaning toward my antenna setup to be the cause. For some reason the tubes get very hot on 80 and 40m. I would have to either get a tuner that can handle the power or get a resonate antenna before I can continue on other things. I am also thinking that the PC type fans are not doing their job. The chassis and case get hot to the point where I can’t touch it. Tubes are not glowing but I want to keep it that way.
Future plans for the amp are the following
New HV board – The one I currently have is newer that original but I think if I’m going to keep this amp that it should have a new board
Glitch Resistor – This will save the tubes if anything goes wrong with the HV board.
Meter Protection – Since the meters are rare and get expensive when they come up for sale, I’d rather spend a couple cents on some diodes.
LED Meter Conversion – I want some nice white/bluish LED to light up my meter to match my FT-950
Various upgrades – There are websites out there that have a ton of things to do to this amp to make it much better. I already got the parts for most of the mods but want to make sure the amp is fully functional before I even attempt modifying the amp.
New Chassis, Cover and face – I want to design a more modern looking case around the same chassis and incorporate some more RFI shielding and better ventilation and the use of a thermostat for fan operation.
Clean Up – When the new chassis is made I would like to DE-oxidize all connections, coils and plates.
Back in 2001 when I first got my license. I was interested in APRS because it was something I can do with my new license. I went as far as setting up a part time digipeater and after only a couple of months, the digipeater went down and lost interest in APRS because the cost of a GPS receiver at the time (even though GPS is NOT a requirement to listen or participate on the APRS network).
GPS receivers are a lot cheaper compared to 10 years ago and I have a old Garmin GPS-V lying around. So I figured this would be the perfect time to get back into APRS. For those who don’t know what APRS is, It’s Automatic Packet Reporting System which is an Amateur (Ham) based system for real-time communications of information using a digital protocal (AX.25). There are many possible things you can do with APRS. You can send (Short) text E-mail, SMS Messages, send weather data (Which the NWS uses) and when hooked up to a GPS , will send position data. I am not going to go into much detail because there are websites that are dedicated to APRS.
I am going to be doing a couple of things with APRS. One thing is that I am going to set up a part-time iGate (internet gateway) to make use of the frequency scanner and antenna that is not being used. Packets of Information received from the scanner (tuned to 144.39mhz) will be sent over the internet using the APRS-IS network so it can be databased and displayed on such websites as aprs.fi .
The other thing I want to do is location tracking. In order to do tracking you’ll need 2 or 3 things. You’ll need a GPS receiver that has an output for NMEA data, TNC (Terminal Node Connector) and a transceiver (VHF [144-148mhz] is Most used). As stated earlier, I have a Garmin GPS-V lying around and I also have a Kenwood TH-78A. All that is missing is a packet TNC. A Real TNC can cost $100+ and needs a computer. However there are units designed and built for APRS that will encode the data from the GPS to the AX.25 protocol and transmit the signal using the transceiver. I’ve purchased one of these units called ” TinyTrack3+” from a company called Byonics. It’s as basic as it gets. You can either buy it as a kit or assembled, with or without a GPS Receiver, with or without cables for your transciver or with or without cables for various GPS models. I ended up going with a solder and assemble your self kit without any extra cables because I wanted to invest the least amount of money in it as possible.
Here is the kit as you would get it in the mail. It comes with the componets, board, case and instructions.
Here is the board soldered up. I used a 35W Pencil type soldering Iron. I filed the tip a little bit to assure that solder flows to the tip. It took about 1/2 to 3/4 of an hour to solder. If your new to assembling boards, I would go to the Byonics website and download the manual because the online .pdf manual will cover the assembly and everything else in great detail. As long as you follow the step by step instructions, it will turn out great. For newbies make sure the diodes are going in the right direction, LEDs in the right direction and make sure the notch (little cutout) is aligned with the silk screen image.
Now that board is done, time to make some cables! (Since I didn’t order any)
Here is the cable all assembled! It’s a DB-9 Connector (Radio shack P/n: 276-1538 US$2.69) , Pos and Neg power cords with Anderson power poles attached so it could powered by many different sources (7-35vDC), Sacrificed speaker microphone from the Wouxun for its cable, Ferrite Core choke (Optional, Radio Shack P/N: 273-105) and the DB-9 Case (Radio Shack P/n: 276-1539 US$2.09). I Got the wiring diagram from the Byonics website and took about 1/2 hour to make which ended up costing me around $5 since I already had the cable, choke and power connector
Just an FYI, I sacrificed a speaker microphone from my Wouxun. Power-Werx which distributes Wouxun products (as well as the power poles), has the exact same cable for this application for sale on their website. They also have a similar one but with a cigarette lighter plug (Both for US$20). Byonics also sells cables for this and many different radios. Also note that that wouxun speaker mic layout is the same for kenwood HT’s!
After you assemble the tracker and the cable. Apply power to unit and hopefully it comes to life by flashing the yellow and green LEDS three times. Only thing left to do is to program the tracker using your computer. This point it can get tricky. The TinyTrak3 needs a NULL modem cable (Or adapter) to program it and possibly a gender changer. I found that I didn’t have a null modem cable, all I have are straight through cables. Since I didn’t want to wait for an adapter I made one from old computer parts lying around my house
Here is the cable that I made from parts out of an old 486 that I had in the attic. It’s not pretty or rugged enough for daily use but once you program the Tracker and are satisfied with the operation then you will most likely not have to program it again.
Here is the complete setup. Right now I have the unit running off a 9V battery. I also used a cigarette lighter plug with power poles connected to it. Depending on how you programmed the tracker, It will only send when there is data from GPS. There are limitless things you can do with this setup. For SOTA members (Summits On The Air), They can bring this along with them so others can see their progress in their hike. If you helping out in a public service or public events which ham radio operators are helping, you can show your location to HQ without even telling them. It makes things a lot easier.
Here is my first track. I learned a lot when doing this. I found that my handheld in the truck has a hard time communicating with the digipeaters in the area. I might purchase a small 1/4″ wave mag-mount or a duplexer and switch to my dual band antenna for when I am running APRS in the truck.
I added things to the Tinytrak3+ which I think will make it better for me to run. If I had to be really critical about the tracker is that the DB-9 connectors did not come with mounting screws. The first test out with my truck the power/radio connector became loose and eventually lost power to the tracker. To fix this I went scavenging parts off a old computer.
Now I can secure both the power and GPS connections. The screws came off the LPT and monitor ports of an old mother board. There is a small amount of space between the back plate of the connector and the board. So I had to grind down the bolts and nuts so It would not touch the board.
Another issue that might come is when I am portable (walking). More likely the power source for the tracker for this purpose will be a 9V battery. The tracker with all the LEDS running will consume around 18.6ma which means a 9V battery (.370Ah avg) could possibly last for about 9-12 hours (60% discharged). If you turn off the LEDs, the power consumption is 6.6ma. On a 9V battery, the tracker could last around 30 hours. The TinyTrak3+ can run without the LEDS by cutting a lead (tells you how in the directions). If you using a high-capacity 9V (.580Ah)with no LEDs it could last for more than 50 hours so it might be beneficial to cut the lead and add a jumper. The down side is that you will not know the status of the Tinytrak.
So what I did is cut the lead on the board and installed a bridge (shown in the picture above with the blue jumper). When jumped the LEDs are operational.
Also pictured are 2 bridges installed (on the left side) for jumpers J5 (outside pair) and J6 (inside pair). If J5 is jumped it will switch to what was programed in the secondary tab in the program (Program 2) . This would work great for an event which required either a different call and/or different settings. After the event, you can switch back to the primary settings. If J6 is jumped it will send a signal to power on the transceiver. This would involve another board with a relay to put power into the transceiver or modifying the transceiver. I don’t plan on messing around with it any time soon but since I am soldering on jumper bridges, why not.
Overall it was a really great build and I am having a blast with APRS. My plans are to find a way to make it all fit into a nice tiny package that I could carry when hiking or driving.