I’m working on some significant upgrades to my ham radio station. I finally received a Mercury IIIs amplifier. I was on the waiting list for about a year. I also got a Palstar HF Auto tuner to handle the increased power from the amp. For outside the shack I also got a K4KIO Hexbeam antenna. The only problem is that I don’t have a tower for it yet. That will be next, and hopefully soon! I’ll make additional posts as I bring the new equipment online.
Ever since I got my ham radio license, just over 6 years ago, I have been interesting in DXing, contesting, and awards. I started out at the bottom of a solar cycle, which helped me learn how to make contacts under less than ideal conditions. I’m not as much into the competition with other hams, but it’s satisfying to set and achieve my own personal goals. Now that band conditions are starting to become more favorable, I was recently able to achieve two longtime goals, which are the 5 Band Works All States (WAS) and 5 Band DXCC awards.
The last band I needed for both WAS and DXCC was 10 meters. The band conditions improved enough over the past few months to make that possible. I was also able to add endorsements for 30 meters, 17 meters and 12 meters. I still need Alaska and Hawaii for WAS on 6 meters, and Hawaii for WAS on 160 meters. Maybe someday!
Last month, I was given the opportunity to participate in a 30-day test and review of the Bilal Isotron 40M antenna for the 100 Watts and a Wire podcast. The Isotron is a strange looking and compact antenna that has reviews with an overall rating of 4 stars on eham.net. After building and then testing the antenna for a month, I was invited to participate in the podcast along with two other hams to give our review of the antenna for the following criteria:
You can listen to the podcast here. In addition to the audio podcast, there are videos covering each of the review criteria on the 100 Watts and a Wire YouTube channel. (Each of the criteria listed above includes a link to the YouTube video for that topic.)
Assembling the Antenna
The antenna arrived in a sturdy box, and all of the parts were in good shape. The paper manual is adequate and includes diagrams that were helpful for assembly. It took me about an hour to put it together. Once assembled and tightened, it is a sturdy antenna. It’s worth reading the manual closely before attempting assembly, and again afterwards to understand the instructions for tuning the SWR.
Installing and Testing the Antenna
I installed the antenna on 28-foot heavy duty fiberglass telescoping mast from Max Gain Systems. The mast is located next to a long chain link fence, which may have interacted with the antenna and made tuning it a bit challenging initially. Once attached to the mast, I used a Comet antenna analyzer, and attempted to tune the antenna for the lower end of 40 meters for CW and digital modes. For my first test, with the antenna mast lowered, the SWR was just above 3:1. I believe that was partially due to close proximity of the metal fence. Also, the manual specifies that the antenna works best with a metal mast, likely to serve as a counterpoise. I attached about 25 feet of copper wire to the antenna ground as a counterpoise, and made some more tuning adjustments. After that, and when I raised the antenna to 25 feet, the SWR was down to 1.6:1. Close enough, since I have an antenna tuner in the shack.
I tested the antenna for 30 days using FT8, WSPR, CW and SSB. The first contact I made on FT8 was in Washington State… a very promising start! Using FT8, I was easily able to work stations all over North America, as well as some DX stations in Europe, Australia and Japan. I also tested the antenna using WSPR for 24 hours, and my signals were received across North America and in Europe. I used the antenna for all of my 40 meter phone and CW contacts during Winter Field Day, and I was able to make a lot of contacts across the U.S. and Canada. The antenna performs better than I expected it would. However, it is not a good for receiving when compared against my end-fed halfwave antenna. I made comparisons several days, and the wire antenna was always noticeably better for receiving.
1. It actually works! When I first looked at the antenna, I was skeptical. After testing it for 30 days, I realize there are some use cases where this antenna is a good choice.
2. This antenna would probably good for someone with HOA restrictions, as it is small enough to be hidden. However, keep in mind that my testing was with the antenna mounted at 25 feet and in the clear.
3. Because the antenna is compact and can be raised quickly, it would also be a good choice for portable operations or emergency communications.
1. The antenna is only for the 40 meter band. If you have space for several antennas, that’s probably not an issue.
2. The antenna can be somewhat finicky with SWR. It made several trips up and down a ladder, and lowered the mast a few times, to get it adjusted. I also had to retune the antenna after one particularly cold, windy, rainy day.
The antenna retails for $160. Would I have bought this antenna on my own? Probably not. During the podcast, each reviewer was asked to give a “signal report” between 55 and 59 as an overall rating of the antenna. My report was solidly in the middle with a 57. It is definitely strange looking, but the appearance and compact size belie an antenna that actually performs fairly well, as long as you don’t expect miracles. I will most likely take the antenna down from the mast to install an off-center-fed dipole, and see if one of my ham friends living in a HOA community would like to give the Isotron a try.
This was a great ham radio experience for me. I had a lot of fun building, testing and using the antenna. I also enjoyed being included on the 100 Watts and a Wire podcast, and Christian Cudnick, K0STH, is a great host.
The conditions on 10 meters have finally become favorable for me to get enough confirmations to complete WAS and DXCC on that band, and those were also what I needed to complete 5BWAS and 5BDXCC. I received the 5BWAS certificate, and applied for the 5BDXCC certificate. I also have WAS and DXCC on 30M, 17M and 12M. All of these were completed using 100 watts and omnidirectional antennas. The key has been persistence, and some luck to be on the radio when the bands are open.
It’s time for me to get going on 160M and 6M.
This afternoon I installed a new antenna for 10 meters. The antenna is a HF-28 Rectangle from PAR Electronics. It’s light (2.5 lbs.) and compact (approximately 8′ X 4′). It was very easy to build and took me about a half hour following the included instructions. I have the antenna mounted on a Max-Gain Systems MK-6 fiberglass push-up mast. The SWR was near perfect right away, but there are instructions included to tune the antenna if necessary. According to the manufacturer, the antenna is not perfectly omni-directional, but it has a pattern that does not require a rotator.
The antenna seems to work very well. The conditions on 10 meters were not great today, but right away I was able to work several FT8 stations on the west coast and in South America. I can’t wait to see how it performs in good band conditions. Hopefully this antenna will help me finally work Alaska on 10 meters to finally complete a 5BWAS and get closer 10 DXCC for 10 meters!
This weekend the higher frequency bands have really come to life. I have had a blast working stations in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. I hope this is just a glimpse of things to come!
In three days, I logged 40 QSOs on 12m, in 29 different countries. I also logged 19 QSOs on 10m, in 17 different countries. I could have worked many more stations, but I was hunting specifically for new countries. I managed to work enough new countries for a DXCC Award for 12m. I still have some work to do on 10m, but I picked up a few more.
I am sure that many hams in the U.S. with better stations worked more countries, but I am happy with these results using less than 100 watts into an end-fed wire antenna.
WSPR (pronounced “whisper), which stands for “Weak Signal Propagation Reporter,” is a fantastic digital signal for assessing band conditions and evaluating antenna performance. It’s also great for detecting band openings. WSPR mode implements a protocol designed for probing potential propagation paths with low-power transmissions. The protocol was designed, and a program written initially, by Joe Taylor, K1JT. WSPR is included in the WSJT-X software, along with several other weak signal digital modes (FT8, FT4, etc.) for amateur radio. WSJT-X can be used to transmit and receive WSPR signals.
There may be times when you don’t want to tie up your HF transceiver for WSPR signals, and you really don’t need the power that’s available in most HF transceivers for WSPR. With a decent antenna, you can transmit and decode signals over very long distances with very low power. Because of the encoding of the WSPR signal, a 200 mW signal has the same DX capability as a 1 KW SSB transmitter, or CW at 80W.
You can search the Internet for information on how to build your own transmitter, and there are also some kits for sale. There are also a couple of relatively inexpensive and small WSPR transmitters that are easy to configure and use. I have been using the WSPRlite Classic, made by SOTABEAMS, and two WSPR Desktop Transmitters, made by ZachTek. There are some common features between the two, but there are also quite a few differences. Both transmit a 200 mW signal using 5V (USB) input for power, and both use software for configuring your callsign, location, etc. They can also be powered from a USB power bank.
The first WSPR transmitter I started using is the WSPRlite, which costs around $140. It is very small and light, and therefore great for portable operations. The unit contains internal filters for 20m and 30m, but SOTABEAMS also sells filter kits to expand the capability to include 630m, 160m, 80m, 60m, and 40m. I have not purchased or used any of the filter kits.
A unique feature from SOTABEAMS that comes with the WSPRlite is the DXplorer web site.
The WSPRlite instructions, configuration app, USB drivers, and firmware updates are available on DXplorer. Following the detailed instructions from the website, configuring the WSPRlite is a relatively easy process that involves installing USB drivers and configuration software, connecting to the computer through a USB port, selecting the appropriate COM port, entering data for a few settings, and saving the settings to the device. Once configured, the WSPRlite is ready to transmit. The trickiest part to begin transmitting is pressing a button 2 seconds after the start of an even numbered minute (i.e. 14:58:02, 10:20:02, etc.) to begin transmission. The time must be set accurately for the transmitted signals to be decoded.
The configuration application also provides a link to dxplorer.net, where you can view statistics and maps depicting the WSPR signals transmitted from the WSPRlite. There are several different ways to view the data, including a metric call DX10. According to SOTABEAMS:
We use the WSPR data to generate a special metric, DX10. We recalculate your DX10 range (km) every two minutes. DX10 is a great system performance indicator. The best HF system will give the longest DX10 ranges. … Within seconds of your two-minute WSPR transmit period ending, you can see where you have been heard.https://www.sotabeams.co.uk/wsprlite-antenna-tester/
The DXplorer website is where the WSPRlite really shines. It’s easy to use and provides lots of useful informaton.
WSPR Desktop Transmitter
The WSPR Desktop Transmitter from ZachTek also costs $140, and is slightly larger and heavier than the WSPRlite, but has several additional features. The unit includes a GPS receiver and antenna, which can automatically set the location (grid) and control the timing of the transmissions. Once initially configured, this makes operation nearly automatic. Additionally, the latest firmware and software supports Type 3 WSPR Messages. A Type 3 message can transmit a more exact location using six figure Maidenhead reports instead of the regular four figure report, which is especially useful if you use the transmitter in a mobile or portable application with it functioning as tracker.
I am using two transmitters, each designed for operation on different bands. The “Mid” model transmits on 40m, 30m, 20m and 17m. The “High” model transmits 15m, 12m, 10m and 6m.
Note: ZachTek now sells three updated models for this transmitter:
– “Low” for 2190m and 630m
– “Mid-Plus” for 160m, 80m, 40m, 30m, and 20m
– “High-Plus” for 17m,15m, 12m, 10m and 6m
You can purchase multiple units at a discount ($254 for a Mid-Plus and High Plus, or $359 for all three models).
The WSPR Desktop Transmitter also uses an app for configuration. The documentation web page has links to the configuration software, a quick start guide, and lots of additional details about the transmitter. A USB driver might be required to connect to the computer, and there is a link on ZachTek’s download page. Similar to the WSPRlite, once the device connected to the computer with the micro USB cable, you can determine COM port using Windows Device Manager. You set the serial port (for my computer, COM13) on the Serial Port tab, and click open. After a moment the software will be connected to the device.
After the connection is open, the next tab to click is WSPR Beacon. This is where you will enter your callsign, and select the bands. With the GPS antenna connected and placed near a window, you should start seeing the GPS signal quality and a position lock. Once the position is locked, the Maidenhead grid information will fill in automatically. When initially powered up, it might take several minutes to start seeing the satellite positions and get a position lock.
Once the WSPR configuration is complete, click on the Save Settings button, then click on the Boot Configuration tab. In this tab, you can configure the transmitter to start up in WSPR beacon mode. When power is applied, once it achieves a GPS position lock, the unit will automatically start transmitting WSPR beacons, cycling through the bands that were set in the WSPR Beacon tab.
There is also a Signal Generator mode so the transmitter can be used as a piece of test equipment in your shack. It can output a 23dBm sine wave from 2kHz to 50MHz, depending on model. I have not tested or used this feature.
The WSPR Desktop Transmitter does not include access the DXplorer website like the WSPRlite, but you could still use DXplorer standard mode to view statistics for signals transmitted from either device. You can also view maps and data for WSPR signal on the WSPRnet.org website. You can get a free account to access all of the features on WSPRnet.
The Weak Signal Propagation Reporter Network is a group of amateur radio operators using K1JT’s MEPT_JT digital mode to probe radio frequency propagation conditions using very low power (QRP/QRPp) transmissions. The software is open source, and the data collected are available to the public through this site.http://wsprnet.org/drupal/
The Map tab opens a configurable map for a visual representation of where your WSPR signals are being decoded.
Scroll down in the map to configure the view. There are several settings that you can use to tailor the information displayed on the map.
Click on the Database tab at the top of the web page to display a sorted list of spots. This view can also be configured.
The WSPRlite and WSPR Desktop Transmitter both performed very well. There are some difference in features and operation. For the price, the WSPR Desktop Transmitter offers a few more features and once configured it operates automatically every time it’s powered up. The WSPRlite is very small and easy to carry, and the DXplorer website offers excellent statistics for those tracking propagation conditions or comparing antennas. You can’t go wrong with either option, and your choice would depend upon your operating preferences.
Due to work obligations, I haven’t had much time to spend on the radio, or to update this blog. Since my last update, QSOs with several stations have been confirmed in Logbook of the World, allowing me to reach a achieve a couple of new awards.
I recently received a LoTW confirmation for a QSO on 6 meters that took place in July. This confirmation was number 300 on 6 meters, and an endorsement for the 50 MHz VUCC Award.
Also, on November 28th, I had a FT8 QSO on 12 meters with a station in Alaska, which gave me my 50th state for the Worked All States Award on 12 meters. I still need to work Alaska on 10 meters for a 5 Band WAS, so hopefully the band conditions will continue to improve!
It has been a while since I’ve found time to add a post, or to spend much time on the radio. On this Saturday morning, I decided to get up a little earlier than usual to check the band conditions for DX. I found some good DX to the west, in the Pacific and Asiatic Russia on 40 meters, as well as to the east in Europe and the Mediterranean on 15 meters. The propagation on both bands was very good, but there were lots of stations so breaking through the QRM made some contacts challenging. I only worked one new country on 15 meters, but it was lots of fun to see the variety of locations active on the bands.
I haven’t been on the radio much over the past week, but this morning I had some time and found that 20 and 30 meters were open to the Far East. It took a bunch of tries, but I was able to complete a FT8 QSO on 20 meters with VR2XRW in Hong Kong. That’s a new DXCC entity for me, and he confirmed the QSO on Logbook of the World in just a few minutes! The new DXCC entities are becoming fewer and further between, and it’s always special to work a new one!