If It Were Christmas

With the Flex 1500 in for repairs following the power supply disaster, I got to thinking about my next possible rig.

So, if it were Christmas:

Elecraft K3 with filters and various accessories comes in around $3,500. Ouch! But that’s not so far from what my Icom-756 with two CW filters cost way back when it was new.

Of course the big advantage of the K3 is it is one of the best contest rigs ever. If I shell-out for a K3 it’s likely the last contest-quality rig I’d ever buy.

BTW some guys buy cheap rigs and wonder what’s so different from their rig compared to a $3000 rig. For casual QSOs likely absolutely nothing. You can a perfectly lovely conversation using an old Heathkit 101 if you’re on 80 meter SSB.

But almost all the extra cash goes into the receiver. Hook up a beam or full-size dipole at the right height and jump into the Sweep Stakes contest this weekend and watch your IC-706 turn over and die in the face of a wall of 40db over S9 signals. It’s not a pretty site.

KX3 from Elecraft comes in at a more reasonable $1,500 all in but this is a 10-watt rig with a 100-watt amp promised to appear someday.

The KX3 has one of the most highly rated receivers of all time. It also has PSK-31 and RTTY functions built-in. It’s a small rig.

I could afford it 🙂

TS-590S from Kenwood at just under $2,000 is getting great reviews. Best of all compared to the KX3 it has a 100-watt PA.

There are some complaints about the transmitter which some claim has a spike on transmit (All transmitters will have a spike on transmit as you can’t control the output until there is output so controlling something that isn’t there yet is impossible,) that is so prevalent that it can cause some older amplifiers to kick off.

The ARRL review found these spikes but also said a software fix eliminated the issue. A morning of searching on Google suggests that transmit issues seem to be an issue for a very small minority of commentators and that many have found no issue or no significant issue at all.

This is an extremely important point.

In Ham Radio or photography (I’ve been a pro shooter since the early 1970s) there are no end of so-called “experts”. In digital photography these folks are known as pixel-peppers. They discuss the most arcane minutia which when all is said and done is of absolutely no consequence to the actual act of shooting a decent photo. Most of their photography sucks or is non-existent.

Same for Ham Radio. There’s lots of opinion and even a few facts but when it comes to actually working stations on the air much of the theoretical discussion is meaningless. A good contest operator can make just about any radio into a contender.

Just to complicate my new rig purchase, there’s a guy in my town who is (or was) selling an IC-703-plus which is a 10-watt rig that goes from 160-6 in a very traditional package that works very well. It’s dated and would need a $150 used 500Hz CW filter. He’s selling it in A-1 condition for $500. Humm.

Then there’s the FlexRadio 6000 series of new DSR transceivers but at $6K they’re out of my price range ….for now. This may prove to be the radio of the future. Time will tell. I’ll wait 🙂

I could pick up a Flex 3000 for $1500. I love – and I do mean love – my Flex 1500. DSR  technology is the future of radio. My $600 1500 has the best receiver I’ve ever used. Don’t trust me, check out Sherwood Engineering’s receiver data page.

BTW you’ll notice no Yaseu or ICOM radios on my list.

First I’ve never liked the big box, multi knob approach of Yaseu. This is a personal preference.

And as for ICOM while a lot of contesters use them, when a local ham switched from his Flex 3000 back to an older IC-756 Pro last weekend I went up band to complain to him about his splattering across 10 meters.

When he’s on his Flex, I don’t hear him anywhere else but on his operating frequency. That says a lot to me and has influenced my thinking here.

CQ WW DX SSB Report

Well life was good until the power supply blew up 😦

Looks like the Flex 1500 was affected and now drops push-to-talk after a few minutes of being okay. So this is an intermittent problem which is the worst kind to have.

The actual contest was going pretty well. Worked a VK on 20 meters in the middle of Saturday afternoon (I think) long path.

That means I beamed east and worked Australia from the backside of the planet. And that at five watts too 🙂

Then after the power supply blew and before I realized I had an issue with push to talk I worked Gambia and Senegal one right after another. Very cool.

So the Flex and the power supply is in the repair shop. Fingers crossed.

Meanwhile I got a Timewave DSP-9+ digital audio filter for use with the Drake 2B and it is doing a great job.

Also at the same time the postman delivered my MagicBox which is a transmit/receive switch kit. Very cool. And in the same delivery I got a box from Ten Tec to house it.

Before anyone mentions it, I’m installing a 12-volt breakout box into the station as I think a commercial plug shorted and took out the supply. 

Getting Ready for CQ WW DX SSB

Some of the contesting and DXing newsletters are suggesting that we might have enough solar activity to light up the 10 meter band this weekend during the CQ WW DX SSB contest.

Should 10 or 15 for that matter open up, then all of us little pistols will potentially have an amazing time regardless of power, antennas or even rigs.

Ten especially allows for global communications with modest equipment and effort.

So who is going to be on?

According to NG3K’s CQ WW DX SSB Announced Operation list 6W1RY from Senegal says he’ll be on. So will A73A out of Qatar representing Zone 21. This is a BIG multi-multi station and you should be able to work them on 10 if the band opens up.

Guam is being activated by a big bunch of hams from Japan AH2R in Zone 27 and should be workable from mid-afternoon to early evening. Same for Mariana Is. which is also in Zone 27 but expect big pileups.

BY5CD out of China in Zone 24 is running multi-multi as is C5A out of Gambia in Zone 35.

My printer shot out 14 pages of great DX listed on the NG5K site.

So what do you need to work all this DX on 10?

A vertical with ground radials (like a Butternut) or an elevated vertical (like an R5) should do the trick as will a 10 meter dipole up 25 feet or more. One hundred watts is plenty of power and I’ll be running 5 watts SSB and I expect to do pretty well.

Now if you want to be competitive as a little pistol consider entering the single-band category. Here’s what the rulebook says for the CQ WW DX contests:

“I would like to work on several bands, but only submit a single band entry. Is this allowed? How should I submit my log?”

Yes, you may work other bands and still submit your log as a single band entry. First, please make sure your log includes all QSOs made on all bands. This helps us with the log checking. Second, make sure the Cabrillo file header has your category set for the single band you want to enter. (e.g., CATEGORY-BAND: 20M) Only the QSOs on the single band will be used to compute your score.

Please enter only one log containing ALL QSOs!  Each log that you submit will overwrite the previously submitted log.

This means you could operate all bands and then just enter for a single band like 15 or 10. There are a couple of advantages to operating single band. If like me you don’t have much of a signal on 160 or 80 you could just work 40 to 10 and then submit your best effort on a single band.

You could also just concentrate on one band to the exclusion of all others and in that way learn it’s hidden characteristics and propagation. If you pick 10 or 15 both bands are likely to fade in the darkness so this means you get to have 8 hours of sleep and still be on when the bands are open from roughly 9 am to dusk.

If you’re a night owl then 40 meters from 3 p.m. to past dawn the next morning can provide world-wide contacts with big openings into VK and ZL at our dawn.

A big full-size dipole up 60 feet or higher in the country on 80 or 160 would be a killer and could provide contacts to JA on 80 and all Europe on 160.

And then again…maybe not. One good unpredicted solar flare and we’re back to reading the weekend papers and doing the grocery shopping.

I booked this weekend off with the XYL back in January so she could make her own plans and not even consider involving me in anything else for any reason. I look at it this way: If somebody drops dead (so long as it isn’t me) during the contest I’ll attend the visitation on Monday. I don’t even take phone calls on contest weekends because the objective is to stay in the chair if you want to make points.)

BTW Mike Walker, VA3MW, is an avid contester and experimenter and he’s asked me to pass along a link to his Yahoo Group that focuses on remote base communications:

http://ca.groups.yahoo.com/group/Ham_radio_remote_base

PSK-31 On The Cheap

PSK-31 on 14.070 on a typical Friday afternoon is filled with the digital signals being sent with very little power around the world.

So here’s how to get into the action on the cheap.

First you need any old computer or in my case for this article an IPad using a $5 app called PSKer.

You need to get audio into your computer’s sound card and (again with the IPad I used a USB dongle into which I plugged in a $45 Griffen IMic) plug the audio cable into your receiver’s headphone jack.

(If you use a splitter you can listen on headphones to the melodious tones of the PSK-31 transmissions at the same time.) 

That’s if for receiving PSK-31 which is what I’m doing with the IPad connected through a Griffin IMic with signals coming from a Drake R8 receiver. So far Russia, Spain, Cuba, England Florida and the US mid-west are pounding in. The Drake is connected to a 40/20 Par end-feed wire at 30′.

Now transmitting requires a …wait for it…a transmitter capable of sending SSB and for the most part all you need is a software program like DigiPan and there are tons more and a connection from the computer to mic jack on the rig (or on some rigs an accessory port).

The big trick with PSK-31 is to minimize your power out. to 20 watts or so. A lot of guys are running even less. The big issue is to keep your signal very very clean as there can be a ton of guys all transmitting within a hew hertz of each other.

In fact with the IPad, you can plus in an IRig Mic Cast which plugs into the audio plug on an IPhone or IPad and can decode PSK-31 from your rig’s speaker. This works in a quiet room but outside wind noise or inside kids or TVs make this an impractical but easy way of receiving signals.

The next step for me is to get a small rig that transmits SSB and see if I can’t get on the air  with PSK-31.

Contesting Part Eight – Staying In The Chair

If there’s one great secret to winning categories of contests it comes down to this: You’ve got to stay in the chair.

That doesn’t mean you have to stay in the chair none stop for 48 hours (and some guys do) but it means you’ve got to manage your time to maximize your results.

I find working in two-hour stretches with breaks lasting 15 to 20 minutes each results in vastly superior results than when I fire up the rig and try to stay on for as long as possible.

I’m also no good at staying up late at night. This is one of the reasons I like single transmitter – multiply operator categories so much. If you’ve got four or five guys staffing the station and working hard you’re going to do well.

If I’m working alone I make sure that I’m on the right band at right time and I manage my sleep as best I can. Usually this means bed by midnight (oh I know. I can see the serious guy’s eyes rolling) and on duty at no later than 5 a.m. to work the VKs on 40 and maybe even 80…I should be so lucky.

I eat small amounts continually and drink a ton of water and coffee.

But what keeps me in the chair are goals. I set hourly goals and daily goals and I keep track of my multipliers or country counts.

I celebrate small achievements and often remind myself that I volunteered for this 🙂

If you’ve got a goal to work 10 or 25 or 100 new countries, it will help you stay focused.

(This shot of the station shows a few of the awards and certificates I’ve won over the years. The FlexRadio 1500 is under the desk with an auto tuner under there as well.

If you’re looking for specific countries (and you’re working assisted with a band map) you’ll stay in the chair longer as you search for your target as they show up in the software.

If you’re trying to beat another guy (I’ve got a QRP contester who routinely beats me and my research shows he’s beating me by merely working harder) then that’s a great incentive.

With the new sections for Ontario recently announced you’re not working against everyone in Ontario but everyone in your section.

I’ve won a lot of wallpaper and a couple of trophies and even got mentioned in QST as the W/VE Central region leader QRP in the 2012 Arrl International DX CW contest. This was a first for me and big thrill.

It’s taken me years to get my station working consistently at a contest-level. I’ve gone from running high power with an SB-200 to low power alone with an IC-756 with dual CW crystal filters to running QRP at 5 watts or less with the Flex 1500.

I’ve never had so much fun in Ham Radio regardless of power. (And when it comes to QRP you’ll hear a lot of guys say life is too short for QRP. But running QRP will IMHO make you a much sharper operator and you won’t bug the neighbour’s TVs.)

So let’s get on the air and enjoy contesting. The CQ WW DX SSB is coming up October 27-28 and the CW part is coming November 24-25. This is one of the great contests that happen on an annual basis.

See you in the log 🙂

Contesting Part Seven – Getting On The Air

I wanted to title this post “Getting On The Air And Having Fun” but that’s too long but it’s what I mean.

About an hour before any major contest (and certainly on the Friday before the contest) you can work some amazing DX as contesters around the world test out their stations. Get your sheet out that has the announced contesting stations and look around on 20, 15 and 10 for these guys. They’ll be easy to work.

A pre-contest contact counts for other awards once you put it in your log. BTW if you’re operating with standard logging software almost all of the best will allow you to import your contest file from N1MM or Writelog as an ADIF file and then you can fire it off to the ARRL’s Logbook of the Work or CQ Magazines E-QSL.

This is cool for a number of reasons but first you never need to send out another paper QSL card. Sending out QSL cards was easy when we made a couple of contacts a weekend in casual operating mode but when you work 1,500 plus contacts in a weekend it becomes a major pain in the butt to QSL everybody by hand.

Standard operating software will also separate out QSOs that qualify for awards like DXCC and others automatically. This is very neat and the next step in the evolution of my own efforts.

Here’s one of my rules of engagement when it comes to contesting. Unless faced with an emergency I don’t change anything 48 hours before a contest. That means I don’t add new equipment or upload new software or do change antennas or anything.

This means that I can actually start the contest on time and I’m familiar with the station setup. Can’t tell you how screwed up I could get things in the past as I made changes at the last minute.

Okay so an hour before the contest check everything and make some decisions about which band sounds the best for you. In general start off with the higher bands and work your way down as propagation changes.

Get a grey line map running on a computer (there’s an app) and notice where the grey line crosses the earth during your times of sunrise and sunset. Along the grey line there will be an enhanced period of propagation from your location all along the grey line.

Depending on which band you’re on, the grey line propagation can make all the difference between working into say JA or not. Learning how to use grey line propagation can make a huge difference in your score and country count.

The grey line pattern changes during the year so use it during every major DX contest.

Okay so the contest starts. If it’s one of the big ones all you’ll hear on the active bands is a roar of noise. Here’s where the more selective receivers come into play.

Also be aware that this level of activity will die down in an hour or so. Just hang in there. It gets better. If you only show up on Sunday for some casual contesting you’ll be a new call sign and much in demand.

The easiest way to immerse yourself into the contest is work the edges of the band. Go up high where the less experienced and lowered powered contesters hang out.

On 20 meters this would be anything above 14.275 or so. On 40, I’d say anything above 7.250 and the same for 15 (21.300 and up) and 10 (28.450 and up).

When you hear somebody calling “CQ contest. W7XX. Contest.” Answer him with just your call sign. Do not just send your last two letters or anything else and initally just say your entire call once phonetically using the standard NATO phonetic alphabet.

Do not invent funny phonetics. They might work with your buddies but some guy in Beijing isn’t going to get the joke or the letters and you’re just going to piss him off.

Having said that for me Victor Echo Three Hotel Golf works most of the time.

But as a QRP contester I do get asked for a fair number of repeats on SSB. If the other station isn’t getting the Golf I will switch to Germany especially when working into Europe.

However when working into South America or any Spanish speaking country I’ll use Guatemala which works every time. 🙂

Okay so you call and the guy works somebody else. Check are you outputting 100 watts into the right antenna? Is your rig on “split” and not on frequency? Are you seeing the meter showing you’re transmitting? Okay let’s try again.

This time when the calling station says “W7XX contest” wait a split second and listen. Are there a bunch of LOUD stations calling? If so go find somebody else less popular and work them.

The objective here is to get you making contacts not winning contests…yet 🙂

So let’s say the guy actually hears you! Woo Hoo!!

He’s going to say your call sign and give you a report. It’s going to sound like this:

VE3XXX you are 5-9 100 or 5-9 Ohio or whatever the report is. While you’re getting your act together typing the report into the software it might be better to use a pencil and paper during the contact and enter the information immediately afterwards.

Okay so maybe you miss your report in the noise so go back and ask for it again by saying “W7XX my report again again”.

If he hears you he’ll repeat your call sign and give you your report. If he doesn’t, he may move on to somebody he can hear. Don’t take it personally. But try again.

Sometimes it pays to listen to the guy who is calling CQ contest. Is he hearing the beginning of the calling stations’ call signs or the end of the call signs?

You’ll know by what he says. If he is saying “just the VE” you know he’s hearing the start of the call. If he says “just the station ending with XX” you know he’s hearing the tail end.

If he’s hearing the tail end then the best way to work him is to hesitate a second or two after he starts to listen so that he hears the end of your call.

Once he gets your report correctly you’ll give him his report. Don’t give him his report until you’ve got yours nailed down because if you do, he’ll assume you got your report okay and will move on. If he’s in a pileup you’ll never get his attention again and if you do he’ll fire back that he’s worked you and will move on.

So once you’ve got your report you say “W7XX QSL to you” and give him his report. He’ll say QSL and start calling again for additional contacts.

Ta Da you’ve made your first contest contact! Now enter it into the electronic log and move on. This is called search and pounce and until you get really comfortable contesting this is where to stay for awhile.

Somewhere in here you’re going to be tempted to open a celebratory beer. Don’t do it. The second you have a drink you’re pretty much out of the contest. I’m not against drinking alcohol (Lord knows) but wait until the end of the contest and then open up the bottle of Glenfiddich 18 and enjoy.

BTW once you’ve completed the contest it’s time to use your software to create what’s called a Cabrillo file and send it to the contest robot for scoring. Then fill out the summary form that’s in most software and use it to fill out the submittal form on the 3830 reflector and post your results there as well for the world to see.

After the contest you can use the 3830 reflector to compare your scores to the scores of your fellow contesters. It’s a great resource.

Next post will talk about staying in the chair 🙂

Contesting Part Six – Antennas

What’s the best antenna? 

You know the answer. It’s the antenna you’ve got up.

If you can erect a tower and put a three-element tri-bander up with a rotor you’re going to have a wonderful experience. Europe will be an everyday experience. The Middle East will be assessable as will Scandinavia and all of Russia. South America will be very loud and more often than not you’ll work scores of Japanese stations.

The world, my friend, will be your oyster.

BUT if I could have only one antenna it would be a multi-band vertical! Yes verticals are noisy compared to dipoles but their angle of radiation is substantially lower and thus allows for really long DX contacts.

My general rule of thumb is if i can hear it on the vertical I can work it. I used a ground-mounted hand-made custom vertical which looks a lot like a Butternut HF6V (80-10). Under the antenna I have 60 ground radials and the antenna is fed with low loss coax.

There are days when the vertical outperforms my HyGain Explorer with 40-meter extensions. The other weekend I could clearly hear VKs and ZLs. I use the vertical with 5 watts SSB to work the Caribbean when the beam is pointed north and I don’t have time to rotate it.

Next up I’d add an 80/40 dipole or if space was limited a G5RV-JR dipole which at 50 feet can fit in just about anywhere.

A combination of a vertical and dipole is ideal for new contesters although one or the other on their own will do.

If I was getting serious but didn’t want to invest in a tower I’d consider putting up a smaller Hex beam on a temporary support and putting it up and bringing it down for each contest.

Yes that’s a pain but the advantages of running a beam can not be over stated.

If you’ve got the room, a full size wire antenna such as a Carolina windom or full-size mono-bander will work wonders with an auto tuner.

Your internal auto tuner might work on 40-10 but it will struggle on 80 and likely give up on 160. This is why some guys buy old-fashioned manual tuners that can be way bigger than the actual radio.

Used manual contest-quality tuners from companies such as Drake, Viking and Dentron work really well. LDG auto tuners work pretty well as do manual Ten Tec tuners. You’ll likely want an external SWR/Watt Meter Bridge.

As for coax dump the RG-58 and replace it with RG-8X or better still RG-213 or ever better LMR-400. If you’re going to bury the cables you’re going to want direct bury cable or you’ll need to bury a conduit that drains out rain and ground water.

Having said that I’ve used ordinary LMR-400 for 8 years now with no appreciable effect but I will be replacing the cable every 10 years no matter what as degradation in the cable is extremely hard to notice.

Finally avoid all trick, cute and expensive antennas. All antennas are based on the simple dipole (two poles) feed in the centre. Anything else is window dressing.

It can be very good window dressing when it comes to beams which are essentially one dipole feed with reflecting and directing elements added.

It can be very bad window dressing especially when it comes with it’s own custom bag or extravagant claims of gain.

Anything that’s shortened is compromised. Three element beams have traps and loading coils and they’re a compromise but the addition of extra elements changes the outcome. Verticals which aren’t full size are compromised. Dipoles that aren’t full-size single band are compromised.

So since we live in a world of compromise (In other words I’m not single living on 50 acres on top of the escarpment and free from conservation oversight) we have to make choices.

When it comes to antennas here’s where it’s at for me.

I’ve got a HyGain Explorer beam at 16.6 meters covering 40-10. It works very well.

I’ve got the HF-6V vertical. It works pretty good.

I’ve got an Alpha-Delta slightly shortened 80/40 dipole at 30 feet. It’s way too low to be good but it works sort of.

I’ve got a G5RV-JR (40-10) especially for the WARC bands and I like it.

For 160 I’ve got an Alpha Delta sloper (160/80/40/30) off the tower and a straight 160 sloper off the other side. This is the only way I can get on 160.

There’s a new Par end-feed 40-20 dipole feeding the R40/20 QRP rig and it works way better than I had expected.

There are two six-meter squares on a second tower that work as well as a three element beam on 6 sans rotor.

Again if I had nothing I’d buy an S9 multiband vertical with an auto tuner attached to the base and a G5RV antenna for 80-10 if possible and the junior if not. Sure I’d miss 160 where very occasionally I’ve heard Europe and 80 which is my worst band by far but I’d be competitive everywhere else.

I’m considering adding an S9 31′ vertical to the front yard where it would sit next to the pine trees that line the yard and thus be invisible while in plain site and would work great for single transmitter, multi-op contests where I would want to run a multi station as well as a run station.

Look if it came down to it, I’d mount a vertical mobile TarHeel antenna on the car and run coax into the house and work the contest that way if I had to and I’d probably run a small 500-watt amplifier too 🙂

Regardless of the setup, you can have fun.

Contesting Part 5 – QRP Contesting

I’m in the middle of the ARCI QRP fall contest and I’m having a blast at 750 milliwatts!

So I thought I’d add this piece on QRP contesting while I was listening to Brian VE3MGY pounding out the brass Sunday morning at 7.030.

So why 3/4 of one watt for output? It puts me in a very desirable category as far as points are concerned. It also puts me in a competitive but tough category when it comes to actually working guys.

That’s not to say it can’t be done. I’ve worked into Florida and have heard Texas and stations in the U.S. mid-west but conditions are not great. If they were better I have no doubt that I would be hearing many more stations right across North America and working most of them as well.

I normally run 5 watts and I find virtually no difference between running 5 watts and 100 watts when it comes to CW or RTTY. SSB is a whole different story but it’s still not impossible. I’ve worked stations in Russia on 40 meters late in the afternoon with S-9+ signals.

QRP CW is easy. Most guys don’t go over 20 wpm and a lot of the guys are doing 10 wpm. Everybody wants to work you.

When you know you’re copying just a call sign, report (which in contests is almost always 599 even if you can’t hear the guy….I know but that’s how it is in contesting. It’s way too tough to complicate matters. In fact, I’m listening to K2ZR calling CQ but there’s so much QSB I won’t be able to work him until conditions improve.) it`s pretty easy to get the report right..

Now the best radio for QRP is any of the big rigs throttled down to 5 watts using an accurate watt meter like the WM-2 which goes full scale at 10 watts, 1 watt and 100mW!

Next and just as good if not better is my FlexRadio 1500. The front end on this $600 radio is the best I’ve every heard.

I can go down to less than 25Hz of DSP brick-wall filtering and hear one station at the noise level.. Amazing! And the Flex will run 5 watts full out or easily go down to as low as you want to go.

Next up I’d recommend an Elecraft K2 on CW. You can buy these used for $500 to $700 depending on accessories or I’d also recommend (although I haven’t used one) the new KX3. This 10-watt rig (there’s a 100-watt amp in the works) is getting rave reviews and it’s $800 new plus accessories which can take the price up to around $1500.

There are a ton of QRP kits that are cheap and cheerful. Here’s what I’m working on.

I’m using a Drake 2B receiver as a casual monitor while I read the Sunday newspapers and drink my coffee.

What I am discovering is the Drake can hear everything the Flex hears. As they are on slightly different antennas (the Flex is on an Alpha Delta 80-40 shortened dipole at 30`or so and the Drake is on a Par 40-20 end-feed antenna sometimes the Drake actually hears better than the Flex. It sure hears more. 🙂 It hears about 2 kHz at a time.

Now I can use the passband down to .5kHz but that`s not the same as 25Hz of Flex filtering. But, our hearing can act as filters as well and although the Drake isn`t a single-signal receiver it`s a sweet sounding rig. I`m thinking of adding a TimeWave DSP-9 in front of the headphones which should make a big difference in contest operating.

Next step would be to add a TR switch (looking at a K8IQY Magic Box kit at $45) and a QRP transmitter likely from a kit.

This is a cheap way to get into QRP or QRP contesting or DXing. Buy a used receiver like a Drake 2B, Drake R4B, R8 or even an older Hallicrafters or Hammarlund receiver (The older the more likely the receiver will drift a bit as it warms up.) and add a two to five-watt transmitter with a TR switch and go have fun for next to nothing.

Whatever the rig it will need a BFO and a CW filter of some sort to work well.

Now as for antennas for QRP: For North American QRP work any dipole will do. The higher off the ground the better the performance.

If you`ve got a beam you`ll easily work the world. Verticals will work but it will be harder as the lower angle of radiation inherent in their design will send your QRP signal farther (making close in work harder) but remember  you`re going to be competing with noise and QRM and QRN and it`s rough working DX when you`re QRP.

QRP is amazingly effective when band conditions are good. After getting your feet wet at 5  watts the next logical step is one or two watts and then who knows how low you can go 🙂

Have fun. I`m getting back to the contest with the hope that 15 meters opens up this afternoon.

Contesting Part Four – Rigs

So let’s keep this simple.

Get on the air with the rig you’ve got.

Any rig will work. Some rigs will work better than others. I’ve got a Tuna Tin 330 milliwatt xmitter that works and I’ve got the QSL to prove it 🙂

Any rig is better than no rig. I once competed in the ARRL’s Field Day using a Ten Tec R40/20 into an end-feed wire. It worked just fine.

If you’re planning on buying a contest-quality rig you’ve got some decisions to make. If you can buy a multi-band rig that works CW/SSB/AM/FM and digital modes for $900 or so why would you even consider a rig that costs 10 times more?

Let’s put it this way: Most transmitters are roughly the same. The extra money goes into the receiver. Having said that, some new rigs (especially the DSR equipment) is proving to be contest-quality at a fraction of what we used to think we had to pay to be competitive.

So what makes a contest rig competitive? For the most part it’s the ability of the rig to separate one signal from another especially if the target signal is S-2 and the neighbouring signal is 40 db/S9 (which happens here sometimes when VA3EC fires up 360 meters north of me).

One way to help some older rigs to remain competitive comes in the form of crystal filters for CW, digital and SSB. Nothing makes CW easier than a 300 or 500 Hz filter.

It’s also the ability of the rig to perform flawlessly for 48 hours under the stresses of competition. Some rigs are built better than others and will stand more abuse.

Some rigs are also easier to listen to for two days steady than others. A lot of this is personal preference.

When it comes to competitions you’ll want to be using communications quality headphones. The Bose I spoke of are okay but their forte is noise cancelling. Heil headphones makes really excellent units with mini boom mics built right in.

I switch headphones often during contests to keep changing the pressure points. This helps keep me in the chair.

If you’re operating at home in a quiet location you can run VOX. If you’ve got kids or your running two or more transmitters in the same room you’ll have to go to a foot switch to trigger the transmitter. Foot switches are cumbersome and tend to wander away from where you want them but when it comes to controlling the transmitter, they’re essential.

If you’re ready for a CW contest you absolutely will love to have a CW memory keyer. The memories can be filled up with the contest report and often will do sequential numbers and other helpful add-ons.

If you’re doing an SSB contest a voice keyer can be a blessing. When running QRP on sideband I run at a great disadvantage to anyone running 100 or 1,000 watts. A voice keyer with just my call in it can save my voice.

In contests that don’t require a sequential number or any other unique information I can setup the voice keyer so I never actually say anything all weekend long. This is a very popular accessory in our home during voice contests especially late a at night.

Okay time for some straight talk. Which rig would I buy?

In used equipment I’d get an Icom Pro or better like a Pro 2. In Yaseu I’d look for a Mk V FT-1000 MP. I’s also consider an Elecraft K2. Really older rigs include ICOM 765s or Kenwood TS-850s.

Now $1,000 or so entry rigs can be used in contests but forget the preamps in the receivers and run these rigs with as much attenuation as you can while still hearing the stations you want to work. Cheaper rigs are prone to front-end overload which creates all kinds of crap and spurious signals. Adding amplification is an exercise in frustration.

Now if I could buy any rig I’d used Sherwood Engineering’s receiver test data page as a place to start. These tests are all about contesting quality.

If it were me I’d buy the $1,000 SDR Elecraft KX3 radio. Yes it’s only a QRP rig but Elecraft is building a 100-watt PA for it. This is an amazing radio and an astonishing price.

Next up I’d get the K3 but that’s going to cost between $3K and almost $5K depending on how much you tart it up. (And with the possibility of adding an entirely separate receiver, the K3 is an extremely desirable radio when it comes to full-out contesting.)

Next up when money is considered is the Kenwood TS-590s. At $1800 this is a crazy good radio at an amazing price. Receive audio from Kenwood has always been top notch. At much the same price the diminutive Ten-Tec Eagle scores well.

I have no experience with the Ten Tec Orion II but some guys won’t use anything else. Part of the reason for this is they are American made.

Now you’ll notice I also left out the $6K+ Yaesu FTdx=5000D and even my beloved FlexRadio 5000A and Flex-3000. I think the Yaesu is yesterday’s rig. My opinion only and we’re getting rigs with amazing characteristics at downright bargain basement prices and this trend will continue.

I run the Flex 1500 (which scores really high for a $600 rig on Sherwoods page) but these Flex rigs aren’t the best for newcomers as they are tough to setup if you don’t have some experience as a ham and know what to expect.

Once you get them setup they’re amazing. The receiver in my Flex 1500 is the best receiver I’ve ever used period. I can work guys on the Flex that I’m certain I couldn’t work using a conventional contest-quality rig.

The Flexradios don’t have the best ergonomics when it comes to contesting and they require a computer to work however having said that, I believe the new Flex 6500 (at $5K) is likely the future of radio communications as we know it and may well prove to be a complete game changer.

Now having said all that this morning (Saturday) I’m listening with a vintage mint Drake 2B receiver on a Par 40-20 end-feed wire which is hearing things my main rig on the beam isn’t hearing especially on 20 meters where I’m gearing up for the ARCI QRP Fall contest.

I’m planning on running 1 watt into wire antennas only but we’ll see how the day progresses 🙂

Contesting Part Three – More Getting Ready

Okay so we’ve got the weekend booked off. The phone is disconnected from the wall and we’re not answering the door. The fridge is packed and the coffee pot is on – now what?

Now we read the rules of the contest. Every contest has an online contest page where the rules are available for viewing or printing. You’ll want to confirm the time the contest starts and stops. This is going to be in GMT so you’re going to have figure out the time difference (which right now is four hours from Daylight Savings).

You need to see what the exchange is for each contest. For some it’s 59 or 599 and your zone or name or sometimes there’s no signal report just your name and state or province. Each contest is different and you don’t want to embarrass yourself too much on your first contact.

Some contests allow for time off and some restrict the number of band changes per hour that you can make. And going from one band to another and back counts as three changes so be aware of the rules.

Some contests limit the power and some have suggested frequencies that may prove helpful.

Before you fire up the rig download the latest solar indices and learn how to interpret them. A SFI number of over 100 is considered good. The A index should be under 10 and the K index should be no more than one or two.

(In Photo: Steve from Radio World demonstrated the new Flex 5000 rig at the CCO’s annual general meeting and BBQ held in August each year.

Right now the SFI is 106 which means moderate solar activity but the A index is 42. This is an indicator that a major solar event (in this case a geomagnetic storm) has occurred and you can expect horrible conditions with radio blackouts expected.

The solar activity changes continually all day long so while you can go for pizza during a solar storm check the bands regularly for weird paths with heightened signal strength into faraway places.

During one contest I worked a bunch of stations in Hong Kong (which I never hear) at S9 with the antenna pointed across northern Europe. This long path was producing S9+ signals. I was so suprised that actually asked the second guy I worked to confirm his QTH. He must have thought me mad.

There are new beacons and reverse beacons which can tell you how you’re sounding around the world but DO NOT use the beacons or any other sort of assistance like spotting nets as that will put you in a more competitive class like assisted or multi-multi.

Having said that, it’s pretty neat to run assisted low power single op and have the automatic spotting system populate a band map which you can use to tap on the call sign you want and your rig and software will immediately change frequencies and you’re ready to work the rare one.

Here’s a list of every beacon on the air right now. And here’s an easy way to monitor the spotting nets.

NG3K runs an interesting site that features a ton of helpful links. One page holds links to announced contesting operations in exotic locations. He’s the updated list of announced contest operations for the upcoming CQ WW DX SSB test. Check it daily as new stations get added as they announce their intentions.

These lists can help you quickly identify rare sounding call signs and give you target stations to listen for or look for on the spotting nets. Don’t despair when you can’t break the mega pile ups that will happen anytime one of these guys gets on the air. I regularly break big piles up with my 5-watt QRP signal because I call very aggressively and will throw my call in if somebody hesitates or makes a mistake 🙂

Also the pileups will go way down in the midnight hours and especially the early hours before dawn. If you understand propagation and how it affects signals on different bands at different times of the day you’ll know to listen for VKs and ZLs late in the afternoon and in the pre-dawn hours on 40 meters. You’ll know to listen for JAs late in the afternoon and if you have a beam you’ll know to point it around 350 degrees over the North Pole.

Here’s an online map of CQ DX Zones. Better maps can be found online and at CQ Magazine’s site. A lot of the contesting software will allow you to bring up a separate window of multipliers or states or counties that automatically get checked off as you work them. This is important in some state QSO parties as a clean sweep of counties or states is very desirable.

If you’re running in a contest that requires grid squares (most VHF/UHF) then here’s a link to determine grid squares. In southern Ontario we’re in FN03.

KA9FOX runs a handy site full of links of interest to contesters.

Finally if you’re getting bite by the contesting bug then join Contest Club Ontario. This is the largest contest club in Canada and the only one in Ontario. The club offers an internal club competition, sponsors categories in other contests, has an online reflector which is very active and gathers a couple of times of year to meet and greet and learn.