Thursday, August 27, 2009

222 MHz VHF's Best Kept Secret

The 222 MHz band is VHF's best kept secret. I can't hope to explain the physics, but like many VHF Men, I can swear that similar equipment and antennas on 222 will have the same or slightly better range than you'll get on 2 Meters.

How is that possible? Beats me...but I suspect it has something to do with a much lower noise floor on 222. Unfortunately, the 222 band is not available in Japan, nor in many other parts of the world. This limits the amount of commercial "plug & play" gear for the band.

But new rules in ARRL Contests may help to encourage more participation on the band. The new "Limited Rover" category requires that entrants use the bottom four bands available for any contest. This means that all VHF/UHF contests will now require 222. Anyone hoping to win this category will certainly want to add 222 Mhz.

A good way to "break into" 222 MHz, especially during contests is to try FM first. There are a number of new and used 222 FM rigs out there, like the Kenwood Units pictured in the vintage ad above. Also, Jetstream is producing a new 222 MHz rig, the JT220M, which is very resonably priced. Check it out at:

http://www.randl.com/shop/index.shtml

In addition, several HT's offer the 222 MHz band such as the Kenwood TH-F6A (a great radio with full five watts output on 2M, 432, and 222!), the new Yaesu APRS HT, and others. Most simplex activity during contests is on 223.500mhz. Best results will be obtained by working stations on SSB on 2 Meters or 432 (if you're in the UHF contest) and then "moving them" to 223.5 FM. Buy or build a gain antenna such as a "Cheap Yagi" and make sure that it's turned horizontal. Even with 5 watts, you'll be able to work out a good distance.

The next step up is to purchase a used 222 multi-mode rig or better yet, a good transverter to work with your 10 Meter rig. I have a Down East Microwave Transverter married to a Yaesu FT-817ND IF rig. The transverter puts out 30 watts, which I use to drive a Mirage 125 watt amp. This works great, and isn't terribly expensive. Getting more power than this on 222 requires another large expense, and someday I may add it, but right now I'm having fun working folks on this modest station.

Meteor scatter on 222 is possible (I have two contacts to date) but more difficult than on 2 Meters. E-Skip makes it to 222, but it's rare, not more than once every two or three years. EME activity on 222 is growing, with lots of stations to work. The main mode of enhanced propagation is tropo, but as I said, signals are often much louder on 222 than on 2 Meters.

During the June Contest, I worked Marshall, K5QE in Texas on 2 Meters with signals ranging about 57 on my end, and 53-55 on his end. When we switched to 222, he came back to my call immediately saying, "Man, you're the loudest signal I've heard on 222 tonight!" Signals were 59 to 59+ in both directions. As a rover, it's great to get reports like that.

222 MHz is my favorite band, and I really miss it's biggest supporter in the Southeast, "Mr. 222" Rex, W5RCI from Marks, MS. Sadly Rex is a silent key now, but the Southeast still has several voices on 222, all of them eager to work you on the "Secret Band".

Join us in Room 222 soon!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Grid #60 on the 2 Meter VUCC Chase!




Thanks to Robert Howard, K0RDF for my 60th grid on 2 Meters! We worked this morning using WSJT Meteor Scatter at a distance of about 568 miles. The contact was quick and fairly easy, lasting about ten minutes from start to finish.

140659 21.4 340 6 26 -96 K0RDJ N1LF K0RDB N1LF K0RDF N1LF K0RDF

"Ping Jockeys" will quickly recognize the gibberish above, as the "readout" from the WSJT software decoded after a strong ping from a meteor trail. Copy is solid at "26" while my received frequency is off by just 96 hertz. A quick adjustment of my RIT control, and then I narrowed my TOL (basically like a "bandpass" filter in the software) to limit my received bandwidth to only 100hz. This allows me to be right on frequency with Bob, and limit bandpass to only 100hz.

That way any pings that follow, even if they're weaker, I should be able to dig Bob out of the noise better. In actual practice, most pings are good and loud. But it's best to practice for worse case, as distants contacts around 1,200 miles or so take every bit of processing power that the software has.

There is an art to decoding weak pings, and good operators can recover callsigns and signal reports that are well below the noise level. I'm working on becoming a better MS operator.

WSJT remains the "secret weapon" for my ERP challenged station. About 70% of my grid total was accomplished using FSK441 or JT65b. Hoping to finish the tilt over ladder mast soon, and try my hand at EME too!

Thanks again Bob!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Southeastern View on VHF

Just had to share the recent comments from Jim Worsham, W4KXY about the view on VHF Operating in the Southeastern part of the country. These comments were made on the VHF Contesting E-mail List:

We guys in the Southeast enjoy reading all of these discussions
about the validity of the various modes, skeds, etc. Down here our
philosophy about VHF contesting is we will work anyone anywhere using any
mode, band, etc. that we and they have. We can't afford to be snobs about
it.

Jim is often active from W4NH, the Fourlanders Contest Team, which is one of the best VHF contesting stations in the area. He's also our rep to the VUCA, and does a lot for the entire VHF Community.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Grids 54-59 on 2 Meters

This past week has been a very productive one on the bands. Despite a generally lackluster Perseids meteor shower, I still managed to work five new grids on 2 Meters, bringing my total to 59 grids worked since January of 2008.

The Perseids netted several netted several new contacts on 6 Meters as well, and a very memorable contact with K0RI in Colorado Springs, CO at a distance of 1,071 miles. What made it memorable is that the entire contact took less than 2 minutes using the WSJT sotware!

Also managed to work Danny, N5OMG in New Orleans on 2 Meters without any help from the falling rocks at all. We used the JT65b mode of the WSJT software and just the usual middle of the evening backscatter to complete the 300 mile QSO during what most would describe as "dead band" conditions. Thanks again to Joe Taylor, K1ST, without whom I'd never have a legitimate shot at earning VUCC on 2 Meters.

It's becoming clear that time at the dials is the most important factor in reaching my goal. But that's always been the case on these bands. One of my mentors advised me to follow the Three B Rule:

1. Be On. (When the band is open, the rox are falling, the moon is near the horizon, whatever)
2. Be Loud. (More power, Scotty! More iron in the air helps too)
3. Be horizontal.

I plan to concentrate on putting in a tilt over mast at my station, and beefing up the 2 Meter antenna to at least 12 elements. I'll also be able to better use the SSB Electronics mast mounted pre-amp. It's great in some directions now, but the attic has too many noise sources. In some directions, turning on the pre-amp only makes things worse. Getting the antenna outside should really help with that too.

Thanks to all who listened hard for the weak one. Each grid is like gold to me, and I'm more grateful than you could know. See you on the bands!

N1LF/R For August UHF Contest





I learned some hard lessons during my first Rover outing in the June 2009 VHF Contest. As faithful readers will recall, I used a 40 foot tall aluminum mast mounted on my trailer hitch for that effort. This provided great height, but also resulted in about two hours of work for each stop on my route. Way too many contacts were missed due to this handicap.

I reasoned that the "run and gun" approach would be better, and after looking at dozens of rover setups from around the country, decided to build a PVC "rack" that would sit on my pickup truck bed and allow me to operate quickly once reaching a new high spot in my route.

The design for the PVC rack was my XYL's, Abby Rayburn, who has the workshop that would be the envy of any man. She's a "handy gal" in the extreme, and cut the rack to her own exacting specifications. It was cemented with heavy duty PVC glue, and beefed up with wooden dowels inside for added strength in critical areas.

After it dried, we mounted several long Yagi's for 2M, 222, 432, 902, 1.2ghz, and 2.3ghz to the rack. In addition, I'm using a trailer hitch mounted painters pole that holds dual 2M KA4UB loops, and a single loop for 432.

The ability to run these loops during driving periods adds more than a few contacts to the logbook.

Inside the vehicle, I took an old garage organizer shelf that was lying around, and cut the legs between two of the shelves down to about 8" apart. Then I mounted all the various radios, transverters, and power amps to the two-tier shelf using heavy duty wire ties. On the back, I installed a Rigrunner power panel with Anderson PowerPoles, and labeled everything with a Dymo label maker.

Also adapted an old stereo RCA switching panel to allow me to quickly switch the PTT keying circuit from the FT-817ND (IF Rig) to either of the three transverters. Another antenna switch routed RF signals from the IF rig to the transverter. Switching from one band to the next took only one knob turn and a click. Sweet!

Another antenna switch allows me to feed the 28mhz signals from the transverters to either the Yaesu IF rig or a RF Space SDR-IQ receiver. The SDR-IQ allows me to use the PC to look at a band scope display...making it much easier to find signals on the UHF and SHF bands. Didn't use it much during the contest, but it worked great.

Installed a large 12VDC deep cycle marine battery in the bed of the truck to power everything, and "Glow Fuses" on all leads.

Now to operate portable or rover, I can literally "pick up" the radios, and place the entire shelf unit in the back seat. Place PVC rack of antennas on the bed Secure antennas with motorcycle straps, connect feedlines and batteries, and be on the air! QRV on all bands 6-2.3ghz.

Power for the PC (laptop) comes from an I-Go 12VDC power adapater which didn't put out any RF hash at all. All logging for the contest was done using RoverLog for the first time. Found it to be very useful, but I still like the VHF Log from N3FJP better.

So, how did it play? My wife was really ill on Saturday, resulting in missing the first 30 hours of so of the event, except for some FM contacts from the hospital parking lot. On Sunday, I took it out to EM63 (Locust Ridge), EM62, and EM61. Picked up lots of new grids on all bands. Several stations said I was really loud on 222 and 902, which was great to hear.

The highlight of the event was having Danny, N5OMG in New Orleans call me on 432! We also worked on 222. I'd been trying to work Danny from the home station for over a year without success! We finally did complete on 2 Meters yesterday using JT65b mode (WSJT) from my home station. Thanks Danny!

Some have asked me if operating rover during the contests has improved my grid chasing. Hmmm...that's a hard question to answer. It's added grids to the totals to be sure, but the maximum benefit has come on the bands 432 and up.

The issue seems to be that "contesting" gets in the way of grid chasing. I have a nasty side when it comes to competition. You know, one of those obnoxious guys who take the church basketball league WAY TOO seriously. It's a problem, I'm not proud of it, and I'm working on it. But it also applies to ham radio. During a contest, I get fixated on my score---not how many grids I'm working.

I keep promising to spend one full contest day on Locust Ridge in EM63. It's only six miles from my house. Has great 360 degree views with almost no trees, and it's about 1,100 feet ASL. All stations worked from there count towards VUCC since it's within 100 klicks of my house, but moving to other grids helps the score...and I always end up chasing the score more than the grids.

In terms of "bang per buck", WSJT is the secret weapon for those in HOA situations. I've worked seven new grids on 2 Meters in the past week. My operating time is limited, otherwise my totals would improve faster there too.

Next step is a tilt over mast for the house, and working on optimizing my 2 Meter set up for Meteor Scater and limited EME. I think I can add at least 10 grids on EME with a 10 element beam, 200 watts, and the SSB pre-amp. Time to get to work!

I'll be operating N1LF/R during the September event again---so look for me. I'm on APRS as N1LF-1.






Monday, August 10, 2009

Grid 54 on 2 Meters

As the Perseids Meteor shower peak on August 12th nears, action really picks up on 2 Meters. This morning added grid #54 for 2 Meters using the indoor antennas, thanks to WSJT!

Worked W8NJR, Terry for my 1st ever 2 Meter Ohio QSO and grid EN70 in the books. EZ contact taking only about 10 minutes to complete. I actually copied both calls on the 1st sequence.

If you're not on the WSJT modes, you're really missing out. I also put two new 6 Meter grids in the book this morning, filling in "close in" grids in EM42 and EM46 using JT65b modes. This was with virtually no backscatter enhancement on the band at...(dead band conditions)

Thanks Terry for Ohio and EN70. And thanks to Joe Taylor, my freaking hero!!!!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

K0XXX EM46 Who says the bands are dead?

It's 2:00PM in the middle of the afternoon. No sign of tropo, backscatter, and the 2 Meter band is dead as a doornail, right? WRONG! Using the amazing WSJT software, Mark Hambrice, K0XXX in EM46 managed to work my indoor signal using the JT65b mode!

At 307 miles, this is a routine SSB contact for many 2 Meter operators, but not for my station. Mark is running only 7 elements and 150 watts, so neither station on the path was a big gun. But it does prove what this amazing sofware can do, even under dead band conditions.

I never heard any of the tones being transmitted from Mark, so the entire QSO was "below the noise floor", but easy copy using the JT65b mode which is designed for Moonbounce (EME) work, but also works great for tropo and backscatter.

Thanks to Mark for Grid #53 with the indoor antennas. Over 1/2 way to VUCC on 2 Meters now. WSJT really is the secret weapon. Thanks Joe!

1000 QSO's on VHF

A milestone of sorts was reached today. Worked K5DNL, Ken in EM15 (Oklahoma) on Meteor Scatter on 6 Meters. This 600 mile QSO was my 1,000th on weak signal VHF since starting about a year and a half ago.

Thanks to all who've listened so hard for my weak signals from the indoor antennas. Can't wait to reach 2,000 and more.