Thursday, October 24, 2013

T-8 And Counting (QSL Tips)

Chasing VUCC on 2 Meters using indoor antennas has been a five year quest for me, but it's nearly reached the conclusion. It began in 2008, after reading a column in QST by Gene Zimmerman, W3ZZ (SK) entitled "Chasing VUCC".

I had recently moved into a deed restricted neighborhood after my wife suffered a back injury. Three flights of steps was no longer a realistic option for her, and caring for a large home didn't make much sense either. Like many folks with kids in college, we downsized and moved into a garden home.

Along with that came deed restrictions and a nasty home owners association. Making matters worse, the President of the HOA lives next door. Closing day brought a handbook which made it clear that outdoor antennas of any kind were strictly forbidden, along with flagpoles, etc. HF seemed to be nearly impossible.

After reading Gene's article, I wondered about the four element VHF/UHF vertical beam that I had put inside our spacious attic. I'd been able to work repeaters as far away as Georgia, Tennessee, and Mississippi...I wondered how it might perform if I flipped it to horizontal and tried it on SSB.

One Saturday afternoon, I did just that, and made a CQ on 144.200. To my surprise, I was answered right away, and had a nice QSO with a local VHF station. Two weeks later I participated in the January VHF Contest, my first ever. I was expecting a flurry of activity, but managed to only work five stations. Still I was hooked.

A Six Meter 3 element Yagi was purchased, a TV rotor pressed into service inside the attic, then bigger Yagi's for 2 Meters, 222, and 432. Along the way, I purchased an Icom IC-910H, learned about transverters, upgraded from RG-8 coax to 1/2" hardline, read a lot about noise figures, and propagation. Installed WSJT and made my first ever meteor scatter QSO, and generally had a ball.

My "handicap" turned out to be the blessing that inspired me to become active on VHF/UHF---and the most fun I've ever had in amateur radio!

6 Meter VUCC came quickly, and by August of 2008 after the e-skip season, I had earned my first VUCC Award. But I knew from Gene's article that didn't amount to much--2 Meters was the real prize. It was clear that earning it was going to take a lot longer.

As of October of 2013, I've worked 110 Grids on 2 Meters, with roughly half that coming from WSJT meteor scatter contacts, several from a nice three day tropo opening in 2010, and three e-skip openings. Some CW tropo contacts account for the majority of the rest.

Of that, I've confirmed 92 of the contacts via Paper cards and Logbook of the World (LoTW). Now that it's down to the precious few remaining, I'm trying every trick I can think of to confirm those remaining. Recently, I was provided some excellent advice on "Advanced QSLing" by Bill Ockert, ND0B. I'll share that along with some of my own below. This can really help in getting those last few cards, or that rare grid you need.

Always check We have a ham here in ND who has one thing on his QRZ page and that is "I do not QSL."  (Thankfully this is not the norm, but Bob's correct--you will run into it.-N1LF)

Are you on Logbook of the World?   Experience has shown that about 1/3 of the time you will get a confirmation on LoTW and I have found at least some folks who are on LoTW that will not paper QSL regardless of what you send them. 

After six months without a reply, I start attempting to contact the person by other means but always just to check if they got my card.   That is a benign way of making sure they got the card and if so reminding them to send one.   I usually email first and if I do not get a response I use white pages and any other means to track down a phone number.   I look for hams located nearby and contact them.   I look for clubs they might be in.   Anything to get them the message "Did you get my card?..."
(You must be a registered user of and be logged in before you can view a person's e-mail address-N1LF)

Sometimes, but not often, it is the Post Office who may be at fault. Trying to get a card from DN05 I sent a card/SASE, no response so after six months, so I sent an email.  I had an immediate email back that no card was received.  I sent another card/SASE and after two months of no response I sent another email.  Again I had an immediate email back that no card was received.   I was convinced I was being jerked around so I sent another card/SASE via priority mail with a tracking number.   That got there and I had an email that my card was in the mail.  

After two weeks of nothing I sent a fairly blunt email asking if the gent and his buddies were having a good laugh at my expense.  The reply I got was no way, I worked sixteen station the day I worked you which was my first day on 6m and am very proud of that, I do not know what is going on... "What do you want me to do?"   I asked him to send his card to me via Priority Mail and I would reimburse him through Paypal.   He did, I got it, I paid him with some extra to cover his gas and figure I had at least twenty five bucks into that card before it was all said and done.
(This will be very rare. The US Postal Service is one of the most efficient and reliable means of communication on the planet. A tracking number is not a bad idea for important cards, however.-N1LF)

Always use Forever Stamps on your Self-Addressed Stamped Envelopes. (SASE).  If the person is slow in responding that in and of itself may keep your card out of file 13.

I have had two instances now where the person has been suffering from a major illness.   In one instance when I called the guy he had been sick for two years and had a shoebox full of cards, some with old (not enough) postage, etc he was trying to deal with.   While we were on the phone he started looking through to find my card.   I stopped him and thanked him and told him that was not a good use of either of our time that I would just send another card/SASE.   I did and had his card and my unused SASE back in less than a week.   As recently as yesterday it came out on the Fred Fish Memorial Award (FFMA) reflector that one of the grids I had confirmed on LoTW that others were waiting for on paper the gent had been very sick and had just hired someone to process the 2k+ cards he had backed up.  While I do not need it because of LoTW I should get one from there eventually.

One trick a lot of us use is to generate a reverse QSL and send it along with your card and SASE.   The reverse QSL is a card from the station in question to you with all of the particulars filled in and a place for the other station to sign it as being valid.   I have had this work maybe 3 of the 10 times I have tried it.

The key point is be persistent but do not be a pest.   With some folks the gentle reminder that is given by asking if they got your card, with some folks it takes a phone call. DE Bill ND0B.

 Isn't that great advice? Let me share some of my own experience as well. My practice is generally something like this:

  • Work new stations, and upload new contacts to LoTW about once a week. 
  • Send out a new batch of QSL paper card requests once every two weeks or so. I always include a SASE with a Forever Stamp. I put printed address labels on my return envelope in both the main address area, and the return address area. This way, accidental damage to the letter won't obscure my address and will allow USPS to complete delivery. 
  • Make a note in my log of when the SASE was mailed. 
  • Wait
In six months or even longer, I send a follow up card and another SASE. Bill's advice about a friendly e-mail reminder has already paid off with two cards that I had been waiting on for years--just by sending that e-mail. Both came with an apology too.

Recently, I also printed up a single sheet with a photo of my indoor antenna farm, and an explanation about how I was using indoor antennas, and how every grid confirmation was precious to me. This resulted in a lot of the die-hards returning cards that had been on their desks for years. Make sure that the person you're asking for a card knows that you're pursuing a goal and why. It can really pay off.

Many hams don't chase awards, or long ago worked enough stations to earn them all anyway. They may not understand why the QSL is so important to you--and not make sending one back a priority. Simply circling "PSE QSL" on your card isn't enough. Let them know why you want/need that card.

Bill also provided some detailed advice on how to improve your odds of confirming a contact via Logbook of the World (LoTW) that is worth repeating too.

One further thought being as you are on LoTW and are making long contacts such as WSJT meter scatter or EME QSO's.

It is good to keep in mind that LoTW seems to use about a half hour window to match the QSL records for a QSO and I think, but do not have it on authority, that has tightened up a lot in the last year or so.   The issue on this is if you are like me and log the contact with the actual start time (when I started TXing) and the actual completion time (when I got RRR, 73 or a hey I got your RRR by other means) and those times are hours apart it then becomes important what your logging program uploads to LOTW.   I use Ham Radio Deluxe and it uploads the start time.   Others upload the stop time.  You can see the issue.

What I tend to do periodically is on contacts I do not have confirmed is to log into LoTW and do the "Find Call" tab.   This gives you a window where you can type in a call and find out if a station is active on LOTW and the last time they uploaded.   If the last time they uploaded is after the contact I then take a look at the contact in my log.   If it was a long one, like many of the WSJT ones are, I make note of the start time in my comments section (so I do not loose it) and make the start time my finish time and then upload the contact to LoTW again.  Many times that fixed it.   If it does not then I get a copy of my QSL record from LoTW and email it to the other station asking if they can see what is wrong.   A lot of times that gets things fixed up.

If the other stations last upload time is prior to the contact an email asking them to upload sometimes helps.You can also search your "most wanted" callsigns to see if they even use LoTW at all. DE Bill ND08.

Bill providing even more great advice! Thanks "Dr. Bill--you're the man".

Most hams who are active in the digital modes will use LoTW, and generally QSL quickly. But there are exceptions. One of my "Most Wanted" is a FSK441 meteor scatter contact, and I've been trying to get that card for over three years. No joy, so far.

Some other thoughts:

  • Continue to try to work that grid again. That can be hard if it was made via e-skip or WSJT, but sometimes the magic happens more than once. Working another station gives you two chances to confirm a needed grid. 
  • Resist the temptation to call someone out in public forums such as VHF related e-mail reflectors, chat rooms, etc. This is unlikely to get you the card--or change their attitude. As long as you don't anger the person, there is always hope that someday, you'll get the card. 
  • SASE's are a must. Many hams are older and living on fixed incomes. Postage is an expense that they can't afford. You want the card--so you should pay the postage. 
  • That being said, I always return SASE's in a new envelope with postage that I paid for. No ham has to pay to get my card. That's how my Elmer, Ron Murray, WA4IWN taught me years ago. 
  • Express Mail, Fedex Letter etc. My secret weapon---for high value grids, where nothing else has worked, I did have success sending a letter and SASE with reverse QSL card included via Express Mail. 
Express Mail (and similar products from other shippers) makes quite an impact. You can require a signature to receive the letter--and it really gets someone's attention. I've sent out two of these, and both times received a return QSL within the week!

Is a QSL worth that much money? That's for you to decide, but considering my five year quest for VUCC on 2 certainly is to me.

So, get on the air make some noise. No excuses. And if you have QSL requests sitting on your desk, make time to send them back. Some poor Moe is waiting on that. :-)


DE N1LF  T- 8 and Counting Down

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