Obligatory shack tour

To paraphrase Chris Burger, the author of the excellent "How to make a Morse Code QSO," any discussion of ham radio must commence with a discussion of tools. The "shack tour" is a staple of many ham web sites and blogs, and since we are nothing without our equipment, I figured I might as well start there.

First, my transceiver. My main area of interest with regard to ham radio is DXing, so I've been focusing my attention on learning Morse code and working the HF bands. Wanting to get started right away after I got my license, I borrowed a Norcal 40A QRP radio from my friend Nick, N1UBZ. The Norcal can put out about 2 watts and is confined to 40 meters, so I wasn't expecting much from it, but I figured it was enough to get me started.

After a period of having no luck making QSOs with just the QRP power of the Norcal, a local guy I had met on the #hamradio IRC channel, Rob/AK6L, offered to loan me his Tokyo Hypower HL-45B amplifier, which he wasn't using. The Norcal can easily drive this to more than the 15 watt limit of my antenna tuner, so I keep it scaled back to that level. The amp is meant to be used with a Yaesu FT-817 transmitter, and has an accessory plug for that radio to tell the amp what band it's set to and when the transmitter has been keyed. In order to make it work with the Norcal we needed to build some kind of RF carrier detect switch to trigger the amp during transmissions. Rob came up with a basic design and supplied me with RF connectors and a project box, and then Nick helped us refine it and I put it together. Connected in the RF chain between the transmitter and the amp, it senses when the TX is keyed and turns the amp on at the same moment. Then it lags behind by a second or two before turning it off.

For an antenna, Nick helped me string up a simple 40 meter dipole on the roof of my apartment building. I live on the second floor of a three story building, and there's a fair amount of metal on the roof, so we fed it with RG-8x coax. In its first incarnation, I didn't have much of anything to attach the antenna elements to, so it was suspended pretty close to the roof itself and held up in the center by a three foot PVC pipe stump attached to a vent pipe. In spite of a lot of tinkering, the only QSO I was able to get with that setup was with someone about 35 miles away. With frustration setting in, I resolved to get my antenna up higher. Thanks to a brilliant suggestion from Rob's girlfriend, I bought a couple of patio umbrella bases to support two Radio Shack steel TV antenna masts. The umbrella bases are made of plastic, and can be filled with water for ballast. They support the middle and one end of the antenna up about 10'. The other end is guyed to a hook in the adjacent building, which is 1 story taller than mine, so the whole antenna is roughly level at 10' up. It's oriented from corner to corner of my building, radiating east/west, but because there's not quite enough roof space, the last 4-6 feet of each end is folded downward. This has improved things dramatically, and I've now had three QSOs with this setup, one with someone in Arizona and two with people in southern California.

The other two components of my HF setup currently are an Alinco DM-330MV power supply and an Emtech ZM-2 tuner which I built from a kit.

In addition to HF DX, two other aspects of ham radio that interest me are emergency communications and ham radio satellites. Living in earthquake country, the emcomm thing is kind of a no-brainer. In the aftermath of a major earthquake one needs to be able to be self-sufficient for a couple of days and, if possible, volunteer in any search and rescue efforts that might need to happen. There are countless examples of ordinary people saving lives after the 1989 Loma Prieta quake in San Francisco, and it pays to be prepared for situations like that. As for the ham satellites, most of them have an FM 2m/440MHz repeater on board. If you want to work through those, you need a radio that can put out a few watts at 145 MHz and receive at 435 MHz at or nearly at the same time.

To both of these ends, I decided to buy an HT. To some people this stands for "handheld transceiver," but I prefer the much nerdier-sounding "handie-talkie." After a bit of research, I settled on the Yaesu VX-7R, and bought it (along with a hand mic and an upgraded antenna) for myself as a Christmas present. So far I have just used it to chat on the local repeaters a little bit. I've tried a couple of times to hear passing ham satellites, but haven't had any luck so far. This will lead us to a post on "future projects," but I'll save that for later.

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