Field Day 2009

2009 Field Day logoDisclaimer: For those who don't know, I'm an employee of Buddipole, and I do speak quite a bit of my positive experiences with some Buddipole products in this post.

Yes hams, it's that time of the year again. Field Day, the Super Bowl of the ham radio world. I haven't had the best track record of participating in Field Day over the years, due to a few different factors. The largest stumbling block is the nasty allergies that I get during late spring, which usually end up peaking in intensity right around the end of June. The other problem is that I've never been a big fan of the big-time organized local clubs. I won't go in to the reasons for that (you can dig back in the blog if you are really interested), other than to say that in my experience they are not the kind of places that I find interesting.

Now that I own a house with a proper backyard, I feel like I now have the option to participate in Field Day by setting up out back, so that I can duck inside if my allergies get too out of control. It also helped that I recently started taking some new meds, which have helped to control the allergies quite a bit better than anything else so far. So I was more than happy to give FD a go this year, even though it wasn't going to be more than a backyard adventure.

Station Setup

Field Day 2009 - Backyard
Field Day 2009 - Backyard

Given the recent development of my employment with Buddipole, and the demise of my main station random wire antenna in a recent spring storm, it only made sense to deploy the Buddipole. I could have dragged out the IC-718 sitting idle in the shack and paired it with my very heavy 35 Ah gel cell, but I was feeling up for a bit of a challenge. I settled on using the FT-817, and considered pairing it with my recently constructed 20 watt linear amp, but I realized that running 20 watts would give me the same power multiplier as running 100 watts would. So I figured, why not take the dive and go QRP for the entire event? Not only that, but why not make SSB the main mode of operation? This was appealing to me not only because I am a QRPer at heart, but also because it would push my limits, and give me something new to try.

I've run into my share of hams who think that QRP is the devil's handiwork, and that anyone running less than 100 watts is inflicting undue hardship on the poor receiving station. While I know that a QRP signal does have a more difficult time being heard (especially SSB), I also know that there have been plenty of times when the receiving station would have had no idea that I was running QRP unless I told them (and many times, I won't tell them). The fact is, if you can hear me well enough, you'll answer me. If not, you won't. Yes, I get less contacts running QRP. But if the conditions are too painful for the other station, they will just not answer me or will politely cut it short. I especially feel absolved of any guilt running QRP SSB on Field Day because of the whole nature of the event. The concept is to test how well we do under less-than-ideal conditions. Quoth the rules (emphasis mine):

2. Object: To work as many stations as possible on any and all amateur bands (excluding the 60, 30, 17, and 12-meter bands) and in doing so to learn to operate in abnormal situations in less than optimal conditions. A premium is placed on developing skills to meet the challenges of emergency preparedness as well as to acquaint the general public with the capabilities of Amateur Radio.

Field Day 2009 - Buddipole
Field Day 2009 - Buddipole

The great thing about using the Buddipole was the ability for me to use it in conjunction with the frequency agility of the FT-817 to hop around the bands. Yes, it does take a bit of time to change bands, which is not quite as fast as using a multiband doublet with a tuner. However, with just a bit of practice, you get to know what setting sare needed to resonate your antenna on any band and can reconfigure and tune it in a matter of a few minutes. Given that I decided to run QRP SSB, I needed every bit of power I could get, so I was glad to not have a lossy tuner in the way.

Given the somewhat last minute nature of my decision to play in Field Day, I didn't have a way to power a notebook PC with a battery, so I settled on the old standby of paper logging. Since I decided to stay strictly search & pounce, it wasn't a big deal to paper log. The biggest pain is in dealing with dupe avoidance, but I figured that I wouldn't have to worry about that too much since I would be racking up huge QSO counts.

Field Day 2009 - A123 Battery Pack
Field Day 2009 - A123 Battery Pack

The only thing left to nail down at this point was power. I knew that I wanted to try out our brand new A123 lithium nanophospate battery technology that we are ramping up at Buddipole. If you don't know about this battery technology yet, prepare to be blown away when we officially roll these out. This technology has been used in the R/C hobby for a few years, and is just now making it's way into amateur radio use. It also happens to be the same technology used in the upcoming(?) Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid vehicle. It would take too long to list all of the advantages of this technology here, but the amazing flat discharge curve, long life, very quick charge time, and incredible safety are all reasons why I'm confident that this will be the dominant battery technology in the portable/pedestrian mobile ham circles within the next few years. The particular pack that I was using is a 3S1P configuration, which means 3 cells in series, one parallel set (we also have 4S1P and 4S2P packs). Each cell is 3.3 V nominal, so this pack is rated at 9.9 volts, which is perfect for use with the FT-817. A **1P pack has a capacity of 2.3 Ah, which I figured would give me at least a few hours of operating time.

Field Day 2009 - Solar Power
Field Day 2009 - Solar Power

Being at a bit of a disadvantage in the "contest", I wanted to pick up some extra bonus points, so I remembered the 5 watt Harbor Freight solar panel that I had gathering dust in the closet. Using that in conjunction with my half-depleted 7 Ah gel-cell, my power strategy was fully formed in my mind. During the sunny part of the day (my backyard is on the north side of the house and is fairly narrow, so it doesn't get a ton of sunlight) I would use the solar panel/gel cell combo, then switch to the A123 pack when there wasn't anymore sunlight to be had at the station.

Given the set up that I described, it looked like I would fall into the 1E class for the event. Given a very strict reading of the rules, it seemed like I might have been able to claim 1B Battery, but in the spirit of the event, 1E was the appropriate choice.

Operating

I wasn't able to start operating right at 1800 UTC due to some chores that needed to be completed first before play time. When I did get going, I started on 20 meters with the Buddipole in vertical dipole configuration and quickly started to get QSOs in the log. As I mentioned earlier, my strategy was strictly search & pounce, choosing only the loudest stations to try to work. For the most part, it was a successful strategy. I was able to work just about everyone that I heard at a S5 - S7 signal level or better.

Once the afternoon wore on and 20 meters started heating up, the pileups started to heat up as well. I found that it was getting harder and harder to be heard as I was the little fish in the big pileup. So by mid-afternoon, I started working my way up the bands. By jumping to 15 meters (then 10, and eventually 6) was the band was starting to open, I was able to stay ahead of the really competitive pileups. One of the coolest things about the operating was the feeling of riding the QSB like a wave up and down; waiting for a crest in the propagation to strike fast with my callsign. It could have all been in my mind, but it did seem to help to operate like this.

As the sun started to set behind the neighborhood houses, a good sporadic E opening hit the West Coast and I was able to get some nice 6 meter and 10 meter QSOs out to about 1000 miles or so. I had big plans for staying up late after dark to operate, but by the time that dusk fell on Beaverton, I was totally exhausted. So I laid down on the sofa and set the alarm on my iPhone to wake me in a few hours. Not surprisingly, I must have turned off the alarm in my sleep, because the next thing I remember is that it was 5 AM the next morning.

A bit disappointed, but feeling renewed, I put on a pot of coffee and decided on my strategy for the morning. It seemed obvious to give the lower bands a shot, since the propagation was bound to be best there and I hadn't worked them the day before. So the Buddipole was reconfigured as a Versatee Vertical with the low band coil, and the power was supplied by the A123 pack. Once I got going again around 7 AM, I was shocked at how well I was doing on 75 meters. The puny 5 watt signal from the FT-817 into the Buddipole had some good mojo, as I got multiple unsolicited "great signal" reports from the stations that I contacted (many of them VE7s). In my QSOs on the previous day, it was obvious that I was a QRP station, often needing multiple calls to bust a small pileup and sometimes needing a repeat or two. But both 75 meters and 40 meters were working remarkably well for me. The call got through on the first try nearly every time, and almost no fills were necessary. It truly felt like I was running 100 watts.

After a morning of fun, I had to go QRT for the day in order to complete some other chores that I had put off for far too long. It was a bit tough to tear myself from the station, but responsibility trumps fun, even if you try to put it off for as long as you can.

Results

Before I started operating, I thought that 50 QSOs would probably be a reasonable goal to shoot for as a QRP SSB station. As it turns out, I got really close; with a final tally of 49 QSOs, all of them SSB. Twelve of those QSOs were on solar power, so I qualified for the 100 point alternate power bonus. Since I was on emergency power the entire time, I also got 100 points for that. Given my 5 watt power limit and 100% emergency power status, I qualified for a power multiplier of 5. I also managed to copy the special W1AW bulletin for 100 points, and plan to submit my log via the web for another 50 points. If I did the arithmetic correctly, that should give me a final score of 595 points.

I also want to make note of the performance of the A123 battery pack. I started the event by charging the pack to a full charge with my Cellpro Multi4 charger. Although I did the majority of my operation timewise on the solar panel, by far I had the most QSOs with the A123 pack. According to my rough log calculations, I used the A123 pack for over 3 hours of operating time and logged 37 QSOs with it. When I returned the pack to the charger after Field Day, the charger reported 19% of the charge was left (the voltage display of the FT-817 never dipped below 9.6 V the entire time I was operating with the A123 pack). The next charge only took 38 minutes to get me back to 100%, and ready to go again. The 3S1P pack only weighs about 8 oz. and gave me a ton of operation time, much more than I expected. It sure blows away the much heavier and bulkier 5 Ah gel cell that I usually use with the FT-817. Ask the Goathiker, he'll tell you how great these things are.

I could wax poetic about the event, but I think you get my feelings about the thing by now. I'll just end by saying that this was my best Field Day by far, and that I had more fun with QRP SSB than I thought possible. I have a great appreciation for the excellent ops that put up with my peanut whistle, and learned a lot more about how capable a QRP SSB station can be.

SEA-PAC 2009 Wrapup

Whew, I just got back from a nice day at the SEA-PAC 2009 convention in Seaside, OR. Due to the *ahem*unstable*ahem* financial situation that I have recently found myself in due to the current economic conditions, I decided a few months ago that I would skip the show this year. However, things ended up changing, as they often do. Since I'm now working for Buddipole, I figured that it would be good to make an appearance, if for nothing more than getting in some time at the booth, soaking up the feeling of the chaos, and maybe trying to learn a thing or two. The deal was sealed when Chris, W6HFP called me last night to let me know that he had an extra exhibitor's pass that I could use. Being a ham, thus cheap by nature, I jumped on the chance.

Found: SSDRA
Found: SSDRA

The morning started a bit late for me since I was busy doing some much-needed hibernation the night before. I ended up rolling into Seaside around 1030. Surprisingly, I didn't have much trouble finding a parking space within a few blocks of the convention center. After a quick check-in at the Buddipole booth, I started off with a first walkthrough of the convention floor. As usual, the sheer mass of stuff, along with the throngs of hams smashed together in narrow aisles kept me too distracted from finding much that I wanted to buy. However, when I was about ready to quit my first pass through the show floor, I found it: my reason for being there. The thing that I knew made the trip worth it, regardless of whether I found any other good purchases. Sitting on a lonely swap table in the middle of the main floor was two first edition copies of Solid State Design for the Radio Amateur (SSDRA). For those of you who aren't homebrewers and don't listen to SolderSmoke, just know that SSDRA is a long out-of-print book that can command quite high prices on eBay and other reseller sites. These two copies carried a cover price of $7.00, but the seller had marked them down to $5.00! Immediately, I snagged both of them. However, I'm not quite as greedy as it might seem. I had loaned out my 3rd printing copy to W8NF, who hadn't had access to one for years. Since I knew he needed one, I had to save one copy for him (coincidentally enough, he had brought along my loaner copy to return to me). I know that still puts me in that club of hoarders who have more than one copy, but I don't really care! I've got two copies of EMRFD (1st edition and Revised 1st edition), so it feels right to have the first and third printing copies sitting on my shelf. Don't hate me.

After that small bit of excitement (yes, I'm a geek to the core), I went back to the Buddipole booth for a stint in helping out. What I thought would be a fairly small amount of time behind the booth turned out to be about three hours during some fairly busy periods. I was at a pretty big disadvantage because I couldn't remember the prices on most items, and I had to bug poor Chris numerous times to ask. However, I started to get more comfortable fielding questions as the afternoon wore on, especially regarding the technical side of things. The best part was getting people pumped up about our new A123 nanophosphate battery packs and chargers. A lot of folks were interested in these things. I also ran into a few people of note while manning the booth. First off, I got to meet Randy K7AGE when he stopped by the booth. He was a really nice guy and I got to tell him how much I appreciate his YouTube videos, especially the 6 meter stuff he recently released. A bit later, Dan KK7DS and his wife (Mrs. D-RATS, according to her t-shirt, LOL) stopped by. You may remember him from our January Eggs & Coffee, where he was kind enough to stop by to demo D-RATS. Dave W8NF, came to the booth to give me my copy of SSDRA, and I had the pleasure of surprising him with a copy of his very own.

The Law
The Law

Across the way from the Buddipole booth was a vendor selling ham radio-related t-shirts. I had to do a double-take at one point because I saw someone well-known to the locals browsing the wares across the way. Paul Linnman, who used to report for KATU and now broadcasts on radio station KEX, was right there, along with who I assume was his wife. He was there to give the evening banquet speech regarding the famous Oregon Exploding Whale story, which he covered as a newbie reporter back in the day. I pretty much expect media types to kind of look down their nose at us nerds, but Paul seemed genuinely interested and amused at the hamfest. Speaking of the t-shirt vendor, I spotted a shirt that I just had to pick up. I don't normally go for the extremely nerdy fare that you find at these things, but if you check out the photo to the left, you'll probably appreciate why I had to have this one. Of course, I got a ton of eye-rolling from Jennifer when I brought it home, but it's not like I plan on wearing it out everywhere we go in public. Or maybe I will, just so she'll be embarrassed to be seen with me.

Even with all of the cool stuff that I saw, the best was still to come. After my stint at the Buddipole booth, I had a bit of time to kill before the seminar I wanted to see. When I was wandering near the front doors of the convention center, I spotted the ham homebrewer #1 rockstar, Wes W7ZOI. I've communicated with Wes a few times via e-mail but I've never met the guy in person. I almost walked up to introduce myself to him, but chickened out, figuring the poor guy didn't want to be ambushed by some unknown geek at the front door. So I continued browsing the tables to see if I could find anything else I couldn't live without. As fortune would have it, I ended up right next to Wes once again on the mezzanine level right by the table full of old Tek junk. Since it appeared that the universe was giving me a second chance, I got up the nerve to walk up and introduce myself. Surprisingly to me, he actually recognized my name and mentioned that he had been hoping to meet me at some point, since I'm one of the few locals who is out there homebrewing and publishing my work on the Internet. To say I was flattered is a huge understatement. He also invited me over to visit his shack some day; asking why I hadn't come over sooner. My reply was something along the lines of "I didn't want to be a crazy stalker"...or maybe it wasn't quite that dramatic, but you get the gist of the message. Wes is a really nice guy, and it was truly an honor to finally meet him. When I do get over to his shack, you can bet I will get some photos and a write-up for you.

The end of the evening was a presentation on "Construction & Design Ideas" by Jeff WA7MLH. Jeff is a protege of Wes, and it showed in his really neat presentation. He brought along a PowerPoint deck showing off his shack and many of his homebrew rigs. He discussed strategies for acquiring parts cheaply at hamfests, techniques for repurposing used chassis,  design elements for receivers, transmitters, and transceivers, as well as a bunch of other random homebrewer wisdom. After an hour-and-a-half, he still wasn't done with the first part of his presentation, but I had to go! Which was a bummer, because I really wanted to stick around for part two, which was about building crystal filters. Alas, real life had to intrude into my geek bliss, and I needed to return home.

This was the best time that I've had yet at any hamfest. Even though I'm a pretty shy guy, I got a lot of socializing in this time. I've come away really reinvigorated to get building more stuff, but unfortunately I don't have much time for that right now. But that's OK, because the fire is really burning once again. Thanks to everyone who I met at SEA-PAC this year, and a special thanks to Buddipole for giving me the opportunity to get reconnected with a lot of good ham radio stuff.

A Quick Ping...

...to let you know that I'm still alive. I actually have been doing some ham radio related activities, but haven't had much time to blog about that. More about that in a moment...

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the 7th Area QSO Party. In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I not only operated SSB exclusively, but that I also did so running at 100 W. Hopefully I won't be shunned and cast out from the QRP community for such a transgression. I think I'll be OK, since most QRPers are forgiving folks.

Actually, it felt good to switch gears a bit and get back to one of the basic ham radio activities. My mic had been gathering dust for quite some time, and I don't want to be too one-dimensional in my approach to the hobby. I didn't take the contest too seriously, only operating for a handful of two-hour stretches at a time.

The shack PC is loaded with Ubuntu Linux, and I struggled for a very long time to find a decent contest logger written to natively run in a Linux environment. In the end, I gave up and settled on running SD in a Wine console shell. I was actually quite surprised at how well it worked; which was flawlessly.

Since I did not have my headset mic/footswitch combo dug out of the remaining moving boxes in our garage, I was stuck with the hand mic. Given this, and my unfamiliarity with SD, I decided that I would stay strictly search & pounce for the duration of the contest. There was no way I could run even a small pile-up without screwing up massively. That decision made for a nice leisurely contest. I only bagged 31 QSOs, spread out pretty much evenly amongst 20, 40, and 80 meters. Not exactly a world-class showing, but lots of fun nonetheless. Next year, I'll try to have my station in better shape so I can mount a more serious effort.

A more sigificant event has also happened to me in the last few weeks. Through a bit of networking, I managed to land a second job as a part-time technician at Buddipole Antennas! To be honest, I didn't even realized that Buddipole HQ was just a few miles from my house in neighboring Hillsboro until I heard of this opportunity. I'll be learning the product lines so that I can assist with customer support, as well as a variety of other job duties as needed. So if you are a Buddipole customer, don't be shocked if I end up answering your phone call or e-mail one of these days. So now you know why I've been a bit busy the last few weeks and haven't had much free time.

I've been having a lot of fun playing with different configurations of the Buddipole system in my backyard. I'm sure you'll hear a bit more about my efforts in this area in the future. I'm hoping to get out in the field with the Buddipole in the near future to do some true portable operation, especially if I can get the antenna out to the coast sometime soon for some nice low takeoff angle DXing to the other side of the Pacific. Stay tuned for further details...