Sunday, July 21, 2019

Long Time No See....

Some thoughts on my month-long ham radio drive across America in July 2019.

Hi Y'all....from June 18 to July 18 2019, the xyl and I drove across the USA.  We visited the following states:


5000 miles of driving in a nice Toyota Camry.

Whereas our trip wasn't entirely about ham radio, I did work HF as much as possible.

Firstly, I purchased an FT-840 from a guy who turned out to be a bit of a sneak in that he assured me that the rig has the VCXO high accuracy crystal oscillator.  I bought the rig and had it shipped to my sister-in-law in Los Angeles.  As it turns out, the rig did not have the VCXO-4, and was plagued by shifting frequency issues that are possible with the FT-840.  I did a little on the spot surgery on the existing oscillator board and got the rig to be mostly stable.

Everywhere we went I attempted to haul up my little wire antenna and work some CW.  The best locations for HF were Santa Fe, NM, and Lexington, KY.

Homemade paddle.  A plastic cutting board using part of a hacksaw blade.  Super-light and works

Operating from Monument Valley, noise here
Standin' on the corner in Winslow, Arizona
Batter Up! Working HF from Kentucky

So here are a few observations of HF in the USA.

1. Noise is unpredictable.  Some places were surprisingly quiet and others that should have been quiet were plagued by noise.
2. The bands should not be dead.  I was a little surprised by the lack of activity on HF.  CW on 20m was fairly inactive.  I had trouble really wrapping my head around this, since from my home QTH in Israel, there is a lot of activity from Europe all day long.  I had to ask myself if the USA and the EU are using the same ionosphere for propagation.  Being that it is likely that we do transmit and receive using the same variables, then why is activity so light in the USA.

Keep in mind that my data is anecdotal since I am basing this on my results as I traveled from California across the USA to NY/NJ.  I can say that in Santa Fe, NM and Lexington, KY I did have good results from my wire and 100 watts.

3. I saw one tower on the road during the whole drive.  The tower was about 70 feet and had a few yagis and other antennas on it.  I saw it off of rt. 64 in Virginia.  Frankly I was surprised that in 5000 miles of driving I only saw one tower.

4. No visit to the ARRL Headquarters.  Unfortunately, I ran out of steam by the time we got to NJ, and so a 5 hour roundtrip to Newington was just impossible.  Sleep was required.

Overall, I can say that HF activity seemed slim in the USA.  I read recently that someone had posted (somewhere) that we all need to get on the bands and call CQ.  This seems to be absolutely the answer, even in these low cycles.  Compared to the EU, activity seems to be just sad in the USA, and there is no reason that it should be, other than the fact that operators from the EU are constantly getting on and calling CQ.  In light of that, I would really encourage USA hams to push for more calling CQ and listening and calling on HF, not just using FT8.  Learn CW even if it means getting on at 5 wpm to start.
The National Aquarium in Baltimore, MD.  A dolphin making waves.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Novice Rig Roundup for regular folks

From March 2, 2019 to March 10, 2019 I will be participating the the Novice Rig Roundup.  This is my very first time ever, therefore I am technically a novice.  Here is a link to the NRR page.

So what is a Novice Rig Roundup?  I had no clue, but now I know a little bit more.  For those of us who are old enough, there was a time when nearly everyone started off their ham radio career as a novice.  A novice was limited by watts and bands.  Most novices worked hard to improve their CW and to do what was necessary to upgrade to General and beyond.

A Novice Rig is a radio that was somewhat geared for Novice operators.  For example, my Ten Tec Century 21 pictured below.

I have removed the top cover of my Ten Tec Century 21 to perhaps do some maintenance.

Now, this radio is a "novice" type rig in that it has about 75 watts of input power in keeping with novice guidelines.  Output power according to Ten Tec was 30 to 40 watts, but other have realistically stated that output power is about 25 to 30 watts.  I have found this to be true, in that the lower bands are around 32 or so watts out on my Bird wattmeter, and less on the higher bands.

The Novice Rig Roundup classifies a 75 watt input radio as a "Novice 1," and gives points based on contacts between Novice 1 and Novice 2 stations.  Novice 2 is a station beyond 75 watts input.

It is really essential to click on the link above to learn all about the NRR contest...all 8 days of it.

Unfortunately, I am going to use my C21 in a slightly handicapped condition since the PTO is in need of some care.  Something is mechanically screwy with the tuning shaft so I am getting some random variation in frequency.  This will most likely be fixed by rebuilding the PTO, but since there is no time before the contest to do the repair, well, I will just have to get by with an occasionally quirky PTO.

Here's the inside of the C21...

The PTO is inside the silver box looking thing which is behind the main tuning dial and just below the two light bulbs in the bottom center of the photo.  It is somewhat nerve-wracking to disassemble the radio to do the job, but it is worth it for at least 2 reasons: 1) it will hopefully solve your PTO issues, and 2) it is a tremendous opportunity to learn some new skills and deal with a late 1970's radio the way a Novice would back in those days.

There are 2 excellent youtube videos about breaking down and repairing the TenTec C21 PTO.  Even if you don't have this radio sitting in your shack, it is worth it to watch and learn.  Click here to see the first of the 2 videos. 

If you have a novice rig, then by all means, participate in the contest.  In addition, you don't need a Ten Tec or other commercial novice rig to take part.  You can get on the air with a "rock bound," crystal controlled transmitter and have a great time.  In the USA it should be very easy to work stations with 5 watts from your homebrew crystal controlled rig.

I am interested very much to know what kind of Novice rig you may have sitting on your shelf.  Please send me your thoughts and ideas for the upcoming March 2 to March 10 contest...and have a great time!!


Mark 4x1ks

Monday, February 18, 2019

The TRUTH about working DX at a time like this...

Hello All:

Very busy the last couple of weeks, so not nearly enough time to blog.

Today I would like to touch on a subject that is a sore spot for those of us looking for DX to work and put into the log.

Let's get straight to it.

Saturday night (GMT+2 / Israel time), I flicked on the IC7300 to see if there was anything doing on 20m at all.  To my surprise, the bandscope on the 7300 was full of stations active on 20m at 8pm and later local time.  This was completely unexpected.  Despite the fact that is was the ARRL CW contest, who would have thought that 20m would be open that late.

To put this in context, every night when I turn on my 7300 or some other rig, I listen on 20m and hear Zippo.  I mean that 20m is absolutely dead after dark on pretty much any night, but not this night.

The contest was very active.  I heard many NA stations making QSO and sending signals that were good and LOUD, and not just the major big guns either.

Unfortunately I was unable to work this contest due to other pressing commitments, but if I had, then I would have made a lot of QSO s to NA.

Why is this important?  Well, for starters, 0 sunspot numbers does not mean zero DX.  The massive amount of activity on 20m (at least), was a good indication that there is plenty of DX out there.  More importantly, and the main point of what I would like to say, is that 20m is clearly NOT DEAD at 1800 utc (when it is 8pm local here in Israel).  So that could mean that 20m is not dead where you are at 8pm local time.

With 100w I did manage to work some DX in a very short period of time.

***Which brings me to my main point in this diatribe***

We all need to start calling CQ on 20m, even at 9pm.  I am certain that I am not the first one to say that the band will be "dead" if no one bothers calling.  It is like a Catch-22.

1) People don't call on 20m at night because they think the band is dead.
2) The band is quiet because people aren't calling.

Now, based on the tremendous activity on 20m in the ARRL CW contest, I believe it is safe to say that if folks should start calling CQ instead of making the assumption that the band is flat.

I, for one, am going to make a point of calling CQ on 20m even at 8 or 9 pm local just to see if maybe there are some optimists out there who are hoping to make a 20m QSO even when one side of the QSO is at 9pm local time.

Last week, I worked a K3 station on 17m when there was almost no noise on 17m at all.  In a big surprise, I had a nice QSO that was 589 and perfectly copyable on a band that was supposed to be quiet and gone for the evening.

So fellow hams, give 20m a try even at 9pm local...there just might be someone 6,000 miles away who can copy you S9.

Anyone else out there have a surprising DX opening at night on 20m (or whatever)?


Mark 4x1ks

Monday, February 4, 2019

Working DX the right way...

Use your computer to work DX the right way

Many of us get on the air quite frequently hoping to work a new DXCC country or to work an existing country in our log on a new band or mode.  It can be frustrating, especially when conditions are less than ideal.

There is however a tool that most of us already know about called the DX Cluster.  Below is a screenshot of

There are practices that can be extremely important when trying to work that new one.  If I am working contest as "unassisted," then I will never look at a dx cluster site.  However, when you are chasing DX to build up your totals, there is nothing wrong with using the cluster, and most of us do.

The problems that do occur when chasing DX are typically just a few.

1) Calling on the DX station's split frequency.  We all have been told LISTEN.  Nevertheless, we constantly hear stations coming to the aid of the DX station and calling out  "UP UP UP."  I have noticed this much more in the EU than I ever did stateside.  The problem is that someone will look on the cluster and see 3B9VB  (or whoever), and immediately start calling on his frequency.  This is just awful LID behavior.  DX stations know who they are, and they are almost always going to work split.  Whoever posted them to the cluster may not have posted "up 2," but it should still enter your mind that they are probably working split.  So the first this to do is to wait, and verify where he is listening.

Let's say that he is transmitting on 14.208, so he might be listen up 5 to 10.  That means you transmit between 14.213 and 14.218.  IT IS AMAZING how many people just don't understand this.

2. The DX cluster will tell you if you can even work the guy.  Let's say that 3B9VB is listed 6 times on the cluster.  Let's also say that every one of those listing is by a West Coast USA station.  Well, chances are that if your call starts with and I or a DK, so you probably won't be able to work him.  Not definitely, but probably.  ON the other hand, if you see only EU stations listing the DX, then it is a good chance that the USA is not going to be able to work the DX.  There is a certain rhythm to propagation that you should learn to figure out.  There are also some programs online like:

Voa cap allows you to put in your station particulars and then gives you a prediction of your propagation to another location that you specify.  The important thing is that it is a "prediction," and not a certainty.  Many times, Voacap indicated that my chances of working a particular DX country was on 25%, yet I was able to make the QSO.

3. When not to call is just SO important.  NEVER call if you can't hear the DX station.  NEVER call if the DX station is not working your continent.  This happens to me All The Time.  I will often call CQ JA, and some stations from the EU will just keep sending me their calls.  Don't be like those guys.

4. Give only your full callsign.  DX stations will usually ignore the stations calling with only their prefix or suffix.  On those occasions when I have worked as a special event or just if I have a pile up, I will absolutely ignore the station sending or calling with just "ZZ" or their suffix.  Even if  I work a long list and they are still there at the end still calling with just their suffix; I will go QRT without working them.  The reason for this is 1) it is not legal to give a partial callsign, and 2) it is really bad ham radio behavior.

This little review is probably just automatic for nearly all of you, but if you are a newbie or if you have been licensed for a while but have just fallen into bad habits, well, it is a good idea to try to correct those habits before you get a bad reputation on the air.

Everyone likes a good operator, and you can use the DX Cluster to find that DX, beef up your totals, and also work the radio like a pro.


Mark 4x1ks

Thursday, January 24, 2019

And now for something completely DIFFERENT

Gee, what can I do with my Amazon Alexa that is more than just asking for the weather report or what time is it in Butte, Montana.  About a year ago, maybe longer, I decided that I wanted to set up Alexa to turn things on and off without buying a Pre-made switch.  I wanted to do it myself.

So I discovered a nifty device called a WEMOS D1 mini.  This little thing is like a Raspberry Pi's baby cousin.  It is not the most powerful device in the computing world, however, it can follow instructions.
The Wemos D1 mini 

You can buy a Wemos D1 mini all over the place.  Here is one link Click here.

Of course, you will need more than just a D1 mini, you will need a relay such as this:

You will also need to program your WEMOS D1 Mini and enable an Alexa skill called Sinric.

Now if you are unfamiliar with adding Alexa skills, then you must do this research on your own.

I'll wait.  Ok, now that you know how to install Alexa skills, so you will need to program the WEMOS D1 mini.  There is a link on the Alexa skills Sinric page that says you just need to go to Github (a site full of awesome and intimidating programs and genius stuff), and download the program and make a few changes and now can command your Alexa to do stuff.

It ain't that simple.  First of all, the program is called a "sketch."  You should practice putting some sketches that are simple on your WEMOS D1 mini via the usb cable and your Arduino programming software that you read about above while I was waiting for you to study up on how to program Alexa skills.  To keep it simple, you need to look on youtube and online to learn how to program the Arduino type computing devices via your computer and a usb cable.  This is your learning curve.  Now once you have succeeded in taking some baby steps and have uploaded some sketches to your Wemos D1 mini, then you can play with that a little.

Next comes the hard part, and that is uploading a complete and working sketch to actually tell you WEMOS D1 mini via your Alexa to "do this" or "do that."  Your Wemos D1 mini will be connected to a relay like the one pictured above, and then this will allow you to wire in any device that is appropriate to the specs of your relay.  Keep in mind the YOU CAN GET SHOCKED IF YOU TOUCH LIVE CONTACTS ON YOUR RELAY.  So take precautions like you would with all exposed wiring.  If  you don't know what you are doing, THEN DON'T DO IT.

Now, if you look over the Github link , you may be scratching your head saying "this makes no sense to me."  If you get that far, then you are on your way.  However, you must upload a working sketch to the Wemos D1 mini and enable the Sinric skill in order for your voice commands to Alexa to actually work.

If you get to this point and can figure it out, then spectacular and you will now have a means of turning things on and off  and can say that YOU DID IT.

If you get to this point and cannot get your sketch to work, then contact me and I will try to figure out what you did wrong in your sketch.

The nice thing about the arduino programming software is that it tells you where to debug (fix) your sketch. 

So what can you do with this?  Well, pretty much anything that requires a switch (within the capabilities of your relay), can be activated by just telling it what to do.  How will this fit into your shack or your life?  That is for you to decide.

In the meantime, get online and if you are interested then you can start writing sketches to do things with your Alexa that you don't have to purchase.

Good luck and 73
Mark 4x1ks

Monday, January 21, 2019

Part 2 of the Oscillator Board Test

*News Flash...please keep the following in mind.  This step is not included in the manual.  In order for Ch3 and Ch4 to oscillate at full output, you MUST jumper between Ch A and Ch B on the board.  you can used a small wire soldered between the two pads and that will allow Ch 3 and Ch 4 to oscillate properly.*

In my last blog, I discussed the Ran Technology 4 Channel Oscillator board.  This device can accept 4 Epson chips available from Digi-key which are programmed to a specific frequency.  My previous blog has links and information on the board and chips.

However, the big issue was the issue of whether the oscillator board would be a good substitute for an actual fundamental crystal.  That was the question, and the answer is yes and no.

Before I continue, let me just explain how to hook up the board.  In the photo above you can see one chip installed.  That chip is from Digi-Key and is programmed for 14.030 mhz.  The board has DC power leads 8 to 15vdc is okay.  The blue wires are you output from the board, and the black wire switches the oscillator on and off by grounding the chip.  For example, my black wire runs from "Ch1" to Com.  When connected, this causes the 14.030mhz to the output (the blue wires).  In essence, you can plug in the blue wires where you would ordinarily plug in your actual crystal.

Yes, the oscillator board with a chip installed definitely produces an oscillation right on the design frequency.  For example, I bought four chips.  I tested only the 14.030 mhz chip, and this chip produced an output when subbed in for an actual crystal in a homebrew transmitter at exactly 14.030

So, yes, the board and chip do provide a precise oscillation frequency.

The no part is that you cannot "pull" the chip via changing the impedence in the circuit.  What this means essentially, is that my test transmitter, which is a 5w or so crystal controlled transmitter CAN be varied in output frequency by about 15khz when using an air variable in the circuit (as it is designed).  With the board in place of the crystal, there is no "pulling" of the chip to allow for frequency variation.  The short answer is that if you want to sub the board for a crystal and then vary the frequency using an air variable capacitor (as is common in a lot of homebrew simple transmitters), this will not happen.

What does this mean for the QRP operator?  Well, it isn't the end of the world.  On the 20m band, you can and should call CQ on 14.060.  This is the frequency where folks expect to hear QRP signals.  In additions, there is no reason why you can't call or answer CQ's on other frequencies even if you are "stuck."  For example, if you go to 14.020  or 14.028 or any round number, you probably will hear a CQ.  Then you use your homebrew transmitter and make that QSO.

The other good part is that you can put in a 4 pole switch and quickly jump from say 14.020 to 14.028 to 14.030 to 14.060.

The lack of crystals and the cost of finding a new crystal makes the 4 channel board inexpensive and practical for many operators.  Once you have the board, so the chips cost you $5 or so.  That means you can transmit on a specific frequency for $5....and not have to wait and hope that you can find the correct crystal at your next hamfest.

Of course, other uses of these chip oscillators are practical and varied.

Bottom line: It's sad that you can't "pull" the frequencies of the programmed chips, but at $5 a chip, well that is not a bad deal to give me options for my homebrew transmitter.


Mark 4x1ks

Thursday, January 17, 2019

What a FUN project!!!!!

Okay, so here it is under construction:

Ran Technology 4 channel oscillator board

What a neat little project!  First a little background.  I have some ham friends that go to the big hamfest in Friedrichshafen and also to Dayton.  I always make the same requests:

1. please find me another 70cm yagi antenna for 430 to 440
2. I need more crystals, especially 14.*** mhz and 7.*** mhz, 

Every year I get the same answer:  Sorry, didn't see any crystals there.

Now, I know that I can take a higher frequency crystal and grind it down to the frequency I need; my friend 4x1zz took a short seminar on how to do this correctly and he even has a crystal frequency oscillator reader that he built in Dayton.

HOWEVER, I still don't have the crystals I need to cover all of the 20m CW portion with my homebrew transmitters.  So what's a frustrated tinkerer to do?

Well, the folks at are selling for only $16.50, a 4-channel oscillator board.  What's great about this?  Well for one thing, you can plug in 4 oscillator chips available from Digi-key for about $5 each.  You tell Digi-key which frequencies you want on your chips, and then you plug them in.  That gives you 4 frequencies on the board.

I'm so excited about this that I can't wait to plug it into my 5 watt transmitter and be able to cover the 20m band from 14.000 to 14.070 just by choosing one of my four crystal oscillator chip channels.

And here is the chip itself:

The 4 pin oscillator from Digi-key

This oscillator chip has 4 pins.  It plugs into an 8-pin dip (off which there are 4 on the board).  The above chip is set permanently at 14.030.  My rig will tune about 14.030 down to 14.015 using this chip.  That is 15 khz of coverage with a $5 chip.  There are four pin through holes on the board, so you will have to clip off the 4 inner pins from the dip socket to make it fit.

CLICK HERE to see the Digi-key part.

My board is just now under construction.  Looks like the whole board will take about 30 to 45 minutes to build.  So as soon as I get it up and running, I will let y'all know how this really neat board functions as a replacement for actual crystals. Like these:

If the 4 channel board works as expected, then there will be no more searching for a certain crystal, all you have to do is just use a switch to click from crystal A B C or D in the frequency range you need.

The completed board without the chips installed

So stay-tuned and I will let you know how it does.


Mark 4x1ks