Volunteers Providing Emergency Communications for Multnomah County, Oregon

Hardware 101: Automatic Antenna Tuners

Automatic antenna tuners: the magic box that makes everything great!  Before we get one and expect it to provide us with winning lottery numbers, the location of the Lost Dutchman mine, or the ability to talk to the International Space Station on your HT, let’s look at what it does.

The basic antenna tuners want to add inductance or capacitance to your antenna system, and why do we want to do that? For an antenna to be resonant and work the best, the physical length has to match the wavelength of the frequency we are transmitting.

If we put a random length of wire up in a tree as an antenna,

  • it is going to be too long for some frequencies (poor match),
  • it will be too short for some frequencies (poor match),
  • and it will be just right (resonant) on certain frequencies (good match).

By adding inductance or capacitance, we are able to fool the transmitter into thinking the wire is the correct length and matches the transmitter, and when the transmitting frequency matches the length of the wire, we don’t use the tuner.

So, keep in mind, if you are using an antenna that is already resonant or tuned for the frequency that you intend to use, a tuner may actually make things worse. As the old saying goes, “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it!” If you’re having trouble tuning or transmitting on your antenna, try bypassing the tuner; you may find the antenna is matched and your transmitter is now happy. But, if you do find yourself using a random wire as an antenna (mine is 53 feet long…), you will certainly want an antenna tuner to do the magic and make the wire appear to change lengths to match your transmitter frequency.

Hardware 101: SWR Meters

If you want to monitor you system’s performance, a good SWR (standing wave ratio) meter is a key piece of hardware. With a quick glance at the meter, you can see how your radio, coax and antenna are working. SWR meters come in many shapes, sizes, and styles.

Direct reading meters such as the MFJ-9213 can be identified by a FWD-REF switch and a common dial with a single needle. These meters require the user to set the switch to FWD (forward power) and then push the microphone PTT button and stay in the transmit mode while adjusting the meter to the SET or CAL line on the meter. Then release the PTT button, set the meter to REF, and key the microphone again while reading the SWR value on the meter.

Dual or cross needle meters such as the MFJ-860 require no adjustment. Push the microphone PTT button and one needle will show the power output, while the second needle will show the reflected power. The place on the meter where the needles cross indicates the SWR.

Digital meters such as the MFJ-845 require no adjustments and are the easiest to use. Just push the microphone PTT button and directly read the values from the digital display.

So what does this thing tell me? It will tell me if my transmitter is putting out the correct power. It will tell me how much of that power is being reflected back to the transmitter and it will tell me how well my antenna system is matched to the frequency I am using.

One very important detail about SWR meters is that they are frequency specific. Using an HF meter to test UHF frequencies will result in bad readings. So always make sure that you are using an SWR meter that matches the frequency you are transmitting on. There are many of the old CB meters out there – but remember they were made to monitor frequencies around 27 Mhz and do not work well on other frequencies.

Dos and Don’ts when Operating on a MCARES Net

DO

  • Listen to Net Control’s instructions and check in as instructed, giving all information asked for, and nothing else.
  • Check in with your call sign phonetically. After this, you do not need to give it phonetically.
  • Especially on repeaters: PTT – inhale – talk; on linked repeaters: PTT – count to three – inhale – talk.
  • To eliminate doubling with someone else, listen before you talk.
  • If there is a double that doesn’t involve you, wait for net control to straighten it out and acknowledge those involved in the double.
  • If net control makes a mistake in acknowledging your call sign, say “correction” and then wait to be acknowledge before giving your correction.
  • Be forgiving. Be patient.
  • GO SLOWLY when transmitting anything the receiving station is writing down. Go even slower if asked to repeat.
  • Learn and use ITU phonetics.
  • Be efficient. Use pro-words and “short talk” such as: “with traffic”, “I say again”, “correction”.
  • If asked to repeat something, repeat it and spell phonetically.
  • If you are talking for more than two minutes, unkey the mike momentarily to let the repeater reset.
  • After check-ins, if you have something to say, give your call sign and wait for net control to acknowledge you before continuing.

DON’T

  • Don’t challenge net control on the air.
  • Don’t try to check in before net control opens the net.
  • Don’t check in early; OK to check in late if you got lost in a double or simply joined late.
  • Don’t use Q codes.
  • Don’t sign in and say “no traffic.” Just say “with traffic” if you do have traffic to relay.
  • Don’t say “I pause,” or “I’ll let this drop”, etc. when you unkey the mike.
  • Don’t follow along and break protocol if you hear others doing so.
  • Don’t leave before the end of the net without signing out.
  • Don’t check in again if you are not recognized immediately. Instead, wait for net control to acknowledge the next group of check-ins. If you are not recognized then, try again in the next group or at the end of check-ins when net control asks for “late or missed stations.”

Hardware 101: Amp Meters

Is your radio acting strangely? Coughing? Runny antenna? Watery display?

A quick way to check its overall health is with an amp meter. If power is going out, then your radio will be sucking power in! The amp meter is the thermometer of the radio world.

A quick review of your manual will tell you what your radio consumes when putting out full power. Most mobile radios will consume 20-22 amps.  So don’t hesitate; if your radio seems sickly and you think it’s got the coronavirus, stick an amp meter in its mouth and key the mic and see if its temperature is normal. 22 amps on the meter? It’s not a virus!

If your 700 amp, klystron powered, 473 pound linear (another topic for another day!) power supply does not have a built in amp meter, you can certainly find one, like the one pictured here, on Ebay for around $10. A quick set of Anderson power pole connectors on each end and the doctor is ready to check radios!

WebSDR

Are you locked down and looking for things to do? Visit WebSDR.org and listen in on hams all over the world. With WebSDR you will be able to take control of receivers worldwide and tune in on all of the bands in all of the regions. Someone not interested in ham radio (that can’t be us!) activities? Then tune in to the European stations and brush up on your French language skills.

It’s as easy as starting up your computer and going to www.websdr.org.

  • Scroll down the main page and you will see ham stations from all over the world.
  • Pick a region
  • Pick a station
  • Pick the band you would like to listen to

It’s that easy! You’re in control. Scan the waterfall (now you know what that purple thing up there is called!) and pick out the strong stations as they will be the brighter vertical lines. You can also try the weaker stations as shown by the faint lines. Or maybe the whole band is quiet with no lines at all – just change bands and keep going! Hear something rare or exotic? Create a log on your favorite SDR site and log in your treasure.

Want to practice your CW? Tune down to the low end of the 40CW band and find a station; they are always there! Want to practice more later? Then just start the audio recording and play it back at another time.

So, while locked in, stay out of the cookie jar and junk food, and go play in SDR land!

Staying Calm During a Crisis

We’ll have a full training on this topic at the September meeting. In the meantime, here is some food for thought. As emergency amateur radio operators, we are called on to pass information during crises/disasters. Our roles don’t include a lot of decision making. Exhale.

The bare minimum here is to show up, team well, and get the job done. Know how to use your equipment, where to be, who to connect with, and who is in charge. If any of these concepts cause you angst or raises your blood pressure, that’s your first area of focus. Spending some time and energy there will increase your confidence and reduce your stress in an actual event.

Here are some basic pointers for managing yourself as the pressure increases:

  • Take care of your body. Make sure you have ample food and water as well as clothing matched to the environment. Get adequate rest before, during, and after.
  • Know how to operate your equipment. If you don’t or you’re having an off day, you can still be helpful. Volunteer for a role you feel more comfortable doing.
  • You need to be able to accept and follow directions, given directly.
  • Know when to take a break (self or other directed), when to ask for help, and when to offer.
  • SLOW down. Equipment fails; you don’t have to.
  • Don’t ask “what if?” If you can’t avoid this common pitfall, try changing it to “how?”

Most people are prone to increased stress in stressful situations. It’s not rocket science, it’s life preserving. It’s your job to know and work with your triggers in stressful events/situations. Sharing these with your team lead in advance can assist with assignments and practice opportunities during drills.

Teaming well and taking care gets the job done.

In September we’ll go over both in-the-moment and long-term strategies/concepts for maintaining calm during stressful events.

Setting up HF Winlink Using Soundcard Modes

Last fall I bought a used ICOM IC-7200 radio so I could start operating on the HF bands. Part of the attraction of this radio is the built-in soundcard. It takes a single USB cable for both the soundcard and for radio control. My goal was to use Winlink on HF.

I found a Youtube video by Commsprepper on setting up Winlink Winmor for this specific radio. From this video, I learned about some great information included with Winlink:

In Winlink, click on Help -> Help Index…, then click on IC-7200 or Radios with Built-in Soundcards or Sound Cards or Winmor Setup

In my case, the IC-7200 section had everything I needed, and the video showed the radio side of the steps. The basic information needed from the radio is the USB device address, plus there were a couple of mode changes.

Next start Winlink, open a “Winmor Winlink” session, click on Settings, and then click on “WINMOR TNC Setup”. (You may get a Setup window the first time you select a Winmor session.) You should only need to set the “WINMOR Capture Device” and the “WINMOR Playback Device” to your radio’s sound device (e.g. “USB Audio Codec”). Click “Update” when done.

Click on Settings again, then click on “Radio Setup”. In the “Select Radio Model” pull-down, select your radio model (I selected Icom 7200). Enter the radio’s configured USB address (in my case, in the “Icom Address” field), and click on “USB Digital” so Winlink can control the radio. For the “Radio Control Port” field, select the radio’s COM port in the “Serial Port to Use” field, and set the radio’s configured baud rate. For the “PTT Port”, select the radio or COM port in the “Serial Port to Use” field. Click on “Update” when done.

Now click on “Channel Selection” and get the current list of HF RMS Gateway channels using the “Update Table Via Internet” option. Pick a channel with a high “Path Reliability Estimate” and “Path Quality Estimate”. Double click on a channel row to select the channel and close the HF Channel Selector window. You should see/hear the radio change to the frequency of the selected channel.

Now click on Start to initiate a connection attempt. (Commsprepper also has a video called “SignaLink and Winmor”, which shows a session using Winmor.)

Setting up for ARDOP follows a similar sequence. Open an “ARDOP Winlink” session, click on Settings, then click on “Ardop TNC Setup” to enter the “Ardop Capture Device” and “Ardop Playback Device” (set to the USB Audio Codec), and then do the same “Radio setup” steps mentioned above. If you have already setup Winmor, these settings may be set for ARDOP too.

More information:
This document has good information overall, and a detailed Winmor setup section.

How I Run an Efficient Simplex Net

Our goal in all we do as ARES volunteers is to get the job done as accurately and efficiently as possible. A simplex net that covers a large geographical area is a particular challenge. Our monthly second Wednesday simplex net gives us the chance for net control and other net members to learn how to keep it simple and quick.

After a brief preamble, net control calls for checkins by team. As net control, after acknowledging the stations I hear, I ask the station with the strongest signal for any callsigns they have heard that I didn’t recognize. After acknowledging those stations, I then ask the relay station to call for any other team members who have not checked in or been recognized to try again. Before moving on to the next team I make one more call for any station to relay in any other stations they may have heard that I have not recognized.

All net members should copy all stations they hear and mark each callsign when it is recognized by net control. Not only is this good practice for when it’s your turn to be net control, it also means you will be ready if you are the station net control asks for relays. By marking callsigns when they are recognized, you won’t be relaying in stations already checked in and you will be able to relay in for that last call for any missed stations.

One key to keeping it efficient is for net members to NOT try to relay each scratchy station as it comes in. Be patient and wait until net control asks for relays. I have heard helpful minded stations offer relays before being asked and this can be confusing to net control and cause undue delays. Remember that what may be very difficult for you to hear may be perfectly clear to net control and that net control will ask for relays. Wait for that request. Another key is for net control not to agonize over each scratchy signal. Just recognize the clear ones first and then ask for relays. That’s what the relay stations are for.

This is a different procedure than the weekly net on the MC1 repeater. There, net control can ask a station with a poor signal to make adjustments and try again. If the signal is still not readable, net control can ask other stations to listen on the reverse and then ask the scratchy station to try once more. Then if someone did pick it up on reverse, they can offer the relay. Relays are not held to the end of each team’s checkins.

One last note: If you try to tune into the simplex net and cannot hear net control intelligibly or at all, don’t give up. Wait until you hear someone ask for your team’s relays. If you are on Delta, Echo or Mike teams, you will be waiting longer than those on the Alpha or Bravo teams. And of course Charlie Team is right there in the middle and often has the most relays thanks to those west hills.

From the EC’s Desk

Grounds and Grounding

There has been a lot of activity in the station building front in MCARES over the past few months. As I receive stories and reports I am greatly encouraged by everyone’s willingness to jump in and build a better radio station. One of the main topics of concern folks have when installing a new radio station is proper grounding. There is considerable confusion and strong feelings over this topic. I cannot hope to clarify the technical aspects of station bonding and grounding in a newsletter setting, but I do want to make sure that everyone is looking in the right places and asking the right questions when they consider their station grounds.

There has been a lot of activity in the station building front in MCARES over the past few months. As I receive stories and reports I am greatly encouraged by everyone’s willingness to jump in and build a better radio station. One of the main topics of concern folks have when installing a new radio station is proper grounding. There is considerable confusion and strong feelings over this topic. I cannot hope to clarify the technical aspects of station bonding and grounding in a newsletter setting, but I do want to make sure that everyone is looking in the right places and asking the right questions when they consider their station grounds.

First off, the best way to get the right information is to research the situation oneself from the appropriate resources! MCARES is adamant that the ARRL technical publications are the best place to find information that has been vetted by competent engineers and will lead to safe and effective station construction. The two best publications are Grounding and Bonding for Radio Amateur and The ARRL Handbook. Additionally, The ARRL Antenna Book for Radio Communications has very good in­-depth information regarding RF grounds and their effects on radiated signal.

When one begins their shack, consider the four types of grounding/bonding that are part of proper station design. These are:

  • Electrical Safety Bonding
    • The ground that provides the path for over­current protection and provides chassis shock protection.
    • This is the third prong / green wire in your house distribution
  • RF Ground
    • It is important to keep the shack equipment at the same reference potential to avoid current flows or potential differences that can affect the operation of modern equipment.
  • Chassis Ground
    • These are the connections we think of for grounding inside the shack, the individual chassis connections to a great, fat ground bar that makes its way to a good earth ground.
    • Bonding of equipment to prevent RF flow between them can be difficult, so make sure your ground strap setup is as clean and short as possible.
  • Lightning Dissipation
    • The design of these systems can be complicated; make sure to review your desired results before implementing lightning protection. Again, review the appropriate technical references when you go to set up your operating station, and stay away from QRZ and eHam forums; you’ll find too much time there will make you want to give up on grounding altogether.

How to Prepare for and Participate in a MCARES Drill

The Winlink Drill from Home on February 9 indicated that we need to improve in three basic ways: understanding the drill guide, testing knowledge and equipment, and sticking to business.

The first and last step in preparation for any drill is to read the Drill Guide. This is usually emailed to the entire membership up to a week or two before the drill. Read it carefully all the way through as soon as you receive it and be sure you understand what is expected of you. If you don’t understand something, email leadership [at] multnomahares [dot] org for clarification. If we get the same question several times, we will revise the guide. Watch for a last minute revised drill guide and read it all the way through again. About an hour before the drill starts, read the drill guide all the way through again, and again, and again. Print it, highlight the tasks and instructions you will need and keep it with you throughout the drill.

As MCARES operators, we should always have our gear in top operating order and know how to use it. Drills give us an opportunity to check this. At least a day or two before the drill, check out the equipment you will be using, including the software. Are your batteries fully charged, including your laptop? Is your Winlink Express version up to date? If you don’t do this often, you may need to reinstall with the latest version. Update the channel selection too. Waiting until the last minute may lead to unexpected delays if your operating system decides it needs a major update and you need to reinstall Winlink Express. Do you remember how to send and reply to Winlink template messages? Can you connect to two or three gateways?

Are your settings and preferences correct? Everyone, please, in Winlink Express click Settings then Preferences.

All of the boxes in the “Message acknowledgement options” section should NOT be checked. In the “Message sending options” section, the “Add //WL2K’ to the subject of messages” should NOT be checked. //WL2K is ONLY needed if you are sending a message FROM a standard (not Winlink) email address to a Winlink address AND your standard email (from) address is not in the recipient’s whitelist.

In a disaster situation and in drills, the airways and gateways are very busy. That is why we stress keeping all communications brief and to the point and we do not engage in chit-chat and social niceties. This goes for voice as well as Winlink. Do not send any messages that are not asked for in the drill guide. Do not send copies (cc) unless requested. Do not ask for or send receipt acknowledgement messages. Do not resend a message if you don’t get a response quickly. Do not send large file attachments. (One gateway crashed because of this.) All of these things steal time from the frequencies and gateways and slow the delivery of the essential message traffic.

Every drill should be treated as if it were a real disaster response. Preparing for drills keeps us ready should something happen and we are activated. Following these suggestions (did I mention to read the Drill Guide?) will keep us all on our toes and ready to serve when we are called upon.