New Coat Of Paint

The pale green shed is now a vibrant barn red with tan trim.  Painting something is a good way to make it one’s own.  No longer drab, now it has sparkle.

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It’s ready for the move-in.  First item is solar panels and batteries so there is power to have the Internet installed.  Radio equipment comes after the Internet is up and running.  Finally antennas, which always seem to be work in progress forever.  Ever changing for that extra db.

Raw Farm Land Purchased

This beautiful 40 acre piece of farm land became available this fall, complete with enough space for any antenna, no covenants, nor hoa’s, and perfectly flat and unobstructed. Lucky me, the property is now mine.  Having one’s own land upon which to put a remote base has a much nicer feel than having to borrow from friends.  As gracious as my friends have been it’ll be relaxing to use my own land instead.  This is what the acreage looks like when still a blank sheet of paper.  The mountains are just barely visible in the distance.

strasburg-raw

A Tuff Shed “barn” is scheduled for delivery tomorrow and then the equipment can begin to be moved in.  Off grid solar power has served us well in Elizabeth and those panels will be moved up here.  A Direct Link internet tower is 7 miles north for Internet access and we should be able to reach that easily.  This acreage is located near Strasburg, Colorado about 25 miles east of Denver in the heart of farm and ranch country.  Access is quick by I-70 and the county roads are paved all the way except for the last mile.  Testing for RF noise showed no S-meter movement off the S-zero level on 20 meters.  The plan is to slowly move the other two remote bases here.  The Tuff Shed will house the remote base equipment and also serve as an operating location on occasion.  It will be big enough to accommodate a camp cot and a sleeping bag.  If a used tower and beam comes on the market that could also be in future plans.   For now the antennas will be verticals.   Lots and lots of verticals.  With lots and lots of radials.

The cost of this land is looked upon not as an expense but as an investment that I can get some ham radio use out of.  Investing in land is almost never a bad thing.   Lucky for us, Colorado is one of the sought after places these days and some say almost any real estate here is a good investment.  We’re fastening our seat belt for the next exciting ride.  Here we go.

November 21, 2016 – Tuff Shed arrives. It doesn’t look so much like a barn as a shed.  From a distance I thought it looks like a yurt until my wife corrected me.  She says yurts are round.  I guess I’ll have to find a better name than “Little Yurt On The Prairie”.

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At the closing I asked what the address will be since there was no address on the paper work.  The answer was, “Oh, the County will give you an address when you apply for a driveway permit.”  Reality sets in.   Permits?  We don’t need no stinkin’ permits.  Do we?  Oh, maybe we do.  I’ll put that on my Christmas list.  (February update:  still no permits and still no address )

Failure

Failure again.  This time it’s the fiberglass pole that has broken in half. Keeping a remote base running is a challenge.  A guy rope had slipped from it’s anchor allowing the top to blow over.  I am beginning to think using camo poles this high up is a hair brain scheme, especially after trying unsuccessfully to re-erect the pole today. This is what it looked like upon first approaching the site this morning.

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Funny but performance had not diminished noticeably and this scene was a total surprise.  In fact just this morning I worked a station in Cuba on the 20 meter inverted vee and thought all was well.  Half of the vee is lying on the ground and the other half is running from the ground to the tip of the pole which is drooping down.  Low band performance seemed to be normal, too.  Go figure.  Also keep in mind this has worked successfully for over two months without the need of a site visit, through snowstorms, numerous thunderstorms, and a week of 90 degree heat.  No complaints.

Considering this antenna performed well when it was up I don’t want to change antenna design, only change the mechanical design. It needs to be stronger and easier to erect. Incidentally the purpose of the site visit had been to install a cable to make CAT work.  That was successful and the remote now has CAT control.

Update 6/23/2016:  A telescoping aluminum pole has been ordered as a replacement.  It is a DX Engineering ATK65A kit. It is a 65′ kit of aluminum tubing. The plan was to erect it only 39 feet and connect the inverted vee as a top hat just as before.  Then I remembered the modelling I did for a dipole which peaked at a height of 64 feet.  A real possibility for success could be to install a dipole at the tip using two Jackite 16′ fiberglass poles and run coax down the inside of the new aluminum tubing. That design would match the model with the most gain at 15 degrees take off angle.

 

Second Remote Base

A second remote base is under way.  This is a de-commissioned tower from a business I once owned.  The landowner called when the new company said they no longer needed the tower.  My suggestion was to donate the tower for non commercial ham radio use and they went for it.  I will pay the landowner reasonable fees to use his land and for electricity.  Here’s what it currently looks like.  That white road is pointing toward Europe.  Nice, right?

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The plan is minimalist.  We will put a 20′ aluminum mast at the top of the 30′ tower providing a total height of 50′.  At the tip will be a light weight dipole cut for 20 meters made from two 16′ Jackite fiberglass poles (http://www.jackite.com/product_info.php?cPath=41_44&products_id=98).   A dipole at 50′ models very well and should have lots of gain for DX on top of a hill that slopes down toward Europe.  Ground conductivity is good in the area, too.  It should give us the productivity on the high bands we are  lacking at the first remote base.  In 2002 this was the very first tower for our wireless ISP. It’s had a lot of communications pass through it in it’s 14 years of commercial use. Now in retirement we hope it will see a lot of DX.

Wish List

The remote base is currently working 100 per cent as designed and one could be very happy with it for a long time.  However three concerns have surfaced in the first full week of operation.  These concerns could just be kept in the back of one’s mind and not acted upon or a timetable could be set up for upgrades.  After all this is the main station now.  Here is the list of concerns starting with one that has already been blogged about.

wishlist

The 20 meter antenna is weak.  It is an inverted vee with the apex at 39 feet.  It’s model shows a gain of 4dBi over average ground at 15 degrees take off angle.  It’s signal gets beaten out by almost any other station in a head to head contest to work a DX station.  First item on the wish list is a better antenna—higher, more gain at 15 degrees. A hex beam might be a good solution. (Cost, $500)

Next concern is one that was discovered last night when trying to work Iran, EP2A, on 40 meters CW.  It is a rare country and there was a huge pileup last night for the current dxpedition. The receiver on the Kenwood TS-480 was hopelessly swamped by the strong signals of the pileup overpowering the puny front end with it’s poor dynamic range.  It was a little spooky in the sense that the receiver was tuned to 7.019 MHz but there was no static, no background noise, no EP2A signal.  It was as if  a large attenuation had been inserted in the coax.  It was very very quiet.  Disabling AGC made no difference. Front end overload completely shut down the receiver. That was caused by the strong pileup signals.  Rob Sherwood’s receiver test web page (sherweng.com) shows the TS-480 has a dynamic range of 72 dB at 2kHz.  For comparison an Elecraft K3 has a dynamic range of 101 dB, roughly 1000 times better (30dB).  The Kenwood is ok for JT65 because even when there are pileups the signals are never extremely strong. For serious DX chasing with incredibly strong pileups the TS-480 just doesn’t cut it.  Second item on the wish list is a replacement transceiver. An Elecraft K3 might be a good solution.  (Cost, $800 for a K3-zero [already have a K3 ]).

Third concern on the wish list is more battery reserve.  Once the sun quits powering the solar panel the station can run on it’s batteries for approximately two hours before discharging to 50 per cent. Then the station needs to be shut down for the night to avoid shortening the life of the batteries.  Calculations for battery reserve had been only a guesstimate. It’s clear more is needed.  The panels on the other hand seem to be very adequate because the batteries are typically recharged by mid morning each day.  Third item on the wish list is to double the battery capacity. Two more Walmart group 29 marine batteries should be a good solution. (Cost, $200)

Total estimated cost, $1500.  Next wish:  wish there was an extra $1500 hanging around.

wish list 2

May 12, 2016 Update to each item –  Batteries are doing ok if the system isn’t allowed to run all the time.  There is plenty of operating time available as is. (I went ahead and added a third deep cycle marine battery in June.)

As for receiver overload it doesn’t happen with the JT modes, just DXpeditions on CW.  Those are infrequent.   Never the less the remote software for the IC-7300 is on order and should allow using the IC-7300 at the site if that becomes more necessary. ( When I tested it the remote software worked ok for CW and SSB but was a total failure for digital.  The remote congested the data channel and the digital signals we choppy.)

And finally the 20 meter antenna upgrade has been given some more thought.  See the separate new post with the full story. (I put the phased verticals on hold when I got the second remote base working for 20 meters.)

 

 

 

Day whatever…can’t be heard.

WTF. The new coax arrived and I moved the antenna 100 feet away from the equipment.  SWR is 1:1.  ALC is 0.  Power out is 15 watts.  I see lots of DX coming in as usual.  When I transmit the Internet receiver doesn’t lock up anymore. On receive I no longer hear the solar controller. All very nice. The EMI is fixed and so is the rfi from the controller.  Next I attempted to make a contact.

No one can hear me.  PSKReporter confirms it. What the…?

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Suspicions:  The metal fence post is absorbing all the rf.  Bad coax connector lets through receive signal but not transmit power.   It’s a quarter wave long and looks like a short to the transmitter.

OK, I can see these possibilities but why then is the SWR 1:1?  Wouldn’t it indicate reflections if any of the above was true?  Time for ANOTHER site visit.

 

 

 

Day 3: Decisions

Stepping back to explain our choices.  All engineering judgement involves compromises to accommodate important factors like money, space, availability, and what one is comfortable with or what one already has experience with and so on.  Choices we made are strictly ours and your choices will be controlled by your own engineering judgement.

My Givens:

  • A feeling at home of sitting in front of an actual radio
  • No pc on either end
  • Knobs and an actual front panel
  • As little duct tape and baling wire as possible
  • Will receive as well as the Cloud-IQ remote sdr receiver I’m already using
  • Must work with JT65 digital mode but be capable of CW and SSB, too ( I am a JT65 junkie but I don’t want to give up the other modes totally).

Transceiver

Perhaps the most key decision is what radio to use.  My choice is the Kenwood TS-480SAT.

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Kenwood TS-480SAT

Information at:   http://www.kenwood.com/usa/com/amateur/ts-480sat/

 The decision was made easy for me because I already had the TS-480 on hand.  It had been my HF mobile rig for a few years and was available now.

A separable front panel makes things a lot easier for a remote operation.  All we have to do is simulate the umbilical cable over the Internet.  There are only a few models that have this feature.  Elecraft goes one step further with the K3/0 which has a front panel mounted on an empty radio cabinet.They also have a K3/0 Mini which is just the front panel without the empty cabinet. Had I not already had the TS-480  I probably would have chosen the Elecraft K3,K3/0 Mini combo. A key requirement was whatever radio I choose must work with the RemoteRig interfaces.  Either of these radios have that capability. When it comes to dynamic range I had some reservations that the TS-480 might not have the best receiver and I believe the Elecraft does have the best. I promised myself if the Kenwood doesn’t work out I’ll switch to the Elecraft.

Interface

I already gave away my choice on this one.  It’s the Microbits Remote Rig model RRC-MkIIs.

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Remote Rig RRC-MkIIs

Information:    http://www.remoterig.com/wp/?page_id=1051

An interface should take away headaches not cause them.  There is a lot of good competition that I considered.  Many need a pc at one end or the other (or both) which is a deal killer for me. I’ve tried to keep pc’s running in unheated hutches with strange power before. It’s a challenge. Remote Rigs have processors built in at both ends.  These units are as close as possible to being a transparent connection between the TS-480 base unit and control panel. No pc at either end. They satisfy the requirement of replacing the umbilical cable with the Internet.  I could not tell any operational difference on the bench when I was testing between the Kenwood supplied cable and the Remote Rigs running over the Internet.  Some of the competitors require a pc to control the radio remotely AND a separate Skype connection for voice.  What a headache.  When I read Remote Rig has it’s own built in automatic Skype connection included I was sold.

Remote Rig (Microbits) has new models coming out all the time.  Since my purchase decision Remote Rig has made available “twin mode” models.  It requires two identical transceivers.  One is at the remote site, the other on your desk at home.  Every operation you perform on your desk is duplicated on the remote transceiver.  Certainly not the least expensive option but it has one real advantage.  When troubleshooting at the remote site just putting the TS-480 in transmit mode requires heroic efforts.  I have to drag my Remote Rig control unit and TS-480 front panel to the site each time, along with some way to power it and to access the Internet.  Having a full transceiver would eliminate that chore and make troubleshooting much easier.  At home that desktop transceiver would feel like a real transceiver…because it is! I like RemoteRig’s update.

Power Monitor

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Rig Runner 4005i

Information:  http://www.westmountainradio.com/product_info.php?products_id=rr_4005i

This isn’t a critical need but it sure makes power control comfortable.  I hadn’t even considered this item until I ran across it at Dayton and started discussing what it does.  It controls power ports over the Internet so I can power cycle a single piece of equipment without driving to the site.  It has fuses built in.  Not just ordinary fuses but poly fuses.  This means if one blows it restores automatically once the fault is cleared. Again no trip to the site (unless the smoke got out).  It also displays amperage and voltage on each port.  Nice for piece of mind.

Internet

Internet access is that so called umbilical between the radio and the front panel — a very critical component.  Latency should be low, probably below 100 ms.  Can you ping the site with return times of less than 100 ms?  Satellite internet is typically 350 ms.  I was afraid to try satellite because of it’s long path delay.  Local wireline carriers were not a possibility because our site is a half mile back from the road.   Ethernet won’t go that far.  Wifi would require a power source.  Cell phones might work but the monthly charge for unlimited data is prohibitive.  Wireless internet access is the perfect solution if one is lucky enough to be within a coverage area.  The have fast latency and they can put a receiver anywhere there is a signal.  Fortunately we spotted a tower nearby and knew we could get service.  A requirement is access from the outside world so we needed a static i.p.  Without it we would have been given a private i.p. which is not accessible from the outside world.  Our good fortune is thanks to this company:

directlink

Information:   http://godirectlink.com/

We chose their least expensive offering because we don’t need much bandwidth.  We are using voip (voice over internet protocol) service which requires 100 Kb each direction.  Our service provides 12 Mbps so it’s a huge overkill.  Controlling the rigs and accessories requires only a few additional Kb.

Note: If we had line of sight between our home shack and the remote we could have set up our own link.   We would be looking at Ubiquiti Nano Stations or similar for a range up to 10 miles.

Router

I chose the first old router I could find stored in a closet somewhere.  It happened to be the Linksys E2500 from a few years back.  I was happy that it’s power jack specified 12 volts.  Most routers I have seen will run on 12 volts despite whatever voltage they say because they have a regulator inside.  Any router is fine new or old.  We are just going to use it to set up port forwarding and we don’t need much processing power for the small bandwidth we will use. We don’t need wifi but I am using it because it’s easier to connect to the system when I’m at the site. Wifi draws an extra .14 A from the power budget.

router

Linksys E2500

Information:    http://www.linksys.com/us/p/P-E2500/

This is the Linksys E2500 but I suggest you use the first available router your hands touch from any source as long as it’s legal.

Solar System

Obviously this section is optional if you have access to ac power at your site already.  We don’t. Actually we do but we wanted to stay off the grid, and what a great opportunity to learn more about the latest solar technology. The biggest challenge was figuring out what capacity we needed.  We got a rule of thumb from a local solar dealer who said he had set up solar systems for hams’ remote bases before.  He suggested 400 watts and a PWM controller rated at 10 A per 100 watts.  I could count up the usage of things that run 24 hours like the router and the Remote Rig.  What was perplexing was guessing how many hours of radio operation I should plan for.  How much listening time and how much transmitting time?  In the end I just took a guess and went with the dealer’s numbers.  I used NREL’s solar calculator site

http://pvwatts.nrel.gov/

to determine how much sunlight in Colorado, and at what angle the panels should tilt.  I only bought three 100 watt panels because the mounting for 4 would have doubled the cost.  Amazon had free shipping and no sales tax on panels and the price is coming down all the time.  I chose a 30A controller from the same company, Renogy.  Battery capacity totaled the same amp-hours as the panels produce minus the equipment load. Rather than a commercial mounting I used perforated angle iron from Home Depot and staged it in the back yard.

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Here’s what the panels look like after being moved to the site.  By the way the camera is pointed toward Europe so this is what it’s look like toward the DX.    Exciting.  Can you see the Eiffel Tower?

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Day 2: Installing the Radio Equipment

On Day 1 we had bought a Jeep to get through the mud and installed solar panels.  We also bolted on a vertical antenna and a pole for the Internet receiver. Anticipating an exciting time ahead.

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Ready for the next step which is to add the cabinet with the radio and other electronics.  Inside the cabinet we have a solar charge controller, a power monitor, batteries, a router, and of course, a transceiver.  Here it is with the door open on the floor of the shack at home tested and good for the big move.

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This was built months ago even though I didn’t have a location yet.  I wanted to be ready.

Transceiver:   Kenwood TS-480SAT

Interface:  Microbits RemoteRig Model RRC-1258 MkII

Solar Charge Controller:  Renogy Wanderer 30A PWM

Panels:  (3) Renogy 100 watt Monocrystal

Router:  Linksys E2500

Batteries:  PowerStar SLA AGM 12V 35AH

Power Monitor:  Rigrunner 4005i

Vertical Antenna:  LNR/PAR EF-20 attached to Spiderbeam 12 meter telescoping fiberglass pole

 

It didn’t take long to bolt the cabinet in place and hook up the LMR-400 coax to the antenna.  Notice the 8′ ground rod.  Lightning season is just around the corner. Also a few toroids were snapped onto various leads. At this point we’re ready for Internet and testing.  Will it all come up and work as we want?

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Day 1: Finding Out

Here we are in January, 2016, at the very beginning placing solar panels with Steve’s shiny new steel building in the background.  It was late October, 2015 when I got an email from my old friend Steve offering space  for a small remote base on his new acreage after the holidays.  I had been looking to buy a lot or cabin of my own for over a year.  Always something was wrong.  It was too expensive, too far away, too small, too run down, no Internet access.  Other friends had offered to let me use their stations remotely but if I have to resort to remote operation it at least needs to be my own station. So I gladly accepted Steve’s offer.

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The acreage is located near Elizabeth, Colorado on the prairie 40 miles southeast of ( and 1300 feet higher than) Denver not too far from the Palmer Divide. We’re at an altitude of 6600 feet and we are an hour’s drive from home.  Steve has spent the last months having a steel building erected.  It is a half mile back from the road.  The car tracks to the building were very muddy the first day I visited and my car had no chance.  After Steve gave me my site tour I began shopping for an affordable 4 wheel drive vehicle to get through the mud.  I found this good old Jeep Cherokee and it really does a good job on the mud.

I rationalize this expense and all remote base costs the same way.  It’s to get back to even before we downsized.  When we made our decision to downsize I promised myself I’d make a good effort at DXing with restricted antennas. If it didn’t work I would set up a remote base. I tried DXing for a year and a half at home but had only moderate success. Expenses have to stay within reason because I didn’t have a huge station before (also, I’m not rich).  But I could work DX at the previous house and that’s my first love and I want to get back to it. Here we go.  This will be a “proof of concept” station with only the minimum needed to get on the air remotely.

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By the end of Day 1 we had made some fast progress.  The panels were installed along with poles for the Internet equipment and a fiberglass pole equipped with a PAR/LNR EF-20 twenty meter vertical half wave.