Category Archives: MF & LF

Update on ‘A Low Drive 2200 Meter Amplifier’

The amplifier. This was a “junkbox special”, so yes it’s a bit ugly!

This is an update to an earlier blog post describing a moderate power 2200m class E amplifier with very low drive requirement. The design had been evolving for some time but is now in a finished state as far as I am concerned. In its current configuration I have many hours on this little amplifier running 250 to 275 watts RF output, including numerous nights running 80% or higher duty cycle for hours at a time. It has proven to be very reliable. The basic design requires just 0 dBm drive (one milliwatt), but I have included a built in 20 dB attenuator in mine to accommodate the +20 to +24 dBm drive provided by my various exciters.

Amplifier schematic. The 20 dB input attenuator I included in my unit is not shown.

Use caution when selecting capacitors for the output circuit, namely C1 through C4. It may be very tempting to use a single capacitor of the specified value, but doing so will likely mean operating the capacitor beyond its voltage ratings if it is a film capacitor. Film capacitors must have their voltage derated as frequency increases. Capacitor data sheets usually have curves for this derating. I had capacitors in a 630 meter amplifier fail because I had not taken that into account. Generally smaller value capacitors can handle more voltage at a given frequency than higher value ones, which is why I use several low value capacitors in parallel to reach the desired capacitance.

When selecting a FET, choose something rated 200 volts or more if you plan to run this amplifier at full power. Voltage peaks at the FET drain are about 3.5 times the applied DC voltage. So with 40 VDC on it, the FET is going to see a peak voltage around 140 volts on every RF cycle.

The FET requires good heat sinking. I prefer either directly mounting the FET with a bit of thermal grease to a heat sink isolated from ground (note the heatsink will have drain voltage and RF on it, so be careful what might come into contact with it) or a mica insulator with thermal grease for a normal grounded heat sink. I do not recommend using greaseless Sil-pad thermal pads as they may be unable to provide adequate cooling efficiency. The heat sink on my amplifier is about 5 x 3 x 1.5 inches. A fan on the heatsink is not required for low duty cycle such as two minute WSPR transmissions at 33% or lower duty cycle. For long T/R period modes or frequent transmission resulting in high duty cycle, you will need either a larger heatsink or a fan. I also have a fan on the bottom pushing air into the amplifier and air exhaust vents on the other end. Again, this is not needed for short transmissions of low duty cycle but if you are going to run 15 or 30 minute modes or very frequent transmissions, it will be necessary to supply cooling air to L1 and L2. I also have an internal fan assuring high volume air flow across those inductors, though that is probably not needed. It was there to move air across the inductors before I added the bottom cover and intake fan, and I didn’t bother removing it.

Bottom view of the amplifier showing the fan and air exhaust

As noted in the previous post, this amplifier was constructed by making “islands” in a solid copper plated PC board using a Dremel rotary tool. Other methods will surely work as well.

Internal view of the amplifier

The only future change I might make is to replace the little TO-220 size 34N20 FET with a FDA59N30 in the larger TO-3P package. I have not experienced any FET failures with the present configuration but I like the larger FETs for better cooling efficiency.

A High Power 2200m Amplifier Saga

Kilowatt class-D 2200 meter amplifier

The story of this amplifier starts back in 2017 when I held a FCC Part 5 experimental license (WI2XTC). This was prior to FCC granting amateur privileges on 2200 and 630 meters. I was looking for a kilowatt-class amplifier that seemed reasonably easy and inexpensive to reproduce. I settled on the W1VD kilowatt class D design.

After building the amplifier I had a lot of problems with blown FETs. After many months of testing, troubleshooting and trying various things, I got that problem under control for the most part. It turns out this was not a problem with the design or my construction, but simply that modern modes and operating practices are not consistent with the intent of the design. The amplifier was designed for a steady RF signal at its input, with transmission to start and stop by using one of the keying inputs to enable and disable the FET driver IC. That just isn’t how modern computer generated modes work. The software usually provides for PTT (amplifier keying), but it is the opposite of what would be needed to keep the amplifier happy. PTT is asserted before RF generation starts and held until after RF stops. The amplifier needed the opposite to be safe: PTT asserted after the start of RF generation and released before RF stops.

Initially I was experiencing frequent FET failures with any exciter I used, but they were far more common, in fact almost guaranteed using an exciter capable of amplitude shaping the start and/or end of the RF envelope. I don’t have a storage oscilloscope, but after seeing some FET drain waveforms provided by other users of the same amplifier it was apparent there were (or could be) voltage spikes exceeding the 200 volt rating of the FQP34N20 FETs at the start and especially end of a transmission. Additionally there appeared to be extended times of zero voltage on one pair of FETs or the other, possibly indicating a longer than normal on time. One might wonder if there were current surges occurring at those times. After a lengthy search for replacement FETs rated for higher voltage and current but otherwise having similar ratings to the FQP34N20, I tried the FDA59N30. That eliminated any blowing of FETs with exciters or modes that are not capable of RF envelope shaping, such as the QRP Labs Ultimate 3S which I use extensively. I had just one FET failure in more than a year of operation. It appeared that may have been due to overheating. I found the mounting screw on the failed FET was not tight. Both the mounting surface of the FET and the Sil-Pad underneath were discolored in a way that suggested excessive heating. The FDA59N30 is a current production part while the FQP34N20 is long discontinued and becoming very hard to find except from some overseas sources which are selling counterfeit devices.

During the summer of 2020 I was invited to join the early testing team for the new FST4 and FST4W modes being developed for use at LF and MF. It was one of the better things to happen in 2020! Initially I was able to run these modes using the phasing exciter but I noticed some peculiar glitches on the scopematch (sophisticated RF power and SWR monitor using an oscilloscope) at the start and particularly at the end of transmissions. I also had some intermittent problems with amplitude and phase fluctuations during FST4/W transmissions. Eventually while looking for the source of that problem, I discovered the IR2110 FET driver was not entirely healthy. One side was OK but the other was providing only weak gate drive to the FETs. I replaced the driver and that was the end of being able to transmit using the new modes! FETs were constantly meeting their demise with the new modes, while other modes were OK. My pile of dead FETs was again growing rapidly! At about the same time I learned something about the new modes that I had not previously known. They were intentionally using envelope shaping at the beginning and end of transmissions! (Note: with the general availability release of WSJT-X 2.3.0, the FST4/W envelope shaping can be disabled.) Sure enough, when I tried manually enabling the FET driver after the envelope shaping at the start and disabling it before RF shaping commenced at the end of transmissions, FETs did not fail.

It has never been clear to me exactly where in the amplifier problems start with non-constant amplitude drive, but clearly bad things were happening somewhere. Was it strictly in the output circuit, or was something going wrong in the driver or the pre-driver logic? It would be fair to say I was never entirely happy with the configuration of the amplifier anyway. Since it used a flip-flop to clock the IR2110 FET driver, it required the RF input signal to be at twice the operating frequency. For 137.5 kHz operation, it needed RF drive at 275 kHz. In order to achieve that with common exciters and relatively minimum hassle, I used a frequency doubler circuit before the driver. That always seemed like unnecessary complexity to me, but at the time of construction there were few, if any alternate driver designs for class D amplifiers that didn’t use a flip-flop, therefore requiring drive at twice the operating frequency. The doubler also caused some problems running EbNaut, which uses 180 degree phase shift keying.

While struggling to think of a solution to the FST4/W envelope shaping killing FETs en masse, it came to my attention that others were now using drivers for class D amplifiers that did not use the flip-flop and worked with “normal” drive at the operating frequency. I decided to try an experiment. Melding elements from three different designs, I came up with a driver that provided all of the control inputs of the original, required no doubler and allowed for some adjustment of the duty cycle. The circuit uses a 1:9 impedance step up transformer driving a pair of LM311 comparators. The comparator outputs control the IR2110 FET driver. One obvious advantage is that this does not require drive at twice the operating frequency. Another is that, unlike the original driver configuration this one allows for some adjustment of the length of the drive pulses to the FETs. This made it possible to get cleaner drain waveforms with less high frequency ringing.

New driver circuit for kilowatt class D amplifier

With the original driver there was always some high frequency drain ringing. With this driver it can be almost entirely eliminated by adjusting the 20 ohm trimmer to vary the duty cycle or length of drive pulses. There is a tradeoff between the circuits. The original amplifier input consisted of a frequency doubler and the flip-flop preceding the IR2110. With that configuration there was little to no change in drain waveforms over a 15 dB drive power range. With the new circuit, drain waveforms change with drive level. The change is minimal over about a 6 dB range but increases outside those limits. The range of acceptable input can be pushed to 15 dB before things start looking really alarming. This worked fine for all but FST4/W modes (prior to the 2.3.0 GA release with envelope shaping disabled). With FST4/W slowly rising from zero to full power at the start of a transmission and slowly decreasing from full power to zero at the end, the drain waveforms went through some ugly periods. I was still occasionally losing FETs.

I wondered if an RF sensing circuit could solve that problem. It should be possible to sample the incoming RF drive, rectify it and use the resulting DC voltage to control a comparator which would enable the IR2110 only after drive had reached a safe amplitude. The question I had was would it be fast enough to disable the FET driver at the end while the envelope was decaying. If it was too slow, it might not disable the driver before the amplitude reached a low enough level to cause problems. Never blindly trust my math or circuit design skills but by my reasoning it looked possible. The envelope shaping occurs over approximately 2.5 seconds for a FST4/W 1800 second transmission. I believe it scales linearly with the T/R period, so for the 15 second transmission it should be about .02 second. There should be plenty of time to shut things down if I used an RC time constant of about .0002 second. Instead of rambling though all of my rough calculations let me just say I tested the circuit as built with several hours of FST4-15 transmissions, which would require the fastest timing. There were no glitches evident and no FETs were harmed during the test.

RF sensing and comparator circuit. The driver enable output is internally connected to + Key on the above driver circuit.

I built the new driver circuit on a board which was the same size as the original and used the same connectors, so it was a drop in replacement for the amplifier. Similarly the RF sensing and control circuit is a drop in replacement for the no longer needed frequency doubler.

RF sensing (mounted vertically on chassis end wall) and driver (foreground) boards mounted in the amplifier. Blue and green twisted pairs go to the FET gate resistor/diode networks.
Overall internal bottom view of the amplifier with new input boards installed. The bottom cover has a fan that blows air directly onto the output transformer and an air exhaust which is directly under the driver board. Two inch legs raise the amplifier sufficiently to allow good airflow.

The remainder of the amplifier remains mostly unchanged from the W1VD circuit except for the substitution of FETs as discussed earlier. It should be noted that for power levels above 400 to 500 watts at high duty cycle, a small fan cooling the output transformer is a good idea.

Schematic of the rest of the amplifier

The power supply is about as simple (and efficient) as you can get, a few luxuries notwithstanding. It is unregulated, consisting of a variac, transformer, two bridge rectifiers and two large filter capacitors. It can provide 0 to 50 volts for the FET drains. The power transformer has two secondaries. Each has its own rectifier and filter capacitor. The two are combined at the output terminals of the supply. A small fan is used to blow air across the bridge rectifiers to aid in cooling. Because the filter capacitors are large and the transformer resistance is low, a soft start circuit is used to prevent inrush current problems. There is a separate transformer with a similar configuration to supply 12 volts to the amplifier driver circuits. The 12 volt supply also controls the soft start by means of a comparator which closes a relay to short out a resistor in the AC input to the variac after a short (adjustable) delay.

Schematic of the power supply
Internal view of the power supply. Space is limited and the variac would not fit on the front panel. It is accessed through a hole cut in the top cover of the supply.
The power supply with top cover in place

Experimenting with a K9AY loop on LF

50 foot mast supporting LF/MF K9AY loop

During the late summer and autumn of 2020 I built a K9AY loop, hoping it would help me hear DX on 2200 meters. Computer modeling suggested the minimum size for good front to back ratio and overall pattern would be twice the size of the original 160/80 meter K9AY loop design. This required a 50 foot mast. I chose to use a fiberglass mast to ensure there would be no interaction with the antenna. Since the “gain” of this antenna at 137 kHz is -55 dB, I was worried about common mode noise ingress. In an effort to minimize any such problems, transformer coupling was used at both ends of the coaxial cable feeding the antenna.

Having limited space I was not sure how successful this project would be. The K9AY would have to be located within 50 feet of my 2200 meter transmitting antenna, over the 160/630/2200 meter radial field, no more than 50 feet from one of the towers and just a bit over 100 feet from the other. That is not an ideal environment for a small directional receiving antenna!

The best location, considering other antennas, seemed to be atop a small mound in the back yard. I immediately had misgivings about that, since I knew the origin of that mound. It was what was left after the lawn area was flattened with a bulldozer about 45 years ago. At the time there was an automobile junk yard next door, spilling over onto this property which was owned by the same party. I had no idea what I might find when I tried to dig a hole to put in concrete for the mast footing! In the first several inches, I encountered several strands of old barbed wire. Lovely! Next was a power steering pump and a water pump. At about the two foot level the real challenge presented itself: a buried concrete slab several inches thick, obscuring about two thirds of my hole area, and tilted at a 30 degree angle with respect to horizontal. Oh, great! It took hours of beating on that slab with a heavy steel bar to break it up and continue excavation. Digging a four foot deep hole 18 inches in diameter with nothing more than a spade is always fun, but I got the job done. It has been suggested on several occasions that I am “determined”. I think that is a nice way of calling me stubborn! But it fits.

Base of the K9AY loop mast (coax and control cable not yet installed)

When the antenna became operational, front to back was no better than 3 to 6 dB. Some quick experimentation showed that de-resonating the 2200 meter transmitting antenna improved the situation greatly. With that change I could often see 15 dB front to back but not always. Several methods for de-resonating were tried, but it turns out simply disconnecting the bottom of the loading coil/variometer from the secondary of the toroidal impedance matching transformer is as effective as any other method. I modified my station so that I could do that from the operating position and even have the antenna automatically resonated while transmitting and de-resonated while receiving.

The original K9AY feed box with fixed terminating resistor (before installing coax and control cable)

Over several weeks it became apparent the antenna’s performance was not stable. The pattern seemed to improve and worsen with environmental factors such as temperature and snow cover. Several other K9AY loop users suggested improving my ground system might help stabilize it but with snow already on the ground I decided that would not be practical until spring. I decided to modify the K9AY to use a vactrol instead of a fixed resistor for the termination. A vactrol is essentially a voltage variable resistor consisting of a LED and a photocell in a small four lead package. I obtained a VTL5C4 vactrol made by Xvive and installed it on the K9AY. Additional control conductors were run to the antenna so I could control the termination resistance remotely from the operating position. This change has thus far allowed achieving at least 17 dB front to back using sky wave signals as a reference on any given night. There have been times when I see more than 30 dB front to back on DX signals. I have no explanation for that, since the computer model suggested a maximum of 17.5 dB. Front to back often undergoes short term changes which I suspect are due to changing vertical arrival angle of signals, possibly with some contribution from skew path signals if that phenomenon exists on 2200 meters. Skew path is common on 160 meters. Termination resistance typically requires adjustment with major temperature changes and after significant snowfall events.

Modified K9AY loop box with vactrol for variable termination resistance

So, with those changes made, how does it work? Better than expected! I have been comparing antennas by listening simultaneously on both using identical receivers feeding identical sound interfaces on the same computer. I am using six instances of WSJT-X monitoring three modes: WSPR2, FST4W-120, and FST4W-1800. SNR as reported by WSJT-X is recorded for every signal received and each antenna it is received with. From that data, the following results have been extracted and calculated. The method is not perfect as there is uncertainty in the reported SNR, especially with weak signals near the decoding threshold. However it is the most practical method to get a reasonable comparison.

Before getting into the results, I should point out that having the new directional antenna has confirmed something I already suspected: I have more man made noise to the southwest/west than to the northeast/east. This means I get a bigger advantage from the K9AY loop when listening to signals from the northeast, which puts many of my local noise sources off the back. Any advantage when listening southwest is largely nullified by the fact that my local noise mostly comes from that direction. During the day, when atmospheric noise is not a factor, my noise floor increases between 2 and 5 dB in the southwest direction compared to northeast. In addition to this increase in the overall noise floor, a number of “interference lines” and some narrow smears can be seen.

The WSPR/FST4W band segment. Northeast prior to 0930Z, southwest thereafter. Note more interference lines and squiggles southwest and the appearance of WB5MMB (1550 Hz) and WH2XND (1575 Hz) WSPR signals.
The WSPR/FST4W band segment, Northeast prior to 0930Z, southwest thereafter. Note the huge increase in WH2XND’s WSPR signal at 1575 Hz.

Results from the night of 22/23 January, 2021: With the K9AY loop listening northeast, a total of 35 transmissions from European stations were received. Of those, 21 were decoded only on the K9AY loop, while 14 were decoded both on the K9AY and the LNV. Of the latter 14, signal to noise ratio was always better on the K9AY, the improvement ranging between 3 and 7 dB for an average of 4.3 dB. While listening southwest, a total of 47 transmissions from stations in that general direction were received. Of those, 45 were decoded on both antennas with an average advantage of 0.3 dB to the K9AY. One transmission was decoded only using the LNV and one using only the K9AY.

Results from the night of 23/24 January, 2021: Listening northeast, a total of 56 transmissions from European stations were decoded; 25 only on the K9AY and 31 on both antennas. Of the 31, S/N ranged from 2 to 7 dB better on the K9AY for an average of 4.0 dB. Listening southwest, a total of 66 transmissions were received from stations in that direction; 62 on both antennas with an average advantage of 0.2 dB to the K9AY, 3 only on the LNV and 1 only on the K9AY.

Results from the night of 24/25 January, 2021: Listening northeast, a total of 89 transmissions from European stations were decoded, 45 only on the K9AY and 44 on both antennas. Of the 44, S/N ranged from 1 to 11 dB better on the K9AY for an average of 5.5 dB. The k9AY gained greater advantage later in the period. This may have been due in part to increasing static from storms over the central U.S. Listening southwest, a total of 12 transmissions were received from stations in that direction. All were decoded on both antennas with an average advantage of 0.3 dB to the K9AY.

Results from the night of 25/26 January, 2021: Listening northeast, a total of 17 transmissions from European stations were decoded; 7 only on the K9AY and 10 on both antennas. Of the 10, S/N ranged from 2 to 6 dB better on the K9AY for an average of 4.0 dB. Listening southwest, just one transmission was decoded, and only on the K9AY. However, it was a good one, AX4YB (VK4YB with a special prefix for Australia Day).

Results from the night of 26/27 January, 2021: Listening northeast, a total of 6 transmissions from European stations were decoded; 1 only on the K9AY and 5 on both antennas. Of the 5, S/N ranged from 1 to 5 dB better on the K9AY for an average of 3.6 dB. Listening southwest, a total of 18 transmissions were received from stations in that direction; all were received with both antennas with an average advantage of 0.3 dB to the LNV.

Results from the night of 27/28 January, 2021: Listening northeast, a total of 27 transmissions from European stations were decoded; 6 only on the K9AY and 21 on both antennas. Of the 21, S/N ranged from 2 to 6 dB better on the K9AY for an average of 2.8 dB. Listening southwest, a total of 49 transmissions were received from stations in that direction; 45 on both antennas with an average advantage of 0.4 dB to the K9AY, 1 only on the LNV and 3 only on the K9AY.

Results from the night of 28/29 January, 2021: On this night my local noise was somewhat lower than in previous nights, which may have contributed to slightly different results. Listening northeast, a total of 24 transmissions from European stations were decoded; 7 only on the K9AY, 1 only on the LNV and 16 on both antennas. Of the 16, S/N ranged from 0 to 4 dB better on the K9AY for an average of 2.3 dB. Listening southwest, a total of 47 transmissions were received from stations in that direction; 44 on both antennas with an average advantage of 0.6 dB to the K9AY, 3 only on the K9AY. VK4YB was received twice on each antenna, the first time with a 2 dB advantage to the K9AY and the second time equal on both antennas.

Results from the night of 29/30 January, 2021: Northeast there were a total of 21 transmissions from Europe decoded. Of the 10 captured on both antennas, S/N ranged from 2 to 4 dB better on the K9AY for an average of 2.7 dB. Southwest had a total of 38. 37 were received on both antennas with an average advantage of 0.1 dB to the K9AY. One was decoded only with the LNV.

Results from the night of 30/31 January: Northeast had a total of 8, four being heard with both antennas with S/N favoring the K9AY between 2 and 3 dB with an average of 2.7 dB. Southwest there were 40 in total, 36 being heard on both antennas with an average advantage of 0.4 dB to the K9AY. Two were heard only with the LNV and two only with the K9AY.

These results should be considered in the context of “what can I receive with one antenna that I cannot with the other” rather than “how many dB better is one antenna than the other”. Why? Because of the noise blanker settings I am using for the FST4W modes in WSJT-X. The way I have it set, it will first try to decode without any noise blanking. If that succeeds it will stop there. If not it will next try with a noise blanker setting of 5%. If that succeeds it will stop there. If not it will in turn try 10, 15, and 20% but it will stop at any point if a successful decode is obtained. What this means is that if on a given antenna it is able to decode a signal without using the noise blanker or with a low noise blanker level, it makes no attempt to see if it could get a better signal to noise ratio using more noise blanking. But when decoding on the “weaker” antenna it might get one or more levels deeper into noise blanking before obtaining a decode. This can have the effect of reducing the reported difference in S/N between the two antennas. During these tests I saw many cases where it decoded almost immediately on the K9AY but took longer on the LNV. This suggests on the LNV it was requiring more noise blanking to succeed, and that some of the decodes on that antenna might not have happened at all if I used no noise blanking or only one fixed setting. So if anything, the advantage of the K9AY is likely understated in these tests.

While not formally summarized in the above results, I have been paying attention to apparent front to back when receiving signals off the back of the K9AY. I say apparent because I am not switching the K9AY to the other direction but instead comparing the S/N ratio on the LNV to that of the K9AY. One some nights, apparent front to back is typically 10 to 15 dB with some values in the single digits. Other nights it ranges from single or low double digits to 24 dB or more. I suspect at times it is even more. For example I received a transmission from WH2XND at 0 dB S/N on the LNV but it did not decode at all off the back of the K9AY and could not be seen on any of my waterfalls, fast or slow! That would suggest something on the order of 30 dB difference between the two antennas.

The bottom line is that I am receiving a lot more European DX thanks to the K9AY loop. This antenna is well worth the work and expense that went into it.

Intermittent listening on 630 meters prior to the vactrol modification suggested an even bigger improvement northeast over the LNV on that band, though no formal comparison was made to to lack of a second receiver. On this band there may have been more advantage to the K9AY in the southwest direction but it was hard to tell with just one receiver.

Diagram of the LF/MF K9AY Loop

2200m Reboot: Phasing Exciter

External view of the phasing exciter

In early 2020 I began phasing out much of the first generation LF equipment and building replacements. My LF operating interests focus largely on DX. As I have learned more about all of this, it became obvious I needed some upgrades. This is the second in a series of posts about new equipment for our lowest frequency amateur radio allocation.

Like the first generation receiver, the transmitting downconverter did not have adequate frequency stability for slow modes on LF. I also wanted something that didn’t tie up my only HF rig when operating on 2200 meters. After reviewing several designs for phasing exciters I settled on a design by W1VD. I built mine Manhattan style using MEPads and MESquares from QRPme.

The MPS6650 and MPS6652 transistors used by W1VD are no longer available. I successfully substituted BC33716BU and BC32716BU devices but I have not been able to achieve the stated +20 dBm output. Mine will only make +16 dBm before the output waveform becomes distorted. This works OK with my amplifier but is a subject I would like to revisit at a later date.

Initially I encountered some difficulty getting good carrier and opposite sideband suppression. I traced the problem to the LO signal to the two mixers not being 90 degrees out of phase. I built several variants of the quadrature hybrid but I could not get accurate 90 degree phase shift or equal amplitude. Trying some alternate approaches, I achieved success using a Wilkinson divider and phase shift network. Some cut and try adjustment of two capacitor values was needed but in the end I achieved accurate 90 degree phase shift with similar amplitude on both ports. I used 6 dB resistive attenuators on the two LO signals before feeding the mixers. The two outputs from this circuit go directly to pin 8 on the two SBL-3 mixers in the exciter. The 6 dB pad, C1, C2, T1, C3, C4 and the associated 49.9 ohm resistor shown in the W1VD exciter schematic were omitted. With this arrangement I was able to achieve better than 55 dB carrier and opposite sideband rejection after careful adjustment of the level and phase balance trimmers in the exciter. If you build this and find it is operating on the wrong sideband, reverse the LO inputs to the mixers. If you look closely at the blue and orange wires coming off the LO divider and phase shift board, you will see they cross over each other on the way to the mixers on the main board below. Mine had ended up being on lower sideband the first time around! One other change should be made to the phasing exciter if you will be operating it into a 50 ohm load: omit the 49.9 ohm resistor in series with the output. The 1 uF capacitor should connect directly to the junction of the two 5.1 ohm resistors.

LO filter and Wilkinson divider with phase shift network

I am using the same Leo Bodnar GPS Clock that supplies 408000 Hz to the new receiver. It supplies 136000 Hz square wave to the exciter, which I low pass filter before the divider.

Internal view of the completed phasing exciter. Originally mounted to the side of a rack in my main shack, I had placed the power switch and LED on the side opposite the connectors. When I subsequently relocated LF operations to the workshop, that was not convenient so I added another switch and LED near the DC power connector.

I have many hours of operation with this exciter in various modes. It has performed well. One thing this exciter does not like is magnetic fields which can couple 60 Hz energy to the audio circuits. Don’t put it too close to a linear power supply!

2200m Reboot: The Receiver

The SSR-2200E, my second generation LF receiver based on the SoftRock Lite II

In early 2020 I began phasing out much of the first generation LF equipment and building replacements. My LF operating interests focus largely on DX. As I have learned more about all of this, it became obvious I needed some upgrades. This is the first in a series of posts about new equipment for our lowest frequency amateur radio allocation.

After using the original modified SoftRock Lite II receiver for three years, it was time to move on. That first receiver served me very well. With it I was able to make three trans-Atlantic QSOs, and heard a lot of DX on various modes. In the end, however, I wasn’t satisfied with the frequency stability of the crystal oscillator, which was about 1 ppm, or a little less than 0.15 Hz drift on 2200 meters. That may seem completely insignificant to the HF, VHF or microwave operator but for the most serious DX pursuits on LF it not sufficient. With the one watt EIRP legal power limit, propagation and high noise levels at 137 kHz we need very slow modes to succeed over great distances. As a general concept, the slower the mode the greater the frequency stability needed. Legacy modes include QRSS (extremely slow CW meant to be read visually from a waterfall) and its derivatives like DFCW. Readers may recall my first DX QSO with 2E0ILY used DFCW60, meaning that each “dit” or “dah” takes 60 seconds to send! Drift of 0.15 Hz is clearly visible at that speed and can lead to difficulty “reading” signals at even slower speeds. Today we have various slow digital modes for beaconing and QSOs. At the extreme, EbNaut requires transmitter and receiver drift be no more than a few tens of microHertz! Others are more tolerant but current evolution suggests one should strive to stay within 0.01 Hz or better during any 30 minute period if DX is of prime interest.

During those first three years I had tried various receiver, filter and preamp configurations. I now know what is needed with the SoftRock and my available antennas. I wanted to combine the filter, preamp and receiver into one box but I wanted to use a GPS referenced local oscillator for stability. In the end I settled on a design which puts all but the local oscillator into one box. The LO is a separate Leo Bodnar GPS Clock which supplies 408 kHz for the receiver (divided by four in the SoftRock quadrature LO generator) and 136 kHz for a 2200m phasing exciter.

The major building block for the receiver is a SoftRock Lite II kit from Five Dash. A few modifications need to be made for 2200m operation. The schematic shows the values for parts that need to change for operation on this band (C3, C4, C10, C11, C12, L1, T1, R5, R6, R16), as well as the removal of the crystal and external LO connections in its former place. The capacitors can be ceramic. I recommend mounting the SoftRock Lite II board with the insulating hardware that comes with it. Ideally one wants everything isolated from the metal box except for the shield of the audio cable connector. To maintain that one ground point I run the receiver either on a battery or an isolated wall wart.

Schematic of the modified SoftRock Lite II

For the front end stages I have married a filter design by YU1LM and a preamp design by W1VD. The filter provides a bandpass response to keep out of band signals from overwhelming the receiver, while the preamp provides about 20 dB gain which is needed with many small receiving antennas on LF. You want enough gain in the front end and receiver so that the noise floor comes up at least 10 dB when you connect the antenna. If this seems a little different from conventional advice, consider that we are dealing with extremely weak signals where even fractions of a dB can make a difference. If we want to keep the signal to noise ratio from being degraded a meaningful amount, we need that much gain to be sure the SoftRock and sound card noise floor don’t degrade S/N of the system. With the exception of the 10 uF electrolytic, all capacitors are ceramic types.

Schematic of the front end filter and preamp

Next I needed a suitably stable local oscillator. We need a final LO frequency that is close enough to the 2200 meter band to allow tuning it with whatever sound card will be used. If the sound card sample rate is 96 kHz, we need to be within 48 kHz of the receiving frequency. I recommend staying a few kHz less than that due to the way anti-aliasing filters in sound cards work. This means we want our LO to be between about 96 kHz and 178 kHz in practice, preferably avoiding putting it “in band”. The LO frequency is divided by four in the SoftRock quadrature generator circuit. This means we need to inject a frequency four times higher into the receiver. Anything between 384 and 712 kHz will work. I was already using one of the two outputs from the GPS Clock to provide 136000 Hz LO to my phasing exciter. Available frequencies for the second output are somewhat limited and tied to the first frequency but in this case 408000 Hz is one of the options, and it is perfect. That puts our final LO at 102 kHz, comfortably within range, yet far enough removed from the band of interest to put the image frequency around 67 kHz, well down the slope of the receiver front end bandpass filter. Perfect!

First I tried injecting the 408 kHz square wave directly into the SoftRock. It worked but I didn’t have a good feeling about it. For one thing, that meant that the SoftRock and GPS clock grounds were connected, a situation which I was trying to avoid in case of ground loops and noise getting into the system. The GPS Clock also didn’t like the impedance, causing it to put out not only the harmonic rich square wave but also a significant amount of HF energy as ringing due to impedance mismatch. I tried using a transformer (for ground isolation) and low pass filter to clean up harmonics but this made the GPS Clock even less happy with a lot of ringing due to reflections. Since I had signal to spare I solved this, albeit somewhat crudely, but inserting a 10 dB attenuator between the GPS Clock and transformer. This gave a nice clean sine wave at sufficient level into the SoftRock LO circuit. I don’t claim this design to be elegant or perfect, but I do claim it works well for me. I used film capacitors in the filter because I had them on hand, but ceramic should be quite acceptable.

Schematic for the LO isolation and filter circuit

This new receiver has been in operation for several months. Sensitivity and gain is more than adequate for use with my LNV antenna. Frequency stability is now determined almost entirely by sound card sample rate drift and is on the order of 0.01 Hz over several hours. This is sufficient for all but EbNaut, where the sound card sample rate requires continuous monitoring and correction. I have not conquered that yet.

Internal view of competed receiver

2200m Variometer Failure

On the morning of January 15 I was nearing the end of a 72 hour test of the JT9 submodes (JT9-10, JT9-5, JT9-2, JT9-1) on 136.395 kHz. The transmitter had been running 87% duty cycle for two days and as far as I knew all had been well. On this morning I checked in on things when I got up just before sunrise. It was running as expected with the waveforms on the ScopeMatch looking normal. I went about some morning chores and came back about 20 minutes later to check again. The transmitter was still running but the antenna was far off resonance. Minor changes are common but this was more than a minor change. I knew something was very wrong.

Loading coil and variometer assembly. The outer coil is 2 mH. The inner coil is about 180 uH and is driven up and down by a motor and threaded nylon rod. The adjustment range is approximately 2.3 to 2.5 mH total. This is more than sufficient to resonate the antenna anywhere in the 2200 meter band and allow for changes in weather conditions.

I quickly shut down the transmitter, grabbed my binoculars and went to the window to inspect the antenna. All wires were up and intact. I then hastily bundled up and went outside to check the loading coil / variometer. It didn’t take long to realize where the trouble was. When I removed the cover from the assembly housing, acrid smoke came billowing out and I could feel heat radiating from somewhere inside. This was not good! Since the smoke was so thick and presumably toxic, I could not do a full inspection until things had aired out a while.

2200m (left) and 630m (right) variometer enclosures. The blue drum is not tall enough to fully enclose the 2200m unit, hence the upside down bucket which is part of the lid assembly.

Upon subsequent inspection I found the bottom of the moving inner coil badly damaged. I can only guess as to what happened. Careful inspection of the following pictures will reveal something of the construction. There was a wire (12 AWG solid, insulated) running down the length of the form on the inside. This provides connection from the bottom of the inner coil to a a terminal at the top of the coil form which is jumpered to the top of the large outer coil. At both ends, the method of feeding through the form was a 18-8 stainless machine screw with washers and nuts as needed. On the inside the ring lug on the wire was between the head of the machine screw and the coil form. Stainless hardware may not have been an optimal choice. It stays clean practically forever but it has poor electrical properties. I had assumed it would be fine with the expected 2 amps or so of low frequency RF current.

What I suspect happened is that over time, probably aided by thermal expansion and contraction cycles of the PVC form, the hardware became loose on that bottom connection. As it began to loosen slightly, resistance of the connections may have increased somewhat, leading to more heat being generated. This may in turn have led to some slight softening of the PVC, allowing pressure on the connections to relax even more. I believe eventually it became so loose there was arcing which produced extreme heat in a localized area, eventually leading to the damage.

Before disassembly, some damage can be seen at the lower end of the inner coil.
After removing the inner coil assembly, the extent of damage is more apparent.
With the coil removed from the base plate there is more evidence the machine screw was the source of the problem. All of the damage centers around it. The wire inside is badly heat damaged, and the PVC form has either been on fire or has suffered damage from arcing (or both).

In hindsight, there may have been two warning signs that something was not right. If these were signs of failure in progress, things had been going south for some time. About two or three weeks prior to this incident I had noticed that when I was transmitting I would sometimes see “fuzz” appearing on both sides of my signal when viewed on the waterfall of my SDR receiver. It usually lasted only for several seconds, then cleared up. I did wonder about arcing, but the ScopeMatch looked perfectly normal. I put it down to just another artifact of severe receiver overload. It’s not as though my signal ever looked clean in the local receiver! There was always plenty of junk, no doubt worsened by the use of back to back diodes across the receiver front end to prevent damage from my own transmissions. But this particular “fuzz” phenomenon was something I hadn’t recalled seeing previously.

The second possible warning sign came 24 hours prior to discovery of the failure. On that morning resonance suddenly “jumped” higher in frequency. It wasn’t a big change, but was something I hadn’t seen before in benign weather conditions. Re-resonating took care of it but about an hour later it “jumped” back to the original resonance condition and needed to be adjusted again. This unexplained behavior should have been a warning that something was not right.

Much of what I think I know about this failure is speculation based on inspection after the fact. My theory seems further supported by the fact that the other stainless machine screws passing through this form had all loosened considerably. I know they were tight when it was built, but I was able to remove them using just my fingers. I will never know for sure exactly what happened, but the new inner coil will be designed to avoid the suspected failure scenario. If it fails again, I will have to reexamine my theories!

Mowable Temporary Cables

What? Mowable cables? That doesn’t make any sense! Let me explain. Throughout my nearly four decades exploring radio, I have often had occasion to run a “temporary” cable to some antenna. Usually these end up laying on the ground where they quickly become a nuisance, having to be moved every time the grass needs to be cut. This often continues for some time. After all, in a ham radio sense the definition of temporary is “anything expected to be in service for less than the life expectancy of the operator”. About year ago I had a sudden explosion of “temporary” cables. I needed to run coax and a variometer control cable to my new 2200 and 630 meter transmitting antenna, as well as coax to a receiving antenna for those bands in another location. These were put down just after the last lawn mowing of the season, but were at risk of damage from the snowblower as I kept a path cleared to the transmitting antenna during the winter. This summer they have been a constant source of irritation as I had to move them every time I mowed the grass.

Since I still can’t afford good coax and conduit to do this job in a permanent (meaning less irritating) fashion, something had to be done. One obvious solution is to dig a shallow trench and lay the cable in it — with our without burying afterward. This tends to be a lot of work and it’s messy, disturbing the grass (uh, I mean the weeds) and leaving dirt strewn all over. I was looking for a cleaner and, hopefully, easier method. One morning about 2 AM it came to me. I sat bolt upright in bed, sending Boo (the cat, who had been asleep on my chest) fleeing for cover. Who said you had to dig a trench? I have soft, sandy soil. Surely one could press a trench into the ground without the mess. It just might be easier, too. The following series of pictures depict the process, which worked very well.

Step One: Mark a line. Drive in stakes at each end and at any locations along the run where a bend is required. Run string (or small wire) from end to end, then spray paint a line on the ground along it.

Details of the string (wire) and painted line at a bend point.

Step Two: Hammer a slot into the ground. I used an 8″ x 8″ dirt tamper and a 10″ length of 1.6″ OD steel pipe. Lay the pipe on the painted line and hammer it in until its top is flush with the surface of the soil. In my soil this takes two to three blows, and the flat plate of the tamper makes it easy to know when you’ve reached the correct depth. This photo shows the pipe in place before being driven into the soil.

Here is a photo showing results after the pipe has been driven flush with the soil. To continue I simply pull out the pipe and move it forward 9 inches (just a bit less than the length of the pipe), then drive it into the soil again. The process moves along quite quickly.

Step Three: Lay the cable into the trench. I make 15 to 20 feet of trench at a time, then lay cable into it, then do another section of trench.

The completed job. There is no messy strewing of dirt, the paint line has virtually vanished, and the cable can barely be seen if one is not standing very close to it or directly in line with it. The top o of the cable is 3/4″ to 1″ below grade, so it is out of danger from the mower. Of course it is still subject to damage from any number of things, but with temporary cable runs that is usually a fact of life.

First USA to Europe Amateur Radio 2200 Meter QSO

It was early morning on the 28th day of March, 2018. Most people were sound asleep but not me. I was in my ham shack, hands trembling, heart pounding as I typed a few letters and numbers into my logging program. I could barely breathe. I had just completed one of the most exciting QSOs of my nearly four decades chasing DX. This single QSO cost more money and time than any other I had ever made. It was a QSO with England. You may wonder what is so exciting about that when any ham with five watts and a piece of wire can contact England from Maine. Well, this was special because we did it on the 2200 meter band. It was the first amateur radio USA to Europe QSO on what is, for us, a new band. This was no easy feat. It required months of station building and four nights just to complete the QSO. Some would call it a ridiculous folly and see no sense at all in it. But to me this is the true spirit of amateur radio, finding a way to communicate against the odds, adapting equipment and technique to accomplish the desired result. It is man and his machine against nature, determined to succeed under the most difficult circumstances.

The 2200 meter band allocation is 135.7 to 137.8 kilohertz in the long wave part of the radio spectrum known as LF or low frequency. In some ways this goes back to amateur radio’s early roots on 1750 meters, but it had been more than 100 years since U.S. amateurs were allowed to transmit in this part of the radio spectrum. These frequencies are not easy! Normal size antennas would be huge. A half wave dipole would be 3400 feet long; a quarter wave vertical towering to a height of 1700 feet. Natural and man made noise tend to be very high in this part of the radio spectrum and ionospheric propagation is feeble compared to the short waves. On top of that, we are only permitted to run one watt effective isotropic radiated power (EIRP). That is flea power compared to what we can use on most any of our higher frequency allocations! By comparison, when I was doing EME (moonbounce) on the two meter band I was legally running about 450,000 watts EIRP. But ham radio DXers who like a good challenge can be a very determined lot. The greater the challenge, the greater the reward.

I became interested in 2200 meters in late 2016 after the local club asked me to prepare a report on this and the 630 meter band, which were expected to soon be opened for amateur radio use in the U.S. At that time the only way to legally transmit on either band was to get a Part 5 FCC license under the experimental radio service. One could almost write one’s own ticket on power limits and frequency allocations but this wasn’t amateur radio. I did apply for and was granted a Part 5 license but never used it since FCC opened these new bands to amateurs just as I was getting a station put together. I found receiving on 630 meters to be relatively easy, if somewhat plagued by noise and available antennas. But 2200 meters was a very different thing. It took weeks of experimentation and testing to detect the first trace of signal on this band. Many weeks later after more trial and error I was rewarded with my first reception of a ham radio signal from Europe on the band when DC0DX appeared in my WSPR decodes. I confess it was then that I first started to dream of someday making a two way QSO across the Atlantic on long wave.

I thought I had plenty of time to build a station, since the FCC process on opening these bands had been dragging on for years. But in the Spring of 2017 the announcement came that we would get these new bands in a few months! Now the race was on. I frantically began building transmitting apparatus. I didn’t quite make it for opening day in October but I was on the band a few weeks later. Early amplifiers were plagued by budget shortfalls and poor performance. By mid February, 2018 I had managed to achieve 0.5 watt EIRP, just three decibels below the legal limit. The flood gates opened and to my amazement I started receiving numerous WSPR decodes from European stations. Wow!

I believed a two way trans-Atlantic QSO was in my future but was not sure when. I was eager for an attempt but still very much struggling with equipment and budget. I was hearing stations from Europe. Stations from Europe were hearing me. But for the most part, those who heard me did not have transmitting capability or not sufficient to reach across the Atlantic. The best bet would seem to be 2E0ILY. We had conducted tests earlier in the season and I could often copy his JT9 beacon. Chris could occasionally copy my WSPR signal but not at sufficient strength for JT9 to be viable. I knew there were ways to get it done, but this would take several nights. I was hesitant to ask anyone to commit such effort and time to a QSO.

As the relatively quiet season was drawing to an end I realized another season is never guaranteed for any number of reasons. I had given the matter considerable thought. There were no practical digital modes which would work with the low signal levels involved. Two old school modes came to mind: QRSS and DFCW. Both are very slow, trading time for weak signal detection capability. QRSS is extremely slow CW, so slow in fact that it can only be copied by reading it off a computer screen. In this case, a speed of QRSS60 would be best, meaning that each dot would be 60 seconds in duration. A dash is three times as long, just as in normal CW. This mode requires nothing special for equipment, as it uses on/off keying of a carrier and is fairly tolerant of frequency drift. But, the shortest element, the dot, sets the achievable signal to noise ratio. There is no advantage gained from the dashes being three times as long, so it is essentially time wasted. Time is valuable, as signal fading means you have a limited amount of time to copy the message. DFCW, or dual frequency CW is an offshoot of QRSS in which dots and dashes are the same length but sent on slightly different frequencies so that one may be differentiated from the other. This saves considerable time with no reduction in signal to noise ratio but requires more complex transmitter keying and reasonably tight frequency stability. In a typical DFCW60 transmission, the dot to dash frequency shift is a small fraction of a hertz. Transmitter and receiver drift must be held to less than this in order to avoid dot-dash ambiguity at the receiving end. It would take about an hour to send two call signs at DFCW60 speed. It was now late March. Clearly there would not be enough common darkness between Maine and any part of Europe to allow a QSO to be completed in a single night at this speed.

It may be useful to consider what is a QSO. These days the term means different things to different people. I came up through the DXing ranks with what is now a somewhat old school definition for a minimum acceptable information exchange to claim a QSO under very weak signal conditions. I still firmly believe in the old way, as we are after all supposed to be communicators. That definition is that each station must receive from the other both call signs, signal report or other piece of information, and acknowledgment. This requires that two transmissions be copied in each direction. Anything less than that does not seem like communication to me, and leaves me with no sense of accomplishment.

It seemed the best way to go about it would be to borrow operating and reporting techniques from EME, modifying procedure slightly to account for the much longer period of time required to send a message on the long waves. In this procedure, the letter O would be used as a signal report to indicate full call signs had been copied; R and O would be used to indicate full call signs plus signal report had been copied; R by itself to indicate call signs, report, and R (as part of R and O) had been copied. As for timing, it seemed sensible to use night by night sequencing. That meant the two stations would take turns transmitting, one going the first night the other the second, alternating back and forth throughout the QSO. It would take a minimum of four nights to complete a QSO, assuming the full message could be copied each night. If it wasn’t, additional nights would be required for repeats. That’s really slow! But it did offer some advantages with the equipment available. In order to achieve the required frequency stability I would have to use my QRP Labs Ultimate 3S beacon transmitter. The U3S is a great piece of gear, but editing messages is tedious. Night by night sequencing would give me all day to change the message for the next night’s transmission! A complete QSO would look like this, where bold indicates my transmissions, italics indicate transmissions from the other station:

2E0ILY N1BUG
N1BUG 2E0ILY O
RO
R

Meaning of the first line is obvious. I am transmitting both call signs. In the second line my QSO partner adds the signal report, O, to let me know he had copied both call signs fully. In the third line I send RO which means I have copied call signs and my report, your report is O. In the last line my QSO partner sends R, meaning I have copied all on my end. When I copy the R the QSO is complete. If a message is not copied, or not enough information is copied, then one continues to transmit the previous message until getting something back which advances the QSO.

I had worked out a viable technique. Now I just needed a QSO partner. Just in time I worked up the courage to ask Chris, 2E0ILY if he would be willing to give it a try. I was very happy when he said he’d have a go at it.

We had decided I would transmit the first night, so I set the U3S to send ‘2E0ILY N1BUG’ over and over during the hours of common darkness between our respective locations. It turned out to be an ugly night in terms of weather. I was getting heavy wet snow squalls. Nothing causes a 2200 meter Marconi antenna (vertical) to go out of resonance any quicker than wet snow! These antennas are electrically short and require huge loading coils to resonate them. They are high impedance antennas and the bandwidth is very narrow. These antennas are prone to changing characteristics on a whim. Every time the snow started, stopped, changed intensity or the amount of snow clinging to the antenna changed, the thing went wandering up or down the band and required retuning for resonance on the operating frequency. Fortunately the variometer at the antenna base was motorized and I could adjust it from the comfort of my transmitter room. But I had to keep a constant vigil, watching antenna resonance and adjusting as needed. I had my finger on the switch for variometer adjustment far more than not. After a while my fingers were getting sore from constantly manipulating the tuning switch. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used a miniature toggle switch there. If you think this was an automated QSO without operator involvement, think again! My presence and diligence at the controls was absolutely vital that night!

Message copied from 2E0ILY on the second night of the QSO (annotated). Note dots on the lower frequency, dashes shifted 0.187 Hz higher. When the signal is this strong, elements tend to bleed together a little but since they are of fixed length it is still very readable.

The next night it was my turn to listen. Due to the extremely slow speed DFCW is copied visually  using software designed for this purpose. Anxiously I stared at the screen. When I wasn’t nervously pacing, that is! I began to see traces of signal, then an odd letter here and there. There was a B, a 2, a Y and I even thought I saw an O but couldn’t be sure. Eventually conditions stabilized and I began to get steady print on the screen. Waiting 60 seconds for a dot or dash to fully paint on the screen can be agonizing. Slowly the elements accumulate and become characters. If you are lucky, propagation holds up long enough to copy the full message. Fortunately, after somewhat of a slow start copy remained solid and I eventually had N1BUG, 2E0ILY and a very nice O painted on my screen! I had copied full call signs and a signal report indicating Chris had got full call signs from me the previous night! We were half way there!

The third night I was transmitting again. Since I knew Chris had already copied full call signs from me, it was not necessary to transmit them at this stage of the QSO. Technically I could have just sent RO repeating throughout the night, but being of the cautious type I decided to include call sign suffixes to provide positive evidence the correct station was being copied. Thus the message I transmitted was ‘ILY BUG RO’. This was a risk as it takes far longer to send than simply ‘RO’ and signal fading can be a huge factor. At least the weather was better and I didn’t have to ride the variometer all night.

Soon it was night four, back to pacing and staring hopefully at the screen. I was especially nervous that night, as I had some strong, drifting interference right on top of Chris! Finally it moved just enough that I could make out ‘BUG ILY R’. There was rapid fading and the dash in the R was much fainter than the rest. Fainter but unmistakably there. I was positive about the R but being the cautious type and realizing this QSO would be an amateur radio first I really wanted to see it more clearly before declaring the QSO complete. The signal faded and nothing was seen for hours. Sunrise at 2E0ILY was fast approaching and I had to make a decision. Was I going to log the QSO or retransmit my RO message the following night in hope of getting better copy of the R on night six? Just before dawn the signal reappeared, very weak. I could barely make out ‘BUG IL’, then the ‘Y’ was quite strong. Given the proximity to sunrise every minute felt like an eternity. Ticking of the clock became offensively loud. It was going to take another four minutes to get an R! Would it hold up that long? Slowly, as the clock ticked and my heart raced, a crystal clear ‘R’ painted on the screen. There were traces of signal for some time after that but nothing  I would call readable, save a stray ‘Y’ that somehow came through well past dawn. So it came to be that shortly after 0600 UTC (1:00 AM local time) on this, the 28th day of March, 2018 I entered this QSO into my station log. We had done it!

QSL card received for this very memorable QSO!

This was an amateur radio first from the U.S. but nothing new in terms of distance on the 2200 meter band. Canadian stations, operating under amateur call signs but otherwise a program similar to our Part 5 licenses, had worked Europe years earlier. Much longer distances had been covered. But for me this was one of the most exciting QSOs of my nearly 40 years as a DXer. It ranks right up there with my first EME QSO, the QSO that put me on the DXCC Honor Roll and several other notable events such as being credited with the first North American two meter auroral E QSO back in 1989. My thanks to Chris, 2E0ILY for his time and patience to make this happen – not to mention the kilowatt hours of electricity expended.

DFCW may be old school but it gets the job done under extremely difficult conditions. DFCW ‘decoding’ is done by the human operator. Deciding what has been copied is not left to computer software which may use assumption or non amateur radio means to fill in things it couldn’t positively make out over the air. DFCW is painfully slow but here we had a very positive over the air exchange of full call signs, reports and acknowledgement without any shortcuts or fudging. I was very pleased with that!

Although this single QSO cost more than any other, this was a low budget operation. Most of the LF station consists of low cost kits and home built gear. Equipment used at my station for this QSO was the QRP Labs Ultimate 3S driving a home built amplifier to 175 watts output. The transmitting antenna was a 90 foot Marconi (vertical) with a top hat consisting of three wires each 100 feet long, spaced five feet apart. Three one inch diameter aluminum spreaders plus triangular wire sections at each end are electrically part of the top loading. This is resonated at the base with an inductance of approximately 2.3 millihenries. Loss resistance at the time was near 100 ohms, resulting in EIRP of 0.5 watt. For receive I used a 30 foot low noise vertical, band pass filter, W1VD preamp, and a modified Softrock Lite II SDR receiver. The amplifier and most of the receive system has been described on my blog and/or web site. There are photos of the antenna and variometer on my web site.

A Low Drive 2200 Meter Amplifier

There is an updated post on this amplifier. I am leaving this post for historical purposes, but anyone interested in building it should refer to the new post.

Note 25 January 2019: The drain waveform has been corrected and this amp has run many hours at 250W output including some rather high duty cycle mixed WSR-15 / WSPR-2. It seems very reliable at that level. I will revise this post further when I have more time.

Note 12 May 2018: I have discovered this amplifier does not operate with a nominal Class E drain waveform. However that does not change the fact it has performed very well as described in this post. I intend to publish and updated version with corrected waveform at a later date.

While still planning and collecting parts for a high power 2200 meter amplifier I began to wonder if the design I use on 630 meters could be converted and made to work at 2200 meters – and if so, would I have the right parts to build it? Some quick math, assuming linear scaling of component values with frequency, showed that I just might be able to hit the correct values using parts salvaged from a problem ridden dual band amplifier I had given up on. So I set out to build and test a prototype. It took some fine tuning of inductor and capacitor values in the output circuit to get best efficiency and power peak at 137 kHz.

Schematic of the completed amplifier

Initially I used T106-2 cores for the inductors but in order to fit the required number of turns I had to use 24 AWG wire. Heating of the wire was excessive but otherwise the amplifier was showing a lot of promise. I decided to bite the bullet and order some T157-2 cores which would allow using 20 AWG wire. Note: heating of the wire in these inductors was not a surprise. My 630 meter unit does the same, as do several built by others. In the final design, it is possible to run high duty cycle at 100 watts output without a problem. For higher power I recommend a small fan blowing air across L1 and L2. It would probably be OK without the fan but I prefer to err on the side of caution. Capacitors C1 through C4 are made by connecting smaller values in parallel. I had a bunch of .01 uF 630 volt WIMA FKP2 capacitors and some 2000 pf 500 volt silver mica capacitors. These were the only two values needed when using the proper combination in parallel. The DC blocking capacitor is 2 uF, comprised of two 1 uF WIMA MKS4 capacitors in parallel. Initially I used a single 1 uF as in the 630 meter version but I found it was heating up slightly. Going to two of them in parallel resulted in no detectable heating.

The 22200 meter “junk box” amplifier

Construction is similar to the 630 meter amplifier discussed in an earlier post. “islands” were made by grinding away some foil from double sided FR4 material with a rotary tool and diamond bit. The finished amplifier can be driven with one milliwatt (0 dBm), like its 630 meter counterpart. Power output is similar. I measured in excess of 30 watts with a 13 volt supply, 110 watts with 24 volts, and 155 watts with 28 volts. In all cases, efficiency is 87 to 88 per cent. These figures hold over a range of 134 to 140 kHz. Outside that range it beings to roll off rapidly. I have been running mine for the past couple of nights at 28 volts and it seems fine. In the interest of disclosure I did have one FET die during testing but I had not been watching the antenna matching closely enough. Temperatures plummeted from the mid forties to the high single digits during that night of operation, causing the antenna resistance to drop sharply. This caused power output to soar above 200 watts before the FET finally gave up at 3:30 in the morning. I do not consider this a fault of the amplifier. Knowing how 2200 meter antennas are, the operator should have been watching more closely!

Update March 7, 2018: The amplifier has been running perfectly with no additional FET deaths. For more than a week I have been transmitting a combination of WSPR-15 (a good test for any amplifier) and WSPR-2 at 150+ watts output.

Update March 10, 2018: I cranked the voltage up to 30V and have been running the amp at 175 watts output for three nights with high duty cycle WSPR-15 and WSPR-2.

Some Thoughts on 2200 and 630 Meter DX

I came to these bands with a long history of being a 160 meter DX hound. Some of my perceptions and expectations were influenced by that history. Clearly propagation is more challenging at the lower frequencies and being limited to very low EIRP doesn’t help. Nevertheless I was expecting to find a hard core group of low frequency DXers clawing away every night in search of those elusive long distance QSOs. Reality has proven to be very different.

On 160 meters we have a good amount of nightly activity. No matter how late the hour one can find avid DXers CQing away, putting in chair time because with propagation being so variable that is what it takes for success. You have to be there consistently. On 630 Meters that isn’t the case. There is a good amount of nightly WSPR beacon activity which clearly demonstrates the potential for DX QSOs, but very rarely are there human operators behind radios running QSO modes at the times when propagation is there. It seems possible to motivate small numbers to get on and make an effort once in a while, particularly after a very good run of nights on WSPR. This is prone to failure since propagation is so unpredictable. On 2200 meters there is very little activity of any kind, including beacons!

It is, of course, very difficult for most people to be on the air late at night, which is when most of the DX potential exists at lower frequencies. If it isn’t late night at one end of a DX path, chances are it is at the other. The question I keep asking is why do we have a core group of ever present DXers on 160 but not on 630 or 2200 meters? Part of the answer undoubtedly lies in numbers alone. Let’s face it, there are many more stations with 160 meter capability than there are stations with 630 and/or 2200 meter capability. There are a number of immediately evident reasons for the lower number of capable stations. It becomes increasingly challenging to build a capable transmitting antenna system on the lower frequencies. Man made noise tends to be more of a problem and some people live in locations which are hopelessly  noisy. There is a lack of commercial equipment available, so these bands are, for the most part, occupied only by those who build their own. All of these factors contribute to keeping the number of active stations down. Fewer active stations means fewer who have the drive and ability to be on late at night. Numbers clearly play a role in DXing activity. It is actually a rather small percentage of 160 meter operators who are there night after night seeking DX QSOs. Similarly it will be a small percentage on the lower bands but with far lower numbers overall this tends to keep the number of avid DXers below critical mass.

But it probably goes deeper than that. To explain the lack of DXing activity we probably need to consider other factors. What are the motivations and rewards for working DX? For some it is simply the thrill of making that rare contact. For others it is the pursuit of long term achievements, collecting operating awards. There are many awards available to the 160 meter operator: DXCC, WAS, WAC, and many more. This isn’t true for the lower bands. For one thing, most awards are not even offered for these bands. If they were, most of the traditional major awards would not be attainable down here. DXCC is probably not possible for the vast majority of stations on 630 meters and probably not for anyone on 2200 meters. Propagation and the EIRP limits simply put it out of reach. WAS may be possible someday for those in North America (when we have active stations in all 50 states, which hasn’t happened yet) but is probably not possible for those in other parts of the world for the same reasons DXCC is impractical. WAC? Good luck, same problems. Are there in fact any available and reachable operating achievement awards for these bands? Not that I am aware of. So there is one motivation missing. If a well established and recognized organization offered attainable operating achievement awards for these bands, it might help to spur activity, perhaps even attracting more people to these bands in the first place.

Do these bands tend to attract a different group of people? Probably to some extent, yes. With lack of off affordable off the shelf equipment and no awards program, these bands may tend to attract mainly experimenters and those with special interests in low frequency radio. It may be that a large percentage are more interested in experimenting than in making QSOs. The results of the latest antenna change or transmitter upgrade can be easily and effectively assessed through beaconing, primarily using WSPR mode. One doesn’t need to be up late  sitting behind a radio for this. Clearly some of the operators who are on these bands are recognizable as DXers on higher bands — 160 meters, HF, even VHF and UHF. But they are a small minority.

I have given this a good deal of thought and continue to do so. What I have arrived at so far is a sense that we simply haven’t reached critical mass for DXing activity on either of these bands. It takes a certain amount of activity in in place to motivate most people to stay up late and get on the air. Even the most motivated operator may struggle to convince himself to be there night after night knowing there very likely is no one there to work. When activity is so low that there is very little chance of working anyone, the motivation is missing or insufficient. I am struggling with this myself. I am a very avid DXer  and I am very interested in trying to work as many stations and states as possible on 630 meters. But, looking at my unattended JT9 decodes each morning clearly shows the chances of working anyone out west on any given night are extremely low. So low, in fact, that I am usually unable to convince myself to stay up and try. Of course this works both ways as having few here in the east to look for probably keeps some in the west from being on every night. With the overall low number of capable stations, DX minded operators and fewer incentives driving the desire for QSOs, it is my opinion that we haven’t reached critical mass. There is not enough consistent activity to get the ball rolling and keep it rolling.

So how do we change this? Can it be changed? Would it help if there were a small group of extremely hard core DXers committed to CQing during key times every night? Perhaps this starts with those at the end of a DX path presenting more convenient hours. If those who would need to be up very late at night to make these QSOs had assurance that there were stations making noise, would this increase the likelihood that they would try? I am currently trying a limited run experiment along these lines, as I have committed to calling CQ every night this week for at least two hours during a time that is convenient for me and frequently offers propagation to Europe. The hours are not so convenient on the European end of the path! Unfortunately this experiment comes to an end when I finish repairs to the 2200 meter loading coil and return to that band. My one other thought on the subject is that those who do succeed in making DX QSOs on these bands should do everything possible to publicize this far and wide – both within and outside the LF/MF community. We need to show the world that long distance QSOs can be made on these bands! We need to promote them as QSO bands, as I believe the outside world still largely sees them as experimenter and beacon territory.

Update 10 January: Over the past several days an experiment was carried out. I announced that over a several night period I would be calling CQ on JT9 mode for at least two hours during the early part of the Europe to North America window (which tends to be the least inconvenient time for the Europeans). This attracted the attention of a few who indicated they would be looking for me. I promoted this as an activity period on both the European and North American email lists. I was joined on the North American side by NO3M and more casually by others. After a slow first night or two, I became the second in the U.S. to complete a trans-Atlantic QSO on 630 meters when I worked G3KEV (the first was AA1A working G0MRF several weeks earlier). Shortly thereafter, NO3M worked G3KEV. I had a partial QSO with PA0A. News of this success brought increasing interest. The following night both myself and NO3M worked G3KEV again. There were partial QSOs between N1BUG and OR7T, N1BUG and DK7FC, NO3M and DK7FC and possibly others but none of these were completed due to QSB or other factors. During this several night activity, hours of operation increased from two to four or more. That is a lot of chair time and CQing for very few QSOs. Clearly we have proven that many QSOs are possible but it will take dedication and effort. Frankly I do not have the stamina to sit there CQing four hours every night. If there were a large enough pool or interested operators to provide reasonable assurance that someone would be there every night, this might become self sustaining. As it is, we simply don’t have that level of activity.

Having more DX-minded operators on the bands would help. But getting on these bands can seem intimidating. There are some web sites that make it all sound so technical and complicated as to scare people away. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Probably the most challenging aspect is knowing what your EIRP is. If you can make basic measurements such as antenna system resistance and antenna current there are online calculators that take the work out of this. Chances are most hams have access to someone with the equipment to make such measurements if they don’t have it themselves.

Home built equipment can be very cost effective but one can buy a transmit converter for $80, a power meter for $40 and throw some wire in the air. If you don’t already have a receiver that works on these bands, there are inexpensive converters and simple SDRs that don’t cost an arm and a leg. There are some pricey equipment options out there. I don’t claim the cost is entirely unwarranted for those who can afford it. But it is not necessary to spend a fortune to get started or even to build a very capable close-to-high-end station. If you’re looking for intercontinental DX you will want to take the time to get up near the legal limit on EIRP but it can still be done on a budget.

For the time being, I suggest the most likely means of working DX is to organize and promote occasional “activity periods” where several stations at both ends of a DX path commit to calling CQ during a certain window for one or more nights. In the long term we need more DX-minded, motivated operators on the bands. Active promotion of the fun and challenge of DX QSOs on these bands is needed. A sensible awards program might be helpful.