2017 ARRL June VHF

updated 2021-01-10

After the 2017 January contest I learned a lot. Mostly I learned that I needed a better setup: a better tower arrangement, a stronger power supply, and a roomier site from which to operate. With those three things I knew I could be much more competitive on the airwaves, and have a lot more fun too.

Finding a better site was the easy part, although it did take some research. From being active with Summits on the Air I had become familiar with the peaks in the area, and had a good idea which ones were road accessible. Some scouting revealed that Thomas Mountain would be a perfect site from which to operate in the contest. I had hoped to operate from there back in the January event, but an unexpected snowstorm closed out the site.

Pickup truck with ham radio gear for contestin
In my welding days we called this kind of thing, “20 pounds of $#!t in a 10 pound bag!”

With everything packed up in the truck I headed up to the mountain.

Portable mountain station for ham radio VHF contesting
I selected an open area with plenty of room for antennas to turn. This site was perfect.

Next up was to get the towers and antennas arranged better than last time. Back in January I ran into three specific problems:

First, the roadside turnout I used was too small to set up correctly. There was room for the masts, but not for the guy lines. This time I made sure to leave room for the lines.

In January the coax runs had given me issues. I kept the runs short to minimize losses on transmit (I run only 5 watts), but that did not give me much wiggle room for locating the station. This time I set up the two towers with one at each corner of my shade structure. This gave each a short run to the radio.

Third, and most important, in January the antennas had proved too heavy to lift once they were on the end of a long boom. My original intent in January was to have the long-boom 2 M and 70 cm antennas on the same mast. That was a lot of aluminum hanging in space, so i had to rearrange things.

This time I placed the large 6 meter antenna highest, with the 70 cm long-boom antenna below it. As the lighter of the two long-boom antennas, the 70 cm model was reasonably easy to pair with the 6 M yagi on one mast. The heavier 2 M long-boom antenna would have to go on its own shorter mast, on a separate tripod. That setup was immensely easier to get lifted up into the air. As a side benefit the bands for which there would be the highest feed line losses (2 M and 70 cm) were also the closest to the station, resulting in short runs.

Ham radio operator N6BSC
The weather was a lot more comfortable than in January.

The station setup worked perfectly this time. The antennas were stable, I had some flex left in the coax, and the site had amazing views in all directions. It was also a great contest, with lots of activity.

In these contests six meters is the main band of activity. You usually make contact on six meters initially, and then QSY over to other bands depending on what each operator has available.

N1MM logger on a computer connected to a radio
Power box at bottom left, laptop running CAT control and N1MM logging software, Yaesu 817-ND

The final weakness I ran into in January was the power supply. The cold weather reduced the voltage of the battery, and having to run the laptop’s AC adapter further drained power. This time around I solved both issues.

To ensure I had plenty of power available I switched to a lithium-iron-phosphate battery from Bioenno. These batteries have an improved chemistry which is more energy dense, lighter, and offers consistent voltage even as the battery discharges. I paired the new battery with a solar panel and charge controller that kept the battery topped up all day long.

As for the laptop, I replaced the battery and also made a new way of charging it. Instead of relying on the AC adapter as I did back in January, I made a DC cable with power pole connectors. The native 13 volts of the battery system was not enough to power the laptop alone, but a simple DC-DC buck converted did the job nicely. By adjusting the converter to step the voltage up from 13 volts to 19 I was able to power the laptop with a much more efficient DC-DC conversion, rather than the lossy DC-AC-DC conversion I used before.

Solar panel and ham radio station portable
This was my first time using solar power in the field.

For me, the contest was a total success. I operated all day making contacts to everywhere from Mexico to California City to Santa Barbara. Activity began to wind down in the evening, and so at the end of the day I packed up and headed back down the mountain.

Another success in the log.