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The Evolution of a 160m Inverted-L(long version)

(Updated 02/28/2012 de w4kaz)

TopBand?  Wazzat?

The whole idea of operating on 160m started as curiosity.  Before 2005 I had never operated on 160m.  Ever.  I had listened some, but never keyed the transmitter other than to experiment with arcing capacitors and high levels of SWR.  But it generally seemed like it would be fun, so give it a try to find out, right?

After looking at a couple of locations in the yard, it seemed like there just wasn’t enough room to !easily! pull up an inverted-Vee, or other crooked dipole of such unusually large size.  Tall trees out-the-wazooo in the yard, but spaced closely, so it is difficult for long pulls. So there is an emphasis on easy, because it is an important consideration.  Any antenna that is a pain in the ass to maintain is more likely to be out of service at any given moment at the KazShack qth.

There is a great spot for a vertical rise of about 70 feet, so that seemed to be the ticket.  But verticals have their own downside.  Radials – bleh!…Ick!…Ptui!  But any antenna is better than no antenna at all, so that’s where we get sucked into 160m madness.

The first preference was a top loaded “T”, but the useful supports are not arranged in a good pattern for that choice. There was just no way to stretch out the top-hat of the T.

The supports are arranged in such a way that an inverted-L is the logical choice.  So a slightly long inverted L was the winner since it 1) fit into the yard where the trees line up, and 2) lends itself to capacitive matching if made slightly long.  The result was an inv-L  with the vertical section that goes up 70′, then across 40′, and across again in a different direction for another 50′.  Approximately 155′(47m) of wire total length.

That leaves the radials.  Buried radials just were not going to happen.  Far too many tree roots and stone in the back yard, and no grass at all.  What then is the nascent TopBander to do?

The Early years

The first Inv-L install circa 2005 had four elevated radials of equal length, about 37′ each.  All were tied together and loaded via a coil at the base of the antenna.  No chokes, and no decent matching network.   In this incarnation, antenna performance was poor.  Even loud stations were difficult to work.  Heard no DX.  No surprises there.

The first “improvement”  circa 2007 was to add 12 random length radials, a 1.5:1 step down unun(W2FMI design), and a coaxial choke wound from about 70′ of rg-58 wound on a PVC garden pot.  The performance improvement, while not quantifiable was immediately noticeable.  Stations became easier to work on a single call, and I was now able to detect the whispers of DX stations.  A new K9AY for RX was also added to the mix just before these changes to the TX antenna.  It also appeared that the improved TX antenna was now hearing most of what could be heard on the K9AY, although the K9Ay has a much lower noise floor and is usually much easier on the ears.

The Intermediate

Radials were added incrementally from 2007 through mid 2010 until there was a total of about 30.  The original four 37 footers were the longest, and there were another four that were approximately 27 feet long.  Everything else was a mish-mash of random lengths, added in pairs to the available trees in the area.  Somewhere along the line(2008) I also added the capacitors required to get a good match at the base of the antenna, and have a nice low SWR both at the antenna base and at the shack-end of the feed line.  And the nice narrow SWR bandwidth that accompanies such.

Performance of the final well-matched radial version of 2010 seemed to be quite good in comparison to the earliest version.  In 2009 and 2010 it was possible to run stations(low power) in the 160m contests, and Q’s were made more often with the western US, as well as a handful of DX stations.

Before any other changes were made, I took some signal strength measurements in late 2011 using the K2 as field-strength meter, with the FT-920 as transmitter.  The test configuration was 1) transmit full power from the FT-920 on the TX antenna at its lowest SWR point, 2)RX on the K2, using a dummy load at the end of a 7 foot jumper cable.  dummy load hanging off edge of desk.  K2 attenuator on, rf gain at max.

Using that configuration:

  • 100w into the transmit antenna produces S-5 on K2 S-meter
  • 100w into separate dummy load produces audible S-zero on K2 S-meter

As poor as it is, that reading is the best actual measurement available, from what in my opinion was the best of the radial configurations.  Taken in early December 2011.

Decision Time

In 2009-2010, K2AV began discussing an idea he had for solving the small-lot-on-160m problem.  Based on his modeling and studies of ground losses, he reasoned that a single counterpoise might be a solution that would work for space limited locations.  He determined that a counterpoise that was 5/16th wavelengths might show useful current cancellations if it were strategically folded, to help with the problem of ground losses.  So evolved the “5/16th wave folded counterpoise”, now being generally referred to as  “516 FCP” or just as “an FCP” . The idea seemed to have a lot of merit, but being a serial procrastinator it took some time for me to get off my hindquarters and make the changes to try it out.

In early 2011, K2AV gave me one of his isolation transformers, as well as an inductor.  Their implementations of the FCP at K2AV’s and W0UCE’s qth required  additional inductance for matching(hence the inductor). They also discovered that the isolation transformer was a necessity to obtain good field strength results.  The transformer design is beefy enough to handle their high power operations.   The design of the FCP has gone through some evolutions/refinements, and the design K2Av is recommending was originally field tested at his own qth in the 2011 CQ160m CW contest with low power, and with excellent results.

K2AV style FCP System Installed

My own original intent was to install his isolation transformer into my original system and transition to the FCP.  Curiosity compels me to wonder what sort of improvement the isolation transformer might have provided on its own in the old system.  That test never happened, but it is really just a matter of curiosity.  It would still be good to know if the transformer would have made an improvement in signal with the radial jumble.  I expect the choking on the radial system was less than ideal,  far less than what was necessary, and the system probably was subject to higher losses because of that. That transition never happened, so I missed having the new system ready for ARRL DX. Impatience won out when an opportunity to do the work came up.

In the week after ARRL DX, the radials/coil were removed and K2AV’s folded counterpoise and isolation transformer were added to the antenna.  A new junction box was built to house the isolation transformer and matching network.  K2AV came by with his analyzer, and we spent a morning giving the system a look-see.  As it turns out, the same value of matching capacitors were suitable for use without modification, and the inductor was not required because my inv-L is long.  Matching the system was as simple as adding capacitance until a match was found.  A large value air variable could be used to find the required match in less than five minutes, then replaced with capacitors suitable for handling the currents.

My own matching network is a group of HV ceramic caps in parallel.  These are mounted on a board that allows switching some of the capacitance out to move the resonance up the band.  The switch board will also allow switching to a different vertical element, but that feature won’t be useful without also switching the FCP.  The FCP is a mono-band solution.

The Present….So, What of it?

The system now up is the same/original inverted-l vertical section with the K2AV folded counterpoise and isolation transformer in place of the prior elevated radial jumble.  What happened?

Using the K2 as field strength meter again, and using the exact same conditions as described above(sense antenna dummy load hanging from desk on 7 foot jumper):

  • 20w into the antenna from FT-920 now registers S5 on K2 S-meter
  • 40w into the antenna from FT-920 now registers S5 plus one bar on K2 S-meter
  • 60w into the antenna from FT-920 now registers S5 plus two bars K2 S-meter
  • 100w into the antenna from FT-920 now registers S9 (S5 plus three bars)
  • 100w into separate dummy load produces audible S-zero on K2

The S-meter on this K2 is not calibrated in real world db, but even without knowing exact values the signal is obviously stronger than it was with the previous TX antenna system.  Yes, that’s in the near field, but still it is encouraging.

The first field test was during 2011 Stew Perry.  Anecdotally, I was very happy with antenna performance.  It really seemed like I was louder, and it seemed I got fewer requests for fills.  But the time for a full effort wasn’t there, so there is just a limited amount of data.  Not too shabby for just three hours of operating.

A better sample was taken during the 2012 CQ 160m CW.  (And here.)  A total of 20 hours was operated. Terrible propagation conditions.   The first 6 or so hours were very good compared to previous 160m contests.  20 total hours of operation produced 593 QSO’s.  Even with terrible conditions, I was able to work a couple of EU stations.  Low Power.  Not as good as K2AV in 2011, but one hell of a lot better than I anticipated, especially in poor conditions.  K2AV is also a much better CW op, so I doubt I’ll ever be able to hit that 925 Q milestone.

So I’m pretty happy with the current system incorporating both the FCP and isolation transformer.  Many thanks to K2AV!

W4KAZ Construction Variance Notes

In implementing the FCP design at the KazShack, I made a few variances from the recommendations.

The FCP itself is constructed of stranded 14ga hardware store THHN.  I like the flexibility of the wire, the sturdy insulation, and most important, I have several rolls of it already bought and paid for.

The FCP insulators were cut from an unused piece of PVC electrical conduit.  That was also what happened to be at hand in the form of spreaders from an experiment with hex-beams.  From the length of PVC available for the job, I cut 16 spacers of 6 inches length(~150mm).  Each was drilled through three times, a hole in the center, and one about .5 inches from each end.  On the leg with two wires, the spacing is about 5 inches(125mm), while on the leg with three conductors the spacing is only ~2.5 inches(~60mm).  The holes are intentionally mis-aligned or drilled at offset angles.    That allows the wire  itself to place tension on the spreader to keep the spreaders in place.  Makes it easy to do with an ordinary hand drill too, since being crooked is an advantage.  :)   The mis-alignment alone is not enough to keep the spreaders from sliding, so they are also wrapped with vinyl cable ties as needed.  The distance between each spacer works out to about 4 feet(~1.3m).  Vinyl cable ties are also used as spacers  at the midpoint between each PVC spacer.

Measuring and threading the wire was the most time consuming part of the FCP construction.  Because all of the separators are of equal size and drilled the same, the side of the FCP with three conductors is more closely spaced than the side with two.  This made mechanical construction very easy, the FCP is taut and sturdy, and did not seem to have any adverse effects on performance.

The transformer and matching network is installed in a nice hamfest/surplus telco box, about 8x8x4.  This is a nice weather tight enclosure.  The transformer is exact to K2AV specs(by definition – it was wound by K2AV his-self!).  The matching network of switched parallel caps was pulled from the old weather enclosure(a sealed PVC pipe) and re-used in the new junction box.  These components fit well enough, but there would not have been space to house the additional toroidal inductor had it been needed.

Besides the apparent  signal improvements over the rejected-random-raised-radial-rambling-razzledazzle, the FCP itself has other very practical mechanical merits and advantages over raised radials.

  • The folded counterpoise is simple to build.
  • The FCP is relatively small, 32′ per side(64′ total length)
  • The FCP is a LOT easier to deploy than 30 elevated radials, or burying a dense radial mat
  • The FCP lends itself to following contours, and models well when the FCP is not perfectly straight
  • The FCP will require a lot less maintenance.  The odds of falling branches breaking the FCP here at the home QTH are lower by a factor of 15. (2 legs of FCP vs 30+ radials in 30+ directions, all below branch shedding trees)
  • all of the above…..  !! yipeee!!
Bottom Line…..

So, is it equivalent to a full size vertical with a dense mat of radials?  Probably not, but there is absolutely zero chance that sort of system can ever be installed at this QTH, so the point is moot.  Do I care?  Nope, it “works”, and it “works” better than it’s predecessor 160m antenna systems at this QTH.  Very possible that improvement is just testimony to the poor performance of the prior system. But better is “better”.  Is it snake oil?  Probably not, at least not according to the CW skimmer robots and the results K2AV has had with his system, and more important, my own field testing during the CQ160m contest.

At this point, my only regret is an academic point – not having run the test of inserting the isolation transformer into the old system with the radial-jumble.   The sharp tuning of most 160m antennas suggests that common mode currents will often be a problem as one tunes away from the antenna’s resonance and the reactance increases.    How much benefit is gained from either the isolation transformer or the FCP individually is unknown(to me), but still of both practical and academic interest. I’d really like to know if the old system would have been improved with the isolation transformer installed. Still of interest, but not enough for me to spend time hanging the radials back up again!  ;)   Together, the FCP and transformer seem to do a damn fine job here.  Certainly the best system that has been active in this location.

What next?  FCP phased verticals…..FCP foursquares…..FCP parasitic arrays….. MANY possibilities –  if only I had the room to do it!

References:

Until such time as K2AV publishes on the subject,  the available references are the basic instructions and a few message threads on the TopBand mail list on pertinent topics:

  1. W0UCE’s accumulation of information on K2Av’s 160m ideas, including the FCP
  2. Photos from W4KAZ FCP install
  3. K2AV discussion of the FCP
  4. Rolling your own FCP isolation transformer, IMPORTANT
  5. Topband: Where to place a preamp? Switching Beverages?
  6. Topband: K2AV 160m Folded Counterpoise (FCP), parts and winding for isolation transformer
  7. Re: Topband: K2AV 160m Folded Counterpoise Antenna (wire suggestions)
  8. Re: Topband: T-200 vs. T-300
  9. 2012-05-31, VO1HP FCP install
  10. DL2OBO FCP page

 

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