Thursday, March 15, 2012

Handiham World for 14 March 2012

Welcome to Handiham World.

drawing of transceiver
Last week I was thinking about mentioning something about "bad apples" – amateur radio operators who exhibit poor operating practices while on the air. There was plenty of other stuff to cover in the newsletter and podcast already, so I decided to let it go until this week. Anyway, as you know, the Amateur Radio Service is largely self-policed. That means that we observe what is going on on the bands and help other operators learn good operating practices, largely leading by example.  In fact, the last thing you want to be is "the band police", which is someone who sticks their nose into every situation and scolds other operators for real or imagined infractions on the bands. No, it is better to lead by example and always use your call sign, be helpful rather than judgmental as much as possible, and convey your concerns off the air. Frequently the telephone is a better choice, as would be a note in the mail. You don't want to embarrass someone who has made a mistake by pointing it out on the air. If the violation was willful, it is likely that confronting someone on the air about it will simply result in an on the air argument that will certainly be heard by others and show amateur radio in general in a bad light.
Thankfully there are volunteers who listen on the bands for situations that call for some kind of resolution. These are "Official Observers", or "OO's". The Official Observer program is run by ARRL.  It is administered by the Section Manager, and the volunteers report to him or her.  An Official Observer is recommended for appointment by the ARRL Section Manager and completes a short training course by reading relevant information provided by ARRL. For a complete list of the requirements, visit the ARRL website and put "Official Observer" in the search box. You'll find a complete description and everything you need to know about becoming eligible for this important volunteer appointment.
But anyone can hear a violation or instance of bad operating on the air and take some notes. You can always send your Section Manager an e-mail expressing your concern and asking that Official Observers listen for further violations. Some of the most annoying and difficult situations are those where the bad operating practices go on day after day, week after week, and month after month. These are not something for an individual to tackle; it takes a team to gather information and make a case against the perpetrator. You will definitely want to pass the information on through the right channels. In some cases, the bad operating may be originating outside the borders of your country. Again, going through the right channels to gain experienced assistance is key to solving such problems. That is why I like the Official Observer program.  It is backed by 85 years of collective experience at ARRL in dealing with virtually every kind of technical problem and bad operating practice.
Part of knowing when to report a violation is simply something that comes to you by gaining experience through years of operating and listening on the bands. You learn to get a sense of when something is a willful violation (done on purpose with a bad intent) or simply an innocent mistake that is unlikely to be repeated once the person finds out what they did wrong.  Frankly, all of us are human and will make mistakes. It is not necessary to jump on someone because they made one of these all too common errors. Who among us has not gotten Echolink stuck in transmit mode? Yes, it is an embarrassing mistake but it is not the end of the world. On the other hand, talking for a half-hour in a roundtable conversation without using your call sign even once is not only against the law but also rude and inconsiderate of other operators. As I said, figuring out what to report and what to simply set aside for the moment is one of those things one picks up by experience. Listening is really important in amateur radio. We all learn a lot more by listening than by talking no matter what the situation – and amateur radio is no different!
The ultimate goal is to make the amateur radio bands a better, safer, and more civil place for all users and to always "put our best foot forward" for any listeners out there who might be thinking about getting their amateur radio licenses.  
For Handiham World, I'm...
Patrick Tice,
Handiham Manager

Understanding HF propagation
IC-706 transceiver showing 1.902 MHz on the display
Along the lines of my previous comments about bad operating practices, I recently received an email about an interference problem on 160 meters.  The interference situation arises when a group of stations in the eastern United States run high power and operate close to another frequency several kilohertz away that is in use by a group of operators here in Minnesota. As you know, these groups of stations may not even hear each other during early evening hours when daytime conditions hold sway and absorption keeps long-distance sky wave propagation from taking place.  As the night falls and the ionospheric absorption decreases, the band starts to open up to longer distance skip, and soon the two groups of stations begin hearing each other.  
Both groups may be tempted to dig in their heels and say, "We were here first", but the fact of the matter is that the propagation conditions simply changed and that is what causes the interference. Understanding that it is not the other guy's fault is important in making a decision about what to do next.  
Remember what the FCC says about how we should only use the level of power necessary to carry on communications?  Well, Sec. 97.313 Transmitter power standards, (a) says, "An amateur station must use the minimum transmitter power necessary to carry out the desired communications."
When propagation conditions change, there are three good choices to mitigate the interference problem:
  1. All stations in both groups should lower their transmitting power levels, even though the temptation is to crank up the linear amplifier.  Lower power levels decrease the likelihood of interference.
  2. Consider using a different frequency.  This is often the best solution.  Remember, no frequency has any single user's name on it - I don't care if your group has been on "their" frequency for 10 years.  Get out of the mindset that one can claim a frequency by squatter's rights.  
  3. Change the scheduled time of your on the air gathering to avoid the propagation conditions you find undesirable.  
Notice that these are all non-confrontational solutions that do not involve blaming "the other guy".  Understanding HF propagation can be very helpful in solving interference problems and enjoying ham radio even more!

Troubleshooting 101

Cartoon guy with toolkit
If you are like most amateur radio operators, you probably have several portable, battery-operated devices that take consumer-grade replaceable cells such as AA's or 9 V square batteries often used in smoke detectors. In this scenario, you decide to use your dip oscillator to check on the approximate resonant point of an antenna that you are building. When you press the power button, nothing happens. Since the dip oscillator is a battery-operated portable device, the first thing you are probably going to think of doing is checking the battery or batteries. For some incomprehensible reason, many of these amateur radio test accessories require you to use a screwdriver and take the case apart to get at the batteries. This makes it inconvenient to take the batteries out if the device if it is not going to be used for a long period of time.
Okay, so you go ahead and get the screwdriver and take the case off the dip oscillator. What do you see? Of course the battery is dead; it has obviously died a rather messy death because there is a white residue around the contacts. The battery has leaked and corrosion may have set in, possibly damaging the dip meter. The first thing to do is dispose of the old battery safely. Usually alkaline batteries or the old carbon-zinc batteries can simply be thrown in the trash while  batteries with other chemistries such as rechargeables might have to be taken to a recycling center.  If you are unsure of the residue leaked by the battery, it is prudent to wear gloves. Anything leaked from a lead-acid battery should be considered dangerous and corrosive. Usually such batteries are not found in small accessories.
With the battery gone, you can now attend to the mess left behind inside your meter. Flaky or powdery residue can sometimes be removed effectively with a brush such as an old paintbrush that is dedicated to such projects on your workbench. Do your best to avoid inhaling anything and if necessary use a mask to protect your lungs. A damp Q-tip can also be effective without creating dust. I have used a Q-tip dipped in rubbing alcohol because the alcohol will evaporate from the circuit board and contacts quickly. You don't need to use much! A pencil eraser like the kind on a number two lead pencil can do a pretty good job of polishing up a battery contact on the meter's battery holder.  Try to make sure that the battery holder contacts are shiny and clean before putting in a new battery. I always try to avoid using abrasives on these battery contacts because they will remove any plating and open the road to further corrosion. If the battery contacts have been destroyed, it will be necessary to find a new battery holder, and this may mean making some slight modifications to accommodate it. Every case will be different, so this is a chance to be creative and figure out your own solution. Just be careful that nothing will short out when the meter is in use or when you put the case back on!
I have always wondered why manufacturers of these devices make it so doggone hard to get at the batteries in the first place. Something like a dip oscillator will only be used occasionally by most amateur radio operators, so it would be great to be able to put in and remove the battery easily and quickly so that the device could be stored for months or years without the battery in place.