Sunday, November 27, 2011

Post-Thanksgiving Leftovers

As most folks know, we had the Thanksgiving holiday here in the US last week. It's a tradition to not only eat turkey with "all the fixin's" but also have have some leftovers for a few days after that. I've got the same for my blog mostly with respect to things that were still around after Thanksgiving. So, in no particular order:

I did my usual "playing around" in the big CQ World Wide DX contest this past weekend. This is one of the "main events" in the ham radio contesting world, and while I didn't really have time for more than just a few hours of making contacts, I did note a few interesting/amusing/annoying things. In this contest, you get points for working stations in other countries (not your own) with what's called a "multiplier" based on the country and something called a zone. (The term "DX" refers to a station from another country.) Without going into too much detail, it's relevant to know that there are 3 zones within the US. Your score is calculated by multiplying your points (number of contacts with stations outside your country) by the zone and country multipliers. You are allowed to work stations in your own country for the multiplier value, you just get zero points for doing so. It's important to note that while you can get the 3 zone multipliers that are available for the US by working stations in Canada, if you want the country multiplier credit for working the US you must work a station in the US. Since it's a zero-point contact, what I try to do is to find a US station that's not busy and work them, since I don't want to take them away from working their DX. Most operators understand this and have no problem with it, but on at least one occasion I called a US station who was CQing (repeatedly) with no responses only to have him respond "SRI ONLY DX". In other words, he was telling me that he would not make a contact with me.

As noted, I only work US stations when they aren't busy which was the case here. A complete contact with both stations exchanging information during a CW contest (which this was) takes around 20 seconds or less. So instead of helping me out by just completing the contact, he probably saved maybe 10 seconds by sending that other information. So much for good sportsmanship. (For what it's worth, I noted his call and will avoid making contact with that station in the future, even in contests where non-DX contacts "count".)

Also during the contest, I was working stations on 20 meters just calling stations and tuning up the band to find the next station. It's not unusual, while doing this, to have another station that is doing the same as you are, and depending on what band you are on and the propagation conditions, you'll sometimes be able to hear the other station. Sometimes, you wind up moving with that other station (sometimes more than one) and working the next station up the band either just before or just after that station repeatedly. Normally this isn't a big deal, but I got stuck behind the equivalent of tractor-trailer truck on small road doing 20mph below the speed limit:

There was a station that would usually call the DX station before me and work him first. No problem. However, unlike the normal orderly contact sequence (which for this contest is very simple: a signal report, normally 599, then your zone, which is 5 for me, meaning my half of the exchange is send in CW as "TU 5NN 5", with "TU" meaning Thank You, acknowledging that I got the contact information from the other station) he'd send something like "TU 5NN 4 4 4 TU DE (his callsign) (his callsign) (his callsign) 73". You might send your callsign if you think the DX station didn't get it, but the accepted way of doing it is prior to the other information and only if you think the other station might not have gotten it correctly. What wound up happening is that the DX station (who is normally working stations very quickly; remember that I mentioned it normally takes 20 seconds or less to complete a full contact) would hear the "TU 5NN 4 4" then assume that the other guy was through sending and send his "TU QRZ?" (meaning he got your info and is moving on), only to realize the guy was still sending. In one case I heard the DX start to send his final sequence 3 times "TU ...  TU ... TU" before the other guy finished.

The problem with doing this is that you slow everyone down, and while it's not against the rules to do this, it's another example of poor sportsmanship. The station doing this had to know that he was slowing everyone down. (And before everyone jumps on me, this was definitely not a new contester, so it wasn't a case of "not knowing better".) I'm not sure why he was doing this, but finally I just gave up and jumped far enough up the band so that he was no longer "in front of me" anymore. (In fact, I went way up the band and started tuning down, meaning that while I might cross paths once more, it would be in opposite directions.

I've got a few more leftovers to go, but I think I'll just put them back in the 'fridge for next time.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Powerline noise problem, resolved

As I mentioned in my previous post, I'd been having a problem with powerline noise recently. The noise started to improve after about 2 weeks, with it disappearing for periods but then returning, until gradually it stopped entirely around a week ago.

As I mentioned, I had reported the issue after about a week to the local power company and while it took a while (just under two weeks), I got a message yesterday from a technician who had been dispatched to check out the problem. He said that he was at my house at the time (I was at work) and wasn't hearing any unusual noise but asked me to call him to discuss the problem. When I first listened to his message it sounded like he had just listened with his ears (not with any kind of equipment) and my first thought was that I'd have to go through and re-explain the situation to him. I didn't have a chance to call him back until today, but when I spoke to him I discovered that he did understand the issue and worked in the department that deals with, among other things, RFI and TVI problems.

He asked me whether I'd had issues like this in the past (I haven't) and I talked about how the noise seemed to start right after the power was restored to some nearby houses after the freak snowstorm in October. He said that what may have happened is that in situations like this, when they initially restore power they'll do so in a temporary manner just to get people hooked up then come back later and and do a more permanent job. His thought was that the temporary fix was noisy, but as they went back to "clean up", they may have found and corrected the issues. So while I don't know exactly what caused the problem, the good news is that the problem is gone.

The other good news is that he gave me his contact information and told me that if the problem returns that I should call him directly, at which point he'd come right out (instead of me having to wait a couple of weeks) to investigate.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Powerline noise issue

Despite the fact that I live pretty close to some power transmission lines as well as the regular above-ground residential service, I've been pretty lucky in that I've never had much of an issue with powerline noise. Unfortunately, that changed just about a week ago. It might be coincidence, but there there were about 4 or 5 houses around a block away from here that lost power due to the October snowstorm that didn't get it back until last Friday, which is when I started getting S7-S9 powerline noise on all the HF bands, 2m, and, to a lesser extent, 70cm. Given that there were still others in the area without any power (we were very fortunate in that we never lost power at our house), I figured I'd wait until the local power company indicated that they'd finished restoring power to everyone before calling to report it. (Powerline QRN is bad, but it doesn't come close to not having lights or heat.)  In the meantime, I put my main HF rig (Icom 756 Pro II) on a battery and turned off the main breaker to the house to eliminate any possibility that it was something in the house, but with that done, there was no change to the noise signature.

On Wednesday, the QRN was gone for a few hours in the middle of the day, and I figured that maybe they'd found and fixed the problem on their own, but it was back by the afternoon. Yesterday, the power company officially announced that all customers were back in service, so I figured that I'd give them a call today to see what they'd say.

The automated voice response system had no way to understand "RFI" so it thought I was reporting an outage, and because that's not the case, I finally got through to a human ... who seemed equally baffled. I explained that I was an amateur radio operator and that I was hearing electrical noise that I hadn't heard until about a week ago. He put me on hold for about 10 minutes and when he came out he said they'd be dispatching a crew.

While the recommendations for a situation like this are to try to narrow it down to a small area or even a single pole, in additional to not really having the right kind of DFing equipment for this, I'm home tending to one of my kids who is recovering from minor surgery, so I didn't want to spend the time walking or driving around. I am crossing my fingers that PSE&G (my power company) will take this seriously enough to send out a properly equipped crew and find the problem. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed.

Here's a short video that I took showing what the powerline noise looks like: