Li-Ion Battery Pack

Here’s a little battery pack I put together for use as an external, portable power source for my YouKits HB-1B.  I wanted something relatively lightweight and inexpensive that would put out at least 13 volts.  This solution has fit the bill, so far.

There isn’t too much to it.  I already had some Li-Ion cells on hand, so I wanted to make use of them.  They are 18650 cells with a 6000 maH rating.  I haven’t actually verified the claimed capacity but most cells tend to be somewhat over-rated. These particular cells are the “protected” type; each cell contains some circuitry that prevents overcharge and over-discharge.  There are much cheaper unprotected cells but I’d rather be safe than sorry.

Battery pack with cable stowed
Battery pack with cable stowed

To put it together, I bought a 4-cell battery holder for 18650-size cells.  With 4 fully charged cells, the voltage can exceed 16 volts.  To keep the voltage below 14 volts (the maximum for my HB-1B), I put 3 silicon diodes in series with the output.  This brings the voltage down to about 13.7 volts with fully charged cells.  I also added a 2-amp fuse and an Anderson Powerpole connector.

Li-Ion battery pack layout
Li-Ion battery pack layout

To package it, I had a sandwich-sized Rubbermaid container that wasn’t being used.  It turned out to be the perfect size to hold everything snugly.  When not in use, everything is neatly tucked inside the container.  In use, I lift one corner of the lid to bring out the connector.

Battery pack as I normally use it
Battery pack as I normally use it

For charging, I remove the cells from the holder and charge them with a Nitecore D4 charger.  This is a 4-bay smart charger.  It automatically detects the type of battery inserted and applies the proper charging method.  Each bay works independently, so balanced charging is not an issue.  The D4 works with a variety of battery types (Ni-Cad, NiMH, Li-Ion, etc.) so it is a handy accessory in the shack.

Nitecore D4 smart charger. Each cell is charged independently.
Nitecore D4 smart charger. Each cell is charged independently.

I haven’t done any formal testing of this battery arrangement, but it has provided adequate power for an afternoon of portable operating.  For extended operating sessions, I throw 4 extra cells in my backpack that I can swap in if needed.

It’s not the most elegant solution but it works fine.

72, Craig WB3GCK

American Morse MS2 Straight Key

For many years after I first learned the code in the Navy, I was a die-hard straight key user.  Unfortunately, back in the 90s, I started to experience some wrist pain and switched to using iambic paddles.  Recently, after working one of the Straight Key Century Club (SKCC) K3Y special event stations, I was inspired to sign up with SKCC and dust off my straight keys.  Hopefully, I will be able to get my old straight key fist back in short order.

Since I do most of my operating while portable, I wanted a straight key that was easy to pack and use while sitting on the ground along some trail somewhere.  I was looking for something small that I could add some magnets to for use with my little clipboard.

After doing some research, I decided on the American Morse MS2 miniature straight key.  I built a set of Doug Hauff’s (W6AME) NorCal paddles from a kit many years ago and they are still in regular use.  Doug’s machine shop produces some precision stuff.

The kit arrived a few days after I placed my order.  Following the manual’s precautions, I emptied the parts into a baking pan.  Some of the parts are pretty small and would disappear forever if dropped on the carpet.  Even with my aging eyes, it only took about 45 minutes to assemble the kit.  (A younger person with better eyes and steadier hands could have done it faster, I’m sure.)  You need to supply your own cable and connector, so I dug an old audio patch cable out of my junk box and cut it in half.

American Morse MS2 straight key after initial assembly
American Morse MS2 straight key after initial assembly

The key is 2 inches long by 1 inch wide and is made from machine aluminum.  The contact gap and spring tension are fully adjustable.  The key (with my cable attached) only weighs about 2.7 ounces (76 grams).

The finished MS2 straight key with cable attached. The cable is one half of an 1/8-inch diameter audio patch I had in the junk box.
The finished MS2 straight key with cable attached. The cable is one half of an 1/8-inch diameter audio patch I had in the junk box.

After adjusting the contact spacing and the spring tension, I was surprised at how great this little key feels.  The knob is a little different from most keys, but I was able to easily adapt to it.  As expected, the overall quality of the key is outstanding.

My next project will be to attach some sort of base to it with magnets spaced to line up with the washers on the clipboard I use while portable.  More on that in another post.  I’m looking forward to making some SKCC contacts from out in the field.

72, Craig WB3GCK

FYBO 2016

I didn’t have a lot of time today but I wanted to get out for an hour or two for the annual Freeze Your B—- Off (FYBO) contest.  FYBO is sponsored by the Arizona ScQRPions.  I didn’t do a lot of  advanced planning for this event, so I threw my backpack into my truck and headed out with a couple of possible locations in mind.

I ended up in the Schuylkill Canal Park in Mont Clare, Pennsylvania, just a few miles away from home.  I’ve been to this park many times but I had never operated from there.  The spot I had in mind had some high voltage power lines nearby so I headed a little further down the road.  I wound up in a parking lot next to the canal lock.  There was still some snow on the ground and the area looked muddy, so I set up in the truck with the window down.  (It was 36F when I started.)  I used my YouKits HB-1B and a 29.5-foot vertical.

FYBO "Stationary-mobile" set up
FYBO “Stationary-mobile” set up

Now, normally, when people see my antenna, they usually just give some curious stares and move on.  Not so today.  Before I had even made a contact, I noticed a county park ranger drive by.  He circled back around and pulled up next to me.  He was curious about the antenna and I ended up discussing ham radio with him for the next 5 minutes or so.  He wished me well and drove off.

A few minutes later, I looked in my rearview mirror and saw a car with two park rangers behind me.  They were staring at the antenna, so I got out and went over to talk to them.  I gave them my ham radio spiel and a few minutes later they drove off.  I was finally able to get back to the radio and start making some contacts.

In my hour or so of operating, I only managed to work 3 FYBO contesters on 20 meters.  There was very little FYBO activity heard.  In fact, I worked more Minnesota QSO Party stations than FYBO stations.  Before I packed up, I dropped down to 40 meters and picked up a Vermont QSO Party station.

Just before shutting down, a fellow who had been walking his dogs walked up to my truck and asked about what I was doing.  Once more I gave my ham radio spiel.  In all the years I’ve been operating from portable locations, I can’t remember ever getting this much attention.  Maybe I enlightened a couple of folks today.

Lock 60 and the Canal Keeper's House at Schuylkill Canal Park, Mont Clare, Pennsylvania
Lock 60 and the Canal Keeper’s House at Schuylkill Canal Park, Mont Clare, Pennsylvania

Even though it was a short outing and I’m sure I wasn’t a big threat in the FYBO contest, it’s always good to get out and play some radio.

72, Craig WB3GCK

Winter Field Day 2016

My original plan was to get outside or, depending on the weather, operate “stationary-mobile” from my truck for Winter Field Day 2016.  However, my XYL and I had a long-standing obligation to head out of town for a weekend of babysitting our grandson.  So, “Plan B” was put into effect.  I would have to operate in the “Indoor” category and, at least, hand out some points to those braving the elements.

On Saturday morning, I started to set up my portable station at my daughter’s house.  I secured the feed point of my LNR EFT-10/20/40 end-fed antenna and tossed the rest of the antenna out of a second story window.

Antenna support for my LNR EFT-10/20/40 EFHW antenna
Antenna support for my LNR EFT-10/20/40 EFHW antenna

The next part was a little tricky since there was still more than a foot of snow in the backyard and I neglected to bring boots.  Anyway, I trudged through the snow to secure my 31-foot Jackite pole to the fence.  I used three velcro cinch straps that I had recently purchased.  I used some twine to hoist up the far end of the antenna.  It turned out to be mostly horizontal but with a little bit of sag in it.  Then, I set up my YouKits HB-1B and my logging computer on the dining room table.

My portable station for Winter Field Day 2016
My portable station for Winter Field Day 2016

About 2 hours before the start of Winter Field Day, I fired up my YouKits HB-1B and had a nice 2-way QRP chat with John, W3FSA, up in Maine. So, my slightly sagging antenna wasn’t doing too badly.

In between entertaining my 1-year-old grandson and taking my grand-dog out for walks, I got on the radio.  There didn’t seem to be a large number of stations on, so I bounced back and forth between 40 and 20 meters.  At the end of the first day, I had worked 22 stations and a few stations not in the contest.

I got on for a bit on Sunday morning but things had really thinned out a lot.  I made a few non-contest contacts.  It was a while before I heard any WFD activity.  I only managed to pick up one new one.   Around 10 AM, I packed up and tore down my antenna.

With my 23 contacts, I certainly didn’t set any records.  It was, however, a fun event.  Hopefully, I can get outdoors next year.

72, Craig WB3GCK

Delaware Water Gap Activation

ARRL National Parks on the Air logoEach year, I spend a weekend in January with some QRP friends in the Delaware Water Gap Recreation Area.  We’re all members of a loosely-organized group of QRPers known as the Boschveldt QRP Club.  We stay in a cabin at the Mohican Outdoor Center (MOC) near Blairstown, New Jersey.  We have come to call this annual trip, “Camp Run-a-MOC.”  This year, the Boschveldt crew convened Camp Run-a-MOC over the weekend of January 15-17.  There were four QRPers in attendance:  WA3WSJ, NK1N, KB3SBC and me.  As a bonus, this year’s trip coincided with the National Parks on the Air (NPOTA) event.

Mohican Outdoor Center is run by the Appalachian Mountain Club.  It is located within the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area and is popular stop-over point for Appalachian Trail through hikers.

Our home for the weekend at Mohican Outdoor Center
Our home for the weekend at Mohican Outdoor Center

Day 1

I rolled into camp around mid-day on Friday and the others were waiting for me in the parking lot.  I got out of my truck and threw my backpack into WA3WSJ’s truck and we took off for a hike up to the Catfish Fire Tower.  We hiked up the Fire Tower road and connected up with the Appalachian Trail. This location was an NPOTA “twofer.”  It encompasses both the Delaware Water Gap (RC07) and the Appalachian Trail (TR01).

Hiking to Catfish Fire Tower. L-R: KB3SBC, NK1N, WB3GCK. (Photo by WA3WSJ)
Hiking to Catfish Fire Tower. L-R: KB3SBC, NK1N, WB3GCK. (Photo by WA3WSJ)

While the others were operating pedestrian mobile, I hiked a little further down the trail in search of a good place to hang my EFHW antenna.  There weren’t a lot of good options.  There were a lot of dense woods up on this high ridge and the trees weren’t particularly tall.  I eventually got my antenna up in an inverted vee configuration.  It was NVIS at best.  I set up my YouKits HB-1B on a convenient flat rock and got on the air.

Catfish Fire Tower
Catfish Fire Tower

I worked one station on 20M CW but I didn’t hear much other activity.  I moved down to 40M and started calling CQ.  I fired off a quick text message to my friend, Carter N3AO, down in Virginia.  A few minutes later he answered my CQ.  After he spotted me on the cluster, I was soon met with a hoard of very strong signals calling me.  However, the pile-up was short-lived and the activity quickly slowed down.  About that time, the wind was blowing across the top of the ridge and it started getting cold up there.  I packed up and rejoined the others for the hike back down the hill.  I ended the day with 17 QSOs, most of them on 40M CW.

Operating along the Appalachian Trail near Catfish Fire Tower
Operating along the Appalachian Trail near Catfish Fire Tower (Photo by NK1N)

Day 2

After breakfast, we all packed up and headed out to the Crater Lake area to activate RC07.  While, the others continued on to Crater Lake, I pulled off into the Blue Mountain Lake trailhead parking lot.  It was a bit colder than the day before, so I opted to operate “stationary-mobile” from my truck.  I set up a 30 foot vertical on the back of my truck, using my bike rack mount, and set up my station in the truck.

Stationary-mobile setup at the Blue Mountain Lakes trailhead
Stationary-mobile setup at the Blue Mountain Lakes trailhead

I worked several stations on 20M including WA3WSJ who had hiked up to Kittatinny Mountain for a combined SOTA (W2/NJ-003) and NPOTA activation.  I heard a lot of activity on 30 meters, so I moved there next.  That turned out to be a very productive move.  I finished out my session on 20 meters.  I worked NK1N who was with KB3SBC several miles away at Crater Lake.

The Boschveldt QRPers at Crater Lake. L-R: WB3GCK, WA3WSJ, NK1N, KB3SBC. (Photo by WA3WSJ)
The Boschveldt QRPers at Crater Lake. L-R: WB3GCK, WA3WSJ, NK1N, KB3SBC. (Photo by WA3WSJ)

The skies were starting to look threatening, so I started packing up.  Over 2m simplex, WA3WSJ told me he had started hiking back down to Crater Lake.  I drove over to Crater Lake to join up with the rest of the crew and we soon headed back to the cabin for lunch.  It was a short session but I ended with 21 QSOs.

Once again, we had a great winter QRP getaway at Mohican Outdoor Center.  The Boschveldt QRPers are already making plans for next year.

72, Craig WB3GCK

Fast Log Entry (FLE)

I recently discovered a very useful piece of software.  Fast Log Entry (FLE) is a small text editor that lets you quickly get your QSO information from paper logs onto your computer.  I originally installed FLE about a month ago but I didn’t immediately see its benefits.  After taking a closer look at it, I have now added into my logging utility “toolbox.”  FLE is a free download from DF3CB, although donations are welcomed.  It is a Windows application but it runs great on Linux under Wine.

Here’s a typical use case for me.  Quite often, I’m operating portable and logging my contacts in a small notebook.   If there’s a small number of contacts, I could just enter them into N3FJP’s ACLog, which I use for my main log.  However, entering into ACLog can be a little tedious if I have a significant number of contacts to deal with.  This is where FLE comes into play.

FLE provides a simple, keyboard-only, way of entering the information.  It uses a very simple format for the information.  To get started, you enter the date in the format YYYY-MM-DD.  Then, enter the band (e.g., 40m, 20m, etc.). Similarly, for the mode, you can just enter it (like “CW” or “SSB”).  See the screenshot below for an example.

Fast Log Entry (FLE) main screen
Fast Log Entry (FLE) main screen

You can now start entering your contacts.  Once you enter a contact at a particular time, you only need to enter the portion of the time that changed for the next contact.  For example, let’s say you worked a station at 1510 and another at 1511. After you enter the contact at 1511, you only have to enter “11” (i.e., just the minutes) for the next contact.  If you run a string of stations, you only need to note the time periodically in your paper log (say every 5 or 10 minutes).  FLE will interpolate the time for your contacts after you enter them if you like.  Also, there’s no need to worry about capitalization; FLE takes care of that.  You can enter RST (send and receive) information, or let it default to 599 or 59.  You can populate the “comments” field by enclosing the comment in angle brackets <>.  You can also add grid square information by prefacing it with a pound sign, like “#FN20.”

After you have finished entering your contacts, you can easily export an ADIF (Amateur Data Interchange Format) file for ingesting into your logging program.  FLE will also let you create a Cabrillo file for contest submissions.

My brief attempt at describing FLE probably doesn’t do it justice.  I recommend going to the author’s website to download a copy and taking it for a spin.  Be sure to check out the step-by-step instructions on the website.  Another great resource is a video by VK5PAS.  He gives a very thorough introduction to FLE and explains it much better that I can.  Although his video is targeted at the WorldWide Flora and Fauna program, it is a great tutorial on using FLE.

So, if you do a lot of portable operating with paper logs (think SOTA, NPOTA, IOTA, WWFF, etc.), take a look at FLE.

72, Craig WB3GCK

New Year’s Day NPOTA Activation

ARRL National Parks on the Air logoA few years ago, I started a tradition of going out on January 1st for some QRP portable operating.  Since the ARRL National Parks on the Air (NPOTA) program kicked off today, I headed over to nearby Valley Forge National Historical Park to operate.

I set up in the parking lot for the Wayne’s Woods area of the park.  I picked a secluded corner of the lot so I would be away from hikers and bikers using a nearby trail.  I used my drive-on mast support to support my antenna.  I used a 29.5-foot vertical wire supported by a 31-foot pole.  I laid out two 29.5-foot radials.  One was run around my truck and the other was laid out in a grassy area behind the truck.  The antenna was coax-fed through a 4:1 unun.

My “stationary-mobile” location
My “stationary-mobile” location

I used my FT-817 at 5 watts, along with a Z-817 tuner.  As mentioned in an earlier post, I used the YFKtest logging program on my little Linux netbook computer.

My somewhat messy operating position
My somewhat messy operating position

I started out on 20M and my first contact was with RA1M/MM who was also running QRP.  After making a second contact on 20M things slowed down.  I dropped down to 40M and started calling, “CQ NPOTA.”  It took a while before I got a response.  I was beginning to think I wasn’t going to make the requisite 10 contacts to validate my activation.  Just then, Dave Benson, K1SWL, called from New Hampshire, followed by Jim W1PID.  After Dave spotted me on QRPSPOTS, I had a mini pile-up on my hands.  I’m normally a “search and pounce” kind of operator, so I wasn’t prepared to hear a bunch of stations calling me at the same time!

YFKtest logging software on my Linux netbook computer
YFKtest logging software on my Linux netbook computer

As it turns out, I wasn’t the only Valley Forge activator today.  Fellow QRPer, Walt KB3SBC, was parked on Mount Joy about a mile or so away.  Walt and I worked each other on 2 meters simplex.  Walt was running SSB and had a good morning.  He logged about 38 QSOs until he ran out of paper!

After two hours, I was starting to get hungry and a little chilly.  I packed up and headed home.  I ended my activation with 25 CW QSOs and the one FM contact with Walt.

National Memorial Arch at Valley Forge
National Memorial Arch at Valley Forge

My next activation will be the Delaware Water Gap Recreation Area and Appalachian Trail in New Jersey in a few weeks.  Walt, KB3SBC, will be there also.     This is going to be a fun year!

72, Craig WB3GCK