My home QTH HF antenna evolution

"The best antenna is the one you have" -- Dave Casler, KE0OG

If you've read my introductory blog post or my QRZ page, you've probably seen that my current home HF antenna is a simple end-fed random wire, which is up about 50 feet (15 meters) and runs 203 feet long (62 meters). This modest antenna has enabled me to conduct over 2,300 confirmed QSOs to 117 countries. 

I thought it would be good to describe the evolution of my home antenna, along with lessons learned, so that other hams might benefit.

When I got my general/extra ticket in May 2020, I purchased a late 1980s vintage Kenwood TS-430S HF rig from a local ham, and then I proceeded to try to figure out how to connect an antenna to it. I found a Palomar Engineers random wire antenna kit for sale on eBay for a steal, so I bought it and then tried to figure out the best way to get it into the air. The original kit included a 500-watt, 9:1 "Unun" and 71 feet of wire.

My first thought was to try to put it up in my attic, but after spending an hour scrambling around up there in 100+ degree temperatures, I decided that wasn't the best approach. My next step was to mount the Unun just under the eave of my 2nd floor roof, and then I just ran the wire straight across the peak of the roof, and then down to my fence at about 6 feet (~2 meters). So the total elevation was about 20 feet (~6 meters). I also ran the counterpoise wire supplied with the kit, roughly parallel to the main wire, along my other fence at about 6 feet (2 meters). So it was a compromise, compromise antenna, Not ideal, but hey, it was an antenna! In case you're interested in learning more about random wire end-fed antennas, I'll put some links at the bottom of this article.

The next step was to connect it up to my TS-430S, which was pretty easy to do. The rig also came with an MFJ manual antenna tuner, so I connected that up as well. And....I quickly realized that I had no idea what I was doing. I'd never used an antenna tuner, and trying to twiddle the knobs to get the lowest SWR was just not working. Fortunately, I found the matching automatic tuner that was made for the rig, for a really good price, and that made a HUGE difference. 

With my antenna matching problem solved, I set about trying to get a QSO. So I just started "dialing for dollars" on various bands, calling CQ, and...never got a single response. Finally, after what seemed like days of trying, I finally connected with a ham out in California, who was super nice and delighted to learn he was my first HF QSO! He even sent me a QSL card. 

Without going into much more gory detail, shortly after that I discovered FT8, purchased a SignaLink USB interface box, and I was off to the races. I was completely blown away at how many people I could reach with a piece of wire and a 40 year-old rig. 

My next step was to improve the antenna, and to do that, I needed to a) make it longer, and b) get it higher up in the air. After surveying my available space, I determined that a 203 foot length would allow me to cover 80 to 6 meter bands, and it would work well with my two tall trees, both of which are about 50 feet tall. So I went online and purchased a spool of 13-gauge wire that's made to be placed into trees. to get the wire up in the air?

One of my ham buddies suggested that we go in together on a pneumatic antenna launcher: the AirBoss. About a week later, it arrived and I assembled it, including one of my spare fishing reels and some strong braided fishing line. The AirBoss works by using compressed air (via a bicycle pump) to propel a 4-ounce lead fishing weight high into the air. One you've shot the line over (or through) a tree, you can then tie a stronger piece of rope to the end of the fishing line, pull it through, and then attach your wire to the rope and pull it all the way through to the other side. Thanks to the AirBoss, I was able to get the line up around 40 feet (note that after a big snow storm that downed a bunch of branches, I had to pull the wire and re-launch it, this time getting it up to 50 feet). I was able to launch the wire through my two tall trees and then I tied it off to my back fence via an insulator. 

The AirBoss antenna launcher What a difference. I should also mention that in the meantime, I also upgraded my HF rig to an ICOM IC-7300, which features a built-in antenna tuner and a full SDR, which also revolutionized my HF experience. 

In summary, here are a few lessons and pieces of advice for new hams that are looking to embark on their first HF adventure:

1. A simple wire antenna is easy to deploy, inexpensive, almost impossible to see, and can work really well, provided you have the space (or a roof!). I've had great experience with random wire antennas, but an end-fed half-wave or off center-fed dipole are both great options as well. I'll write more on other antenna types at a later time. 

2. An automatic antenna tuner is highly recommended. Leave the manual tuners to people who know what they're doing. :-)

3. 100 watts is plenty of power. You can work the world on 100 watts...or even 5!

4. While FT8 is a lot of fun, don't let it limit you. It's really excited to start with and can provide instant gratification, but other modes like voice (phone) and CW are also a ton of fun. One great way to get started with voice over HF is to join a net. The ARRL has a great net directory, and I'm also partial to OMISS Net, which is newbie-friendly and a really great group of people willing to help new hams.

Good luck, have fun, and be careful on ladders and up on the roof!


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