Little Emergency Lights

For almost 20 years, I’ve been a ham radio operator. As such, I’ve kept an emergency radio station set up in my house, just in case there’s a power outage or emergency situation. Emergency radio stations need an antenna, radio, and source of power (I use batteries).

However, it is tough to operate if you don’t have some method of lighting. There’s usually a lot of writing when you operate on the radio, especially when working in emergency operations. For years, I’d used a battery operated Coleman lantern that has a barrel connector for DC power. I made a cable that runs from Anderson Powerpoles to the right connector, allowing me to run power from the same (larger) batteries that power everything else.

Then, one day, I was walking through Ikea. In the lighting section, I found the LED disc lights that were meant to mount underneath cabinets. They plugged into a wall socket, through a box that had 6 DC outputs (1 per light). It didn’t take long to determine that the output voltage from the box was 12VDC (in fact, the specs listed the voltage). I discarded the AC power supply, chopped off the connectors on the light’s wire, and added Powerpoles. Then, it was as simple as plugging them into the Powerpoles that come out of my battery connection. This small hack provides me with lights that work the same way when the power is on as they do when the power is off. And, they’re made to look polished, mounting right under the top of the hutch on my radio desk.

These lights were a pretty good find.

Field Day 2014

The Gregson Field Day Team
The Gregson Field Day Team

I was planning to have an awesome adventure for ARRL Field Day. I bought a new radio, had it set up, but also had other plans. My wife had a conference in LA, and my daughter, Sunny (who I’d wanted to do Field Day with), wanted to go camping. So, the plan became go camping and have Field Day at the campsite. As the date for Field Day approached, my daughter started telling me that she wanted to do things other than radio on the camping trip (play soccer, go fishing, make s’mores, etc.). So, this became a camping trip with Field Day as a side story, rather than Field Day with a camping backdrop.

A little history

I began amateur radio when I was an Engineer at HP. The HP Boise site had a  Field Day event every year. Most years, there were a lot of participants from the HP Boise Amateur Radio Club (HPBARC). This gave us a lot of radio knowledge and skill in one place. I tended to be the cook a lot, and worked a radio here and there. When I left HP in 2005, I moved to the Seattle area, and did Field day with KB7YWE (who had also moved from Boise) for a couple of years. When I moved to California in 2009, I did field day from my apartment (which my neighbors hated) for a couple of years. I usually worked 10m – 20m because a 40m dipole in an apartment complex was really awkward.  All told, the fewer people we had, the harder Field Day was. I don’t recall getting more than a handful of contacts in any Field Day since the HPBARC days.


This year, I had a mobile rig ready to go, and a really cool antenna. Now I could tune the antenna (without leaving the truck) for any band 6m – 40m. I also had 100w of power, where my older radio had 50w of output. And, of course, if my antenna were in a poor spot, I could always start the truck and move to a better spot.

This worked very well, as I didn’t need to move the truck at all. I found that I had better range going west than I did going east. This is unfortunate since there are people to the east and water to the west.

The Camping

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Our campsite was rather normal. We had a tent, a fire ring, a gas grill, gas stove and a picnic table that was cluttered with stuff. We had what we needed to enjoy the trip. We ate steaks both nights, and s’mores both nights. For lunch on Saturday, Sunny made a fruit salad while I worked the radio.

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When I was doing my dry runs with the radio, I was using QRZ on my Chromebook to look people up and log my contacts. Being in my driveway, I could use my home wifi for internet service. Once I was at a campsite, this option went out the window. So, I used paper logs and typed in the contacts when I got back to the house. It was only after I typed all the results into QRZ that I realized that I can’t download them back out as a summary for the contest logs, without paying for the XML downloads.

Improvement for next year: Boot the Chromebook into Linux and run radio logging software on it.

Time Spent on the Radio

I didn’t get to spend a lot of time on the radio. I did hop on at the beginning of the event. I worked a few stations and then Sunny got into the truck to see what I was doing. She noticed that I was keeping track of everything on paper. And, just as she did with the shopping list when we got the food for the trip, she wanted work the clipboard. I thought that would be kinda cool; I could work the radio while she could participate in the way she wanted to. I told her what to write and where on the log sheet to write it, and she picked it up pretty fast.

We heard a station, KH6LC, identify itself as a Pacific section station. This meant that they were on an island in the pacific, usually Hawaii. Plus, the operator was saying, “Aloha,” a lot, a pretty bold clue. I said to Sunny that I really wanted to get this one. I tried calling a few times and sure enough, they answered. It took a little bit of patience on their side (which I really appreciated), but after a few attempts, we had exchanged information and completed the contact.

After the Hawaii contact, I told Sunny that I’d like to try a couple more, and then we’d do something “fun.” She said back, “That’s ok, I’m kinda having fun with this.” I really like that she said that.

A little while later, Sunny wanted to try working the mic. Like any first timer, she was a bit timid, and afraid that she wouldn’t know what to say. Soon, she was calling out my callsign, and after 6 attempts to contact other stations, WB6QND, from Los Angeles made contact with her. She was so happy, she did a little dance in her seat. That was her first QSO.

After a while we went off and did some other camping activities, played soccer and cooked dinner. At the end of our second campfire, Sunny went to sleep and I hoped in the truck to make more QSOs, making my last one at 11:45pm. I went to sleep. I ventured onto 40m which was challenging, because there were so many stations on 40m that you could here the adjacent stations while trying to make contact.

I woke up the next morning, with the sun. While Sunny slept, I make a few more QSOs. Once Sunny woke up, Field Day ended for me, as I cooked breakfast, broke down camp, and headed back home.


All-in-all, we made 27 QSO’s the best total since I participated with HPBARC. Also of note, I put less time into this Field Day than any other that I’ve participated in. I look forward to next year, when I can put more time into making contacts and improve on this total.

New Radio (Yaesu FT-857D and ATAS-120)

Recently, I bought a Yaesu FT-857D and an ATAS-120 antenna. A couple of weekends ago, KB7YWE and I installed them in my truck. Well, mostly in the truck, as we used the radio from a resting position on the passenger seat. Really, we just wanted to see how well it worked.

wpid-20140614_204228.jpgThe Radio

The Yaesu FT-857D is an all-mode, multi-band radio that covers 160m-6m, 2m and 70cm. It emits 100W of power on HF, which is twice the power of my TenTec Scout. It also has the ability to control the automatic tuning HF antenna, which I’ve described below. The radio has a detachable face plate, making it easy to mount the radio in one part of the truck and use it in another, which should make it easier to find a place to mount it.


The Antenna

The ATAS-120, extended to its 20m operating height, as installed on my truck.

The Active Tuning Antenna System 120 (ATAS-120) is an antenna that can tune itself to the proper length for the frequency that the radio is trying to use. Essentially, you change to the band you want to use, press and hold the ‘Tune’ button, and the antenna will extend or contract to find the correct length of the antenna. It does this by minimizing the standing wave ratio (SWR), which you can observe on the graphical control panel on the radio. This feature is available from 40m-70cm (even though the 2m and 70cm bands use the antenna fully contracted). This works well for me, because I’m renting in a subdivision that has restrictions against antennas, making any permanent setup for the larger antennas impossible.

One thing of note, if you’re going to do an install of this of your own, you’ll need a diplexer. There are two antenna outputs on the Radio, and one antenna to attach for all bands.

The Installation

KB7YWE help me with the install. I’ve always consulted him for his expertise on these matters, because he’s great with amateur radio matters, and very skilled at working with cars (which I’m not).

The antenna mount was a trunk mount that is intended to attach to the lip of a car trunk. It pushes the Xterra hatchback slightly out of place, but that also makes space to feed the coax through the gap. Once we had the radio wired directly to the battery, we were eager to try tuning the antenna.

The added ground wire, the green one.
The added ground wire, the green one.

The tuning was very touch and go. Some bands that were supposed to tune didn’t. However, it was still really cool to watch. The radio has a graphical SWR meter, which you can watch change as the antenna becomes more closely matched with the frequency. To deal with the spotty performance, we decided to turn our attention to grounding. We attached the outer conductor of the coax connection to the screw that held the hatchback door supports. Then, we went back to the radio, and it tuned perfectly on 10m, 15m, 20m, and 40m. We were very happy.

Later, I tried 12m, 17m, and 30m. All of which tuned, but then the former bands did not. Adding a second ground, from the radio chassis to the car body, seems to have fixed this problem.

I still haven’t figured out where I’m going mount the radio in my Xterra. The most logical path seems to be removing the double height stereo from the dashboard, and replacing it with a smaller stereo (maybe one that plays MP3s from SD cards) and the Ham Radio. The downside to this is that I won’t be able to remove the radio and use it outside of the truck. With my current neighborhood restrictions, I do all of my HF from the truck anyway, making this a non-issue.

With this setup, I was ready (and really excited) for Field Day. Next post, I’ll talk about how that went.