Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Big Stick (Part 3)

Every year it’s the same plan. In late September there is a brief window after all the firewood is split and stacked but before the full force of winter hits. This is when I try to schedule all my antenna work. “Spring” up here is really just about two more months of winter. Summer is chock full of other activities (like boating and fishing!) and has its own perils for outdoor projects (like rain and bugs). Once we run out of summer, fall is all about getting ready for winter, and the last thing on that list is antenna work. I generally try to avoid outdoor projects in the winter. It’s usually just too cold for doing much outside work. Last year I knew I had a big slate of projects for antenna season so I wanted to get an early start. The boat got put away on Labour Day and I dove right into the firewood. Unfortunately, it rains a lot in September and this year was no exception. In between the rains and early snows I managed to get the wood done and started on antennas but then I kept having to travel, both for business and personal stuff. I lost a week here and a week there. Time kept slipping away, the snow had already started to stick to the ground (early!) and things progressed painfully slowly.

For various reasons I decided that the best place to erect the new tower was at the same location as the existing one. I was lucky to be able to borrow a 60-foot lift to
take down the old tower and antennas before it got too cold. It was my intention to immediately put it back up in a different spot but doing that was one of the first fall projects to get rescheduled for next year.

I had been contemplating for a while whether it was better to use three small steel pilings for the tower base (one for each leg) or a single large piling with some kind of structure on top to hold the tower. After eventually determining that a single piling would be cheaper (one hole to drill in the ground instead of three) I contacted a friendly acquaintance of mine who happens to own a drilling company. When I pointed out an old, orphaned 30-foot length of 12-inch steel pipe in his yard (likely the result of a change to a large, multi-pile building foundation job) and promised I’d do all the grunt work (like leveling and backfilling) he agreed to put the piling in for me the next time he had his rig out. I had to promise not to disclose how much it cost me because it was so far below the going rate but even then it was still at the upper end of what I could afford.

The drill hit ice-rich permafrost at about 12 feet down and drilled all the way to 27 feet so I’d have 3 feet left sticking up out of the ground.  It’s frozen into 10,000 year old ice and even with global warming it won’t be moving any time soon.

I was fortunate to find a chunk of scrap 12-inch I-beam which I cut up to make a T-shaped support frame for the tower base section. I also rounded up some short pieces of 2-inch sched-80 steel pipe to use for support struts although they’re probably not really necessary. A real bonus was finding some 1/2” thick steel angle brackets with pre-drilled holes that were a perfect match for the holes on the bottom of the tower. I probably could have got one of the guys from work to do all the welding for me but decided instead to hire a licensed welder. I had everything cut and tacked in place but it still took him three hours of near continuous welding to get it all done. The bill for the welding was twice what I was expecting but the base is plenty strong and when the wind is howling I won’t have to be at all worried about that part.

How do you lift a 500-pound chunk of steel onto the top of a piling?  You don’t lift it at all!

With the base ready to go I didn’t think it would take long to put the tower together and get it ready to stand up. I started in earnest getting all the pieces joined together. I had a full set of brand new hardware for it and once it was together I meticulously went over everything. All the splice bolts were set with a torque wrench and I hand tightened every one of the little bolts on each cross member. It took hours!

The only way to have enough room to put everything together on the ground was to lay out the tower beside the house with the antenna hanging over the back fence.
The yagi had been lying around on the ground for years and needed to be completely gone over before I put it in the air. One piece of tubing on the driven element had been damaged when a log fell on it (don’t ask) so an exact replacement was ordered up from Mosley. Then I brought the whole antenna out to the shop one evening and completely disassembled it, checked and cleaned everything, and put it back together. It was a good thing, too, because three of the six traps were damaged from having water freeze inside them. Fortunately, they were easily repaired. The next weekend I put the whole thing together in the front yard on top of a 12-foot step ladder, installed the new choke balun and checked it all with the antenna analyzer. It was spot on. I took it apart again and set it aside, all ready to install.

By this point it was already the end of November. I’d missed my original completion date (the CQ World Wide contest at the end of October) and now I’d even missed the absolutely-can’t-miss-this ARRL Sweepstakes contest. To make matters worse, the later it got, the darker it got. It was too dark to work in the evenings now and with only a couple of weeks to go until the sun disappeared altogether for a month, even the weekends were only good for a few hours a day. It just kept getting darker and colder and now that I’d missed Sweepstakes I reluctantly decided to throw in the towel until after Christmas. We’d be out of town over the holidays and planned to be back around the same time as the first sunrise in early January. With any luck, I’d finally be able to get it up then.

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