Technical Articles

Contesting Equipment Guide: Small Upgrades that Can Make a Big Difference

So you have a station, you’re operating in the contests, and looking to move up the score listings— excellent! But what to do? Is there a BNR (Big New Radio) that will catapult you to the top? Maybe a magic gadget? Or what? All of the top contesters have been at this point more than once…let’s talk about what they’ve learned.

The Operator and Ergonomics

It may not come as a surprise, but the biggest improvement any operator can make is in the operator.  Remember the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall? Practice! You can make enormous strides just by refining your technique, stamina, and focus. Let’s talk about how to improve your performance!

  • Your Butt—Wow, can I say that on the Internet? It’s amazing how much money is spent on station equipment while the operator is perched on a wobbly, worn-out, garage-sale reject of an operating chair. Remember, the way to win a contest is BIC (Butt In the Chair), and if your B isn’t in the C because it’s uncomfortable, you won’t be making QSOs. Spend some money and get a comfortable, adjustable office chair. After all, a 48-hour contest is longer than the typical work week! 
  • Your Ears —A hand or desk microphone won’t cut the mustard and neither will an old, worn-out pair of headphones. (Headphones are a must for contesting.) You need a modern boom-set with an adjustable contest-response microphone and comfortable ear cushions. Ask your friends to let you try models they recommend and pick one that fits your head comfortably—you’ll be wearing it for many hours at a time! The INRAD W1 and the Heil Pro Set 6 are typical choices for competitive operating. Don’t forget to get an adapter for your transceiver’s microphone connector and a footswitch for transmit control.
  • Your Arms and Hands—Now that you have a nice chair, make sure your operating table is at the right height: 29–30 inches from the floor is the standard, but be sure that works for you. The table should let your forearms rest comfortably and keep your hands and wrists on the keyboard with a minimum of straining. The table should be deep enough that your arms aren’t resting on the table edge while tuning the radio or typing on the keyboard.
  • You—Can’t say enough about this important shack accessory! Just like for any athletic event, you need to be well-rested to perform your best. Get extra sleep and exercise before a contest. Figure out what your body likes to eat and drink for best performance. Maybe a big meal right before the contest isn’t such a good idea? Snacks and drinks should be selected to keep your energy level up but not at such a highly-caffeinated level that you crash after it wears off. Remember that you need to perform well throughout the entire contest to succeed.

The Antenna

A Ham’s antenna system is probably the most important piece of equipment in the station. This includes everything from the output of the transmitter to the radiating elements. Power lost or noise added or signals not received in the antenna farm can’t be recovered. Similarly, improving your antenna’s performance delivers a big bang for the buck. Here are some useful ideas:

  • “Temporary” Antennas—Of course, all Hams know the real meaning of “temporary” is “until I die.” But don’t tell anybody! Seriously, you may not be able to load up the backyard with antennas all the time, but putting up an extra antenna just for one weekend can often be negotiated.
  • Dipoles—These are the secret weapon of many mid-sized stations “punching above their weight,” particularly in domestic contests. If your main low-band antenna is a vertical, a low dipole like the MFJ-1779B will give you a strong NVIS signal in a wide region around your station.
  • Verticals—Flipping the situation around, if you are using a dipole or horizontal beam, why not add a vertical to create some low-angle punch? Verticals can be radial-free, like the Cushcraft R9, or one of the tried-and-true ground planes like the Butternut HF6V or Hustler 6BTV.
  • Fixed Beams—If you already have a rotatable antenna, you know the impatient feeling of waiting for it to change directions while listening to the desired station call CQ!  From the U.S. in DX contests, having a small beam aimed at the Caribbean (two or three elements will do just fine) allows you to pounce on those multipliers any time. For example, the Hy-Gain TH3-JR is an inexpensive way to add some gain just where you want it.
  • Ground System—If you have a ground-mounted vertical with radials, why not add radials and make sure you have the lowest possible ground loss? You can’t work the DX if your signal is heating up the worms! See the ARRL Antenna Book’s chapter on the Effects of Ground for guidelines on how to make the most of what you can install.
  • Antenna Switching—As your antenna system grows, you’ll need to make it easy to pick the right one. Most stations outgrow a collection of two-position switches, settling on multi-position switches like the MFJ-1701 shown at right. An important thing: Label the switch clearly since you’ll be using it when you are busy, tired, or distracted—times when you’re prone to make a mistake. If you are using a second radio (SO2R), the two-position switches can be reused to direct each antenna to either radio, with a multi-position switch dedicated to each radio.

Receiving

Even if you’re calling CQ a lot, most of the time you’ll be listening and not transmitting. Make it easy on yourself to hear the signals. Reduce noise and static, making sure the receiver’s output audio is clean and not hissy or distorted. Too much noise and distortion increase fatigue, and that leads to mistakes. Learn to use your receiver’s controls like RF Gain and Attenuator to prevent receiver overload, which creates spurious interfering signals inside the receiver where they can’t be filtered out.

  • Better Audio—Even the best receiver can only reproduce what signals are in its passband. If there is noise or interference, it will be delivered to your headphones along with the desired signal. Fortunately, modern digital signal processing (DSP) techniques can remove some of that junk with a minimum effect on the signal you’re trying to hear. Outboard “audio processors” complement the noise reduction system available on many transceivers. The West Mountain Radio CLRdsp shown here is a typical product (bhi, Heil, MFJ, and other manufacturers offer similar units).
  • Receiving Antenna—How about a noise-rejecting receiving antenna as part of your growing antenna farm? This is particularly important on the lower-frequency bands at 7 MHz and down. With the steadily increasing noise floor in most locations, having an antenna that can reject noise can make all the difference between hearing and missing out. Most of us don’t have room for Beverage antennas, but a small loop, such as a pennant, K9AY, or flag antenna, is easy to build and use.  You’ll probably need a preamp for these small antennas. Be sure to get one that can stand up to strong signals from your nearby transmitting antennas.

Transmitting

Your goal should be to improve the signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) of your signal at the receiving station. They won’t call you if they can’t hear you! There are lots of ways to improve your SNR. For example, call CQ on clear(er) frequencies where you’re not covered up by stronger signals. Tuning high in the band may get you a better rate over time than fighting it out down on “kilowatt alley.”

Another way to improve your SNR on phone is to adjust your transmit audio level and frequency response. When you hear someone operating with distorted or muffled audio, note how difficult it is to copy. Don’t be that station! Recent editions of the ARRL Handbook offer a discussion about how to set up your transmitter for the clearest, punchiest audio that gets through the pileup or helps you hold a frequency by attracting callers. The boom-set microphone/headphone combinations discussed above make great audio possible but only if you take the time to set up your transceiver correctly.

Once you have your audio set up, think about how many hundreds of times you’re going to call CQ, give your call sign, or maybe repeat information in your exchange. Saying the same thing over and over (and over) can wear out the best operator, and that’s where voice keyers come in. They store several audio messages and let you play them back from your computer logging software with the right interface. The MFJ-434B is one of the more popular voice keyers. Your transceiver may also have the ability to store and playback messages. Most contest logging software has the ability to play back stored MP3 or WAV files as well.

Computing

Don’t forget the thing you’ll be looking at for the entire contest! Your radio?  No, the computer monitor! Place the monitor where you don’t have to tilt or twist your head to see it. And get a big one so you can open all the necessary windows in your software without overlapping them. Do you wear glasses? Get a pair with a prescription just for looking at the monitor placed at a convenient distance.  Neck pain and eye strain are great ways to limit the all-important BIC!

Finally, automate anything you have to do manually as part of regular operating. If you use bandpass filters, use your logging software and the computer’s CAT interface to switch between bands automatically so you never transmit into a filter on the wrong band—a great way to damage it. The same can be done for antenna switches, amplifiers and any number of accessories. Now is the time, when you’re just starting to build your station, to think ahead and incorporate automation at the beginning instead of having to replace manually controlled devices later.

Summarizing

I hope this has sparked some ideas for you. While every station is different, the fundamentals of competitive radio are much the same: Make it easy for you to hear other stations, make it easy for other stations to hear you, keep your B in the C, and practice, practice, practice. Maybe we’ll see your call sign in the Top Ten soon!

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