My Alpha Antenna Adventure

I had an interesting adventure with Alpha Antenna, and I wanted to recount it here. To summarize, they gave five star customer service to get a blind ham on 80-10 meters with an Alpha Loop.

I grew up in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, also known as Tree Town USA. My family’s home had beautiful trees and plants in its yards. I had a beautiful 120-foot doublet running through some of them. I remember making contacts on all of the HF bands, 80-10 meters.

Now I live in an apartment which does not allow outdoor antennas, but I still wanted to get on HF. After a lot of research, I settled on the underestimated magnetic loop, to borrow the title of an article. The antenna has a small inner loop, which looks like a sideways oval made of thick cable, measuring around 11 inches wide. This connects to the radio. It then has a larger outer loop, measuring 3 feet in diameter. The antenna sits on a tripod. You manually tune the antenna to the narrow band of frequencies where you want to operate. A magnetic loop trades selectivity for size and efficiency.

The article referenced above states that many people underestimate the magnetic loop because of its diminutive size and narrow selectivity. When I read that I thought:

Wait a minute! I’m skinny, blind, and introverted. People underestimate me all the time because of my diminutive size and narrow selectivity

After reviewing the different commercially available loops I contacted Alpha Antenna and asked if they had any field reports from blind hams. Steven Deines, the owner, replied and assured me that they had, and that I could use the antenna without difficulty. Just tune to the spike in the noise floor, and fine tune to get the best SWR. At the time Alpha Antenna only offered a manually controlled loop. Steve recommended purchasing the loop that went down to 40 meters, because the installation of the booster cable to add 80 meters might prove difficult. It turns out he got that right.

That first loop got me back on air. A few months after I bought it, Alpha Antenna released a remote control unit. I got some help installing it from a handyman who came to install my talking thermostat. Adding the remote really changed everything.

I learned something I wished I had learned sooner, so wanted to include it. You shouldn’t use an antenna tuner with a magnetic loop. In the case of the Elecrat KX3, this means setting the ATU MD menu setting to BYPASS. Tune the antenna by tuning the variable capacitor while watching the SWR. Leave your radio’s tuner out of it. Alpha Antenna wrote an article on their blog which confirmed my observations.

Hams have frequencies across the entire radio spectrum, because different wavelengths behave differently. I could get down to 40 meters, my go to band, but I knew that as the night went on 40 meters would die down while 80 meters remained active. Even though the antenna didn’t support it I could hear WWV blasting in on 5 MHz. When Alpha Antenna announced a new version of the Alpha Loop which went down to 80 meters and with an improved Alpha Match box and a simpler design I decided to upgrade.

I placed the order around Thanksgiving, hoping for a nice holiday present. Unfortunately they had an ice storm, which delayed production. When I did get the loop, I found that the remote control unit did not work. The rotor would turn, but the frequency would not advance. I got my friend Meg, the one who gave me a straight key, to take a look, and she and Steve worked together to fix the problem. It turned out the screws just needed a little tightening.

Finally I could tune, but I had a new problem. I could only get down to about 3710 kHz. The band goes down to 3500 kHz, and I planned to do most of my work in the lower part of the band, where CW (Morse Code) activity takes place. This started a whole back and forth dialog. We went through several cables, but that didn’t help. I decided to pack things up and send everything back. Steve remained supportive.

I had a cursed Field Day. Getting a big enough box took a week because of the pandemic. I had not sent the antennas back yet, so decided to put up the newer one to get better efficiency on 40 meters. When I came upstairs to my shack, I discovered that the power cord to the remote control had fallen out! I quickly unplugged it and packed it up. I put up the older Alpha Loop, and made 10 QSOs.

The next day I decided to try a little operating from my kitchen table, using my AX1 without any power at all, in the true Field Day spirit. I had no success thanks to terrible conditions, so decided to go back to the old loop. When I turned on the remote control, I discovered that it did not work either. I think it had the same weak point. I could not believe it. Both of my antennas had failed on the biggest ham radio day of the year. I cursed and went to have dinner, wondering why I spent so much time and money getting all of this working. Of course, after dinner I started thinking about how to get back on air as quickly as possible. I put up my Buddistick and sent back my loops.

The Buddistick did a good enough job. I made 14 QSOs, including the 13 Colonies bonus station WM3PEN. I belong to HARC, and signed up to operate it, but losing my main antenna thwarted that. I didn’t mind operating from the other side. The operator of the station later told me I gave him a 559, but I’ll take it. I felt glad to get back on air, but missed my loop. It did a better job rejecting the electrical noise which surrounds me. We call it QRM. I especially began to appreciate not needing a counterpoise. I learned that the distance from my window to my front door measures almost exactly 33 feet, the length of a 1/4 wave on 40 meters.

While cleaning up my shack I found one of the outer loops which Steve had sent me to try. I forgot to send it back. I told him about the cable and he said that I didn’t need to worry about sending it back. Now I had an extra cable. This would matter later.

He repaired the remote controls on both antennas. I explained that I have my shack in the loft above the antenna, and had to put a ferrite on the cord in the shack to get rid of a nasty 120 Hz hum on 20 and 15 meters. This stressed the cord, and I promised to remember this when I redeployed the antenna. He crimped the connections, making them stronger. Future units will benefit from this change.

He tested the newer loop. It tuned all the way down to the bottom of 80 meters. He then realized the source of the problem. When I assembled the antenna, I made the outer loop have a round shape. Actually, the outer loop should have the same shape as the inner loop, like a sideways oval. This would then make the bottom part of the booster cable come up more, bringing it closer to the bottom of the outer loop instead of sagging down. The manual did not describe it clearly, and I could not see the photo.

Steve updated the manual and sent me a copy to review. This really impressed me. You can read it for yourself!! Note the part about how the outer loop should have the same shape as the inner loop. Steve put clips and zip-ties on the cables and sent everything back to me. Now I could try it exactly as he intended.

I got the antenna back and could hardly wait to set it up. First I tried going on good old 40 meters. It worked as expected. Now the moment of truth would come. I tuned down to 80 meters. I tried around the SKCC calling frequency of 3550 kHz. I checked the SWR. As soon as my radio emitted a carrier, I lost power in the loft! The circuit breaker tripped. My heart stopped, metaphorically speaking.

After my heart started beating again, metaphorically speaking, I reset the circuit breaker, and went downstairs to investigate. I found the remote control’s cord draped over the antenna. This would have inducted RF into the apartment’s electrical system. I reoriented the antenna and moved the cord so this could not happen again. I had enough radio activity for the night.

I realized that I had another problem. Originally Steve had suggested that i use one loop as the low band antenna, and the other as the high band antenna. I only have a limited amount of space in my apartment, and the more I thought about it the more I wanted to find another solution. While doing Qigong the answer spontaneously occurred to me. I should use the newer loop for the lower bands. When i want to switch to the higher bands I should disconnect and remove the double outer loop, and connect the single outer loop. I remembered the cable I forgot to send back, and the pieces slid into place. Most users switch to the higher bands by connecting and disconnecting the booster cable, but connecting and disconnecting the whole loop would make the process much easier.

Two days later I got up the courage to try again. The North American QSO Party would happen, presenting the perfect opportunity. I popped off the double loop and connected the single loop. I worked 3 stations on 20 meters. I then took off the single loop and put on the double loop. I worked 2 stations on 40 meters. My idea worked! I decided to take the plunge and tune down to 80 meters. I checked my SWR. Nervously I tried responding to a station. I didn’t lose power, and completed the exchanged. By the end of the night I had completed 14 QSOs on 80 meters, and nothing bad happened. Everything worked!

This brings me to the end of a long quest to get on 80-10 meters from my condo. Alpha Antenna gave me excellent support, and we ended up improving the product. It still amazes me that I can work 80-10 meters from an antenna which sits on a tripod by my window. It takes me back to my childhood in Swarthmore with my doublet. I still miss the trees.