Copper theft and how to avoid it

One of the unfortunate signs of the times is increased theft of valuable materials. Copper, while not as expensive as it once was, still fetches a fair amount at the scrap dealer. One local telephone company has been having a difficult time keeping their aerial cables intact in certain areas. For radio stations, the situation is compounded by remote transmitter sites with lots of copper transmission lines and buried ground radials around AM towers.  Reduced staffing levels also means that the weekly trip to the transmitter site is now every two weeks or perhaps once a month or even less.

Site that are not visited or monitored very often are prime targets for copper theft.  Forget asking the local constabulary to patrol more often, the few times I tried that I was met with a blank stare.

A few common sense type things that I have learned over the years may keep your site intact:

  1. Keep  up appearances.  A neglected transmitter site is more likely to attract the wrong type of attention from the wrong type of people.  Clean up any rubbish, dead equipment, keep the weeds and trees cut down, etc.  If a site looks well tended and often visited, a thief may think twice about lifting valuable metals.
  2. Along with #1, keep things buttoned up.  Secure all transmission lines to ice bridges, remove any dead lines, etc.  If there are ground radials poking out bury them, same with ground screens, copper strap, etc.  Out of sight, out of mind, leaving this stuff exposed is asking for somebody to come along and give a tug.
  3. Fences and locks.  Towers are required to be fenced and locked to prevent electric shock hazard.  It is also a good idea to fence the building, generator and fuel tank if possible.
  4. Post all sorts of warning signs, RF warning, high voltage, no trespassing, under video surveillance, pretty much anything to deter trespassing and vandalism.
  5. Add video cameras with a video recording device since most theft occurs during non-working hours.  Last year, the company I used to work for traded a video surveillance system for the studio location.
  6. Compensate a neighbor to keep an eye on the place and call you if they see any suspicious activity.  It doesn’t even have to be money, I once worked out a deal with a neighbor for some T-shirts and CD’s.   That was the best alarm system we ever had.

In the long run, keeping all the copper parts where they belong is a great way to avoid those annoying “the station is off the air” phone calls not to mention the expense of replacing damaged transmission and ground systems.

AM transmitter site maintenance check list

As promised, here is the AM transmitter site maintenance check list.  This is for a generic directional AM station with a backup transmitter, generator and an RF STL.

Broadcast Electronics AM6A transmitter
Broadcast Electronics AM6A transmitter

Usual disclaimers apply.

AM site Maintenance checklist

Weekly Maintenance:

A.  Visit site, Check following:

  1. Check critical transmitter values against last logged value
  2. Check forward/reflected power on main transmitter
  3. Check and reset any overloads
  4. Check signal strength on STL against last logged value
  5. Check generator fuel level
  6. General check of building, look in all rooms, inspect for damage from vandalism, Leaking roofs, obvious signs of trouble, take steps to correct.

Monthly Maintenance:

B.  Visit site, Check following:

  1. Do a full multi-meter log, (includes tower phase angles, loop currents), run backup transmitter into dummy load.
  2. Start and run generator for 5 minutes, check block heater, hoses, belts, oil and antifreeze levels
  3. Calibrate remote control meters with transmitter meters, log it*
  4. Check all tower fences for integrity and locked gates*
  5. Complete Items 3, 4 and 5 under weekly maintenance.

Quarterly Maintenance:

C.  Visit site, Check following:

  1. Complete 1 through 5 under monthly maintenance.
  2. Check all air filters, clean or replace as needed.
  3. Check frequencies of all transmitters, STL receiver, and log.
  4. Complete quarterly tower lighting and painting inspection*

Bi-yearly Maintenance:

D.  Visit site, Check Following:

  1. Complete 1 through 5 under quarterly maintenance.
  2. Conduct monitor point readings for all directional antenna patterns*
  3. Check base current readings for day/night towers.  Ratio.*
  4. Clean backup transmitter
  5. Place backup transmitter on air and clean main transmitter.

Yearly Maintenance:

E.  Check all licenses and authorizations for accuracy. Make sure that all renewal cards etc are in public file and are posted at control point.*

F.  Visit site, Check following

  1. Complete 1 through 5 under Bi-yearly maintenance
  2. Equipment performance measurements (NRSC, Harmonics, frequency)*
  3. Complete service of generator
  4. Complete Inspection of towers, check for vertical and plumb, check guy wire tensions, retension as needed.
  5. Check property for anything out of the ordinary
  6. Repair driveway as needed

General maintenance that is completed on an as needed basis

  1. Re-fill fuel generator fuel tank when drops below 50 percent
  2. Empty trash, sweep floors, dust.
  3. Cut/remove vegetation inside tower fences, spray herbicide as needed
  4. Water proof tower fences every 2 years
  5. Paint exterior of building
  6. Replace tower lights*
  7. Paint towers*

*These are FCC inspection items, pay close attention if you do not want a fine.

That is it, a .pdf version of this file can be downloaded here.

Working with Tower Companies

Almost all radio stations use a tower of some sort to support their transmitting antennas.  These towers need maintenance from time to time and only qualified people should perform maintenance on towers.  Hence, the tower company is formed.

405 foot guyed tower with ERI FM antennas
405 foot guyed tower with ERI FM antennas

Over my years of experience, I have dealt with many different tower companies, from one man operations to big corporations that have multiple crews out in the field on any given day.  I have discovered that not all tower companies are created equal.  Not only do tower climbers need to be in good physical shape and be trained correctly in all tower climbing safety procedures,  they also need to be good mechanics so they can actually repair things on the tower.   Climbing a 470 foot tower to repair a strobe light is all well and good.  Once the climber gets to the strobe light, he needs to be able to disassemble it without dropping parts or breaking things, trouble shoot if needed, install new parts and re-assemble the unit, again without dropping or breaking anything.

Applying a RF connectors, installing a FM antenna or STL antenna, repairing light fixtures or conduit all require some amount of manual dexterity and concentration.  Assembling high powered antenna requires close attention to detail.  Any pinched O rings, cross threaded bolts, bent bullets and the antenna will have problems, likely at the worst possible time.

The sign of a bad tower company is if it’s climbers cannot carry out those tasks with one or at most two climbs.  I have a situation on a tower where our FM station is a tenant.  The tower has a strobe light failure near the top of the tower where our FM antenna is located.  They have climbed the tower no less than four times to repair this, and it is still not fixed yet.  Each time they climb, the station has  to reduce power to protect the tower climbers from excessive RF exposure.  Each climb it takes them several hours longer than anticipated to finish their work.

A good rule of thumb, If the defective part cannot fixed in the first two climbs, then the entire strobe unit should be replaced on the third climb.  Even though the strobe units are expensive, by the time they get done paying for all this tower work, they could have bought two new strobes.  Today will be the fifth climb and there is no guarantee that it will be fixed.

I advised the tower owner that they should be looking around for another tower company because these guys aren’t exactly setting the world on fire.

Module swap guys

Nautel V-10 Power Supply
Nautel V-10 Power Supply

Gone is the day when the radio station engineer had to trouble shoot down to the component level, often crawling in and out of transmitters to get at the suspected part.  I for one, spent many a long night at a transmitter site chasing some weird combination of symptoms down to the $0.34 1N914 diode in the directional coupler (see previous post about the MW-50).

It is a skill set now mostly confined to manufactures’ repair departments, for which they charge a pretty penny.  Nowadays, the technician simply slides out one module or circuit card and slides in another.  If that doesn’t fix it, panic ensues.  I know of several class C FM radio stations that are now relying on the computer guy to fix transmitters, because, you know, it’s cheaper.

To be fair, most engineers are contractors and many of those simply do not have the time to trouble shoot to the component level.  So, they ship everything back to the factory then pass the cost on to their client.

Then of course, most circuit boards these days are surface mount systems, which are hard to work on if you don’t have the right tools.  Normally an expensive temperature controlled soldering station is required, as well as a magnifying glass.

All of these things combine make circuit board work something to be outsourced.  Unfortunately, a night spent trouble shooting was often a great learning experience.  I have done some of my best work when my back was up against a wall and I was out of options.

I make the attempt to fix things locally, unless the transmitter or other item is under warranty or not having a spare/attempting to trouble shoot will take the station off the air.  I think it is important to keep abreast of technology and keep my trouble shooting skills up to par.  Besides, I find it gratifying that at least I can still fix things.