Emergency transmitter replacement

Bad weather or other disasters can strike any time of year.  Around these parts, the most dangerous weather events occur from early spring through late summer.  In the past twenty years or so, we have had tornadoes, hurricanes, micro bursts, flooding events and so on.  All of that got me thinking about what would happen if a tower came down, or a transmitter building was destroyed by fire, wind, water, etc.

If past events can predict future performance, there would ensue a mad scramble to replace damaged equipment and or get some type of temporary antenna into service.  That is what happened in great City of North Adams, Massachusetts when the tower that held the cell carriers, the 911 dispatch, and the local FM radio station came down in an ice storm.  Fortunately, we had a single bay Shively antenna at the shop that we trimmed up and installed on a temporary pole with 200 watts TPO.

That will cover the city of license, provided there is electricity…

What if there where an event that was so devastating that the electrical power would not be restored for months?  Think about hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.   After that event, the infrastructure was so devastated that there was not even the possibility of getting a fuel truck to deliver diesel for the emergency generators at the hospital in San Juan.  It can happen.

With that in mind, I began poking around and thinking about how I would get something back on the air.  In the face of massive disasters, AM and FM radio is still the most effective way to communicate with the general public.  Radios are still ubiquitous in homes, cars and businesses.

Bext 30 watt exciter
Bext 30 Watt FM exciter

In a short period of time I came up with a couple of solutions.  First, the frequency agile Bext exciter uses a single solid state rectifier feeding 24 volts to the power supply board.  The audio input includes a mono balanced line level input which can be fed by a computer sound card or some other simple source.

Bext 30 Watt FM exciter power supply
Bext 30 Watt FM exciter power supply

From there +12, +15 and +20 VDC are created to run various circuits.  The heat sink cooling fan is the only thing that runs on 120 VAC, which is old and I might replace with a 24 VDC unit.

Bext 30 Watt exciter power supply voltage
Bext 30 Watt exciter power supply voltage

The power output is about 22 watts, which is not bad.  That will certainly get out well enough from a high spot and provide good coverage when the power is out because all the other in band RF noise generators will be off.

6 volt, 435 Ah batteries
6 volt, 435 Ah batteries

Then I though about the deep cycle batteries in my barn.  These 6 volt, 435 Ah units have been around for a couple of years, but last I checked, they still held a charge.  Other deep cycle batteries from things like golf carts, fork lifts, campers, boats etc could also be pressed into service.  The point is, 24 VDC should not be impossible to create.

To keep a charge on the batteries, this solar panel will work:

225 Watt, 36 volt solar panel
225 Watt, 36 volt solar panel

This setup would require some sort of 24 volt DC charge controller, which I found on Amazon for less than $15.00 US.  This charge controller has selectable 24/12 VDC output and also has two USB ports which would be handy for charging hand held devices.

I measured the power draw while the exciter was running 20 watts into a dummy load, it draws 120 Watts.

The final part would be some sort of antenna with transmission line.  For this situation, a simple wire center fed dipole hung vertically would work well.  This can be fabricated with two pieces of copper wire and a few insulators.

Simple dipole antenna
Simple dipole antenna

The lengths of each wire can be calculated as follows:

Approximate length in feet: 234/f (MHz)

Approximate length in inches: 2808/ f (MHz)

Approximate length in cm: 7132/f (MHz)

For the FM band, maximum length of wires needed will be 32 inches (81 cm).  Insulators can be made of anything that does not conduct RF; PVC, ABS, dry wood, dry poly rope, etc.

Emergency FM band dipole
Emergency FM band dipole, cut to 88 MHz, lowest FM frequency

I recommend to cut the wires slightly long, then trim little bits off of each end while watching the reflected power meter on the exciter.  To keep RF from coming back down the shield of the transmission line, make 8-10 turns, 6-8 inches in diameter of coax as close to the antenna as possible and secure with a wire tie.  This will create a balun of sorts.

My emergency FM kit consists of:

  • Bext Frequency agile exciter
  • 30 feet, RG-8 coax with N male connector on one end
  • 4 ten foot RG-58 BNC male jumpers
  • 1 four foot LMR-400 N male jumper
  • Dipole antenna, cut long
  • Solar charge controller
  • Small basic tool kit; hand tools, plus DVM and soldering iron
  • Power cords, extension cords
  • 300 watt 12VDC to 120VAC inverter (pure sine wave)
  • 20 feet audio wire
  • Various audio connectors; spade lugs, XLR male and female, RCA, 1/4 TRS, etc
  • Various RF connectors; PL-259, N, BNC, etc
  • Bag of 12 inch wire ties
  • 3 rolls of 3M Scotch 88 electrical tape
  • 100 feet of 3/8 inch poly rope

This is all kept in a sturdy plastic storage bin from the Home Depot.  If needed, the batteries and solar panel are stored in the barn along with an assortment of other goodies.

Will it ever be needed?  Well,  I hope not.  However, it is much better to be prepared to restore services than wait for somebody to show up and help.  Sitting around complaining about the government does not relieve those people in need during and after a disaster.

Wind damage

This satellite dish nearly broke off of its mount during a “macroburst” event.  According to the National Weather Service:

A macroburst is a thunderstorm downdraft affecting an area at least 2.5 miles wide with peak winds lasting 5 to 20 minutes. The macroburst is a straight-line wind phenomena not associated with rotation…used to differentiate from tornadic
winds. Macrobursts can produce as much if not more damage as tornadoes due to the size and scope of a macroburst.

On May 15th a large group of severe thunderstorms triggered at least three tornadoes and one macroburst event in eastern New York and Western Connecticut.  Winds in the macroburst area were estimated to be in the 85 to 105 MPH range.

The next morning, it took a long time to get the the clients studio.  Trees where down everywhere, roads were closed, traffic lights not working, etc.  This created numerous detours and traffic jams.  When I finally arrived at a clients studio facility, this was the first thing I noticed:

Comtech 3.8 meter dish with broken mount
Comtech 3.8 meter dish with broken mount

That is an older 3.8 meter comtech dish hanging on by one 3/8 inch stainless steel U bolt.  The funny thing is, they did not complain about this or the lack of satellite service.  The main complaint was that the studios were on generator and some of the lights and air conditioners were not working.

Comtech 3/8 inch stainless U bolt holding up 650 pound dish
Comtech 3/8 inch stainless U bolt sheared off
Comtech 3.8 meter dish support bracket twisted
Comtech 3.8 meter dish support bracket twisted

This dish had originally been put up when AMC-8 was the main commercial radio network bird in the US.  The dish elevation was only 9 degrees above the horizon, so this had to be put up next to the building at roof top level to clear the trees and see 139W.

I was attempting to secure the dish but in the end, the 650 pound dish was too tenuous and the weather was still unstable.  There was other damage to the dish thus we decided to take it down instead.  Even that took a bit of doing.  We were trying find a crane or bucket truck, but all that type of equipment had been pressed into service with recovery efforts.  We finally undid all the bolts and bracing and fell it like a tree.

Comtech dish on the ground
Comtech dish on the ground

The dish was then cut up and put in the dumpster.

The new satellite dish will be installed next to building in a lower position.

Engineers hate this

Apparently, this coaxial cable has a hot spot:

7/8 inch air dielectric coax with jacket melting off
7/8 inch air dielectric coax with jacket melting off

The back story:

I received a text this morning that one of our clients station “had a lot of static on it, it might be off the air.” Upon arrival, I found the Nautel VS2.5 transmitter with 0 watts forward power and an output network fault. Reset the transmitter and the forward power and reflected power increased together, triggering another output network fault. I was able to turn the transmitter power down to 100 watts, at which point it stayed on, with 50 watts reflected power.  I also noted the dehydrator running continuously and 0 PSI line pressure.

Crap.

I wandered around the back of the building where the coax goes out to the tower and discovered the dripping plastic from the melted jacket.  I reached up and first checked the cable to see if it was warm (it was not).  Then I shook it and heard what I thought was water sloshing around inside.  This is the original Andrew 7/8 inch cable from when the station signed on in 1972 or so.  Very likely that further up the tower, something has chaffed through the outer jacket and shield, allowing water into the cable.

I drilled a small 5/32 inch hole at the lowest point in the cable before it enters the building.  The result was a steady stream of water, which was aided by some additional pressure from a spare N2 tank.  I let it drain while I ran down to town and got some lunch.  I came back a half an hour later, turned the transmitter on and was satisfied to see 100 watts forward power with 1 watt reflected.  I ran the transmitter up to full power for a while, then deciding discretion is the better part of valour, turned it down to half power; 820 watts which nets 8 watts reflected power.

Needless to say, the transmission line needs to be replaced as soon as possible.