Better Times at WICC transmitter site

The WICC transmitter site, Pleasure Beach in Bridgeport, has been cut off from normal access since the bridge to the island burned in 1996.  Since that time, access has been by boat with a 0.93 mile walk from the dock to the transmitter building.

Last summer, LVI Construction, under contract from the Town of Stratford, put in a temporary road and began removing the burned out cottages.  While that road is in place, the radio station has been able to access the site and get many important things accomplished.  These include:

  • Replacing the vandal damaged top beacon on the South tower
  • Removing several decades worth of stored crap, garbage, obsolete and unused equipment
  • Repair the electrical service to the building
  • Replace the generator transfer switch
  • Repair the Sonitrol building alarm
  • Replace the old Onan Generator
  • Have the power company replace the 3 phase circuit from the point where the under water cables come ashore to the transmitter building.

All of these projects should greatly improve the reliability of the station.  This should make Bill, happy, who appears to have a WICC chip implanted in his brain because every time the carrier is interrupted he posts about it on the website.

The biggest issue with the site was the utility feed from the shore to the transmitter building.  The original circuit was installed in 1936 when the station moved to the island.  It was old and the poles were all rotting and had horizontal cross arms.  Ospreys especially like the horizontal cross arms as they made good nesting spots.  That is, until the nest shorts out one of the phases catches on fire and burns the top of the pole off.  This has happened several times over the years causing many hours of off air time.

WICC new utility service
WICC new utility service

United Illuminating, the local utility company, was very cooperative and installed new utility poles, wires, breakers and transformers, this time with a vertical phase arrangement, which should keep the Ospreys off of them.  Additionally, the cottage removal project included installing Osprey nesting poles.

Pleasure beach cottages removed
Pleasure beach cottages removed

With almost all of the cottages now removed, the area looks much better than before.  Actually, it should be a nice nature preserve  and hopefully, the absence of the buildings might reduce the number of vandals in the area.  The work is almost done, so the road is about to be taken up. This means we need to wrap up the work out there, so the final push is on.

WICC transmitter building
WICC transmitter building

In the last three weeks, 10 truck loads of junk have been hauled out of the transmitter building and generator shack.   Over 1,500 pounds of scrap steel, 640 pounds of insulated wire, 2,000 pounds of particle board furniture, old t-shirts  and hats (something called “Taste of Bridgeport” which, if anyone knows what that was let me know), old propane tanks, batteries, etc.  We also managed to fix the fence and gate in front of the building, cut down the over grown yew bushes and bittersweet vines.

Transfer Switch
Transfer Switch

The old Kolher transfer switch was also an issue.  There was no place to mount a new switch inside and mounting one outside is out of the question, so the guts from the Kohler switch were removed and replace with an ASCO unit.  This was done in the summer of 2009.  The breaker on the right side is the main service disconnect for the building, which was installed in September.

Onan 12JC 4R air cooled generator
Onan 12 KW 12JC 4R air cooled generator, removed from service

Today, it was time to replace the Onan propane generator.  The old generator is an Onan 12JC-4R air cooled propane unit which was installed on April 4, 1969 at a cost of $1,545.00 new.  For many years, this unit gave reliable service, but it has many, many hours on it and it lacks the fault/self control circuits needed for remote (read desolate) operation.  Several times over the last few years, the generator would run out of gas or the propane tank would freeze up and the starter would crank until it burned out.

It was cold out on the island, with temperatures in the twenties and a bitter west wind blowing right into the generator shack.  All of this conspired to make  working conditions difficult.  Wind chill readings were in the single digits all day long, and in spite of long johns and extra layers, by 3 pm I was shivering and even several hours after coming inside, I still feel cold.

Using tractor to move new generator
Using tractor to move new generator

The new generator is an Cummins/Onan 20GGMA which is rated for 20 KW.  We used a John Deere bucket tractor to move the generator from the flat bed truck to the generator building, then push it inside.  The old generator wiring to the transfer switch was reused, but a piece of flex was used to connect to the generator instead of the solid conduit.  The building fan was also wired up so that it will run whenever the generator is running.

The generator load with all possible things switched on  and the transmitter running at full power is about 12,000 watts, but this would mean the air conditioner and tower lights were on during the daytime.  More likely, the transmitter will be at low power when the tower lights are on and the AC will be intermittent on/off at night.  At full load, this generator uses slightly less than 2 gallons of propane per hour.  At half load, I’d estimate that to be 1.4 or so gallons.

Cummins Onan generator in new home
100 pound propane gas tanks
100 pound propane gas tanks

HOCON gas came out and connected six 100 pound propane tanks in series, which should prevent tank icing.  Propane weights about 4.11 pounds per gallon, therefore the fuel supply should last about 100 hours, or 4.5 days, give or take.  Why 100 pound tanks?  Because we will have to shuffle them back and forth between the dock and the generator shed, a journey of about one mile, in a cart.  Anything larger would be impossible to deal with.  Even so, refilling the propane will be a 2 person job and will likely take all day.

The Devil is in the details

Sometimes it is the seemly small insignificant detail that will take a station off the air. To expound on that a bit, I have my own story which happened yesterday.  The back story is this:  About three years ago, some unauthorized tower climbers climbed the WICC south tower all the way to the top.  The station remained on the air at full power while this was going on.  Once at the top of the three hundred foot tower, the climber, we can call him “Crack Head,” manged to loosen, then remove the beacon and throw it to the ground.  Mind you, this guy had no safely climbing equipment whatsoever and he had to stand on the top plate, which is all of 20″ x 20″ square, of which the beacon takes up 16 inches.  A two inch purchase between himself and eternity demonstrates that God does indeed smile on fools and drunks.

WICC south tower with long island sound in background
WICC South tower with Long Island sound in background

Fortunately, his friend on the ground had a video camera and filmed the entire episode.  Even better, they then posted it on Youtube.   The police took interest in this video and it’s owners because the damage to the radio station was significant, and with the tower being about a mile away from the end of the Stratford Airport runway 17, presented a real hazard to air navigation.  Needless to say, the video was used by the prosecution and both crack heads are now in prison, God having limits after all.

A spare beacon was hoisted to the top of the tower an placed in service.  This beacon was quite old and leaky and continually failed, burning out the tower light flasher.  Thus, it was time to replace it.  We took advantage of the outstanding weather and the crew from Northeast Towers made quick work of it.  Removing and lower the old beacon to the ground, then hoisting the new beacon up and installing it.  I goobered it by not taking pictures of the beacon fixtures flying up and down the tower.  I took the station off the air for about five minutes to check the condition of the wiring going up the tower, making sure there were no shorts up the tower or back toward the transmitter building.  While I was doing this, I overheard the two way radio conversation between the tower climber and the ground crew on wiring.  It seems the old beacon had only two wires, hot and neutral.  The new beacon had three wires, hot, neutral and ground.  Tie the neutral and ground wires together, instructed the tower boss.

Nothing more was though of that, it sounded okay to me.  Unfortunately, the tower had other ideas.  About an hour after we secured from the job and drove away, the station went off the air.  It seems the neutral wire was not referenced to the tower previously.  Because now the neutral wire was tied to the top of the tower, the RF found a path to ground via the tower lighting choke at the base of the tower.  It started arcing to it’s access door causing the transmitter to go off around 4 PM.  Equally unfortunate was the fact that the construction gate was closed and I had to get a boat ride with the harbor master, which took about an hour to arrange.  The entire situation was further complicated by darkness, which comes predictably around 6:30 PM this time of year.

When I arrived back out at the base of the tower, I took the metal access door off of the tower light choke cabinet.  I could see the fresh track marks all across the bottom of the door. With the door off, I turned the transmitter on.  Worked just fine.    I tried cleaning it off with a Scotch Bright, but to no avail, the transmitter would not run at any power level with the door in place.

Finally, the harbor master becoming impatient and darkness quickly falling, I taped a garbage bag over the tower light choke box with the door off and turned the transmitter back on.  The tower crew will have to come back and remove the ground wire on the beacon.

The first rule of trouble shooting: Check the last thing that was worked on first.

Update:  And look, here is the original story in Radio World: Tough times a Pleasure Beach.

The folded Unipole antenna

In the 1990’s, the folded unipole antenna was touted by many to be the savior of AM radio.  There were many claims that a folded unipole antenna did not need a complicated ground system, a simple ground rod at the base of the tower would work fine.  That turned out to be not exactly the case.   Kintronic did a study (.pdf) that basically dispelled that notion, along with several others.   The folded unipole antenna performed within a few percentage points of a series fed tower under the same testing conditions.

three wire folded unipole on a guyed tower
three wire folded unipole on a guyed tower

Folded unipoles do have the advantage of a grounded tower.  Grounded towers have a distinct advantage in lightning prone areas, such as central Florida.  I can attest through my own experience, a series fed tower is much more likely to induce lightning damage to a transmitter or ATU.  Folded unipole tower systems can also be used to co-locate other antennas, such as STL, cellular, PCS, etc.  Making some extra rental money on an AM tower is not a bad way to go.

I began fooling around with MANNA-GAL, which is a NEC-2 based program.  It is a free ham radio program, so it is a little clunky to use and it took a while to figure out, but once I did, it is fun.  I modeled a unipole antenna for medium wave use and the results are pretty interesting.  First of all, I drew out X-Y part of the system on graph paper because the program requires all wires (elements) be entered in a coordinate based format.  The Z axis is the tower, since there is only one of those, that was easy.  I played around with series vs. unipole systems and the results were fairly close to what they are supposed to be.  One of the nice things about MANNA-GAL is it allows the user to change the ground conditions.  To add a unipole to the tower, I put 3 wires spaced between one to two meters away from the primary Z axis wire, connected them to the top of the tower and changed the drive point to the skirt wires.

The interesting part is when I added an above ground counterpoise instead of a buried radial ground system.  I think Ron Nott, of Nott, ltd. did much of this work too.  What I found was that with between 5 – 10 above ground radials of 90 degrees or greater, the efficiencies are within about 10 percent of theoretical for a 120 buried radial system.  Again, the ground conductivity plays a big roll in this, poor ground conductivity will reduce efficiencies equally for both systems.

As the tower height approaches 110 degrees or so, depending on the spacing from the tower of the skirt wires, the bandwidth really starts to open up.  At 110 degrees the base impedance is about 120 ohms with about 80 ohms inductive reactance.   Both the impedance and reactance slope slightly upward with frequency but are linear +/- 50 KHz of carrier.  This slight asymmetrical sideband distribution can be easily canceled out in the ATU with a few degrees of negative phase shift through the T network.

Again, all of this is theoretical, but I have found that NEC is usually within +/- 10% of real world values.  It is difficult to get a handle on ground conductivity unless measurements are taken.  Even from season to season, that can change.

The above ground counterpoise requires a partial proof, according to FCC 73.186.  If this were a directional station, this would be required anyway.  For a non-directional station, it is pretty easy, for six radials, it would probably take about one to two days of driving around with a FIM 41.  The other consideration is public exposure to RFR from the radials.  This can easily be measured with a NARDA meter.  More radials will spread the induced currents out more, for for higher powered stations, 10 above ground radials might be required.

There are several radio stations in the country which are successfully using above ground counterpoises.  It seems to be a good system and requires much less material and labor to install than the traditional ground system.

Therefore, if I were designing a new AM station, I’d use a grounded tower between 105 and 110 degrees with a unipole and 6 above ground radials 90 degrees or greater.

The surreal trip to the WICC transmitter site

What could be so bad about going to an AM transmitter site on an peninsula off of the Long Island Sound.  Sounds pretty nice, right?  It began just so, driving through the town of Stratford Beach parking lot to the construction gate, the towers were visible off in the distance.  A nice crushed gravel road across the barrier island, I have certainly been to worse places.

WICC towers pleasure beach island
WICC towers Pleasure Beach Island, CT

And then, things begin to look a little bit different.  It is really hard to put into words, seems like some other country.

Pleasure Beach Bungalows
The beginning of the Pleasure Beach Bungalow Colony

It turns out this is not quite the nice trip after all.

Pleasure beach lawless zone
Pleasure Beach Lawless Zone

I’ve been to several so called “developing areas” like Port Au Prince, Hatti for example.  Nothing ever looked this bad.

Pleasure Beach ocean side bungalow
Pleasure Beach Ocean Side Bungalow

I can imagine some family coming here every summer to spend time at the beach.

Burned out bungalows
Burned out bungalows

What anarchy looks like.

Pleasure beach burned out cottage
Pleasure Beach burned out cottage

The back story is this:  From the 1920’s up until 1996, Pleasure Beach was a nice seasonal oceanside bungalow colony, complete with an amusement park.  These cottages (but not the land they were on) were owned by people from the surrounding cities and towns and the entire area appeared to be quite nice in it’s day.  Then, in 1996, the wooden bridge that connected Pleasure Beach to Bridgeport burned.  There are several theories; crack heads, radical environmentalist, etc.  The city of Bridgeport did not rebuild the bridge, which meant the only access was by walking from the Town of Stratford beach parking lot, at trek of at least a mile or longer.  In 2007, the town of Stratford decided not to renew these land leases and the building owners were forced to remove any remaining items they wanted by barge.  Soon thereafter vandals began walking down the peninsula from Stratford.  Slowly, most of the bungalows were broken into and several were burned.  This is mostly the work of “kids,” who, because they are under the age of 18, get a slap on the wrist and returned to their parents.  Oh, those wacky kids, what will they do next?

Truth be told, they should be the ones out here cleaning this up, for free.

Finally, this year, the city began tearing down and cleaning up the remaining buildings, trying to put the former bungalow colony “back to nature.”

WICC transmitter building
WICC transmitter building

The transmitter site for WICC moved here in 1932.  This building contained a night time operating studio, kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom.  I can imagine hanging out here some summer night, spinning tunes and having a good time.  The former amusement part is just out of the picture to the left.  At the amusement park, there was a carousel, a big snack bar, a dance hall and an area for portable rides like Ferris Wheals and such.

Now the building is full of disused gear, old carts, transmitter and tower parts, the water has been shut off and I’d not want to be out here at night under any circumstances.

WICC south tower
WICC north tower

The antenna array consists of two 300 foot Milliken towers, originally from WNAC.  Many people mistakenly think these are Blaw-Knox towers.  Milliken preceded Blaw-Knox by several years.  They built and designed towers around the world for radio and electric transmission.  In the late 1930’s they were bought out by Blaw-Knox, which kept the design.  I love these tapered self supporters, they have survived several major Hurricanes since 1932.  The south tower is about 150 yards from the Long Island Sound.  Salt air seems to do them no harm, either.

WICC Milliken tower, south looking up
WICC Milliken south Tower, looking up

The station operates at 1 KW day, 500 watts night, DA2.  The towers are 60 degrees tall, space 149 degrees.  That is a little short, however, they are surrounded by salt water, so the signal goes like gangbusters.  Because they are short, the impedances are low, about 10 ohms for night time and 30 ohms for daytime.  Since the towers  are so wide, the impedances are flat far beyond 50 KHz either side of the carrier, which makes it a nice broad banded antenna system.  The 1932 phasors and ATUs were redone in 1972.  All of the common point impedance measurements are still posted on the wall.

WICC Harris SX-1A, Phasor and Harris BC1H
WICC Harris SX-1A, Phasor and Harris HC1H

The main transmitter is a 1990 Harris model SX-1A.  It seems to be reliable enough, my experience with the SX-1 is it has an overly complicated control system.  The back up is a Harris BC1H, a sort of hybrid solid state tube unit, which is also reliable.

Frequency voltage meter
WICC frequency and voltage meter

This high tech test and measurement center is attached to the incoming electrical service.  Over the years, there has been some quality control issues with the incoming electrical service, mostly due to Osprey’s building nests on the cross arms.  During rain storms, these nests catch on fire and kill the power to the site.  The power company is in the process of redoing the electrical service to the building.

This is a video of the former amusement part and cottages shot two years ago, when the cottages were more or less intact. It is a bunch of stills set to Pink Floyd music:

Looks like they all just got up and left.