De-icer controller

Call it climate change or an unfortunate coincidence; we seem to be getting more icy weather in this area. It used to be this region would see one mild event every one or two years. Recently, however, we are getting two to three moderate to severe events per year.

This can create problems for the utility company. Even if the power stays on, the transmitter may not. Excessive ice on the antenna may cause the transmitter to fold back or shut down completely.

We have several clients that have various FM antennas with electric resistance type de-icers. One client has three such stations however I found there were no automatic controllers at any of them. Back in the day, when there were people working at the station, they probably turned the de-icers on and off manually via the remote control. These days, not so much. When we began servicing these facilities, the previous engineer stated that he turned the de-icer breaker on around Thanksgiving and turned it off around Easter. Not terribly efficient.

As a part of moving into a new transmitter building, I began looking for something that would automatically turn the de-icer on when it is precipitating at or close to freezing temperatures and then turn it off after a couple of hours. That would certainly reduce the electric usage for that transmitter site and keep the transmitter happy.

I found this simple snow melt controller:

ETI LCD-8 snow melt controller

This is sold on Amazon for about $570.00. This has an internal relay that can switch 240 volts at 16 amps. However, that 240-volt heating circuit goes up to the top of the tower where the FM antenna is mounted making it vulnerable to lightning damage. I figured an outboard relay switched on and off by this controller was a better way to go. That way, there is an operating indicating lamp and a bypass switch.

De-icer controller relay

Outdoor icing sensor mounted on the ice bridge.

Now, the de-icer stays off most of the time. When it is needed, it comes on automatically and turns off three hours after the precipitation has stopped. Since installing last fall, it has worked well and the station stayed at full power through at least two ice events.

I measured the current on each leg, which was 2.6 amps or 624 watts. That is the same as it was before. A quick calculation, I estimate the number of hours this system was previously energized when the breaker was left on all winter to be roughly 3,400. Thus 3,400 hours x 624 watts = 2112 kWh. These days, our electric rates are running $0.16 to $0.18 per kWh so the total cost would be $380.00 to run continuously. The control system will pay for itself in less than two years.

What time is it?

This is an important question these days. We are running into more situations where timing is important, especially when audio and video codecs are concerned. If there is too much time differential, the codec will unlock. More often, digital transmission methods require precise timing to prevent jitter and dropouts. Some equipment has 10 MHz or 1PPS inputs. Some equipment does not and relies on NTP to keep things in sync.

While searching online for GPS time sever, I came across this post where Austin built a Stratum 1 level time sever with a Raspberry pi and an inexpensive GPS receiver. I thought to myself; damn that sounds interesting. While a Raspberry pi is a hobbyist toy, the same setup can be done with a more serious computer to create a solid NTP server for a facility or LAN.

A little about NTP time servers; Stratum 0 server is directly connected to an atomic clock. Since GPS satellites have atomic clocks, that makes them a Stratum 0 server. Stratum 1 servers are connected to Stratum 0 servers. Stratum 2 servers are connected to Stratum 1 servers and so on. The time accuracy for a Stratum 1 server is 10 microseconds.

First, I wiped my SD card and loaded a fresh install of Raspberry pi OS. Then followed along with the instructions. For this install, I opted for the cheaper GPS receiver, the GT-U7 (not an affiliate link) from Amazon for $10.99. It comes with a cheap little antenna, which actually worked sitting inside on my desktop while I was configuring the software.

This little module is designed for a drone but works well in this application. The 1PPS output looks clean on the scope. Here is the pinout between the GT-U7 and the Raspberry pi:

GT-U7 pinpi pinUseColor
vcc1+3.3 vdcGreen
gnd6groundBrown
txd8rxdOrange
rxd10txdRed
pps12GPIO 18Yellow

I found this really nice aluminum case in a pile of disused junk at a transmitter site. It used to be for a digital TELCO STL circuit. I figured it would be nice to put the Raspberry pi and GPS receiver in a suitable home.

Raspberry pi 3 is mounted on a piece of scrap sheet steel designed to slide into the aluminum case.

We have several of these nice Panasonic GPS antennas left over from various installs. I pressed one into service on the roof of my house.

Panasonic CCAH32ST01 GPS antenna

I think a high-quality antenna is pretty important to get consistent good performance from this setup. There are three slight problems, however. Unfortunately, this antenna has been discontinued by the manufacturer. Also unfortunate, the GT-7U boards have one of those little IPX RF connectors. Fortunately, I found a short jumper with an F SMA connector. Finally, it requires +5 VDC and the GT-7U runs on 3.3 VDC. The pi does have a 5-volt rail, so I used this 2-way power divider to feed 5 volts to the antenna from one port and the received RF from the antenna goes to the GT-U7 from the other port.

If you are interested, here are the commands to get this thing running:

sudo apt get update
sudo apt get upgrade -y
sudo apt install pps-tools gpsd gpsd-clients chrony

The next step is to make sure the serial port is turned on and enable the ssh login shell since this is going to live in the basement and I don’t want to run down there to fool around with it.

sudo raspi-config

Then go to interface options, serial interface, and enable. The login over the serial interface can be left off. If ssh access is needed, enable ssh, then exit.

Once those packages have been downloaded and installed, some config file editing is needed. You may use whichever method you like, I tend to use nano. First, the /etc/config.txt and add the following to the file:

‘dtoverlay=pps-gpio,gpiopin=18’
'enable_uart=1'
'init_uart_baud=9600'

The uart needs to be enabled if you want to receive NMEA data (NMEA stands for National Marine Electronics Association) It is helpful to see if or how the GPS is working.

Next, the /etc/modules and add:

'pps-gpio'

Reboot, then see if the pps module is working:

lsmod | grep pps

The output should look like this:

Next, there are a few more configuration files that need to be edited.

/ect/default/gpsd – there is a default file that comes with the package, it needs to be modified to start the daemon automatically and look for the pps signal on ttyS0.

START_DAEMON="true"
USBAUTO="true"
DEVICES="/dev/ttyS0 /dev/pps0"
GPSD_OPTIONS="-n"

Reboot

Now check and see if the GPS module is working by typing cgps or gpsmon. The output should look something like this:

It did not take the module too long to find and lock onto GPS. If you don’t see something like this in five minutes or so, go back and check your wiring, and make sure that the data connections are made right. The GT-U7 has a little red LED that is lit when the PPS pulse is not being sent. If this light is not on at all, check your power connection. If it is on steady, check your antenna. If it is flashing, but you are not seeing any output in cgps or gpsmon, check your data connections.

Next and last configuration file is the /etc/chrony/chrony.conf file. At the top of the file, I added the following lines:

#custom lines for PPS
server time-a-g.nist.gov iburst
server time-d-g.nist.gov
server 3.us.pool.ntp.org
server time.windows.com
server time.apple.com
# add refclock pps
refclock SMH 0 delay .1 refid NEMA
refclock PPS /dev/pps0 refid PPS
#my home network
allow 192.168.1.0/24

Leave the rest of the file alone. Basically, the time servers are added to compare the GPS time and act as a backup. The hosts on my home network are allowed to query this host and use it as an NTP server.

Restart Chrony:

sudo systemctl restart chrony

Wait a couple of minutes and check the chrony console to see what is happening: chronyc sources. Should look something like this:

This was after the server had been running for a day. Chrony is great because it measures the hardware performance and creates a delay file. This is used to anticipate any hardware-added delays that the system might have. The last sample column is of interest, the number indicates the offset between the local clock and the source at the last measurement. The far column is the margin of error or greatest variation +/- of the expected values. A value of 0.0000000042 seconds or 0.042 microseconds is pretty good for an $11.00 piece of hardware. Now every host in my house is syncd to satellite within 0.042 microseconds, in lockstep through the time-space continuum.

If I were to do this professionally, I would use better hardware. I think the pi 4 has better serial and ethernet interfaces, more RAM, and a quad-core processor. Last I looked they were $75.00 at Newark.

The GPS module was the cheapest I could find on Amazon. I am slightly concerned about the longevity of this device. Perhaps it will run for a long time, or perhaps not. A quick search brought up several “hats” (plug directly into the 20-pin header). These range in price from about $30.00 to $60.00. What is required of any GPS module is 1PPS output. The configuration would be about the same although some use GPIO 4 instead of 18.

HF VHF receiver diplexer

UPDATE and bump:  This post is from eleven years ago, but I have been working on an SDR project using one of the RTL- 2832 chips.  I had to make two more of these units, so the prices and part numbers have been updated.

I have acquired one of those broad-banded software-defined radios, an Icom PCR-1000 to be precise, and all is well.  I am enjoying listening to various MF, HF and VHF radio stations.  However, there is a slight problem.  Very slight, almost too small to even mention, more of an inconvenience than a problem.  Still, if I am being inconvenienced, then others are too.  This issue is with the antennas.  My K9AY antenna works wonderfully from 500 KHz to 25 MHz or so.  My discone antenna works wonderfully from about 30 MHz all the way up to about 1 GHz.  In order to enjoy the full range of the receiver, I need to switch antennas.  I have a small switch on my desktop, but it seems inconvenient to reach over and switch it when going from the AM band to the FM band or something similar.  Therefore, I have decided that I need an HF/VHF receiver diplexer.  One would think that such hardware is ready-made for such instances.   However, nothing I could find commercially would do the trick.

Thus, since I could not buy one, I decided to build one to add to my collection of receiver doo-dads and nick knacks.  The design is relatively easy, a back-to-back low pass/high pass filter system with a 50-ohm impedance throughout.  Something with a sharp cut-off around 30 MHz or so:

Diplexor plot
Diplexor plot

Looks pretty good, 5th order Chebyshev filter, perhaps .1 dB ripple in the pass bands if well made.  Schematically:

HF VHF diplexor schematic diagram
HF VHF diplexor schematic diagram

Then it comes down to the building. Since this is going to be used in the UHF range, care and attention needs to be paid to the layout of the components and the design of the circuit board.  Some of those capacitance values are not standard, however, by using two capacitors in parallel, one can get pretty close.  Since this is going to be used for receiving only, I may be splitting hairs, however, I have found that well-designed and built equipment is worth the extra effort.

The board layout looks like this:

HF VHF receiver diplexer board
HF VHF receiver diplexer board

I tried to keep the traces as close to 50 Ohm impedance as possible.

As one may be able to discern, C2 and C3 are in parallel to make 192 PF, C5 and C6 are in parallel to make 60 PF, and C7 and C8 are in parallel to make 163 PF.

The input and output RF connectors are whatever the builder wants to use, however, I would recommend at least BNC or type N for the VHF/UHF side.  My unit has all type BNC female connectors.   Parts list:

Nomenclature Value Mouser number Cost (USD)
C1 150 PF SMT 581-12065A151FAT2A 0.72
C2 12 PF SMT 581-12061A120JAT2A 0.26
C3 180 PF SMT 810-CGA5C4C0G2J181J 0.27
C4 68 PF SMT 77-VJ1206A680FXACBC 0.59
C5 50 PF SMT 581-12062A500KAT2A 0.41
C6 10 PF SMT 80-C1206C100J2G 0.54
C7 3 PF SMT 581-12061A3R0CAT2A 0.34
C8 160 PF SMT 581-12065A161J 0.34
Case Diecast, 4.3 x 2.3” 546-1590WB 10.71

I chose a smallish, diecast aluminum case, which matches my other receiver gear.  The circuit board noted above is 2.9 x 1.7 inches, which is a little bit small.  I used 18 gauge wire between the input/output connectors and the board.

The inductors were made by hand.  I used a small screwdriver as a winding form, making the turns tightly and then spreading them out to the proper distance.

Inductor chart:

Inductor Value (nH) Diameter (mm) Turns Length (mm)
L1 173 8 6 9.5
L2 468 8 10 9.8
L3 414 8 9 8.7
L4 146 8 5 7.2
L5 186 8 6 8.6

The most expensive part was the circuit board, which cost about $16.00.  The rest parts were about $22.00 including shipping.

As built photos:

HF VHF diplexor with components installed
HF VHF diplexer with components installed

HF VHF diplexer input side
HF VHF diplexer input side

HF VHF diplexer completed.
HF VHF diplexer completed.

I have installed this already and it works great. I will need to get the spectrum analyzer out and run some signals through the various ports to see the attenuation and 3 dB roll-off points.

Making a notch filter

One small RF project that I am working on; a 770 KHz notch filter. I always figure if I am having this problem, then others may be having it too. This is a relatively simple idea, a resonant LC circuit (AKA a tank circuit) tuned to the carrier frequency. It should have a bandwidth of +/- 15 KHz of the design frequency. Another requirement; use the parts I have available. Finally, the environment in which this is to be used is a high-noise room; with lots of computers, LED lights, etc therefore it needs to have excellent RF shielding.

Something like this would work well for anyone that lives around an AM transmitter site and is having problems with receiver sensitivity or transmitter intermodulation.

The basic design looks like this:

Parallel LC tank circuit

Time for a trip to the local storage facility known as “The Barn.” In my backyard, there is a small agricultural structure that is used for storage of just about everything. In The Barn, I found several parts salvaged from an old Energy Onyx Pulsar AM transmitter. As such, they are more than capable of receiver operation and could likely handle a fair amount of RF power in the transmit mode.

CDM F2B 0.01 uF capacitor with back of N connector inputs

Finding a type F2B 0.01 uF capacitor, rated at 2000 volts and 11 amps, the value of the inductor was calculated. For the inductor, a 20 uH coil with taps will work great. For receive-only applications, much smaller-sized components can be chosen. Also, there are many bandstop filters with multiple poles. Those are great, but I like the simplicity of the parallel resonant LC circuit.

20 uH inductor salvaged from Energy Onyx transmitter

The N connectors were salvaged from I don’t know where and the enclosure used to house a power supply for a Radio Systems console.

N connectors for input and output.

For shielding, I sanded the paint off of the enclosure where the lid is attached and tacked some brass screen down with gorilla glue. This will make a good RF contact surface. The outer of the N connectors are bonded to a piece of copper ground strap which also has a grounding lug on it.

Enclosure lid with brass screen to make contact

I used the Libra VNA to tune it up:

S12 shows return loss, S21 shows Phase

The scan shows it is -31 dB on the carrier frequency. It is -17 dB on 760 KHz and -20 dB on 780 KHz. This is good, because I may still want to listen to the station on the remote receiver. According to the smith chart, it is actually resonant on 771.5 KHz, but that is close enough for this application. I think the resonance went up slightly when I put the cover on after the tune-up.

There are several tank circuit calculators online. It is best to have more capacitance and less inductance to keep the Q of the circuit low and suppress the sidebands as well as the carrier.