Who has time to troubleshoot?

The model for Radio Engineering these days is such that one engineer is covering multiple stations in various locations. At the very least, this person has a full (if not overflowing) plate. Thus, when something breaks, the procedure very often is; to pull the suspected module or board, call the manufacturer and order a replacement. That works as long as the manufacturer supports the model in question or has parts. As we all have learned by now, replacement parts are subject to the global supply chain, which is tenuous.

Then there is the question of AM transmitters. Is it worth it to replace an AM transmitter these days? I suggest it would depend on the market and revenue. In some cases, yes. In other cases, keeping the older equipment running makes more sense.

Troubleshooting is becoming a bit of a lost art. In addition to the time it takes, we tend to be unfocused and obsessed with rapid gratification, ready for the next social media post. What is lacking is the ability to take apart the layers of a problem, accept our initial analysis may be flawed, move beyond those assumptions, and work until the issue is solved. Troubleshooting is often like a crime scene investigation. There are several logical steps;

  • Assess the current situation; take steps to ensure it is safe to proceed. Remove all power from the transmitter and don’t work on failed transmission equipment during thunderstorms
  • Gather evidence; look for fault indicators, alarms, automated log entries, burned components, abnormal meter readings, etc
  • Check external factors; power failures, lightning or storm damage, excessive heat, moisture, etc
  • Check internal factors; aged components, bad cables or connectors, improperly seated boards or components, and obvious signs of damage
  • Work from one side of the issue to the other
  • Check the maintenance logs (if there are any) to see if this problem has occurred before and what was the fix
  • Use available resources; troubleshooting guides provided in equipment manuals, factory support, and available test equipment
  • If a failed component is found, make sure that it is the problem and not a symptom of something else

Here is a good example of a recent troubleshooting evolution; I went to change over to transmitter #2 and these fault lights appeared:

DX-50 transmitter, faulted, no power output

The conversion error on the A/D converter indicates why the transmitter power output is zero.

The first step; secure the transmitter, remove all power, etc. Next, consult the book!

The Harris DX-50 manual gives good troubleshooting guidance. This transmitter was manufactured on March 22, 1990. It has been a reliable unit, to date. Section K.4 Analog to Digital Converter (A34) of the manual suggests loss of audio clock frequency sample due to the following;

  • Loose connection with the carrier frequency sample cable coming from the RF drive splitter (A15)
  • Bad or missing jumper connections on P-10, frequency divider section
  • Bad U-29 (74HC161, 4-bit binary counter, only in use if the carrier frequency is above 820 KHz, Not Applicable)
  • Bad U-12 (74HC14, Schmitt trigger)
  • Bad CR13 or 14 (1N914)

Fortunately, there was a working DX-50 about 15 feet away, so I was able to make some measurements at various places on the A/D converter board.

On the working transmitter (DX-50-1), at the RF sample input (input of R83) on the A/D converter board, I see a nice strong sine wave, on frequency:

WABC carrier from RF drive splitter to A/D converter board
WABC carrier frequency

Second, I measured the logic pulses on TP-6, as described in the manual. Those look good.

On the non-working transmitter, I made the same measurements and found a fuzzy sine wave way off frequency on the input of R83. The logic pulses on TP-6 was normal.

Definitely lost the RF sample. Since the transmitter is 32 years old, I suspected the cable (#92, RG-188 coax) between the RF drive splitter and the A/D converter had gone bad. Perhaps rubbed through on a rough metal edge or something like that. Several checks with a Fluke DVM showed that there were no shorts to ground or internal conductor shorts. End-to-end checks on both the shield and inner conductor proved good. So, not the cable…

I then went on a bit of a wild goose chase suspecting the output from the oscillator to be low or the drive regulator power supply was defective. The drive level going into the PA was close to normal but slightly lower than the previous maintenance log entry. Also, drivers 8A and 8B were both on, which is not normal and made me suspect the drive regulator.

I made a call to GatesAir and spoke with a factory rep, who had me swap out the A/D converter, oscillator, driver power supply regulator board, and the buffer amp/pre-driver module between the working and non-working transmitter (while the low-power aux was on the air). With the working transmitter close by, I was able to confirm that these boards or modules were not the cause.

Finally, I went back to the RF drive splitter and use my camera to take a picture:

DX-50 RF drive splitter (A15) J-17, board side

There is a 6-pin connector on the underside of the board (J-17). Pin 2 (from the right) is the center conductor and pin 1 is the shield of the cable going to the A/D converter board. Upon closer examination, the solder joint on pin 2 is suspect. I re-heated this connection with a soldering iron and viola, the transmitter started working again.

WABC DX-50-2, returned to service

The extenuating circumstances; the air conditioning at this site was slowly failing and that part of the transmitter was subjected to heat cycling several times. More recently the HVAC system was in the process of being replaced, of course, on one of the hottest days of the year. This pulled a lot of warm, humid air into the room. Also, as this is transmitter #2, it was not in regular use until recently (we began a procedure for operating on alternating transmitters for two-week periods).

All of this work took place over the course of two and a half days or so. That would be a lot of time for the module swap guys who tend to move on to the next outage quickly. On the other hand, buying a new 50 KW AM transmitter is an expensive proposition these days and there are very long lead times on some of these units. Being persistent and focused paid off in the end.

Troubleshooting an AM array

Today, there will be a quiz.

Recently, we had an AM antenna array go out of tolerance by a good margin.  This has been repaired, however, I thought I’d post this information and see if anybody could identify the problem and the solution. Unfortunately, I don’t have prizes to give away, however, you can show off your AM engineering prowess.

All of the information is pertinent:

  1. The station has two directional arrays (DA-2) using the same towers; the nighttime array is out of tolerance, and the daytime array is not affected and is performing normally.
  2. There were no weather events connected with this event; no electrical storms, no major temperature changes, no rain events, no freezing or thawing, etc.
  3. The problem happened all at once, one day the array was performing normally, and the next day it was not.
  4. Station management reports that some listeners were complaining that they could no longer hear the station.
  5. The ATUs and phasor were inspected; all RF contactors were in the proper position, no damaged or burned finger stock and no evidence of damaged components (inductors or capacitors) was observed.  Several mouse nests were cleaned out of the ATUs, however, this did not change the out-of-tolerance antenna readings.
  6. The towers are 1/4 wave (90 electrical degrees) tall.


TowerPhase angle as licensedCurrent ratio as licensedPhase angle as readCurrent ratio as read
2 (reference)01.0001.00

Licensed values for common point current is 13 amps, impedance is 50 ohms j0 and there is normally no reflected power on the transmitter.  On this day, the common point current readings were 8.9 amps, impedance 38.5 ohms +j5 the transmitter had 340 watts of reflected power.

This is the overall schematic of the phasor and ATU:

WDGJ overall RF schematic diagram
WGDJ overall RF schematic diagram, click for higher resolution

Aerial view of the transmitter site, oriented north:

WGDJ aerial view showing towers as identified in schematic diagram
WGDJ aerial view showing towers as identified in the schematic diagram

So, where would you begin?  Ask questions in the comments section.


Good troubleshooters are becoming rare these days.  To some, the idea of working through a problem, finding and then fixing an issue seems like a time-consuming, wasteful evolution.  More often than not, it is easier to replace the entire assembly with a new one, throwing the old one away.  This is especially true with computer components.  The other option is to send a module or assembly back to the factory for repair.  Truth be told, often that is a good course of action when a fully equipped repair bench is not available.  Surface mount technology can be difficult to repair in the field, as can many RF components.

Being able to troubleshoot components and assemblies is still a valuable skill.  Finding and identifying trouble is a good skill no matter what it is used for.  I find analytical troubleshooting skills to be good life skills to have.  I think my in-laws are occasionally amazed when I walk into a situation and point to something and say: There it is, fix that.

Coil burned out on 40 amp RF contactor
Coil burned out on 40 amp RF contactor

Many times, however, there is no smoking gun. Those situations require a bit of investigative work. The first step in troubleshooting is developing a history:

  • Has this failed before
  • Is there a history of failures
  • Has it been worked on recently
  • Is it new
  • Has it been installed properly
  • It is old
  • Has it been affected by some outside force like lightning or a power surge

This is where good maintenance records or maintenance logs come in handy.  Recently, I have found many places that lack any type of maintenance documents, which means the repair history is unknown.  This makes it difficult to find a good starting point and can greatly increase the amount of time required to troubleshoot a problem.

Once the pertinent history is gathered, it can be organized and analyzed for clues.  For example, if something has been worked on recently, that is a good place to start. If something has a past history of failures, that is a good place to start.  Newly installed equipment is subject to early failures under warranty due to component failures.  Old equipment may just be plumb-worn out.  Improperly installed equipment can exhibit all kinds of bizarre failure modes.   That information coupled with known symptoms would indicate a good starting point for troubleshooting the problem.

If no good starting point can be discerned, then the next step is to recreate the failure.  This usually means turning the thing back on to see what it does.  Chances are good that whatever the problem is, it will still be there.  Once a good set of symptoms have been identified, then it is time to start working at one end of the problem unit once the failed component is isolated.

Oftentimes, equipment manuals will have troubleshooting guides.  These can greatly speed up the process for large, complicated things like transmitters, generators, and so on.  There is also the tried and true troubleshooting chart:

Generic transmitter power supply trouble shooting chart
Generic transmitter power supply trouble shooting chart

This is an example of a troubleshooting chart for a transmitter power supply.  Many equipment manuals will have this type of information in the maintenance sections.

It is also important to note that when working on high-voltage systems, it is necessary to have two persons on-site at all times.

Good troubleshooting skills have many applications.

Secretly, I like it when things break, sort of

Not that I am a glutton for punishment or anything, but I enjoy troubleshooting. There is a certain satisfaction in the analytical aspect of tracking down a problem and fixing it, hopefully in a permanent fashion.  Figuring out where a problem is requires a good bit of detective work;

  • Examining the clues; what happened before the failure, what are the fault indications, are there any external factors
  • Round up the usual suspects; a good maintenance log is helpful here to track re-occurring failures.  If the failure cannot be attributed to an external source (such as a power surge or lightning storm), what was the last thing that was changed or worked on?
  • Following the trail back to the origin; Often the first failed part found is a symptom, not the actual problem.  It takes some skill in reading schematics and making sense of a failure to trace it back to the real problem.

It can sometimes be exciting, like turning on the 25 KV high voltage supply and having big blue flashes issue forth from the top of the transmitter.  Sometimes it can be quite frustrating, like when the station owners refuse to spend money to fix a problem.  Sometimes it can be dull, like fixing the same problem over and over again because of the previously stated money problem.  It’s also disheartening when the problem was caused by the stupid DJ spilling soda in the console.  Not that all DJs are stupid, just the ones that spill things into consoles.

The challenge of finding the root cause can often be enlightening.  I have often discovered unrelated problems waiting in the wings while investigating the why of an outage.  It is great to fix those things before they burn the house down, but this approach often goes unnoticed by the ownership or management.  Lately, for some reason, an ounce of prevention goes unnoticed or unappreciated.

There is quite a bit of science to troubleshooting, but there is some combination of personal traits that make a good troubleshooter.   These are:

  • Inquiring or curious disposition.  It is fairly easy to get to the first failed module or part.  Discovering the reasons behind the failure and or getting down to the component level takes a good deal more effort.
  • Patience.  This goes with the second part above, it takes some stick-to-it-tive-ness to trace out the not readily apparent problem.
  • Good analytical skills.  Often failures generate a cause-and-effect scenario.  The effects can be startlingly distractive and mask the causes and the underlying problem.
  • Ability to view the large picture.  This is critical to discover outside influences and other issues that are indirectly connected to the system or issue at hand.
  • Ability to analyze the system design.  This requires background training and experience to look at a circuit diagram and discover non-error-tolerant systems.  Sometimes these systems can be modified for better fault tolerance.

Poorly designed equipment is the bane of the broadcast engineer.  Equipment manufacturers can sometimes fail to follow two key principles: KISS and maintainability.  KISS stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid.  There is no better design criteria than the KISS principle.  Adding layers of complexity increases the failure expectations.  Maintenance can be something as simple as cleaning or changing air filters.  Making maintenance tasks difficult almost ensures that they will not be done.

Bathtub design curve
Bathtub design curve

Eventually, all things wear out.  It also takes some large-picture skills to know when it is time to replace equipment and that can vary greatly from situation to situation.