Operating QRP SSB is only fun for a little while, until you get past the initial joy of all the amazing DX you can work with such low power. For me the frustration of the hard work required on most contacts and the inability to work most that can be heard becomes overwhelming. I'll come back to the topic of QRP SSB towards the end of this article. First I want to review a few of the things that diverted me from that frustration during the weekend. It wasn't all misery!
There were quite a few things in the contest that made me smile, and sometimes laugh. Amateur radio, and contesters, are a slice of humanity that shine a light on our curious behaviour. That is, people watching is fun and you can do it during a contest as well as on a street corner.
- Some operators are a little unclear on the concept of integrating computers for SSB contests. In one case a big station with a high run rate had the computer "speak" the caller's call sign and the contest report. This voice was clearly artificial and distinctly different from the recorded CQ message, and from the human operator who frequently interceded. It was weird and confusing. For the few minutes I was in the pile-up I heard numerous stations sounding bemused or perplexed. I suppose it's a technological marvel but not one that is conducive to a high score.
- Similar to the above, at many stations the messages were recorded by someone other than the human operator. It becomes confusing when the operator responds to your call. A couple of times I thought it was QRM (another station on the same frequency, as often happens in a contest) rather than a response to my call. It must hurt their rate. There's no reason for this since it is possible with available contest logging software for each operator in a multi-op to record and select messages in their own voices.
- Amid the super-stations and the many more little guns there are some little guns in rare countries and zones. Like me they often find it difficult to be heard on a crowded band. I worked some good DX by carefully scanning the band. Each time it took only one call, with just 5 watts. They badly needed to be spotted. I couldn't help since I was unassisted and disconnected (see next section below).
- As often happens there are a surprising number of US stations that slip below 21.200 or 14.150 MHz without noticing they are outside their SSB band segment. Since I wasn't running I couldn't tell them, and many foreign stations don't know that US callers shouldn't be there. They are in for an unpleasant surprise now that the CQ Contest Committee is becoming very strict about citing entrants who operate out of band.
- I also noticed a few European stations operating split on 40 meters who reversed their transmit and receive frequencies such that they were inadvertently transmitting above 7.2 MHz. They are transmitting outside their 40 meter band. Not surprisingly no one called them, on either frequency.
- Several of the US big guns operating split on 40 and 80 meters made the mistake of never listening on their own frequency. They missed out on many QSOs with Canadians, even as they avoided contending with zero-point QSOs with other US stations. In one bizarre instance the station in question was just below 7.2 MHz, rather than more typically transmitted higher in the band. He got no calls on his listening frequency below 7.1 MHz but had a small pile-up of Europeans on his transmit frequency. He heard none of them and just kept looping CQ's.
- Several US multi-multi stations operate the low bands through much of the daylight hours. They strive to scrape every conceivable QSO from these bands. Typically it's their greenest operators who do this duty, where they can learn the ropes while contributing to the team effort. But it must get very boring with the poor rates they achieve. Midday about all they can work is a few Canadian stations for points. They try to entice as many as they can to give them a contest exchange. I run into this a few times during contests when I briefly slide down to the low bands in the afternoon to pick up a few US contacts. This weekend one of those multi-multi operators launched into a rag chew, telling me about the station (which is already well known) and his brief experience in the hobby and contests. After a couple of minutes I was going crazy trying to find a polite way to get out of the QSO and back to the high bands. Sympathy for his boredom was damped by the QSOs I was missing on 15 meters.
I did manage to get my second inverted vee for 40 meters raised about 30 hours before the contest. That didn't leave much time to test it out beforehand. All I could do was trim it to resonance and confirm that it worked to fill in the gaps of the existing inverted vee's azimuth pattern. During the contest it came in helpful, though it did behave in ways that, at first, seemed odd. Since this is an interesting topic on its own I will follow up with an article dedicated to that topic.
This contest was a poor test of the 80 meter vertical since I can work very little with 5 watts on SSB. It garnered the few QSOs and multipliers I intended to acquire, but that's all. November's contests will provide a better venue for testing its effectiveness.
Inside the shack I tried a rearrangement of equipment on the desk. Unfortunately I designed and built my operating desk 30 years ago when computers and contest logging were not a serious consideration. With two transceivers (KX3 and FT-1000 MP), a laptop and other operating accessories it was difficult to arrange them for effective daily use and for contests. So I pushed the FT-1000 MP off to one side to allow unfettered access to the KX3 with my left hand.
For the first time I made use of the KX3's DVR (digital voice recorder). In the two message memories it supports I recorded CQ in one and my call sign in the other. Considering how few times I had an opportunity to call CQ (< 1% of contacts made this way) it would have been better to use it for my exchange (59 04).
When my laptop crashed early in the contest I decided to flip the Wi-Fi off using the hardware switch. A few months ago I determined that the periodic crashes I was experiencing were due to a hardware fault associated with Wi-Fi. This was no inconvenience since I was operating in the "no assistance" QRP category. Eventually I'll have to replace my now ancient laptop. It also doesn't have the power for too many concurrent N1MM+ features and windows.
The QRP operator is more to the vagaries of propagation than those with higher power. When you run, say, 100 watts and you're being received S7 at the other end of the QSO you are likely to be perfectly readable. When you subtract 13 db (5 watts) the situation can be radically different.
This is because communication is all about SNR -- signal to noise ratio -- not absolute signal strength. If the prevailing noise level is S3 you have 24 db of SNR on average (assuming 6 db/S-unit). QSB and propagation changes may be tolerated without loss of readability. Remove 13 db and SNR drops to only 11 db. You are now very vulnerable to conditions.
There are several consequences:
- Openings are of shorter duration and less reliable. Marginal conditions at the start and end of an opening for higher power stations are unusable with QRP because the SNR will be negative. If ionospheric absorption is higher than normal or flare reduces ionization levels the opening may be entirely unusable because of lower signal levels, and therefore no positive SNR.
- Atmospheric noise is progressively stronger at lower frequencies. QRP has a higher LUF (lowest usable frequency, where the SNR goes negative).
- QRN and QRM at the other side of the QSO similarly reduces the effective SNR, making QRP less likely to complete the contact. You have to hope for a break in the noise to slip in the report and exchange.
- What goes for CW goes even more so for SSB. With the wider bandwidth the SNR for the same power is far worse on SSB. It's no surprise that QRPers make more contacts in CW contests than in SSB contests. The opposite is the case for QRO.
- DXpeditions are much harder to work. Everyone else in your part of the world isn't running QRP, so your signal will be covered up most of the time. Good tactics may get you on a clear frequency where the DX can copy you, but you must still rely on luck since there are other good operators who know the same tactics.
Where I go from here
QRP SSB is tough. It's especially tough if, like me, you're interested in DX and contests. Before going QRT in 1992 I never operated QRP. The closest I came was when I was first licensed in the early 1970s and had to make do with an 807 tube rig, which was all I could afford. For most of those first 20 years I operated with 100 watts or 1,000 watts. I mostly avoided QRO at times and on bands where I might disturb the neighbourhood peace. QRO contesting was solely conducted in multi-ops at others' stations.
I first tried QRP SSB contesting in early 2014, just to see what it would be like. My choice was CQ WPX. I wrote about my experience with that in this blog. At this point I am ready to give it up for good.
Although I am able to place well in the QRP category it is just too painful. I am going to move up to low power in future SSB contests at my present station. Although I won't place well I prefer to refresh my contest skills, such as running, multiplier hunting and so forth.
But why have I stuck with QRP contesting for the past couple of years? I had reasons to do so.
- Even at 100 watts I am a bit shy about EMI events in the neighbourhood. I have (mostly) great neighbours and I like to keep the peace. On the other hand I have had no incidents in the few contests in which I ran 100 watts. Perhaps I am being overly sensitive.
- I have noise, sometimes lots of noise. With QRP I can be certain that when I call CQ few of the stations that reply will be loud enough to be heard. This is not only a problem on the low bands. At times this past weekend the QRN would be S9 on 10 and 15 meters. In the ARRL DX contest earlier this year it became a frequent problem.
- There is real joy in working the world with 5 watts. It was something new for me when I opted to go with the Elecraft KX3 when I rejoined the hobby in early 2013. Eventually I worked up to well over 200 DXCC countries with QRP, including over 100 countries on bands from 40 through 10 meters (except for 12 meters, which I don't use).