Saturday, November 24, 2012

Icom 802 SSB/Ham Radio Problems: Control Cable Corrosion aned Ground Plan issues

2012 11 24
London, ON Canada

All too often sailors are plagued with poorly working SSB radios.  Satisfactory service levels from a SSB/Ham Radio while at sea are hard to maintain.  If you want email and weather reports at sea you must add radio technician  to the panoply of skills that already crowd the sailor's somewhat schizoid psyche.

Of course rich guys will just buy a satellite phone and pay a zillion bucks a minute to enjoy online services that are as slow as his boat.  We have tried it both ways and when it works SSB kills satellite phone every which way.  Here is an aside: SSB email is the joy it is due to the generosity of Jim Corenman and a group of sailor/ham/programmers who have given us the sailmail suite of software routines and the Sailmail and Winlink2000 ham networks.  These guys have devoted hundreds and thousands of hours writing code and donating their systems and equipment so we lesser beings can enjoy safe reliable email and weather reportage.

Along the way to getting our system to work well we have learned a couple of things that may ease the installation, troublshooting or maintenance of your Icom 802 SSB.  Likely the comments are transferable to other rigs but our experience is with that most popular of SSB units.

Control Cable, Antenna Tuner, Antenna

When you hook up your SSB radio you will first connect it to an antenna tuner and then connect the antenna tuner to the antenna.

Control Cable: At one point our radio stopped tuning the antenna tuner.  This was a major bummer as the radio is useless with an untuned antenna.  It is agonizing trying to pinpoint the source of the trouble.  There are so many possibilities.  

In our case days of excruciating investigation disclosed the problem was the expensive ICOM control cable that connects the radio to the antenna tuner.  This is not the cable that carries radio signals. It is the other cable, the one with the stupid little plastic connectors on the end.  This cable is not tinned even though it is supposedly designed to be used on sailboats in the ocean and, for that matter, is so expensive the wires should be gold plated.

What happened was that all the little copper wires corroded.  They turned black.  The wires stopped carrying current at the voltages used by ICOM to control its tuner from the radio.  

The problem was in the middle of the cable far from either end.  Two of the wires were black.  They were black for ten feet.  I have no idea where the salt got through the plastic coating on the wires but somehow it did.  

To fix the problem I replaced the entire cable with CAT5 computer network cable, a supply of which I always have on board.  Everything has worked fine since.

Here is a beef with ICOM.  This stupid cable costs a fortune.  It is simple copper with a bit of screen for shielding.  Without the cable the expensive ICOM radio does not work.  The wire is not tinned and clearly the coating on the wires is not up to the task of protecting it.

Antenna: we stopped using our backstay for an antenna. There were a lot of problems with the backstay: connecting the antenna tuner was a problem and the wire from the antenna tuner corroded very quickly where it tied into the antenna.   I never liked the idea of using those insulators.  It always seemed to me the insulators were a weak point in the backstay and I was never comfortable with them.  Finally stainless steel is not a  great conductor.  You don't have to use the backstay, it just seems everyone does.  

Instead I made a copper wire antenna and haul it aloft using the old backstay.  To make the antenna I took a I took a length of old doublebraid halyard removed for replacement.  I took out the core leaving an empty sheath.  I took a 35 foot length of 14 gauge copper tinned wire and slipped it into the sheath of the old halyard.  Tieing one end of the old halyard to the pushpit I spliced the other end onto the old topping lift which had been rendered surplus when we installed a rigid boomvang to hold the boom.   

I think this has helped radio effectiveness and for sure it cuts down maintenance on the connection to the backstay.

Ground Plane

When you first get your SSB radio you will read a lot of confusing stuff about needing a ground plane as part of your antenna system.  It is confusing not because you are too slow witted to learn about it.  Too many of the the selfstyled experts online are not up to the task of explaining groundplane. 

Einstein told us "if I can't explain a concept simply then I don't understand it".

All you need to know is that you need a ground plane.  What is important is how you can easily get one.  Now here is where the "experts" really screw you up.  You will hear that you need 100 sq feet of copper glued to the inside of your hull.  You will hear you should use a sintered bronze dynaplate on the outside of your hull.  You will hear a lot of stuff.  Most of it you should ignore.

After years of doing it wrong (including labouriously installing 100 sq feet of copper and installing a dynaplate) and wasting money and time we found an inexpensive and easy to install solution to the ground plane problem.  It is a commercial product called the KISS ground plane.  

And no I am not some nutbar in cahoots with the guy who sells these devices.  Except for ordering the thing I have had no contact with him and he was a bit too fervent for my liking in that very brief encounter.  But fair is fair: his $140 KISS ground plane thingy solved a lot of issues for our radio.

Before trying the KISS groundplane my wife and I had determined to remove the radio from our boat.  We had had it serviced by two ICOM dealers neither of whom did anything other than charge us a lot of money.  It did not work.  It had not worked from the day it was installed.

After we installed the KISS ground plane our radio worked.  It worked well enough that we had email using sailmail on Winlink 2000 with a ham radio station in Halifax.  This provided clear reliable email and gribs updated twice a day all the way to the Azores.

Got that: clear reliable email and gribs over 1,200 miles of ocean.  For the first time in ten years of owning the Icom 802 the radio actually worked.

Looking it up you will see a lot of people think the device is a fraud.  We are inclined to think those people are the frauds.  Maybe they are just disgruntled that something they have worked so hard to make complicated has been demonstrated to be easy.

I like easy.

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