From the very beginning, I discovered a few things that did not work well for receiving these frequencies:
- Simply connecting an end-fed random wire to the "Low Frequency" input.
- Using my 40 meter dipole.
- Anything that was indoors.
These realizations told me several things:
- I would probably have to match the "short" antenna to the receiver input to be able to hear anything. I determined that this could be done with a series inductor or some sort of high-impedance amplifier - or a combination of both.
- When in a car, I could be well-away from interference sources - such as power lines and noisy appliances - and could hear weak AM stations. Somehow I had to keep the interference from things in the house from finding their way into my receiver.
The next "breakthrough" was to wind a simple 1:1 transformer on a chunk of ferrite - probably the flyback transformer core of an old TV - that allowed only magnetic coupling between the radio and its chassis, and the antenna and a connection that went directly to my kludgy system of buried ground rods. By doing this, the "noisy" ground of my receiver - which was connected throughout the house with its noisy devices - was no longer referenced to the antenna. Because the antenna must have a "ground" of some sort to "push" against I knew that if that "ground" was the radio itself, which was connected to the noisy house wiring, that this noise would, in effect, appear on the wire antenna. This transformer effectively decoupled the two, using, instead, the comparatively "pristine" ground rod for the antenna to "push" against. (For a depiction of this method see the external link to a paper by DL1DBC at the bottom of this page.)
Between the above two tricks an entirely new world opened up as I could now hear the (now defunct) Omega transmitters between about 10 and 14 kHz and a myriad of "NDBs" (non-directional beacons) and similar signals in the range from 190 through just below 530 kHz. To be sure, I had to do most of my listening at night when TVs and lights were turned off, but that's when most of these frequencies propagated best, anyway!
The "LowFER" band:
Somewhere around this time I learned of the so-called 1750 meter "LowFER" band - a spectral slice from 160 through 190 kHz where legal, unlicensed operation (according to FCC §15.217 - read more here) could occur with some very strict limitations (e.g. an antenna that was, at most, 15 meters "long" and a maximum of 1 watt of input power.) but the challenge of both transmitting a usable signal with these limitations and receiving it via conventional techniques (e.g. CW) had its appeal.
It was at about this time - in the mid 1980s - that I purchased an LF Engineering LF-400B - a commercially-available active E-field whip antenna that seemed to have decent reviews in the various longwave-related newsletters to which I then subscribed. This antenna, with a built-in amplifier and a strong low-pass filter to remove signals above 500 kHz, was much more convenient than trying to string a long piece of wire and matching it as it was rated from "3 kHz to 500 kHz". One slight disadvantage of this - or any active antenna - is that it needs power, supplied in this case by a "power inserter" that ran from an external power supply or a pair of contained 9 volt batteries.
Being an E-field whip antenna it was still sensitive to the direct radiation of interference from the household and neighborhood wiring and appliances, but provided that I located it away from the house and "decoupled" its cable by winding as many turns as could fit on the core of a flyback transformer from a scrapped TV and grounding the shield at the antenna, it seemed to hear the background static very well - and if I could hear the background noise, there was hope that I could hear the weak signals buried within.
It was during this time period that I actively listened on the LowFER band, managing to hear a number of stations that were 200-700 miles (about 300-1100 km) away and, on one winter evening, hearing a station halfway across the continent - about 2000 miles (3200 km) away. I also set up my own LowFER beacon that, although very modest, was occasionally heard, on CW, up to 700 miles (1100 km) away.
Another antenna to consider for MF/LF/VLF reception is a shielded H-field loop. By its nature, it is less-sensitive to nearby E-field energy - often that which emanates from electrical devices' interference radiating from wiring.
Another advantage of a loop is that it has a "figure-8" pattern with two nulls, allowing the possibility of rotating it such that one of these nulls is oriented toward an interference source. The obvious disadvantage is that a loop should have provisions for rotation to steer it into the null for the worst interference - or take care of those instances where the desired station happens to be in the direction of the null.
Shielded loops are available and they can be constructed fairly easily, typically using a piece of coaxial cable. Unless they are rather large and/or actively tuned to the receive frequency, they - like a short E-field whip - must have an amplifier that is externally powered.
Fast forward to the 21st century:
As it happens, I still have the L-400B and it has been outside, on a roof, for most of the time since the mid 1980s. Other than having to repair it a time or two (usually due to condensation and related corrosion) it still works as well as it ever did. While I had not been as active on LF as I once was, I'd been maintaining that receive antenna system and with the recent availability of the 630 and 2200 meter bands, interest has been rekindled.
To this end, I decided to document my receive antenna installation, showing what "works for me."
The antenna on the roof:
I will admit to a luxury that most others will not have: My house has a metal roof.
If you are not "blessed" with a metal roof on your house - but you are willing to go through a bit of hassle - you could lay down a suitable ground plane: Many people have been known to put down a layer of chicken wire on the roof or an interconnected grid of wires to act as an effective shield. Practically speaking, it need not cover the entire roof, but if the radius of this plane is 1-2 times the height of the antenna over the roof, it will probably have reasonable effectiveness.
Somewhere this plane must be grounded and it is best that this is done via its very own ground system - which could be as simple as a ground rod - which is preferred over tying into the house's "noisy" electrical ground.
As can be seen from the picture in Figure 1 the whip antenna is mounted to a vent pipe at a height of approximately 5 feet (1.5 meters) above the roof - which happened to be the length of the piece of aluminum that I'd found to mount the antenna. When experimenting with mounting this antenna I found that if I placed it just above the metal roof, it was very quiet and relatively insensitive - but much of that was due to the fact that the very E fields to which the antenna is sensitive decrease significantly with proximity to "ground". By raising the antenna above the roof the signals increase very dramatically, but still seemed to be within the "cone of silence" afforded by the metal roof.
Decoupling the coaxial cable at the receive antenna:
At the time that I bought the LF-400B antenna it was offered only with a permanently attached RG-174 feedline, but after about a year of use, often hauling it into the wild to listen, away from the city, the coaxial cable fatigued and broke, so I carefully disassembled it and installed a BNC connector (later versions of this antenna have a choice of connectors as an option.) This modification allowed me to connect a ground directly to the bottom of the antenna.
As mentioned earlier, one of the "tricks" to a quiet E-field antenna is to prevent electrical noise from being conducted from the receiver and "lighting up the ground" of the antenna itself - a problem that is arguably worse than the antenna itself picking up noise, directly. One of the better ways to to do this is to "decouple" the coaxial cable between the antenna and receiver using a large amount of inductance on the feedline - and I chose to do this several ways.
As can be seen from figure 1 there is a (red) wire connected directly to the antenna's connector that, in turn, connects to the "local ground" - that is, the metal roof itself. By doing this, the "ground" of the antenna and the roof are at the same RF potential and the interception of "local" interference by the antenna is reduced.
Also visible in figure 1 - and in more detail in figure 2 - is an inductor in the form of a portion of the connecting coaxial cable being wound around a large ferrite rod from a discarded AM radio. The location of this inductor places it between the antenna and the receiver and its inductance adds common mode impedance to signals that would be conducted along the coaxial cable, but will not affect the desired signals within the cable itself. A better choke for this location would be like that depicted in Figure 4 (and described below) as it has higher effective resistance at the frequencies of interest, but since I'd already installed this one, I left it in place.
Figure 4 shows the other end of the cable just after it enters the house. Just as it enters through the window there is another BNC connector, and connected to the shield at that point is a wire that goes directly to a grounding system that is located immediately outside the window. Between this grounding point and the inside of the house where the connection to the radio is made the coaxial cable is wound around a much more substantial choke - this one consisting of as many turns of the RG-58 coaxial cable as will fit on a TV flyback transformer ferrite core that was scavanged from a discarded CRT TV or computer monitor. The details of the locations of these chokes and the grounding points is detailed in Figure 3.
It is this second "inside" choke that does most of the work: Consisting of about 20 turns, it has a measured inductance of about 15 millihenries. In running the math we can see that this large amount of inductance is what is required to effectively isolate the coax at LF and VLF frequencies, as in:
Where inductive reactance is calculated using the equation:
Z = 2 * Pi * F * LWhere:
Z = Reactance in ohmsBecause we are dealing with milliHenries and kHz, the "10s" parts cancel out, so:
F = Frequency in Hz
L = Inductance in Henries
At 500 kHz:
500 kHz * 15 milliHenries * 6.28 = 47100 ohms
Because this is a linear equation, we can then re-run the numbers which tells us that at 50 kHz, the reactance is 4710 ohms and that at 5 kHz it would be 471 ohms.
What this shows us is that even at very low (VLF) frequencies, the impedance of our rather substantial inductance is still effective, so it will work nicely at both 630 and 2200 meters - and everything in between!
Obtaining the inductance:
While "current-mode" 1:1 baluns that isolate the feedline in the manner we desire are readily available, unless they were specifically designed for LF and VLF use they do not have enough reactance to operate effectively at these low frequencies! What this means is that unless a suitable product is offered by one of these companies that is has been designed for LF and VLF use, they will not work well! This means is that you will probably need to construct your own coaxial choke.
Using flyback transformer cores:
Many years ago it was pretty easy to scavange flyback transformer cores from old CRT-based TVs or computer monitors, but these are getting harder to find - but this is mostly a good thing since these transformers were part of the very device that caused a lot of interference at VLF and LF frequencies! Once one manages to get the core out of an old flyback transformer in the first place (sometimes a trick in and of itself!) the fact that these cores are in two pieces makes it easy to wind the coaxial cable over one half and then assemble it. When I come across a flyback transformer, I often resort to putting it in a toaster oven and heating it so that the glue softens. Often, the core breaks - but ferrite typically breaks very cleanly and the two pieces can be rejoined using a drop of cyanoacrylate (e.g. "super") glue with little change in performance. Before using the ferrite core, make sure that any plastic or fiber shims between the two halves are removed: These were important in the role as a flyback transformer, but they will reduce the inductance of our choke and aren't helpful to us in our quest to quash QRM.
If a flyback transformer core is not available, what can be used, instead?
Using high-permeability toroidal cores:
While not as convenient as a flyback transformer core - which can be disassembled during winding - a ferrite toroidal core can be used, instead. To maximize the number of turns, smaller coax such as RG-174 would be used and the connectors installed/connected after winding was complete.
Take, for example, a common ferrite material designed for low frequencies - "Mix 75" (sometimes called "Mix J") with a typical permeability of about 5000. A reasonably large toroidal core would be the FT-240 (the complete part number would be either "FT-240-75" or "F240-75"). Note that the ferrite mixes that one would normally use for things like HF baluns aren't ideal for this purpose as they have lower permeability.
Extrapolating from a data sheet and rewriting the equation we can see that if we can manage to wind 30 turns on this particular toroidal core, we can expect:
L = Al * (T/1000)2
L = Inductance in mHSo,
T = Turns
Al = mH per 1000 turns from the spec. sheet - 6850 for an FT-240-75
6850 * (30/1000)2 = 6.165mH
Clearly, this is a bit less than half as much as I'd measured on my discarded TV flyback, but if we use the equation above we still get 194 ohms at 5 kHz and over 5 kohms at 2200 meters - a respectable amount of reactance! Using this size of core (an inside diameter of 1.4 inches/3.5cm) it is likely that more than 30 turns of RG-174 could be wound on it - and if you make this type of core, by all means, put as many turns on at as you can!
Unfortunately, the "Mix 75" toroids are not as easy to find as typical toroids designed for higher (HF) frequencies and if we use a more common type such as Mix 31 the result will be between a quarter and a fifth of the inductance for the same number of turns whereas "Mix 77" will, for the same number of turns, yield about 1/3 of the inductance as Mix 75, but this would still imply between 1 and 2 kohms at 2200 meters - still quite good.
Where does one get this sort of toroid? Toroids can be found at a number of places, including:
- Palomar Engineers (link)
- Amidon Associates (link).
- Another distributor of some of these devices is the web site kf7p.com - link.
Another possibility - Common-mode chokes:
While a coaxial-based choke is preferred, there are other devices - possibly in your junk box - that may be suitable: A common-mode choke used for power supply filtering. The best place to find these is from scrapped switching power supplies - such as those used in computers.
In order for these devices to be suitable for our purpose, they need to have:
- Adequate inductance. As we noted above, we need milliHenries of inductance to effectively choke out interference at LF and VLF frequencies. The smaller toroidal chokes shown - typically those wound on toroidal cores - have hundreds of microHenries of inductance which may be suitable at 630 meters, but could be marginal at 2200 meters. For example, a choke with 100 microHenries per winding will offer about 295 ohms of reactance at 630 meters, but only 86 ohms at 2200 meters. Because we want as much reactance as possible - at least in the many hundreds of ohms - we would hope to do better!
- Good balance. All of these chokes consists of two identical windings and the idea is that if a common mode signal appears across both windings, they will be suppressed. If, however, the two windings are not identical, this suppression will be incomplete. It is likely that the "transformer-looking" chokes (e.g. those that do NOT look like toroids) will have reasonable suppression at 2200 meters - and maybe even 630 meters - but as one goes up in frequency even more, the imbalance will grow.
- Low loss to differential signals. The reason that we can pass a signal through a coaxial cable wound on a large piece of ferrite without affecting the signal being carried by that cable is that the coaxial cable, by its very nature, is fairly low loss to the signals carried within where the signal on the inside conductor of the coax is precisely equal and opposite to that carried on the shield. If one has separate windings, each carrying an equal and opposite signals, imperfections in these two windings - sometimes the same as those that cause imbalance - can cause degradation of those signals. As one goes up in frequency these ferrite cores - which are formulated to block low frequencies - can start to get lossy - and this doesn't include the self-capacitance of the windings which can cause other things to happen, such as strange resonances or coupling. In other words, they may work find at low frequencies, but "fall apart" at higher frequencies such as 160 meters (1.8 MHz) and up.
How it is would be connected:
Figure 6 shows how such a device would be connected to coaxial connectors. Note that the winding for the shield on one side of the choke connects to the same shield on the other side. In theory, this wouldn't matter at RF, but because we may need to conduct DC to power the active antenna, we would also need to preserve the polarity.
Not also that both sides of the input and output coaxes connect to the same "side" of the dual winding choke as indicated by the dots - in other words, the two windings are in phase with each other: Were either one of the windings (ground or center conductor) "flipped", this choke would do exactly opposite that which we desire - that is, the signal on the coax would be blocked, leaving only noise!
For an inductor such as that depicted in Figures 5 and 6 that is not wound with coax, it doesn't matter which side is the shield and which is the center - just as long as the windings are "shield-to-shield" and "center-to-center".
Another example of feedline choking and grounding:
In this case - which just happened to be another LF-400B - RG-174 coaxial cable was permanently attached to the antenna. This cable was cut, leaving about 20 feet (approx. 6 meters) of it still attached to the antenna and, leaving a "service" loop of about 1.5 feet (35cm) the remainder was wrapped on the flyback core of a discarded computer monitor.
It is worth noting (again) that these flyback cores are usually "gapped" - that is, a small - usually plastic - insulator is placed between the two halves of a core to prevent it's being saturated. On some of these cores there are two equal gaps - one on each of the two mating surfaces and if these are removed, the two ferrite surfaces mate closely. In the case of the core in Figure 7, only one of these mating surfaces had a gap, meaning that one side mated closely while there was a gap on the other side: Sometimes the cores are symmetrical and one can be "flipped" to eliminate this problem, but that was not the case with the core in Figure 4, so a slight gap was inevitable and this has the inevitable result of reducing the total inductance of the core.
In the case of the flyback pictured in Figure 7 the plastic gapping material was carefully retained and a very thin layer of epoxy was put on the two sets of mating surfaces and the metal bail holding the two together was reinstalled, the cores being worked back-and-forth to squeeze out extra epoxy. Once this was done epoxy was applied to the wire bail itself to keep it in place. After the epoxy was allowed to cure, the remaining RG-174 coaxial cable was wound on it, filling it up.
Figure 8 shows a bit of detail about the grounding of the antenna. This particular antenna has a permanently attached cable and the owner didn't wish to modify the antenna to add a coaxial connector to it. That which follows was done before the coaxial cable was wound on the ferrite core.
The ground connection needed to be made directly to the cable's shield and this was done by carefully baring a bit of the shield by removing a small amount of the outer jacket and then using a hot soldering iron to quickly make the connection without melting the inner dielectric - a bit of a trick to do if one isn't skilled in the art of soldering! To make this weather proof the connection was covered with a thin layer of thermoset (e.g. "hot melt") glue and a small piece of heat shrink tubing was slid over the joint and shrunk. Over the top of this a thin layer of RTV ("Silicone") sealant was spread over the entirety of the connection and another, slightly longer piece of heat shrink tubing was installed and shrunk - and then another thin layer of RTV and slightly longer heat shrink tubing.
While this sounds like overkill, it should prevent moisture from finding its way in between the jacket of the coax and the tubing. Finally, this connection should be oriented at the time of installation such that water runs away from it - which is to say, the part with the wire coming out from underneath the tubing should be facing down.
More information about interference reduction:
While the above techniques will go a long way to reduce the amount of noise picked up by an E-field antenna - and, to a degree, any antenna - it is too-often the case that there will be some device that simply radiates a lot of noise. While at HF frequencies and higher it is possible to reduce this noise with the application of large ferrite devices on cables, power cords, etc. this tactic simply does not work well at VLF/LF/MF frequencies because it takes so much reactance (inductance) to introduce enough effective resistance in the wire conveying this noise and a "snap-on" choke simply cannot do this. Even if a device contains "good" noise suppressing components (not all do!) they simply may not be very effective at VLF/LF/MF frequencies.
If you are interested in listening on the LF and MF amateur bands, the necessary first steps are outlined above: Do what is necessary to prevent noise from being conducted out, onto the antenna in the first place.
Once that is done, you may need to "seek and destroy" devices that are particularly egregious when it comes to generation RF "grunge" - and the typical suspects are switching power supplies, light dimmers and some brands of LED lights. Plasma TVs are notoriously bad interference generators, but since they are no longer being made, their contribution to the miasma of QRM is slowly decreasing as they die off.
The best way to find noise that you can do something about is to power the receiver from a battery (NOT including an inverter!) and turn off all of the power to the house - including shutting down any UPSs that you might have. If the noise decreases or goes away, turn on one circuit at a time until it returns and upon finding the circuit, isolate the specific device that causes the problem. If the noise is just the same with your power off as it is on, there may be a noisy power line nearby and/or a neighbor may have a noisy device - and how you deal with those two entities is up to you!
If you find a device (or devices) that generate lots of interference, they might either be replaced with "quieter" ones or modified to be quiet. Unfortunately, the latter can be a challenge and the links below include techniques for doing this. If your goal is interference reduction at VLF/LF/MF - and you are constructing better filtering - remember that the higher-inductance chokes will be best!
How well does my receive antenna system work?
In the late evening and overnight, I can easily hear the "band noise" - that is, the sounds of the ionosphere and propagated storm static. During the day time the noise level is typically lower as it seems as though propagated noise from a wide geographical area is suppressed somewhat - possibly by the formation of the ionospheric E-layer. During the "busy" hours - particularly from, say, 5 to 11 PM, there can be a bit of interference from other peoples' TVs, appliances and whatnot, but it is usually not severe enough to completely quash reception.
In my ham shack I have some track lighting over the workbench that is equipped with LED floodlights and is controlled by a light dimmer. While I do not "hear" the LED's switching power supplies, I do get a significant "buzz" on 2200 meters from the dimmer itself - but I don't hear it on 630 meters. The work-around for this is to use a smaller work light near the workbench - both of them being fluorescent - one having an iron ballast and the other electronic - but neither of them causing detectable interference on either 630 or 2200 meters.
For the past 5 years or so there have been a number of Canadian amateur stations (who have had access to the frequencies around 630 and 2200 meters for a while) plus some U.S. based "experimental" stations that have also operated on a number of other frequencies and in this time, I've been able to "receive" these stations which are typically using a digital mode like WSPR or a more analog-like mode like QRSS (slow-speed Morse code) - both typically being detected by computer. The operational frequencies of these stations has varied from above 500 kHz to below 30 kHz, depending on the authorized frequencies of the various experimental stations and I've generally been able receive such signals including a number of stations operating in the 470-500 kHz range across the U.S. and an experimental station operating near 29 kHz (yes, 29 kHz!) from New York state to my QTH in Utah - a distance of about 2000 miles (approx. 3200km).
In the relatively short time since U.S. amateurs have been allowed to operate on the 630 and 2200 meter bands I've heard several stations on both bands - some well enough to have copied using Morse code via ear and, possibly, even SSB voice. As the northern hemisphere descends into winter - and as more amateurs receive authorization and put their systems on the air - I expect to hear even more stations.
One device in my arsenal is a "Line Synchronous Noise Blanker" - that is, a device that will mute the antenna signal when an interfering pulse - which is usually in sync with the power mains - comes in. This devices is adjusted manually and can go a long way to knocking out this type of noise. This device is described on this page: A Line-Synchronous Noise Blanker for VLF/LF/MF use - link.
Links to other articles about power supply noise reduction:
- Completely containing switching power supply RFI - link. Sometimes it can be difficult to quiet a switching power supply, so it may be necessary to put it in a box with strong filtering on all of the conductors that enter/leave.
- Minimizing VHF (and HF) RFI from electronic ballasts and fluorescent tubes - link. Electronic light ballasts, like many switching power supplies, operate in the LF frequency range so "cleaning them up" at VLF/LF/MF frequencies can be a challenge.
- Quieting high current switching power supplies used in the shack - link. This page describes techniques that can be used to reduce the amount of RF energy produced by switching power supplies that you may be using to power your radios. Again, higher-inductance chokes may be required at VLF/LF/MF frequencies.
- Reducing switching supply racket - link. This describes techniques that can be used to beef up the filtering for switching supplies in general.
- Discussion from the DL1DBC web site about active antennas, including their operation and installation - link.
- Construction and installation of a PA0RDT whip by VK6YSF - link.
- Discussion of E-field whip antennas by PA3FWM - link.
Once again, here are some links to suppliers of suitable ferrite devices:
- Palomar Engineers (link)
- Amidon Associates (link).
- Another distributor of some of these devices is the web site kf7p.com - link.
The L-400B still seems to be available - at about twice the price as it was when I bought mine in 1986-7. The page with information on this and similar products may be found here - link.
In addition to the L-400B, there are now other active whips, including the AMRAD active whip, the PA0RDT "Mini-whip" and variants on those designs which may or may not include a low-pass filter to remove mediumwave signals. All of these are reported to work well, but be aware that some receivers have difficulty dealing with signal from strong, local AM broadcast transmitters.
I have built my own copy of the PA0RDT mini-whip and I tried it only briefly: When I put it up, it was badly overloaded by my own HF WSPR transmitter - so I took it down and put the LF-400B back up as its built-in low-pass filter makes it pretty immune to being overloaded nearby HF transmissions.
This page stolen from ka7oei.blogspot.com