PreciseRF HG-1 “WR” MLA Review

While I’m fairly happy with the performance that I get from my first HF antenna, an MFJ-2299 telescoping rotatable dipole, which consists of an MFJ-347 mount with a pair of 16.9′ telescoping stainless steel whips which will cover from 6m-20m, mounted on an MFJ-1921 tripod, with a DXE 25′ telescoping fiberglass mast, I wanted to have an antenna that covered the lower bands, especially 40m, as well as 80m and 30m, which the MFJ-2299 does not cover.

MFJ-2299 antenna setup at Winter Field Day, January 2020

I live in a small neighborhood in a suburb of Denver, Colorado, and have a very small lot, so stringing up 120′ of wire isn’t really an option. It’s also a new neighborhood, so the trees are all quite small, so I don’t have anything to use to get a wire antenna up in the air, nor to camouflage a stealth antenna. After doing quite a bit of research, including reading the ARRL book on “Small Antennas for Small Spaces” it seemed that the “unsung hero” of limited space may be the Magnetic Loop Antenna (MLA), or Small Transmitting Loop.

A magnetic loop antenna for amateur radio is typically made of about 10′ of large diameter coaxial cable (utilizing the braided shield rather than the center conductor) which makes about a 1m diameter loop, connected to a tuning capacitor at the bottom. A smaller inductively-coupled loop is connected to the transceiver. The capacitor can be adjusted to change the resonant frequency of the loop. An MLA doesn’t need to be mounted very high, only 1-2m, and doesn’t require ground radials, etc. Because the primary element of the MLA is a short piece of coax, an MLA is often very portable, and can be taken down and stored in a small bag, so they are popular for portable operations like SOTA activations.

There are two main drawbacks to a magnetic loop antenna — they have a high “Q” factor causing a very narrow bandwidth, and they often only handle low transmit power, sometimes as little as 10w. The narrow bandwidth means that tuning to different frequencies on the radio usually means that you have to retune the capacitor on the loop. There are some loop antennas that will handle up to 100w. For my purposes, I planned on working digital sound card modes like ft8, which are on a set frequency range, and are “weak signal” modes, so neither of these drawbacks were a concern for me. What I was looking for, though, were two features. While many QRP operators are sitting next to the antenna when working with it, I planned to be at my station in the basement, with the MLA setup outside, so I needed to be able to tune it remotely. I also wanted to be able to leave the antenna setup so that I could play on the radio whenever I had free time, without having to spend a lot of time setting it up and taking it down again. This meant that it needed to weather-resistant.

One of the options that I considered was the MFJ-1788 MLA, which is a 36″ diameter loop that is remotely tuned and handles 150w, and can be mounted outside. It’s designed for fixed installations, though, so it’s not exactly portable. I wanted to be able to take my antenna with me when camping, traveling, or for portable use, so this wasn’t a good fit for me. I also considered options like the Chameleon Antenna F-LOOP Plus 2.0 and several options from Alpha Antenna, neither of which offered remote tuning, before deciding on one from PreciseRF.

The antenna that I selected in February 2020 was the PreciseRF HG-1 WR Magnetic Loop Antenna. The HG-1 WR has now been discontinued, but is very similar to the HG3 which replaced it, although the HG3 has a stepper motor and more sophisticated automatic tuner options. The HG-1 WR is a portable unit with a coax loop, so it can be packed up into a small bag. It has a remote tuner and as a bonus, a rotator, since an MLA has a “null” perpendicular to the loop. It can be useful to rotate the antenna to block noise or interference. It covers 10m-40m at up to 45w, with additional plug-in capacitor modules for 60m and 80m, limited to 10w. According the marketing material, “it is outdoor deployable, water-resistant and ideal for HOA and other fixed installations.” (I’ll have more on this later…)

I ordered the “Deluxe” Package, which included:

  • HG-1 WR water resistant tuner/resonator
  • AR-1 remote rotator
  • HG-2 universal controller
  • LMR600 10′ low loss radiation loop & copper induction loop
  • PVC three section mast
  • 12′ 50Ω feed line
  • 12′ CAT6 control cable
  • RJ45 T adapter
  • T-1U Universal Tripod
HG-1 WR water resistant tuner/resonator
AR-1 remote rotator
HG-2 universal controller
LMR600 10′ low loss radiation loop
Copper induction loop, with BNC connector. Clips onto the PVC mast
PVC three section mast

I won’t include pictures of the other items, as they are fairly standard coax and CAT6 “ethernet” cable. The coupling loop uses a BNC connector, common for QRP radios. I bought an ABR BNC-PL-259 RG8x coax cable so that I can connect to a PolyPhaser lightning arrestor in my entry panel. The remote tuner and rotator connect with standard CAT6 ethernet cable, so I was able to make a cable that runs about 75′ from my station in the basement out through the entry panel. The T-1U Universal Tripod turned out to be a photographic light stand from Neweer which sells on Amazon for less than $30, rather than $80 from PreciseRF, although their version includes a nicely made adaptor to mount the antenna on the rotator.

Assembly is pretty straight-forward, and well documented in the materials from PreciseRF. Setup the tripod, and screw the threaded adaptor into the base of the rotator, which clamps to the tripod. Assemble the three sections of PVC mast, and attach to the top of the rotator with a pin. Unless you fabricated your own mount, there is no way to mount the antenna without the rotator, at least with the “Deluxe” package. The enclosure with the tuning capacitor mounts to the base of the mast with a couple of thumbscrews. Then the LMR600 coax loop is attached to both sides of the tuner, and held by a clip at the top of the PVC mast. The copper coupling loop clips to the mast, and is connected to the transceiver with a BNC connector. There are not explicit instructions about positioning the coupling loop. It should overlap with the top of the loop, and you may be able to make fine adjustments to the SWR by adjusting the position of the coupling loop. The rotator and tuner connect to the controller with an ethernet cable, and a “T” connector is included to connect both at once.

Once assembled, you can use the controller to tune the antenna to resonate on the desired frequency. The controller can be powered by a 9v battery, or with the included 9v power supply/transformer. I believe that the rotator only works with the AC adapter, as it draws too much current for the 9v battery. The controller has a knob to adjust the speed, and up and down pulse buttons to change the tuning capacitor, or turn the rotator. The approach recommended in the instructions is to tune until you have the highest noise level on the frequency you are tuned, or to use the SWR meter on the transceiver while sending a CW tone at low power. I found this method to be rather difficult, since the bandwidth is no narrow, and the tuning tends to jump up and down a bit, rather than gradually.

After a month, I started to notice that I couldn’t hear any difference in the noise level, so I ordered an antenna analyzer. I picked up a Rig Expert Stick 230 in March 2020. This a fabulous device — small, lightweight, easy-to-read e-paper display, and a long-life rechargeable Li-ion battery. The best part, though, is that it also has USB and BlueTooth, and can be connected to the AntScope2 application on the Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS devices, or Android. This allows you to see an SWR graph, so that you can see exactly where the lowest SWR is found. This has made tuning the magnetic loop much easier.

I will also note that in my case, the resonant tuning changes throughout the day as the temperature changes. I would imagine that the spacing between the plates in the capacitor varies as it heats or cools. I find that I have to retune every couple of hours to stay tuned to the right frequency.

Rig Expert AntScope2 scan showing SWR of PreciseRF HG-1 MLA tuned to 7.074MHz for ft8 on 40m

Unfortunately, what I found in April 2020 was that the loop didn’t show resonance on any band, and I couldn’t tune to less than 15:1 SWR! In fact, turning the capacitor had no effect on the SWR reading, so I was concerned that the control cable was bad. I took the antenna analyzer and controller outside to the antenna to bypass the coax and CAT6 cable that I ran, and connected directly to the MLA tuner. I could hear the tuning cap motor running on high speed with the controller, so I could tell that it was working.

I decided to open the cover on the tuning box to inspect it, and about 1-2 tablespoons of water came out when I removed the cover! There were visible drops of water on the top end of the capacitor, and the upper plates, so it appears that water entered through/around the banana jacks on the top of the case. The banana jacks for the external resonator capacitor module were supposed to be “water-proof” but seemed to have leaked when some spring snow melted. Although, in retrospect, it could also have been condensation that formed on the top and dripped down, as well…

Moisture inside of the HG-1 tuner
Water droplet on the capacitor

To ensure that the antenna would be weather-resistant when I set it up outside, I had applied some silicone caulking around the base of the coupling loop, to make certain that water didn’t enter and get into the BNC connector, and also around the SO-239 connectors on the sides of the tuning box for the secondary loop. I wrapped all of the coax connections with 3M Temflex 2155 Rubber Splicing Tape and Scotch Super 33 Plus Vinyl Electrical Tape for UV protection. I also sealed around the top edge of the lower cap on the rotator with silicone caulk where it looked like water could enter.

Silicone sealant applied to the external connectors on the tuning enclosure of the HG-1 “WR” MLA
LMR600 coax connector wrapped with 3M Temflex 2155 rubber splicing tape
Overwrap of Scotch Super 33 Plus Vinyl Electrical Tape to provide UV resistance

I also found a solution to weather-proof the RJ-45 connections. I have had security cameras that use RJ45 with PoE, and found them to be extremely difficult to waterproof. I found the “SockitBox” on Amazon for $7.77, which is intended for outdoor electrical connections like holiday or garden lighting. They make a smaller unit, but it only has two cable entrances. This one is larger than needed for the Y adaptor, but has slots for up to 5 cables.

The “SocketBox” weatherproof enclosure for cables, used to protect the RJ-45 connections

When I discovered water in the enclosure, I reached out to PreciseRF, and they made some recommendations on drying out the capacitor, etc. In the end, I still wasn’t getting the specified capacitance, so they gave me an RMA to return the tuner for exchange at the end of April 2020. In addition to the weather-proofing precautions that I took the first time, PreciseRF also suggested that I consider mounting the tuning box “upside-down” with the banana jacks at the bottom, thinking the “cable gland” around the CAT6 cable might be less prone to leaking. I did this, but found that an unintended consequence was that it puts the external resonator module too close to the metal shaft in the rotator, and I was unable to tune better that a 5:1 SWR on 80m. I was willing to live with this limitation if it kept the antenna working.

PreciseRF HG-1 MLA with 80m Resonator, when mounted upside-down

All was well until the end of September 2020, when I again discovered that I was unable to tune the antenna. This time, it didn’t appear that the controller was able to turn the capacitor to change the tuning, as the SWR showed reasonably low, but was a few KHz too low on 20m for the ft8 range. Working the Up and Down buttons on the controller did not change the tuning… I opened up the tuning box, and didn’t find any water this time, but definitely the signs of moisture…

PreciseRF HG-1 Tuner corroded by trapped moisture

There has obviously been moisture trapped inside the enclosure, which has rusted the (previously silver) barrel of the electric motor to rotate the capacitor, as well as visible corrosion on much of the other metal hardware. There is also some general green discoloration on the inside of the enclosure, which makes me think that there was moisture which steamed some of the green dye from the circuit boards.

I reached out to PreciseRF again, and they begrudgingly provided me with an RMA number to return it to them. They did agree to replace it again, but have already told me that they will not replace it again, even though the twelve-month warranty should go through February 2021.

We received your HG-1 tuner box and have accessed the damage to it. 
It looks to have been left in the elements, in water for some time. There is nothing usable in this box. With that said Roger has agreed to send you an all new box. However, he notes that he will not replace this unit again. It is a water resistant box not a waterproof box and it will not withstand being left in the elements like this without additional weather proofing done by you. If you want to seal it up totally and leave it out in the weather it will be up to you if it withstands that.

email from PreciseRF

The antenna has been used for “outdoor deployable, water-resistant and ideal for HOA and other fixed installations” and has been mounted to the top of the provided tripod, about 4′ off the ground. Denver is classified as a semi-arid desert, and had only received 7.41″ of precipitation for the entire year up to this point, and had not had any measurable precipitation for the past 60 days. Denver averages only 9-15% humidity during the summer, so it’s not like I live in a tropical environment. I had done as much additional weather-proofing as I thought possible.

PreciseRF HG-1 “WR” MLA as deployed beside my house

I’m now on the third unit, and have weather-proofed as before. I have gone back to mounting right-side up, but have cut a clear plastic cover from some packaging material to shield the banana jacks on the top.

So now I have a dilemma — since PreciseRF will no longer honor the warranty, then if it becomes damaged again, it will be on me to repair or replace it. I have considered having to take it down when not in use, and putting it out again every time I want to use it, which will be a pain. I have contemplated trying to install it in the attic, which would make it difficult to use as a portable antenna in the future.

When “Water-Proof” is not “Weather-Resistant”

I have also been doing some additional research on the moisture problem that I’ve been having, with some input from a fellow ham who is an engineer with a satellite communications company, who is familiar with outdoor equipment enclosures. I found an interesting article explaining how a sealed “water-proof” enclosure that is subjected to extreme or rapid temperature changes can become pressurized in the heat, and then creates a vacuum when it cools, which can actually draw in cool, moist air. This is likely what has happening with my MLA tuning enclosure. While we don’t have much precipitation in Denver, we do have significant temperature swings somewhat frequently. This past week, we went from a high in the mid-70s to an overnight low of only 30º when a cold front passed through. Over Labor Day weekend, we had a similar event where the temperature dropped from 92º during the day, to only 29º overnight.

The recommended solution for this situation is actually to vent the enclosure, which seems counterintuitive. Venting allows the temperature and pressure inside of the enclosure to equalize with the ambient conditions outside, eliminating the pressure and vacuum, reducing any condensation and allowing any moisture to evaporate. While the ideal vent device would probably be one of the GoreTex or ePTFE vent plugs as described in the article, I was unable to source one retail. I was able to get a NEMA enclosure vent, pictured below, which I have already installed on the cover panel of the tuning box, before realizing that the control board was for an HG3, which will not work with my HG-2 controller. PreciseRF had to replace that unit with the correct model. I was able to swap the covers, and keep my newly vented enclosure cover intact.

NEMA Enclosure Vent, side view.

I would expect that the same situation could occur if the magnetic loop antenna where installed “indoors” in an attic space. Even though the assembly would be protected from precipitation, it would still be subjected to the extreme temperature changes, which could cause cool, humid air to be drawn into the sealed enclosure in the evenings.

I will also note that this exact scenario could apply to the newer PreciseRF HG3 magnetic loop antenna, which is built using the same Polycase enclosure. I don’t believe that this is a failure of the enclosure, per se, but rather the wrong “use case.” I don’t doubt that in controlled conditions, the Polycase enclosure could be submerged in a bucket of water without leaking. The bigger factor is the temperature change.

Have you have ever heated a plastic container in the microwave and had the lid seal when you take it out, being drawn in by the vacuum as the temperature drops, deforming the container? This is exactly the same effect that the weather has on an enclosure like this with the heating during the day, and rapid cooling at night when the sun goes down. When the enclosure is rigid, it has to equalize the pressure/vacuum by pushing through the gasket or seal. This effect can be eliminated by venting.

In addition to the article, I also found an interesting demonstration of the vacuum created by an unvented enclosure during a rapid temperature change on YouTube.

Below is the NEMA enclosure vent installed on the front cover of the enclosure for the tuning capacitor:

Tuning Enclosure with NEMA Enclosure Vent installed.

The vent is like a miniature “dryer vent,” and will be oriented with the opening downward when the antenna is setup. This should allow for a free exchange of air, equalizing the temperature and pressure, reducing condensation, and allowing for evaporation of any moisture.

Inside of the cover, showing NEMA Enclosure Vent installed.

I have shared this information with PreciseRF, hoping for two things: first, acknowledgement that I have done nothing to abuse the device which should void the warranty, and second, that they might share this information with other HG-1 or HG3 owners who might experience the same circumstances. So far, PreciseRF is steadfast in their conviction that the Polycase enclosure is “waterproof” and that any additional weatherproofing is the responsibility of the user…

Despite the challenges that I have had with the PreciseRF HG-1 WR Magnetic Loop Antenna, I have been pleased with it overall. I have worked 48 states, Canada and Mexico, making over 750 contacts on ft8 with only 45w power. It is small and portable, and working as expected, except for the water/moisture incursion. I am hopeful that venting the enclosure will eliminate this issue.

I was also very interested in the HG3 when it was announced, as it offers a microprocessor-based controller with an SWR bridge which can automatically tune the antenna to the frequency in use. I could have upgraded mine to the HG3, but it would have cost as much as the original purchase price. Since I’m mostly interested in the digital sound card modes which operate in a fixed frequency range, I decided that it wasn’t worth another $800 to have the auto-tuning feature.

Amateur Radio: One Year In…

I took my Technician and General tests together, last July (2019). I had started with a Yaesu FT-60R handheld, but really started to learn things last October (2019) when I bought a Yaesu FT-991A and started working on HF. Looking back over my first year+ in amateur radio, here are some things that I have learned:

It’s all about the Antenna — It’s easy to focus on the radio, with knobs, buttons, and flashing lights. Probably the biggest factor to one’s overall success/performance is not the radio, but the antenna! The “best” antenna is the one that you can put up (given any location, size, HOA restrictions), but an antenna that is resonant in the frequency band you are using is going to be the most effective. Higher off of the ground is generally better if possible. Antenna tuners, loading coils, traps, etc. are compromises in performance for size, and flexibility. A compromise antenna can work for you, but may not be ideal. You can find lots of information and ideas in the ARRL book on “Small Antennas for Small Spaces.”

Antenna performance is important with handhelds as well. The typical “rubber ducky” antenna is optimized for size/cost, not for performance. An aftermarket 1/4 wave antenna that is 14-16” will generally perform much better than the stock antenna. With the original antenna on my handheld, I could barely hit the repeaters from outside — with the aftermarket antenna I can reach them from my basement! You can also use a mobile antenna, like a mag mount, or something like a roll-up dual-band J-pole. A mag mount mobile antenna can greatly improve your results when using a handheld from inside of a vehicle, since the metal shell, and even metallic window tint film, can block the signal.

Get Grounded — it’s important for your safety, to reduce RFI, protect from lightning, improve antenna performance and reduce background noise level on the radio. The ARRL book on “Grounding and Bonding for Radio Amateurs” by Ward Silver (N0AX) is a great resource. Use quality materials, including a “joint compound” like Penetrox or JetLube to prevent oxidation on metal-to-metal contact, and weather-proof outdoor connections. Wrap with rubber splicing tape and quality electrical tape to seal and protect.

Think big, but start small — it’s easy to spend a lot of money on equipment and materials, so invest wisely. Start small, with something affordable like a hand held. A decent 2m/70cm handheld with a good antenna can hit many repeaters.

Plan for how the components that you acquire could be repurposed, so that you’re not throwing things away as you go. If you get an external mag mount antenna for the HT to use on a car, get one with the right connector or adaptor to use with a mobile radio when you are ready to move up to that. If you start with a mobile radio as your base, pick one that you would want to move to a vehicle later if/when you buy a base station transceiver.

Join the ARRL — it’s worth the $50/year for the “QST” and “On the Air” magazines alone, but also to support the largest advocacy group for the hobby. For instance, right now they are lobbying against the FCC imposing a $50 fee for license and vanity callsign applications. The ARRL offers members a wealth of information, including your choice of magazines, a large library of product reviews, article archives, etc.

Join a local club — Having someone to talk you through setting up a new rig, programming a new radio, or troubleshooting issues is invaluable. An organization like the Parker Radio Association has monthly meeting presentations and “Elmer Night” for mentoring, weekly “nets” on the air, and many experienced volunteers who are happy to help and share their experiences.

Other (free) places to join:

  • LoTW — The Logbook of the World is free service from the ARRL acts as a “central repository” for logging and confirming contacts
  • QRZ.com — One of the most popular websites for looking up contacts and logging
  • QRZCQ — Another popular site for looking up and logging contacts
  • eqsl.cc — This website lets you upload your log and create electronic “QSL cards” via email

Things that you need to know:

Finding your Lat/Lon, Gridsquare
can lookup from: http://www.levinecentral.com/ham/grid_square.php

Finding your ITU Region and Zone, and CQ Zone:
http://www.mapability.com/ei8ic/maps/maps.php

Logging is important to other operators, even if you don’t think it’s important to you. Many hams are participating in contests or pursuing awards like “Worked All States.” If you don’t log your contacts, the other stations you work may not get credit for the contact. I’ve made a digital contact with a station in Alaska, but it wasn’t confirmed in LoTW, so it “doesn’t count” toward an award. There are many computer-based logging programs that can do most of the work for you.

Get on the air! If you have a 2m/70cm handheld or mobile, program your radio for a local repeater. Listen for any activity, and don’t be afraid to join the conversation if you have something to add. Joining a “net” (on-air meeting) is a great way to practice and to meet other hams in the area.

When you get your General license, getting started on HF can be a bit more challenging, but also very rewarding. It takes some practice to tune in SSB voice signals. I have found that having a radio with a “spectrum scope” or “waterfall” display is helpful to visually spot where there is activity on the band.

Digital (sound card) modes like RTTY, PSK31, and ft8 can be a great way to get started. One advantage is that many operate on predefined frequencies or ranges, which can make the signals easier to find. Many of these modes, such as ft8, are optimized for “weak signals” so they can easily be worked with a portable radio and a “compromise” antenna, so you don’t need to have a big system setup to make them work.

HF Propagation is a fickle mistress — While in theory, an antenna is “reciprocal,” and can transmit as well as they receive, there are many factors which can skew the actual results. Sometimes you can hear better than you transmit, and sometimes you might be able to reach other stations that you can’t hear. Propagation can also change throughout the course of the day, and even from minute to minute. Be patient!

It’s not about the Distance — Because of “skip” it’s possible for stations further away to hear you when closer stations cannot. You might be able to reach both east and west coast, but not the adjacent states, depending on the band and time of day.

Power isn’t everything — You would be surprised how many contacts you can make with less than 50w. It doesn’t require a high-power amplifier to make contacts. QRP is the practice of operating on low power, typically considered to be under 10w.

Radio is mostly magic… There are many cases where something that looks like it would work on paper may not perform well, and other times when something that sounds impossible will actually work. Don’t be afraid to experiment!

Ask Why? — Everyone has an opinion, but understanding the thought behind it can give more insight, and you’ll learn a lot.

Dealing with roadblocks is always a challenge, and it takes creativity and perseverance to work through them. Don’t be discouraged. You might have challenges with antennae locations or restrictions, RFI, etc. Reach out to the people in the club for recommendations.

Find an aspect of amateur radio that appeals to you. There are many ways to be involved, from local repeaters and nets, long distance, contesting, etc. Many people enjoy portable operations as a way to get outside. Setup at a local park, or take a portable radio with you on a hike, off-roading or when camping.

Adding an Epic PWRGate to the Powerwerx MEGAbox

When I was looking for a portable 12v DC power solution, I started with a West Mountain Radio Epic PWRGate as a controller/charger for the 12v Deep Cycle/Marine/RV battery from my travel trailer. Since I bring the battery from the trailer inside during the winter, I figured that I might as well make use of it with the radio, and keep it charged.

The West Mountain Radio Epic PWRGate is a slick device. It has inputs for power supply and solar panels, connection to/from the battery, and the output or load. It will act as a battery charge controller, and can be set for the battery chemistry — sealed lead acid/gel, AGM, or LiFePO4. It will also act as an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) that will automatically switch from the input power to running the load from the battery.

I used the RV battery for Winter Field Day in January 2020, and it worked well to power the radio, but it is HEAVY! The RV battery weighs about 53 lbs. I had decided that for ARRL Field Day in June 2020 I wanted to have a LiFePO4 battery, which are much smaller and lighter, but can offer similar or better capacity/run-time. By comparison, the 30Ah LiFePO4 battery that I selected only weighs 7.6 lbs.

Researching some of the run-time calculators showed that a 30A/hr LiFePO4 should power my Yaesu FT-991A for an estimated six hours, which I think is a reasonable compromise between run-time and cost. This is actually double the run-time of the 79Ah Deep Cycle/Marine/RV battery from my trailer, which would have cost about the same to replace. I decided to go with the Bioenno LPF-1230A, as they are high quality, and engineered with a built-in controller to prevent over-charging or under-voltage conditions which might damage the battery. They are not inexpensive, but I wanted a reliable solution.

To protect the battery, and provide an array of connections, I also thought that I should get a battery box. I had looked at the DC-to-Go options from West Mountain Radio, but was concerned that the controller and distribution block are mounted to the outside of the battery box, where they are not protected. I also already had the Epic PWRGate, so I didn’t need to buy another for the battery box. Building a custom box without the PWRGate would have cost just as much. Instead, I decided on the Powerwerx MEGAbox, which is a heavy-duty plastic battery box, with a set of binding posts, four sets of Anderson PowerPole connectors, a “cigarette lighter” jack, a pair of USB type A jacks, a high-power USB and USB-C jack. The USB-C jack also has a volt meter built-in. The accessory ports are protected by a 15A switchable circuit breaker. Since all of the connectors are on the top, with rubber covers, everything is fairly well protected from the elements when working outdoors in the field. The MEGAbox is large enough that there is plenty of extra room for a small power supply, cables, handheld charger, etc.

This setup worked great for Field Day this year, as I didn’t expect to have a power supply connected, but would have to charge the battery from a generator offline. For use at home, and for ARES emergency communications activations, I wanted to have the power go through the Epic PWRGate to keep the battery charged when there is power, but to keep the equipment up and running if the power goes out. Initially, I’ve used some 1/2″ Velcro dots to anchor the Epic PWRGate to the top of my MFJ-4230MVP switching power supply. I run a 1′ cable from the power supply to the input, connect the radio to the load, and have a 10′ PowerPole extension cable that goes to one of the PowerPole jacks on the MEGAbox. This only gives me one output jack that is controlled by the Epic PWRGate, although there are other PowerPole ports on the MEGAbox that could be used for other devices directly from the battery.

I decided that a “cleaner” way to go would be to mount the Epic PWRGate inside of the MEGAbox, and put it in between the 50A PowerPoles from the battery to the wiring harness in the box. While I could have cut off the 50A connectors and replaced them with 45A PowerPoles, I decided to keep everything “stock” so I picked up a pair of PP50 to PP45 pigtails from Powerwerx for about $13 each. One connects to the Epic PWRGate for the battery, and the other to wiring harness for the load. This leaves the solar panel input and the power supply input to be connected. Powerwerx sells the dual PowerPole panel-mount jack assemblies for about $20. I bought one of those, along with a 1-1/8″ hole saw, as well as some 10AWG zip cord and a package of PP45 connectors. This gave me all of the materials needed.

Supplies to build the “Epic MEGAbox”

I measured the location of the original panel mount jack on the top of the MEGAbox, and marked the location on the opposite side of the handle to keep it symmetrical. I used the 1-1/8″ hole saw (the only size that I didn’t already have…) from Powerwerx and easily drilled through the top of the box. It was straight-forward to install the panel mount jack with cover. There are a pair of PowerPole shells built into the panel jack. Powerwerx supplied a set of 30A terminals, but I used the 45A terminals that I purchased with the shells. I measured out how much wire was needed to go from the panel jack to the connectors on the Epic PWRGate when the lid was opened, and cut the wires to length. I crimped on the terminals, and inserted one end into the back of the panel jack, and put a shell on the other end to connect to the Epic PWRGate.

Inside the lid of the “Epic Mega Box”

Since I already had 1/2″ Velcro dots on the bottom of the Epic PWRGate where I attach it to the top of my power supply, I placed another set of Velcro dots on the existing feet and positioned it in the center of the top of the Bioenno BLF-1230A, which was already in place inside the MEGAbox. The Velcro seems to hold it in place well enough, but it can easily be removed when needed. I connected the wires from the newly installed input jacks to their respective Solar and Input connectors on the Epic PWRGate, and connected the pigtails to the battery and the harness inside of the MEGAbox.

Inside the “Epic MEGAbox” with the Epic PWRGate mounted.

Now the Epic PWRGate is “self-contained” within the battery box. If I have a power supply available, I can connect it to the exterior panel mount jack. I don’t have a solar panel yet, but when I get one, I’ll be able to plug that into the input jack as well.

The finished “Epic Mega Box”

Fellow ARESDEC member W0RDR liked the Powerwerx MEGAbox when I showed it at a meeting this fall, as well as the idea of integrating with the Epic PWRGate, so he’s already built one similar to this one. His concern was that the PWRGate draws some power from the battery when there is no supply, so he also added a battery cutoff switch in between the binding posts and PowerPole output panel jacks.

Moved to WordPress!

After using Drupal for many years, I’ve decided to switch to WordPress as my Content Management System. My hosting company, MacHighway, uses cPanel to manage user sites, and it provides a default version of PHP and its associated modules, which I don’t have access to change. It seems that recently, Drupal has changed their system requirements to require additional PHP modules, which are not installed, so I have not been able to upgrade to the most recent releases. I found the FG Drupal to WordPress plug-in, which can migrate the content from Drupal sites which work quite well, so I’ve migrated this site to WordPress. I’ve done a few updates already, but I’ll try to review each of the pages to make sure that the graphics are there, etc.

Upgrade to LED Headlights

One of the most noticeable changes when switching from the Touareg to the Canyon was the headlights. The Touareg had really nice self-leveling High Intensity Discharge (HID) headlamps. By comparison, the OEM halogens in the Canyon felt like driving with a flashlight… I found that this was a common complaint discussed on forums like ColoradoFans forums and took one of the recommendations.

It surprises me that for a high-end pickup that GM builds it with such crappy headlamps, when more modern, brighter LED headlights cost under $75 retail. GM could certainly have done better for very little difference in cost. I was also surprised to find that even aftermarket HID conversion kits are only about $250, much cheaper than the $1,200 that many manufacturers charge for upgrading to HID lights. I went with the LED for simplicity, as well as cost, since the HID lights require an external ballast, so they are a little more involved to install.

I ordered a set of Sealight X1 from Amazon, which were only $70 for both low and high beam. I ordered them on Friday morning, and they were delivered early this morning. It took about a half hour to install, and was fairly easy. The hardest part was getting under a rubber cover on passenger side, which I think directs cold air into the air filter intake.

Even in the daylight, I could tell that they were brighter, mostly due to the 6000K color temperature being bright white instead of yellow. I’m going to go for a drive tonight after dark to see how the beam pattern and throw looks.

Update:

After trying them for a few weeks, I decided that while they were brighter, that they didn’t project very well, so they didn’t really help me see any further down the road. At the end of February, I replaced them with the Sealight S2 series also through Amazon, and returned the X1’s. The S2 do a much better job of lighting further ahead.

Back to a Diesel Pickup Truck

The lease on the VW Touareg is about up, so we decided to start looking at our options. I was considering buying out the Touareg, as it’s been a very comfortable vehicle, it’s big enough to tow the trailer, but small enough to fit into the garage. We had to go to a VW dealership to get the details on the buyout, since we’re within 90 days of the end date. The residual was about $25,500, but the “deal” that McDonald VW presented to me had about $6k in fees and crap added to it, making the cost over $31k. Their “offer” for me to buy the vehicle that I’ve been driving and paying for the past three years was about $500/month with $4K down! I quickly realized that I could get something brand new for that much…

I had been looking at options for SUVs that could tow over 7,000 lbs. and there isn’t much that isn’t full sized, or over $75K. I thought that if I wasn’t going to be able to fit it into the garage, and was going to have to pay that much, I might as well look at another pickup truck. My last pickup truck was a 2005 GMC Sierra K2500HD Crew Cab Long Bed with the 6.6L Duramax Diesel, which would cost over $65K now, with similar equipment. In my search, I discovered that GM has a smaller 2.8L inline 4-cylinder Duramax Diesel that they offer in the Chevrolet Colorado or GMC Canyon mid-size pickup since 2016. The small turbo-diesel only makes 181HP, but 369lb/ft of torque, which is 100 more than most of the V6 gas engines, including the Touareg. The 4WD Crew Cab Short Box with the 2.8L Duramax has a towing capacity of 7,600 lbs. which is more than enough for our 27′ Highland Ridge Ultra Lite. And it’s a bonus that even in a higher trim level, the price is under $50K.

We stopped at the Autonation Buick GMC near Park Meadows to check them out on the way home from the VW dealer. They didn’t have any of the Duramax Turbo-Diesel models in stock, but had an SLT with the gas V6 that was similar to a diesel that was available. We took it for a test drive, and were pleasantly surprised at how quiet it was, and how smoothly it rode. Autonation said that they could get the Duramax model that I wanted by Monday, so we made the deal.

Of the 2.8L Duramax models available in the area, the one that caught my attention was a 2019 GMC Canyon Crew Cab Short Box with the All Terrain package, in Dark Sky Metallic. This Limited Promotional Option package is built on the SLT trim level, and includes the Z71 off-road suspension package and Z82 trailering package with integrated trailer brake controller, automatic transfer case, Eaton locking rear axle, with 31″x10.50″ Goodyear Wrangler Duratrac off-road tires on 17″ alloy wheels, leather seats (with red stitching), 3″ black tubular side steps, spray-on bed liner, and all-weather floor liners. It also had the upgraded “infotainment” system with Apple CarPlay. Several of the other vehicles available were Denali, but I don’t really care about all of the extra chrome. The All Terrain has better equipment for towing and off-road, and is a couple grand less expensive.

It doesn’t have all of the bells and whistles that I had on the Touareg, but I’m OK with that. It doesn’t have pushbutton start and keyless entry, but it does have remote start. It’s only a single zone thermostatic temperature control, where the Touareg was dual zones. It doesn’t have the adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking. It does have almost 40% more torque, and will get much better fuel economy, especially when towing the trailer. Also, when in Tow/Haul mode, it uses the variable geometry turbocharger as an exhaust brake to help maintain speeds downhill and to assist when braking. I think that it’s going to make an excellent towing vehicle.

MacBook Pro to iMac

After continuing to have trouble with my old 2011 17″ MacBook Pro, I’ve concluded that it’s time for a new machine. I tried replacing the RAM, but it still won’t boot up. I concluded that it probably wasn’t the memory or the drive, but maybe the CPU or Logic board is failing… Rather than spend more time and money trying to replace the SSD, I figured that it was time to replace the MacBook Pro, after 6 years.

I surveyed my options on Apple.com. The new MacBook Pro’s only come in 13” and 15” now, with the Retina display with high resolution but high pixel density as well. None of the laptops have optical drives any more, so I still think that there is not much advantage in carrying around a laptop vs. my iPad Pro. When I have travelled that past few years, I have only taken my iPad with me. Also, the 15” MBP costs nearly $2,800!

Having realized that I don’t really carry my laptop around with me, I checked out the options for iMacs. They have a 21.5” model, and a 27” with a 4K or 5K screen… Since I will likely be keeping this machine for another 5-6 years, I really wanted the 27” 5K screen model, which also has a faster 3.8GHz i5 processor, and a 2TB “fusion” drive, that is a hybrid small SSD with a larger conventional hard drive. The system is supposed to keep frequently used files on the SSD, and less frequently used files on the hard drive, to optimize the performance.

The new iMac is a thing of beauty! I love the big screen, and the Bluetooth keyboard and mouse use up less space on my desk. I have ordered a 16Gb memory upgrade to bring it up to 24Gb, which I think will work well. I had 16Gb in the MBP.

New Trailer

We have still had our 27″ Gulfstream fifth-wheel up in Buena Vista, CO, at the Snowy Peaks RV park, which has its own storage lot. Since I don’t have a pickup truck to move the fifth-wheel, the RV park moves the trailer for us when we go up for the weekend. It’s been very convenient, and less expensive than paying higher storage rates in Denver, and burning up the fuel to haul it up into the mountains.

We discovered an unintended consequence of replacing the Jetta with the Touareg is that it has a 7,000lb. towing capacity! I had not imagined that an SUV that size would be able to tow that much. This got us thinking that if we replaced the fifth-wheel with a conventional travel trailer that we could tow with the Touareg we could travel and camp again.

After exploring some options online, we started checking out some options at local dealers. We wanted to go to Camping World in Fountain, and stopped at a few places in Colorado Springs as well. One of the first places that we stopped was Pikes Peak Travelland, where we saw the 2016 Highland Ridge UT2710RL Ultra Lite. Surprisingly, despite being 27′ was only about 5,500lb. empty weight, well within the towing capacity of the Touareg even when loaded. This seemed to suit our needs, was well laid out, and nicely finished. I especially liked the recliners at the back of the trailer, which are incredibly comfortable.

We looked at a few other trailers at other places, but we kept comparing them to the Highland Ridge, and ultimately that is what we decided on. Pikes Peak was able to work out an acceptable trade in deal on our Gulfstream, including picking it up from Buena Vista.

New Volkswagen

Thanks to the diesel emissions scandal, and the uncertainty of what kind of “fix” would be required to meet emissions, this seemed like the best time to try trading in my 2011 Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI. While I have loved the Sportwagen for it versatility, and have loved the 2.0L turbo-diesel for its power and fuel efficiency, we had been thinking about getting an all-wheel drive vehicle so that my wife wouldn’t be snowed in while I’m traveling.

In order to take advantage of the trade-in opportunity, we limited our search to Audi and Volkswagen. I wanted something with similar storage to the Jetta wagon, about 66 cubic feet, which eliminated the Q3 and Tiguan, leaving us with the choice of a Q5 or Touareg. We decided that we would meet at McDonald VW, drop off the Jetta so that they could do an appraisal on it, and we could go to Applebee’s for some dinner.

While I was stuck in traffic on the way there, my wife arrived at VW. She talked with the salesman a bit, and made some headway toward making a deal. She wasn’t sure how it would work out, so she suggested that I stop at the Audi dealer on the way there. While I was working with the salesman at the Audi dealership, they took the car down the block to the VW dealer, so the guys at VW knew that I was talking to the Audi dealer.

In the end, McDonald VW was able to make the deal on the Touareg, a 2016 Volkswagen Touareg V6 Lux with 4MOTION, fully loaded. It’s Flint Grey Metallic, with Anthracite Black Vienna Leather interior. It has heated and air conditioned front seats, heated steering wheel, dual-zone thermostatically controlled temperature, touchscreen radio with navigation, backup camera, parking assist, automatic braking, adaptive cruise control, panoramic sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, etc. on and on… It has a 3.8L V6 gasoline engine, with 18mpg city, and 22mpg highway, so I won’t be getting 42-54mpg any longer… It is all-wheel drive, and very comfortable.