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A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meters

Created by Bob Houf, K7ZB on 2019-09-16

A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meters
Bob Houf, K7ZB
June 2, 2019

As we sit here today at the beginning of summer in 2019, we ponder the lack of sun spots in the solar cycle and what it means to our favorite bands.

Long gone are the days when 10 meters was wide open and you could work the world on 10 watts and a dipole. If you were there in 1959 you know what I mean.

I came into the amateur radio world in the summer of 1963 as a tenderfoot Novice class ham and I had the privilege of knowing our small town bank president, Cornell Hunter, W8UVB, who had operated exclusively 10 meter AM phone during that sunspot cycle, the granddaddy of them all.

His war surplus ART-13 Collins transmitter coupled to a simple 3-element Yagi on a short tripod tower on the top of the third floor of his old Victorian house on High Street allowed him to work the world on 10 meters.

As a kid I would visit his shack every Saturday morning to exchange one copy of QST for another and with goggle-eyes roam all over the wallpaper on the shack walls.

He had QSL cards from the most exotic places in the world on those walls and I would stay awake late at night reading "How's DX?" in QST - long after my parents thought I was fast asleep - and dream of talking to hams like Cornell had done.

It would be a few years before I could begin to work DX during the next sun spot cycles - always just running a hundred to two hundred watts at most into basic antennas like dipoles and Delta Loops at modest heights.

Eventually we moved to Arizona and bought a home with a rather restrictive Home Owner's Association and I was challenged with a way to chase DX and keep peace in the neighborhood.

I solved that problem with two stealth verticals - one that covered 40 meters and another for 20-10 meters and wrote about these on my blog years ago. the blog is now gone but the antenna designs are still alive on the web.

The 40 meter stealth vertical is described in great detail and has been preserved by an Italian ham now that my website is gone and you can examine it here:

The 20 - 10 meter vertical was mounted near the 40 meter vertical and also able to be removed easily making it very unobtrusive and it is shown here:

Both of these verticals were elevated off the ground on a second floor deck with the base approximately 12' above ground with 2 elevated radials for each antenna and both were very inexpensive and highly effective.

The DX performance for the antennas was remarkable during sunspot cycle 23 even running just 100 watts from my transceiver.

But I often would have to spend hours chasing DXpeditions or other rare stations before I would make the contact.

If I hit the band conditions just right - like the late afternoon in Phoenix when I made a single call to a 4S7 in Sri Lanka or the early morning long path contact with the A6 in the Middle East - my 100 watts would work fine.

But I often thought - what would it be like to chase DX if I had just a few more dB to the antenna?

One day at lunch during the work week a couple of ham colleagues and I drove over to the HRO store in Phoenix and ogled all of the new gear.

There on the table of used gear was a pristine desk-top linear amplifier. An LA-1000-NT which was a no-tune, 120VAC internal power supply amp of small size and the owner would part for it for a mere $120.

I picked that amp up and brought it home, just like the stray lost puppies our oldest son would bring home and we would adopt.

It wasn't long before I had the amp and a suitable antenna coupler hooked up and I was able to start a new life - running 500 to 600 Watts output.


Right there, snug on my operating table, that little gray box was making those 4 sweep tubes hum with SSB and CW while I operated from 40 to 10 meters on the verticals.

All of a sudden I was breaking pile-ups on the first call!

The low angle radiation off the verticals - despite the poor ground conductivity of the Sonoran Desert and surrounding city - plus 600 Watts out made a dramatic difference on my DX success rate.

My country totals began to soar.

Why, that nifty little amp even worked well down on 160 meters and with a friend of mine, AB7E, we operated the CQ 160 Meter DX Contest and worked every state twice and a bunch of DX. I wrote that contest up and published an article on it in CQ Magazine in the January 2015 issue.

What a difference another 500 watts makes - especially when the bands begin to fade with the low part of the sunspot cycle.

When 20 meters is not cooperating, usually 40, 80 or 160 meters will be.

With a few good antennas and 500 to 600 Watts you can write your own ticket for chasing DX.

Nowadays it is probably unlikely you will come across an old LA-1000-NT amp for a hundred bucks, but you can still pick up a nice 600 Watt amp that uses 811A's for a fair price and get in the game.

My little desktop amp finally gave up the ghost when I inadvertently ran it into the vertical with a very high SWR.

By then we had moved to Michigan and rather than replace the expensive old sweep tubes in the `1000-NT I handed it off to a friend and then got myself an AL-80B.

Now I had a much bigger tube - the venerable 3-500Z and I had 220VAC run to my operating position to power the amp.

I ran it on 40 meters for a few years and enjoyed the step up from 100 to 800 Watts output.

There isn't a hill of beans difference at the receiving end when someone hears me running 600 or 800 Watts output, but there IS a difference when you jump from 100 to 600 Watts out.

So when the sunspots are low and the bands need a bit of, shall we say, stimulation - why not step up to an amp that gives you a few dB of gain and a lot of opportunity to be heard?

Couple that with a few good antennas and you can enjoy an entirely different way of operating amateur radio in the sunspot doldrums.

K7ZB 2019-10-30
Re: A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meters
He worked the world on 10M with his ART-13. There are articles available online that show the mod that the OT's used.
AH7I 2019-10-14
A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meters
Perhaps he worked the world on 20 meters. ART-13 upper limit is 18.1 MC.

Power does make a difference. With the relatively high ~S1-S3 noise level here, I can work almost anyone I hear on 40 m with 100 W. Unless their noise level is high. Then the 500 W amp almost always does the trick.

On the flip side, if noise here is really bad ~S5+, it makes no sense to CQ with 500 W. Because, I won't be able to hear most who can hear me.

73, -Bob
KA7EKW 2019-10-12
A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meters
My first DX contacts were on a Heathkit HW-101, feeding a 20-foot (or so) section of wire clothes line, while I was living in Arizona. I communicated with hams in Estonia, Japan and Kiribati during the first week.

Lots of power and a great antenna get you OUT, but getting the CONTACTS is often a matter of luck and good atmospherics.
WA2VTA 2019-10-10
A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meters
Nice article, Bob - thanks.

I live in a condo community now, and have done my best setting up stealthy antennas. But at best, they're less than ideal. About 6 months ago, I picked up a used AL-811. I don't use it all the time, and don't even push it very hard - typically 300~400 watts. But in my situation, sometimes that's just enough to make that QSO rather than get lost in the noise.

Cheers and Good DXing!
ZENKI 2019-09-27
RE: A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meter
The other issue that many seem to forget is electro-smog/emc and noise pollution that has rendered the HF bands to the point of being almost useless. So we have to consider the signal to noise ration of the receiving station.

In many jurisdictions the regulation authorities are not regulating the laws that they make. They make endless EMC radiated and conducted emission laws that everybody seems to ignore.

A good example is LED lights and switch mode power supplies which have rendered ever ITU Quiet rural zones as noisy. All that it takes is 1 set of bad led lights or those rubbish garden lights to make your life hell. Then there is also the menace from things like solar inverters and micro inverters which is effectively wiping out the spectrum from 1.8 to 11mhz. I regularly track down radiated noise sources that radiate for more than 1 kilometer away. These are legally sold! So these days its almost a prerequisite to run a amplifier so that city stations can hear you even with decent antennas especially on SSB which does not have the signal to noise advantage the CW and other weak signal modes have.
VK6IS 2019-09-26
RE: A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meter
you can't make it with the basic 100w anymore,
and so you do need an better antennae, and also
to have access to an good amplifier as well,
as this does make all the difference today... even on 15m.

KJ7WT 2019-09-25
A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meters
I'll add my 2 cents worth to this - I also recall the days when you could work the world on 10/15. In the mid 1970's I was till a Tech, and had to use CW on the HF bands, but managed to work a few DX stations on 10/15. I got my General in 1983, and discovered the joy of 20m SSB. I never had more than 100 watts and simple wire antennas, but propagation was good enough. Nowadays, many deal not only with poor propagation, but very high noise levels due to the proliferation of a variety of switcher powered devices. Despite that, very often I hear DX, but apparently they never hear me, even using digital modes. Some extra power would really help, I think, but (again, like many others) my shack situation makes higher power more difficult (AC supply, etc.) and the other issue is that so many electronic devices in our home are affected even by the 50-100 watts I use now. Stereo system, computer sound system, TV, radios, lamp dimmers, weather station, etc. all either stop working or make objectionable noises when I transmit. It is possible that some kind of directional antenna may help with that, by focusing the power away from the house, but XYL does not want that on our property. So, I am just hoping I will still be alive and lucid when the sunspots return and propagation improves.
N9AOP 2019-09-25
RE: A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meter
When Ten Tec was still a major player, they always said that 'Loud is Good'.
KJ4DGE 2019-09-21
RE: A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meter
Having never used an amp, I still have fun working countries or other folks just a few hundred or thousand miles away. HAM radio is what it is to each HAM radio op and what makes it fun to each of us is all that really matters. BIGGER is better applies in some aspects but does not always mean BIGGER is best for everyone. QRP is still being worked around the world and those folks would say working the world with 5 watts or less is a challenge but the rewards are worth the effort.

Yes there are times when I have mixed it with the Big guns on AM using only 25 watts on AM mode and still was heard but more importantly, understood and heard.

Holding a regular conversation on a regular basis with regular contacts using QRO amps is great. Its sort of a club I suppose. But finding you can work those same folks during bad conditions using 100 watts or less and be understood is sort of a dime in the pocket so to speak.

Too many times this hobby is taken for granted that bigger is better. Its all in the wrist of fly fishing. The man who cast his reel into the water the proper way and with the right lure gets more fish than the one who stomps all over the pond sometimes...
WW6L 2019-09-20
RE: A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meter
i just completed WAS with a KX3. power is not the answer. brute force just is not the way.
K8QV 2019-09-20
A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meters
Fishing with dynamite gets a lot more fish than fly fishing does. Not much of a sport, though.
K9MHZ 2019-09-20
RE: A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meter
^^^^ Funny!

ZC, you had me until the part about it requiring a lot of "skill" to QSY with a linear. It's not a big deal at all. Makes it kind of fun, actually.
N4UM 2019-09-18
RE: A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meter
Mae West said it best when she said...
"Honey, I been poor and I been rich... rich is better."
ZS1ZC 2019-09-18
A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meters
Unfortunately there is quite a strong anti-QRO lobby (and by that I don't mean the QRP guys who deserve respect all of their own). It's the "rather sort out your antenna" crowd who forget that I may have already done that but still battle to get into the game from the bottom of Africa, crowded out by QRO guys in Europe, Asia or the US. They'll also say "100W to 400W is 6dB - that's only one S-point, you can't hear the difference". That's quite true when you're listening to an S-8 signal in the clear. But the issue isn't signal strength at the DX side, it's signal-to-noise ratio or signal-to-QRM ratio. So when your signal is just below the threshold, a 6dB boost will make all the difference. Even more so if you're able to kick in a kW, that's potentially 10dB improvement in the receive SNR. I have often battled to get in to a DX station - listening, tuning strategically - without success, but when switching in 10dB worth of heat catch them on the first or second attempt.

Some will say that's a rich man's form of DXing, lacking in skill - but I say it takes skill to operate QRO, especially with the older tube linears where you sometimes have to be able to switch bands in seconds, switching in the dummy load, changing the bandswitch, retuning the rig and linear finals. And then having to know how to evaluate your signal so as to keep RFI and adjacent channel interference at bay. As well as knowing when you don't need the linear switched in at all. There's both science and experience required.
N8FVJ 2019-09-18
RE: A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meter
An amplifier is a great advantage. Why some do not use an amplifier I am not sure. Perhaps the cost is too high or worries about interference. Most wireless consumer electronics is digital now so interference is not likely.
K9MHZ 2019-09-18
RE: A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meter
Power is fine. Sometimes it gets a bad wrap, like it’s a lazy, no-talent brute-force way of operating. But if the operator’s outlook is genuine, it’s just fine. Some of the amps today are just plain awesome engineering and quality builds.
K6AER 2019-09-17
RE: A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meter
For the life of me I don’t know why it is honorable to make the poor DX station struggle to pull you call out of the atmosphere and QRM. There is no skill in transmitting a poor signal. All the work is on the other end.

The greatest aid in DXing is to have a quiet location and an amplifier. If you can hear the station an amplifier can make up for a poor antenna.

Most hams have never operated in noise levels under S5.
KF4HR 2019-09-17
RE: A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meter
Nice article Bob. I started a bit behind you (in 1967) but shared much of the enthusiasm that you experienced in your early years. Things were a bit tougher back then, but perhaps the tough is what made it great.

Times sure have changed since then. I wonder if new hams lay awake at night dreaming about what countries their PC will work on FT8? Or are google-eyed over
scanning through LoTW or eQSL exchanges?

Having an adequate amount of power sure can make things easier. When it comes to QRP operation, my hat is off to the station on the other end that many times must compensate for QRP reception.
KC6RWI 2019-09-17
RE: A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meter
A great article, but since you didn't mention it, I guess there was no tvi reports. This would be a good test situation for rfi as you have alot of close neighbors. Thank goodness that no one uses tv antenna in an hoa.
AC2RY 2019-09-17
A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meters
500-600 watts today is easy achievable and does not require heroic effort to integrate amplifier into your station. But the main problem today is not low transmitting power, but high level of local noise in suburban setting. DX may hear you, but you won't hear DX when local noise is at S9 level all the time. Verticals and other unbalanced antennas are much more prone to pickup up noise.
K5ML 2019-09-17
A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meters
Thank you and congratulations on an outstanding article. I have a similar experience to share. First licensed in 1957, I worked the world on 15 meters during the great sunspot cycle with 90 watts and a 2-element ZL Special antenna made from bamboo poles and twin lead. I voluntarily went QRT in 1983 from my home QTH in the suburbs of New Orleans.

In 2006 I was living happily in Paradise Valley, AZ and smack in the middle of HOA land. I decided to get back into ham radio to see what I could work with a stealth antenna farm. Before becoming QRV I purchased a new IC-756 Pro 3 and a used Collins 30L-1 amplifier. Through trial and error I spent the first 9 months using 3 low-level wire antennae: a G5RV, a 410' low level loop and a 120' inverted-L. Each was fed with window line into separate Johnson Matchboxes. I was hoping that I would someday work 100 countries. I worked my first DX on Jan. 1, 2007. On May 8th I worked my 100th country from HOA land and I had worked 125 by the end of September.

In October 2007 I added a ground mounted 43' ZeroFive vertical with 40 ground radials and it gave my signal a boost. I later added a shorter ground mounted ZeroFive vertical with a Scorpion capacity hat to the mix to work 40-10 meters. It also has 40 radials. Then I added a Scorpion 6-80 screwdriver antenna to the 43' vertical to make it an effective antenna on 80 and 160 meters. Many thanks to Ron Douglass of Scorpion Antennas for his help. Due to HOA restrictions, I keep the big Zero Five in the horizontal position during the day.

On January 14, 2009 I worked my 200th country from HOA land and worked my 300th country on December 2, 2012. My current country count is 320.

To anyone thinking about becoming QRV with antenna restrictions I offer 2 suggestions:
1. Run power. If you don't have gain at the top of a tower you need gain in the shack. Five hundred watts is good and legal limit is better.
2. Your antenna doesn't to be high for you to be heard.

Pics of my current antenna farm are on my page for anyone interested. Congratulations again to K7ZB on an outstanding article.

Mickey, K5ML

KD7YVV 2019-09-17
A Tale of Watts and the Pursuit of DX on 20 and 40 Meters
While an amp can be nice, it can be more of a challenge
to grab that DX contact with as little power as possible.
All I have for HF is a Kenwood TS-430. 100 watts.
I do agree the extra power helps, but at least for me,
my little peanut 100 watt station works.
Now if I had an antenna like Art Bell's loop, that
would be fantastic, but I guess I should lay off the
hot chocolate. I'll never have a loop like that, but
I can dream. Have fun with your amp. Might work you one day.