First posted 11/3/2020
When I first got into Ham Radio in 2014, I’d go to the top floor of a nearby commuter train parking garage in Oak Lawn, Illinois if I wanted any chance of getting on a local repeater. It was often quite cold and probably looked super shady, but even my cheap Baofeng HT could hit multiple repeaters! Then I moved to Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood, and was disappointed that just like Oak Lawn, I pretty much needed to be outdoors to hit any repeaters. On the bright side, it was being able to open the balcony door, and hit repeaters with an HT in my pajamas. But it was so frustrating to be a little over a mile away from the closest repeater, and unable to hit it from my fronchroom.
I was really hoping I’d be close enough to CFMC’s repeater that I could talk UHF/VHF from indoors without bothering with an outdoor antenna, but the brick building surrounded by too many other buildings was not cooperating. So for a few years, I’d occasionally go outside on the balcony with my HT to checkin on local nets, but if the weather was bad (which it often is in Chicago), I’d be off the air.
Fast forward to 2018, I got married and Mrs. KD9CPB thought it was awfully silly for me to be standing outside on the balcony to talk on a radio when we have perfectly good computers with webcams/microphones along with cell phones indoors 🙂
I started joking around about we needed to install whatever the largest possible antenna the HOA would let me get away with, but I promised I’d complete the CCNP first since my homelab gear for that was taking up quite a bit of space in our second bedroom. Sure enough I passed the CCNP in 2019, and after some binge Amazon.com/hamradio.com purchases, version 1 of the condo balcony outdoor antenna came to life!
Version 1a: Ugly Railing Mag Mount
After talking my dad into getting a ham radio license in 2017, by the time I finally got back into ham radio more often in 2019, his reputation as KD9JSB in the Chicago community was flourishing! Upon his recommendation, I borrowed his Baofeng Mag-mount antenna and attached it on the corner of the balcony, cracking open the door to get the feedline outdoors. This was a great temporary setup for nets, but it would let more cold air & street noise into the condo than I would like. Only problem was I came in incredibly “static-ey” when transmitting, and the reception quality (even on my cheapo Baofeng UV-82 HT) was less than ideal.
Now that I had a taste of being able to hit local repeaters from the balcony, while being able to sit inside, I had the urge to spend more time improving the setup. Further discussion with KD9JSB resulted in us thinking the ground plane from the magnetic mount wasn’t sufficient from the small amount of metal on the balcony. Even though it was magnetically “stuck” to the balcony, it made sense that perhaps the ground plane wasn’t sufficient for ideal transmitting. We took a trip up to hamradio.com’s Milwaukee location, and bought a better Comet SBB-224 tri-band antenna with a new magentic mount. For now, just a cookie sheet was used to improve the ground plane, and version 1b was born!
Version 1b: Ugly Cookie Sheet
Believe it or not, the cookie sheet worked well and both transmit & receive was significantly better than the mag mount directly on the balcony railing. Only problem was getting the cookie sheet elevated was very ugly; I’d either balance it ontop of the grill, or leave it in the center of the balcony, surrounded by the metal railings of RF interference. I knew there had to be a better way, but I didn’t want to buy another antenna. So after more research and more amazon.com binge purchases, we’re on to version 2:
Version 2: The Ground Plane Adapter attempt
The Harvest Ground Plane Adapter seemed to be the answer to all my problems; with this adapter I could use my existing Comet antenna, buy some cheap PVC, and have a great semi-permanent antenna on the balcony! I even splurged on a Baofeng UV25x4 thinking I might need to put a little more power on the antenna. After some conversation with Mrs. KD9CPB, I ended up drilling a small hole in the balcony window area, allowing us to operate our antenna without having to prop the door open. After a trip to the hardware store for some caulk and PVC (they had 3/4 inch gray PVC conduit already cut down to 5ft, perfect for the balcony!), version 2 was assembled:
I had to re-terminate the SO-239 connection more times than I care to admit as I wasn’t using the crimper tool properly. Finally after watching this YouTube video, I got the hang of it, and it was time for some testing! After much trial and error, I found that reception & transmission was most optimal when I raised the PVC pipe vertically above the balcony railing. My original hypothesis was it would be better mounting the PVC horizontally towards the street, but it seems to me that additional height helps with any interference from the metal balcony. This worked out well as the vertical configuration in the corner of the balcony made it much more stealth, and I finally thought I solved the problem of coming in poorly on the repeaters!
Sadly, this was anything but the case. Performance was just about the same, if not worse, than the mag mount antenna. KD9JSB came over to help investigate, and at one point during a local net, we found that removing the vertical element of the antenna actually improved reception! This blew our minds; it was like the ground plane kit itself was behaving like an antenna. If you happen to know why this is, please let me know in the comments, as I ended up solving this mystery by just going with a larger antenna with built-in groundplane. Maybe I’m just too close to local repeaters for a ground plane adapter to be a viable solution? After reading an issue of QST and thinking about if I really wanted to spend more $$$ on an antenna, I finally caved to retail therapy and got a Cushcraft AR270, hoping version 3 would still be small enough not to upset the neighbors:
Version 3: Cushcraft AR270 Success
Although I fumbled a bit on the initial install of the ground plane radials, the fully assembled Cushcraft AR270 ended up being the perfect size for the balcony. It felt like the absolute maximum I could get away with before attracting unwanted attention:
The only issue I had with my installation was the 3/4 inch PVC pipe is just a little too thin to prevent the antenna from swaying when it gets very windy. I’m not too concerned about it, but it’s not the most cosmetically pleasing site to see your antenna wobbling around in the wind! Unfortunately the hardware store didn’t have 1 inch or greater gray PVC conduit pre-cut to 5ft, and 10ft wasn’t going to fit in my tiny car without a saw. One of these days I might go back and buy the 1 inch PVC conduit just to calm my fears of waking up one day to the antenna on the ground, but I’m not going to lose sleep over it.
The reception & transmission quality with the Cushcraft was a very large improvement, I’m now able to transmit clearly onto UHF repeaters that I couldn’t even key with the previous antenna setups! I’m still playing around with the best way to ground this antenna. If you’re still reading this and have some wisdom to share about grounding an antenna on the balcony such as this one, please drop me a line in the comments! I hope this story of all the condo balcony pain will help someone out there make better decisions when getting started on ham radio from a metal balcony. Because if there’s one thing this world needs, it’s more ham radio antennas on balconies 🙂
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