Condo Living and Ham Radio … Can It Work?

Can Condo Living and Ham Radio Work? I enjoyed reading KB2NAT’s trials and tribulations on hamming from his new Condo … posted by Layne AE1N

 How to Overcome Some Condo Issues by Rick Fineout KB2NAT

Moving into a condo changes one’s life, especially a ham operator’s. I was used to a collection of horizontal loops, an NVIS antenna and verticals with a large radial system. The rig was a Yaesu FT-897 which did a reasonable job, especially with that antenna system. Then, the condo! Although hams are commonly faulted for foolishly moving into a limited antenna situation, things as age and the need to be nearer family precludes hobby preferences. Hence, we are now in a condo in the city of Charlotte.

Condos provide more noise, less space, more neighbors and abundant rules. I rightly expected huge QRM/N in the condo and therefore I looked at magnetic loops which tend to be inherently quieter. My first purchase in preparation for the move was a W4OP mag loop. This is a very efficient loop and helps reduce background noise and is also priced reasonably. The loop had worked well in my old den and tuned easily. However, in the condo, the loop struggled to tune on 20 meters. It seems, there was too much metal in the window framing. I rotated the loop, elevated it a bit and, behold, it would tune. I knew I was missing a great deal because the loop performed incredibly good outside. But in my den, there were too many impedances.

Interestingly, the condo had been pre-wired for cable. I located the cable distribution box in a closet, isolated the den cable and extended it through a hole I drilled in the ceiling. This would then run into the available attic space over the garage. In that little attic (along with A/C ducts, and wiring) I had a space of 25’ by 4-5’. I made a 100-foot double loop and used a 4:1 balun. Sometimes it worked better than others. It was almost good. However, when I turned the power up to 50 watts to see if I would be able to make QSO, I began wondering why my wife was screaming in the living room.

We have electrically operated furniture. Apparently, RF can make the furniture open and close up at will….even if someone is sitting in it watching TV. My wife was stuck in a recliner and was doing her best to let me know. Thankfully, if the chair/couch, etc. is unplugged, it resets itself where it will work normally without the use of RF. I later found out that the balun was dying the death of intermittency. When the RF went up, the balun just shorted out and the furniture danced.

I replaced all with a dipole to see if it would work with lots of ferrite for a choke. Every CQ I called moved the furniture.

I added a ground wire. I ran unobtrusively thin speaker wire out the den window, used a hot glue gun, and glued the wire cleverly around each rectangular stone in that part of the exterior wall to the ground. I then ran the wire under pine needles to the nearest exterior faucet and secured it with hot glue up the wall corner and then over to an outdoor faucet under the siding edge for a better ground. Inside I tried another transmission. More comments from my wife who was now hopping up and down let me know the system needed work. I then added more ground wire and ran it along the wall in the opposite direction from the faucet to help with the RF. More hoping up and down!

Waiting a few weeks and saving a few bucks, I purchased a used $10 balun at a hamfest and decided to empower my attic dipole using four metal slinkies. I stretched out two slinkies on each side of the balun and it worked, but, again, not fabulously.

Then I began to eye the small maple tree (20’ high) outside my den window. I was unsure about running RG-8 out the window obscurely, but some hot glue, patience, and more pine needles brought both it and me to the base of the tree. I then hot- glued an antenna wire up the trunk, around some low branches and then with a weight, strung some wire in the upper branches and back down where I could wrap the (apparent unsightly) black antenna wire around some dark branches. It received better than the attic antenna. However, I could still move furniture and I felt moved to be quiet when a neighbor complained that his electronic washer/dryer combination began to act up.

With the frustration of QRM and poor reception of the antenna and potentially of the neighbors, I thought about going portable and made a major life decision: I sold the trusty Yaesu FT-897 to purchase an Elecraft KX3. This was a major purchase for me, but the built-in tuner, portability, and truly high-quality reception was a necessary step up.

One other thing: I also went from 100 watts to 15 watts. Why the decrease in power with poor antenna availability? There were two contributing factors. The first was that the KX3 is truly an exceptional portable/in-shack rig and provides top-of-the-line filtering. The KX3 is really wonderful outside with the mag loop, or a no-counterpoise wire antenna or even two short wires connected to the BNC plug as antenna and ground. The ATU tunes everything but my wooden Venetian blinds. However, what do I do when I don’t want to go out due to spells of bad weather or laziness?

I looked at the antenna situation again. I remembered that I had some success with the attic loop antenna so I just connected the two ends of my slinky dipole and made it a large loop. This was a bit better, but it was still not as good as working in a local park gazebo with an antenna wire on its roof and a radial on the ground.

There WAS one possibility. I looked at the condo rules again and they allowed a place for an “antenna!” They didn’t say what KIND of antenna, just an “antenna”, by which they meant a satellite antenna for cable.

I looked at the tree antenna situation again and decided to try to isolate the antenna better with an unun. Saving a few bucks, I found it was easy to wind your own with an old ferrite antenna which is a good ferrite mixture for this purpose. The unun actually worked. The antenna seemed to work better, my RF meter was happy, the furniture didn’t move, the chair was more comfortable and my watts actually got out.

Even with the outside tree antenna and unun, I wasn’t making it into Europe big-time, and although I could tune 80 meters, it was still fairly noisy due to its proximity to the condo. During the day I still wasn’t getting out well.

In my antenna bag in the garage, I had a spaghetti pile of very thin wire colored with alternating colors of pale blue and white. This was another great garages sale find! I separated 30’ of wire, and with a little fishing line and a weight, added this wire to the end of the tree antenna which serpentines all over the place. The wire stretches out now to another 20’ tree. The wire is really incredibly difficult to see against the sky. It is blandly colored with short alternating cream and pale-blue strips and is 15’ high. It may not seem like much, but the addition is like a breath of fresh RF. The bands are now alive.

I still have the BNC connectors and wires, the mag loop and all that I need to go portable plus I’ve learned much. I now had reasonable ham shack performance. I have antennas for portable use, I can operate at 15 watts (big time for me now) and Now if I can just filter out how the guys running 5kw SSB with directional arrays!


N3HKN: “As a condo dweller I threw 66ft of wire from the third floor to the deck and ran the wire around it avoiding parallel runs. I can get out about 150 miles with 10 watts on 40 meters. It is invigorating to hear your signal at some distance away at 6 watts.

N8FVJ: “I heard using an antenna tuner may load into a metal gutter.”

K6AER:”Living in a condo and having the hobby of ham radio is like owning a 911S and having no driver’s license.”

KB6QXM: ”Not only does this story applies to hams that live in Condos, but everyone that purchases or rents a house in a CC&R or HOA controlled area. If the ham is serious about their hobby, there should be other considerations. In California, you do not have the option to have your station as strictly a mobile, as the new “distracted driver” laws have just killed mobile ham radio in the state of California.

KB2FCV: “If I had to downsize a place with HOA’s, CC&R’s, etc… I would definitely find something with access to an attic. The last place we lived before we bought a house we rented a townhouse which had an attic. I was able to get a loop fed with ladder line up there as well as a 6m dipole and a 2-meter beam. The loop was basically as much wire as I could fit around the perimeter of the attic fed with ladder line which dropped down through the attic access hole straight to the tuner. I made my own access cover with holes for antenna cables so that I could replace the original when we moved out. How did it work? It worked pretty well! The furthest DX was VQ9. I was able to get into AF, EU, and some south pacific, SA. It certainly had its limitations but I got out! If age and ability prevent you from climbing up into the attic, get involved with a club. Club members help others all the time with antenna projects.

ONAIR: “The Villages in Florida have a very strict HOA. Members of their ham club are able to beat them! Check the “resources” section on their website.

NN2X: “I would get into digital. If you like to rag chew, Olivia is your answer, it works -13dB below the noise floor, if you only like to exchange signal reports, the FT8 mode which works -24dB BELOW the noise floor. Using PSK reporter, you can see if your signal is getting out. BPSK 31, is another one.

KM4OBL: I live in an apartment by necessity, with a ham-unfriendly management. I have to keep a low profile. When I became licensed a few years ago, I figured out right away that the only way to go for dx on HF, which was my principle interest, was to use the digital modes and keep a low profile. I mounted a stick antenna on a tripod and a bracket that projects the antenna away from the railing and balcony at an angle. Every session on the radio requires me to take the antenna/tripod combination out on the balcony and tune it and the three radials. It is a pain in the neck, but it works well enough to get me on the air and across the ocean, first with psk31 and now with FT8.

VE3CUI “Wow…You’ve just really, REALLY depressed me! So THIS is what I have to look forward to in my “Golden Years” of Ham Radio, after having enjoyed, for decades, the freedom of country living atop 4-acres of land, dotted with tall trees…?!

KW1K “If you own the land around your unit, a Hustler BTV vertical fits nicely inside a 2 inch PVC pipe to make a flagpole. If you do not wish to deal with radials [which are easy to install], there are off center fed flagpole antennas commercially available, or you can build your own. Now, for the law part. If the flag your HOA is prohibiting is the good old stars and stripes, the HOA is probably out of line. Your right to display the United States flag is protected by federal law. The “Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005” makes it illegal for an HOA to restrict owners from displaying a U.S. flag. See…hibit-you-from-flying-your-favorite-flag.html.

KG6QKJ “I just use a Hamstick Dipole on a balcony and move it inside when I am done with it and then bring it back out the next time. I use quick disconnects to change bands. I even hang a hummingbird feeder on it sometimes to appease the little old lady next door.


P.S. I remember loading my transmitter to the rain gutter downspout in our first apartment. It worked great on 40 meters. Also every stereo and TV set in the building! … Layne AE1N

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