UPDATED: The tale of two DX shacks

My main DX shack as of 5/17/17. Click to enlarge.

Updated 6/11/17: Since writing this article, I’ve found myself in my upstairs “secondary” shack DXing most of the time, and I’ve found more signals being received upstairs.  Therefore, I decided to make my upstairs shack my primary shack, while keeping an HD Radio-capable tuner downstairs in my office, as I do get quite a few signals from the north better downstairs that are eclipsed with stronger signals from the south upstairs.  See more in my Working Conditions page.

The article below will continue as originally published on 5/27/17…

When you are unable to utilize a roof antenna, one of the most important things you can do is find the best place for your indoor antennas and radios.  Failure to find the perfect spot could mean the difference between getting great DX, or getting nothing.  What if you were in a situation where you had no idea where to put your radios?

This is exactly what happened to me upon moving to my new home in March 2017.  My home is a two-floor condo, consisting of a portion of the 3rd and 4th floors of my four-floor building.  The majority of my home is on the 3rd floor, while a small loft that overlooks the main living area is upstairs.  For ease of understanding, in this article, “downstairs” will refer to the 3rd floor, while “upstairs” will refer to the 4th floor.

My main shack, located in my office downstairs, is in front of a window that has a clear, unobstructed view of to the N, NE, and E for about six miles with lower land in all directions.  Overall, it is a spectacular spot for DX.

During the first month or so in my new home under deadband conditions and utilizing dipole antennas, I enjoyed frequent reception under 100 miles to the Maryland Eastern Shore, a common market heard in my Northern Virginia home.  I rarely got any reception to the south, which was expected, given the innards of my building consisting of most rooms in my home, plus my neighbor’s entire unit, acts as an “iron curtain” to signals from that direction while listening to the radio in the office.

The Sony XDR-S10HDiP in my upstairs listening post.  Click to enlarge.

One night, while upstairs in the loft with my Insignia NS-HD01, I found signals from Norfolk, VA and coastal North Carolina at up to 220 miles away booming in with stereo reception.  Elated to finally have a respectable tropo opening, I went downstairs to my shack to find a totally different dial.  Although a few Norfolk signals were received downstairs, they were very weak.  The NC signals weren’t heard.  Instead, my shack radios picked up the usual Eastern Shore signals, mixed in with a few weak Philadelphia signals that I didn’t get upstairs.

Throughout the month of April, I debated moving my main shack upstairs, given how I experienced better reception up there that night.  One weekend, I went through with my plan and moved my radios.  But what I found surprised me even more than the difference in tropo reception:  My semi-local and regional FM signals to the N, NE, and E were much weaker upstairs than in my downstairs office.  Some didn’t even come in, or were subjected to co-channel interference from other signals to the S, SW, or W on the same frequency.

91.3 WARN Culpeper, VA, at 35 miles to the west, often comes in with RDS upstairs but is barely heard at all downstairs.

How could this be?  In my 18 years of DXing, I’ve always found that the higher up your antenna is, the better reception you get.  It just didn’t make sense.  Of course, my local Washington, DC radio signals came in equally strong on both floors, given they are less than 20 miles away.

After many experiments since then, I finally solved the mystery that was eating at me for the past few months.  As mentioned before, my office radios downstairs got ideal reception from the N, NE, and E.  Throughout my tests, I found that my semi-local signals in those directions from Baltimore and Southern Maryland that were strong downstairs consistently came in about 20% weaker upstairs.  Yet, at the same time, signals to the S, SW, and W, which I can’t get downstairs, were heard only while DXing upstairs.

I realized it all had to do with the construction of my building.  As mentioned before, the entire floor of my building (mine and my neighbors’ kitchen, living room, dining room, and spare bedroom), as well as neighboring buildings in my development, were all blocking southern reception from my downstairs radio.  However, at the same time, the only thing blocking my radios from southern reception upstairs is a wide open room next to mine in my neighbor’s unit.  Since my home is slightly higher than the southern buildings in the development, my fourth floor is actually above their rooflines.  This means that my upstairs listening post received a more clear “path” to the south and west, which would correlate with the increase of signals from that direction upstairs.

The cross-section diagram above illustrates why the upstairs loft gets better southern signals and weaker northern signals than downstairs, which gets weaker southern but stronger northern signals.

Now that I figured out that part, it still left one problem: why were my semi-locals to the N, NE, and E, weaker upstairs?  I figured it was due to a lack of windows upstairs.  My downstairs dipole antenna is taped to my window, while upstairs another dipole is taped to the internal wall separating my unit from my neighbor’s.  This probably accounts for the difference in reception in those directions.  There is also a sloped ceiling and roof upstairs in those directions that likely further attenuates signals.

Interestingly enough, the 20% signal loss from signals to the N, NE, and E is probably equal for signals to the S, SW, and W.  In other words, if I had access to a south-facing window in my building and compared reception there to my reception upstairs, I’d likely find that all signals to the S, SW, and W would be 20% stronger than what I can receive upstairs.  Unfortunately, I don’t know my neighbors well enough to test my theory.  However, I did live in another condo building in the same neighborhood from 1997-2002 where all of my windows faced the south, and I remember strong reception in that direction, with weaker reception to the north (basically the same phenomenon I am experiencing currently, but in reverse).

There’s already signs that my theory may not be as clear cut as it seems: during a May 22 tropo duct into New York, I received strong signals from the state up to 282 miles away.  Some New York signals were stronger upstairs than downstairs, while the reverse were the case with other frequencies.  This further cements my (new) theory that there is no rhyme or reason to the madness.  I have to maintain two shacks to get the best out of DXing at my new home.  The good side is that I will always have the element of surprise while DXing given the differing reception, while the downside is that I will have a lot of running up and down staircases during a DX event.

I now have HD Radio-capable tuners on both floors of my home, while the majority of my radios remain downstairs, where my computer is.  I am waiting for more DX events to determine if I need to re-evaluate my setup, and move radios (and recording capabilities) appropriately.  Stay tuned for more developments.