TV News Van Conversion

Discussion in 'On the Road' started by W4WKU, Oct 9, 2019.

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  1. W4WKU

    W4WKU Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    Hi Everyone,
    I just purchased a retired TV news van; it is a Ford E350 with a Wilburt 42-ft mast, Onan 6KW generator, and two deep cell batteries for DC power. The cargo area is split into a operator area and the generator/mast compartment. there are three 19" racks built into the divider separating the two compartments. I'm currently pulling out many pounds of cut wires and 75-ohm coax, and fixing a few quirks with the mast and electrical distribution.

    I'm looking for ideas on how to outfit the van for ham radio operation - primarily HF, though I will probably also operate VHF contest as a rover or from rare(er) grid squared. Wondering about the value of putting in an APRS radio, installing 12V computer monitors for dual-monitors with a laptop, configuring for two operating positions, etc. What non-ham equipment is worth installing (in addition to a coffee pot!)?

    While the van is wired for 120VAC with the generator, I'd prefer to focus on 12V DC operation, so that I can minimize running the generator. Anyone have experience with a conversion like this? Comments and suggestions welcomed!
    David KG0EW
    K0UO likes this.
  2. AG6QR

    AG6QR Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    Cool! Our club had a news van donated. A member of our club had retired from a local TV station, and was able to suggest to his former employer that they could make a charitable donation of the van to an organization that would put it to good use. We use it for public service events, as a net control station for bike rides, hikes, races, etc. in areas where no cell service is available. We currently only have VHF/UHF gear in the van.

    The nice thing about it is its huge pneumatic mast, and the great power system it has. We have hilly terrain, and the mast can often help in lifting a signal out of a valley. With the generator and the huge battery bank, we never worry about running out of power. It is well outfitted with interior workspace, lighting, etc.

    But realistically, its most practical value is probably as a public relations thing. We have graphics on the side with our club's name and logo, and the big mast draws attention. The rear of the van is a reasonable operating position for one person, maybe two, but it's not big enough for more. Because we're usually dealing with many people on-site including casual passers-by, we normally set a table and canopy just outside the van, and operate from folding chairs outside, leaving the interior vacant. We've set up a radio with a detachable head that we can put outside on a table. As a practical matter, we could usually set up a station just as effectively by bringing the table, chairs, canopy, radio and a couple of big 12V lead-acid batteries to the event in a pickup truck. Usually, a mag-mount on the roof of any vehicle would reach the repeater just fine; a portable mast would work in the few cases where height was needed.

    The mast would make a nice center support for an inverted Vee for HF, but we don't use ours that way. If I had my own personal van like this, I'd outfit it for HF.

    Our generator works well, but it doesn't smell good, and it's a bit noisy. We typically use it to power the air compressor for the mast as we set up, but after things are deployed, we turn the generator off and run strictly off of batteries. In the unlikely event the batteries ever die, we'll fire up the generator for a while, but that's never happened.
  3. W4WKU

    W4WKU Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    Thanks for the comment! I'm planning to install a rotator and an HF beam, plus some cross-arms for dipoles. Ideally, I'd like to be able to set everything up by myself, which may limit my options for a beam, and will take some careful planning on a easily installed and removed mounting plate on the mast. VHF FM will be mostly used while I'm driving; will probably have 6m and 2m SSB and CW for VHF contests as well. At least, that's what I'm planning!
  4. VK4KX

    VK4KX Ham Member QRZ Page

    Sounds like something I would like to set up for our Club (I'm the President) and if we had a donation of an Ex Tv Van that would be great, I might start canvasing some TV stations for when they upgrade to new ones. I would recommend an APRS radio set up for sure, first reason a) Members and interested parties can see where you are, and b) You can instantly check the radio's screen for your own location, Lat - Long, altitude and Grid Square. I have had a Kenwood TMD-700A for years and would not be without it in my 4x4. There are later versions available that have the same info.
    Also check the weight capacity of the mast before you go putting too much on it, the last thing you want is a gust of wind putting you on your side. The inside of the van is probably ok for 2 ops in an emergency radio traffic situation, but contesting would be a nightmare with 2 ops inside a small space.
    If you can sound proof the operation area with egg shell foam as well that would be good. The use of remote head radios is a good thing as well and I use both the old IC-706MKIIG and a TS-480HX for the 200 Watts, both have remote heads. Have fun with it, I'm sure we are all waiting to see some photos, so get to it.
    We used to have a huge caravan (Trailer) that was well set up for 6 ops but it became too hard to tow and eventually rusted too much but a drivable van would be great.
    Cheers, Bernie VK4KX, 38 years in EMCOM.
  5. K6CPO

    K6CPO Ham Member QRZ Page

    The San Diego ARES group was given a former DEA surveillance trailer (before my time.) We deploy it at the MCAS Miramar Air Show every year for VHF/UHF communications among our members during the three-day show. Getting the two mast up really improves our coverage and also allows us a way to string a NVIS inverted V for HF (barely visible in the photo.)

  6. W4WKU

    W4WKU Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    The mast is rated to 200 lbs, and with a 10 sq-ft antenna, about 60 mph windload. It ain't going up (or staying up) if the wind starts gusting much over 30 mph.

    So far, I've cleaned out almost all the old wiring, removed the Nycoil (temporarily; it is going back up with new 50-ohm cable soon), and cut down the mast-top mounting bracket to be a better size for use with an HF setup. Backup camera is going in next; not safe to back up without a ground guide, as there is no visibility behind the van. Still (optimistically) on track to have it fully operational for Field Day 2020.
  7. W4KJG

    W4KJG Subscriber QRZ Page

    I wonder if it has a toilet, sink, refrigerator and a way to heat up or cook meals.

    We recently sold our beach home and farm. I hadn't thought about a retired TV van. I'm looking at getting a small travel trailer, or possibly another motorhome, to become my get-away ham shack, fishing/hunting hideout, and kitchen for the crazy foods I like to prepare.

    Our last two Class C motor homes were on Ford E350 chassis. They are pretty tough and well built. Both had Onan generators, but the last one also had a nice solar array and some pretty hefty golf cart batteries for off-grid power.
    K0UO likes this.
  8. W4WKU

    W4WKU Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    These engineering vans have surprisingly little room in them - the Will-burt mast, generator, batteries, and equipment racks leave enough space for one or two operators, but not room for much else. I'm trying to figure out a way to squeeze a fold-up cot in the van, and maybe room for a small coffee maker and cooler. A RV or trailer with a pneumatic mast mounted outside would be much better for a camping experience - but you would need to design and fabricate a mounting bracket. Nice thing about the eng van is that all the hard integration work is already done.
    K0UO likes this.
  9. KA2IRQ

    KA2IRQ Ham Member QRZ Page

    I'm curious how many miles these things have on them when they typically get retired and what kind of engine/vehicle maintenance you found it needed.

    Is there a particular model of van that these TV stations buy or is it "all over the place" as far as brand/model?
  10. W4WKU

    W4WKU Premium Subscriber QRZ Page

    Many of the vans I've seen advertised are built on the Ford Econoline E350 (and most are with a gas engine); this is a great chassis, and the Triton V10 can easily go over 200k miles if well maintained (although pre-2004 Econoline vans can have a problem with the spark plugs, so I'd avoid any vans older than 2004). The condition of the vans are all over the map! As a minimum, you should ask the following questions:
    1. Age and mileage?
    2. When was the mast last serviced?
    3. Is a genset included, and if yes, how many hours?
    4. Service records included?
    5. Any known repairs or servicing needed?
    6. Photos!

    Ideally, you want to purchase from the TV station rather than a dealer.

    The truck I purchased is a 2004 model, with 173k miles. The vehicle, generator, mast and deep-cell batteries were all well maintained, and all work very well. The station engineer spent a couple of hours with me walking me through the equipment and safely raising and lowering the mast. He also provided all the service records going back to 2004. It's taken me a little over a month to make minor repairs and clean out the old wiring; and I'll probably invest close to $2,500 in electronics, antennas and misc items (like backup camera system, tool kit, etc.). I already have all the radios, so that lowers my expected costs considerably.

    A lot of stations are starting to retire trucks due costs, and new technologies aggregating cellular data to transmit digital TV signals from a backpack sized platform make the trucks somewhat obsolete. So now is a great time to start contacting stations in your area, if you're interested. As a planning figure, I would recommend assuming that it will cost around $10k for the van, any needed repairs and upgrades, and outfitting for ham radio use. Of course, that figure can vary a lot depending on the cost and condition of the van, as well as how much ham gear you want to install.

    There isn't all that much room inside the truck - between the mast, racks, and genset, the operating area is pretty compact. Would be snug to have two operators; unrealistic to try for three. However, most trucks have a signal distribution box, so you could easily set up under a tent next to the van, and use the mast, and batteries/genset. The vans are not laid out to be a camper! However, if the van is an Econline 350, it has enough power to pull a lightweight trailer.

    I've started a hamvan group in to discuss all these topics with other van owners.
    KA2IRQ likes this.

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