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SteppIR Arcing Failure

In late August 2020, I ordered a SteppIR BigIR with the 80m coil.
I ordered it specifically for the promise of using the entire 80m band with full legal limit power.
The first parts of it were delivered in early October.
The controller wasn't delivered until late October.
I had it built and on the roof by early November.
It was a disaster.

Doesn't Work on 80m

The antenna would tune up with a low power (+10 dBm) vector network analyzer on 80m.
But when any power (≥ 100W) was applied on 80m, the VSWR went very high.
I didn't understand at first that arcing was happening.
But it soon became clear. It was arcing.

SteppIR Manuals Very Poor About High RF Voltage Areas

Heathkit manuals were the Cadillac of manuals.
SteppIR manuals are the exact opposite.
They are hard to follow. They are incomplete.
They do not tell you what to do, and in what order.
In effect, SteppIR makes each customer re-do all of the system engineering that SteppIR ought to have done, but didn't.
The SteppIR manual for the BigIR w/ 80m coil ought to have pictures and diagrams of the very high RF voltage areas.
It ought to have warnings about keeping everything out of this very high RF voltage area, in order to avoid arcing.
But there are no warnings about keeping things (ground wires, control cables, neighbor's children) out of that area!
Adding such warnings to the manual are essential, because not all of SteppIR's customers are antenna engineers.
(That is an understatement. Probably almost none of SteppIR's customers are antenna engineers!)

Control Cable Quick Disconnect

The 80m coil comes with a set of 4 quick disconnect points for the control cable.
But the Element Housing Unit (EHU) does not come with any quick disconnect points for the control cable.
It is important in Florida to take antennas down during hurricanes. We get hurricanes.
So I installed 4 brass screws in the EHU to serve as a quick disconnect point for the control cable.
I would not have done this if the manual had warned me not to.
Installing the quick disconnect point was a mistake, because it arced.
Notice all the black carbon on one of the brass screw heads, for the white control cable connector.
Also notice all the green dust inside the EHU. This is copper-beryllium dust, which is an extreme health hazard.
Because I added the control cable quick disconnects, SteppIR claims that I voided their warranty.
If this was the only arcing which occurred, SteppIR might have a valid point.
If SteppIR had warned me in the manual not to do this, they might have a valid point.
But they provided no such warning, and as we will see, this is NOT the only arcing which occurred.

Removal of Control Cables from Quick Disconnect

As soon as I realized that there might be arcing to the control cable quick disconnect which I installed, I removed the control cable from the brass screws, and routed it as far away from the EHU as I could.
I thought this might solve the problem. But it didn't.
The arcing continued, as soon as I tried to apply any power on the 80m band.
Evidence of that arcing will be presented next.

Arcing from the Copper-Beryllium Strip to the Support Pole

After the EHU control cable was routed well away from the EHU, and arcing continued, I took the antenna down to look for arcing.
I suspected arcing by this time, because the return loss (VSWR) was very good at low power, but not at high power.
The first evidence of arcing I saw was to the support pole.
This is what I saw on the support pole:
And this is what I saw on the inside the bottom fiberglass tube of the EHU:
It was only after the antenna was taken down from the roof, and the cover removed from the EHU, that I saw the evidence for arcing to the control cable quick disconnect connections.

SteppIR is Selling a Defective Product

The arcing which occurred from the copper-beryllium strip to the support pole is clearly NOT my fault.
Even if I hadn't added the quick disconnect brass screws, the arcing to the support pole would still have occurred.
It is due to a design flaw in the BigIR w/ 80m coil antenna.
There is just not enough room in the EHU for the very high RF voltages present.
And/or, there is not enough insulation around the copper-beryllium tape.
It is SteppIR's fault. SteppIR is delivering a product which does not, and cannot, live up to their marketing hype.
SteppIR marketing claims that the antenna can handle 1.5 kW across the entire 80m band.
Also remember that the main reason I bought this antenna was the promise of being able to run full power across the entire 80m band.

Other SteppIR Customers Have the Same Problem

If it was only me, you might think it was somehow my fault.
But it is not only me.
The Anchorage Alaska Club also has the same problem.
I have talked to TJ Sheffield KL7TS of the Anchorage club on the phone. They have exactly the same symptoms as I do.
Their antenna works at QRP (10W) on 80m, but the VSWR goes very high on 80m at higher power.
KL7TS indicated that he had received an email from a SteppIR employee which indicated SteppIR is aware of at least one other customer with the same symptoms and problem.
Perhaps it is Alan Dewey WB9JTK. Alan documents his experiences here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.
If the third customer that SteppIR is aware of is not WB9JTK, then there is yet another customer experiencing exactly the same issues.
Perhaps it is Trevor Clapp M6LDZ. He posted a review on 2019-02-14 indicating that arcing occurred, causing antenna failure. (Search for M6LDZ.)
Note that I never experienced arcing in the 80m coil itself. Neither did KL7TS of the Anchorage club.
The arcing in my antenna was limited to the element housing unit (EHU).
WB9JTK has a very good web page on antennas that will not accept power. The problem is almost always arcing.

What SteppIR Ought To Do

SteppIR ought to admit that they have a design problem, and their antenna does not work as marketed with 1.5 kW on 80m.
SteppIR ought to re-design their antenna to make it work according to their marketing claims.
If the EHU needs to be larger, with greater spacing between parts to prevent arcing, SteppIR should do that.
If the EHU needs better insulation between parts to prevent arcing, SteppIR should do that.
If the BigIR antenna w/ 80m coil needs a non-conductive support pole, SteppIR should supply it with the antenna.
If the bottom fiberglass pole which fits over the support pole needs a weep hole to allow water to drain out, SteppIR should do that.
SteppIR should fix their design, and then make all of their customers who purchased a defective antenna whole.

What I am asking SteppIR to do for me

If SteppIR doesn't offer me a full refund, they should send me a new EHU, to replace my burned up EHU.
My EHU smells absolutely awful when you take off the lid.
It is also hazardous with all of that copper-beryllium dust.
And with the existing carbon tracks from previous arcing, it is much more likely to arc again.
My EHU has been ruined by the previous arcing.
Secondly, after SteppIR has re-designed their antenna to actually be able to handle 1.5 kW on 80m, they ought to send me those parts.
I don't expect SteppIR to be able to re-design their antenna overnight. I expect it will take time.
This time without full power on 80m will be a hardship for me, because that is the very reason I bought the antenna.
Some people may have never experienced the arcing problem, because they never ran high power.
They should be made whole also. They may get an amplifier in the future.
It is the right thing to do.

Update February 2022: More Perfidy from SteppIR

I sold my antenna for far less than half of what I paid for it, and I am glad to be rid of the problem.
I made sure that the buyer read this website before I sold it to him.

SteppIR quietly updated their web site.
They previously claimed that the BigIR could handle 1.5 kW on 80m and 60m.
As of Feb 2022, they only claim it will only handle 1.0 kW on 80m and 60m.
Click on the links and see for yourself.
(Search for "Add a 80m Coil" and read the text below it.)

They have done nothing to solve the arcing problem.

Based upon my experience, I don't believe it will handle 1.0 kW without arcing.
The high voltage on an antenna varies as the square root of the power.
So you need to reduce the power a lot to eliminate an arcing problem.
I had arcing even at 100 W.

SteppIR is a dishonest company. I recommend not doing business with dishonest companies.
Caveat emptor. (Let the buyer beware.)


Ham radio operator since 1980
Electrical engineer since 1986