WEAU-TV completes assembly of new 2000ft tower

WEAU-TV, the Gray Television-owned NBC affiliate in Eau Claire, WI, achieved a major milestone this week in its quest to resume transmission from its permanent transmit site in Fairchild, when engineers hoisted the station’s new circularly polarized antenna to the top of its new 1998-foot tower.

Mounting the antenna completes the tower assembly phase of the project, which began after WEAU’s previous 2000-foot tower collapsed March 22 during a spring ice and snow storm. “It is a heck of feat to get back to this stage before the end of the year” said Jim Ocon, VP of technology for Gray Television.

Collapse of the old tower gave the station the chance to make some important changes. For example, when WEAU begins transmitting from its new antenna it will be on UHF channel 38, not VHF 13. “I am very happy we are going to UHF,” said Ocon. “Even before the tower fell, we were having problems.” The station sought and received speedy approval from the FCC for the move to UHF. Since completing their transition to DTV, several stations moving to their permanent VHF channel assignment from their temporary UHF DTV channel have petitioned the commission to increase power or move back to UHF to overcome reception problems.

Improvements to the station’s RF infrastructure include a three-tube 1MW Platinum transmitter from Harris and a circularly polarized antenna from ERI optimized for MDTV reception, said Ocon.

A combination of factors has expedited the rebuild of WEAU’s RF plant. First, erecting an identically sized tower meant the station didn’t need a new construction permit from the FCC, but could rely on its original CP, said Ocon. Second, planning for the project began the night the original tower fell, he added. Finally, there was a sense of urgency shared by everyone involved with the project, including the station’s engineering staff, city and county governmental agencies, and even the insurer of the original tower, said Ocon.

However, there have been delays along the way — many related to weather, said WEAU chief engineer Ron Wiedemeier. “A week ago, one of the tower crew members mentioned that a 3/8-inch cable (used by winches for hoisting) measured 3 inches in diameter due to ice,” said Wiedemeier. “And that was when there was no ice on the ground.”

According to Wiedemeier, the winds at the top of the tower also have delayed completion. For example, the antenna that was hoisted into place on Dec. 13, 2011, was ready to be lifted on Thanksgiving, but 50mph to 60mph winds at the top of the tower made doing so impossible, he said.

Since the tower collapse, WEAU has been on air from a leased digital subchannel on WQOW, the Quincy Newspapers station in Eau Claire, and WLAX the Grant Broadcasting station in La Crosse. In a strange twist, WQOW transmits from a 960-foot tower owned by WEAU. So leasing the WQOW subchannel allowed the WEAU to get back on-air from its own tower within 12 hours of the collapse of the 2000-foot structure, said Wiedemeier. Within a month of the collapse, WEAU added its own antenna to the 960-foot structure, retrieved and repaired its damaged transmitter, and relocated it to a metal building behind its Eau Claire studio, to begin transmitting once more on channel 13.

Gray Television plans for WEAU to remain on air on these temporary channels while the new RF infrastructure is thoroughly tested, said Ocon. The station could be on-air permanently from its new transmitter and antenna by the end of the year, but no firm date has been chosen, he said.

Work remaining to be done on the new tower includes completing installation of antenna line, mounting ENG receive and STL antennas, as well as mounting two FM antennas and completion of tower lighting, said Wiedemeier.

Editor’s Note: WEAU has put up a website with an extensive library of photos taken of the collapsed tower and rebuild and welcomes visitors.

Phil Kurz is a contributing editor to TV Tech. He has written about TV and video technology for more than 30 years and served as editor of three leading industry magazines. He earned a Bachelor of Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism.