Saving Money: TV for Free Series (Part 2)

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by Ed

The How-To Post....

(If you missed Part One of the TV for Free Series, you can get caught up here).

A confession:   I hadn't re-tried last week's rabbit ear suggestion since the conversion to HD broadcasting (you know, take a pair of rabbit ears and see what you can get).  I knew it would work, but felt it was important to test it, so I started this week by actually giving it a whirl.  Did I mislead you about it working?  Is my integrity intact?  Read on. 

I've broken this process down for you into stages.  The stages follow the same basic progression we  used with our antennas.  If you currently have cable or satellite and are thinking about cutting it off, I suggest starting with Stage 1 and gradually work up.   By all means, if you want to go all hardcore and jump right to stage 3, I commend you for it.  (But if you fall off your roof three times and still don't get any stations afterwards, don't say I didn't warn you.)


Basic Supplies (the bare minimum):

1.  An HDTV

Like I said last week, if you already have a flatscreen, you probably have this covered.  All new ones will work.  The key word to look for if you are buying used is 'Built-In ATSC Tuner'.  They have been required by law in Canada for at least 4 years now, but older sets might not have it. If that is the case, you'll need...  

2. A Digital Converter Box 

A Digital Converter Box  (optional - for people with older flat screen or CRT 'Tube' TVs).  This might be the best $40 you ever spend - if you have an old TV and used an antenna, hook this up and your TV will be new again.  Not true HDTV, but it will look as good as a DVD would on your TV.  My parents have gone this route and still rave about "'how the channels aren't snowy anymore". 

3. An Antenna 

You'll need an antenna of some sort.  The size is dependent on how far you are from a Broadcast Source, how serious you are getting (see stages below) and how many channels you want to try and pull in.



The Stages:  


Stage 1: (You're still using pay-for-TV and feeling curious)

So I did my "Rabbit Ears" test and here is the picture I took:  American Idol from a local station in High Definition.  According to TV Fool, the signal I was receiving was only about 23 miles (37 km's) away.

You would likely be better off to try something like this one from The Source (I still call it Radio Shack).  If you are at Stage 1, don't spend any more than $40 or so on your starter antenna.  In fact, if you know someone with an old Mini-State (see Stage 2 below), try and borrow it  (or check Kijiji or Craigslist).

Whatever you buy/borrow, make sure the Antenna you get promises to receive UHF (for the USA) and UHF/VHF (Canada).  Rabbit ears technically only get VHF, so I was lucky(?) to get Steven Tyler at all.  Canada still allows a few stations to broadcast on VHF and I found one of them.  Rabbit Ears may not work at all for you, depending on your area.

Next, do a "Channel Scan", or tune your TV to the closest channel TV Fool says you should be able to receive.  Go into your TV menu and see if you can find the Signal Strength indicator.  Most New HDTVs/Converter Boxes have some sort of gauge to tell you how strong your antenna signal is coming in.  This will help you tweak your Antenna in the proper direction.

Try different locations and angles with your cheapo indoor antenna.  You should probably find yourself with 4-5 channels, depending on where you live.  More than that and you are either really close to a key broadcast point or just plain lucky.  Don't expect miracles at this stage.

Most HDTV's and Converter Boxes will have an onscreen signal meter like the barely visible one shown here.  You may have to dig out your owners manual to find it.  Use it to position your antenna for maximum directional reception. 


Stage 2: (You are planning to cut off cable, or have actually done it)


Buy a decent Antenna.  This will cost you at least $100 (new, look for it used first).  Be sure it can be mounted outside; this will save you spending more money when you move on to Step 3.

Your simplest bet is likely a Mini-State Antenna like the one pictured here.  This means biting the bullet on a $200 purchase, but for some people that might be just two months of Cable TV.  That $200 will include an amplifier and cable to make the connection.  (We are still using the one we bought 7 years ago, so it amortizes pretty nicely at $2.40/month and dropping.)

Set it up somewhere high (on top of your entertainment unit, in an upstairs closet or in your attic) and connect it to your TV.  The Mini-State has a handy remote to allow you to adjust it around to find the strongest signal.

Repeat the final steps from Stage 1 above (Channel Scan or tune to the nearest channel according to TV Fool and dial the Mini-State remote around till the signal is strongest).

Since you now have a better antenna, you should get better/stronger reception and more channels.  Once you can get the channels that are nearest to you, cast your net further.  When I first did this, I would adjust the antenna a few degrees and run another channel scan and repeat till I went all the way around the compass.  Time-consuming, but you'll only need to do this once, as your TV will remember all the channels it finds and you can program your Mini-State to remember where it needs to point too.



Stage 3: (You're getting results and you're willing to do some climbing)

 First, a disclaimer:  You will be climbing onto your roof or up a ladder on the side of your house.  Most antennas are not too heavy, but any extra weight while up high can be dangerous.  I have mounted two now and both times I was pretty terrified.  If this freaks you out, pay someone to do it for you.  This company out of Mississauga (with offices across Canada and... San Francisco?) does installs, but I am sure you can find something wherever you are located.   
Paying-money-alive is better than Frugal-dead.

Provided you are OK with climbing, get a mast or mount for your antenna.  Again, the good people at The Source still sell stuff for antenna mounting, and it most won't cost you much.

The higher you can get your antenna, the better the signal.  Clear line-of-site in the direction of the signal transmitter is important.  Robin didn't want ours to be visible from the street, so it is just peaking over the roof-line (this photo is a shot from the back of our house).

For some of you, mounting outside may actually be the easiest way to go with your Mini-State antenna from day 1.  I found it fairly easy putting mine outside and running the cable down the outside wall to the basement.  Once there, I just used the old splitter that the cable company had used to split their signal and voila, antenna reception wherever there used to be cable.

You can also see from my picture, that I have two antennas - the Mini-State for local, VHF/UHF stuff, and a dedicated UHF antenna pointed at Buffalo.  It pains me to admit it, but it is likely overkill.  The UHF antenna (a Channel Master 4228HD) does do a better job getting long range signals (100 miles+ in my case), but we still mostly just watch channels that we got with the Mini-State anyways (note: during Football Season, I rely on this second antenna for Sunday Night Football and it is 100% worth the overkill).

So, lots of details to digest, I know.  

Despite the details I have been tossing out, there are boatloads more I could share.  Crutchfield has a great overview on Antenna selection and installation for those who want to go deeper still.  Their information and links are very good and they have a list of safety concerns for climbing, mounting and lightning(!).

If it starts to feel overwhelming, keep in mind the reward:  Free, High Definition television signals which are, according to many experts, better quality than those from HD cable or satellite.

And, oh yeah, the best part: no more monthly bills.

What would you do with your monthly TV Bill savings?

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