Cutting the Cord Part 2 — TV Antennas
18 April 2021
As a follow up to my blog post back in December regarding cutting the cord, I wanted to talk about antennas for local over-the-air TV content. I’m starting to look at the infrastructure for our home and designing wire plant to support all of our AV and smart home needs. As aesthetics have always been a serious aspect of my sports venue projects in the past, it is high on our list for our home build. Things like hiding cabling, electrical outlets, network/AV ports and TV antennas are paramount to giving the home a finished, organized and clean look.
Regarding the TV antennas, Debbie and I are in agreement on not having an antenna on the roof of our home. Outside of the look, Amarillo is the windiest place in the country and the last thing I want to be doing is climbing up on the roof to make repairs. Plus, chances are we might go with local TV broadcast through a streaming service anyway. But we’d also like the option of TV service via antenna in case of an internet outage.
As cable and satellite TV subscriptions are becoming more expensive, more and more homes are ditching pay TV in favor of free, over-the-air broadcasts. By the end of 2020, as many as 6.6 million US households cut the cord. Since 2014, 23% of households have already done so. Digital TV typically provides between 20 and 60 channels depending on where you live, and can save you at least $1,000 a year, based on a typical pay TV subscription.
Folks who do use antennas are often surprised by the higher image quality they get from broadcast TV. That’s because cable and satellite services compress the video signal in order to reduce the bandwidth required to stream to your home, usually so they can cram in more of the channels you probably never watch anyway.
Installing an antenna is fairly easy, but before you buy one you’ll need to figure out what channels are available where you live, how strong the signals are likely to be and what direction they’re coming from.
Your first step is figuring out which channels are available where you live and of those, which ones you want to watch. To do this, head over to TV Fool. It pairs the FCC’s broadcast TV database with topographical maps to give you a pretty detailed estimation of which signals will reach your house and how strong they’ll be.
The Signal Analysis Report above looks pretty complicated, but it’s really not. The strongest signals are at the top and weakest at the bottom. It lists the broadcasters in your area, ranked from strongest to weakest, according to 3D propagation modeling of the location and height (optional) that you entered. The background color of each transmitter in the table is color coded as follows:
- Green — An indoor “set-top” antenna is probably sufficient to pick up these channels
- Yellow — An attic-mounted antenna may be needed to pick up channels at this level and above
- Red — A roof-mounted antenna is probably needed to pick up channels at this level and above
- Grey — Channels are very weak and will most likely require extreme measures to pick them up
Your next step is to figure out what stations you want to watch. Check your local TV listings to see everything that’s on the air in your area and make a list of which stations have the programming you want.
Once you’ve made your list, look at your TV Fool results to find the channels you want to watch. Write down the “real channel” next to the stations you listed earlier, then the “true azimuth” and finally the color (green, yellow, or red). TV Fool ranks stations in order of predicted signal power, with the easiest to receive at the top. The green channels can probably be received with a simple indoor antenna, yellow ones will probably require a larger antenna in an attic space or on the roof, and the red ones will require a good roof-mounted antenna. Indoor antennas are typically fine for all the strong local channels, but if you want channels that are weaker or further away, you might need to go larger and put an antenna in your attic space or on your roof. As far as our home location is concerned, as you can see, an attic-mounted antenna will work just fine as there are plenty of channels available in the yellow and green and they avoid co-channel issues.
Indoor antennas are typically flat, so they’re easy to set up, usually by hanging them in a window on the side of the house facing the transmitter. Some look different but the principle is the same: Install them in a location that optimizes signal. If you install it in the attic like we plan to, you may get slightly less signal than if it was on the roof because it’s in an enclosed space, but it should be enough to get stable TV reception. An attic-mounted antenna will also be easier to maintain.
The direction of the TV transmitter tower is also important. As signals get weaker, going from green to yellow to red, the direction becomes more important. If you want to tune in weaker stations from towers in different directions, you’ll probably need a rotator. This motorized device will turn the TV antenna in any direction with the click of a remote. These are useful if you want to receive weaker stations from several different locations although it’s worth testing out if a fixed antenna will get all your stations before investing in a rotator. If you do need a rotator, the Channel Master CM-9521HD is a great choice.
Knowing the real channel number will help you select an antenna. TV broadcasting in North America is spread across three frequency bands: VHF-Low (channels 2 through 6), VHF-High (channels 7 through 13), and UHF (channels 14 through 51). Because of the different frequencies in use, antennas are designed to cover one, two or three bands but not every antenna covers them all.
Most antennas, especially those for indoor and attic use, are designed for VHF-High and UHF reception. Some outdoor antennas for roof mounting only cover a single band. Antennas for VHF-Low stations are harder to come by, but those frequencies are generally used by smaller stations that may transmit at lower power.
If you’re unable to receive distant TV stations due to low signal levels, you should consider a signal amplifier. It’s always best to collect as much signal as possible at the antenna, so don’t skimp on a small one and try to make up for it with an amplifier. If a large antenna still won’t pull in the station without picture break-up, a signal amplifier might help. You also might need one if you have an excessively long cable run from antenna to display. A great option if you decide on an amplifier is the CM-7777 Titan 2. It mounts onto the antenna mast and is fed with power through the coaxial cable.
Your choice of antenna is critical for best signal but the connection from your antenna to your TV is every bit as important. You need to use as high-quality coaxial cable (“coax”) as your budget allows. The most common type of cable for TV is RG-6. Coax has a center wire that carries the signal and is surrounded by a plastic insulator. Then there’s an outer braid that shields the center cable from interference and an outer sheath to protect the cable from the elements. Another coax cable recommendation to optimize signal is to make the cable runs as direct as possible because each time you branch or connect shorter cables together, signal loss occurs.
All this may seem a little complicated but it’s really not. Hopefully the steps above have made it easier. The goal should be to pick an antenna that receives the largest number of stations with the highest signal level in both the UHF (channels 14 through 51) and VHF-High (channels 7 through 13) bands, which are the primary TV broadcast bands. That being said, let’s take a look at antenna options:
Indoor TV antenna
The Channel Master Flatenna performs well and is reasonably priced. It pulls in all major local in-range channels consistently if an indoor antenna is a must. If you live close enough to the broadcast towers for the stations you want to watch, a less-expensive non-amplified antenna like this might be all you need to cut the cord.
Amplified indoor TV antenna
The Channel Master Smartenna+ is the highest-tech antenna on my list It has a built-in tuner that adjusts to pull in the maximum number of channels possible. This amplified antenna has a tiny tuner onboard that can virtually change its reception pattern to pull in the most stations possible.
Winegard’s FlatWave Amped delivers great performance for an indoor antenna. It’s small, lightweight and should work well in areas that have strong local TV reception. This antenna can pull in plenty of broadcast channels for happier TV viewing.
Roof-mount TV Antenna
The Antennas Direct DB8e is a large outdoor antenna for reception of medium to very weak TV signals. It’s very good pulling in distant stations with minimal interference. It’s designed to receive weak signals with two antenna arrays, or in areas of better reception to point to towers in different directions.
The roof-mount Antennas Direct 91XG does a great job at pulling in weak TV signals. It has a classic directional antenna design and is good at rejecting interference from the sides while picking out weak signals from the noise. It would be an excellent choice for people dealing with long-distance reception.
Attic/Outdoor TV Antenna
The Winegard Elite 7550 is a sensitive TV antenna suitable for areas with strong to medium strength signals. It has a built-in amplifier and performs well on both VHF-High and UHF broadcast bands. Because of its size you’ll want this one in the attic or outside of your house.
The Clearstream 4 Max is an excellent choice for areas with strong to medium strength signals and with multiple TV transmitters in different locations. It’s well made and easy to assemble but is a little large. Its unique double figure-eight design receives signals from different directions, which is useful if you live in an area with stations in multiple places.
Hopefully this has shed more light on ways to cut the cord. It’s a little interesting how the use of antennas has come full circle as the introduction of cable TV made them all but extinct except in remote/rural areas. There are still streaming services available to deliver local TV content but beyond the initial cost of the antenna there are no monthly costs like streaming. For Debbie and I, the jury is still out but on the streaming local channels. But as this is a new home build we can put in the ideal infrastructure in place — RG-6 coaxial cabling and attic antenna — to maximize signal, broadcast content, aesthetics and ongoing cost. It’s also a great option for redundancy in case of an internet outage.
We received the latest floor plan version from the architect this past week and we’re excited. This version is a few minor tweaks away from being complete. We’ll be sharing the final edits (fingers crossed) to the architect later today. We’re also working on some other areas of the build — outside elevation, brick type, fixtures, etc. This has been a very home build focused weekend for us as we were also able to score some very unique flooring for the office — reclaimed maple basketball floor. I’m excited about this as the office will have a sports theme due to my many years working in sports technology.
Let us know your thoughts on the whole antenna topic as I’d imagine opinions are all over the map. A long-time friend, also building a new home, is going entirely wireless in the technology in his home so my bet is no coax there. It certainly represents a “value engineering” option to save some costs as the price of wood looks like it’s going up again.
I’m also curious what smart home tech you’re interested in or what you’re using. Comment here or send us an email. Until next week …
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