Wednesday, April 21, 2010

High quality outdoor digital TV antenna for under $150


If you live in an area that is 30 or more miles away from TV broadcasting antennas, you probably need a high quality outdoor antenna.  Fortunately, it really doesn't have to be expensive or that large.  Also, If you are worried about HOA regulations you should be aware that the FCC passed a law allowing homeowners the right to install antennas without unreasonable restrictions.

I've put together an antenna that is low cost, high performance and easy to assemble from parts ordered online.

Where I live, two of the channels I'd like to watch (7 and 11) come in on the VHF band).  All of the rest come in on UHF.  Most digital antennas are UHF only (since that is where most of the channels are).  If you try to use an UHF only antenna, you will likely get very poor reception or not be able to receive VHF at all.  Since there is lots of good programming on 7 and 11, I wanted an antenna to get both bands.

If, in your area all of your channels are UHF, you can skip the VHF antenna addition.  You can always add it later if a local broadcaster moves to VHF.

VHF antennas and UHF antennas look very different because they are designed for different frequencies.  It turns out that combining antennas is easy and has the added benefit in that you can align them separately.

By far the hardest part of this project is figuring out how to run the antenna wire into your house.  Actually assembling the combined antenna is simple.  Of course, please don't fall off of your roof in the process. If you are in doubt, hire a handyman to install this for you.



First, let's start with the important parts list:
  1. High gain UHF antenna
  2. High gain VHF (high band) antenna
  3. A mount for the antenna which serves as a mast (I used a simple long J-mount)
  4. 300 ohm to 75 ohm transformer (for the VHF antenna)
  5. UHF/VHF combiner (so that you only need to run one antenna lead)
Second, some other things you may need:
  1. Some 75 ohm cable (use quality outdoor grade RG-6)
  2. Some outdoor rated RG-6 connectors
  3. RG-6 Male to Male connector
  4. Zip ties (to secure the wires)
  5. Grounding rod, grounding wire and block (optional).
As far as tools, you will need tools to strip the insulation off of RG-6 wire and install connectors.  You also need some wrenches and other tools depending upon where you mount the antenna.

Step #1: Order the parts you need:

I got my parts from two suppliers.  Amazon had the best deal on the UHF antenna  and mount, while a specialty store I found on-line had everything else I needed.  Here are the links for the important parts.  As far as cables, connectors, etc. you can get them from any electronics store if you don't have them already.

From Amazon:
















From SolidSignal.com:

VHF antenna (high band) - $27
UHF/VHF combiner - $2
300 to 75 ohm transformer - $3

I'm not not counting the RG-6 cabling or connectors, but you can easily build this for under $150.  This is a great price for a high performance antenna that is easy to install.

Step #2:  Determine approximately where to point your antennas

Turns out this is really easy and you can do it with some really cool on-line tools.  Here are some directions and great resources.

Step #3:  Find a suitable location to mount the antenna.

Outdoors is best, the higher up the better.  Hopefully you have a clear an unobstructed view in the general direction in which you will be pointing the antennas.  You can fine tune it back and forth once it is installed.

I used a very solid so-called J-mount that screws onto any wood surface.  Since I wanted a bit of separation between my UHF and VHF antenna, I added a short section of pipe (inserted into the J-mount) to raise the VHF antenna up a couple of feet.  This probably isn't strictly necessary, but it seemed like a good idea.

Attach your mast or J-mount as I have done here (in my case to the side of my chimney):


Step #4:  Assemble and attach antennas

Both the VHF and UHF antennas come disassembled but are easy to put them together.  I attached my UHF antenna below my VHF antenna, but I know a friend who did the exact opposite.  It probably doesn't matter just make sure they are both secured to the mast or J-mount.

Step #5:  Connect transformer to VHF antenna

The VHF antenna is designed to work with 300 ohm cable.  You attached the 300 ohm to 75 ohm transformer directly to the VHF antenna.  I used a zip tie here to secure the transformer to the antenna so it doesn't flop around and stress the wire or connectors.  Then you connect a short section of RG-6 cable from the transformer to the UHF/VHF combiner (show in the next step).

Here is a picture of the VHF antenna cable


Step #6: Connect both antennas together with the UHF/VHF combiner

Take the UHF/VHF combiner and connect it to the UHF antenna with the Male-to-Male RG-6 connector using the connector labeled "UHF in".  Then connect the RG-6 wire from the VHF antenna to the connector labled "VHF in".  The remaining connection is for the antenna lead that you will run down into your house.  Again, I generously used zip ties to make sure that the wires didn't flop around or get tangled.



Step #7: (optional) Install a grounding block.

We don't get much if any lighting in my area, but I thought I'd protect myself by installing a grounding block.  I attached the grounding wire to a copper grounding stake.  Total cost was about $30, so it is a minor investment.


Update: It has been pointed out to me that to properly ground an antenna, I've actually only performed one of the three steps.  The antenna mast itself should also have it's own ground wire running directly to the grounding rod.  In addition, the grounding rod should be connected via ground wire to your main electrical ground.  Here is a great post on the audioholics forum describing this in a more detail.  Alternatively, you could also run both grounds directly to your main electrical ground (avoiding the need of a grounding rod at all, assuming that is convenient).  You can see this in the optional grounding step found in these instructions.

Step #8: Find some way to get the wire into your house.

This might be hard for some or easy for others.  In my case, since my house is wired with dual cable (the old A/B system), I thought I'd use one of the cable connections for my antenna.  This way I can run the signal into any room I choose that has a cable connection.  I just had to run the antenna cable down from my roof directly to my cable access area.

Since I still have a cable modem, I just needed to make sure I used the other line.  Two minor issues for nit-picky people.  My old cable system uses RG-59 cable (higher signal loss than RG-6), and the resulting antenna cable run is well over 100 feet (more like 150).  However, my antennas are so good I don't need a signal amplifier to get great signal strength for all of the channels that I care about.

Alternatively, you can run it through a wall (this might be better as you can keep the antenna wire shorter).  Just be careful, and if you cut any holes in walls and seal them up with caulking:


Edit:  tip from an AVSforum reader:  make sure any cables that are exposed to rain are routed down to prevent water from running towards the hole.  You can't tell from this picture, but the cable drops down towards the ground.

Tip:  Use high quality outdoor rated RG-6 connectors.

These connectors are a bit longer, have silicon grease on the insulation side, and a rubber gasket on the signal side.  They cost a bit more, but should hold up better in outdoor applications.


Once the antenna is up, you can turn each antenna to it's optimal direction for your area.  Pointing an antenna correctly will maximize the number of channels you receive.  In the south bay of Silicon Valley I get over 65 channels.

Check out my tips on optimally pointing your antenna

7 comments:

  1. George, I have plenty of space in the attic. If I mount in there will there be a great signal loss? The roof is made of asphalt tile and plywood.

    ReplyDelete
  2. @Anonymous: I've read that many people do this because it usually easier or less hassle than an outdoor install. It is not just the mount, but the running of the wires is different too (shorter is obviously better). If I were to guess, I'd probably say you are going to lose 20% (or more) v.s. a good, unobstructed outdoor installation.

    If you are in an area of relatively strong signals, you might do just fine with an attic install. It really doesn't matter much if your signal strength is 70% or 100%, a digital picture will look the same. The downside is that below a certain point the picture starts to degrade (badly) and becomes unwatchable.

    You probably will have to just try it out. Just do a temporary install and see which works better. That is actually what I did (for different reasons). Then permanently mount it once you get it "good enough".

    Good luck!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Forgot to add, you can use the FCC website:

    http://www.fcc.gov/mb/engineering/maps/

    to estimate how strong your signals might be.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Those are great ideas. I love that signal map from the fcc. I will give it a try. We are on top of a hill about 5 miles from the transmitters, so I think we will be good. I will let you know how it comes out. Thank you for the website. It has been an unbelievable help to me.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Looks like I need two separate antennas for the VHF signal. A low band and a high Band. Is that true? I have low channels (2 and 5) and high (9 and 12) in my area. If that is the case, I will have a total of three antennas.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Matt,

    Digital VHF-Lo stations are supposed to be rare due to signal quality/interference issues. I'd suggest calling the stations that are on the VHF-Lo band and ask them if they plan on staying there. Perhaps it's temporary - just a thought?

    If you are stuck with needing both bands (and you need a high-gain antenna), you can get one that covers both VHF-Hi and VHF-Lo, it will just be larger and have more elements. You can even get a single antenna that covers all three bands (VHF-Hi, VHF-Lo, and UHF).

    I'll try to put up a post in the near future with a variety of options that might help more people out (including indoor choices).

    ReplyDelete

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