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Putting up a TV antenna is one of the best steps you can take
to breaking your reliance on pay TV. Most areas of the U.S.
have access to several dozen TV channels broadcast over the air
for free.

A TV antenna will bring them to your TV, so you won’t be stuck
with the “local broadcast TV fee” charged by your cable or
satellite company. And if you decide to subscribe to an online
TV provider, you won’t need to worry about which ones carry
your local channels (not all of them do).

As a bonus, they’ll make your big-screen TV shine with a better
picture than cable or satellite can deliver. This is possible
because those transmissions are typically compressed in order
to preserve bandwidth, so the service providers can cram more
channels into their pipes (many of which you probably don’t
even care to watch).

You’ll notice the difference in quality on the major broadcast
networks mostly, because all of them broadcast in high
definition. Most stations broadcast a 1080i (interlaced
scanning) signal, which is the highest resolution currently
used for OTA TV in the US, but a handful transmit at 720p
(progressive scanning). Both specs are considered to be high
definition.

Here’s our five-step guide to choosing the right TV antenna:

  • Determine which channels are available where you live
  • Choose which channels you want to watch
  • Checke the rules on antenna installation where you live
  • Figure out which type of antenna you need
  • Select the antenna

Which channels are available on an antenna?

The first step to choosing a TV antenna is figuring out which
channels are available where you live and of those, which ones
you want to watch.

To figure out what’s on air where you live, 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.

Enter your house address in the search box, hit enter, and
you’ll get something like this in return:

Martyn Williams/IDG

A screenshot of the TV Fool website showing television
reception in San Francisco.

That chart above looks pretty complicated, but it’s really
not. 

Which channels do I want to watch?

At this point, it might be a good idea to check the TV guide in
a newspaper or website to determine what’s on air and what
you want to watch. Make sure you choose “antenna” or “over the
air” as your TV provider in the online program guide, so you
don’t get cable channels mixed in.

Many TV stations broadcast several channels as a digital
package, so make sure to look at those as well.

Once you’ve made your list, examine the TV Fool results to find
the channels you want to watch. Write down the number in the
second column, the “real channel,” the second-to-last column,
the “true azimuth,” and the color (green yellow, or red). The
colors will inform you if an indoor antenna will be sufficient,
or if you’ll need an attic or roof-mounted model to pull them
in.

 

tvchannels Martyn Williams/IDG

TV channels

Can I put up an antenna?

In almost all cases, the answer is yes. The FCC’s over-the-air reception devices (OTARD)
rule gives you the right to erect an antenna for the
reception of over-the-air TV or satellite programming. It
applies to both homeowners and renters, and it overrides the
power of home-owners associations (HOAs) to block antenna
deployments.

The rule covers antennas required for an
“acceptable quality signal” on your property, or if you rent,
an area where you have exclusive use. The FCC website has full
details.

171011 fcc otard Martyn Williams/IDG

The FCC’s OTARD rule.

Which antenna do I need?

TV Fool ranks station 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 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, a bit like the old
‘rabbit ears’ antennas or even
like a soundbar, but the principle is the same: install
them in a favorable location.

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.

Compared to the roof, an antenna in the attic will probably
receive slightly less signal because it’s enclosed, but it
might be enough to get stable TV reception. If you hate the
look of an outdoor antenna, then experiment. An attic-mounted
antenna will also be easier to maintain.

rca skybar with tv2RCA

The RCA Skybar is designed to resemble a soundbar and can
be mounted beneath a wall-hung flat-screen.

The direction of the TV transmitter tower is also important. If
you’re using an indoor antenna, you’ll want to put it in a
window facing that direction. If you’re using an outdoor
antenna, it will show you which way to point. As signals get
weaker, going from green to yellow to red, the direction is
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 antenna so that it’s
oriented to pull in those weaker signals.

Knowing the real channel number will help you select an
antenna. TV broadcasting in North America is spread across
three frequency bands: low VHF (channels 2 through 6), high VHF
(channels 7 through 13), and UHF (channels 14 through 50).
Because of the different frequencies in use, antennas are
designed to cover one, two or three bands. Not every antenna
covers them all.

12696412094 6be69b75a4 oSean MacEntee (CC BY 2.0)

TV antennas.

The real channel number helps you figure this out. After
TV stations went digital, some no longer transmit on the
channel number they announce on air. For example, channel 5 in
San Francisco is actually broadcasting on channel 29. That’s
why the real channel is important in antenna selection.

Be prepared to put up with a lot of marketing speak when
checking out antennas. For the record, there is no such thing
as an “HD” antenna or “digital” antenna–the format of the
signals being received doesn’t matter–and take those “miles”
range claims in the product specifications with a grain of
salt. No manufacturer can guarantee their antenna will pull in
a signal from a given number of miles because too much depends
on local topology, signal strength, interference, and other
factors unique to your location.

Having said that, those range claims are useful in
evaluating antennas from the same manufacturer. It’s a good bet
that an antenna labeled that claims 65 miles of range is
generally better for long-distance reception than one from the
same company that claims to deliver 30 miles of range.

Analyzing your list

In the example above, an indoor antenna will probably pull in
all the green channels coming from the transmitter at 240
degrees, and the same antenna will also likely work for the
third channel in the list, which comes from a different
transmitter at 199 degrees, but has a strong signal.

The last station on the list will require a bit more work. A
larger antenna is probably required, and because it’s more than
100 degrees from the others, it will probably require a second
antenna or a rotator.

Now is the time to ask yourself if that sixth channel is worth
the extra equipment and installation.

Finally, look at those channel numbers. In the
list, two channels are high VHF (12 and 7) and the rest
are UHF, so you’ll need an antenna that covers both those
bands.

Do I need a signal amplifier or a rotator?

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. But 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 run of cable, say from a distant spot on a piece of land
to a house.

A rotator will turn the TV antenna in any direction with the
click of a remote. These are useful if you want to receive
stations from several different locations.

dsc 0018Martyn Williams/IDG

A TV antenna with rotator installed.

What type of cable do I for a TV antenna?

The connection from your antenna to your TV is every bit as
important as the antenna itself. You need a high-quality
coaxial cable (“coax” for short) for the job. 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.

Don’t be tempted to save a few dollars reusing old coax. Buy
new coax in the length you need. Try to avoid coupling two
cables together, as each union will result in a little signal
loss. The most common type of cable for TV is called RG-6.

171003 coaxMartyn Williams/IDG

A piece of coaxial cable cut and ready for a connector to
be attached.

A final word of advice

Predicting which antenna will work with certainty is almost
impossible. The information garnered from sites like TV Fool
will provide a strong indication of what should work,
but there are other variables at work.

In some areas, especially in cities or areas with lots of
hills, signals can bounce off obstacles like buildings and
cause interference, trees can grow leaves in the spring and
block stations you got fine in the winter, and atmospheric
conditions can alter the way signals reach your house.

Moving an antenna just a little to one side or up and down a
window can have a big effect on reception. If you’re putting up
an external antenna, one side of your roof might bring in
nothing while the other side provides perfect reception.

Be prepared to experiment.

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