Does this sound like you? Happily watching free TV during the winter and all of a sudden the antenna rotator stops working. You can’t get those channels from Chicago anymore and you’re stuck with only what you get from Milwaukee. (Or, pick any two cities that fit your circumstances.) What can be done?
What not to do
Under no circumstances should you go up on an icy roof. If there is any danger at all, do not even get up on a ladder. Being forced to live without a few stations is better than your loved ones being forced to live without you. So if the weather outside is frightful, stay by the fire where it’s so delightful. Please, don’t up on the roof. Instead, this might be a good time to try a live TV streaming service like DIRECTV NOW or Sling.
What you can do
If it’s safe to do so, for example if you live where it doesn’t snow, then by all means go up and take a look at that rotator. If you try to rotate it using the remote, does it move? Can you hear the motor straining? Or, is it completely stationary?
If there’s no movement and no sound the problem is usually the rotator wire. Even though it’s possible for the motor or control unit to burn out, it’s generally the thin rotator wire to break. If you can test the connection with a multimeter, that’s great. If not just try replacing the wire.
At the same time, take a moment to make sure the control unit is plugged in and that it is getting power. It’s pretty embarrassing to get through all that work and find the thing was just unplugged. Also check the batteries in the remote because that’s another easy fix and you’ll never hear the end of it if you don’t.
If you think the motor is stuck
There are some things you can try if you think the motor is stuck. They all depend on getting pretty close to the actual rotator, though. If there is something wrong with the motor itself, there won’t be much you can do short of taking the whole thing down and looking at it on the bench. However, it’s possible that things have just gotten frozen due to ice buildup on the outside. Depending on your ability to get close to the rotator, you may be able to do something about that.
Warm it up?
Wetting a towel down with hot water and wrapping it around the rotator can melt the ice that’s built up. However this method has its flaws because you have to get very close to the rotator and you have to climb a ladder with a hot towel somehow. Still, if you can do this safely, it can free the mast from its icy prison. A second dry towel can stop the warm water that freed the mast from turning into yet a second icy prison.
Lube it up?
A second option involves the use of WD-40 or some other rust release spray. WD-40 helps free frozen parts. If the can itself has been kept inside, the fluid will also be warm enough to partially melt the ice. While you don’t have to be as close as you do with the towel method, you still have to be pretty close and you’re intentionally spraying something slippery all over the roof. I would be super careful if this is the way you want to go.
Liquor it up?
This is an option that has proved surprisingly safe and effective, if a bit expensive. Filling a “super-soaker” type water gun with cheap vodka and shooting a big old stream of it onto the mast can free things up. As any serious drinker knows, the alcohol in vodka lowers its freezing temperature enough that it can stay liquid until about 20 below zero (fahrenheit.) If you can aim at the rotator from the safety of a balcony, dousing it with vodka might just do the trick.
Brine it up?
This is a similar technique to the vodka method but it’s cheaper. Add a lot of salt to the water and you’ll get the same result of lowering the freezing temperature. The problem with this method is that the water will dry leaving salty residue everywhere including the inside of the super soaker. This may not sit well with the kid you borrowed it from.
Above all, be safe
If you can get up to that roof safely, and you have someone to spot you from the ground, that’s great. If the weather won’t allow it, the best thing to do is watch the channels you can and then spend the rest of the time shopping at Solid Signal for the stuff you’ll put on the roof when everything thaws out.