Winter can be pretty rough on an outdoor antenna. Icicles can pull down the metal elements, wind can push the antenna off its axis, and exposed copper can oxidize, making it useless. Now that the warmer weather is finally coming, it’s time to check all your outdoor equipment. This includes your antenna, the one part of the system with no monthly charge.
What to look for on your outdoor antenna
If you have a traditional “yagi” type antenna, you should look to make sure that none of the elements are bent. If there are fine wires running throughout the antenna (this technically makes it a “log periodic” antenna) make sure they are in good shape. This is not just for looks. If the elements are bent, they can prevent reception on some of the other elements and the effectiveness of the whole antenna can drop. Look for the “balun” — that’s the part where the coaxial cable is connected — and check to see if any plastic parts are cracked. That can cause water to get into the housing and cause the entire antenna to stop working.
If you have a newer style antenna with a plastic housing, check for cracks and anything that looks like it would let water get into the antenna itself. Sealed antennas will stop working much more quickly if dirt or water gets inside.
Don’t forget the cable
You really need to spend some time at least once a season looking at your outdoor cable. The rubber sheaths will eventually break down, the connectors will corrode, and water will get inside when plastic collars inside the connectors break down. This is a slow process that can take years or decades before it becomes a problem, but then again if you’re an antenna enthusiast you could have some pretty old stuff out there. Just taking a look doesn’t take a lot of time and it’s worth it.
Check the aim.
You can get serious about checking the aim of your antenna by using a signal meter like our DIGIAIR-PRO-ATSC. It’s really going to give you a complete picture showing the signal strength and the all-important signal-to-noise ratio. But, that meter is costly and it’s not something you’ll use every day unless you’re a real enthusiast or installer.
Instead, look through the menu systems on your antenna-connected TVs. Many TVs have a simple meter that either shows raw strength or some sort of combined “quality indicator” that tries to show you signal strength and signal-to-noise in one simple number. This option isn’t perfect because you don’t always know what you’re getting, but it is free and sometimes free is good!
If you don’t have any other way of measuring the signal, scroll through every single channel and leave it there for a few minutes. Make sure there aren’t any breakups in the picture. If all your stations come from the same direction you can also use something like this meter to see that you’re getting a strong signal.
If you need to reaim
Here again, the best option is to use a signal meter that can show you signal strength and signal-to-noise ratio. Rotate the antenna slowly to see where the peak is, and then lock it down as well as you can. You are looking for the spot where signal-to-noise is highest, which is usually the spot where the raw signal strength is highest.
If you don’t have a signal meter. you can get a pretty good idea of where the local towers are by going to tvfool.com. You’ll get compass headings for all the towers and you can use any compass — even the one in your phone — to help you point.
Most antennas do have a beam width of 30 degrees or more, meaning that the antenna will still work even if you aim it 30 degrees off axis. (For reference, 30 degrees is probably about the amount of area covered by your sunglasses, if you wear sunglasses.) This is important because if your signals come from more than one place you might have to compromise. Instead of getting perfect signal on one channel, you might have to settle for good signal on all channels.
Be careful out there!
For much of the country it’s getting warmer, but a lot of us still labor under snow and rain that make it pretty treacherous. No TV show is worth you falling off the roof! Make sure you’re doing your antenna checks on a nice dry day and don’t forget the most important accessory: someone else in the house who can make sure you’re ok 100% of the time.