If you were to go to the store or shop online, you would see piles and piles of antenna options. The branding talks about antennas capable of getting channels 200 miles away and can sometimes have branding for TV networks which don’t even broadcast over-the-air. The marketing makes sure you know that their antenna is capable of 4K (which implies other antennas are not!)
There is a lot of misinformation, and cutting through it can be difficult. Getting over-the-air TV is a little more complex than getting a flat black antenna and plugging it into your TV. I’ve written this article to help you find the best antenna wile minimizing the technical speak. This article gives you step-by-step guidance on what to buy, and why. So let’s get started!
What Kind of Antenna Do You Need?
Before you buy an antenna, we need to do a little research. The FCC DTV Reception Map and Antenna Web are both great resources for getting an idea for the stations you should get.
Both services will tell you the RF Channel. (RF stands for Radio Frequency.) Digital TV channels can mask their RF channel for one they make up. Most channels use the number they used to occupy before the Digital TV transition. It is important to make note of the bands used. They are important because the RF channel will determine the kind of antenna you should be buying.
Any RF channel of 13 and lower is on the VHF band. Anything higher and it is on the UHF band.
When you use these websites, It is important to note that the information shown is based on a simulation of what you in-theory should be able to get. In-practice, you might get more, or a little less. In-practice, sites tend to underestimate. Simply be aware your mileage may vary.
So, What Networks Can You Get?
Each channel from the FCC website can carry from 1 to 16 programs at the same time, or sub-channels. If you enter your address into the Antenna Web website, you’ll get a different analysis of the channels and sub-channels you can get. NOTE: Unlike the FCC website, Antenna Web attempts to line-up your location and reception with a kind of antenna with commercial intent. The service is very handy, but not knowing the why of buying can lead to buyer’s remorse, or multiple shopping trips/orders. Read this article before making your buying decision.
What If You Live Near the Canada or Mexico Border?
TV channels in the US, Canada and Mexico use the same video standard and use the same channel numbers. Generally, if you live in a border corridor, the TV stations from across the border are in your media market, and you can get them with your TV. Unlike the US, there are still some analog TV channels in both countries. Refer to information from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (Canada) or Instituto Federal de Telecomunicaciones (Federal Telecommunications Institute, Mexico) for additional information.
Near, Far, Wherever You Are?
Now that you know what you can get, it is time to buy an antenna.
Unfortunately, antenna sellers and companies frequently try to classify their antennas by distance, but the estimates are frequently exaggerated or simply false. Did you know that some antennas can get stations from up to 200 miles away? No? That’s because off-the-shelf antennas can’t. The curvature of the earth means that the further away from a TV station tower you are, the higher the antenna has to be in the sky to get the signal. This small matter of geography puts a practical limit of ~70 mi. or ~110 km. on getting over-the-air TV.
In-general, if the antenna says the range is 70 mi./110 km. or less, the antenna is likely to be realistically marketed.
Size Matters, and So Does Obstacles
TV channels blast out from a tower in a straight line That means that the more barriers there are between you and the tower, the harder it will be to get the channel signal. If you live in a big city with lots of tall buildings or in an area with tall hills or lots of trees, you will need to have a bigger antenna higher to get TV channels.
Interestingly, TV signals reflect (since they’re close family members to light waves). So if you live in an area with lots of buildings, the signal can bounce around and reflect off of other buildings, which is called multi-pathing. With a little patience this can work to your benefit, but at first, it may make it a little tougher to get TV channels. This article will go over how to deal with such scenarios.
When to Buy a Small TV-Top Antenna
If you live within 25 mi./40 km. of towers and you don’t have a ton of obstructions, an indoor antenna connected directly to your TV should do fine. Use one antenna for each TV. You may wish to buy an antenna with an amplifier. At this distance, amplified antennas can make getting TV stations more difficult, but there are cases where it may be useful. So my advice would be to buy an antenna with an amplifier that can be turned off. If you need it, it is there. If you don’t, no harm!
What Small Antenna to Buy
If your area has VHF channels, look for an antenna with dipoles or a VHF element of at least 18 inches in length. It is important to note that there are very good flat antennas which are designed for both VHF and UHF.
When to Buy a Large Indoor Antenna
if you live more than 25 mi./40 km. away from a TV tower, you should consider buying a large indoor antenna for your patio, balcony, yard, or attic. If you live less than 50 mi./80 km. from the tower, you also might be able to get away with a high quality, amplified indoor antenna.
Large indoor antennas are designed with larger elements which let you pick-up more signal. But, a medium antenna may or may not be able to power multiple TVs. The best way around this is to invest in a pre-amplifier. You might also need a pre-amp if you are using a cable of more than 50 ft./15 m. You may also want to invest in a pre-amp if you need to power multiple TVs. Place it before a signal splitter, then run cables to each TV.
What Large Indoor Antenna to Buy
If you have VHF channels in your area, look for an antenna with both a VHF element and at least one UHF ring. Otherwise, look for a UHF ring antenna. Consider getting an indoor antenna with multiple rings.
When to Buy a Medium or Large Outdoor Antenna
if you live more than 50 mi./80 km. away, you might wish to invest in an outdoor antenna, and put it on your roof or raise it above your house. When you are this far away from a TV tower, it is important to use as large an antenna as possible, and to get the antenna as high as possible.
Like with a medium antenna, you’ll need a pre-amp if the cable is more than 50 ft./15 m., or if you will need to provide signal to multiple TVs.
What Large Outdoor Antenna to Buy
If you have VHF channels in your area, buy a large antenna with long VHF elements. If you live more than 70 mi./150 km., consider buying a large antenna with a mesh reflector, which will effectively grab as much signal as possible from the air.
If you live more than 70 mi. away, get as much reflectivity and elements as possible, and place the antenna as high as possible. Your antenna may need to be placed more than 30 ft. in the air.
What Shouldn’t You Buy?
Expect to spend at least $30 for a decent indoor antenna, or $60+ for a good attic or outdoor antenna. Many sub-$30 flat antennas that affix to walls aren’t worth the cost or effort to set-up if you want as many channels as possible.
Don’t get an antenna that provides its own cable. Instead, get an antenna that lets you plug your own cable into it. Then, purchase an RG6 dual-shielded cable. They are thick, rigid and do a better job at preventing signal loss.
- An RG6 double-shielded cable to run from your antenna to your TV
- A pre-amplifier if the cable from your antenna will be greater than 50 ft./15 m., or if you need to provide signal to multiple TVs
- Live less than 25 mi./40 km. away from the tower? Buy a small amplified antenna that lets you plug in your own cable.
- Live between 25 mi./40 km. and 50 mi./80 km.? Buy a medium antenna for your attic or roof.
- Live more than 50 mi/80 km away from the tower? Buy a large outdoor antenna.
- Are you sharing your antenna’s signal among multiple TV’s? Buy a signal splitter. You might need an amplifier to connect before the cable is connected to the TV.
Tips for Positioning Your Antenna
- Using an indoor or attic antenna? Place your antenna as close to a window as practical.
- Turn the front of your antenna towards your towers. Either turn the antenna in-general towards the towers, or use a compass (or compass app) to figure out where to turn your antenna to.
- At the start of this article, I asked you to note the bands. If you have VHF channels to catch on your indoor antenna, extend the dipoles or “rabbit ears” For Low-V (Low VHF) channels, extend the dipoles as long as they’ll go. For Hi-V (High VHF), extend each to be about a foot in length. It is a good idea to start the ears “flat” or horizontal. Then raise them if needed.
- Start with the amplifier on your antenna off or disconnected. Only turn it on if the signal is weak.
- Using a rooftop antenna? Ask someone to wear gloves and hold the antenna in-place while you test the signal. Only mount your antenna once you are certain the antenna is facing the direction you need.
- Remember, if your rooftop antenna is more than 50 ft/15 m away, install a pre-amp between your antenna, and the long cable inside.
- If you are using a rooftop antenna, plug the antenna directly into one TV. Split the signal after you’ve fully mounted your antenna.
Don’t forget, if you’re mounting your antenna outside, always ground your antenna and cable to protect your life and your home.
Once you plug your antenna into a TV, use the Menu function and select Scan. After a few minutes, the scan will be complete. You should have at least a few channels. Learn more on how to re-scan for channels.
Help! The Picture Is Bad!
- Many TVs have a signal meter. The goal is to get the signal as high as practical. If you’re watching a channel and it is breaking up, slowly rotate your antenna from side to side. Watch the signal meter to see if it rises. Once you tweak the antenna’s position to get the highest signal as possible, re-scan your channels. You should get more channels, and a better picture.
- If the channel you want isn’t coming in, try moving your antenna to a different position (which is easier for attic antennas and antennas near TVs than it is for roof-top antennas.)
- Getting one or two channels, but you should be getting more? Now is the time to turn on the amplifier on your small TV antenna. If your antenna has an adjustable amp, turn it up slowly and only turn it high enough to get a clear signal. Over-amplifying can make your TV signal worse, not better.
- I’m getting nothing: unfortunately, TV signals rely on line of sight. If there are too many things between you and the tower, or if you live in a big city, you might be witnessing signal reflection. You can work around this by turning your antenna to the right 45 degrees. (If the antenna is facing the front of your TV, it should be pointing at an angle to one side now.) Re-scan again. If nothing shows up, rotate it 45 degrees again, then scan. Keep doing this until your scan and get a signal. Once you have one, you can start slowly rotating the antenna back and forth until your signal strength is as strong as possible. Use the amplifier only if needed.
My TV Towers are in Two Different Directions
If you live far away from a city and have possible channels from two different directions, there are three options.
- You can install a rotating motor and program in the two positions you need. When you want to watch a channel coming from a different direction, activate the motor and rotate the antenna.
- Alternatively, you can mount a second antenna on your roof. Use an RF switch to flip between the two antennas as needed. While it is possible to combine the signals, this can make channels harder to get by simulating the effects of the signal reflecting off of buildings–called multi-pathing.
- The third option is to purchase an omnidirectional antenna. They come in small, medium and large sizes. But, be aware that an omnidirectional antenna is not as capable as other antennas.
We’ve covered a lot of information, but with these guidelines in-mind, you’ll be well on your way to enjoying free TV that looks great and is locally focused.