Explain TV Antennas to Me Like I'm Five
September 17, 2015 3:03 PM   Subscribe

I need TV antenna advice tailored to my specific circumstances, and no amount of googling has helped beyond generalities. Yes, this is another cable cutting question.

I still need to ditch my $220 cable bill. I've decided on a plan of action, and a critical element is getting broadcast channels using antenna(e). I'm stymied, however, on which type to get and where to install. Here's the situation: My inside townhouse has two floors, plus a basement and a full attic. There are three TVs that are used on a daily basis -- one in the basement, one on the main floor, and one on the upstairs level. I cannot install anything on the roof, but the attic is fair game, and upper floor windows might be usable depending on how obtrusive the antenna set up is. I also have a small fenced patio in the rear and can mount things on the exterior so long as they are not higher than the 8-foot fence. Finally, there is no way to run wiring or cabling between floors (well, there probaby is, but not at a cost in time/effort that I can afford.)

The TV on the main level gets the most use, so that's the one I'd like to insure receives the maximum signal, but it would be be nice to get reception for the other two as well. What is my best set up? Do I have any hope of getting reception in the basement? If so, how? Should I just get three different antennas? If so, what kind(s) are optimal for the three different levels?

(To forestall sidetracks, I am in a Comcast monopoly area, and cannot get DirectTV, Dish or FiOS.)
posted by ereshkigal45 to Technology (15 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I plugged my address into this site to get an idea of what signals were being broadcast from where in relation to me, and then I ordered this $6ish rabbit-ears antenna to use as a test, and it works great, so I've never ordered anything fancier.

Since you can't put anything on the roof, you will need three antennas (or two - you may be SOL on the basement TV). We're on the top floor with direct line-of-sight to the main broadcast towers in our area. YTVMMV.
posted by rtha at 3:13 PM on September 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

You'll want to plug your address details into TVFool first to see what they recommend in terms of height and direction and antenna capability. The ideal approach would be to stick a big antenna in the attic and then run one long cable through the wall straight down to the basement, but if that's out of the question, you might be lucky enough to have some joy with room antennae.
posted by holgate at 3:17 PM on September 17, 2015

We use an antenna in our upstairs bedroom with an amp so I can send the signal through the old existing cable TV cables down two floors to the basement. That is, the antenna is connected to the wall jack which then goes into the splitter in the cable box so it sends the signal to the cable jack in the basement. Just had to change now the connections were hooked up in the cable box on the side of our duplex.

Works great for where we are with an older DB4 and a FM dipole antenna trimmed a bit for the VHF stations.

So may or may not work. Let me know if you want more details.
posted by skynxnex at 3:20 PM on September 17, 2015

I have the Leaf 50, and it's pretty great. Not perfect, but I get all the OTA HDTV channels (that it turns out I never watch), and Amazon has a refurbished one for $38.00.
posted by Huck500 at 3:34 PM on September 17, 2015

Do you have network access by every TV? You could put a HD HomeRun Connect on the antenna and then all the TV could stream video through it.

I suggest getting an antenna and putting it as high as you can and then running the coax back to one of those. Also, per other posters, so check maps of where your broadcast antennas are and make sure you're pointing at the ones you want.
posted by GuyZero at 3:45 PM on September 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Not sure about the configuration, but the Leaf is incredible- can pick up stations very far away. You should try it on at least one of the TVS if you are not networking them all to something larger. They can be hidden under something on your wall.
posted by TenaciousB at 3:48 PM on September 17, 2015

I know reddit is anathema for many here, but the r/cordcutters subreddit is a useful resource for this stuff. In particular (and to avoid info overload) I'd suggest checking out the guides linked in the sidebar. Especially this one about selecting the best antenna (which seconds Holgate's suggestion of using tvfool but has lots of other good info too).
posted by Wretch729 at 4:44 PM on September 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Before you run out and buy three antennas, try making your own out of wire coat hangers from the instructions at this link. There are other DIY configurations, just google. I just replaced mine with a (50 mile) FlatWave and turns out, I get more channels (all of them) with the coat hangers.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 5:02 PM on September 17, 2015

Another anecdote: I put off getting or making an antenna for a long time just because I was kind of overwhelmed by the decisions, but then I got a $10 indoor antenna one day on impulse, hooked it up, and it immediately picked up about sixty channels, which is considerably more than any of the online antenna sites said I'd be likely to pick up.

And as a side note, ditching cable was one of the best decisions I've made in a while. We thought we were going to miss it, but we really don't. It's been a real improvement, actually.
posted by ernielundquist at 6:16 PM on September 17, 2015

How close are you to the broadcast towers and what is between them and you?

That more than anything will determine how much luck you'll have with an antenna.
If you're close to the towers and have reasonable line-of-sight, just about any of the flat style or wall-mounted antennas will work on your main floor/upstairs.

The basement will vary depending on how "basementy" it is. Is it surrounded by dirt or just a ground level walk-out?

There aren't really different styles for top/mid/low floors.

I have had good luck with this antenna. It's well-built, lightweight, and pretty sturdy.
But without knowing your approximate location, it's hard to recommend anything too specific.

---- Derail---
Is not mounting anything on the roof or outside your choice?
You should be aware that there are very few legal restrictions on mounting of TV antennas.
If you own the physical space or have exclusive use of it, OTARD rules say you can put an antenna there.
Restrictions like "must be below the 8ft fence" are almost certainly invalid, no matter what your HOA or condo board says.
If you're willing to go that route, a good bet would to get a decent antenna, stick it as high as possible and share the feed between all of the TVs.
You can get flat-style coax cable (designed for going sliding under windows/doors/etc) to minimize or eliminate drilling of holes.

posted by madajb at 7:07 PM on September 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Assuming you already have cable wiring, then you may be able to use one antenna serving your existing cable runs to each TV. There is probably a splitter somewhere that branches one input to three TVs. You want to attach your antenna upstream of that if possible. A simple omni-directional antenna like this one from Radioshack might be sufficient. It has a small amplifier that will help pull in remote stations, especially if you are using a splitter, which divides the power of the signal. The amplifier is the size of a small matchbox and requires a small 12V AC adapter so you need access to a wall plug.
posted by JackFlash at 7:57 PM on September 17, 2015

I'd second the recommendation to start with something cheap as mentioned in the first answer. Since you have 3 TV's you might end up needing more than one antenna anyway. So even if cheap-o antenna 1 isn't awesome, you could likely still allocate it to your least important set. I have good enough luck with unpowered rabbit ears on my basement/treadmill TV. I used some 50's era rabbit ears on my main set until my kids messed them up. Eventually sprung for this $35 RadioShack amplified antenna and it's been working great.
posted by eelgrassman at 9:30 PM on September 17, 2015

I bought a $40 antenna off Amazon five years ago and put it in my attic. Been so long I don't remember the brand but it's the bowtie type. I feed two TVs with the antenna. I used http://antennaweb.org/ to aim the antenna.
posted by LoveHam at 4:40 AM on September 18, 2015

The most important information that you need is the location and the power of your local stations. That will decide the size and type of antenna that you will need. You can use google to find this information. I live within 25 miles of all of my local stations but two of them have chosen to send out very weak signals, forcing me to look for better options than my inexpensive antenna that I found on Amazon.com. I've been told that it also depends on your television. I have a friend with two televisions and one can pick up two channels and the other can pick up the other three. Basically, you are right to be confused because it is very confusing. There doesn't seem to be any standards in place.

On a side note, I've been using Netflix and Amazon Prime exclusively for the past year. I've not missed not having local channels. I only bought an antenna recently because I needed to see one channel for work. Now that I have it, I still keep forgetting to use it. Most stations have apps now. I'm considering abandoning the antenna again and just watching what I need online.
posted by myselfasme at 6:27 AM on September 18, 2015

I made the same antenna that TWinbrook8 linked. You need a ~$2 part from eBay or Amazon and I had the rest of the stuff lying around my house. It worked very well in Cambridge, MA and I ended up making a second one. They're not pretty but you can easily hide them behind a TV stand or curtain.

I recently moved to an area where, according to TV Fool, some of the networks' towers are 44 miles away. I got this indoor/ outdoor antenna from Amazon (by searching antennas and sorting by highest customer rating) which has an advertised range of 60 miles with the idea that I'd put it in my attic and run cables but I haven't managed to figure out the best way to do that yet. In the meantime I stashed it in the top of a closet and it's been picking up those 44 mile stations great. I actually have a problem that the range is so good b I get two CBS affiliates and two PBS affiliates, which confuses my DVR.

Also, I'm sure you'll glean this from TV Fool, but height matters, so if you're in an area where you're on the edge of receiving something, perhaps one thing to consider is to put the antenna in the attic and run the cable into a TIVO, Tablo or Simple.TV and then watch on your various TVs with Tivo Minis or Rokus (There are probably other ways to have one antenna and no cables for multiple TVs but those are the ones I'm thinking of immediately.)
posted by adrianb at 4:28 PM on September 18, 2015

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