A few years ago, I dropped an expensive cable TV plan to get limited basic service. This is just the local channels, public access and a few shopping channels. No CNN, no basic cable channels, just the local broadcast ones – or at least close enough. The cable TV bill is $29/month for this, which sucks. In total about 25 stations come in, but 10 are shopping channels and 5 are wacko religious channels – you know, the channels you remove from the TV? Yep, those.
Below I’ll detail my antenna trials and more importantly what I think I’ve learned about antennas that none of the sites with the plans talk about.
In short, we were getting 19 channels, but now have 58.
Is It Worth the Effort?
Before you spend hours researching antennas and an hour or 2 building one, it would be good to know if all that effort will be worth while. In the end, what TV stations will you receive?
To get started, lets set some expectations. Visit TV Fool, enter your street address and get the TV Signal Analysis Results. These results are not exact, but they will help set the expectations. I ran reports for 4 different heights off the ground at my address to see how much that mattered; 5, 10, 15, and 20 feet. A list of TV stations, channels, power and directions was provided with green, yellow, pink and grey background suggesting which stations I could expect to receive with different types of antennas. Unsurprisingly, the 20ft report showed more stations than the other reports and with the results being related to height above ground. Almost always, that is true, unless going higher puts an obstruction in the way of the signals.
For me, 13 channels were green. I think that means a directional antenna without an amplifier will get them. The interesting part for me was the direction to the towers. Almost all of the transmitters were SSE of my location between 150-162 degrees, except a PBS station at 127 degrees. There is one channel at 30 degrees – Ion – which often has syndicated shows that are good. The great thing about that is that transmitter is almost 180 degrees off most of the other channels. If an antenna without a rear-reflector can be used, then I should get Ion as well.
I’m about 16 to 25 miles away from the transmitters. TVFool has most of the stations I hope to receive listed as either 1-Edge or LOS (Line of site). I believe that translates into a specific type of antenna.
Based on this research, I’ve decided that the work is worth the effort. Did you expect anything less?
Based on the TVFool reports for your location, YOU need to figure out which antenna will work best. This is dependent on a number of factors like:
- Where you are relative to TV transmitters
- Whether all the transmitters are generally in 1 direction or if you are surrounded
- How strong the channel signals are to your location
- Large hills, mountains and/or trees in the way
- Other buildings and materials in your home that are in the way
- Whether an antenna can work mounted to
- TV – we all want this easy answer
- Wall – close to the TV
- Attic – slightly more hassle
- Outside – May have HOA rules against; weather, wind, lightning
- 50 ft Tower outside – Oh boy!
As an example, my location is NW of Atlanta near Kennasaw, Georgia. The list and radar map of TV stations near me shows about 20 that I should be able to get with a simple HDTV antenna, with a slightly more complex antenna, I should get 8 more and with a powered antenna, an additional 8 channels – one of them 84 miles away. This is in an ideal world. I don’t expect that to work.
But there are problems. When you aren’t close, under 20 miles, to the stations, then you probably need a directional antenna. In my case, most stations are within a few degrees of each other, so a directional antenna isn’t a bad fit. Further, the other stations that aren’t within a few degrees are either about 15 deg off or 180 deg off, so a directional antenna without a rear reflector can work for me.
At this point, I’ve already done a little research and I’ve heard about a few DIY antennas that will probably work for me. Most importantly, I already tried the cheap antennas around from those older TVs. You know, the rabbit ear and bow-tie antennas they used to give away with the old CRT TVs? Those only worked for a very few channels and I was completely disappointed.
Chances are if you are still reading, then you are having issues too. If you are in the middle of town, surrounded by transmitters, I can’t help much. Sorry.
I was prepared to test a few different antennas, so I setup an upstairs bedroom with a TV and antenna area. It was about 14 feet off the ground floor. I tried
- Rabbit ears + bow-tie antenna – about 3 channels were pulled in. VHF came in well, but UHF didn’t.
- Pole antenna that came with a Haupauge OTA/ClearQAM tuner. It is about 16 inches tall. When placed near the top of the window, this pulled in about 21 channels, impressive. A few networks were not included – no ABC, NBC, or PBS.
- “Aluminum foil antenna in a box”: I built this in about 45 minutes. It performed worse than the pole antenna, much worse, perhaps 5 channels.
So these attempts had not worked as well as I’d hoped.
So about 6 months ago, I saw an article about building an HDTV antenna using clothes hangers. They claimed that it worked really well and that the metal used didn’t really matter. I don’t have any spare hangers, so a visit to Home Depot for supplies brought back some steel rods, screws, and washers. I already had a 1×4 board, balum, and a drill handy, so I was ready.
As I was trying to lay out where the holes would be on my board, I realized they didn’t explicitly provide a very important measurement. It was implied based on the wood used in their plans, but it wasn’t stated. This is the distance between the two columns of screws – also known as the phase lines.
There are lots of instructions on the internet for the hanger antenna. Here’s a reasonable set of instructions for it. Some important things they don’t really say:
- This antenna is known as a DB4 or an M4 antenna.
- This version reaches about 30 miles, tops.
- These are directional, and single direction if you add a reflector.
- Spacing, whisker length, phase line distance, connection to wood, and solid electrical connections between each of the different elements is critical.
- There are better antenna models to build than the coat hanger for the same effort.
I didn’t know this last point – I’d heard it, but didn’t really believe it. I built this hanger antenna.
Build and Results – Hangar Antenna
I didn’t use hangers. Rather, I used the smallest steel dowels from Home Depot. They were pretty cheap.
I followed these dimensions (things I’ve learned after this build):
- 7 inch whiskers
- 5.75 inch element spacing (5.25 in may be a better choice)
- 2 inch phase line spacing (1.25 in is a better choice)
- 3 inch tip whisker spaces
When I was done, I connected it up to the balum, pointed it towards most of the channels in my area and told the TV to scan for channels. 19 channels. What a second. Using a pole antenna from a USB HDTV tuner, I’d gotten 21 channels. Huh? Isn’t this supposed to be better? I played around with the location of the antenna a little and made notes about which channels were received. None of those changes mattered much.
This antenna wasn’t getting PBS or NBC and it wasn’t going to …. ever. There is lots more to know know, I started reading antenna forums. The best dialog that I saw is here. Be certain to read all 3 pages.
The finished antenna
The phase line, whiskers and screw connections
In the HTDV world, they have virtual channels. These are supposed to make it easier for consumers to understand. Most HDTV stations frequencies have been moved into the UHF band, but a few are in either Lo-VHF or H-VHF still. The small DB4 antennas like the coat hanger design will not get any VHF channels. The whiskers simply are too small to receive them. I normally wouldn’t care, except NBC and PBS stations here are in the Hi-VHF range. There are a few other VHF channels too, but I don’t care about those. The rest of the stations I can expect to tune are from 18-51 UHF. Remember, these channels don’t map 1-to-1 to the station channels advertised and they don’t map sequentially either. CBS (WGCL) is on channel 46.1 on the TV, but really it is at 19.1 UHF. ABC (WSB) is on channel 2.1, but really at 39 UHF. CW (WUPA) is on channel 69.1, but really at 43.1 UHF. See how this mapping doesn’t make sense? Your antenna only cares about the real channels, not the virtual channels. Pick a design based on the real channels for best results.
Next Antenna Build – a Better DIY Model DB4 Antennas
Materials and Designs
I started by reading the Help with Reception forum at TV Fool. Most of these posts seem to be around buying an antenna. It appears spending $50-$150 is normal for an antenna. A few posts recommended building an antenna following designs from mclapp for about $20. I kept reading.
If you post your TV-Fool analysis link to the forums and ask for help, someone seems to respond. The response should help you determine which antenna and whether a DIY or purchased antenna is best.
The Channel Master CM4221 series seems to be the standard. It is well made and for $80, a good value compared to paying cable almost $30/month for 15 channels. However, you can build an antenna, similar to the CM4xxxx for less money and select a design that is tuned to your specific needs. It will be better for an attic or indoor solution. If you even slightly handy, building your own in about an hour is pretty simple.
There are some really important considerations when building an antenna.
After my attempt building with steel dowels, I found that for an indoor DB4 antenna, solid copper wire is better. Buying copper is expensive, but you can buy house wire with 3 solid copper cores fairly cheaply. Home Depot or any hardware store, sells something called Romex. I bought the 12×3 version – that’s AWG 12 (12 gauge) with 3 solid core copper wires. It was $16 for 25 feet – my design needed about 20 feet total, so I have over 3x more than needed (three wires per foot). With the excess, I can build other antennas.
Using the copper core only from the Romex for both whiskers AND the phase lines works well. While watching TV, I stripped the outer yellow plastic, thin cardboard and then the normal plastic covering from around each wire with a wire stripper.
The spacing between the whiskers matters a little. Gary350 did some testing for 8, 9, 10, and 11 inch whiskers with spacing (between whisker tips) of 2, 3, 4, and 5 inches. This data is very useful.
There’s a guy on the internet, mclapp, who seems to have an obsession. Antennas are his obsession, which is good for us since he posts plans and techniques for building antennas. Further, he sells the hardware so you can build your own DB4 or DB8 antenna with good results. I did not purchase anything from this guy, but I have an interest and time. The price seems extremely reasonable to get something that I spent about 30 minutes making. Of course, I was never really certain whether my work was good enough.
mclapp has a few different designs which he’s run through antenna design software. They come down to either DB4 or DB8 main models, but with element spacing and whisker lenth sub-designs. The DB8 doesn’t increase gain much at all, so before building one, you should already know that a DB4 alone or a DB4 plus amplifier doesn’t work. I suspect if you are 50 miles from the transmitter, that would be a reasonable point where the DB8 designs with an amp would actually be worth the effort, but I honestly do not know.
With your channel lists (real VHF and real UHF) from TV Fool, you can decide which mclapp design will best work for you. None of these get Lo-VHF well. Rabbit ears are needed for those and if you are already using rabbit ears, then built the 1st option to have the widest UHF signal capture solution.
Hi-VHF (mid channels) and UHF (Good General Purpose Design)
- Whisker Length: 9.5 inches
- Element Spacing: 9 inches
- Whicker tip distance: 3-5 inches
- Phase line spacing: 1.25 inches
Hi-VHF (lower channels) and lower-mid UHF
- Whisker Length: 10 inches
- Element Spacing: 9.5 inches
- Whicker tip distance: 3-5 inches
- Phase line spacing: 1.25 inches
Hi-VHF (upper channels) and mid-upper UHF
- Whisker Length: 9 inches
- Element Spacing: 8.5 inches
- Whicker tip distance: 3-5 inches
- Phase line spacing: 1.25 inches
For my location, the 10in whiskers with 4in spreads seemed the best for my needs.
A youtube video of a build might get you excited about building your own antenna.
If all the channels are on the same side of your house, then you probably want to add a reflector to your antenna. It needs to be 4-5 inches behind the antenna whiskers. There are lots of ways to make a reflector – using cheap BBQ grill grates provided the spacing is correct works or you can use heavy aluminum foil over a few pieces of cardboard. Because a few channels I want are 180 degrees from the main channels, I am not using a reflector. More information on reflectors
A few people on the forums have built some amazing antenna solutions. Seems they are out in the middle of nowhere and want TV from 75+ miles away. They often have enough land to raise a 50 ft tower for the antenna. My home owners association won’t allow any outside antennas that can be seen from any street.
When you build your DB4 antenna, expect that half an inch off every whisker will be lost due to the bend around the screw, perhaps a little more. I’d go an inch or 1.25in longer than your design requires – you can always cut a whisker to size, but you can’t make a whisker longer after the cut.
Anyway, here are some photos of my finished ugly antenna.
Keep those phase lines apart!
I’ve added plastic insulation between the wood and copper since these photos were taken.
Performance – Results
- Receiving 29 channels now in the same location as the other antennas tested.
- Getting both Hi-VHF channels for PBS (3 channels 8.1, 8.2, 8.3) and NBC ( 2 channels 11.1 and 11.2).
- Getting the 3 channels on from the NW that are opposite from most other channels, remember I don’t have a reflector because of this.
- Getting most of the UHF channels, but there is an issue pulling in virtual channel 69, the CW, on real channel 43. It came in clear until about 8pm. Since then, nothing. All other expected channels are still coming in clear so I don’t think it is a loose connection or wire. Later, retightening the connections and that channel is coming in clearer and better than any others.
- None of the lower power stations are coming in like WTBS, but other local independent stations like PeachTV, Ion and MyNetwork are clear. Most of the low power channels are not desirable.
There is one channel on the outer edge of reception that I miss. It appears that an amplifier might be necessary to get it, since it is a 2edge station according to TV Fool. It is also in a slightly different direction than most of the other stations. Tried the directional adjustment for the antenna angle, it didn’t help at all. I am not hopeful that an amplifier will help either, since the power level on TV Fool is predicted to be half that of other channels that I’m unable to receive in the same direction the antenna currently points.
There are lots of ways to get this antenna to stand up where you need it. If you don’t need a reflector, using a hanger hook screwed into the back side might be the easiest. You can either mount that hook parallel to the back of the wood to mount on a wall like a painting or perpendicular to mount behind a door like those shoe organizers. If you are mounting in the attic, a single nail into a joist will hold it all nicely provided a joist is available facing the correct direction without obstructions that you need to avoid.
Ideally, you’d mount the antenna with a direct line of sight to the transmitters. That isn’t possible for me. I’m just trying to avoid these things for my mounting location:
- Mountains, hills
- neighbor homes
- roofs and shingles
- trees – leaves matter
- metallic things – metal roofs, metal electrical boxes, metallic blinds or even a metal ironing board
- Power lines, though if they are far enough away, the 1/R squared works in our favor
- A/C and heating ducts. Foil covered h-vac lines in the attic.
Location of the mounting matters. Higher is generally better, unless you need to avoid close metallic obstructions like a metal roof or metallic ducts in the attic.
In my testing, I used the same location for relative testing, but as ABC tuning started to cause issues, a temporary mount in the attic was tested.
To The Attic
- Only about 8 feet higher than in the bedroom location
- H-VAC obstructions in the way
- 58 DTV channels available. From 30 to 58 channels just by going 8ft higher!?
- Signal strength is improved about 20 points higher on average, whatever that means. Using the TV’s signal strength isn’t an exact measurement. 1-2 bar channels are now 3-4 bars. 3-4 bar channels are now 3-4. I never had any 5 bar signals. The 4 bars are usually solid now and don’t waver. Before, if a channel got 4 bars, it would drop to 3 or 2 bars from time to time. Now they are solid.
Many of those additional channels are radio and religious low-power stations, but a few are interesting. ABC is coming in clear with 4 strong, unwavering bars. The secondary PBS channel is coming in and clear too. We are receiving most of these channels .
- RTV – new (They have classic Star Trek, Voyage to the Bottom … and Get Smart)
- This TV – new (not on cable either)
- Moxie – new (not on cable either)
- MeTV – Had this before on cable AND OTA
- PBA-30 – new
- About 10 local radio stations, no video
- too many others to list, but just a few aren’t 24/7 ads or religious.
Things that I didn’t see in the web pages for those coat hanger antenna builds.
- Be as exact as possible. The measurements matter. A quarter inch off matters.
- You need to have 8 identically cut whisker wires, cut 1 perfectly or a little long, then use that to cut all the others. The whiskers all need to be the same length. The same applies to the phase wires. Same length.
- Never let the phase wires touch. NEVER. If fact, you want them to always be 1.25 inches apart, even where they cross. This isn’t very hard to achieve using Romex wires.
- The location of the antenna, specifically the height, matters more than most anything else.
- If mounting indoors, smaller wires can be used since wind and rain don’t matter and will not bend the whiskers or rust the metal.
- If mounting outdoors, copper coated steel makes a good choice.
- Soldering the connections will help, but with larger sized wire a smaller hobby soldering iron probably doesn’t get hot enough to make a good connection.
- Use a quality balum after you try the $1 version from Dollar General or the $.99 store. Those may work just fine, but it depends on your specific channels.
- Use some sort of plastic or PVC to keep any wire from touching the wood directly. Wood has a tiny ability to conduct, so using some plastic to keep the phase and whiskers from touching does help. I’m using parts from old plastic bottles as stand-offs.
- Keep the whiskers parallel to each other and the mounting wood/pole. Bending the whiskers in to form a very slight parabolic antenna lowers the reception a tiny bit, but reduces the angle from which transmissions can be received much more.
I have a little more testing to perform, mainly with OTA tuners. So far I’ve only used a direct TV connection. Assuming that is successful, post-Olympics,
- Permanently mount the antenna in the attic
- Connect it to the HD-Homerun HDHR3 network tuner in the home office
- Cancel the $28/month Limited Basic Cable TV plan and start saving $360/yr. My soon to be canceled TV plan
There you have it. A $20 total cost DB4 antenna that pulls in 58 local channels and is tuned for VHF and UHF channels in my specific area.
If I come across a quality amplifier for less than $50, I’ll probably pick one of those up, it should help with a few more channels according to TV Fool.