All was going fine and well with your new TV antenna.
A few weeks prior, you’d decided to follow through on your New Year’s resolution to cut the cord and receive free, HD-quality content by installing an HDTV antenna on your roof.
The first results were good; you’d spent quite a bit of time researching the right antenna for your needs, and once installed and properly aimed, it was capturing most of the OTA programming in your area.
Many channels were coming in crisp and clear, although a few were understrength according to the reading on your TV tuner.
You also wondered why you weren’t getting all the channels that TVFool.com had promised.
Enough of the waiting. Let’s now investigate and improve your TV reception. In this article I’ll give you 10 tips for troubleshooting and improving reception issues.
But first, bear in mind that improving a passive signal receptor like an antenna is really more art than science. And results can differ dramatically from one location to the next.
Also, a word on tools. Some readers have asked me for tool recommendations for things like gauging signal strength — there isn’t any one tool I’d recommend for these tasks, although the more technically minded may buy a multimeter to test signal strength along a coaxial connection to their TV.
The digital TV tuner in your television or set-top box will probably serve the average homeowner equally well, though. There’s usually a screen, often on the settings page, that shows the signal strength of a particular channel in percentage terms. (Where this screen is located depends on the make or manufacturer of your device.)
All in all however, the most important tool or skill in your arsenal will be patience. This will allow you to calmly identify issues and work out possible solutions.
Let’s face it. Dealing with electronic equipment can be challenging. Antennas are especially so, as their simplicity and lack of direct feedback make them a hit or miss proposition. Most people hook up their antennas and they just work. Others get almost no channels, with little indication as to why.
It doesn’t help that most manufacturers provide minimal guidance in the form of paper manuals and troubleshooting steps. We just have to trust everything will work after installation.
And it’s not just antennas. It’s the entire daisy chain of attached devices, from coaxial cables to splitters, from amplifiers to converter boxes. Engineers refer to these as “single points of failure,” meaning a defect or malfunction in one can cause issues with your reception.
Symptoms of bad reception come in different forms. Is it just some random pixelation during a strong wind gust? Or did the picture go out completely and now you have a blank screen?
There are many potential causes for signal disruption, but overall they’ll come from either outside or inside your home.
Causes of TV Signal Disruption Outside the Home
A variety of geographical, environmental, and man-made factors can interfere with radio frequency signal propagation and disrupt television reception.
For instance, hills, trees, and tall buildings in the line of sight from your antenna to the source of radio transmission signals can significantly weaken radio waves.
Atmospheric pressure systems can shift radio signals, and severe weather conditions can cause fluctuations in broadcasts.
Lastly, urban electrical interference such as local street lamps turning on or off can momentarily disrupt viewing.
Causes of TV Signal Disruption Inside the Home
Sources from within your home might also introduce interference and disrupt TV signals. These sources commonly stem from insufficiently shielded cabling and wiring, some types of LED lighting systems, or faulty equipment such as amplifiers.
At first, you probably won’t know what’s causing the issue. By applying the recommendations in this article, you might not only fix your reception, but also gain better insight into what caused the problem.
Tips for Improving Your TV Reception
Below I list steps and remedies to help pinpoint and address potential causes of poor reception.
Don’t forget to run a channel scan after following each step to update channels on your television or external tuner. Speaking of tuners, as mentioned previously you should also check the signal strength indicator for channels to see how your efforts are going.
Tip #1: Increase the Elevation of Your Antenna
For reception to work best, your antenna should have a clean “line of sight” to the transmission towers you found on TVFool.com. This means, ideally, it should be pointed directly at the towers with zero local obstacles (like buildings, mountains, and trees) standing in the way.
Obstacles will create opportunities for radio frequency signals to split as they bounce off of surfaces and arrive “out of phase” with each other (this is known as multipath interference). In the days of VHS analog TV, such interference used to produce weird effects such as ghosting.
These days however, multipath interference is likely to produce pixelation or no picture at all.
For most households, having a clear line of sight to the nearest TV stations is unattainable, which is why antennas should be mounted both outside and as high as possible for the best likelihood of clearing local obstacles.
All things being equal, antennas on hilltop homes have better reception than those in a valley. Also, the attic isn’t generally the best place for an antenna (though you may decide to install it there anyway).
Your roof typically offers the highest point on your home, and I recommend installing antennas at least 30 feet off the ground.
Tip #2: Ensure Your Antenna is Properly Aimed
Uni- and multidirectional antennas (and even some omnidirectional antennas) offer powerful reception but they must be accurately pointed at the source of radio frequency signals. Unidirectional antennas for consumer use — such as the ones in the image below — are typically of Yagi or log-periodic design.
If your reception is poor, try to re-aim the antenna towards transmission towers. Even a few degrees’ difference can help.
You can find the nearest transmission towers (including both their true and compass headings) via a website such as tvfool.com or DTV/maps.
You should pay attention to two things when orienting your antenna:
- Use the magnetic azimuth heading of the towers indicated on a site like tvfool.com to aim the antenna with your compass or compass smartphone app. If aiming towards a group of towers, you may have to experiment a bit to get the best reception from all of them.
- Your antenna mast should be vertically level. You can use a carpenter’s level tool to verify this; an antenna whose mast isn’t perfectly vertical from top to bottom will get poorer reception.
When re-aiming, it’s best to ask someone to sit in front of the TV to re-scan channels and report on how your efforts are going. Communicating with a mobile app like Apple FaceTime is great for getting feedback in realtime.
Tip #3: Change the Position or Location of Your Antenna
As with re-aiming, slight changes in your antenna’s position can also make a difference. Try moving it only a little bit over to a new spot. If this doesn’t work, relocate it to a new area entirely on your home.
Moving your antenna might work because of the physics of signal transmission and the fact that small distortions caused by obstacles in the antenna’s line of sight (e.g., trees, tall buildings, hills, etc.) might be hindering reception in the antenna’s current position.
Tip #4: Reset Your Digital Tuner
A digital tuner converts incoming TV signals into digital format for display on your television screen.
It’s usually found either inside your TV or it’s external (such as in your set-top or converter box). The tuner also stores channel information that allows you to switch channels.
You may try clearing the tuner’s memory cache in order to refresh this channel information.
This issue is that broadcasters may occasionally change their channel’s meta-information. One example of this is the FCC spectrum repack where some stations will be reassigned new broadcast or real channels during a period from September 2018 to July 2020 (check rabbitears.info to see what’s changing in your area).
Normally you wouldn’t need to reset your tuner to get new channel information (just do a channel rescan) but if you’re having a hard time getting certain channels, this may be a trick worth trying.
To reset your tuner to clear existing memory and recompile the channel list, do the following:
- Disconnect the antenna coaxial cable from your TV or set-top/converter box
- Run a channel scan on your TV or set-top/converter box (with the antenna disconnected)
- Then turn off and unplug your TV or set-top/converter box and wait for several minutes
- Reconnect your antenna to the TV or device
- Plug your TV or set-top/converter box back in and turn it on
- Do one more channel scan
Tip #5: Secure Your Antenna and Components Against the Elements
Rain, wind, and even the hot sun can wear down and erode outdoor equipment. An antenna may have a sturdy and waterproof frame but if individual parts such as screws and connectors are of cheap quality, they won’t last.
I recommend inspecting your outdoor TV antenna, along with any cables and other devices, once per year. This gives you the opportunity to note and replace any rusted or eroded parts before they become an issue.
Weatherproof Cable Connections
You’ll want to especially check the connections between coaxial cables and equipment, and waterproof these if necessary. This is actually simple to do.
First, unplug a coaxial cable from its connection and clean and dry it. After plugging it back in, you can carefully wrap moisture-proof tape such as Parts Express Coax Seal Moisture Proof Sealing Tape around the connection.
Alternatively, you can weatherproof cable connections with hardware using STUF Dielectric Waterproofing Grease. You unplug the cable and apply the grease directly to both the cable’s core and its connector, before plugging it back in.
And don’t worry about it interfering with signal flow — check out this page for more information.
Some antennas come with a weather or rubber “boot” that covers sensitive parts like transformers or baluns (that rubber part on the antenna covering where the coaxial cable emerges — you can find a balun for example on the Winegard Platinum Series HD7694P).
If your antenna has a balun, inspect and replace it if necessary (such as with a Coaxial F Boot — F81 Weather Seal Boot shown above).
Replace Worn Coaxial Cable
Beware old coaxial cables with worn or frayed outer sheathes; these can sometimes break open in places, allowing in moisture. Make sure you’re using modern RG6 cable, which features tri or quad shielding to protect against electromagnetic interference.
For a good coaxial cable product, I recommend the 50-foot version from Mediabridge.
NOTE: For a detailed discussion on why RG6 is the best coaxial cable for antennas and OTA reception, you can read about the Best Coaxial Cable for HDTV at AntennaJunkies.com.
Fasten Down Your Antenna
Lastly, if you’re watching TV and suddenly have reception problems during strong wind gusts, make sure the outdoor antenna is mounted securely. That is, fixed rigidly to its spot.
For instance, if the antenna is mounted on top of a pole that sways in the wind, this will cause poor reception since a moving antenna can cause signal drop outs.
When feasible, use steel guy wires made of galvanized steel to secure the antenna pole.
For such tasks you may want to use National Hardware N267-013 2573BC wire.
Tip #6: Check for Nearby Items That Cause Interference
Reflective surfaces around your antenna or electromagnetic appliances in your home can distort and weaken incoming radio frequency signals.
Below are some culprits that conspire to reduce the quality of your TV viewing.
Inadequate Cable and Wiring Insulation
At times you may observe one or more TV channels dropping out due to the activation of an appliance (e.g., hair dryer or LED light switching on). In some homes — particularly ones with older wiring that’s inadequately shielded — such items might generate radio frequency noise that seeps into the AC power system.
Besides issues caused by lack of insulated wires, thinly sheathed antenna cables (such as older RG59 coaxial) may also not provide sufficient insulation from electromagnetic interference.
You can test for noise effects by unplugging various appliances in your home and isolating the cause.
If for some reason you’re getting interference and believe it’s caused by noise from one or more appliances, you might consider installing a power conditioner like the Furman M8X2 Merit Series 8 Outlet Power Conditioner and Surge Protector.
Now, these devices are often employed by audio professionals who install them in a central rack, along with sound equipment such as amplifiers.
But they may also be beneficial for your situation. You might want to similarly put a power conditioner near your TV and plug your devices into it.
Reflective Surfaces around the Antenna
Another culprit for poor reception is reflective surfaces.
If you have a metal roof for instance, make sure the outdoor antenna is mounted at least one meter (about 3.3 feet) above it to reduce any effects of interference.
Beware too of radiant barriers if you’ve mounted your TV antenna in the attic.
Interference from Cellular Towers
If there’s a cellular phone tower in your vicinity, LTE signals might be interfering with your television signals. Since 2009, the upper range of UHF frequencies has been re-allocated to cellular carriers due to growing demand for 4G. In the electromagnetic spectrum, this puts LTE signals literally next to the frequencies used by television stations.
If your antenna line is amplified, this may exacerbate interference by LTE signals. I’d recommended that you install an LTE filter, a simple device that you attach between your coaxial cable and other devices. For example, instead of plugging the cable directly into your TV, install the filter between them.
A good example of a filter is the Channel Master LTE filter, shown below.
Tip #7: Protect Against Power Surges
It’s well known that power surges caused by thunderstorms can damage household appliances. Even the buildup of static electric charge on your antenna during storms may damage any connected devices, including amplifiers, converter boxes, or your TV.
Though you may not live in a lightning-prone area, you’ll still want a strategy for dealing with inevitable power surges.
First off, I highly recommend grounding both your outdoor antenna and the coaxial cable that’s connected to it. This will protect your TV equipment from both indirect lightning strikes and other, more common issues caused by thunderstorms such as static electrical buildup.
As an alternative to the complexity of grounding their antenna, some choose to simply install a surge protector (such as the TII 212 Broadband Cable TV and Satellite Lightning Surge Protector shown below) on the coaxial cable between their antenna and TV or set-top box.
Keep in mind however, that surge protectors generally cover only one part of the equation — the grounding of the coaxial cable — and don’t provide grounding of the antenna mast itself.
Tip #8: Use an Antenna Rotator
If you own a unidirectional outdoor antenna and the transmission towers in your area are more than 90 degrees apart from each other in relation to you on the map, you may consider buying and installing an antenna rotator.
This enables you to re-orient your antenna towards the other towers as needed — without getting up on the roof to turn the antenna yourself!
Below is example of a rotator, the RCA VH226F; note the control unit on the left (showing both memory and antenna position in degrees), the rotator box itself in the middle, and the remote control on the right.
Rotators come in different price categories, but they’re not something I’d scrimp on; you don’t want to buy a cheap rotator that breaks down after half a year, compelling you to get back on the roof to replace it.
Installing a rotator on an antenna mast requires a fair amount of DIY skills, but can make for a good weekend project. You normally place the control unit near the TV and run electrical wiring from this unit to the rotator box up on the antenna mast.
Before buying a rotator you should verify that you’ll be able to install it given the diameter of your existing mast.
On the mast, it’s best to install the rotator as close as possible to the antenna itself in order to reduce the load-bearing weight that must be turned (thereby reducing rotor wear).
After installation, you’ll do configuration by doing an initial rotation and registering the locations of towers with memory positions in the control unit. Afterwards you just use the remote to select a memory position to turn your antenna to get the corresponding channels.
As a caveat, keep in mind that if you have multiple TVs in your home, re-orienting the antenna will interrupt the TV viewing of others.
If you plan on recording shows with a digital video recorder (DVR), you would need to ensure your antenna is correctly oriented before recording begins.
Tip #9: Amp Up Your Reception
In some circumstances, your reception may benefit from amplification of the antenna’s coaxial cable.
This means attaching an AC-powered amplifier device — either a preamplifier or distribution amplifier (or in some cases, both) — to the coaxial to apply electric voltage to the line.
This boosts the TV signal travelling down the coaxial to your TV, perhaps strengthening the signals of a few channels that were weak to begin with, thus allowing you to view these.
To determine whether your situation warrants amplification, you need to consider the following:
- Many antennas come with a built-in preamplifier, so you should check whether yours already has one. If you don’t need to plug in your antenna, chances are it didn’t come with a preamplifier.
- What’s your distance from transmission towers? If you’re less than 10 miles away, signals should already be coming in strong and an amplifier might add interference or noise to the TV signal and be counterproductive generally. On the other hand if you’re more than 20 miles away, an amplifier may be helpful for strengthening already-received signals that are weak.
- How long is the coaxial cable running from your antenna to your TV (including breaks due to splitters or other devices)? If it’s less than 50 feet long, chances are that signals aren’t being weakened along such a short length of cable. If the cable is longer, an amplifier might be effective.
- Does your outdoor antenna provide signal to multiple TVs via a splitter device? A splitter typically weakens the signal as it distributes this to several televisions, so adding a distribution amplifier before the splitter (or buying a combined distribution amplifier/splitter device) may be beneficial.
The most common way to amplify an antenna is to install a preamplifier device on the antenna or nearby it. Don’t forget the preamplifier will need power supply nearby.
You normally need to install just one amplifier — either a preamplifier or distribution amplifier — on a line, but if one isn’t sufficient then you can try installing both. Just keep in mind that too much amplification introduces interference.
Tip #10: Mount a Second (Directional) Antenna
In situations where your antenna is working fine but is unable to pick up one or more towers in a different direction, installing a second antenna (also referred to as “stacking”) may make sense.
Having a second antenna may also be sensible if your first is either UHF or VHF, and you want to get a channel or two in the other frequency band.
In order to minimize interference between the two antennas, you should ensure that:
- They’re separated by two to four feet of distance (especially if you’re mounting them on the same mast)
- Each of their coaxial cables should have the same length to avoid phase problems
When setting them up, make sure to first install and connect each one individually to your television to ensure proper functioning, before joining them with a signal combiner like this Channel Plus 2532 Two-Way Splitter/Combiner.
Note that the signal combiner features two coaxial IN ports for the antennas, and one OUT port for the coaxial cable to the television or set-top box.
Will Wrapping Your Antenna in Tinfoil Improve Reception?
There’s an idea floating around that putting aluminium on your TV antenna will expand its conductive surface area, allowing it to better pick up radio frequency signals and thus improve reception.
This was a popular trick from the old days of indoor rabbit ear antennas. By attaching tinfoil, you basically changed the antenna’s reception characteristics.
If you were lucky (meaning: the foil happened to mirror incoming radio frequency waves or was able to block unwanted noise) your reception improved. On the other hand, the tinfoil might’ve worsened your reception.
Wrapping your antenna in tinfoil is no guarantee of better reception. If you’re determined to try it, this trick will work better with indoor antennas than outdoor ones, since wind and rain tend to wear away carefully placed tinfoil on the antenna.
These tips are a collection of strategies I’ve used over the years to improve reception, and I hope you find them useful. Most of the time we can expect TV antennas to work, but if they don’t the causes can be challenging to diagnose due to the sheer variety of factors affecting signal reception.