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Mary Robinson is all about real-world information on the switch to digital television signals. The success of the DTV switch will depend on regular folks understanding new technology and getting it running in their homes. Ms. Robinson is weighing in on those nitty-gritty details, sharing her enthusiasm for TV-signal technology with those who are less technically inclined. She’s developed an expertise through years of hands-on experimentation, pulling in signals from the rooftop of her Texas home. Now she’s a resource for consumers struggling with the digital switch. We discovered Mary right here on TVWeek.com, where she reliably dispensed information in the comments section of this story, First Digital TV Converter Box Wins Government Approval about the digital switch. Let’s keep the conversation rolling!

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Digital Transition Answers


October 2008 Archives

The Wonders of a Battery-Powered Converter Box

October 20, 2008 4:21 PM

I finally got around to checking out the Winegard digital to analog converter box that I ordered a couple of weeks ago that can be operated by the external 9 volt "D" cell battery pack. The converter box also includes an adaptor to power the box on household current for times when the battery pack is not needed. I found the converter box is very user friendly. The operation manual is clear and concise, and the menu in the onscreen display is almost self-explanatory—very simple to use and operate. After doing an initial channel search, more channels can be easily added with the channel add-on feature.

I set up the box first with a pair of un-amplified rabbit ears with fixed position telescoping VHF elements in a "V" configuration and a simple loop UHF antenna. This is the simplest antenna that I own. I was able to get two digital stations that way. One was our local CBS affiliate, KFDM, broadcasting on UHF channel 21 (virtual channel 6.1). The other was the TBN station, KITU, on channel 33 (virtual channel 34.1). So there was only one channel, KFDM, that would have news, weather and radar in case of a tropical storm or hurricane. But one is better than none.

I conducted a channel search at tvfool.com and used an antenna height of 8 feet as the standard for the indoor antenna. I found that KFDM had a signal strength of -47.6 dBs and KITU had a signal strength of -30.3 dBs. KBMT, broadcasting on channel 50 (virtual channel 12.1) had a signal strength somewhere in between, but I could not lock it in. I live in an older house that has asbestos siding and shiplap walls inside and out, with a shiplap ceiling, so there is considerable signal loss inside the house.

I then tried an indoor amplified antenna and was able to get our local ABC station, KBMT, broadcasting on channel 50 (virtual channel 12.1). But an amplified antenna is of no use when the electricity is out. Or is it? The amplified indoor antenna uses an AC adaptor to power the antenna at 12 volts DC. So my question was what if I could power the indoor antenna from a battery pack?

I found, online, an 8 cell "D" battery pack that stacks the voltage up to 12 volts. My next project is to attach the correct barrel plug to the 12-volt battery pack to see whether it will power the amplified antenna. My goal is to have a self-contained setup with battery-powered amplified antenna, battery-powered Winegard converter box and battery-powered television. The AC adaptor for the converter box is rated at 9 volts DC and 1 amp of current. The adaptor for the indoor antenna is rated at 12 volts DC at 200 milliamps, so I believe that the 12-volt battery pack for the antenna will run it longer that the 18 hours claimed for the battery pack on the Winegard converter box. That will be a blog for another day. As they say, please stay tuned ...

As of right now, we have no digital channels locally that are broadcasting on VHF, but KBMT is slated to revert to the analog channel 12, 30 to 45 days after the transition and has a maximization application pending to go to 160, 000 watts effective radiated power (ERP). KFDM at this time is broadcasting 50,000 watts ERP but has a maximization application pending to go to 280,000 watts ERP. KBTV broadcasting on channel 40 (virtual channel 4.1) is transmitting a micro signal of 1,280 watts ERP and has a maximization application pending to go to 1,000,000 watts ERP, so I am hoping that these increases in power will eliminate the need for the battery-powered indoor antenna. But I still want to know if it will work if I need it.

I have also become aware of another Web site that is a good source of information with reviews of converter boxes. I am including a link to this site for your convenience.

A Balky Converter Box

October 14, 2008 10:10 AM

I got a chance to set up and use a Magnavox TB110MW9 digital-to-analog converter box over the weekend.

A guy that I work with was having trouble setting it up for his father, so on Friday I followed him over to his dad's house to see what I could do for them. His dad had used both of his government coupons to purchase two of the converters from Wal-Mart.

It turned out that one of the converters would not work right out of the box. I was able to set the output channel on the box, but when I tried to get back to the menu, the box would not respond at all.

His dad has a Radio Shack VU-190 antenna combined with a Channel Master 9521A remote-controlled antenna rotor mounted on a mast about 25 feet high.

Rotating the antenna toward the west, I was able to lock in 2 of the stations in the Beaumont, Texas, area. Turning the antenna back around toward their local stations in Lake Charles, La., I attempted to add them to the channel lineup in the converter-box memory, but the box would not recognize them.

I then restarted the initial set-up procedure for the converter box, and was able to get the local channels locked in. However, in doing so, the Beaumont stations were erased. Rotating the antenna back around to the west, I tried to add the Texas stations and was unable to do so. I tried entering the actual broadcast channel as well as the virtual channel (the channel number that appears on the TV screen) and still was unsuccessful.

This is not a user-friendly converter by any means, and I would not recommend it for anyone. It has no easy add feature for additional channels and the instructions were woefully inadequate. I suggested that he return the boxes and get his money back and go somewhere else to get a different brand, or get a different box at Wal-Mart if he could.

My co-worker told me this morning that his dad tried to return the boxes to the Wal-Mart in Sulphur, La. The store had no converter boxes in stock, and offered only to refund the difference that he paid between the value of the coupon and price of the box. Wal-Mart was going to reap the benefit of the $40 and keep it for themselves. I wonder how many times this has happened?

He now has to wait until the converter boxes are re-stocked before he can exchange them. Hopefully it will be for one from a different manufacturer.

Preparing for D Day

October 2, 2008 5:20 PM

It is only 138 days until D Day (Digital Day). I did not think that up, but I wish I had. I read it somewhere while I was up in Tyler hiding from Hurricane Ike.

Do you know where your digital signals are? Have you gotten a digital-to-analog converter box yet? Do you know what stations you will be able to receive after the transition?

If not, now is the time to get ready.

I have been on a soapbox these last few months about the loss of the use of battery-powered emergency televisions. If you have followed the blog, you know this has been one of my pet peeves. I did an article on the Winegard RC-DT09A converter box, which has an accompanying battery pack to power it during electrical outages, so there is hope after all.

I ordered mine last week and just got it off the porch this afternoon when I got home from work. I have not had a chance to play with it yet, but I will do so soon, and I will report on the quality of the box, its features and reception in the comments section after I have had a chance to give it a test run.

One thing we have not talked much about here in the Digital Transitions Answers blog is one of the most important aspects of erecting an antenna, but it’s equally important to the antenna itself or the amps. That is the antenna mast.

The mast is important for any antenna that is going to be mounted outside. For our purposes here, I will stick to a single-level, one-floor house. Two-story and higher structures need special consideration, but some of what I will discuss here can be adapted to taller buildings. Just be careful, take your time and plan your job.

First, pick a site that is away from the power drop to your house. If your electrical service comes in from underground, you are one step ahead of the rest of us. Just make sure it is OK to dig a hole where you want to mount the antenna.

Telescoping masts are probably the easiest type of installation to make. Once the rotor, if you are using one, and the antenna are mounted, it can be raised to whatever height you desire up to the maximum extension. A word of caution, however: Most retail telescoping masts are relatively thin-walled pipe that will not withstand higher wind gusts unless guy wires are used. That is what happened to mine during Hurricane Ike, and I did not even have it extended up all the way. Full extension was 36 feet, and I only had it up about 23 feet. I had the middle section down well into the bottom section, and the top section well down into the middle section to give it more stability, but alas, it was not stable enough. But then again, we are talking hurricane-force winds for several hours, or maybe even a small tornado. It had survived Hurricane Humberto and Tropical Storm Edouard, so I thought it was OK. Not.

Eave brackets can be found almost anywhere that outside antennas are sold. They are sold online, at Radio Shack and at hardware stores. Just make sure you get one that will get you out past the edge of the roof.

One of the tricks that I have learned is, if you are handy at making things, to make a squared-off U-shaped bracket to place in the ground. I have used 2-inch-wide flat-bar that was 1/4” thick and a height of about 16 inches when the bottom of the U is on a flat surface to make the bracket. Stainless steel would be a prime material for this, especially if you live in an area that gets a lot of rain, to keep it from rusting away on you. My bracket ended up being a little wider than was necessary to accommodate the diameter of the mast. I drilled a 9/16” hole through both sides of the bracket and through the mast itself, so that when the bracket is installed in the ground, the mast will be raised a couple of inches off the ground. This will allow a pivot to swing the mast from horizontal to vertical and also allow rainwater to drain out of the mast to keep it from rusting from the inside. This also will facilitate lowering the mast if needed for servicing or a hurricane, which, as you all know by now, I did not do. My best friend did lower her antenna, promptly raised it back up after the storm and used it to watch TV for almost two weeks before her cable was restored.

To mount the ground bracket, it is desirable to have a plumb bob of some sort. After finding where you want the antenna, mount the eave bracket on the fascia board using lag bolts (it is a good idea to place at least one lag bolt in the end of a rafter or ceiling joist) lower the plumb bob by the string from the edge of the roof and over the middle of the eave bracket. Let it settle near the ground and mark that spot as where you want the middle of the ground bracket. Dig a hole at least 18 inches deep and about 18 inches wide. Mix some concrete and pour some in the hole. Place the ground bracket in the hole to a depth of about 12 inches, leaving 4 inches above ground level. Pour the rest of the concrete over the bottom of the bracket and around the sides, leaving two 4-inch tabs with the 9/16” holes sticking up out of the concrete. Let the concrete set overnight or until dry.

Place the bottom of the mast between the tabs and install a 1/2” bolt (stainless steel would again be a good choice) long enough to go through both of the tabs with the antenna in between and a flat washer on the outside of both tabs.. Place the nut and tighten. Make sure not to tighten the nut so much that it binds the antenna. You want the nut tight enough so that it does not come off, but you want the antenna mast to be loose enough between the tabs to be able to rotate freely.

Swing the mast to a vertical position and attach to the eave bracket. You are now ready to mount the rotor and antenna to the mast.

When running the coaxial cable into the house, be sure to ground the lead-in and the mast. A grounding block can be found at Radio Shack or at electrical suppliers. Be sure to leave a “drip loop” before the coax goes into the house. A drip loop is some extra coax that allows any rain that runs down the cable to fall off at a lower point than where the coax goes in under the eave or through the wall.