Antennas pick up spare change

An antenna is a beautiful thing -- shiny aluminum tubing high above my rooftop catching the first rays of the sun as well as eight channels of the clearest high definition television you can imagine.

The best part? There's no cable or satellite bill, no service interruptions when my TV provider is down, no problems with reception during the heaviest storm and -- did I mention? -- no monthly bill.

You may know by now but television that arrives over-the-air direct to an antenna has the potential for a picture that is much better than even the best cable or satellite service. Televisions signals are compressed to make the best use of the bandwidth available. Cable and satellite providers use the most compression, over-the-air broadcasts use the least.  That lack of compression shows up on your screen as a better picture.

Only one thing clouds this aluminum miracle. Serious talk of installing  a big rooftop antenna like the one I described can lead to a messy divorce. In most families at least one person -- in mine it's my wife -- turn odd colors and make disturbing noises when the discussion moves to a rooftop antenna like the ones common in the days of "Leave it to Beaver."

But antennas come in all sizes and types,  including discrete indoor antennas, the ones we call rabbit ears.  It could be that you could use a smaller indoor antenna and still receive several stations -- maybe as a way to supplement your cable or satellite service. Or, for those who find that they're getting most of their TV from streaming video or DVDs now, a small antenna would be a nice supplement providing local news and network TV.

Here are a few steps that will tell you what kind of success you'd have if you added an antenna. That will make it easier for you to decide if an antenna fits into your future.

Start by going to this website: http://www.antennaweb.org. Enter your exact address or just your zip code. In a few clicks of a button you'll see the channels that are within reach from your home. You'll also find what type of antenna you'd need to receive them.

Unless you already know a bit about antennas, you may be in for some surprises. And it’s likely you'll learn that some of what you thought you knew about TV antennas is wrong.

For instance, you've probably seen ads on television or in a newspaper or a magazine for special digital antennas. Truth is that there's no such thing as a digital antenna. The real purpose of a digital antenna is its magical ability to let a marketer jack up the ordinary price for an antenna. An antenna cares not at all whether the signal is analog or digital.

But, if you read the antenna website, you will find that you may need a multiple purpose antenna. Especially with the advent of HDTV, broadcasters have embraced a range of frequencies that occupy an area in the spectrum called UHF -- ultra high frequency. While UHF has been used for a long time, in the past more TV stations used VHF -- very high frequency. For the best picture an antenna needs to be designed specifically for the intended frequency. The good news is that it's standard practice for antennas -- even the rabbit ear type -- to be designed for both frequency ranges.

If you can receive a few stations using nothing more than an indoor antenna, it's easy and inexpensive to at least sample what's available as a free over-the-air broadcast. But if -- for instance -- the antenna website shows you need a more elaborate antenna to get decent reception then there's no use in spending the money on rabbit ears. You need something more.

Luckily, there are compromise antennas that fit between the niche occupied by rabbit ears and the giant aluminum contraptions complete with rotor. In some areas you may be able to do just fine with an antenna installed in the attic -- out of sight from neighbors and spouses. In other areas, you may be able to use a tiny outdoor antenna -- smaller than the dishes used by satellite -- that could be mounted discretely beneath the eaves of a house.

The same website I mentioned has a link labeled "antenna info" that will provide a bit of schooling when it comes to how the various types work, what they cost and what they look like. You can also learn more at this website: http://www.hdtvantennalabs.com/.

There's some basic information -- but stuff you may not know -- that will help out if you keep it in mind. For instance, it's fairly common for a station's broadcasting studios to be in one location and the actual transmitting antenna to be in another. Just because you drive past a fancy building housing a TV station, don't assume the antenna is located there. Luckily, the antenna website will provide the location of the transmitting sites as well as their compass heading from you.

The compass heading is where the rotor -- used to turn the antenna -- comes in. For those a fair distance from transmitting antennas, a rotor may be needed. That's because the large outdoor antennas are directional: they need to be turned toward the transmitting site to get the best signal.

You also need to know that distance from the transmitting site isn't the only factor in determining what kind of signal you'll receive. The frequencies used for over-the-air broadcasts can be blocked or even reflected by tall buildings or large hills or mountains. That's another reason the antenna website is so helpful, it takes things like that into account in recommending an antenna.

I know antennas like I'm describing aren't for everyone. Neighborhood restrictions or covenants may limit what type of antenna you can install. Or an even more powerful governing entity -- a spouse -- may forbid it.

But some of you, an antenna is a lovely thing: Better picture, no service interruptions and, best of all, no bill.