How to find the right spot to place a satellite dish


This is an edited version of a post (actually two posts combined) that originally appeared on a blog called The Michigan Telephone Blog, which was written by a friend before he decided to stop blogging. It is reposted with his permission. Comments dated before the year 2013 were originally posted to his blog.
Really stupid way to install a satellite dish

Quite some time back, I had read an article on The Consumerist site (“DirecTV Contractor: No, We Won’t Fix Our Botched Installation“) and in particular, the comments left by readers of the article, several of which come to the same conclusion that I came to a long time ago: There is no way any installer is going to care about your home the way you do. They don’t have to live in your home for many years, but you do. They don’t have to put up with a crappy looking install, or leaks or water damage to your home, or insects or rodents finding a new route up from your crawl space or basement – you do.

Nowadays you have broadband, cable and satellite installers that just don’t seem to care. In some cases the results can be tragic, in other cases just costly and/or inconvenient. It’s as though some companies just hire anyone, give them minimal training, and don’t even think to instruct them in basic courtesy. If I ran one of these companies, I’d hang signs in employee areas saying things like, “Please respect your customer – treat their home as if you had to live there for the next quarter century” (but then again, that may not work if you have an installer that couldn’t care less about his own home).

One thing that constantly amazes me about satellite installs is that installers put the dish on the roof. In any place that gets snow, that is an absolutely idiotic thing to do. Let me say this again: If the installation company wants to mount a satellite dish on your roof, they are a bunch of idiots (with one exception)! Now why would I say that? Because, unlike terrestrial television signals, you do NOT get any appreciable signal gain by mounting a satellite dish high off the ground. I have seen satellite dishes mounted at ground level that work just fine, at least until they get a pile of snow in front of them. There is only one good reason to mount a dish on a roof, and that’s where you need the additional height to get a clear signal over the top of trees in a neighbor’s yard (in which case you may simply be buying time until the trees get larger), or to clear some other obstruction such as an adjacent tall building. It’s very rare that the additional height actually makes a difference, but it’s not totally unheard of, particularly when a neighbor’s trees are involved.

At the very least, dishes should be mounted under the eaves in a location where snow or ice will not slide down the roof onto them, if such a location is available. For a great many people, perhaps even a majority, the ideal mounting option for a satellite dish is on a metal pole stuck into the ground, a few feet away from the side of the house (or further away if necessary to get a clear signal), where the dish is about five to six feet above ground level. This is high enough that the signal won’t be interrupted by people or animals walking nearby, but low enough that should snow accumulate in the dish, it can be easily brushed off with a broom. Who wants to climb up onto a roof to brush snow off of a dish?

But installers hate putting a dish on a metal pole because they have to make two trips: The first is to dig the hole, insert the metal pole, insert a piece of plastic pipe or tubing so you can run the cable out through the concrete and keep it underground (to avoid damage from lawn mowers, etc.), mix and pour three or four bags of concrete, level the metal pole in the concrete, and then keep the pole perfectly level while the concrete sets. You may note that I keep saying metal pole. You can buy a 10 foot long galvanized steel pipe at most home improvement stores that works great for the purpose. But some homeowners have tried using a treated wood pole – that’s a big mistake, because even though the pole won’t rot, it will warp and twist, and soon your signal disappears. On the second trip (after the concrete dries), the installer then has to install and aim the dish. Obviously it’s a lot faster and easier to just attach the dish to the roof or the eaves, and get it all done in one trip, and what do they care if it causes a leak or rots the wood?

Now you may be thinking that this is a reason to just get cable, but cable installers aren’t much better. They may not drill holes in your roof, but when drilling down through the floor they tend to drill holes four to six inches away from the wall instead of right next to it, and often they have no idea what’s below where they are drilling. It’s not uncommon for them to take out telephone wiring or (more rarely) electrical wiring, or to hit a water or sewer pipe with their drills. And they sure don’t seem to care about appearance sometimes – it’s not as though they make any effort to conceal that big, black wire, even when they could easily do so. As an example, drive around any manufactured housing development (a.k.a. mobile home park) and you will see cable wires running along the side of the home, when there is no reason those wires could not have gone through the floor and underneath the home – except that the installer would have had to pop off a couple pieces of skirting and used some fish tape to do it right.

The moral of this story is, if you value your home and you are the least bit handy, do your own installations. If necessary, have the dish installation company come out and show you the best location for a dish in your yard, and have them leave the dish with you. Buy the pole and the concrete and set the pole yourself (be sure to keep it level!). If you don’t feel you are handy enough to do this, then shadow the installer and if he is about to do anything you don’t like, stop him! You can try to keep it friendly (suggestion: try to get him to tell you stories about the poor installations he’s encountered on his job that have been done by other installers; that may have the effect of encouraging him to do better than they did) but in the end, remember that you will be living in the home and if he causes roof leaks, or leaves holes where the elements can penetrate or insects or rodents can enter, you will be living with the result – and you may not find the damage until the statue of limitations is long past, so you’ll be the one that has to pay for the repairs. If you rent, the landlord may take the damage off of your security deposit (particularly if you never gave prior notification that the install was taking place).

As an aside, I just love the television commercials where the cable companies try to claim that they are more reliable than the satellite companies – the fact is, if the service is installed properly you will have very little trouble with satellite TV (you may lose signal for five or ten minutes during a torrential rain, but even that can be pretty much avoided if you use a slightly larger dish). On the other hand, what cable television subscriber would tell you that their cable service never goes out (or stays out for five to ten minutes at most when it does go out)? Snow accumulation in dishes isn’t as big a problem as you might think, but if you get a really sticky snow it can accumulate on the dish and potentially drop the signal below a usable level, which is a good reason to keep the dish low enough to the ground that a swipe or two with a broom resolves that problem.

Let’s touch on some of the specific problems with the roof-mount method of installation:

  1. Unlike terrestrial television signals, you do NOT get any appreciable signal gain by mounting a satellite dish high off the ground.  A Geosynchronous satellite is 22,236 miles above the earth’s equator.  Do you really think getting it an extra 10 or 15 feet above the ground is going to make any difference, unless you are doing so to avoid a specific obstruction in the path of the signal?  The only valid reason to mount a dish high is if you absolutely need to do it clear a ground-based obstruction, which is rarely the case.
  2. The dish is like a sail against the forces of wind, and also can be moved by ice dams and heavy snow, which means that over time the lag bolts used to screw it into the roof will loosen and allow water to penetrate.  Unless there is treated plywood under there (something almost never used on a roof), the wood will then start to rot, allowing even MORE water to penetrate. That, in turn, will lead to more rot and eventually to roof leaks.  By the time it happens, good luck locating the original installer and trying to hold him responsible.
  3. At least in the picture above, the wire does not appear to be stapled to the roof, but some installers will haul out the staple gun and have at your roof.  That’s even more opportunity for water penetration and eventual leaks.
  4. The wire is going over the eaves at exactly the place you might see ice dams build up in northern climates.  Get a heavy enough chunk of ice frozen around the wire, add a warm day and the forces of gravity, and you may find the wire snapped or detached from the dish.  If you are really lucky the dish and the LNB’s at the end of the arm won’t be damaged, or moved out of position.
  5. In a typical northern winter, there will be days where the dish gets full of snow, and that blocks the signal.  Trust me, you are not going to want to have to get a ladder out every time it snows just so you can sweep off the dish.  You can buy a heated dish to avoid this problem, but then you’re wasting electricity on the days you don’t need it just to avoid a problem on the days you do.
  6. And let’s not forget that you have an ugly wire running down the side of your house, which may or may not be attached in a semi-neat manner, depending on how lazy/incompetent the installer was.
A much better idea: Satellite dish mounted on metal pole in concrete
A much better idea: Satellite dish mounted on metal pole in concrete

Now as I said above, ground installation is often the best, though few installers will offer that option. But here’s the rub with ground installations:  The lower you go, the more likely you are to get interference from nearby ground-based obstructions, such as buildings, other man-made structures, and trees.  If the trees are on your property there is often the chainsaw solution, but most reasonable people have at least a few reservations about cutting down a healthy tree that’s been alive longer than they have just to get a television signal, plus the tree may be on a neighbor’s property, in which case that option probably isn’t open to you, unless you have an exceptionally good relationship with your neighbor.  It’s better to try to find an existing spot in your yard where there will not be any interference with the signal, but that can be pretty difficult EXCEPT during about two weeks out of the year, one in the spring and one in the fall.

When I was searching for information that might help me explain this, I came across this post on the SatelliteGuys.US Forum that explains it better than I could:

Solar outage time is here again-great time to reposition dishes!

That post explains the procedure, and has a link to a program you can run in a DOS emulator to calculate solar outage times in your area (it also has a link to an online calculator, but that has moved here).  I have tried running that program in Boxer under OS X and it seems to work great, despite its age.  I think you could also run it under something like DOSEMU on a Linux-based machine, or as the article suggests, from a DOS prompt on a Windows-based machine (don’t know if newer versions of Windows still allow that but if not, someone’s probably come up with a way to run DOS programs in newer versions of Windows).

The point is that on a certain day at a certain time (the date and time will vary depending on your latitude and longitude) the sun will be right behind the satellite you want to receive.  All you have to do is make sure that your dish will be in a spot that’s in full sunlight at that time — the further from any shadows cast by buildings, trees, etc. the better — and you are golden, at least for that satellite.  If your dish has multiple LNB’s, then you need to find a spot that’s in full sunlight at all times that the sun is behind one of the satellites.  For U.S. dish owners, that means you’ll have to check at three different times during the morning or afternoon, depending on whether you are using the eastern arc or the western arc of your provider, and try to find a spot that’s in full sunlight at all three times.  If no such spot exists in your yard, keep in mind that you do have the option to set up a separate dish and pole for each satellite you want to receive — you don’t have to use the three-in-one combo dish (I will also note that individual dishes are much easier to aim at the satellites, especially for the homeowner that has little or no experience in aiming a dish, but of course some people just don’t want three dishes if they can get by with only one).

If the exact date isn’t convenient for you, you can try a day or two earlier or later.  Remember that in the springtime, if you are earlier, the sun will be lower in the sky than the satellite so you want to beware of shadows near the top of the dish.  Conversely, if you are late on the date, the sun will be higher in the sky than the satellite, so it’s shadows nearer the bottom of the dish that will be closer than they appear.  In the fall, it’s just the reverse – the sun is higher in the sky prior to the exact date, and lower in the sky on the dates following. Sometimes you can’t do it on the exact date because the weather doesn’t cooperate, but usually being a day or two early or late doesn’t affect the result that much.  Where you don’t want to be early or late is with the time.  The sun moves a full degree in the sky in just four minutes (I didn’t believe it either, but check it with a calculator – it’s true!) and that’s quite a huge distance when you are trying to check the position of the shadow of an object that may be several yards/meters away.

Remember that in spring the trees usually don’t have leaves on them yet, so a small shadow from a branch now can mean a full obstruction of the signal to your dish once the leaves appear.  Also, branches get heavier and move in the wind more with leaves on them, so don’t cut it too close – preferably you want your dish in the middle of a nice BIG sunny spot, not a small opening in the trees (unless you only want to watch TV when it’s not windy).  And finally, remember that your dish won’t be on the ground — note the suggestion in the linked article to use a tall stick and a paper plate or pie tin to help make sure the dish itself will be in the sunny area, not just the bottom of the pole.

Sure, you could pay for a professional satellite site survey, but the sun will do it for you for free twice a year, so why not take advantage of it?

EDIT: I’ve found the following article, which includes even more suggestions for finding a spot for a dish that has a clear view of the satellites:
Why certain days in the fall and spring are great times to go out and look at your satellite dishes