Can a Del Ray man engineer his way to free TV in 2009? Credit: Andrew Beaujon

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I am not interested in British home improvement shows, and I like to save my money, so I don’t have cable TV. But a year ago, the transition to digital television loomed over free-TV consumers like me much in the same way my grandmother’s 36-inch analog Toshiba loomed over my tiny living room. I could solve both problems with a new TV. Couldn’t I?

STEP 1: BUYING A NEW TV ($300)

Consumer Reports said the Insignia NS-LCD26-09, a private-label 26-inch LCD television available at Best Buy, delivers “very good picture quality at a low price.” I plugged it into the omnidirectional picture-frame-style antenna I purchased a year earlier at the Radio Shack in Adams Morgan. I got some local high-definition reception some of the time, but the Insignia’s 1366 x 768 resolution was brutal on soon-to-be-extinct standard-def broadcasts.

STEP 2: THE DIRECTV FIASCO ($0)

This past March, with the digital transition just three months away, Verizon offered to add DirecTV to my extant phone and DSL service for $10 per month less than I’m paying now. Plus free installation! Except the ad touted DirecTV’s digital channels, which as it turns out are not high-definition channels. In fact, it looks like you’re paying (or, technically, not paying) to watch YouTube really big. DirecTV’s more expensive HD service, a company rep told my wife when she called, would solve this problem; unfortunately, the installer who returned said that we wouldn’t be able to get HD signals in our location (on top of a hill in Del Ray, surrounded by other DirecTV customers, at least two of whom somehow watch HDTV). Later, when I mounted my roof for Step 3, I discovered that the installers had not installed a satellite antenna on our roof as they had claimed but had run a cable into my neighbor’s dish instead.

STEP 3: HOOKING UP THE OLD ROOFTOP ANTENNA ($21.56)

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Our landlords had left an old antenna on a broken mast lying on the roof. The DirecTV installers had left some primo 75-ohm coaxial cable up there. Like Walter Matthau staring at Jackie Earle Haley and Tatum O’Neal, I thought these misfits could be the start of something big. At the Ace Hardware on S. Washington Street in Alexandria, I bought a coaxial cable cutter/crimper ($7.49), a pair of RJ-6 connectors ($3.29), a grounding block ($3.29), and a weatherproof matching transformer ($6.46). I shoved the shortened mast into a band around the chimney, hooked up the transformer, put a new connector onto the coax, ran the cable through the grounding block into the Insignia, and free high-def TV flooded in. Free high-def TV from Baltimore. I tried re-aiming the antenna based on the customizable maps on antennaweb.org—I even added some speaker wire to try to boost reception—but D.C. stations never came in as well as their northern neighbors. This is also when I learned about the “cliff effect”: Say there’s something compromising your over-the-air digital TV signal—wind, rain, Canada geese on their way home from eating a golf course. That glorious digital signal, the one that lets you see every bead of Jim Zorn’s flop sweat? It doesn’t get fuzzy or snowy. It disappears.

STEP 4: THE PRUDENT SOLUTION ($425–$450)

You can buy a new rooftop antenna, say, the Winegard HD-7694, for $45 online, but reception may be elusive, especially if you live in a challenging area like Georgetown or Alexandria’s Seminary Valley. What you really need to do is get Dave Thompson from Fairfax Antenna out to your house. Like he does for four or five other households per month, he’ll install that Winegard for $425 ($450 farther out). “The way these transmitters work is beam the signal out to the horizon,” Thompson says. “They’re not beaming it down to the ground.” Professional installers like Thompson have sophisticated meters that let them position antennas at the exact point on your roof where the signal is strongest. They’ll use an appropriate mount (tripod, mast, J-type), aim the antenna properly, and run the best cable down to your TV. “Why get cable TV when all you watch is network channels?” Thompson says. “We can put an antenna up and that antenna will pay itself off in a year. I had a customer call me and tell me that I’ve saved $18,000 on this antenna. I said maybe I didn’t charge you enough in the first place!” The price sounds good, but rather than spend my money wisely, I’d rather parcel it out painfully on an inadequate solution. So it was on to…

STEP 5: TAKING MATTERS INTO YOUR OWN HANDS ($52.42)

Another benefit to employing a qualified installer: You don’t have to spend hours online parsing antenna enthusiasts’ reviews. “Note: the _total_ length of each wire from one side to the other is the same, but the balum is connected at different points (relative to the ends) on the two wires, thereby creating the antenna effect (from a review by someone who appeared credible and that was consistent of what I remember of my course in antenna design),” writes Douglas B. Moran “Computer+History/Politics+DisasterPrep” in his one-star review on Amazon of the Channel Master 4228HD, which I was leaning toward because it looks like it belongs on Wallops Island, not a row house in Alexandria. Finally I settled on the Channel Master 3016 “Suburban Advantage” ($36.29). When the Suburban Advantage arrived, along with a new 5-foot swedged Winegard mast ($16.13, both shipped for free with my Amazon Prime membership), I clambered up on the roof with my 5-year-old, which, OK, maybe not a best practice. I removed the old antenna, mounted the Suburban Advantage, and, as Thompson suggested, talked to my wife on the phone while I aimed it. When the Insignia registered above 90 on its signal meter for both Fox5 and WETA-TV’s kids channel, I thought I was done, and the next day, it was like I was watching the Redskins lose in person. Four mornings later, after three days of rain, WETA Kids wasn’t coming in any more. I was late for work, but I exhaled really hard, got my ladder, and went back up on the roof.