Useful tool to make burying cable easier

The thing I have always hated most about installing a satellite dish is having to dig a trench for the cable. Digging is boring, plus it will probably be a couple years before the lawn looks right again. But you can overcome both those issues in many soil types with this tool (no, I do not get any commission on this thing, just saw it mentioned in another forum and thought it interesting):

This won’t work in all soil types, and it doesn’t dig deep enough for high voltage wiring (110/220 volts, which by code in most cases must be buried at least two feet below ground level in the U.S.A.) but for low voltage wiring and coaxial cable it would be great. Personally, I’d make the top of the trench a little wider and push in 1″ (or slightly larger if you have several cables) black irrigation tubing (the type you buy on 100 foot coils in the home improvement stores) and run the cables through that; it will offer some protection for your cables if you forget exactly where they are and have to dig in the area for some other reason, as long as you don’t mistake the irrigation tubing for a tree root and start trying to chop it with a shovel (not mentioning anyone that might have done that, but will just say that although the irrigation tubing was a bit worse for wear the cables inside were fine). 😉

The commenters on YouTube seem to want to point out that there are some types of difficult soil for which this isn’t suitable, but that would be pretty much a given with any tool; even a shovel won’t dig through solid rock. And if you are passing near trees you might still need to dig underneath aby large tree roots that are near the surface, so definitely still bring your trenching shovel and hatchet for those situations.

P.S.: If you do buy irrigation tubing for your cables, 1″ tubing is adequate for one or two coaxial cables, maybe even three, but for anything above that I’d suggest going slightly larger. It’s a real pain trying to pull cables through too-small tubing, and could even damage the cables. If you do find that the tubing is a little crowded and the cable is pulling hard, go to your nearest electrical supply store or the electrical department of a home improvement store and pick up a container of wire pulling lubricant, and use that liberally to reduce friction during the pull. Also, note that while irrigation tubing is fine for protecting low voltage wiring, it may not meet code in your area for use with high voltage electrical wiring (110/220 Volts); consult a licensed electrician if you are contemplating any such use. Disclaimer: I am not an electrician, so do not rely on any statements in this article as accurate regrading electrical codes; when in doubt, consult an electrician or the national and local codes in your area.

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The C-band Floppy Dish (not Disk) problem

Loose main support bolt and nut?

Sometimes we overlook the obvious. If you have a large C-band dish that seems difficult to aim, or that seems to lose signal strength during or after a strong wind, it could be that the main support bolt and nut are not tight enough. On certain types of mounts (probably most of them), if this bolt and nut are not tightened completely there can be a lot of “slop” in the dish, and it will especially give you fits when you’re trying to aim it at a satellite (especially one near the center of the arc) because of the way it flops around. Unfortunately, it may not be possible to get this bolt completely tight with a standard crescent or box wrench, unless you’re stronger than most. You may need a breaker bar and a socket to get it tight. An electric or air-driven impact wrench, such as the type an auto mechanic uses to tighten lug nuts, might also work, but I’d still suggest using a breaker bar for the final tightening.

On the dish pictured above, even though the nut and bolt seemed tight (at least when trying to tighten it with crescent wrenches), the use of a breaker bar allowed further tightening of more than the width of the nut! Of course you don’t want to apply so much torque that you break the bolt, but the U-shaped channel that holds the main support needs to be tight if you don’t want the dish flopping around in the wind.  With a 10 foot dish, unless your breaker bar has fairly long handle or the bolt has been significantly weakened by rust, you’re probably going to have a hard time breaking the bolt, assuming you’re not a weight-lifter or are otherwise stronger than the average person.  With a smaller dish, you’ll probably need to be more careful, since the bolt is probably also a lot smaller.  The goal is to compress the U-channel so it is tight against the box-shaped center support of the mount, not to deform the U-channel and center support or break the bolt.

WARNING! Breaking the bolt can be dangerous, since it could allow the dish to slide off the mount and damage the dish or adjacent property, and/or injure anyone standing nearby.  Be especially careful with heavy fiberglass dishes.  A heavy dish falling on someone could cause serious injury, or even death! Keep children and pets away from the dish while you tighten this bolt, just in case!  If the dish is on a hill or other non-level ground, consider chaining or roping the dish mount to the pole, in such a way that if the bolt breaks the dish cannot roll or slide down the hill.

And if the title of this article confuses you, you’re probably one of those darn kids that has never seen an older computer, or a rotary dial telephone or a pocket calculator for that matter.  This will enlighten you.

Two reasons a dish may pull in some available free-to-air signals but not others: The modulation and the FEC (Forward Error Correction) code rate

At the satbroadcasts site there was recently published an article entitled, Minimum carrier to noise ratio values (CNR, C/N) for DVB-S2 system. This handy article and chart explains why, on any given dish, you might have no problems receiving certain signals without problems, but much more difficulty receiving others. It also explains why some people have successfully used a relatively small dish (4 to 6 feet in diameter) to receive certain C-band signals, but for other signals you might be out of luck if you can’t put up a full 10 foot (or even larger) dish.

Basically, there are two things that can make a difference with DVB-S2 signals – the modulation (QPSK, 8PSK, 16APSK or 32APSK) and the FEC (Forward Error Correction) code rate. A QPSK signal will be easier to receive than an 8PSK signal, which will in turn be easier to receive than a 16APSK signal, and so on, assuming the FECs are equal (by the way, PSK stands for Phase-Shift Keying). And as you can see from the chart at that site, a signal using a forward error correction code rate of 1/4 will be much easier to receive than a signal with a FEC of 9/10.

So, while you might get away with a 4 foot dish with a C-band LNB and a conical scaler ring when trying to receive a QPSK signal with a FEC code rate of 1/4 or 1/3, there’s virtually no chance that setup will work to pick up an 8PSK signal with 9/10 FEC. And if you want to receive a 32APSK signal with 9/10 FEC (if such a signal actually exists), you’d better have a really big dish, a super high end LNB, and the ability to aim it all precisely. I may exaggerate just a little here, but receiving any 16APSK or 32APSK signal with anything smaller than a 10 or 12 foot dish may not be possible, depending in part on the FEC used. In my experience, getting reliable reception on an 8PSK 9/10 FEC signal with anything smaller than a 10 foot dish is not possible, but maybe if you have a super LNB and are very patient in getting everything positioned and aimed just right, you might make it work (note I say might, and I certainly don’t recommend trying it unless you absolutely can’t install a larger dish for some reason).

If you’re new to the hobby of receiving free-to-air signals, you might not have been aware that all signals are not created equal, and may have been confused by the fact that your DVB-S2 receiver or tuner reports a high quality reading on some signals, but a low or non-existent quality reading on other signals from the same satellite. Now you know a couple of possible reasons why.

Who makes the LNB’s that are sold by companies in the USA and Canada?

One of the problems with buying satellite equipment in the United States and Canada is that there are so few distributors, and you may have found that a few of those distributors are not people you’d care to do business with in the future, for any of a number of possible reasons. Let’s just say there may be a seller or two out there who thought that “The Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld was an instructional video on how to treat potential customers.

Another problem is that satellite equipment sellers tend to exit the business without much notice. So you buy an LNB from a company and it works well for you, and then a year later you get a new dish, or maybe your original LNB got hit by lightning, and you want a replacement. Sadly, the seller is nowhere to be found. In one case a web site still exists for a distributor that apparently left the business years ago. None of the phone numbers appear to still be working, but that site is out there. But interestingly, it has some pictures of its “Factory & Offices in China” that give us a clue as to who their supplier was. That’s because some of the same photos appear at the bottom of this page.

The Chinese company that seems to make a lot of the LNB’s that are sold in North America under private labels is Anhui Bowei Electronics Technology Co., Ltd., and as best I can determine their main web site (in English) is at http://www.chinabrave.com/en/ but most people wanting to buy their products retail would likely go through their store on AliExpress.

You do have to be a bit careful when buying this way because the shipping charges from China are a bit high, and you may or may not have the same level of buyer protection that you would have with a USA or Canadian seller. Also you have to be careful that what you buy will work with your equipment. For example, when buying a C-band LNB, most equipment sold in the USA and Canada expects to use voltage switching to switch between vertical and horizontal polarization. But there are LNB’s being sold now, including some by this company, that do dual local oscillator frequencies, where the local oscillator frequency for the vertical channels is the usual 5150 MHz but for the horizontal channels it is 5750 MHz (here’s a page in PDF format from a New Zealand supplier that explains the advantages of this scheme). Not all receivers, tuner cards, or software may be able to deal with that, so if you are not sure, it’s safer to stick with the older models that show only a single L.O. frequency of 5150 MHz in the specifications.

And if you happen to be looking at a product that plugs into a wall outlet for power, make sure you can get it with a USA/Canada type plug, or that it at least comes with an adapter, and that it will work with 110/120 volts AC at 60 Hz. Remember that much of the rest of the world (including much of North America outside the USA and Canada) uses 220/240 volts AC at 50 Hz, and while some devices can deal with either type of power, not all can, plus plug styles vary from country to country.

If you have never used AliExpress before, one tip is that when you are on a seller’s main page, look at the (usually blue or green) bar at the top of the page and mouse over the “Products” link; it will show a dropdown of product categories offered. Even then there may still be products offered by a seller that for some reason don’t appear in their store listings, but that can be found if you do a general search in AliExpress for a particular type of product (such as “C band LNB”). AliExpress isn’t eBay, and their site doesn’t appear to be quite as well indexed.

Of course, Anhui Bowei Electronics Technology Co., Ltd. is not the only maker of LNB’s in China, it’s just that their product line seems to include some models that looks suspiciously like models currently being sold in North America under a different brand name. I have no idea if they are the same or not, and obviously the USA importers are probably not going to disclose who they purchase their products from. But the point is that when a North American supplier appears to either drop off the face of the earth, or angers you to the point that you wouldn’t buy a bottle of water from them if you were dying of thirst in the desert, then it may at least be possible to go “upstream” and buy from their supplier.

In the course of looking for this information I did find a couple of other sellers of LNB’s and other satellite equipment on AliExpress:

SatMaximum (AliExpress Store (retail), AliExpress Store (wholesale))
Yian Technology Limited (AliExpress Store)

SatMaximum in particular seems to carry about as extensive a line of LNB’s as Anhui Bowei Electronics Technology, but again you have to be careful about the local oscillator frequencies, to make sure you don’t get a dual L.O. unit if your receiver or tuner can only handle voltage switching of polarity. I have never dealt with any of these companies personally – I am probably like most Americans, a bit reluctant to order direct from overseas due to the higher possibility of disappointment, and the inability to return a defective item without paying more in shipping than what the item is worth (in many cases). So when you buy like this it is a bit like buying a pig in a poke, although AliExpress attempts to mitigate these concerns with their Buyer Protection. If anyone has purchased a LNB, or any other satellite equipment for that matter, from one of these Chinese companies using AliExpress you’re welcome to share your experience (good or bad) in the comments.

Why certain days in the fall and spring are great times to go out and look at your satellite dishes

There is something that happens in the spring of every year, and then again in autumn.  I like to call it the “total eclipse of the satellites”, although that’s probably not a technically correct description because the satellites actually move in front of the sun, as viewed from the earth.  And of course, the satellites are nowhere near large enough to block the light coming from the sun.  But what is interesting is that on those specific days, at certain specific times, the sun closely tracks the satellite arc.  The exact days and times will be different depending on where you live – in the northern hemisphere, the further south you are, the earlier it will happen in the fall, and the later it will be in the spring.  When the sun is directly behind a satellite, it causes two things to happen:

First, for the time the sun is behind any given satellite, the solar radiation is much stronger than the signal produced by the satellite.  Therefore, you will lose reception for a few minutes on each satellite in turn, as the sun moves across the arc.  There is really nothing that can be done about this, and broadcasters often provide alternative feeds on other satellites or at different times precisely for this reason.  It may also be a reason that so many syndicated shows are fed in the middle of the night or the early AM hours, since they would then not be susceptible to this twice-yearly interference.

But second, there is also good news for satellite dish owners – the time when the sun is directly behind a satellite is a great time to check for obstructions that might be preventing you from receiving all the signal that your dish could collect, or for finding the optimal spot to place a new dish.  The trick is to find out the day and time when the sun and the satellite you are trying to receive are at their closest position in the sky – in other words, when the sun is directly behind the satellite, or very nearly so.  Then, you look at your dish to see if there are any shadows in it.  If there are, you determine what is causing the shadows and then determine whether you can remove that obstruction (by cutting a tree limb, for example).  If not, it might be a good idea to reposition the dish to some portion of your yard where there are no shadows present.  Note that on a smaller dish such as the type used for Ku band reception, something as small as the shadow from two or three tree leaves can cause a significant loss of signal.

It naturally follows that you can also use the “eclipse of the satellites” to find a place to position a new dish.  On the day and time when the sun is directly behind the satellite, look for a large open sunny spot and put your dish there.  If your dish will be on a pole, hold some object (it could even be your hand) at the approximate height of the center of the dish and try to get the shadow of that object to appear in the center of a large sunny area (an area larger than the size of the dish, at least), then plant your pole there.  Of course when you are doing that, be aware of any nearby shadows caused by objects that might sway considerably in high winds (enough sway for that object to come into the path of your satellite signal) – you want to avoid those if possible.  For example, locating a dish in a small sunny hole between a couple of large weeping willow trees might be a bad idea!

It could happen that the day that the sun is most closely behind the satellites is an overcast day.  That often happens at this time of year in some parts of North America.  It is okay to do this check a couple days before or after that day, as long as you do it at the exact time of day that the sun is closest to the satellite.

The real trick to this is knowing the exact date and time when the sun will be behind the satellite you want to receive.  To determine that, you need to know the exact latitude and longitude of your location, and you also need to know the location of the satellite in the sky.  All of these are expressed in degrees.  The satellite positions are easy to find; you can get them from just about any reference that shows the various satellites, such as Lyngsat.  As for your latitude and longitude, go to maps.google.com and zoom in on your house and yard – your latitude and longitude will appear in the address bar.  For example, if you were to see something like

http://www.google.com/maps/@50.0106762,-110.112661,556m/data=!3m1!1e3

That means that your latitude is 50.0106762 degrees (North if in North America) and your longitude is 110.112661 degrees (West if in North America).  By the way, that is actually the location of an interesting natural geomorphological feature, but I digress.

Now that you have those values, you can go to a site such as this one (requires Java):

Use sun or moon to choose the best place for your satellite antenna

Or this:

Sun Outage / Sun Interference Prediction for Geostationary Orbit Satellites

These sites will show you when the sun is nearest the satellites, provided you enter the required values correctly.

Note that if you are planning to install a movable dish, you can still check certain specific satellites that you are interested in, but what you want to do is find is a location where it is sunny all day on the day the solar outages are at their peak, or at least during that part of the day when the satellites you want to receive are behind the sun.

When checking for shadows on the dish or at a proposed location for a dish, be sure to check at the EXACT time the satellite is closest to the sun.  Most everyone has a cell phone nowadays that displays the time, so getting the precise time is not as much of an issue as it used to be.  But it really is important to look at the exact time, since the sun moves one full degree in four minutes!  Don’t believe it?  Well, the earth is divided into 360 degrees of longitude (180 degrees east to 180 degrees west) and 4×360=1440, which is precisely the number of minutes in a 24 hour day (6ox24=1440).  And a one degree difference is enough for the shadows of some obstructions to move off the dish.  If you do happen to be a minute or two late, look on the ground next to the shadow of the dish and see if there are any shadows very close to the edge of the dish.

With a larger C-band dish, a small obstruction such as a few leaves won’t matter as much, but be aware that trees normally don’t stop growing until they are quite large, so if you see the shadow of a few leaves creeping onto your dish, perhaps the time to do something about it is while the branch is small.

I will note that is is also possible to use the moon for this purpose, but typically that is not as accurate because it is rare for the moon to be directly behind a satellite.  There are also programs you can download to your phone, some of them free, where you can point your phone’s camera at the southern sky and in theory it will overlay what you are seeing with the locations of various satellites.  Here is a short video describing one such app:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdNPBq0hqdE

While apps such as this can be very helpful, in my experience they are not all that precise.  If you are trying to receive a signal through a smaller hole between trees, having your dish two or three feet to the wrong side might be the difference between no obstructions and having maybe a third of your dish or more obstructed.  For finding a precise location in a tight area, or discovering if that stupid bush that your neighbor planted that’s grown like a weed is really interfering with your signal, there’s nothing like using these “eclipse days” to get an actual, visual representation of what is or isn’t causing interference with the satellite signals.

EDIT: Yet another approach is to use Google Maps, but this works best in areas where their satellite imagery is fairly sharp and clear. Just go to Dishpointer.com and you’ll be asked to enter your address and select the satellite you want to receive from a dropdown. But here is the interesting part, in many areas you can zoom into your yard and see quite a bit of detail. You can click on the green pointer and drag it to the location in your yard where you’d like to put a dish. It will show you the path to the satellite as a green line, and if that line doesn’t intersect any trees in your yard or your neighbors’ yards that’s a good indication. But unless you live in a desert or next to a lake, sooner or later that line will probably intersect trees. So you still need to determine if the satellite will be over the top of those trees. Under the Google Maps image, that site will also show you the elevation of the satellite – the higher the elevation, the closer the tress can be without problems.

A somewhat similar site, with the long title Google Maps based satellite uplink/downlink site planner with dish alignment look angles and topographic coverage ( clear line of sight calculation ) shows a similar Google maps view, but with the additional feature that if Google Street View has been through your area it will try to show you where the satellite would be in relation to the nearest picture taken by the Google Street View car, which may or may not be helpful.

Either of those sites will tell you the elevation of the satellite at your location, and the azimuth, which is its position in the sky relative to your location. So once you have that information, if you can’t wait for the next solar outage event, you could go to a Sun & Moon Position Calculator, enter your location or find your yard on the map, and scroll down to see where the moon is in relation to you (click the button to start the Autoupdater). The fields of interest to satellite dish installers are the bottom three: “Satellite Longitude (The sat-longitude which gives same azimuth as the Moon)”, Satellite Elevation, and “|Moon Elevation-Satellite Elevation|”.

This may be a little difficult to understand at first glance, but let’s say you are wanting to find a place in your yard to place a dish that will receive a satellite at 97°W. You would have to enter your location at this site, then start the Autoupdater and watch the Satellite Longitude as it counts up to 97°W – if it’s already beyond that, try at an earlier time the next day. When it reaches that location, see if you have a clear view of the moon in the sky from your proposed dish location, and at the same time also note the value in the “|Moon Elevation-Satellite Elevation|” field. This tells you how much higher or lower the moon is in the sky compared to the satellite. An ideal situation would be if it’s within a degree or so of the satellite elevation, but if the satellite elevation is a concern then it may help you estimate how much variation there is between the moon position and the satellite position.

Of course using the moon isn’t always easy, since it’s more easily obstructed by clouds than the sun, and also it rises and sets at different times of the day or night, and can be difficult to impossible to see on a bright sunny day, particularly if it’s only a partial moon. Many weather sites will tell you when the moon rises and sets in your location, though you may have to search a bit to find that information on the site, or you can use this Sun or Moon Rise/Set Table for One Year (be sure to select moonrise/moonset in the dropdown, and don’t forget to “Add one hour for daylight time, if and when in use”). If, on any given day or night, the moon is below the horizon (between moonset and moonrise) when it’s at the same longitude as the satellite as the satellite you’re interested in, you won’t be able to use it that day or night. And also, during the monthly dark of the moon (the day or two just before the new moon), it may be difficult to impossible to see in the sky.

I mentioned above the site Use sun or moon to choose the best place for your satellite antenna but since that requires Java, it won’t work on many modern computers (and personally I don’t recommend installing Java). If, however, you do have Java installed, and can figure out how to use the site, it can help you predict when the moon will be nearest (in terms of relative position in the sky) to the satellite you’re interested in.