RV TV Options
Watching TV in your RV involves a series of compromises, especially if you move around a lot. You almost certainly have a cable connection, but each park may have the cable channels at different numbers, which means that if you have a DVR (Digital Video Recorder) set up to record a show, you'll may have to redo your recording setup each time you move. Using the rooftop antenna has the same drawbacks if you move around a lot.
This article gives my opinions and some information about the options, but what's best for you will depend on your TV-watching habits and your budget. If you're fine with watching whatever is picked up by the roof antenna in real time, most of this article won't be much use to you. I currently have a DirectTivo HD DVR and a Roku box. I haven't watched a commercial in at least 15 years years, but I'd hate to add up the amount of money I've spent on watching TV over that period.
For a long time, I used the self-aiming satellite dome with an R10 DirecTivo DVR on mine, when the R10 broke, I'd get a new one on eBay for $20-$30 bucks. I think the D10 is the equivalent unit without Tivo and without DVR capability. I moved it back and forth between the house and the RV. I got an extra set of cords for it, so it was just a matter of unplugging everything, moving the box, and plugging it in. My currently recorded shows came along with me, as did my season passes. It didn't matter what park I was in as long as I had a view of the sky.
I've since made the jump to HD TV and internet streaming. I planned to use an external dish on a tripod when I stopped for a month or more, and use the roof dish (standard definition) while on the road. Unfortunately, once you get used to HD, it's hard to go back. So I found that I was setting up the tripod even for a one-night stay somewhere. The last straw was a 95-degree day at a park where the all the sites were covered with large seashells. It took me over an hour to get the dish aimed because the tripod kept shifting.
I replaced my roof dome dome with this self-aiming SWM roof dish. I paid a guy to install it, but in retrospect, I could easily have done it myself. Other than attaching it to the roof, running new wires, and caulking around it, it's pretty much plug and play.
You can easily turn off power to the dome motors once it's aimed.
It also wasn't nearly as heavy as it looked. I think I could have carried it up to the roof with one hand.
I also have an external Slimline dish on a tripod, but I think I've only used it once since I got the new roof dish, and that was at a heavily wooded state park. Note that the SWM dishes require a 2" mounting pole (the older dishes use a smaller pole). You also need a heavier-duty tripod because the new SWM dishes are heavier.
DirecTV signal comes from satellites 99, 101, and 103, which are all very close together and fairly high in the sky unless you're pretty far north. The HD channels are currently on 99 and 103.
I haven't watched TV in real time for years, so I got this DirecTivo receiver/DVR to go with the dish. It will record two HD shows at once while you watch a third show you recorded earlier. I bumped up the recording capacity with a 2 terabyte Western Digital AV drive, which was totally plug-and-play for about $60. As far as I can tell, it's completely silent.
I'll get back to discussing satellite options and accessories, but first, let's look at streaming.
There are many different ways to stream television shows and movies over the internet. You can use a small add-on box like the Roku, Kindle Fire TV, Google Chromecast or Apple TV. There's a good discussion of the pros and cons of each device here. I'm personally fond of the Roku and use a Roku 3 in my rig.
Don't worry that you're not tech-savvy enough to install and use a streaming device. Basically, you just plug in the device, navigate to the settings area and sign on to your WiFi connection. You may have to tell it a little bit about what kind of TV you have (SD versus HD, wide-screen or not, etc.). You only have to do that once, and after that, it's just a matter of using the very friendly menus built into the device.
More and more content is available through streaming. Most of it comes with no commercials and you can watch episodes of your favorite shows long after they stop airing on the networks. You can browse through all episodes of Columbo, Rockford, Mary Tyler Moore, or Taxi and watch whichever episode you're in the mood for at any time. In addition, many of the streaming services like Netflix, Amazon, Crackle, HBO, and Showtime are now offering their own content, much of which is excellent and not available on any network channel.
One-by-one, the major networks are starting to be available via streaming as well. HBO and Showtime are now available as streaming channels for less money than it costs to add them to a satellite or cable package.
You can also stream music through one of the many music channels. Roku, for example, has more than 50 different channels for streaming music, and some, like Pandora, will let you create multiple sub-channels that play your favorite types of music. The Amazon Prime Music channel will let you play almost any album you've bought from Amazon as well as a ton of free selections.
There is a down side to internet streaming, of course: you need an internet connection and plenty of data. TV, especially HD TV sucks up a crapload of bandwidth. The RV parks's network is often not up to the task and videos will freeze often and sometimes refuse to play. If you use park WiFi for streaming, you're also being a very bad neighbor because the internet will slow to a crawl for everyone in the park if even a few people are streaming.
I'm lucky enough to have a grandfathered Verizon unlimited plan. I use a spare phone as a WiFi hot spot, and for $30/month, I have unlimited streaming and an internet connection for my RV wherever I get a decent Verizon signal. For me that's everywhere except a small part of the Florida panhandle.
If you don't have unlimited data, however, streaming can get very expensive, very fast, especially with HD TV. Don't be taken in by phone companies that promise "Unlimited Data" but in the fine print, slow down your connection after a certain number of gigabytes. You'll hit the limit fairly fast when streaming, and with the lower-speed connection, you may not be able to stream TV (especially HD TV), though streaming music will probably still work.
Satellite reception is fairly universal in the USA as long as you have a clear view of the sky. If you have an external dish on a tripod, it's fairly unusual not to be able to get a signal except in heavily wooded state parks. Even there, if you have a long enough cable and accommodating neighbors, you can still do it. I once ran 125 feet of cable to my tripod-mounted dish set up near the park bathroom in order to watch the Super Bowl.
If you can find a hole in the trees where the satellites are, you're in business, and there's a great smart phone app to help you do that. It's called Satellite AR . You hold up the phone and the app superimposes the satellite locations on your camera's view of the sky. Satellite AR is the Android version. The iPhone version is called AR Satellite. There's one potential problem: if your phone case has a magnetic catch, it will throw off the compass and Satellite AR won't work unless you take the phone out of the case.
If you have a standard-definition roof dish of any kind it should work fine with any DirecTV (DTV) or Dish receiver or DVR, except the newer SWM ones. For dome models, I think there's a dip switch on the roof (under the dome) that you need to flip to switch from Dish to DirecTV. The setting should be in the owner's manual. If there are two cables coming from the dome — not counting the power cable — (one may be hanging behind the TV) you can use a DVR with two tuners.
If you have DirecTV, you won't get High-Definition (HD) TV that way, but you won't spend a lot of money either. You may not need the DVR feature, but I couldn't live without it. You can get it with or without Tivo (which is basically just a set of friendly menus to help you record your favorite shows).
If you want high-definition TV, you'll need a more modern dish and pay a little bit more per month. For DirecTV, it's called a Slimline SWM dish. DTV will probably offer to give you a free install, and will try to get you to take a Genie and SWM dish, but they won't install a new roof dish for you on your rig. You can buy a self-aiming one at Amazon for about $1500, but you'll have to drill new holes in the roof and caulk up the old ones. You'll want to run the new cables that come with the dish. Camping world will sell you one and install it, but it will cost you around $2400 to $2500 at today's prices.
The advantage of the SWM dishes is that you can run a single cable to the dish and power a number of receivers or DVRs with multiple tuners.
External, Tripod-mounted Dish
You can also use a tripod-mounted external Slimline dish (again with just one cable), though the SWM dishes are a little heavier and require a tripod with a 2" mast. On almost all RVs, the compartments are not large enough to hold a Slimline dish with the LNB arm attached. Fortunately, just removing the dish itself makes them storable. There are four short bolts holding the dish on and they only need to be finger-tight. I built a mount that holds the dish itself against the back wall of a compartment. The tripod, LNB arm and any cabling will fit easily in front if it.
I mounted a cable connection block inside of my driver's-side wheel well and ran the cabling up through the A-pillar (the part between the windshield and the driver's side window) to the cabinet above where it's connected to my satellite receiver/DVR. I just have to plug the cable from the dish to the connector in the wheel well and I'm good to go. Running the cable was much easier than I thought it would be, there's plenty of room in the A-pillar and the bottom end is in the engine compartment, right next to the wheel well. If you need two cables, you can mount two of these or get a double block. Note that for an SWM dish, you only need one cable no matter how many receivers or tuners you have.
I used to think that the Slimline SWM HD dishes on a tripod were difficult to aim, but that was before I learned the secret. If your receiver or DVR is plugged in, it will boot up when you plug in to shore power. If there is no dish attached, the receiver will go into a diagnostic mode. At that point, even with the dish mounted and aimed, you will get nothing at all on the signal-strength screen. If you have the dish aimed perfectly, it may eventually realize that it has a signal, but since you have no signal-strength meter, it's probably not aimed perfectly.
The trick is to attach the cable from the dish before turning on the shore power. The dish doesn't have to be aimed or on the tripod. In fact the dish itself doesn't even have to be attached. The receiver just needs to see that the switch in the LNB (the white plastic thing) is there. Once you know that, the SWM dishes are no harder to aim than the older dishes. It helps to have a good compass, especially what's called a "hand-bearing" compass that you can site through while reading the numbers. I use this Weems & Plath compass I bought for sailing. It's the Cadillac of hand-bearing compasses. It's indestructable, fluid-filled, easy to use, and deadly accurate, but there are less expensive compasses that might do the job.
DirecTV is great at nickel-and-diming you to death on the monthly bill, so be sure you factor in all the fees when you sign up. In my case (with HBO and Showtime), my actual DirecTV payment is almost twice the cost of my nominal "package price."
You may pay extra for using a Hi-def receiver (which frosts my butt, since Hi-def is now standard). You'll also pay extra if you have a DVR to record your shows.
You may pay extra to get your local channels (depending on the package). If you travel in your RV, you'll probably want to get the network feeds (for a fee) from the main broadcast networks (CBS, NBC, Fox, ABC, etc.). This is called "Distant Networks" service. The network channels are on what's called "Spot Beams", which means that without the Distant Networks service, you'll only get them within about 300 miles of your home. With Distant Networks service, you'll either get the East Coast or West Coast feeds, depending roughly on whether your address is East or West of the Mississippi River. This can be a factor for sporting events, and if your billing address is West of the Mississippi and you're in Florida and don't have a DVR, you'll be staying up pretty late to watch your favorite network shows (9:00 shows will be on at midnight).
In order to get Distant Network service with DirecTV, you'll either need an address where no local channels can be received (you have to live a long way from any metropolitan areas for this), or get an "RV waiver," for which you'll have to send a copy of your RV title to DirectTV. You only have to do that once. Tell them that the receiver is in your RV and you travel. They can't actually tell where your receiver is, and you can move the receiver back and forth between the RV and your stick house at will. These quick-connect adapters are handy if you often move the receiver or switch between a roof satellite and a tripod-mounted one. I also recommend these 90-degree (right-angle) adapters. They let you push your receiver further back in the cabinet to keep it from banging against the cabinet door when you're on the road.
If you have an old tube TV in your front entertainment center, you risk having the entertainment center work loose from the roof whenever you're on a rough road. Mine had about 1/4" clearance when I repaired it with several days of work, L-brackets, and some pop rivets. I was shocked at how little was holding it up.
Your old tube TV will also probably not get HD television. I replaced the old TV in my rig with a 39" LCD TV. It fits (just barely), and I can still open the doors to the two side cabinets. I got an articulated mount that lets the TV pull out quite a bit and swing from side to side, so I can use the area behind the TV for storage. I build an oak frame inside the cabinet to attache the mount to. If I had it to do again, I'd get a bigger TV, since moving the TV to one side is easy and would still give access to either cabinet.
If you remove your old TV, get some strong helpers to assist you in pulling it out. You'll be shocked at how heavy and awkward it is. Most of the weight is in the screen, so the TV will want to rotate so the the screen is facing the floor. Be ready for that. I put a tall bar stool in front of it so we just had to move the TV from the cabinet to the stool. If you have a class A with a doghouse cover in front of the TV, you'll want to put a piece of plywood over the doghouse. The doghouse cover is not meant to support much weight and you've got enough trouble handling the old TV without crashing through the floor onto the engine.
Thank you for visiting BobsGuides.com
— Bob Ray