How to set up a satellite dish

This article was originally published in Active Home magazine in 2007, and has been updated for GoneDigital

Many people think that setting up a satellite dish is a tricky task, and something that has to be left to the professionals, but that’s not really the case. If you’re confident with a bit of DIY, you can buy a receiver and dish, install them yourself, and you’ll be able to watch Freesat with its fairly wide range of channels – and if you have a Panasonic TV set with Freesat built in, that will also give you access to the BBC iPlayer as well, which might be sufficient reason to connect up a dish for some.

Freesat satellites

It’s worth mentioning that if you have a dish that was set up for Sky, you can use it for Freesat anyway – it points at the same satellite, and indeed most of broadcasts are the same for each system. The ‘orbital position’ of the satellite is 28.2 degrees east, which actually means that it’s 28.2 degrees east of due south.

Freesat also has some channels, and some important network information, on the Eurobird satellite, at 28.5 east. With a normal dish, you’ll get a signal from both at the same time, as they’re so close together. But if when you try to tune in the receiver, you find that a Freesat box claims it can’t find the signal, you might need to nudge the dish a fraction, as the likely cause will be that it’s not receiving the information from Eurobird that’s vital for setup, such as the list of channels and the postcode data that ensure you see the correct regions.

Pick your receiver

If you’re installing a standard set top box, then you just need a single cable from the satellite dish to the receiver. However, if it’s a recorder you’re installing, most of them have twin tuners, so you can record two channels, or record one while watching another. And, unlike with a Freeview system, for satellite, you need one cable per tuner (for the technical reasons, see this article).

If you’re buying everything from scratch, I’d recommend that you buy a multi-output LNB – each output feeds a single tuner – so you can add another receiver or upgrade to a recorder later, without having to readjust the dish. The LNB is the actual receiver bit on the end of the satellite dish arm – the dish just focuses the satellite signal on the LNB, which does the actual work.

Step by step installation

First, choose your satellite receiver or recorder – the Humax Foxsat HDR is a good Freesat recorder, and will need two connections to the dish. You can pick up a dish, LNB and cable from suppliers like Maplin or Turbosat.

Satellite F connector

Satellite F connectors are very easy to fit, but practice makes perfect

Preparing the cable

You’ll need to run a new cable from the satellite receiver to your dish – unless you already have a Sky minidish that you can use. You need satellite grade cable, and the plugs on each end are called F connectors. Strip the outer insulation back about 1.5cm, and trim about 1cm off the inner white insulation. Fold the copper braid back over the outer insulation, and then fix the connector by simply pushing it over the end of the cable and screwing it on, so that it grips properly. For now, just put a connector on the end nearest the receiver – you’ll need to get the other end outside before you can put the plug on.

Connect to the receiver

Make sure the satellite receiver is turned off before you connect the cable. Push the connector onto the LNB in socket (on a recorder, they may be labelled LNB 1 and LNB 2; some boxes have an ‘LNB out’ for a second receiver, which you can ignore), and rotate the end of it clockwise to lock it in place.

Dish it up

Now, follow the instructions to assemble your satellite dish; you’ll need to fit the LNB to the arm. Normally the connectors will face directly downwards. We’ve chosen an 80cm dish, and a universal LNB, which will enable us to set the system up to receive other satellites too. If you’re in the south of England, a 60cm dish will be ok for the Astra 2 satellite; for extra satellites, or if you’re further north, a bigger dish may be needed. Local satellite stores can give you advice.

Satellite bracket on the wall

Make sure the bracket is straight on your wall, or dish alignment will be much harder

Hinge and bracket

Now, you need to mount the fixing bracket on your wall; 28.2 degrees east means the satellite is that far east of due south, so you need to find a wall that will allow you to fix the dish, and move it sufficiently from side to side. Our chosen bracket keeps the dish quite close to the wall; choose one that puts the dish further out if you need more space to rotate it, or opt for a garden or patio stand – a dish doesn’t have to be high up on the wall; it just needs to be able to see the right part of the sky. Remember to make sure the bracket is lined up vertically, otherwise it will be hard to find the satellite. If you live in a conservation area, or rent your home, remember to check whether or not you are allowed to install a dish.

After fixing the mounting bracket to the wall, or whatever else you’re using, adjust the pole to ensure that it’s vertical – check with a spirit level on at least two sides. When you have the pole straight, make sure any bolts and screws are done up tightly – you don’t want the dish to move in high winds. Now you need to find out roughly what latitude and longitude you are at. The quickest way is to go to www.streetmap.co.uk, and type in your postcode. Click Go and right at the bottom of the page, click the link in the phrase “Click here to convert coordinates.”

Where to point the dish

Make a note of your latitude and longitude; for our example, it’s 51.5 North and 0 East. At Satellite Signals there’s a calculator that will tell you where to point your dish. Enter 28.2 in the ‘Satellite orbit’ box, and your latitude and longitude in the next two, then click the button to calculate the results.  The important information is the ‘Dish azimuth relative to magnetic north’ which tells you how far to rotate the dish left and right, and the ‘Dish elevation’ which is how far up in the air to point the dish.

Satellite dish elevation

The elevation setting on your dish points it at the satellites above the equator

Elevate!

Mount the dish on the pole and tighten to bolts enough so that it doesn’t move on its own, but you can still move it from side to side with a little pressure. Now you need to set the elevation; the dish is designed so you can read the value from a scale when it’s mounted vertically – on our dish, in fact, the scale is marked in latitude, rather than elevation, so we set it to around 51; other dishes have the elevation marked on the scale. We’ll do the fine adjustments later.

All points

Now you need a compass, like the ones sold by outdoor stores – this one cost around £7. Rotate the numbered dial so that the azimuth value you found earlier is by the black marker. Then – making sure you’re not near large metal objects that could affect the reading – rotate the compass so that the arrow pointing north is between the two luminous dots.

Using a compass to point the dish correctly

A compass like this makes pointing the dish much simpler

When it is, the mark on the dial, and the luminous line at the end of the compass will show the direction in which you have to point your dish. Holding the compass below the arm of the dish may help you line it up.

Connecting

The dish is now roughly aligned, so now we can connect it to the receiver. You’ll need to drill through a wall or window frame to route the cable outside to the dish. When you’re drilling through the wall of a house, always remember to do it at an angle, so that the outside is lower than the inside; this stops water running into the hole. You can also get a cover to protect the outlet, too. Feed the cable through the hole from the inside. Cut off a short piece – around two meters long – and fit a connector to each end of it, and then fit a connector to the piece that leads back to the receiver.

A satellite meter

A cheap satellite meter will help you align the dish to the satellite - but won't tell you if it's the right satellite

Find the satellite

This is a satellite finder, and costs about £15; it makes a high pitched whistle when it’s receiving a signal from the LNB. Connect the receiver to the labelled socket, and use the short cable you made to link from the LNB to the other one. Turn on the receiver, and then adjust the knob on the satellite finder so the dial reads about 5. Now, slowly move the dish until you find the strongest signal.

When you’ve done that, hopefully everything should be lined up. Now you can go into the setup screens on the receiver, and try to tune it in. If all is well, the Freesat box will tell that it’s found the satellite, and then proceed to set itself up.

However, if it doesn’t, a Freesat receiver can be a bit fiddly; if you have a friend with a dish, you could plug your receiver into their dish first, and set it up. Then, plug it in to yours, and select a channel like BBC1, and as well as the indication from the meter, you’ll also see the picture appear on the TV screen.

What if I can’t tune in?

If no channels are found, the dish is not aligned correctly, so go back and check everything carefully. Positioning is crucial – budget satellite finders like the one we used will find any satellite, not just Astra 2, so if you’re a long way off, you could be pointing at a different one – there’s a satellite at 23.5, for example, too. More expensive meters will confirm the name of the satellite on the display, but since you’ll probably only be doing this once, I don’t think it’s worth spending the extra cash.

This may all seem like a chore, but as long as you’re careful, it’s actually surprisingly easy to align the dish.

After you’ve finished, remember to make sure all the bolts are tightly done up – without nudging the dish as you do so – so that it can’t be blown out of alignment by the wind.