Lifestyles in Retirement: Cable TV Troubleshooting
I’ve blogged before about how do-it-yourself home maintenance can accelerate your goal of financial independence. (See the related posts below.) Unfortunately, sometimes you have to put down your tools and seek professional help. My spouse watches a lot of HGTV and we spend a lot of time on DIY websites, but I’m weak on TV & telephone infrastructure.
Our cable TV choices in Hawaii (to put it politely) suck. We live in a cul-de-sac at the very far end of a long string of hundreds of cable customers, so we get the weakest remnants of the signal. We’re also at the bottom of a hill, and all the rainwater flows past our property into the storm drain. We use two TiVo Series 2 digital video recorders (with lifetime subscriptions) that work well with analog cable, not so well with satellite or digital cable.
When we moved into this house 13 years ago, we fell into a familiar pattern. My spouse would be watching TV (Oceanic Time Warner Cable analog service) and I’d be geeking away on the computer (RoadRunner). The signal would start to splutter. First I’d have trouble with downloads, and then she’d have trouble with static on the higher channels. Eventually, conditions would deteriorate to the point where I wouldn’t be able to get online and she’d barely be able to watch any of the channels.
After a year or two we noticed that Hawaii’s winter rains were correlated with this problem. When it really rained hard, or when it drizzled steadily for several days, we’d start to lose service.
The cable company’s customer service staff was never sympathetic. Long hold times were common and the script’s questions were barely above a fifth-grade level:
- “Is your computer turned on?”
- “Is your modem turned on?”
- “Is your TV turned on?”
- “Is your cable box turned on?”
Then I’d get the suggestion that would really fire me up: “I’m sorry, sir, but we have no other complaints in your area. Maybe you should check with your neighbors, because the problem seems to be in your house.”
People used to wonder what we early retirees do all day. As a nuclear-trained submariner, I have graduate degrees in persistence & tenacity. I’d stay on the phone with the customer “service” people for up to an hour, patiently and politely working up through several levels of supervisors (with progressively more annoying questions) until they’d send out a tech. I’m sure the cable company made a little note in my file, because subsequent calls would be greeted with the attitude of “Oh, it’s you again…”
The techs were pretty good (compared to the customer service staff) but their job seemed to be to do as little work as they could get away with, and as quickly as possible. For the first couple of years this consisted of replacing cable connectors at the house and installing a small RF amplifier. Eventually one of them traced a signal loss to the street box in the sidewalk, which was full of water after the last rainstorm. He replaced a connector there, but that improvement only lasted another couple of rainstorms.
After several years of phone calls every few months, Oceanic Cable and I burned out on each other. The techs claimed there wasn’t much else they could do. After the connector replacement the cable signal never got really bad again, but it was never very good. My phone calls were met with stonewalling: “We’ve done everything we can” and upselling: “Would you like to upgrade to our digital service?” In 2004 we gave up on RoadRunner and went with DSL from Hawaiian Telcom. We kept the analog cable service because it was barely good enough, but every rainstorm we’d lose signal quality for the day– until things dried out.
We eventually decided that this was as good as it was going to get. I don’t watch much TV, and apparently my spouse was willing to put up with substandard cable instead of no cable. This standoff continued for over eight more years.
A couple of months ago we had a torrential downpour and the cable signal suffered its usual decline. However, four days later it was still full of static, so we finally started troubleshooting. We’ve accumulated a huge supply of co-axial cable after two decades of military moves, so we connected a cable directly from the cable company’s service connection (outside our garage door), dragged the cable through the house, and plugged it directly into our DVR. The signal was a little better (so our cables in our walls were losing a little signal strength) but still not good enough to watch. I plugged in another RF amplifier and the signal got a little better, but it took 14 db to get from “no signal” to “barely viewable”. 14 db is a lot of signal amplification, so we knew we had a real problem this time.
Next morning we called the cable company as soon as they opened for business. After eight years I had to start all over again. I endured the usual interrogation to establish that I’m not an idiot, and that nobody else in our neighborhood had complained. I told them that our cable box in the street was full of water. They agreed that was a problem, so they’d be able to send someone out during the afternoon of the next day. We volleyed that negotiation back & forth for a few more rounds and decided that they’d call us if they had an opening later that day. When you’re retired, you can spend all day waiting at home for the cable guy.
The tech finally showed up at 3 PM and agreed that our service connection at the garage looked a little old. He understood that we were at the end of the string and might need a little more signal strength than the usual cable customer. Then he opened the street box in the sidewalk and saw that the ground was still damp (four days after the last rain). He unscrewed the cable from the connector box, and water dripped out. (Cable boxes aren’t supposed to drip anything, let alone water.) He saw that the coax cable’s center wire was actually rusted, so he cut off a few inches of the cable and tried to put on a new connector. (Just like all the other times.) However, the 23-year-old cable was so brittle that he couldn’t get a good fit. When he went to the garage service box to fix that connector, he couldn’t get a good connection there either. He was almost out of cable slack, and fine beads of sweat were beginning to pop out on his forehead, so he decided to replace that whole 50-foot stretch of cable.
He tried to stick a fish wire down the conduit between the street box and the garage service box, but the fish kept getting stuck. He called for backup tech support, and a few minutes later a second truck showed up. They squirted a few pints of soapy lubricant down into the cable conduit, added several gallons of water from our garden hose (flooding the street box again), and were finally able to move the old cable. Then they pulled over 60 feet of shiny new coax cable through the conduit (under the sidewalk, under our driveway, and up to the garage) and put on new connectors.
Meanwhile, a third truck showed up to help. That tech went to the street box and checked the neighborhood cable’s signal strength to the connector that had been dripping water. After a few choice four-letter words, he unscrewed the bolts on the connector housing and pulled it open. Water poured out, and it looked as though they’d finally identified the root cause of the last decade of problems.
You don’t have to be a submariner or an engineer to recognize what water has done to these electronics. Believe it or not, the filtering circuitry had still managed to let through some signal over the years– until it turned into a solid block of rust.
The techs used an impressive power tool to cut the cable and put on a new connector. At this point, I was really glad I’d sought professional help, because I wouldn’t even have wanted to try to fish in a new cable.
Just by replacing the connector in the street box they gained 18 db of signal strength. They guessed that the new cable from the street box to the service connection was another 3-6 db improvement. I unplugged our 14 db amplifier and reconnected the regular house cable to the DVR.
It’s amazing. No static anywhere. All the channels are totally clear. The coax cable in our house’s walls may be old & brittle, but there’s more than enough signal strength to handle it. It’s amazing what crappy service (both cable signal and customer support) we’d become resigned to during all those years of frustration.
We’re still at the end of a long string of customers, but we seem to have plenty of power. The seals on the new box should last for at least five years, and now I know what to watch for. I’m even considering going back to RoadRunner. If the signal is this good we could ditch our Hawaiian Telcom landline and go to digital phone service. Our cable bill is “only” $70/month, and our combined telephone landline/DSL bill is “only” another $55/month, but now that we have good cable again it’s time to shop around.
Maybe I need to get out my 100-foot roll of RJ-11 phone wiring and start troubleshooting our DSL signal too. And if HGTV ever moves to Hulu (or Netflix?) then we might be done with cable TV.