Dec 292017
Build your own satellite system for pennys.

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Cheap Satellite Systems

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The Scroungers Guide to Satellite TV
Copyright 1992, The Birdwatcher's Report

One of the most common misconceptions is that satellite TV is a rich
person's hobby. Nothing is further from the truth. While it IS possible to
spend upwards of $4,000 for an installed system with all the carillions and
caliopes, it is also possible to set up and install a very nice near state
of the art system for UNDER $500 that will provide perfect reception of all
domestic satellites. Such a low cost setup will give countless hours of
enjoyment, exploration and entertainment.

Just how cheaply can it be done? Well, my first system cost a total of $40.
Some of my friends say I was just lucky, but LUCK is what you MAKE it. I
know several other people who have put together their systems for under
$100. Granted for this low cost, you don't get a fully automated system, but
we scroungers don't mind turning a few extra knobs and tweeking an extra
button or two to peak up the reception on our favorite audio or video

This scroungers guide will give you some pointers and get you off in the
right direction towards setting up your own low cost satellite installation.
If you are successful, and I think you will be, I'd like you to write me and
let me know what components you got and how they work. One thing for sure.
Once you start pulling stuff from the sky, you will never be able to go back
to the limited offerings of over the air and cable TV and radio.

I highly recommend reading the FAQ list (Send me EMAIL if you can't find it)
for a full discussion of terms and components of a home satellite system.

There are two approaches we will discuss. 1) Obtaining a complete system
and 2) Building your system from Mix and Match components. There are
advantages to both approaches, and the method you go with will be determined
in part by your own fortunes and creativity.

We are obviously talking about USED equipment here. That is the secret to
doing it on the cheap. With the constant improvement in all areas of
electronic technology, older satellite equipment is readilly available, and
much of it at giveaway prices. Indeed, it is very easy to obtain
first-generation equipment for free, as "nobody" wants this old stuff. Of
course, "nobodies" like you and me will gladly snarf up this old stuff, in
much the same way a new shortwave listener will grab and enjoy reception
from an old vacuum tube communications receiver. No, don't worry, since the
home satellite industry is only about 10 years old, you aren't going to have
something with 6AQ5's glowing on your shelf.

Let's look at the individual components, with the idea of the Mix 'n Match
system. While you might luck out and be able to walk home with a complete
system, understanding all the individual components will come in handy when
you begin to upgrade your system. Compatability of components is important,
and depending on the age of what you find, you will want to make sure it will
all play together.


The dish itself is perhaps the single hardest component to acquire cheaply.
However, they ARE out there. Here are some pointers: You will want at least
a 10 foot dish. You will probably find a few 6 footers in the cheap/freebie
market. Grab them for experimentation, but your FIRST system should be a 10
footer or better. Now where to look? I got my 10 footer from a satellite
dealer who had it laying out behind his shop. It was a mess. He had taken
it in as salvage when he replaced it with a new system. His customer's dish
was destroyed by a windstorm, and insurance covered the replacement. The old
one was so mangled the insurance company did not want it. But *I* did, and I
managed to walk off with it at no charge. After a lot of bending and using
wire to sew the torn panels back together, and using a home made cardboard
guide to maintain the parabolic curve, I had a reasonable facsimile of a
satellite dish, complete with a rusty but servicable polar mount.

So the first places you want to hit are the satellite dealers. Not the ones
with big showrooms that only want to sell the high dollar systems, but the
one man shops. Make friends with a technician who installs systems if you
can. A person like this will have access to TONS of old satellite equipment,
most of which is just taking up space, and can be had for a song. You would
be amazed at the amount of older technology stuff laying about.

Other places to look for used dishes include abandoned commercial property.
Many businesses made use of satellite equipment for corporate communications
and training. While the receiving equipment may be gone, quite often the old
dishes remain, often in disrepair, but servicable. If you find one, find out
who owns the building, and offer to remove the dish at no charge. You might
have to pay something, but you should be able to bargain here. In no case
should you pay more than $100 for a used dish unless it is in MARVELOUS and
PRISTINE shape, or is a 16 footer or larger... You can get a brand new dish
in the $300 to $400 price range, so knowing this, you should be able to

The dish is the one component you will want to obtain locally. Or at least
within driving distance. You will want to inspect a used dish yourself for
condition, and you also don't want to pay to have a used dish dismantled and
shipped to you. Once you have your dish (It took me quite a long time to
find mine, but it was worth it) and get it back into shape, you are ready to
assemble the rest of the components.


There are two locations of equipment in a satellite installation, the OUTSIDE
components at the dish, and the components inside your house. There is a
network of wires that connects it all together. Let us next consider the
rest of the outside components, and how we scrounge those.

The Polar Mount is the hardware that keeps the dish oriented properly to
track the satellites in their equatorial geostationary orbit. While these
satellites remain at fixed points overhead, there are more than 20 of them,
and you must move the dish in order to view them. This is accomplished by
the mount and actuator motor. The mount is installed on a 3 inch pipe, which
is sunk in concrete. The concrete was the only expense of my first system,
hence the4 $40 cost. All you need to do here is dig a hole, stick the pole
in the ground, make sure it is plumb vertical, and let the crete harden. The
dish/mount then goes on the pipe, and you install the actuator. Here when
mixing and matching, you must make sure of two things. Operating voltage,
and how the actuator communicates its position to the control unit in your
home. Older technology systems use a simple 10 turn potentiometer to
accomplish this task. If you are purchasing a scroungers special, this is
the type of system you will most likely obtain. They work fine. The pots
are either 10K or 1K, so make sure you get one that is compatable with the
position controller you will be using. Motor voltages vary from 24 to 50
volts. Matching is not totally critical here, but you should try to get as
close as possible. My first actuator had a 24 volt motor, and the controller
put out 45 volts. The result was a really FAST positioner. That arm
eventually died, not the motor but the internal nut which is made of plastic.
People like me who do a LOT of sky scanning will always want a spare actuator
arm on hand. Used arms can be had for between $20 and $50, especially the
older ones, since they are not compatable with the newer systems. Most good
satellite dealers have a stock of these older arms, and you should be able to
get one very reasonably, and perhaps the position controller as well.


The feedhorn is located at the focal point of the parabolic dish, and acts as
a "tuned funnel" which pipes the concentrated (but still miniscule) raw
signals to the LNA or LNB. Inside the feed there is a small DC motor and a
little flippy gizmo which changes the polarity of the incoming RF from
horizontal to vertical. This gizmo is called a POLAROTOR. Used feedhorns,
especially C-band-only ones are very inexpensive. You might have to clean
out leaves, twigs or a wasp nest, but this is all part of the fun. Expect to
pay between $10 and $30 for a used feed depending on condition. If you find
one with a bug nest in it, you should get that one for free (Wasps LOVE to
build nests in feedhorns). The feedhorn is a pretty universal component, and
has not changed much since the dawn of the home satellite industry.


The old first generation receivers used a LNA (Low Noise Amplifier) along
with an IF convertor located at the dish itself. The resulting 70 mHz signal
was sent down a co-ax cable to the receiver, and a tuning voltage sent back
along the same cable. This technology has been totally abandoned in the home
market in favor of LNB technology, which converts the satellite frequencies
(in the 3-4 GHz range) to a block of frequencies in the 950 to 1450 mhz

What this means is that there is a TON of old 70 mhz systems out there that
NOBODY wants. Receivers can be had for $20 to $35, and the matching LNA can
go for as little as $5. Again, you will not be getting state of the art at
this price. Noise temperature (a means of measuring sensitivity) will be in
the 65 degree range, which is crude, but which will work just fine on most of
the domestic satellites with a 10 foot dish. You won't want to use such a
system forever, but this is a great way to start.


On the used market, expect to pay around $30-$50 for an older style position
controller. You might be able to scrounge this for free from the back room
at a satellite dealer though. A wise dealer knows that you will be back for
more, and so will be glad to part with stuff he knows he will never be
able to sell. Here is the one area that you CAN build your own if you really
want to go crude. All you need is to build up a DC power supply at the
proper voltage to match your actuator arm, and use a DPDT switch to reverse
the voltage on the two drive wires. You need a momentary contact DPDT switch
with a neutral position. Flip it one way to scan east and one way to scan
west. Most electronic hobby types have all the components to build a
position controller sitting in their junk box. Now here is the neat trick:
To determine what satellite you are watching, you connect a digital VOM to
the lead that goes to the potientiometer in the actuator, and read the
resistance. Note these numbers and you can always go back to the same
satellite. Crude but workable. In practice, it is simpler to just scrounge
a REAL controller, but I imagine someone might want to build one up just to
say they did.


You will need the following cables to get the signal from the dish to your
receiver setup:

Coax for LNA or LNB - Should be RG-6
Power for Downconvertor and LNA if you have an older 70 MHz system
Power to actuator Arm (Two conductors)
Return position readout from actuator (Two conductors)
Power to polarotor (Two conductors)

While "All-in-one" cables are pretty cheap, I chose to make up my own cables
since I have a few miles of various wires and cables here, which I obtained
free when an electronics business closed up shop. My installation is not
pretty. I meant to tie and bundle all the cables, I really did. But I was
just in such a hurry to see if the system worked, that I just strung the
cables in semi random fashion. It worked so well I did not want to disturb
it once it all started playing. If you don't have access to such a stash of
cables, I would bite the bullet and get the new stuff. You will definately
want to use the absolute newest and best co-ax for the signal feed. Of
course you will also need the proper fittings and connectors.


As stated earlier, the older 70 MHz first generation receivers are basic
giveaway units. $35 is the top price you should expect to pay for one of
these. Some of them are pretty crude. My first receiver was a SAT TECH
R-5000, the most simple satellite receiver ever made. It had analogue
tuning, and you really did not know what transponder you were on. But it DID
tune the C band, and had baseband output (you will want this jack for
receiving additional audio channels). I got the receiver in trade for a
microphone. The microphone had a value of around $5, but I had gotten IT for
nothing several years before. I have seen this same type of receiver in
Shaun Kinney's Junk Boxes he sells for a couple bucks on his weekly show
(Shaun is a great source of old junk satellite stuff, and has a program on
Spacenet 1 twice a week)

You can have a LOT of fun with an old 70 MHz system. Indeed, with the proper
add ons, it can provide very servicable stereo audio reception and decent
viewing of all the major C band satellites. The best part is that this
equipment is available virtually free if you know where to look. (Sat
dealers, sat hobby folk, hamfests, etc.)

If you can, though, you will eventually want to get a receiver that uses the
current state of the art LNB 950-1450 technology (there are some older
receivers that use weird block frequencies, stay away from these as they are
not upgradable, stick with the standard block if possible, as it is easier to
upgrade). My first 950-1450 block receiver (and still my current one) cost
$100 used from my favorite used satellite equipment dealer...


The first thing you will want to add to an older system is a STEREO
PROCESSOR. This device is actually two FM receivers in one box that tunes
from 5 to 8 mhz, and has dual bandwidths. These are available from a variety
of sources (The sat dealers, and hobby traders) but the best deal we knew of
is at SHOP AT HOME, though they are no longer available from this dealer. It
is possible you might find one on the used market, or through another
dealer. The Janeil SP-2000 is a digital readout audio processor that
connects to the BASEBAND output of your satellite receiver and will give you
full stereo reception of not only TV feeds, but also a wide variety of stereo
audio services, as well as mono ones. These include the BBC world service
radio, and other international broadcasters, background music, major radio
stations from all over the country, network radio stations, talk shows, and
even reading services for the blind. While the Janiels are apparently just
about all gone, there were similar units made by Drake and others, and you do
run into them at swap meets. This device makes possible reception of wide
and narrow audio subcarriers with even the most primitive satellite receiver.


Another low priced add on that will give you hours of fun is a receiver for
SCPC (Single Channel Per Carrier). This will provide you with over 100
additional audio services of music, talk, radio networks and regional
stations, as well as a TON of sports audio. The cheapest SCPC scrounge we
know is to take a Radio Shack or similar TV AUDIO BAND RADIO (The Portavision
40 works great) and connect it to the 70mhz loop if your receiver has one, or
tie it into the 70 mhz line of an older 70 mhz system. Tune TV BAND #1 for
the SCPC audio which is found on G6, Channels 1-4 and F2, channels 1-3 among
other places. Total investment: $40.


While most new satellite receivers now receive the KU band (11-12 GH) the
older ones do not. HOWEVER, there IS a KU band convertor that does a
servicable job of adding this band to ANY C-BAND system that uses the 950 to
1450 block band. It is the UNIDEN UST-55, which is a matching component to
their older receivers, but will work with all C band units using the standard
block. You will need to add a KU band feed and a KU LNB. There are a few
used dual band feeds, but they are pretty scarce, so when it comes time to
convert to KU band, you might have to buy your first piece of new equipment,
namely the KU feed and KU LNB. These will run you just over $200 from a
reputable dealer. KU band is still not widely used, and is more for those
who enjoy wild feeds, educational programming, news, or NBC programming.
However, KU is growing, so the UST-55 would be a nice investment if you can
find one.


Use the local penny shopper paper

Our local shopper paper has satellite systems just about every week, complete
systems, dish, receiver and all, for between $200 and $500. But here, make
sure you know what you are buying. If it is an older first generation, 70
mHz LNA type system, the only component of real value is the dish itself. If
you don't see ads for used systems, try to place an ad of your own looking
for used satellite equipment. You might be surprised at the response you
will get. Many people got discouraged when scrambling began, and signed up
for cable rather than buy descramblers. Their satellite systems thus just
sit unused, waiting for someone to take them away. Such a system can be
had pretty cheaply.

Satellite Dealers in your area

Try and befriend a technician, and get into the SHOP. While the scrounger
will enjoy looking at all the shiny new stuff in the showroom, the real
treasures are in the back where the techie types hang out. Here you will
find the stuff that has been traded in, or salvaged, and can usually be had
very very cheaply.

Friends or relatives who have gone cable

You could very well have a relative or friend, or friend of a friend who
used to have a satellite system and then got cable when scrambling
started, or when cable finally came to their rural location. Here you can
sometimes get the system just for the taking, or for a couple hundred
dollars at the most. This is a good way to get a complete working system at
a very low price. Tell ALL your friends you are looking for a used system.
And tell them to ask THEIR friends for you. This method is surprisingly


Lots of satellite hobby folk are also ham radio operators, and hams trade
used equipment like kids swap baseball cards. DAYTON has dozens of people
selling used satellite stuff every year. Even my local ham swap meet had a
fellow selling sat receivers as low as $15 each! This is a real opportunity
IF you know what you are looking for. Here though it is Caveat Emptor.
What you get may not work, so don't spend the grocery money. However you
can also luck out and come home with a real treasure.

Over the air ham swap nets

Same deal as the hamfests, many local and regional ham radio nets trade for
equipment over the air, and occaisionally satellite gear is offered. And if
you have a ham license, it would not hurt to get into the group and let them
know you are looking for used satellite equipment.

Bank reposessions

Call the banks in your area and talk to a loan officer and find out if there
are any reposessed systems in their inventory. Here you will probably spend
more than our $500 target price, but you might also get a modern state of
the art system at a rock bottom price.

Morgan Engineering

Dan Morgan refurbishes receivers and other gear, and has used equipment at
reasonable prices, These are current technology receivers, and range from
$100 to $300. Dan also has other components to round out your scrounged
system, and loves to chat. He is one person I know who does not put down
the scrounger, but actively encourages them to pursue the hobby.

Morgan Engineering
119 W. Main Street
Rose City, MI 48654

Boresight/Greensheet Shaun Kinney

Shaun has a twice weekly show where he sells used satellite stuff. All of
it is sold "As-is" so caveat emptor... His prices are sometimes good, and
sometimes high depending on his mood. He is still worth a call if you know
exactly what you are looking for... He probably has it, especially if it is

Galaxy 6, Channel 23, 9PM Tuesday and 10PM Thursday Nights

Greensheet Address:

144 Station Road
North Branch, NJ 08876

Greensheet Phone Number:

(908) 707-1800

There are likely many other sources of used equipment, certainly within your
own region. The secret is to keep looking, and let all your friends and
relatives also know you are looking. Eventually someone, a friend of a
friend will know someone who has old satellite stuff laying around, and you
will be rewarded. I know of many folks who have built systems for next to
nothing, and so can you. It takes a bit of effort, but the results will be
worth it.


I recommend the Ken Reitz book: SATELLITE TV SOURCEBOOK which is an ideal
book for the beginner. It is written in plain English, and gives a good
background on the hobby, including how to install your dish system. This
book is available from the Radio Collection, Box 149, Briarcliff Mannor, NY

A bit of warning: The satellite hobby is an addictive one. With all the
programming you will find even with the cheapest scrounged system, you will
find there are not enough hours in a day to enjoy it all. And if you get
bitten by the Satellite DX bug, always looking for the new and the strange,
you could find virtually all your spare time spent at the controls of your
satellite system.

But that's the fun of it....

If you have any comments or additions to this article, or want to report your
own scrounged system, write me at the SIGNALS address or send EMAIL to
[email protected] and let me know YOUR scrounger story.

Keep Watching The Skies.................

Via AV-Sync (404) 320-6202
1200/2400/9600 HST/v.32/v.42

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