Sunday, May 2, 2010

Joy, Ambivalence, and the Quest for Rational Household Wiring

It all started when our HD TV began misbehaving.  A couple of years ago, Di and I bought a 32-inch Westinghouse LTV32w6HD LCD HD TV.  It's a fine TV, doing exactly what we'd hope a TV would do:  reliably display TV-signal content.  Or at least it did, for quite awhile.  But last year, it began having trouble displaying a stable picture.  The problem went away on its own, but returned again this year.  At first I thought the jitters might be related to a poor cable TV signal.  But I noticed that the problem appeared immediately, while the set was warming up, and also when trying to watch DVDs from our DVD player.

So last weekend, Di and I looked at HD TVs on the web site of a big-box electronics store, found a couple we thought we might like, and drove to the local outlet.  We chose a Sony Bravia KDL40EX400.  We brought the new set home, moved the Westinghouse downstairs pending disposal, and installed the Sony in its place in the family room.  I fired up the Sony, did an autoscan, and life was good.

Or so I thought.  But on closer examination, the Sony had missed several HD cable channels that the Westinghouse had found.  And occasionally, the few HD channels it did find were as jittery as the picture on the Westinghouse.

I began to suspect our home's TV cabling.  We'd had trouble with our cabling before, when we'd had the cable company install broadband service.  Much of the cable in our home was actually outside our home, run along the foundation and up the siding, from splitters near the point where utilities entered the house.  I knew splitters were evil, so I disconnected all the exterior splitters to give the best possible signal on the cable we would use for broadband service.  The cables off the exterior splitters all went to the bedrooms on the topmost level.  Since we never watched TV in bed, this was not a sacrifice.  We still had a cable signal to the two outlets we used, one in the basement and one in the family room.

But the cable installer told us the signal at the outlets was marginal for broadband, even after he cleaned up several issues with the cable plant leading up to the house.  He was sure that there were several splitters buried inside the drywall that were causing the poor signal.  He finally installed a splitter in the utility room, right after the point where the cable entered our home, and ran a new cable from the splitter to the cable modem.  That worked.  We had Internet service, we had a cable TV signal, all was well.

But now, I knew that our cable TV signal was marginal for HD service.  I had two choices:  Rewire the house, or try a cable amplifier.  Rewiring the house seemed like an expensive, laborious process, and would probably require punching several holes in the drywall throughout the house, and then drywall patching and painting.  An amplifier seemed like a much more reasonable solution--if it worked.

A little googling led me to the Radio Shack 15-2505 Bidirectional Cable TV Amplifier.  At $32.99, it would be much cheaper and easier than rewiring.  I went down to the local Radio Shack and bought one, and bought a couple of probably overpriced patch cables and a power strip.  I drove home, went down to the utility room, plugged in the power strip and the amp, ran the patch cables, and presto!  We had HD TV on the Sony.  I did another autoscan.  The Sony picked up all the HD channels and had a great picture.  Success!

On a hunch, I plugged in the Westinghouse in the basement and turned it on.  The jitters were gone!  My best guess is that the poor signal affects the Westinghouse right at power-on, even if the input source is set to something other than the cable input.  This makes the Westinghouse extremely sensitive to signal quality.  But with a good signal, no problem.

Time to sit back, pop a cold one, and bask in contentment from a job well down.  But...  My sysadmin ethos would not let me relax.  Not yet.  Not with a rat's nest of cable and an amp and power strip sitting loose on a shelf down in the utility room.  Long had the technophile half of me dreamed of some kind of elegant structured home wiring system--a beautiful home-run phone-cable TV-data plant centered around a panel in the utility room that would house some kind of phone distribution center, an Ethernet switch, and a cable TV amplified splitter.  I'd fantasized about how to pull cable into various hard-to-get-at locations around the house, without breaking out the drywall.  I'd spent lost hours googling for equipment, staring at the structured wiring center at a home improvement store, doodling cable runs on pieces of scrap paper.  Yes--I admit it.  I am a geek.

Here was an opportunity to do something along these lines, to clean up the mess in the utility room and create some tiny beginning, some small seed, of a sensible home wiring system.  I grabbed the step ladder and a tape measure, headed downstairs to cries of "What are you up to?" from Di, took a few measurements, and headed out.  First stop:  Nagle Lumber, where I found a scrap of plywood just the right size.  I bought some other items I needed--screws and some plastic cable clips--and headed home.  Down to the basement again, and an hour or so later, I had the power strip and amplifier mounted on screws from the plywood bolted to the wall.

The patch cables hung from plastic clips.


At last!  Time to sit back and enjoy the fruits.  But a couple things about this adventure diminished my contentment.  For one thing, I like to spend money at locally owned businesses, but for various reasons, Di and I had bought our Sony at a big-box store--we hadn't even looked at a local appliance store.  Slager's is the only one that comes to mind.  I did go to Nagle's, a locally owned home improvement store.  But that was depressing--it sure looks like Nagle's is not getting much traffic.

I'd tried placing the cable amp near the TV, in hopes that if it worked, I could put the power brick for the amp on the power strip for our home entertainment center.  We like to turn the power strip off when no one is using any of the audio/video equipment, to eliminate phantom loads.  The amp doesn't need to draw current when no one is watching TV.  But putting the amp near the TV did not produce a usable signal.  For the best signal, the amp needs to be placed before the splitters.  This means the amp will be on all the time, even when the TVs are off.

Finally, all my effort produced a better TV signal.  But is that necessarily a good thing?  Now all the reality TV shows, the political mud fests, the stupid pet tricks--all that is now available to me in HD.  Great.  Okay, I do get a beautiful HD picture on our PBS channels, too.

I'm reminded of a passage from Shikasta, by Doris Lessing.  She describes a typical middle-class mother in a developed country going about her daily routine, shopping for groceries and making a meal--but unlike mothers in ages past, her satisfaction in providing for her family is tinged with doubt and anxiety.  She knows that maybe the food she's serving her family really isn't all that good for them, maybe it's laden with pesticides, maybe it's tainted, maybe it was produced in a manner that contributes to the destruction of the ecosystem.

Oh, but, hey!  Look at that!  Madonna is on The Marriage Ref!  Honey, could you get me another brewski?


KMG said...

fabulous idea! Unpluggd also has good ideas about what to do with all those cables:

And I have no friends who aren't geeks in some fashion :)

Karl Boyken said...

Thanks for the link! I like the vine idea.