My Fifth-Wheel RV

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Talk to any RV-er about what they love best about getting out and about and they'll probably tell you that they enjoy the care-free life away from everything that's going on in the world. Then ask them if they have TV and wi-fi in their rig and they'll say "Oh, sure. Can't live without it!" In fact, you're likely to find TVs in the average rig's living room, bedroom and even outside.

Just because we might want to get away from it all, it doesn't necessarily mean that we want to get away from it ALL. Even though campers may be boondocking somewhere far away from the crowd, many still want their TV. Luckily there are several ways available: (a) off-air antenna, (b) cable, and (c) satellite. Here we discuss the advantages, disadvantages and issues associated with each.

So you can follow along, I have provided a wiring diagram of the tv, cable and satellite systems on our own rig. Yours will likely differ, but the idea is still the same.


Off-air reception is obviously the most common way to capture TV signals. TV can be found almost everywhere except in remote areas. However, unless you are located somewhere close to a rather large city, your channel selection may be limited and your reception could be somewhat poor. The moral is that if you are a TV buff and travel a lot, you might not want to rely on off-air TV signals.

Our rig's TV is powered by a "Winegard RV-7042 Wall Plate / Power Supply - White for non-amplified antennas". See here for a description on Amazon. This device is a wall-mounted plate that has a little button to toggle TV input between off-air and cable. The plate also has a 12v plug outlet that can handle up to 8A current. Winegard currently represents the standard for RV television technology.

[click to enlarge]
-- powered vs unpowered
-- digital vs analog
-- our new rooftop antenna
-- signal boosters - didn't work for us


The most obvious alternative to off-air TV is cable. Most commercial campgrounds offer cable, but some don't. State parks, for example, are notorious for not offering full hookups, and this often includes lack of cable. If a campground does offer cable, some will offer digital as well as analog channels, but some will only have analog.

Click here for a diagram of the TV and cable wiring for our own fifth-wheel. Most rigs should be similar if not identical.

-- if fuzzy, toggle black button
[click to enlarge]


The third alternative, satellite reception, is not currently that popular, for several reasons. First, satellite is expensive; you have to pay for the service itself, and then you have to pay for satellite dishes require to receive the service. Many people who use satellite in their rigs do so because they already have the service at home. In such cases, they either take their receiver boxes with them when they hit the road, and some like myself have dedicated boxes in their rig.

We have DirecTV, and we love it. We are tv junkies, and feed ravenously on the daily news. We also love the capability to have shows and movies automatically recorded while we are away enjoying the area. Having DTV in our rig is not much more expensive since we already have the service at home. We don't subscribe to the more expensive packages such as sports, so our subscription fees are more limited than they would otherwise be.

There are basically two types of satellite dish: automatic and manual. Manual dishes are the kind you sit on the ground outside your rig, and involves several steps to set up. First, you put the dish on the ground and put a heavy weight on the base to keep the wind from blowing it around. Next, you run a cable from your rig out to the dish. Finally, you point the dish in the direction where you suspect the satellites may be living. This is a trial-and-error intensive procedure, and generally involves yelling to someone in the rig with things like "Is that better or worse?" If and when you do get a good signal, you then live in constant fear that something or someone will brush up against the dish and totally mess things up!

Automatic dishes, usually permanently mounted on the roof of your rig, are so named because they will automatically search for satellite signals all by themselves. You don't have to manually point them towards suspected satellite locations and they eliminate the frustrating trial and error procedures associated with manual dishes.

[click to enlarge]
-- DTV doesn't make or sell dishes - Slimline
-- other dishes

We made the decision early on to have a rooftop dish installed on our rig. Although it was quite pricy (around $1500 at the time) it has turned out to be a blessing. Instead of trying to yell back and forth to get a ground mounted dish homed in on the satellites, we just press a button and the rooftop unit automatically searches for three DTV satellites.

One big negative of satellite services is obstructed views of the satellites themselves. Many campgrounds are heavily wooded; after all, that's the point of camping, right? Depending on the particular site you occupy you may or may not be able to get satellite service. If watching tv is more important to you than the scenery, be sure to ask for an open site when making your reservation. Using Google Earth will often show you which sites are better for satellite reception.

Rain presents another obstacle to satellite reception. While a light rain usually will not interfere with service, heavy rains can block the signal. And we've noticed that heavy rains often occur at the most inopportune times.

I like to use Earth to view any campground before reserving. That will show you some things you otherwise won't know, such as how crowded the campground typically is, how close together the units are, where lakes and streams are located, how "treey" the area is, and so on. Make Google and Google Earth your friend!

If you use DirecTV at home and intend to take the receiver boxes with you when you travel, be sure that your rig's dish is compatible with your home boxes. There is a difference between SWM (Single-wire module) and non-SWM, and one will not work with the other. We found this out later on when we upgraded our home DTV to whole-home service, which uses a newer SWM technology. Unfortunately, our rooftop dish is the older non-SWM variant, and as a result we couldn't use our home boxes with the rig's antenna. So we had to buy separate boxes for the rig. These were one-time purchases but we do have to add the additional boxes to our bill, which yields more monthly expense. Note that Slimline does have equipment to convert older non-SWM dish signals to SWM, but I didn't elect to go that route.

I recommend that if you want DTV in your rig, get the newer SWM technology and, if necessary, update your home boxes and antenna accordingly.

If you plan a trip to the Canadian Maritimes and you have DTV, the service worked just fine while in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI, but it was completely non-existent while in Newfoundland. Something worth noting is that you can rent a satellite dish and service from Bell while in Canada. I was not aware of this possibility, and probably would have taken advantage of it if I had known before we left on the trip.

One final suggestion. If you have satellite receivers in your home as well as in your rig, and plan to be away for more than a month, you can turn off service to the home receivers while you are gone to same money. Likewise, turn off service to the ones in the rig when you are not away.

-- hard-wired cables

Other alternatives

We are lucky to live in the age of internet and smart phones. While we were in Newfoundland, where there was zero DTV satellite reception and precious little off-air reception, we were able to fall back to our Samsung Galaxy phone to get our favorite TV shows. We could either watch stuff directly on the phone or use the phone's USB connection to watch on the computer. The neatest thing was to use the phone's hotspot service to drive our DVR's Netflix connection. So as long as we had good phone service, we had TV.

One problem we encountered early had to do with our phone plan. I blame myself, in that I didn't think ahead enough to ensure that we had a satisfactory phone plan before we got to Canada. By using the phone's hotspot we quickly hit our plan's data maximum, and the internet speeds where also throttled severely. By the time I found out that I could get their Premium Unlimited plan which provides unlimited voice, text and high speed data, it was too late. So if you intend to go to Newfoundland, you may want to look into such a plan before you go.

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