Ex-TV Service Installer Explains It All, Tells You How to Fight Back

Consumerist TaterTom explains the process behind Television Service Installation, and gives us a few great ways to make sure your dollar is going somewhere well deserved. You rock, Tatertom. His in-depth letter after the jump.

Hi guys,
I’ve seen an increasing number of people hopping on the “let’s jerk around the Satellite/Cable providers” bandwagon on your site, and others, and I don’t believe the subject is shown in a correct light much of the time. Specifically, here, I’m talking about your recent article, http://consumerist.com/5119510/directtvs-free-professional-installation-neither-professional-nor-free#c ,

You can see some of my comments, [I'm tatertom] posted as replies to other’s. Don’t take this to mean I am endorsing providers’ behavior such as hanging up on customers, rudeness of any sort, or charging for installed systems that don’t work correctly. Those are exactly the types of things that should be frowned upon, and one of many reasons I enjoy your site. Bash that stuff until no end, please.

I have over five years in low-voltage electrical installs, including previous employment by ATT Broadband, MediaOne, Comcast [this was actually one job, but that's not helping my case here], as well as a contracting company for Dish Network AND DirecTV. As I visit friends houses, and even my own personal customers’ homes [for a different purpose], I notice bad installations all over the place. There is no excuse for this type of behavior. I’m talking about wires ran over carpet. Wires through external walls with no sealant to keep bugs and water outside. Wires not secured neatly anywhere inside or outside, with the exception of behind the TV set and/or modem and/or telephone. The worst thing ever, and unfortunately the most prevalent, is when an installer doesn’t crimp/compress/physically attach the fittings on the end of the wire. It’s just plain absurd. I speculate this is usually a satellite installer, whom buys his own tools and supplies, and either purchases or steals equipment he doesn’t have the capacity to install. This could use expansion:

There are two basic types of fitting for coax cabling intended for television signal, crimp [old] and compression/snap’n’seal.

Crimped connectors are exactly what they sound like. The installer strips the wire the same way as with any other fitting, even using the same tool to do so. The fitting is slid on the end of the cable, and secured there by means of pressing the outer shell of the wire-side of the fitting inward from all directions, resulting in a hexagonal shape. Easy, right? I think so, and don’t understand how they’re rarely done right.

The not-so-recent solution is the compression or snap’n’seal type fitting, these are subtly different, but work the same way, often with the same tool [different tool than the crimp type].
The installer strips the wire the same way, with the same tool as he would a crimp fitting, and slides the fitting on the same exact way, but the fitting itself doesn’t collapse the same way. Instead, the wire-side metal or plastic ring is slid over a plastic bushing [usually black] that squeezes into the cable jacket, also making this type of connector water-tight. I won’t mention the devices you can build with previously-emptied cables and thrown out splitters and such.

Back to the article. It was stated that the installer told the customer there was to be a charge of $250. This seems rather high, indeed, but this is NEGOTIABLE. Here’s some inside info from a former contractor:
The ‘free pro install’ gives you a great deal of free stuff, and the installer must almost always offer a way to install it for free. That in no way means that it will be aesthetically pleasing. If you live in an apartment, you can almost always thank the apartment complexes’ own regulations for additional charges. They don’t want external holes drilled. They don’t want people in the attic/crawlspace. They don’t want you to interfere with their pricey cable tv pre-install. Let’s be clear. Apartments are a royal pain in the ass for a satellite installer. Sometimes, even if given permission by the complex, offered extra money for equipment/labor, and bribed with pizza, beer, and something to put in your illicit, yet inventive device fashioned out of old cable parts, it just can’t happen. That tree, the building itself, raw distance involved, and other factors make it flat-out annoying, because no install = no money for the installer.
Different companies differ in how they pay their contractors/employees, but for me, installing both satellite systems, the deal was simple:
$25 for the dish [it's perceived as $50 for the first receiver, zero for the dish sometimes]
$25 for each receiver
you negotiate ‘custom’ work with the customer, and keep every penny of it.

Cable companies often work completely different. An employee is paid hourly. A contractor is paid per piece, incremented right down to putting a new fitting on. We’re focusing on the cable contractor here, which I’ve also been. There are things the customer pays for, and things they don’t. For instance, running the line from street to house is almost always free for the customer, yet the installer makes money on that, and any additional work necessary to perform that run, usually to where your power hooks up. Once inside the house, there is usually a one-time $20 or so fee for each additional line installed. This includes an outlet on the inside of an exterior-facing wall, and the wire running through the wall to the outside, down first [to let water drip away from the hole, which should be sealed in all instances] then up to the eve of the house, and around to the ground block [main junction, again, usually near power]. That is unsightly. The alternative is to use additional professional skills to run the wires through the attic or crawlspace, and ‘fishing’ the wall. The price for this type of install usually STARTS at $25. If ever I had to fish two walls to run one line, I have always charged two wallfishes. You can see the installation charges starting to run high. Apartments usually encounter $10 and up carpet fishes, overpriced flat-lines [designed poorly to install in a window or door jamb where drilling is not allowed or not an option], and even a barrage of filters, diplexors, combiners, amplifiers, the list goes on.
This stuff just isn’t that darn simple, that’s why the pros are paid and TRAINED to install this stuff. Generally speaking, you just don’t know what it involves, or how to do most of it properly. That in no way means that the particular installer that comes to your home has the same level of proficiency as I do. If you’ve read this admittedly long email from the start, I completely understand the state of many installers’ skills, and they are not satisfactory. There’s good ones and bad ones, and you’ll never know without letting the man/woman work, unfortunately.

Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken to cover yourself:
1. Don’t let a door-to-door salesman sell you these services. You can get the same deal by taking the flyer and calling the local install or provider’s company.
2. When the installer arrives, get all their info. This includes their first and last name, their tech id number, YOUR information, including name, phone, address, and services ordered, and what company pays them. If they are reluctant to give you any of that information, close the door in their face. You do have the right to be rude to someone who is being shady, but wants you to let them in your house.
3. Have your friendly handyman acquaintance present to inspect their work before you sign anything.
4. Read everything you sign
5. Follow up with a call to the provider. Ask them specifically to walk you through how to check that you are receiving your full package by viewing a channel from each package ordered, and if it’s satellite, a portion of each transponder [it pretty much just means each satellite you need to receive signal from]. You can usually ask for a different technician to come inspect the prior’s work, at no cost, and any reputable provider or contracting company will send a manager or supervisor of some sort out for such an inspection at your request.
6. If these steps didn’t work to your satisfaction, there are always consumerist’s suggested methods, like my favorite, the EECB.

Now, here’s how you can check your service, one provider at a time, starting with cable.
Look at all [analog, aka old style] channels numbered 13 and down. If you see any ‘ghost’ images, ‘herringbone’ patterns, fuzziness/graininess, or bars in the screen. The clarity is a little subjective, and you can’t be too critical if you own a 1000″ tv here. But the other interferences are always a problem that can be fixed. Wait, I lied. Your vcr or tv may actually just be that cheap. The described interferences [with the exception of fuzziness or a HORIZONTAL bar] usually come from what’s called ingress. This means the local tv stations broadcasting over the air do so at the same frequencies as these certain channels, and if it’s bad enough, you will see the locally broadcasted channel better than the cable one that’s supposed to be there. Sometimes simply skipping the vcr will correct this. If you live in a place where there are local stations nearby, the problem may not be correctable by the provider, as it is happening in your equipment that you purchased elsewhere. Usually, the service tech can show you this with a portable tv they carry in their vehicle, which is better shielded. If this doesn’t apply to you, or all the tv’s do the same interference on the same channels, THEY likely can fix the problem. Usually the service techs are more advanced than the installers, but there are always exceptions.

Now, to test satellite. Navigate through the menus of the receiver until you find a section labeled ‘signal strength’ usually under installation. Refer to the manual you should have been provided. The two most common transponders are 110 and 119, depending on if you have HD, there may be more, or they may be completely different. Their signal strength can be determined good, if it says ‘good’ or the bar is green. Anything else, consult the manual to be sure. On the same screen as the test [usually], there is also an option something like ‘check switch.’ This tests that the little knobby thing[s] on the arm of the dish is working properly. You should also be able to consult the manual for a description of the results.

I want to reiterate that there are both good and bad techs working for all of these companies. When it comes to your services, especially digital and HD services, your mileage should NOT vary [much]. If you have the same specs on your tv as your friend, and the same channel from the same provider looks better on one of the tv’s, the other’s installation is likely to blame. Keep in mind, however long this message is, there are STILL other factors that can affect your service quality.

Knowledge is power. Not to mention, if I can help a dissatisfied friend [i.e. fellow consumerist reader] save some face with some simple information that I posses, than I will do so ASAP. If there are any proper, honest, knowledgeable technicians reading posts like the one I am referring to, they are cringing at the thought of meeting under-knowledged customers throwing fits about portions of a job done properly, such as negotiating for custom work. If I were to negotiate a price to sell you my technical writing services for this very message, I would undoubtedly start higher than I believe it is worth. That’s how negotiating works.

Happy consumering,

tatertom