Two dishes, one scrap yard and no pole

It all started with a Reddit post. A buddy of mine sent me a message linking to a thread where someone was looking for a 1+ meter satellite dish to build what sounded like a laser cannon. While I’m not into death rays, I do enjoy vacuuming up satellite signals, and I was in the market for a new dish to replace my aging mesh dish which had seen better days. And so it was that on a Tuesday afternoon I found myself exchanging messages with two C-Band dish owners eager to part ways with their possession.

I know from past experience that moving these kinds of dishes is difficult work and that I would need at least a couple of people to help, so I managed to bribe a couple of friends with a free lunch and arranged pickup for both dishes the following Saturday.

I don’t own a truck, but I am a member of a local carshare, which does have trucks available. The only catch was that the closest one was downtown, around 11km from where I live and so it was that I started my weekend even earlier with a bus ride to pick up the vehicle, only to have to drive all the way back out of town to get the dishes. Slightly inconvenient, but it was what it was and I’m usually up and about early in the morning anyway.

By this point I had pictures of at least one of the dishes, and from the images I suspected it did not include a mounting pole. As my existing dish was already a jury-rigged setup as it was, I figured now was the time to try and acquire a suitable steel pipe for mounting the new dish. Since I had a few spare hours, my roommate and I headed out to a local scrap-yard to see what they had in the way of pipe.

As it turned out, luck was not on my side and the scrap yard doesn’t sell to the public. I could, as a commercial customer, buy a random truckload of scrap – but there was no guarantee what I’d be getting so that was off the table. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to bring along a pile of old copper wire which I was able to sell, so at least the trip wasn’t a total loss. I was still down one pole though.

The fiberglass dish

I had arranged to pick up the first dish around noon, so just before 11:30 my buddy and I piled into the truck to take the first quick trip to our other buddy’s place. Upon our arrival we faced our first real challenge – how to fit everyone in the truck!

We were driving a Chevrolet Colorado which, on paper, seats 4. So far so good, but the reality is that it comfortably seated two, and allowed you to probably cram a couple of children in the back! Definitely not accommodating for 3 gully grown adults. I slid my seat as far forward as was comfortable, while still being able to operate the vehicle and we crammed our friend in the seat immediately behind me. I don’t think he was terribly impressed. Fortunately the drive was short, and within 10 minutes we found ourselves wondering just when we had left the city as we were now fully engulfed in farm country without so much as a blink of an eye.

My hometown, the District of Saanich is truly unique. The municipality spans just over 100 square kilometers, but it has everything. Within minutes you can drive from a downtown core, through the suburbs and into rural communities complete with farms, horses and livestock. Our first satellite trip had taken us to a totally new section of the city so if nothing else, at least I was getting my sightseeing in.

We pulled into the driveway right on time, and began extracting ourselves from the vehicle. We were quickly greeted by our host, who showed us to the dish in the back-yard.

The good news was, the dish was already mostly disassembled; there would be no digging up poles or breaking through decades old rust today! The bad news was, because the dish was already mostly disassembled, it didn’t come with a pole or arms to support the feedhorn. When I inquired, the owner shrugged and said the dish came with the house and was already in it’s current state when he bought the place some 4 years back and he was happy to just leave in place. Damn! Strike two on the pole.

The dish itself is a 10′ fiberglass deal and in fairly good condition. There were some cracks in the fiberglass exterior, but the dish itself was intact and most importantly had retained it’s shape. One of the biggest problems with these old dishes is when they become warped, which greatly reduces their ability to receive broadcasts. I made the call to proceed with the pickup and the four of us each grabbed a corner and managed to drag the thing, all 200+ pounds of steel and fiberglass, back to the vehicle.

After more then a little effort the four of us managed to massage the dish into the back of the truck and strap it down. Because the dish is one solid piece, there really isn’t what I would describe as a ‘good’ way of transporting the thing. We ended up pushing it as far towards the cab as it would go, and as far towards one side of the bed. The other side we left resting on the wall of the truck bed, and tied it down tight as we could. The thing looked sketchy as hell, but it was secure and since the trip was only about 6km we decided to get going before the roads got too busy.

It looks sketchy but it was actually reasonably secure

What followed was one of the most nerve-wrecking drives of my life. And that’s saying something considering the drive I took out to Bradian, BC. Even though I knew the dish was secure, I was still massively freaked out by driving around with such a large object and every single bump in the road nearly gave me a heart attack as I anxiously checked to make sure our prize was still in place. Adding to the overall experience was the fact that my mirrors had been rendered pretty useless, so I was constantly receiving updates from my two friends as to the status of the dish, and the other vehicles on the road.

We took it slow and steady, keeping our eyes peeled for low-hanging wires, tree branches and other hazards that our over-sized load might encounter. We made the trip without incident – though I am truly astounded at how many people are eager to tailgate such an obscene load, even when we happily pulled over at every opportunity to let people pass.

I’ll never forget some of the looks we got from other drivers and passersby – ranging from shock and awe to what amounted to sheer terror. I’m sure we had our pictures taken more then a few times on this trip, but I’m happy to say we made it back without incident.

Unloading the sucker was a chore, and I’m pretty sure we managed to add to the plethora of hairline cracks already appearing on the surface of the dish, but, since the fiberglass doesn’t actually reflect the signals (that job is handled by the steal mesh inside the fiberglass), I’m pretty sure I should be able to use some fiberglass filler to affect some low-budget repairs.

By this time it was well after noon, so I treated my buddies to lunch as thanks for putting up with my shenanigans.

The solid steal dish

Because I rarely know when to stop, I had booked a second pickup for the day. At 2PM I had a meeting lined up at a local college to pick up a castoff steal dish and by the time we finished lunch it was time to head out.

The campus is also in the district of Saanich, and ironically, not far from our first pickup of the day. We arrived on site just before 2PM and I texted my contact about our arrival. By the time I received a reply, we had already made our way to the back of the campus and had identified the dish.

The second dish of the day

This dish was in significantly worse shape then the first. It’s clear it had been stored in the same position for a number of years, and review of satellite imagery confirmed this. On first glance, it looked in decent enough shape, but looking at it from the side revealed that the years of resting in one spot had severely warped the shape of the parabola, likely meaning significant work would be needed to restore any semblance of functionality. Nevertheless, I was hoping there would be a stand or pole stashed somewhere nearby to make the trip worthwhile, so I sat down on the tailgate of our truck and awaited the arrival of our host.

Before long we were greeted by one of the Electronics Department instructors who informed us that we had indeed located the dish and were welcome to start loading it up.  I inquired about dish accessories, such as arms or a stand/pole but was informed there was only the dish.  Damn! Strike 3, do not pass go, no pole for you. By this point I felt I was already committed to the thing, so the three of us began maneuvering this monstrosity into the back of our truck.  Our contact at the college watched us with a bemused expression for a spell, before announcing that we clearly knew what we were doing and he’d leave us to our own devices. 

Oh, how wrong he was! While the first dish was rigid enough that we were able to lean it into the truck on an angle.  This dish was flexible steel, and any attempts to install it in a similar fashion would have resulted in the dish bending in half.  The three of us hummed and hawed for a while and eventually decided to lay the dish flat ontop of the bed of the truck, pulled as far forward as it would go.  The only alternative would have been to disassemble the dish, and without much in the way of tools on hand that was not happening in any reasonable timeframe.  In the end, we got the dish strapped down and verified our overhang was less then 1.5′ past each mirror, making our load “technically” legal.

Our second dish was more “interesting” to secure

After strapping our load down we realized we should probably have some flags to mark the edges of our monstrosity, and to make sure we were street legal. The only problem – we really didn’t have anything to work with. We decided to take a wander through the campus and see what we could come up with.

20 minutes later we had managed to scrounge up about 5 ft of flagging ribbon, a couple scraps of tape and some miscellaneous sheets of paper. It wasn’t much, but we’d make it work. On our jaunt through the campus I stopped to admire a pizza-making vending machine; something I had never seen before.

A pizza vending machine!

Finally, with our makeshift flags attached, it was time to set out for home for the second time that day.

If the first drive was nerve-wracking this second trip was bloody terrifying.  With the dish overhanging each side, the truck was much wider then it should have been and I didn’t have a great concept of just how wide we were, so every time we passed a pole, person or another vehicle I found myself having a mini heart-attack. Much like the first trip, I was reliant on my two buddies to act as spotters and provide continuous status updates.

Our first (and fortunately only) incident came just after we left the parking lot. I hit a speed-bump at a conservative 15km/h and was rewarded with an impossibly loud SLAM, we immediately pulled over to assess the situation.

Turns out that despite our best efforts, the speed bump confrontation was enough to shift the entire dish back by about 6 inches. The noise I’d heard was actually the tailgate slapping against the underside of the dish. As we worked we did manage to cause a halt to the entire motorcycle training class happening in the parking lot adjacent while every single student stopped what they were doing to gawk. Wanting to get out of there as quickly as possible, we adjusted our straps and after a few minutes were pulling back onto the road, with a new healthy respect for speedbumps. I had 6 more of the suckers to contend with, fortunately without further confrontation.

I’m pleased to say the rest of the drive was incident-free and we made it back home without any more problems. Like on our first drive, I felt that people were WAY too willing to snuggle up to our oversize load, but at least there were no collisions.

By around 3PM we had wrapped up for the day. With two new dishes my front yard was beginning to resemble a salvage yard, but I was hoping with a little bit of luck I would soon acquire a suitable pole and transform what currently amounted to scrap hunks of metal into serviceable TVRO dishes. As I returned the truck after a long day my brain was already plotting my next moves, but that, dear reader, is a story for another day.

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