How To
Install Satellite Radio

Satellite Radio is becoming very popular and is a great way to listen to music in your car. I've had Sirius for several years and over time have installed several different satellite radios in many different cars. Doing so is relatively easy, and with a little courage and patience, you can do your own professional quality installation.

There are three basic types of satellite radio options for a car. First is OEM factory- or dealer-installed that you may buy with a new car. They are usually very expensive but integrated into the car and its stereo system. The second is an add-on module for an aftermarket radio. These are usually brand-specific tuner boxes that connect to the head unit. The most common type and what I am concentrating on here are the "Plug & Play" units. They are small all-in-one satellite radios with the display and controls on them, and can easily be moved from car to car and often into the house as well. These PNP units are what I am concentrating on here.

The unit typically comes with all you need in its box. The satellite radio itself. A suction-cup mount for attaching it to your windshield, a small satellite antenna, power cord, and often a few additional accessories. Now you can quickly hook these up and leave wires laying around and have your system running in a few minutes. But it doesn't take much more effort to make a more professional installation.

The Antenna
The toughest part of the install is the antenna itself. It is often where I start first. Think of the antenna as a tiny satellite dish that is pointed in all directions; it must have a clear view of the sky. The more things in the way of it at all angles, even at the horizon, the more times your music will drop out or skip. Furthermore, all antennas perform better when attached to a large flat piece of metal. So obviously the most ideal place to mount it is the roof of your car, and that is what I recommend. However, for ease of installation, it will probably work 90% as well in many other spots, for example below your windshield between your wipers, or even on your dashboard looking out your windshield. Spend a few minutes and look at the possible locations on your car, and try to envision how you will run the long antenna wire from that spot to where your radio will be, by the driver.

Another important thing to think about before mounting the antenna is how you are going to get that wire from the outside to the inside of your car. Every door opening has rubber seals and running the wire over them might damage the wire. The antenna wire is actually a coaxial cable, just like the one that cable TV comes in on, but much thinner. Creases and extreme bends will hurt the signal trying to flow through it and may permanently damage the wire. So be careful where you run it, and when handling and untangling it. The most common place for the antenna is on the rear roof, which is especially easy if you have a hatchback or tailgate. You may wish to pull out the rubber seal and run the wire underneath it to get inside, or even cut out a small section of the seal. If you install on the front of the roof, going in through the door's seal may not be smart; it is often opened and closed and may wear the wire. Instead look for rubber grommets near the door's hinge. There are usually several used to run wiring into the door, and sometimes extra holes are unused and plugged with rubber. These make a perfect place to pass the wire through to the inside if you cut a hole in that rubber. Another possibility is inside the hood. There are often rubber grommets just in front of the steering column where wiring passes between the dashboard and engine compartment, you may again find some of these are unused. A sunroof may also be a possibility.

Finally you can think of how you are going to run the wire inside the car, hiding it from view. The easiest spots are beneath plastic trim above the windows before the ceiling, or beneath plastic trim at the edge of the floor. You may also wish to run it under carpet. If you can make space for the wire with a small amount of prying, it's a good place to run it. Also make sure you unravel the wire and estimate it is long enough, which shouldn't be a problem except for large trucks.

Once you have a plan for the antenna and wire, then it's time to mount it. It should be several inches from the edge; a rubber tail is included to cover the wire for this length. Clean the roof where the antenna and wire will go, often an alcohol pad is included for this. Place the antenna in position, its magnet will hold it in place. Estimate the length needed for the rubber tail and cut it if needed. Remove the adhesive backing and attach the rubber tail to the end of the antenna and over the wire to the edge. Then run you wire, threading it through holes and needed, and pushing it behind the interior trim panels that you decided to route it in. All extra wire should be left at the end near the driver's seat. Later you can bundle the extra wire and hide it under the dash.

The Radio
The PNP satellite radios usually come with a few mounting options. The most obvious is the mounting bracket with suction cup to stick on your windshield. This may be fine temporarily, but may fall off, be hard to reach, might block your view of the road, and is even illegal in some states. They also come with double-stick tape or velcro, and usually a bracket so you don't have to mount the radio itself permanently, just its bracket. Sometimes this bracket screws into the same swivel mount that is used for the radio so you can properly angle the radio.

Holding your radio while sitting in the driver's seat, find a place on your dash that is ideal to place it. A flat surface is needed to stick the velcro or tape. You will want to control and read the radio while you are driving, so pick a location that is up near your view of the road but not in the way of it. Way down in the center console is not a good idea because you will have to take your eyes and attention far off the road. If you can't find a spot on the front of the dashboard, a place on top, or even in the corner of the dash, windshield, and a-pillar. When you are sure, first make sure your wiring can reach, then attach your bracket. You may also want to research custom clip mounting options available for your vehicle, like those from Pro Clip and Kuda.

Most of the PNP satellite radios transmit via FM to your car's radio and also have a standard headphone jack. The wired output of the headphone jack with a direct connection to your stereo is the best choice, but most car radios do not offer an external input jack. To use the FM transmitter, you need to find an unused station in your area and anywhere you think you will drive. Griffin makes a great little piece of software called iTrip Station Finder for its FM transmitter for the iPod that will give you a list of unused frequencies. You also must make sure your satellite radio can transmit on that frequency, as some do not support the full FM range.

Once you have picked an FM station to transmit on, select it in the settings menu of your satellite radio, and tune it in on your car radio. Make sure you are hearing the radio. Set the station as one of your car radio's preset buttons, so you can quickly select it and listen to your satellite.

The final step once you have everything working and placed where you want it is to hide as much of the wiring as you can. You have the antenna wire, power cable, and possibly an audio cable. Try to find places between plastic dash panels to run them; if you can find a manual or online forum's guide to take apart your car's dashboard you can even hide the wires inside it. Do not cut any of the wires to length, instead bundle them and secure them with a ziptie, and there is usually plenty of space to hide the bundles under your steering column.

If you do not want to use your cigarette lighter, you can permanently wire power to the radio. You will need to find a place with ignition power, for example an online forum for your car may say which fuse is good to tap. If you are doing so, use an Add-A-Fuse so everything is properly fused. Often you cannot simply cut your radio's power wire, because most do not take 12 volts; their cigarette lighter plug has electronics inside to reduce the voltage. If so you must preserve those electronics, or simply install a second lighter socket hidden in or under your dash.

When you buy the radio from the store, it will only play one preview station of the satellite service. Once you set up your account and billing information, they send a signal to the satellites with your radio's SID/ESN number (found on the back, on the box, and in the radio's menus) which reprograms your radio to give you all the channels. Because it must be listening for that command, your radio must be powered on and picking up the satellite signal when you activate it. You may not want to wait till you have done the full installation to do so, you can just quickly plug it in temporarily. You can activate by calling on the phone, but if you do it on the web site you are charged less of an activation fee. You can choose to be charged monthly, or save some money by paying for a full year or two. Do not turn off your satellite radio until it has reprogrammed itself and you are able to select all the channels instead of just the preview channel.

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updated 1/5/06 ©Josh Wardell