Track Power vs. Batter Power
How to choose?
Our hobby is full of false or misleading statements to “push” customers into product solutions that may not make sense, or are limiting the choices and play opportunities.
Battery Power advocates claims that this is more reliable than Track Power. Yet both power forms rely on the fact that they both need to run over reliable track without derailments.
The physical challenges
Weather is the main influence factor that impacts the reliability of our layout. Connection between segments can come apart, dirt, ballast, rocks, leaves, branches all can modify a layout so that a passing train derails. Nothing can be done against the elements, so proper inspection before running our trains is a requirement.
Railclamps vs rail joiners vs screwed connections
Using metal plates that get screwed to both sides of both rails can be a way to connect rails reliably together, but if the temperature forces (expansion and contraction) become too forceful than you may end up with major damages because the rail couldn’t slip out of an otherwise secure connection.
Rail Joiners as they come pre-installed on many sectional track do not make for a reliable layout. Electrically these connections don’t hold up very well (OK this doesn’t count for battery power) but even people and animals going through the layout can easily set rails connected with joiners apart. Rail joiners were the design for sectional track for temporary layouts. Even the later introduction of 4’ sectional track and large 10’ radius curves don’t alter the weak value preposition. State-of-the-Art for outdoor layouts is pre-assembled flextrack and the bending with a dual rail bender. These guarantees the nicest and most reliable layouts.
This leaves rail clamps. Please be aware of the right clamps. There are clamps on the market that have a split bottom underneath your rail and the screw forces screw underneath your rail, opening the jaws on top again when you want to firmly secure the rail to the clamp. What you want are clamps that make a secure connection and allow you to fully tighten the rail to the clamps, so that only in emergencies (i.e. thermal expansion/contraction) the connection comes apart.
Conductivity – guaranteed
With brass rail and rail clamps you need to make sure that you have lasting conductivity. A product made for professional electricians that install wiring panels will just do that. NOALOX (at Home Depot) needs to be applied into the rail clamp before securing the rails to the clamp. This will offer lasting conductivity. This application also eliminates re-feeding track at all. Please consider that Code 332 rail was made out round brass stock of gauge 3. In order to have the same conductivity through a secondary line you would have to lay AWG 3 cable – and nobody does it. Code 332 rail is basically AWG 3 wire. If you maintain the transition points the loss of electricity over your entire layout is equal to none.
This leaves you with one extra problem to address: Oxidation on the out part of the rail. Trains pickup their power from the rail top as well the inner rounded corner of the rail head. There are many options to clean the rail prior to operating your layout:
You can also avoid this altogether by utilizing two rail type
NpB rail has the biggest advantage because it is the best of both worlds, the N cover is absolutely corrosion free, and the core is brass for 100 conductivity. While some stainless steel varieties don’t oxidize or rust) this rail has only 1/10 of the conductivity of brass code. So you are basically reducing your AWG 3 down to AWG 30, limiting the power and distance you can reach. You really don’t want to feed to 5A engines with AWG 30 – right?
Cost vs Capabilities
Track cleaning either requires some time or some investment. Per NpB is 56% more expansive than Brass which is about $300/100’. So at 250 feet you have the price of a track cleaning engine, and much earlier the price of a dry wall sander. What you gain is instant gratification when you decide to operate your layout. Depending on the size of your layout this can translate to 60 or even 90 minutes (depending on the method).
All of this assumes Track Power, now let’s look at battery power. You need a battery for every engine you want to operate you need an extra car for every engine you want to operate, because even in “Large-scale” there is not enough room inside the engine for a decent battery to drive our engine for a needed operational time. As it is with rechargeable batteries they have also a limited lifespan. Expect that every two years you will have to replace them (@ $150 on the average – unless you are running only little engines). You need at least two recharging circuits and now you need also remote control capabilities to control the engines. And wait a minute if you are not just running in a circle and decided you really wanted to have some fun, then you will have switches in your layout that want to be thrown.
At a recent show somebody engaged into a heated argument about battery power and Airwire installation (Pseudo DCC through RF – covered further below) and I asked how to power the switch drives (since it is not feasible to bring out batteries for every operating session), and his answer you can feed the power to the switches through the …… you guess right J TRACK. But isn’t the old saying what is good for the goose is good for the gander? So if track power is reliable then why not for everything?
So controlling remotely requires receivers in every locomotive to which the wireless unit talks. There are simple receiver solutions (i.e. EasyTrain), intermediate solutions (Train Engineer, Train Engineer Revolution), and most expensive solutions (i.e. Airwire).
Assuming that you enjoy sound, then the cost of every installation is:
In a pure Analog installations via track power the sound board is all you need, because the controller controls the track power and therefore influences the engine.
DCC vs Pseudo DCC
Airwire’s Claim of Fame is that they deliver DCC through the air. A blanket statement like this is absolutely not true. DCC is defined as delivering Power and Control to the engine. All Airwire can do is bringing signals through the air that translate to DCC commands at the installation point. But in order to claim you “drive DCC” you need to at least drive a real DCC sound board. What I mean by this is that modern DCC sound boards (that actually also work in Analog) drive the motor and the sound and both activities are perfectly in harmony because the internal software knows each state, i.e. no chuff if the engine slows down. The reality is that the DCC output of an Airwire receiver board cannot power a DCC board. They expect you to run your motor separately through their motor output control while they only provide signals to a DCC soundboard that doesn’t require much power of 50mA. This negates all the accomplishments of modern train hardware and brings you back to the stone ages of model railroading.
Additionally the cost is drastically hire on a per engine basis than in pure DCC mode. The DCC board connects to the track and receive the power and signal from the track, hence you don’t need a rechargeable battery or RF receiver board.
Imagine you communicate RF with every engine, then all engines have to be permanently in perfect, interference free position to the handheld operator. In DCC you position only the Command Station (Central Station) in perfect position so that any handheld can talk to it. The per engine communication is accomplished via the track – and we have already established that this is very reliable.
If you are building a layout beyond a simple dogbone, with yards and stations, and multi train operation, then DCC is the most reliable way to go. You can start either small (with a 5A system) or if you are confident about the build out of your layout, buy from the start the right matching system that can run 3-4 (or more) trains. At the end to cost of a basic system, plus all additional boosters equals the price of a sophisticated system anyhow.
Don’t accept compromises. Wireless DCC doesn’t exists and the fun of potentially automating your layout with computer controlled software will only work in a real DCC environment.