All my previous forays into railway modelling had been both temporary and analogue, but Kingston Bridge has been the launchpad from which I can explore Digital Command Control.
The choices are mind boggling - there as many options as there are methods of modelling railways. I preface this by saying that these are the choices I made that suit my needs, but I'm certain they will not be to everyone's taste.
So lets have a little ramble about the DCC products I've really enjoyed working with.
I am going to assume you know what DCC is and the basics of how it works. If not, here is some light reading to start with!
Choosing a control system was the first step. Much research was done on the forums, and particularly watching YouTube videos of the various controllers in use.
My criteria were:
- well designed
- easy to use
- capable of running 2 locomotives simultaneously
- expandable in the future
- under £200 for the full controller kit (excluding decoders).
The NCE PowerCab quickly emerged head and shoulders above the other options. I like that it offers the same features as it's premium big brother, the ProCab, the only limitation being it's power supply and therefore the number of locomotives and accessories it can power. It can also be linked to PC control systems if I wanted to head that way in the future.
I really could not to find anything else that ticked all these boxes for the same price, so the NCE PowerCab was the winner for me.
Bag o' chips!
Controller sorted, I now enter the world of DCC decoders... so many to choose from! What features do I need? Which brand is 'best'?
To cut a long story short, I had three loco's to fit (see the end of blog post 6) so purchased three decoders to test, one each from Lenz, Zimo and DCCconcepts (Zen).
They were all brilliant, but I have settled on Zimo as my decoder manufacturer of choice. Here is why:
- Zimo offer decoders for all pretty much all installation types, certainly the ones I need; 8 pin, NEXT18, and 6 pin Direct.
- All of the basic decoders cost only £20 each!
- All* of the decoders have solder pads provided for you to easily fit a stay alive capacitor (*NEXT18sockets have solder pads on the Loco rather than the chip, more on this later)
- They are very well respected, with lots of positive reviews and acclaimed reliability.
I buy my decoders from DigiTrains (I'm not affiliated in any way, but I find their website and service brilliant)
My layout is essentially a shunting puzzle, and therefore low speed controllability and smoothness are really high my list of priorities when it comes to locomotives. I want to avoid the 'hand from the sky' making an appearance if I can at all help it.
(This is also why I've gone for Kadee couplings, see blog post no. 3)
This lead me to the decision to fit stay alive capacitor units to all of my locomotives. A built in battery unit in every locomotive that pretty much guarantees smooth running? Clean track and good loco servicing are still important of course, but more time running trains and less time prodding trains is a win-win in my books.
One of my recent purchases was a Bachmann 03, and it runs beautifully. So let's start there and I'll show you why I love the NEXT18 decoders.
Many people make their own stay-alive capacitor units, with the required resistor and diode protection circuit, and to be honest I really should learn to do this. But as it is, I have bought off-the-shelf units to get my feet wet (and avoid a great price. The three variants are here, here and here. For the Class 03, I used shape no.1 (long and thin), part no. 870007.
Removing the top of the Class 03 reveals the Next18 decoder socket, contacts for the cab LED on the top, and housing for a DCC Sound speaker in the front.
Removing the two screws securing the decoder socket allows you to flip it over, revealing extra solder pads for lights, functions and (most excitingly) V- and V+ for a capacitor stay alive unit.
Before soldering, I needed to find a home for the Kung Fu stay alive. I found the logical answer was to wrap it in black electrical tape and hide it in the cab behind the driver.
Now I simply soldered the black stay alive wire to V-, and blue wire to V+, carefully tidy the cabling inside the loco body and job done!
I enjoyed working with the NEXT18 socket so much that I decided to install the same type in my old Dapol 14xx. LaisDCC make a brilliant adaptor board (part no. 860031) with the NEXT18 socket on one side, and all the solder pads on the other, ready for rails, motor, lights, functions, loudspeaker and stay alive.
(Note that V- and Ground are one and the same)
Just needs some crew to hide those wires!
Of course, there are other decoder types too, and Zimo's 8 pin and 6 pin direct decoders are equally as easy, with solder pads and/or wires provided on the decoders themselves for adding stay alive’s. (See this helpful video from Digitrains on how to fit a stay alive to a Zimo MX600R 8 pin decoder)
In my opinion, this is the way that DCC should be going - making things as easy and as flexible as possible for the modeler. Some people are happy and able to hunt about decoder circuits with multimeters to find the tiny spot to solder to, but why should we have to?!
LaisDCC bring a range of economically priced components to the market, and brands like DCCconcepts and Zimo are providing decoders to suit every need and price point. Most importantly, they are accompanied with clear instructions including where all the necessary solder points are. I applaud this "we will guide you to the door, but go through at your own risk" approach, I think it shows a real understanding of the hobby.
It seems an increasing number of models are using the NEXT18 connection. One that caught my eye is Dapol's new Mogul, with 'tool free decoder and speaker fitting'. The decoder and speaker are attached to a sled (similar to a USB stick), which slots in place behind the smokebox door. See Sam's video here showing this in detail- I think he's as excited about this design feature as I am!
I would love to see NEXT18 decoders become the standard for all models, I just think they’re brilliant (can you tell?!)
What do you think?
Edited by GWL