Use the search box

Recently I’ve been getting emails from folks looking for posts on specific topics. Currently there are over 400 posts on various topics on this website. However, only the 40 most recent posts are shown on the main page. While you can browse through the archive of posts that could take a while and there is a simpler way. In the upper right hand corner of each page there is a search box. To find posts on a specific topic all you need to do is type a subject into the search box and hit the enter button on your computer. The WordPress program will do a search and display all the related posts. Give it a try, it really works!

All Aboard!

RockfishWhen I took on the assignment of being the DCC Corner columnist for Model Railroader magazine I decided it was time to start a website where I could post additional information that I just didn’t have room for in the monthly column–so here we are.

The posts here are organized with the 20 most recent posts in each category (DCC and Layout) appearing on the front page. The rest rotate into the post archive as new ones are posted. By clicking on the post archive menu option you can browse through all previous posts. There are currently over 300 posts so unless you’ve been here from the start you have some reading to do. If you are looking for a specific post or topic you can search the archive using the search box at the top of the page.

If you have a specific question feel free to use the contact form accessible through the main menu instead of sending emails. The contacts go through a special spam filter whereas spam messages may slip through my regular internet service provider–thanks.

Also note that you can sign up to receive email updates of new posts and you can follow me through my Facebook page. Finally there are buttons on every post and page where you can share the content with friends by email or on your own Facebook page. So let’s get the word out and keep coming back for more.

Are SMDs for You—Part II

Ok, now let’s talk tools. As I mentioned in Part I a good soldering iron is essential, along with thin solder. You also need some small tip tweezers to pick up these little boogers. If you plan to solder wires to them you’ll need a way to stabilize them during the process–I use a small patch of double stick tape set on a scrap of wood. Fine wire is a must, Ngineering sells magnet wire and the wires that come on most decoders will also work. Some quick set CA glue can also be useful.

Here’s my process, first for an LED and then a resistor. I place the double stick tape on the scrap of wood in the middle of my work space. Then I attach the LED to the double stick tape, with the small solder pads facing up. Note that the solder pads are on the back side of the LED. I place a little solder on the ends of the wires and then touch the first one to the solder pad–a quick application of heat to the wire end will usually melt the solder and complete the joint. Repeat with the other wire and solder pad and you’re done. Remember too much heat can kill an LED or significantly shorten its lifespan.

With the resistor, you can simply solder it to one of the LED leads using this same process, but I prefer using the small circuit boards that Ngineering sells for just this purpose. I place a tiny drop of CA glue on the back of the resistor between the solder pads and then carefully place it on the circuit board–the glue will hold it firmly while you solder. A touch of the iron tip and solder to each solder pad will finish the job. The circuit boards have small solder pads for attaching wires making that part of the job pretty conventional.

The board makes it easier to work with the resistor and provides a mounting surface between the resistor and the inside of the shell or wherever you plan to install it. I don’t like to leave the board or resistor dangling since they still need to be insulated to prevent shorts. Instead I attach the circuit board to the inside of the shell using double stick tape and then place some Kapton tape over it to hold it in place and stabilize the wires. With the LEDs I attach them to the back of the light tube or headlight casting using CA glue and overlay that with Kapton tape to insulate and stabilize them further.

Once I got used to working with these small devices I found it no more difficult than using 3mm LEDs and full sized resistors. If your hands are too shakey to do this then companies like Ngineering (www.ngineering.com) and Streamlined Backshop (www.sbs4dcc.com) offer them pre-wired with resistors. All of this will come in handy when I show you how to build your own keep alives using either full sized components or SMDs as soon as the July 2018 DCC Corner column is out.

Are SMDs for You—Part I

In several posts and articles I have mentioned using surface mount devices (SMDs). These are those tiny flyspecks that you see on circuit boards in all kinds of electronic devices these days. While the thought of working with such small components seemed a major challenge at first, once I sat down with some and actually put soldering iron to metal it was pretty easy. Of course having the right tools and materials was a big part of the solution, so let’s take a look at the tools and the process.

The SMDs I have been using are LEDs and resistors. The LEDS themselves are great for loco lights of all kinds. In addition they can be used to light the inside of structures and in exterior lighting fixtures. LEDS alone produce little if any heat so can be safely mounted against plastic without fear of melting or deforming it. However, because they are voltage and current sensitive they usually need a resistor to drop power down to their working ranges. It’s the resistors that generate heat but you can control that. One way is to use larger wattage resistors which will run cooler. Also, the resistor doesn’t need to be placed right next to the LED it is working with and instead can be placed in an area where the heat can be easily dissipated without causing any damage.

Because these components are so small working with them without losing them is an issue. I have several large Walthers structure boxes laying around and one of these is a good place to use as a work surface. The lip around the edge will usually keep most stuff from floating off. Having a good light source is also important–I use one of the folding Ott lights on my workspace. Finally you want to be able to see and read the markings clearly, for that I use a pair of the inexpensive reading glasses you can pick off a rack at drug and grocery stores. Another thing I do is clear the table around my workspace just in case anything gets away from me. For a larger work area cut the front out of a cardboard box; the sides will keep all but the most high flying parts from escaping.

Let’s talk tools. As with all small components having a small pencil tipped soldering iron is essential. My Hakko has exchangeable tips and I can easily limit the amount of heat reaching the component. This is very important since applying too much heat when soldering an LED can destroy it or severely reduce its lifespan. Remember, start with a low setting and crank up the heat until you have just enough to melt the solder and do the job. As I have described in the past using a very small diameter solder wire is important since less heat will be required to melt it and it will be easier to control. If you can’t find it on Amazon then Ngineering.com has it along with other supplies. They also have small circuit boards on which you can mount these SMDs that make them easier to install in models. For examples of these see my August 2016 DCC Corner. More coming in Part II.

Having programming problems?

Although I have periodically written about various kinds of programming equipment I still all too often get questions from folks asking why they can’t program decoder X using command station or programmer Y. So hopefully this will answer most of those questions. So what’s causing these complaints? First, there are timing issues involved. The NMRA standards specify how long a decoder may take when responding to a command and if it takes longer than the command station expects then programming fails. Some programmers attempt to get around this by keeping power on longer for individual programming commands which probably explains why they take longer to read and write CVs.

There also are problems with some programmers that cannot program CVs above the old NMRA standard of 255–this is particularly common with indexed CVs. DecoderPro can deal with some of these situations when programming decoders that have developed work arounds for programming these extended CVs. LokSound and WOWSound have provided work arounds. The LokSound manual explains how to use their free software to calculate the required CV values and then write them individually using a throttle. TCS has an online calculator that will spit out the required CVs for programming WOWSound features.

Second are programming track power issues. Keep in mind that this issue first arose about 16 years ago when Soundtraxx released the Tsunami decoders. The capacitors in these decoders sucked up enough power to interfere with programming so the company also came out with the PTB-100 programming track booster to compensate. Now we have a combination of indexed CVs and keep alive circuits with multiple super capacitors to deal with making the job more difficult.

Decoders also require a minimum amount of power on the track to program successfully. LokSound decoders for example require at least 13 volts so their LokProgrammer puts 15 volts on the track. The Soundaxx PTB-100 puts out a regulated 12 volts so shouldn’t work reliably with LokSound decoders but usually does. I recently tried using a higher input voltage of 17VDC with a Digitrax PR3 based on a recommendation from a dealer who told me he regularly uses 18VDC instead of the 15 volt maximum the manual recommends. I got very reliable results programming most LokSound and recent WOWSound decoders with it. There also can be significant differences among decoders of the same brand and batch. I have two first generation WOWOSound diesel decoders one of which I can program easily and another that doesn’t respond at all.

When testing decoders I have found that they usually respond well to individual programming commands on a programming track using a throttle. However that same decoder may not respond at all using DecoderPro with the same command station, especially when programming indexed CVs. Finally, when all else fails programming on the main usually will work. After all you do get full track power when using that mode.

A lot of the problems I was seeing a year or two ago have now been worked out in DecoderPro and with the decoders themselves. Some came down to timing issues whereas others depend on how power is fed to the decoder during programming.

OK, now for the bottom line, what works:

  1. My best success has come using Sprog and Power Cab programmers. This is particularly true when using DecoderPro.

  2. If you are using a Digitrax PR3 consider trying a power supply of about 17VDC. I have been told by the designer that the PR3 hardware can easily handle that voltage. Most decoders are rated to take up to 20 volts but check your spec sheets and don’t exceed what they can take. A PR3 puts out about what it gets from its power supply.

  3. If you can’t program your decoder using DecoderPro then try programming it using individual commands with a throttle on the service mode track.

  4. If you have problems using service mode programming then consider using a programming track booster.

  5. If it won’t work with service mode then switch to programming on the main. You may even get good results that way with DecoderPro, and if not then try using individual throttle progamming commands. You won’t be able to read what’s in the decoder but you may be able to program it successfully.

  6. If your LokSound decoder can’t be programmed reliably then consider investing in the LokProgrammer. It is designed specifically for programming their decodes and works very well.

  7. If your WOWSound decoder doesn’t program reliably using these methods then use the Audio Assist feature, it is very reliable with those CVs it is designed to program.

  8. Don’t overlook probelms caused by having a stay alive device installed. These can interfere with programming, mainly on the service mode track. One trick is to allow the loco to sit a minute or two on a powered track so the stay alive can recharge before programming. You may even have to disconnect the stay alive when programming. This should not be a problem when programming on the main.

  9. If none of these work it is time to contact tech support and/or arrange for a trip back to the factory.

A final tip–always install and test a decoder long before the warranty period expires. Modelers have a habit of buying things and leaving them sit until they get time, which never seems to come, and manufacturers don’t consider that in their warranty coverage.

Wiring Walthers Double Crossover

Wiring the Walthers DCC friendly double crossover is a bit of a mystery to a lot of folks including apparently the techies at Walthers! I received the following email pointing out just how bad the problem is.

I have an HO scale Shinohara DCC friendly double crossover #6 switch, code 83. I read your article on wiring this switch up. The big mystery is how and where exactly do you solder the single wire (Tam Valley) to the insulation frog without melting the plastic surrounding the frog points? I addressed this issue to the Walthers tech support and to Tam Valley – they had no idea!

So over the weekend I finally got out my crossover and dug into the solution. First let’s look at the colored version of the crossover. If you look close you will see a number of frogs and complicated track pieces. Those of the same color are interconnected with jumpers on the bottom of the crossover. By simply connecting them to a piece of powered track they too will be powered making this a pretty easy part of the installation.

But what about the frogs? There are actually six of them to deal with. The two frogs in the middle of the crossover are plastic castings and cannot be powered. However they are short so shouldn’t create much of a problem. That leaves the four frogs shown in green. These frogs are electrically dead and isolated but do not have any provisions for attaching wires to them should you decide to provide a power connection. Consequently I decided to do what I have always done, solder a feeder wire to the side of one of the rails that make up each frog.

This is a little more challenging than it sounds so let me explain. Unlike most turnouts with solid cast frogs these are made up of individual pieces of track so you have to be very careful when soldering a feeder to them. Too much heat can result in a piece of rail moving out of place creating clearance issues, or worse. You can also melt the small molded plastic inserts that isolate the frog resulting in a short.

Here is my procedure. First I used a small metal brush to clean the locations on each frog where I wanted to add a feeder. I then dabbed a bit of rosin flux on the cleaned spot. I turned up the soldering iron to a high setting (750 degrees) and quickly melted a thin layer of solder onto the rail. This is a tricky operation since you need enough heat to heat the rails enough for the solder to adhere to them, but too much heat can melt the plastic. You can try adding heat sinks to the rails outside the work area to help prevent melting the plastic.

With the frogs ready I cut 4 20 ga feeders about 9” long, stripped about 1/2” insulation off each, bent the ends at 90 degrees, and applied some flux and solder to each. Here’s where this gets trickier and you have to work fast. Using my left hand I held the prepared feeder tip against the spot on the rail where I had applied the solder. Using a fine tip I applied heat to the spot just long enough to melt the solder then pulled it away. Before moving to the next frog I gave the feeder a tug to make sure the joint was solid. Like I said, work quickly and get the soldering iron tip off quickly. If you have an old Atlas or other inexpensive turnout practice on that before attempting this on such an expensive crossover.

Once you install the crossover you can either use a Tortoise SPDT to control the polarity of each frog or wire in a quad Frog Juicer to do the work automatically. Depending on how you set up your turnout controls you actually may be able to wire pairs of frogs to the same polarity switch. In my case I use only one Tortoise to throw all four sets of points so I can get by with a dual Frog Juicer to control polarity of the pairs of frogs on each side of the crossover.

So what’s an OpSw?

The other day I got an email from a reader asking about how to resolve the “FF” warning on his Digitrax system. This warning tells you that the address memory in the command station is full and therefore you can’t select a new address until you make room. The process is pretty easy once you figure it out and it requires something called OpSw settings. So let’s first go over the process of making a change and then take a look at some useful ones. First and foremost, unless you are working with a DCS50 or 51, you need a DT400, DT402, or DT500 throttle to make these changes. You can also do it more easily using DecoderPro.

With DecoderPro go to the Loconet option on the horizontal menu list at the top of the DecoderPro window. Scan down the dropdown list to the setup command station option and click it. The window pane that opens will give you a list of the OpSw settings for your commamd station. All you need do is click on the “t” or “c” setting to activate or deactivate the specific OpSw. You can click the read and write buttons to read the settings and write them to the command station.

With a DT400, DT402, or DT500 throttle the process is a little more complex. First disconnect the command station from the Loconet. Plug the throttle into the command station and move the mode toggle on the front of the unit from the Run to the Op position. Next press the “SWCH” button and enter the number of the OpSw setting you wish to edit–the display will indicate either “t” or “c”. To change the setting press either the “t” or “c” button on throttle keyboard. To edit other OpSw settings continue by entering a different switch number. Once you are done simply set the mode switch back to the run position.

So which OpSw settings are worth considering? OpSw 15 will set a decoder to speed step “0” when it is purged. This can prevent unexpected runaways later. As I mentioned in my recent post OpSw 18 will extend the short circuit response time from 1/8 to 1/2 second and give circuit breakers more time to act. OpSw 20 disables the ability to operate analog locos using “0” bit stretching, something that can slow Loconet response times. OpSw 33 and 34 allow the unit to power up in its prior state and to allow power on at startup. Without this you must turn track power on using your throttle.

Four big ones are OpSw 36, 37, 38, and 39. OpSw 36 clears mobile decoder info and consists. OpSw 37 clears all routes, and OpSw 38 clears the loco roster. Finally OpSw 39 will clear everything in memory. Periodically clearing out some or all of these will allow the system to run faster and prevent the memory slots from filling. Clearing out universal consists may not be desirable if you have spent a lot of time creating them, however on club layouts this can be a necessary and convenient part of system maintenance. At my old club we did it once a month. It also is a good reason for using advanced consists instead of universal consists since their info is not stored in the command station.

One word of caution. Every Digitrax manual has a listing of these OpSw settings and what they do. Note that some say reserved or do not change–follow this instruction, don’t mess with these! Also make sure to use the OpSw list for your specific type of command station. Don’t assume they are all the same–most are but check to make sure! And when all else fails read the manual.

Back up your DecoderPro Roster

Since we’ve been talking about a major wipeout of a computer let’s also look at something you can do to prevent a total loss. As anyone who has used a computer for long knows, hard disks can crash and take all that data with it, including your DecoderPro roster. Most folks are at least aware of the fact that computer files should be regularly backed up to an offsite location, just in case the worst case scenario occurs. So what’s your option? Let’s go through what it takes to properly backup a DecoderPro roster.

To make a backup copy of the roster:

1) Start DecoderPro.

2) Select “Help >> Locations”

3) Use the “Open Roster Location” button to open a Finder window.

4) Copy the roster folder to the storage media backup location. What you need from your old computer is the “Roster” folder and its contents. The “roster.xml” file is optional (it is easily rebuilt) and does not contain all your data.

To restore the roster on a new installation of DecoderPro, try the following:

1) Start DecoderPro and get it all set up.

2) Select “Help >> Locations”

3) Use the “Open Roster Location” button to open a Finder window.

4) Copy the backup roster folder to the roster location.

5) Select Actions >> Recreate Roster Index.

6) Wait for it to finish. If your roster does not appear after a reasonable amount of time, restart DecoderPro. Unfortunately DecoderPro does not provide any indication that it is doing anything so you just have to wait a while and assume it is working–an in progress indicator would be a welcome addition. Don’t try to use the Import Roster option in this case. It is for use with a special format exported roster file.

But where is a good place to store your backup info? You can use an external hard drive or a memory card, however those too can be damaged or lost. My choice is to use a “cloud” drive for backups. Both Dropbox and Google Drive offer a small amount of cloud storage for free (to get you hooked) or you may have a certain amount of file space reserved for you by your internet service provider.

I keep copies of all important files there. Matter of fact all my articles and book files go directly to a cloud server. The files stored on these sites are regularly backed up and the backups are usually backed up, so the chances of them ever being lost is negligible. I save a copy of my DecoderPro roster about once each month and more often if I have done any significant programming. It only takes a short amount of time and can save you a lot more time and headaches if the worst happens.

MacBook Air and LocoBuffer Success

My friend was finally able to install the USB drivers for his LocoBuffer-USB interface on his Mac. He spent several days and it took working with Dick Bronson at RR-CirKits and 24 messages on the jmriusers group to sort out the solution. Fortunately it was a simple solution that apparently was not a conflict with the Macbook hardware, the High Sierra operating system, nor the LocoBuffer-USB drivers. Here is his final description of what did the trick.

I went back and downloaded FTDI 2.4.2 again (these are the drivers). This time after installing I shut down and rebooted. Then I immediately went to System Pref->Security/Privacy->General and there it was……..A prompt that said the extension was not allowed and did I want to allow it to be installed….I clicked on “Allow”.

So it really came down to having to tell the Mac to allow the drivers to be installed. If you are interested you can read the whole series of posts on the jmriusers group on YahooGroups.com. This solution of course has implications for installing any new drivers on a Mac be they for LocoBuffer-USB or any other device.

It also shows what a valuable resource the jmriusers and other DCC groups can be. There are always a bunch of experts on these groups willing to give a helping hand when a situation like this arises. So if you use JMRI, use Digitrax NCE, or any other DCC system or decoder, there probably is a group just waiting to give you a hand and all you have to do is join the group. Give it a try.

Not so fast there

The PSX power managers and other kinds of circuit breakers are popular for dividing a layout into several sections, and prevent the entire layout from shutting down in case of a short circuit. These units are designed to trip before a command station or booster’s short detection circuitry can act. However that approach is dependent on the circuit actually being more sensitive and acting faster than that of the command station or booster. If instead it is slower, then the command station or booster will shut down first.

I ran up against this while installing a PSX4 with my Digitrax DCS100 command station a couple years ago. I ran a switcher through a closed turnout to test the setup and sure enough the command station shut down instead of the PSX. Fortunately, there is a way to prevent this from happening. Digitrax units have OpSw settings that can be used to customize their operation. In this case OpSw 18 comes in handy.

Under the default setting for OpSw 18 the command station’s short detection circuit will shut down faster than the PSX4. The solution was simple, just change OpSw 18 to its alternate setting which results in a slower reaction time of 1/2 second. This gives the PSX time to shut down the block with the short and keep the rest of the layout running. So if you run into a situation like this, no matter what DCC system you own, check to see of there is a way to change the sensitivity, it may save you some headaches.

The same thing can happen with a Frog Juicer. These are slower to act than the PSX units. Consequently, the PSX can trip before the Frog Juicer has a chance to correct the polarity of a turnout frog. The solution is to slow down the PSX and give the Frog Juicer enough time to do its job. On the PSX set CV55=1 and CV65=128, and the PSX delay should work with the Frog Juicers.

JMRI, LocoBuffer, and High Sierra—Oh My!

Well recently a friend of mine was having a morning cup of Joe and reading the news on his Macbook Air when all of a sudden he had coffee in his Mac! As we all know coffee and electronic components don’t mix well and my friend was soon buying a replacement Macbook. This brought on the next step—reinstalling DecoderPro.

I got involved when he couldn’t get the DecoderPro preferences to come up with the correct drivers for his Locobuffer-USB. I suggested he might need to download the drivers from the RR-CirKits website and give that a try. Well today he called to update me on his progress. He installed the driver for the Locobuffer-USB interface but the program still wouldn’t work.

After some back and forth with Dick Bronson at RR-CirKits it appears that the current version of the Locobuffer-USB Mac driver is not compatible with either the hardware in the new Macbook Air or with the new High Sierra operating system.

This would not surprise me since I found out to my chagrin that upon installing High Sierra on my iMac, my old installation of Adobe Photoshop no longer works. I did update my copy of DecoderPro to the latest production version 4.10 and the Sprog driver still works fine so this issue is apparently isolated to the Locobuffer driver. So if you have a Locobuffer and are considering updating to High Sierra on a Mac you might want to hold off until the dust settles on this one. I’ll update you on this as soon as my friend gets his up and running again.

Quirks


Every once in a while I get a reminder of the good old days and the lingering quirks that have been passed down to us. The other day I was attempting to revive a couple old Lenz decoders that had been asleep for about 15 years. I plugged them into the ESU decoder tester, cranked up DecoderPro, and read back the addresses—103 and 104. I plugged them into a loco and put them onto the track. When I entered the addresses into my throttle I got no response. After checking the wires and the loco I finally put them on the service mode track and checked the addresses again, still 103 and 104. As the frustration mounted I was about to toss these old decoders and then something came back to me.

Well back in the infancy of DCC we only had 2-digit addresses—after all who would ever need addresses for more than 99 locomotives? However, because computers speak hexadecimal we were able to actually uses addresses up to 127. Because the addresses I entered were in the 1-127 range they were interpreted as 2-digit and not 4-digit addresses. And because I had set CV29 to expect 4-digit addresses the system and decoder were not communicating with one another. By simply changing CV 29 to a value of 2 which tells it to expect 2-digit addresses, I was in business.

Another relict of the past are the 2-digit advanced consist addresses. I don’t know anyone who likes them and it would seem more logical to be able to use the 4-digit address on the lead locomotive for the consist address but for some reason the NMRA DCC guys apparently can’t make the necessary changes to fix this anachronism.

Yesterday at an op session, a fellow mentioned that he had entered 4-digit addresses into his decoders and the locomotives wouldn’t run. When he told me the addresses I immediately recognized his problem. He had entered addresses of 9995 and 9996 assuming no one else at the local club would also be using those addresses. So what was the problem?

Well Digitrax, which was the system he was using, only supports addresses up to 9983 not 9999. I believe those address from 9984-9999 are reserved for use by the system. File that little quirk in the back of your mind and avoid those addresses.

That’s all the little quirks I can think of right now, but I’m sure more will pop up. I get several emails every day asking about odd happenings and I’ll add more later.

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