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.

Testing your cables

Almost all DCC systems use flat multi-conductor cables for interconnecting their throttle panels, command stations, and boosters. They also may be used for making connections with wireless transceivers, and other equipment. I described in my March 2017 DCC Corner column how to make your own cables but I didn’t go over how to test them in case things didn’t work properly when you are done so let’s take a look at that.

Actually the equipment necessary to test a new cable is fairly inexpensive and readily available. What I am talking about is a LAN tester available from most electronics equipment suppliers. I got the one pictured for $9.99 from Jameco. Basically all you do is plug one end of the cable into the larger unit and the other end into the smaller unit. It has sockets for both RJ11/RJ12 and the larger RJ45 plugs. Some units have adapters for testing BNC also.

When you turn it on the master unit sends out a sequence of electrical pulses to each wire in sequence. As each pulse goes out an LED on the master unit lights up alongside a number corresponding to the wire. A similar display on the remote unit also lights up, if the connection is good. The rate of the pulses can be set for a fast normal or a slow speed and the cable can be up to 984′ long. The units can check for continuity, open, shorted and crossed wire pairs.

The unit I bought is the simplest one but they have others that range in price and capability up to $57.95. They operate off a 9 volt battery and really are simplicity itself. Often the easiest fix is a good hard squeeze with the crimping tool, but when that doesn’t work one of these LAN testers is absolutely necessary–either that or replace the whole cable.

Using different amperage boosters

In my October 2017 Model Railroader article on the abc’s of power management I talked about different ways of sharing the output from a single booster with several isolated power districts. However, I apparently didn’t make it clear that you can use boosters with different amperage ratings. One eagle-eyed reader noticed that in one photo I showed my old 8 amp DCS200 along with a 5 amp DB150 and he wanted to know if that was really possible.

The answer is yes. The amperage of the booster only affects how many locomotives you can operate in a given block. If you have a large yard block followed by a single track mainline block you are going to need more amperage in the former than the latter. This really is the basis for power management as I discussed in the article. As I explained you can have one block protected with a trip point of about 1.5 amps and a second with a trip point of 3 amps. When it comes down to it amperage really is just the potential amount of current available to your locos.

Now when it comes to actually setting up a large layout you could just use a mixture of several boosters of different amperages to cover your varying needs but that is overkill, especially when it is cheaper to use one large booster and several less expensive circuit breakers/power managers. On the Piedmont Southern I plan to operate the entire double deck layout with a pair of 8 amp units. The layout will be broken into 8 blocks with the amperage from the two boosters parceled out to these using a PSX4 and a PM42. Even that will be overkill since no more than five trains and 3 switchers will be running at any one time but I want to be able to isolate the staging yards, industrial switching areas, and mainlines, thus the 8 blocks.

Back when my old club went with DCC around 1997 we switched from CTC16. Since there were no power managers back then we just replaced the 8 CTC16 power stations with 5 amp boosters. Yes, we had the potential for 40 amps on that layout even though we rarely ran more than 8 trains at a time. That was massive overkill considering the layout could actually be operated with only about 8 amps. Power managers allow us to maximize the use of our DCC systems and economize at the same time.

Lights, camera, action!

Lots of modelers love to take photos of their model railroads. And with the ready availability of good quality still and movie cameras more folks are now shooting their trains than ever before. Probably the biggest obstacle most folks face for shooting high quality photos and especially movies is having adequate lighting. One reason John Allen was so  successful as a model railroad author was the fact he was also a professional photographer. As a result he not only had high quality cameras and lenses, he also had professional level studio lights.

When I first started writing articles I had already been shooting photos for 25 years, first for my high school year book and newspaper, then in college, and as a hobby. However that was all flash photography which is a lot different than most studio lighting. Consequently I had to learn the best way to light model railroad scenes in a way that would preserve the kind of depth of field that comes only with good even lighting.

Back around 1990 most professional photographers were using either photofloods or high powered halogen floods. Instead of investing in a bunch of expensive professional halogen lights I went down to the local Lowes and picked up a halogen dual head work light. These are still available in single and dual head versions with lamps that can each put out 500 watts of light. For over 25 years these were enough for me to use for shooting layouts and model closeups. However they have a few problems.

First, after a fairly short amount of time the bulb fixture becomes pitted due to the high current flowing through those 500 watt bulbs. It then takes a lot of work to sand these smooth enough to where the bulb will make adequate contact and light up. Another problem is the heat generated–a pair of 500 watt halogen bulbs can melt a plastic locomotive shell in a few minutes if left on it too long, and they are a fire hazard. I was also always afraid of tripping circuit breakers when I set up for a layout shoot in someone’s basement. Over the years that I depended on these lights I went through several sets as they are not well made and literally fall apart after being hauled around from layout to layout. Then last year, after another repair session to get the lights to work again I decided it was time to look for something better.

At first I focused on color balanced CFLs. These were very popular at the time and fixtures capable of holding several were available. However these were clumsy, fragile, and generally put out too little light or still required several hundred watts to get anything worthwhile. Then earlier this year I stumbled across LED light panels. These are basically large panels covered with dozens and even hundreds of LEDs. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, as well as various color balanced color temperatures. I must have watched a couple dozen YouTube video comparison reviews of representative panels and finally found one that looked like a good fit for me.

Neewer is a Chinese company that manufactures these panels in a variety of shapes and LED numbers. The panels I chose (JYLED-500S) have 480 dimmable LEDs with 240 White and 240 Yellow. Each set of 240 LEDs is controlled by a potentiometer that allows each bank to be dimmed so they can be mixed. This combination produces a variable color balance from tungsten to daylight at 3200-5600K. The light has a CRI of 96+ which means it produces very good color. The U-bracket frame makes it easy to adjust the light panel to various angles and the lightweight tripod is sturdy enough for my purposes, but I wouldn’t want to haul it around a lot.

The panels can be powered with either an AC Adapter (included) or Sony NP-F550 NP-F970 Li-ion batteries for wireless operation (battery sold separately). A white filter (provided) can be slid in front of the LEDs to soften the light source but this also reduces the amount of light reaching the subject. Each panels operates on 12VDC, 29W, and produces 3360Lux/m.

I purchased a pair of these for a little over $200 and was impressed with the quality of the packaging, especially the ethafoam lined carrying cases. I no longer have to fuss with the lights to get them to work, I just flip a switch and they come on. I have adjusted the color balance of my camera to match that of the panels and have found that the LEDs produce so much light that I can regularly use the white diffuser filters which also reduces the glare and improves overall illumination. Most importantly there is essentially no heat at all so I am not hesitant to move the light panels closer to the models. So if you’re in the market for photo lights I whole heartedly recommend these.

Silencing decoders

Adding sound to locomotives can get addictive, but once you have several sounding off at the same time in the same area of your layout the sounds can get to be annoying. To counter this, in addition to using F8 to mute sounds, most decoders now provide some way to silence decoders at startup or to automatically shut them off after a set period. I recently started putting together a listing of these options and here are the ones I could find something on.


The only thing I could find in the BLI manual was a way to silence the engine at startup. This is done by programming CV133 to a value of 0-255. A value of 0 will set the initial volume to completely off. Once you want sound turned on you can use F8 to increase sound volume in 8 increasing or decreasing steps. Hitting F8 once will mute sound and change from increasing it to decreasing it and vice versa. Hitting F8 twice will then step through 8 increments of volume. The amount of increase or decrease in sound volume depends on the sound increment set using CV130. The default value is 16.


Digitrax sound decoders use CV11 for a sound time out. With the default value of 06 locomotive sounds will turn off about 5 seconds after the locomotive is dispatched from a throttle. When reselected the sound will come back on. If CV11 is set to a value of 00 then sound will stay on when the loco is dispatched. If sound is off when the layout is powerd down it will also be off when power is turned back on.


Loksound Select decoders currently installed in Atlas locomotives by default have their sound turned on when power is turned on. You can set the decoder so that sound is off initially by programming CV32=2, CV403=16, and CV13=128. These values must be entered in exactly that order. Also some systems may not allow programming CVs greater than 255, requiring special programming steps. I will add a separate post later detailing those extra steps. If you have DecoderPro you can easily bypass this problem by using the CV pane to write these values.


MTH locomotives by default are silent on startup. When you want sound just hit F3 twice. Hitting F3 twice again will trigger the shutdown sequence.


With the Econami and Tsunami decoders Soundtraxx has a feature called Quiet Mode. By entering a value of 1-255 into CV113 you can set the amount of time it takes before the locomotive shuts down once the throttle is set to 0 and all functions turned off. The delay in seconds is calculated as CV113 x 0.25. So a value of 1 will specify a delay of 0.25 seconds and 255 will delay 63.75 seconds.


Like Loksound, TCS uses indexed CVs for many expanded functions, including Audio Auto Shutoff. Fortunately though their CVs for accessing indexed CVs are all less than 255 so shouldn’t require the extra steps that Loksound does. This is a two step process that uses CVs 201, 202, 203, and 204 for both steps. The first step is to activate the audio auto shutoff feature in User Options. Then you need to specify a time value for the automatic sound shutoff. Another feature found in the User Options is the ability to mute on startup. Refer to the sections in the diesel and steam WowSound user manuals for specifics on the values for these CVs. Also don’t forget that TCS has a CV calculator on their website to assit you in calculating values for these indexed CVs. If any of you find additional features that I missed please feel free to add them in a comment.

Add a keep alive to your Bachmann Heisler

Back around 2004 I had brief love affair with On30 and wrote a series of articles for Model Railroading on the subject. I recently dug out my old Bachmann On30 locos just to see them run again. Bachmann has for several  years been selling On30 locos with a sound decoder option but all mine had decoders I had installed my self. However they barely ran for me. I had worked diligently many years ago to get the to run but they haven’t held up–so much for the idea of a garden railroad unless I decide to go with a dead rail system.

Anyway the other day I got an email from David Popp at MR Video Plus wanting to know whether I knew how to install a keep alive of any kind in a Bachmann On30 loco with a factory installed decoder. Bachmann has for several years been selling On30 locos with a sound decoder option–usually Soundtraxx. Their On30 locomotives look great but can be difficult to get to operate reliably and that was the case with David’s locos. Since I had never worked with one of these factory installed Soundtraxx decoders I punted and suggested he contact Justin at Soundtraxx tech support. As always Justin came through with the following answer and photos of the solder points on the circuit board for attaching a CurrentKeeper. It is likely that other Bachmann factory sound decoders have a similar solution but it would still be a good idea to ask Justin if you run into a similar issue.

Justin’s comments:

The sheer space limitations of those On30 Heisler type locomotives might not allow for the fitment of a CurrentKeeper. A separate outboard capacitor could be added. You would be safe with a 25v capacitor with a microfared value up to 1000uf without the need for any charge limiting resistors inline with the part. I’ve attached two pictures showing the solder points located on the motherboard of this design. If you have any other questions or require further assistance, please feel free to contact us at any time.

Hurricane Irma’s Heading My Way

As we all know by now hurricane Irma will be moving through the Southeast over the next few days. Here in Asheville we are expecting high winds and heavy rain Monday into Tuesday. Any time we get that combination here in the mountains it usually means we lose power for a day or two. I am uploading and scheduling posts for the week ahead but I likely will not be able to answer any emails for several days. Have a good week wherever you are–Larry

Organize your cables Pt II

Back in March 2017 I lamented over the problems I was having with my new Gardner Bender Cable Boss stapler shown on the left. This particular device has normal shaped staples with a plastic insert that protects the cable from the metal staple. The problem I ran into was the staples would not fully seat in plywood or hardwood, or anything harder than fir studs. I had to bang them in flush using a hammer, which kind of negated the rationale of using the stapler.

Recently I asked David Popp about the stapler he had been using for the project layouts in MR and MR Video Plus, and it turned out his was also a Gardner Bender, shown on the left. H had purchased this one at Home Depot several years ago, but it obviously was not the one I had purchased. He mentioned that the one he uses had never given him any trouble with plywood or any other wood for that matter. This one uses staples that have a rounded loop in their top which holds the cable without penetrating the casing or wires. Since these staples come in two sizes, 5/32″ and 1/4″, they are ideal for organizing a wide range low voltage cables, and if the cables are a little smaller than the staple loop, they can be pulled through if you need to adjust them. You can even pop in a line of staples and then feed the cable through it.

Since I was still unhappy with the performance of the old stapler I zipped over to Home Depot and bought one along with a package of both sizes of staples. Another reason for the purchase was I was in the midst of installing a telephone system for the Piedmont Southern and needed a reliable way to organize those cables amongst the other Loconet, 12VDC bus, DCC bus, and various control wires for the Tortoises.

This stapler is a lot easier to use, requires less hand pressure, and so far it has been successful with even my hardest plywood and hardwood. The bottom of the stapler has a channel that the cable sits in so the staple ends up in just the right spot over the cable. I had my new telephone network installed in just a few minutes and then went back and tidied up the old cables installed earlier with the old stapler. The really good thing is this stapler and the staples it uses were considerably cheaper than the big orange version I purchased back in March.

Has your BLI loco lost its chuff?

At a recent operating session a friend asked me if I knew why his BLI Mikado had lost its chuff. All the other sounds were still there, just no chuff. After a little research on the internet I discovered that this is a fairly common problem with BLI steam locomotives. Instead of depending on the type of automatic synchronization schemes used in most other decoders, the BLI steamers use a magnet and reed switch detector method. A magnet is attached to the main driver and a reed switch installed on a circuit board directly above the magnet detects every time the driver makes a revolution. Inside the reed switch two metal electrodes close each time the magnet passes, and then they open again. The intermittent electrical contact they make is transmitted to the decoder which then uses that signal to synchronize the chuffs with the drivers’ rotation.

So what goes wrong and how do you fix it? Well, those little electrodes end up making a lot of movements and eventually they can stick together or even fail. When that happens the chuffs stop. Some folks say they have had success tapping the reed switch, but that usually only lasts a little while. Eventually you either have to send the locomotive back to BLI for replacement or order one from them and do it yourself. Although I have several BLI steamers I haven’t operated them long enough for this problem to arise but I do plan to order a couple reed switches from BLI for the day when the chuffs stop.

Replacing the reed switch involves removing the boiler upper half so you can get to the reed switch circuit board located over the drivers–here’s where that exploded diagram will come in handy. Then you have to unsolder the reed switch and install the new one in its place. This sounds like a simple enough procedure, once you get the boiler apart, and there are several posts on the MR website forum from folks who say it was fairly easy. The included photo shows the reed switch in a N&W steamer, it looks like a resistor in the center of the board. Good luck with it.

Five important tools for decoder installations

Installing mobile decoders, other than the simple plug and play type, requires five basic items. First, you should have a good wire stripper, one that can remove the insulation from the very small diameter wires now being used. These need not be expensive, the one pictured is available from All Electromics for about $4. These are simple to adjust for various wire diameters, easy to use, and are so useful for just about all wiring jobs that I keep several scattered around the layout.

Second, get a roll of double stick foam tape. This stuff is great for holding the decoder, speaker, and wires in place. The fact that it is foam allows it to conform to uneven surfaces well. It can also be used to trap wires in odd places, and it seems to last forever–I have 20-year old installations with the original tape. I have several rolls but the 1″ wide gets the most use and can be cut to smaller dimensions easily. You can find it in most office supply stores. I also use it around the layout to stick small circuit boards to the underside of the layout and to joists. I even use it to stick small accessory decoders directly to Tortoise switch machines.

As I have advised in the past a fine tipped, low wattage soldering iron is essential for getting good solder joints without melting everything in sight. A pencil point shaped tip will concentrate the heat just where you need it. A soldering station like my Weller WLC100 is a good investment that should last you for years and is flexible enough for almost all your soldering needs. Micro-Mark and most electronics suppliers sell them. I recently upgraded from the Weller unit to the pictured Hakko FX888D-23BY which allows me to set the iron to a specific temperature and is protected aganist electrostatic discharges that can fry critical components. I still use my Weller for jobs like soldering rail joiners and feeders to rails.

A good small diameter solder is important–I currently have a roll of .02″ diameter. For this work a 60/40 tin/lead solder works well, either as plain or resin core–do not purchase or use acid core solder or anything other than a non-acidic resin based flux. I buy mine in 1 lb rolls which usually will last me a decade or two. And that includes all the soldering required on my layout. Once I use up the last of this roll of 60/40 I plan to switch to 63/37 which melts and solidifies at exactly 361 degrees, lessening the chances of getting a bad joint. All of the electronics suppliers and Amazon sell solder.Heat shrink tubing is a plastic like tubing that shrinks in diameter once heated and is essential for protecting solder joints and prevents small wires from breaking off. I use a lot of the 1/16th inch diamter stuff. You can order this from places like All Electronics, Digi-Key, or Jameco. Cut a piece long enough to cover the solder joint plus a little extra, slide it on one wire, complete the solder joint, then slide the tubing over the joint. Finally, you need to shrink it. While they make special heating tools to do it, I just lightly stroke the tubing with the tip of my hot soldering iron. A selection of small sizes down to about 3/64″ is good to have on hand.One optional item that I have been using for a couple years is Kapton tape–the thin, orange tape that comes on some plug and play type decoders. This stuff is a good electrical insulator and holds up across a wide heat range. I have been using it in place of black electricians tape which tends to fall off after a few years. The 1/2″ wide tape works well for most of my installations. Most of the DCC suppliers as well as Amazon sell it.

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