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Thread: 50 Shades of DCC Ready

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    Default 50 Shades of DCC Ready


    by Alain LM

    About the Author
    Alain is an avid n-scale modeler who collects North American rolling stock with a focus on Canadian railroads and BNSF and all its predecessors. He occasionally purchases other models from European railroads. He has been using DCC since it's been available and successfully mixes North American and European DCC equipment. Alain regularly contributes to the TroveStar N Scale Model Trains Database (data and blogs), as well as to JMRI. By day, Alain works for a world-class railway signaling firm as an automation and real-time industrial computing engineer. This Frenchman lives near Paris.

    Not sure just how “ready” or “friendly” some so-called ‘DCC Ready’ or ‘DCC Friendly’ locos are? You are not alone.

    For more than a decade, I have added dozens of these small micro-controller chips (called DCC decoders) to my engines and learned a thing or two. Perhaps the most important thing I have learned is this: adding a decoder to a "DCC ready" loco is by no means rocket science but it is also not as easy as some manufacturers would have you believe.



    I thought I would share some of my experience with decoder form factors, drop-in decoders and plug decoders to help de-mystify all of this. I hope you find this article helpful.


    Before I continue, let’s talk about terminology and some installation basics (ie what’s necessary for a model to even fall into the Ready or Friendly category).


    There are several ways to rank how easy it is to install a DCC decoder into a loco and I define these terms below. The TroveStar N Scale Model Trains Database uses ‘Ready’ and ‘Friendly.’ Other reference sites use additional terms, such as ‘Plug’N’Play’ and ‘Ready/Difficult.’


    In order to install a DCC decoder, the motor must be fully isolated from the track power. As very often the track power is going through the chassis, another way to say it is that the motor must be isolated from the chassis. If this is not the case, installing a DCC decoder might require quite a few modifications, which would make a model of this type neither Ready nor Friendly.


    Commonly agreed-upon definitions
    Friendly
    This means the locomotive’s motor is isolated from the chassis and from the track power.


    Unfortunately, Friendly does not mean much more than this. So most likely, in order to install the microchip into your loco, you’ll have to solder the decoder’s wires as best you can, make room for the decoder (by removing some part of the chassis) and modify the connection of the front and back lights (if any exist).


    Ready
    Ready can mean a number of things, ranging from very close to the ‘Friendly’ definition (above) to very easy, such as plugging in a NMRA 6-pin (NEM651) decoder. I provide a number of examples (below) to illustrate this range.


    In the TroveStar database, for each type of locomotive, you will find a DCC section that will provide you with all the necessary information with regards to the DCC readiness level and useful links to DCC manufacturer’s information page.


    Plug’N’Play
    As the title suggests, this means the decoder simply has to be ‘plugged in.’ Some manufacturers also use the terms ’Drop-in’ or ‘Plug-in’ to describe these kinds of decoders. There are two major types of Plug’N’Play decoders: (1) replacement boards and (2) ‘plug’ decoders (with a number of pins). Terms like drop-in and plug-in may lead you to believe that these decoders are in fact easy to use, but this is by far not always the case.


    We don’t use this ranking in TroveStar; all such decoders will fall into the ‘Ready’ category.


    Decoder form factors
    DCC decoders come in three different types of form factors: wired, plug and replacement board.


    Wired

    Doehler & Haass DH05A






    Wired decoders are the ‘Swiss-army knife’ type of decoder. They come in multiple sizes and different levels of complexity, which is usually reflected by the number of wires they contain. A minimum of six wires is needed to control the front and back lights – and the motor of course. More wires means more functions can be controlled. Sound decoders obviously require more wires to control the speaker and the cam drive for steam engines. In certain instances, it is better to use Z scale (the smallest size) wired decoders for more ‘difficult’ cases.


    To learn more, I highly recommend the excellent web-site of our fellow TroveStar curator Brad Myers (a.k.a. NScaleStation) where you can find many examples of wired decoder installs: http://n-scale-dcc.blogspot.com/


    Plug
    Digitrax DZ125IN






    Decoders with plugs are probably the easiest to install. Similar to wired decoders, the minimum is 6-pin decoder, that is standardized as (European) NEM-651 (NEM 651 Elektrische Schnittstelle - Ausführung Klein (S)) or (North American) NMRA small 6-pin (S-9.1.1 Connectors). The good news about these basic 6-pin decoders is that they are truly universal and offered by many suppliers.


    I myself have installed several Digitrax DZ125IN in European models that perform perfectly with European control stations. Most of the European models will come with a NEM651 interface.


    In some cases, there might be some mechanical issues (as the decoder could have the tendency to disconnect due to vibrations when in use) if the female plug on the locomotive is too short.


    The main problem with plug decoders is the explosion of so-called ‘standards’ to accommodate more complex decoders, such as sound decoders. This is the topic of another debate, and I redirect you to the excellent article by Pierre on his blog: DCC plugs overview (they’ve gone crazy).


    Replacement board
    Digitrax DN163A0


    The replacement board is a form-factor specific to North-American-designed locomotives. The DC-only locomotives are factory-equipped with a control board with front and back lights on its ends. The trouble is that there are many kinds of such boards depending on the type of locomotive, even though manufacturers are endeavoring to reuse (wherever possible) the same board for engines of the same size and nature. If it is possible to modify the DC-boards to wire a decoder on it, it is in fact much easier to replace the full board, though with an average $10 additional cost per decoder compared to plugged versions.


    I still do not understood the underlying reason behind this North-America design compared to European design with plugged decoders. It might be cheaper to produce than the models with plugged decoders, thus creating an advantage for DC-only modelers compared to DCC ones. I read somewhere that DC remains largely popular over DCC in N scale. Or this is a general arrangement within the industry together with DCC decoder manufacturers. Note that several of the replacement boards come with 2 or 4 additional outputs to the front/back lights, making it possible for skilled modelers to install, for example, ditch lights, rotary beacons, internal lights or (electric) uncouplers; this functionality is however probably used only by a minority of the buyers of these boards.


    The market for replacement boards is therefore limited to a very small number of manufacturers, compared to wired and plugged decoders, namely Digitrax, TCS, NCE and MRC (sound only). Some North-American manufacturers such as Fox Valley Models have decided to move to plugged decoders, departing as such from the rest of the NA industry.


    Read more of this article (which surpasses the character count for posting but was full of too much useful information to shorten) on the TroveStar website. http://bit.ly/2yCThoA

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    @gdmichaels

    Thank you for the article. Very informative. One concern that comes immediately to mind is the apparent lack of discussion on the peculiar issues associated with decoder installation in steam locomotives. Just a Moose's two cents...
    ~ Moose (Co-founder of the Mt. Tahoma & Pacific Railroad, located some where in the Pacific Northwest)

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    Read your full article - great stuff, and right on point!

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    Thanks folks for this positive feedback. Much appreciated. Jenna @TroveStar

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    Icon6 DCC-ready - Steam locomotives

    @Moose2013

    As the author of the article, let me confirm your obvious concern: yes, steam locomotives are totally absent from the discussion. Why is this so? Very simple, I'm not modeling steam, so I cannot pretend to give any advice in this area.

    Actually I own a handful of steam locomotives because, as a train fan, I cannot miss to have some iconic locos such as a Big-Boy (Athearn), a Cab-forward (Intermountain), a Shay (Atlas) and an American 4-4-0 (Atlas). Add to this a German steam locomotive from a Minitrix starter-set, and this is almost it.
    My Big-Boy and Cab-Forward were already DCC-sound equipped, so I did not even try to see what is under the shell. The Atlas 4-4-0 and Shay are definitely not DCC-Ready. My German Minitrix is fitted with a 6-pin connector in the tender, so really DCC-Ready.
    I also recently acquired a Kato FEF that interestingly can be turned to DCC through a Digitrax replacement board, like all the Diesel locomotives. Proper installation of the speaker that comes with this Digitrax sound-decoder is another story....

    This being said, from what I've read, steam locomotives are for most of them non-DCC-Ready, and if they are, a 8-pin NMRA plug in the tender seems to the most common design - with the exception of the Kato FEF mentioned above.

    I'm obviously very interested by any feedback with regards to steam locomotives and will update my article accordingly.

    Cheers,

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    @AlanUS

    Thank you for the reply and again for the informative article. There seem to be some shades of DCC readiness with steam as well. Many Bachmann steam locomotives are listed as DCC ready for example. For some, this simply means that there is space provided in the locomotive for locating a small decoder that has to be otherwise wired / soldered in to the headlight, motor and frame halves, and for others it means that there is a board in the tender designed to have a decoder wired / soldered in it. For many Con-Cor steam locomotives, yes, DCC ready means there is an 8 pin socket into which a decoder may be plugged. It could prove more helpful to a broader range of modelers to cover both, but it is understood why you weren't able to do so.
    ~ Moose (Co-founder of the Mt. Tahoma & Pacific Railroad, located some where in the Pacific Northwest)

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    @Moose2013

    Thank you for the feedback. I'll do some research and update the article in order to address steam.

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    Quote Originally Posted by gdmichaels View Post
    Ready
    Ready can mean a number of things, ranging from very close to the ‘Friendly’ definition (above) to very easy, such as plugging in a NMRA 6-pin (NEM651) decoder. I provide a number of examples (below) to illustrate this range.

    What the DCC ready designation says is that the motor is isolated from the frame. In other words, the frame isn't a part of the motor circuit.

    If you look back at some of the early split frame designs, they really were nothing more than two hunks of metal with the wheels on each side touching one half and one motor brush connecting to each side. Lights were sometimes just sandwiched in between the two frame halves too ( especially back in the Incandescent light bulb days, where polarity didn't matter.)

    Paul

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    Quote Originally Posted by pbender View Post
    What the DCC ready designation says is that the motor is isolated from the frame. In other words, the frame isn't a part of the motor circuit.
    @pbender

    Well Paul, what you write is my definition of 'DCC Friendly'. For me, and certainly for many, 'DCC Ready' means more than that. Therefore the article...

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    Quote Originally Posted by AlanUS View Post
    Thank you for the feedback. I'll do some research and update the article in order to address steam.
    You're welcome Alan. Moose look forward to it.
    ~ Moose (Co-founder of the Mt. Tahoma & Pacific Railroad, located some where in the Pacific Northwest)

    "Beware the Train of Thought that Carries no Freight..."

    "Reading is for morons who can't understand pictures..."

    Click Here to See Moose's Layout Thread

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    Quote Originally Posted by AlanUS View Post
    @pbender

    Well Paul, what you write is my definition of 'DCC Friendly'. For me, and certainly for many, 'DCC Ready' means more than that. Therefore the article...
    That may be, but this is what some manufacturers mean when they put "DCC ready" on the box.

    Paul

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    Quote Originally Posted by pbender View Post
    That may be, but this is what some manufacturers mean when they put "DCC ready" on the box.
    This is exactly the purpose of the article to try and explain the large variety that is behind this kind of statement. This is also why Mark @Spookshow has established a ranking. The 'DCC Friendly' is the lowest of the 'DCC Ready' type, with sometimes nothing more than the definition that you have recalled.
    I checked a few locos from my roster and the marking on the box related to 'DCC Ready' is very diverse. For example, Atlas are still selling their RS-3 under the "Classic" branding without any mention of DCC on the box. This RS-3 is actually "DCC Friendly" but installing a decoder in it is not a beginner's job. The other Atlas engines that accept drop-in decoders are marked 'Decoder Ready'. The 2006 Life-Like GP38-2 that I have described in the article has no mentioned what so ever related to DCC on the box.
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    European manufacturers usually state the kind of plug (i.e., NEM 651, for example ) when they say DCC ready. Of course that doesn't mean that there is room for a speaker. That's a whole 'nother issue.
    Cheers!
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    The article echoes what I've been saying for years. Why do U.S. manufacturers persist with replacement light boards that are practically custom made for every manufacturer (and different locomotives from the same manufacturer) when every N scale diesel, electric and steam locomotive, even some of the smallest ones, made for the British and European markets for the last several years comes as true 'plug n play'? Decoder manufacturers only need to make one type of decoder and it fits everything.

    Bachmann even make their British locomotives with standard DCC sockets unlike their U.S. locomotives.

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    Quote Originally Posted by westfalen View Post
    <...>Bachmann even make their British locomotives with standard DCC sockets unlike their U.S. locomotives.
    Fully agree. And BTW Kato does the same: sockets for European models and replacement boards for US ones.

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    Fun fact: In HO scale, complaints go exactly the other way round... German manufacturers supposedly put vendor-specific stuff on their PCBs and use proprietary connectors to connect proprietary decoders, US manufacturers have a standard socket...

    Heiko

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    Quote Originally Posted by Heiko View Post
    Fun fact: In HO scale, <>... German manufacturers supposedly put vendor-specific stuff on their PCBs and use proprietary connectors to connect proprietary decoders, <>...
    This trend is unfortunately not limited to HO. See mTc14 (14 pin) that is only used by Minitrix.
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    Quote Originally Posted by AlanUS View Post
    Fully agree. And BTW Kato does the same: sockets for European models and replacement boards for US ones.
    Yes, I was surprised a while back when a club member bought a Kato TGV Duplex and asked if I could assist with DCC installation, when we took the shells off the power cars it was "Hey there's a six pin socket in here!"

    But then Kato are strange. I have yet to see any documentation on their website or in the instruction sheets that come with them that every U.S. observation car they have made since the Super Chief has a slot for the Kato FL12 decoder to operate the marker lights/drum head and back up light if it has one.

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    Quote Originally Posted by westfalen View Post
    Kato FL12 decoder ...
    I have a few of these observation cars, but did not even consider adding this very special decoder into them.
    Function decoders are another family that I did not consider in my article. They can be very specialized like this Kato one, but usually they come with wires. Another form factor for light decoders that is quite convenient, IMHO, is LED strip with DCC, like ESU 50708/50709 or Digikeijs DR80010.
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    @AlanUS thank you for such a detailed and informative article. I'm slowly easing in to N Scale with my previous model railroading experience being in HO (strictly DC) about 15 years ago. I'm a total newbie with even the idea of DCC (and still haven't decided which system I even want to look into) -- I've been hesitant to look at many locomotives that don't have DCC decoders already installed.

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