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Thread: Upgrading my Challenger: A new decoder, headlight LED, and shortening the drawbar...

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    Default Upgrading my Challenger: A new decoder, headlight LED, and shortening the drawbar...

    I took a break from February’s scenicking to work on my Athearn Challenger. You might remember this as the loco in which I installed a factory replacement motor late last year. I wanted to make three “upgrades” to my challenger:

    (1) Upgrade the first generation Tsunami decoder for a Tsunami 2 steam 2 decoder (this was my 4th Tsunami 2 install);

    (2) Swap the dim “pumpkin orange” factory LEDs illuminating the headlight and backup light for warm white LEDs; and

    (3) Shorten the tender drawbar to more closely couple the tender to the loco.

    In preparation, I searched the internet for other’s experiences with these or similar mods to N scale Challengers or Big Boys. I found three sites describing decoder installations/replacements in these Athearn locos, two installing Loksound decoders (here and here) and one installing a TCS decoder (here).

    Although I found a couple of references to close coupling an Athearn challenger, none described how or showed pics. I found NOTHING on changing the headlight LED on the N scale challenger or big boy.

    I thought I would share MY experience, hoping that it might help others wanting to make modifications to their Challengers or Big Boys. I took a fair number of pics along the way... in hindsight, there are other pics I SHOULD have taken, but didn’t. I also will refer to the exploded parts diagram in the user manual that came with the model. But there are a few places I will just have to use words to describe what I did...

    As usual, this will be a fairly long series of posts (I have never been accused of being succinct). So you might hold comments or questions until I get the last bit posted...

    PART 1: REPLACING THE DECODER

    Step 1: Removing the tender shell, back and body. The first step is to remove the tender shell... not nearly as easy as on the Kato FEF-3. There are two screws on the top of the tender shell... one is hidden under the oil/coal bunker. First remove the toolbox behind the bunker (its friction held by two pegs), and then the bunker top can be slid back, up, and out to reveal the screw. The second screw is under the rearmost water hatch, again friction held by pegs (the following image was taken AFTER the tender work was completed, just to show the screws).

    001 Tender.jpg

    There are also two screws on the underside of the tender, flanking the coupler pocket. These anchor the back of the shell, which is a separate piece. I am not sure it is essential, but I also removed the screw holding the coupler (and the coupler). Once all 5 screws are removed and set aside for safekeeping, the back of the tender can be tilted outward from the top, and slid up and out. The main part of the tender shell can then be slid backward, tilted up, and removed, leaving only the front of the tender in place.

    Step 2: Removing the decoder and speaker. The factory decoder is removed by removing a single screw, in the tender center post. Wires from the loco connect to the decoder thru a 5 prong plug (more about that later). On my challenger, the plug fit quite tightly, and there wasn’t a ton of slack in the wires... even after removing the screw that holds the decoder, I couldn’t really get sufficient hold of the plug to pull it with fingers or forceps. I used a jeweler’s screwdriver to wedge the plug out, working on one side then the other until it was loose enough for me to unplug. The decoder is attached to the speaker thru another plug... but I just removed the two screws holding the speaker to its enclosure, and removed the decoder/speaker as one assembly.

    002 Tender open.jpg

    003 decoder unplugged.jpg

    005 Factory decoder and speaker.jpg

    Note that there was NO GASKET sealing the speaker to the enclosure. One might improve the sound quality of the factory speaker by installing a gasket or sealing the speaker to the enclosure using caulking or liquid electrical tape. I had already decided to use a 13mm x 18mm sugarcube speaker and enclosure from SBS, so I removed the factory speaker enclosure and the weight mounted in the rear half of the tender... each was held to the tender chassis by a single screw. Removing the speaker enclosure and factory weight eliminated ~28 grams (g) of weight from the tender... I’ll come back to that later.

    Step 3: Removing the front of the tender and stripping the chassis. I decided to replace the wires between the loco and tender, eliminating the 5 prong plug and hardwiring the loco to the tender. I also planned to shorten the drawbar (objective #3). These required removing the front of the tender. Altho’ (surprisingly) the front of the tender is only held by the front grab rails, its removal still proved troublesome. The grab rails on my model were deeply inserted into holes in the tender chassis, AND glued. In getting them free, I actually the tender stirrup step on one side... and will have to order a new step assembly from Athearn (fortunately, they do have it in stock).

    I neglected to take photos of the drawbar assembly and its removal. The “Y-shaped” end of the drawbar (see Spookshow’s review) is attached to the tender via a screw in a wide V-shaped slot at the branched end of the Y, and is sprung with a short spring with a loop slipped over the forward screw post. The “Y” is then covered by a cover plate held by two screws. To remove the drawbar, remove the screws holding the cover plate, lift off the plate, remove the screw holding the drawbar, and gently lift the drawbar off, sliding the spring off the screw post as you do. Set them aside in a safe place (don’t lose the spring!).

    006 stripped chassis.jpg

    Step 4: some re-wiring, and making a platform for the new decoder and speaker. So, here is the disconnected, stripped tender chassis. You can see the six wires carrying track power, 4 from the rear truck and two from the front truck. Note that all are BLACK! The screws holding the plastic brackets for rear truck wheel wipers (red arrows) stick up above the tender floor... to clear them, I decided to make a platform out of styrene. Test fitting the decoder, speaker, capacitors, and some weights suggested that all would fit better (and neater) if I removed the tender center post, which I did with a cutting wheel and my ancient Dremel (after removing the wheel wipes to avoid damaging them).

    007 off with the centerpost.jpg

    At this point, I decided to replace all the factory wires carrying track power with red and black color-coded fine gauge wire... cleaning the rear tender wheel wipes (note the gunk!) before re-installing them.

    008 Rear truck pickup.jpg

    I also want to note that the electrical connections to the front tender truck can sometimes short across the truck spring (this happened on my challenger when I first got it, and I have seen a couple other posts on the web discussing the problem). Before re-wiring the front truck, I used a pair of nippers to trim the solder lug a bit, and then after soldering the new leads (I removed the contacts from the truck frame before soldering!), I gave them a good coating of liquid electrical tape.

    010 front tender truck 2.jpg

    After re-installing the rear truck wheel wipers and front truck, I fashioned a platform out of sheet styrene on strip styrene risers to clear the screws. I made the center cut outs sufficiently large that, in principle, I can remove the rear truck wipers for maintenance. Wires carrying power from the rear truck are routed forward under the platform to the front of the tender.

    011 raised floor.jpg

    Step 5: A new backup light. The factory backup light was mounted on the decoder, and thus had to be replaced. I super glued a pre-wired 402 SMD warm white LED to the back of the backup light lens in the rear of the tender shell. I glued a small collar, made from shrink tubing, around the lens. I backfilled the collar with Microscale Krystal Klear. After it was “dry,” I painted it first with gold paint for reflectance, and then with flat black paint, as a light seal.

    012 Backup light.jpg

    Continued in next post...

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    Continued from previous post...

    Step 6: Fitting, capacitors, speaker, weights, and the new decoder. In my FEF-3 decoder install, I used a 1000 microfarad (uF) capacitor as a “keep alive” to prevent sound cutouts from dirty track or turnouts. In the challenger, however, I decided to use two 220 uF capacitors wired in parallel, situated behind (and kapton taped to) the rear screw post. In front of that is the 13mm x 18mm sugar cube speaker and enclosure from SBS. The enclosure started as a double height, but had to be cut down to fit the speaker just below the top of the screw post... but it’s still about 1.5X larger than the standard enclosure. The bottom of the enclosure is “tacked” by four TINY spots of super glue to the floor platform, with the idea that I should be able to gently break it free if I need to access the wheel wipers for maintenance. I also tacked 14 grams of lead car weights (remember, I removed 28 g) to the platform with Krystal Klear (should be easier to remove than super glue).

    013 weights and speaker.jpg

    The Tsunami 2 steam 2 decoder is situated on top of the lead car weights (to which it is taped). The function 3 & 4 leads have been clipped (sufficiently long that I can solder to them if needed in the future) and sealed with liquid electrical tape. The blue (common function plus), ground (green- and yellow-striped) and backup light minus (yellow), wires are routed over the decoder to the back of the tender and soldered to the capacitors and/or backup LED. A 1000 ohm resistor for the backup LED in the yellow wire can just be seen under the tape on top of the decoder.

    014 Decoder install.jpg

    There are just five wires carrying current between the loco and tender: red/right track power, orange/right power to motor, white/headlight minus, grey/left power to motor, and black/left track power. In my install, the orange, white, and grey wires from the decoder pass uninterrupted out the front of the tender to the loco PCB (more on that below). The red and black wires carrying track power from the loco to the tender have to be joined to the red and black power inputs to decoder and three red/three black wires from the tender truck pickups.

    All FIVE of the wires between loco and tender pass thru two SMALL holes (red arrows) in the tender chassis UNDER the drawbar mounting “pad.” I put the red & orange wires thru the right hole, black, grey, and white thru the left hole... which was barely large enough for the three wires to pass. The five wires are then gathered together thru a “collar” of sorts at the front of the tender chassis. To join the five red wires and five black wires, I made two small power buses out of PCB tie material (green arrow). After the wires were soldered to the power buses (five wires per side!), each bus was liberally painted with liquid electrical tape. Note that all five of the wires passing out of the tender have to lie FLAT in a recess in the floor under the drawbar, so as not to foul the drawbar as it moves side to side.

    015 Test (left).jpg

    016 Test (right).jpg

    Note that there are ONLY FIVE WIRES carrying power between the loco and tender... there is no blue/function common plus wire. A pair of diodes on the loco PCB (I’ll point them out later) creates a “virtual blue wire” circuit, using rectified track power from both rails to supply the common plus function for the headlamp circuit (more about “virtual blue wire” here).

    I tested the sound and backup LED at this point, making sure everything worked as planned before proceeding...

    PART 2: SHORTENING THE DRAWBAR AND COUPLING THE TENDER TO THE LOCO

    Step 1: First, you have to disconnect the draw bar from the loco. The drawbar connects to the loco via an upward facing post on part 47 (called the “frame” in the manual, but I’ll call it the drawbar “retainer”) on the exploded parts drawing on page 4 of the user manual. The retainer is held to the loco chassis by two screws (red arrows). You MIGHT be able to detach the drawbar by simply loosening the screws that hold the retainer... but I was doing a complete rewire, so needed to completely remove it. To remove the retainer, you need to first detach some piping detail (part 48) on the right/engineer’s side. Part 48 is held by posts inserted into holes in the retainer and in the loco chassis, but appeared to be lightly glued on my model. Be careful, the piping is delicate! The wires from the loco also pass thru a hole in the retainer and under a clip (part 49)... since I was replacing the factory wires, I removed the clip and completely removed the factory wires (after unsoldering them from the loco main PCB)

    Step 2: I cut a small (~2 mm) piece out of the drawbar, on the loco side of the bend. After truing up the cut ends, I glued the drawbar back together with super glue, and then used super glue gel to cement a small reinforcing shim cut/bent out of sheet brass to span the cut. The red arrow points to the cut in the plastic drawbar... the reinforcement should be on the top surface of the drawbar and must be short enough to not interfere with connection to the loco.

    017 drawbar 2.jpg

    Step 3: To re-attach the drawbar to the tender, slip the spring loop over the forward tender screw post and slide it down, insert the Y-shaped end of the drawbar into its recess, and insert the drawbar connecting screw. Then install the drawbar cover plate with its two screws. You can now reattach the tender shell... front (just sets in place, but has to have the main shell fit OVER it), top & sides (slide forward and down... you might need top gently pry the sides open a bit), and back (bottom first, at a slight tilt, then tilt forward to fit into the sides).

    018 Tender (assembled).jpg

    Step 4: I then re-connected the tender drawbar to the loco. The five wires from the tender pass thru the holes in the tender floor (green arrows), thru the collar at the front of the tender, make short bend of slack, and then pass thru a hole in the draw bar retainer, just aft of the rear screw. Before passing thru the hole, they are gathered by the clip (asterisk; part 49) clipped to the retainer.

    019 Wires to loco.jpg

    After passing thru the retainer, the wires are again divided and passed thru two holes behind the backhead... you will see these from the top in the next pic. Once the wires have been threaded thru all the holes, you can slip the drawbar between the retainer and the bottom of the chassis, slip the hole over the post on the retainer, and re-insert/tighten the two screws that hold the retainer.

    Note that the convoluted path of the wires between the tender and loco makes adjusting the loop of wire that allows flexure between the tender a real PITA. To lengthen or shorten the loop, you more or less have to loosen/remove the retainer and clip, tug or push the wires first thru the loco chassis, then thru the retainer... then try to get it all back together w/o the drawbar disconnecting, and then re-inert the clip.

    The next image shows the five wires coming thru the two holes (red arrows), one either side behind the back head. The wires were then soldered to the labeled solder pads on the loco PCB...

    020 Wires up thru floor.jpg

    ...and off to the layout for testing! Power on, no short, no “magic smoke released?” CHECK! Sound on? CHECK! Headlight and backup light work? CHECK! Apply forward throttle? And the loco ran slowly and smoothly IN REVERSE!? Apply reverse throttle? The loco ran slowly and smoothly FORWARD!? OOPS!

    Continued in next post...

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    Continued from previous post...

    Obviously, the wires had been inverted somewhere... I essentially ran color coded wires straight from the decoder to the loco, so could not see anywhere my wiring could have been reversed. I think the cause of the direction inversion was mis-wiring when the loco made a trip back to China for refurbishment... it had it’s front power truck replaced, which likely required removing the main PCB. I think the wires carrying motor power from the tender to the PCB (labeled M1 and M2 on the PCB; red arrows on this pic from my motor replacement thread) were inadvertantly reversed when the loco was re-assembled at the factory (the wires are both black, how can you tell which is which?). To correct the problem, I think the factory then reversed the leads from the motor to the M1 and M2 solder tabs near the motor (green arrows). SO, when I re-wired the tender connections correctly, the reversed motor leads inverted the throttle directions. The simple “FIX” was to simply swap the motor leads (green arrows), correcting the throttle direction. (The following image is from my thread on replacing the motor)

    020 from motor replacement.jpg

    At this point, everything was together... I spent substantial time test running the loco around my layout. It ran perfectly around the main line and passing sidings, and most of the switches in the yards... but the REAR of the tender kept derailing on a couple of “Y” switches leading to the engine yard. My first thought was to lengthen the loop of slack wire between the tender and loco, which I did. I then remembered that I had removed 28g from the tender, and only replaced it with 14g of car weights. Moreover, a large factory tender weight sat right over the last three axles of the rear tender truck... but the 14g of weight I added was in the forward ½ of the tender. So I also tacked a 7g car weight (with cutouts filed clear the backup light and coupler screw) to the rear of the tender with Krystal Klear.

    021 Tender weight.jpg

    I don’t know which of these mods solved the derailment issue... or if both contributed. But the tender now tracks thru all the turnouts on my layout.

    So, here’s a pic of everything assembled... shortening the drawbar by ~2mm leaves about 2mm HORIZONTAL distance between the rear deck of the loco and front deck of the tender.

    022 tender spacing.jpg

    Close coupling did improve the appearance of the loco/tender (sorry I don’t have a before pic)... The loco deck and tender deck are also offset vertically, so one MIGHT be able to shorten the drawbar by another millimeter of two, and I might try this in the future (perhaps making a shorter, one piece, drawbar from brass or styrene). However, I don’t know this would affect tracking of the tender...

    Continued in next post...

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    Continued from previous post...

    PART 3: SWAPPING THE HEADLIGHT LED.

    From the factory, my challenger came with dim “pumpkin orange” headlight and backup light. The backup light LED was on the factory decoder PCB, and I have already described mounting a warm white SMD LED in the backup light inside the rear tender shell. Now I just (!) had to swap the headlight LED. The user manual that came with my 2017 release challenger had not been updated from previous releases, and still showed what appeared to be an incandescent bulb located just under the headlight housing. A web search turned up ZERO info on the location of the headlight LED in the N-scale Challengers or Big Boys... just the HO version. So began my journey of exploration and disassembly...

    Step 1 was to remove the headlight housing... the exploded diagram of the loco superstructure suggested that the headlamp housing would pull straight up and out of the pilot assembly... and that it does.

    031 headlamp 1.jpg

    I was hoping to find the LED accessible inside, but no joy! Along with the headlight housing came a short light pipe that fits into a well formed by the frame of the front power track and pilot deck. The light pipe easily slides out the bottom of the lamp housing.

    032 headlamp 2.jpg

    Once the light pipe was removed, I used a bent wire to (easily) poke the lens from out of the housing from the inside, and painted the inside of the housing gold for reflectance. I then used Krsytal Clear to cement a pre-wired 402 SMD warm white LED into the headlamp housing. After filling the housing with Krystal Klear, I re-installed the headlamp lens, and set the assembly aside to “dry.”

    Step 2: The next step in looking for the factory headlight LED was to remove the pilot... this first required removing the two airpumps from underneath each side of the pilot. The airpumps are each held by two pegs...

    033 airpump.jpg

    ...which pass thru two holes in the brackets of the pump shield, and thence into holes the forward frame of the pilot beam extending from the front power truck.

    034 airpump shield.jpg

    Once the pumps are removed, the pump shield can be lifted up and off the pilot. The pilot itself is held by two round pegs that fit down into holes in the front frame...

    035 pilot.jpg

    Once the pump shield is removed, the pilot can be rocked back and forth until it lifts off the font of the frame, revealing the LED board (red arrow) recessed into the front of the front power truck frame.

    036 circuit board.jpg

    The LED board was recessed too far back for me to access with a soldering iron to simply swap the factory SMD LED for a new one. I tried to gently grasp the LED PCB and pull it forward far enough for soldering... destroying the factory LED in the process. Unfortunately, there was NO SLACK in the wires feeding power to the board... The wires originate at the main PCB atop the chassis, pass down thru a hole in the chassis, and then run along INSIDE the pilot extension of the front power truck. The screw fastening the front cylinder block to the power truck passes thru the wire channel, apparently tightly anchoring the wires. In trying to pull the LED PCB forward sufficiently for soldering, I broke one of the solder joints connecting the LED PCB to its wire leads...

    The only way I could see to access the wires directly, for repair or replacement, was to drop out the entire power front power truck from the loco chassis, not something I really wanted to do anyway. So, I had to come up with another plan...

    Step 3: re-wiring the front headlight. First, I pulled the broken wire out from the back... working with forceps back where the wires pass between the bottom of the boiler/chassis and the top of the front power truck. Quite a cramped space... I unpinned one of the articulated steam lines from the steam chest to give better access on one side... The wire came out “skinned,” leaving much of its insulation inside. I then tried to use the remaining, unbroken wire to pull the magnet wired leads from a pre-wired 402 SMD warm white LED back thru the wire channel... without success.

    So, here’s the final “work around” I came up with:

    I re-installed the pilot, and drilled a tiny (probably #76 or #78 drill bit) hole... just large enough for the magnet wire leads of a pre-wired 402 SMD LED in the bottom of the pocket previously occupied by the light pipe and LED PCB. I threaded the leads from the LED/headlight thru this hole (a practical tip... it’s easier to thread two fine leads thru a small hole together if you temporarily solder them together ).

    038 Headlight insertion.jpg

    I routed the leads along the UNDERSIDE of the plastic power truck frame, skirting the screw post/bolster for the pilot truck.

    039 LED wire under front drive truck.jpg

    I drilled another small hole in the bottom of the power truck frame, exactly opposite the hole on the top of the frame where the original factory wires entered the power truck, and threaded the LED leads up thru this hole and thru the frame, into the space between the power truck and boiler/chassis. The leads were tacked to the bottom of the frame with three small blobs of liquid electrical tape, visible in the previous pic, and then painted over them with engine black acrylic paint.

    The ends of the leads were then threaded up thru the hole/channel in the metal chassis... this part was just a little tricky. The fine magnet wire leads kept bending and ending up in other places. Finally, I ended up pulling the leads out to the side. I threaded a piece of 4 lb test fishing line (6X leader tippet, for the fly fisherman) DOWN thru the hole in the chassis, tied it thru and around the end of the LED leads (which are soldered together), and PULLED the leads up thru the chassis, leaving just enough slack for the power truck to pivot as the loco negotiates turns and inclines. I then soldered the leads to the correct pads on the main PCB. In this photo, I am about to reconnect the articulated steam line to the steam chest (It's just held with a small, press-fit pin).

    041 LED wires connected.jpg

    Continued in next post...
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    Continued from previous post...

    The final task was to swap out the current dropping resistor for the headlight, located towards the rear of the main PCB. The factory resistor was labeled “510"... if I read the code correctly, that is only 51 ohms (51 x 10^0 =51?), insufficient to protect the LED. I replaced it with a 1000 ohm SMD (labeled 102, code for 10 x 10^2 = 1000?; the "old" resistor is sitting loose next to a pack of replacements)...

    043 resistor.jpg

    042 LED resistor swapped.jpg

    I don’t know how others unsolder these tiny things, but here’s how I did it:

    I wedged the point of a very fine scalpel blade (hobby knife will do) under the edge of the SMD component. I then touched the tip of my iron to one solder pad... as soon as I saw the solder melt, I twisted the scalpel, wedging one end of the component out of the solder pool, removing the iron so the solder would solidify. I then grasped the component with fine watchmaker’s forceps, and melted the other solder pad, quickly removing the component and the soldering iron.

    In the previous image, the red arrow points to the new resistor. The blue arrows point to what I believe to be the two diodes of the "virtual blue wire" circuit (tho' I did not try to trace out the circuit).

    Here’s the final result...

    044 with swapped LED.jpg

    a nice, warm white headlamp. In this pic, the headlight is actually dimmed while the loco is stationary. I use the “Master Brightness (CV 64)” and “Dimmer level (CV63)” controls of the Tsunami 2 decoder to adjust the brightness levels “to taste.”

    Overall, I am pleased with the result of all three mods. (As I expected), the “old style” open frame motor installed in the challenger doesn’t work quite as well with the BEMF-triggered “dynamic digital exhaust” effects of the Tsunami 2 decoder as the coreless motors in my other locos... but I can hear the effects. This could result from the higher current draw of the challenger motor (easily 3X that of the coreless motors), or just that the challenger motor generates more torque, and thus responds less to load than the coreless motors. I am contemplating swapping in a coreless motor in the future (I have a thought on how to do it)... but have a few other projects to work on first. I still have to replace the tender stirrup step... I am hoping to do that w/o complete disassembling the tender again.

    If you have made it this far, thanks for reading. You deserve a medal! I hope at least some of the info will help others contemplating similar upgrades to their Athearn articulated locos!

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    Still playing with the sounds and drive parameters... but am pretty happy with it so far. Much improved over the sound and drive characteristics of the factory 1st gen Tsunami decoder.

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    That looks and sounds great!
    Northern Pacific and Black Hills RR in N, of course!!
    Aian, CEO, COO, Engineer, Gopher and everything else!

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    What Aian said - it does look great and does sound great as well ... great job!
    Cheers Tony

    "Knowing what to do is one thing ... being able to do it is another"
    "It is easy to criticize ... a lot harder when you have to justify it"

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