Track Power and Wiring Your Layout

 

Quick links to major topics on this page:

Overview:

My first advice: Stop worrying about the cost. Good track will last 20 years, and is basically a one-time investment. Don't scrimp and you will enjoy your hobby every time you run trains. 

Many people try to cut costs and wind up in a situation where there is poor operation and relaibility and it basically takes a complete re-do to make the layout run better.

Examples are:

  • Brass rail used in an environment where it oxidizes or even corrodes quickly.. the only solution is start over.
  • Using over the joiner clamps where grit and dirt make the joiner not work. Clamping dirt does not help!
  • Not using enough feeders and then covering over the access for more feeders with concrete, etc.

 If you are going to run track power, it really does not matter much what you are running (DC, DCC, DCS, etc.), except that you will need heavier wiring if you will be running more locos or longer trains.

Getting power to the track:

You will need feeders, and you want each feeder a "home run" from the power source to the point on the track where you connect, do NOT "daisy chain". Daisy chaining means you have multiple feeds sharing one wire at some point, so your reliability goes down, but more importantly, you can be running more current through the "shared" wire.

G scale trains run at higher currents and voltages than smaller trains. Don't forget lighted passenger cars can take one amp each!

I recommend nothing less than 12 gauge wire, and I use 10 gauge every 30-40 feet on my Aristo stainless steel rail (which has more voltage drop than brass).

For outdoors, I also recommend solid core wire, not stranded. Stranded wire has much more surface area to corrode or be attacked, and if moisture gets into the wire, it can travel "up" inside the jacket because of the spaces between the strands. 

If you are starting out, put conduit around the track, then you can use inexpensive household solid core 10 gauge wire, which is thinner and much cheaper than the "landscaping wire" with the thick rubber jacket.

If you insist on using stranded wire, solder the ends to a ring terminal, and then dip or cover in "liquid electrical tape" so moisture cannot creep up the insulation, and cannot attack the strands.

If you use solid wire, then you can just clamp it to the rails. Split Jaw makes an excellent clamp for this:

At first glance, this looks like a standard clamp, but notice the extra piece of metal bolted the near side. There is a small vertical "V groove" in the brass piece nearest in the picture. This is where the wire is clamped. This is simple, easy to attach and remove, and if the wire corrodes, just cut it off and strip a bit more. 

If you use stranded wire, then there are clamps to attach a ring terminal to:


Conductivity between rail sections:

Now you need to make sure power flows between the separate sections of track. In general, the "stock" solution that comes with the track/rail sucks.

On LGB track, there is a large slip on joiner. It fits the rail well and when greased to keep dirt, grit and water out, can work OK for a while.

On Aristo and USAT track, the rail ends are tapped for 2 tiny socket head screws. The rail joiner fits loosely on the rails, and the screws secure ONE side of the joiner to the rail. The electrical contact is from the rail, through the threads to the head of the screw which presses against the joiner, then across the joiner, through the other screw head through the threads and back into the rail. They just do not work well at all.

To make matters worse, one of the holes in the joiner is slotted to allow manufacturing tolerances. So everything really rests on the screw head being down really tight on the joiner, and it's a small conduction point for 5 or 10 amps!

Other manufacturers usually supply slip-on joiners that are close to LGB in style and quality.

Inexpensive solutions:

For brass or nickel silver track, you can solder wire jumpers between rail sections. This works well for many people. The downside is you have to learn to solder big thick conductors without melting the plastic ties. A resistance soldering iron, or a regular iron with a big tip/body works well.

Don't use acid flux, use regular electronic soldering solder and flux (normally in the solder).

Since solder itself is not strong, soldered connections can fracture after a while if there is a lot of expansion or contraction. The soldered connections can corrode, depending on your environment, since you have dissimilar metals in contact.

Other inexpensive solutions are to just use the stock joiners and keep messing with them as they age. Not recommended. If you do this, be sure to put grease in the joiner. The grease is not conductive (yes, I know it says so on the LGB tube!). The grease just serves to keep moisture and air out of the joint, which will REDUCE corrosion and oxidation.


A better solution: Rail Clamps

I strongly recommend using rail clamps.

There are two "top" manufacturers in my opinion: (but check out "Uncle Herme's" clamps after this part)

The manufacturer I recommend is Split Jaw (http://www.railclamp.com) . I used to recomment Hillmans also, but they are currently out of business. 

For brass track, they are pretty much equal, use what you can get a good deal on, and you like.

For stainless, the Split Jaw are solid stainless. Richard Hillman always had a few of each type nickle plated on production runs.

There have been no reported problems with the plating, but I've had it start to go on some rail I left power on 24/7 (picture needed).

Split Jaw

They use 6-32 stainless steel cap screws to hold things together. The screws are larger and the hex driver is larger than the Hillman clamps. This DOES make a difference in how long the ball end drivers last, since there's very little meat on the "ball end" of the driver. I bought the smaller driver for the Hillmans twice as often as the Split Jaw ones.

Hillman's Rail Clamps

Hillmans was sold to Silvergate, went out of business. In 2010, Hillman's was sold to Alan M. Stewart.  The new company was to continue to use the Hillman’s Rail Clamp brand name.  Manufacturing was to  continue to be done in the US at the new location in Florence, South Carolina.  The website went up, but now in 2016 just says the store is currently unavailable. 

This was good news, because when Silvergate bought out Hillman, supply was poor, and I could no longer get the nickle plated ones. I inquired and was sent an email that "We can special make these for you, but unfortunately we don't have plans to send out any items to be plated in the near future.".

Many people have complained about the Hillmans breaking, and over the years it has been proven that they break more easily than the Split Jaw. A mechanical engineer can tell you about "stress risers" from making a square notch for the rail foot. The square notch makes a lot of stress as the tapered foot is pressed into it.

 From Richard Hillman:

The RailClamps are plated using an electroplating progress and should hold up very well.  We have not had a problem in the 15 years we have been selling them.

We do have a RailClamp that is brass that will fit the Aristo Stainless Steel with Stainless steel screws that is a 3 piece RailClamps. The number is 332/332 SAN. I don't think it is on the web page.  Don't sell many of them. 

The standard 332-01 will not fit the Aristo Stainless Steel rail because it is different than Aristo Brass rail.

Uncle Herm's Track Joiners:

http://trackjoiners.com/

These look very close to the Hillman joiners, and are made of the same materials, brass with SS screws. $1.50 each as of December 2009. Available in both 332 and 250. I have not used these personally, but from the pictures, I would assume they are the same quality level as Hillman, and many people have given positive comments. They have been in business since 1991, but I guess they have not advertised a lot.

They have a nicely designed power clamp that will clamp wire to the joiner without any other lugs or hardware. They also make an insulating clamp.

Other brands of clamps/joiners:

There are others out there, but many do not do as good a job aligning the rails, or have a complete product line, or use Philips head screws that cannot be torqued down as well. For all the work involved, the cost savings of these types just were not worth it to me.

Aristo clamps

Aristo makes some inexpensive ones, but they break easily, the holes are too close to the edges of the extrusions. As usual with Aristo products, quality control is spotty, and some batches are fine and some are bad. Lately though, the biggest problem, that the screw holes are too close to the edge of the clamp, has been much better.

(need picture here)

SanVal

Sanval made some, they relied on 4 screws in a SS plate, sturdy, but not good in aligning the rails in my opinion. They work over the joiner, and it's my opinion that the conductivity problem is between the joiner and the rails, so adding pressure to a dirt-filled joiner is not real helpful.

Train-Li

Train-Li makes some similar in design to the Aristo, but better quality in metal and workmanship.


Comments / experience / tips:

Now that I have had my Aristo stainless steel track on the ground for almost 10 years, for stainless, I recommend only the Split-Jaw, and no other plated clamp. After taking up track that has been down for several years, the clamps acquire gunk and surface rust. A wire brush on a drill gets them back to factory new, but if you did this on plated clamps, the plating would be gone.

While I prefer stainless on stainless, there is no reason that the brass joiners would have any trouble on the stainless rail, and this could save you enough money it could make the difference between clamps or no clamps for some individuals. Many people have reported success this way.

I use Split Jaw rail clamps. I prefer SJ's for several reasons:

  • The socket head is large, thus a larger driver, less chance of stripping the socket.
  • The socket head is larger, a larger driver is easier to use
  • A larger socket has less chance of stripping out
  • A larger socket can take more torque
  • The "split jaws" allow better clamping and rail alignment
  • The split jaw clamps are designed for the slightly different contour of the Aristo rail foot
  • The SJ's are solid SS, not nickle plated brass (just a personal choice)

When using clamps I have found it is best to lube the screw threads with a good grease. This is especially important when using clamps where the screws are the same material as the clamp. 

The ball-end drivers are very convenient, but the smaller contact area (ground away to make the ball end) causes them to wear faster. Get a allen wrench to do the final tightening, and especially loosening of joiners that have been on for a while. The split jaw ones are 7/64" a weird size. The Hillman ones are smaller.

Tips for installation:

First, get the ball end driver for starting and tight areas.

When you put the clamps on, the ideal placement is with the screws pointing out on each rail.

There are times when you cannot get to the screws this way, when you are close to a wall or plant, or on switches.

Put a piece of shrink tubing on the ball driver shaft if you work on the rails with "live" power. I run DCC and the power is always on.

If you have to put a clamp on such that you have to access it "across" another rail, put that clamp on first, then run the driver shaft under the first rail to get to the clamp on the "far rail". This will give you the straightest shot to the screws. Then put the clamp on the rail nearest you.

Remember that you just open up the clamp and put it on rails. There is no need to separate the rail ends to put the clamp on.

Before installing new clamps, run the screws all the way in and out with the ball driver until they spin freely, no "catches". Then spray the entire clamp with an anticorrosive spray lubricant, something that will leave a lubricating film. I would recommend a good lithium-based grease. I am trying the Noalox stuff to see how it does (available in electrical department of Home Depot and Lowes), and also "anti-sieze" which the better auto parts stores will have.

If you don't use some kind of grease, the SS screws can be hard to get off after 5 years or so.

 

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