Choosing your power - how do I make a decision?

The idea of this page is to try to help you decide your long term / future in this important decision. Track power vs. battery power is probably the most hotly debated topic in large scale. (I'm leaving live steam out of this!)

Each "camp" has their own "formula" "proving" their decision is best.

In addition I address the type of control system to use. This is another highly controversial issue, and there's a lot of choices. Since these 2 decisions interact with each other, I've put them both here. It's not perfect, but it will help you.

Typical first impressions / impulses:

You will meet people you respect and they will typically convince you their choice is the best. Of course, it's only human nature, but you need to expose yourself to many different options if you want to make the best long term decision so that you don't go part way down the road and then regret your choice.

If money and time are no object, then pick whatever you fancy now, and change later. Unfortunately, I have NEVER met anyone where money AND time were no object, so let's continue!

The technique presented below is the "process of elimination", trying to find criteria that helps you "eliminate" a "less optimal" choice.

Why do it this way? Because there are really NO "wrong" answers. If you go down the path that some do, and one way is "right" and all the rest are "wrong", you are probably making the wrong decision.

Good decisions (and products) are supported by their advantages, not by "putting down" an alternative decision or product.If the advice you get is that every other way is inferior in all aspects, then you need more and different advice! 

Note: the following  is written sort of backwards, but for a reason: to help you see the "no's" to help eliminate choices and home in on the best choice for you. Therefore, the statements may appear "negative" but that's the best way to eliminate choices, by the method of "elimination".

 For example, if you say: I have lots of very small locos and I need sound and batteries in them all, and no trailing cars, then #1 below would say battery might not be for you.

If you are going to have a lot of track, AND you have a very tight budget, AND you cannot/will not solder jumpers between rails, then track power might not be for you.

Battery power:

Basically where you do not depend on the rails to supply power to the locomotive. Often touted as the only way to go because of reduced cost, no track maintenance, no wiring, etc.

Battery power (with some form of basic Remote/Control)

Put a battery in the locomotive and a motor controller and receiver. Newer battery technologies are more compact, small locos will be tough or have very limited run time. Space will usually be at a premium, and not always enough room in all locos for sound and a speaker after the batteries are in.

Battery power with a shared "battery car"

This method is to use a shared "battery car" hooked up to your loco. The idea being very few modifications to the loco (but usually some), and all the power and control is in the battery car, usually a box car.

You get to use it with other locos, instead of putting batteries in all locos. Of course, if you run 4 locos at at time, then you need 4 battery cars or much larger batteries.

Note that if you run sound, then you won't have the right sounds for every loco and the sound will not come from the loco unless you run another wire from the battery car to the loco.

Be sure to consider what I just mentioned, how many locos will you run at the same time. Also, be SURE to consider the implications of sound, i.e. if your sound unit is in the battery car, then you will have the SAME sound for all locos.

Don't forget that batteries wear out and need replacing, and chargers are not free. On the plus side, you can run very inexpensive track and not worry about conductivity, or removing the oxide from the rail. You WILL still clean track of debris.

Many people get excited to start and forget to think the whole thing out.

Battery Pro's and con's

This is a great idea for a large number of people. Battery power will be good for you if you are OK with the following:

  1. All your locos are large enough to hold batteries and/or sound OR you do not mind having a trail car permanently coupled to the loco with the batteries and remote control receiver. Remember the restrictions of only having one sound in the battery car, and the extra power used by sound and smoke.

  2. You need to consider installation. There are a number of locomotives out there that have a "plug and play" capability, most notably Aristo-Craft, and some Bachmann. This makes the installation of certain R/C systems dead simple. For locomotives that are not plug and play, you will need to be (or become) relatively handy with basic electronics. An alternative is to have the installation done for you. Traditionally custom installations have been very expensive ($300-$600), but "basic" installations have been offered. Again, notably, Aristo-Craft has offered a $100 charge to install their Revolution in their non plug and play locos. This is getting easier all the time.

  3. You are not going to have a large roster of "independent" locomotives OR you will never run a lot of locos at the same time and/or you use battery cars for power. The batteries, chargers, and installations will get more expensive than track power if you have lots of them. So in this area, over 4 locos or battery cars might be your "financial" "turnover" point. This is a cost issue, and also a convenience issue if you are switching locos or battery cars a lot. Written another way

  4. You can afford to have about as many battery chargers as locos running at the same time, rule of thumb, unless you only run trains an hour or so at a time.

  5. You need to save the money on track, i.e. aluminum.
  6. You cannot run power feeders to your track.

  7. You do not want to doublehead or MU different locos often or at all (which will run at different speeds). Caveat: The AirWire system will do this, since it is DCC over the air, and you can "kluge" some systems to come close. The Aristo Revolution system will do this for you, clumsily, but it will do it.

  8. You do not mind some possible limited control. Most R/C systems allow a fair amount of control, but the extra features come at a price, and none of the wireless systems are compatible with each other. Be sure to consider what you want from your trains. If you want a whole lot of extra functions to control remotely from your throttle, like lots of different lighting effects, many functions on a sound unit, etc, then the current wireless systems may have a limitation.

Common misconceptions about battery power:

Note: I did not say anything about cleaning track. This is usually the first reason people give for going battery. Well, half of "track cleaning" is getting dirt, grit, leaves and debris off the rail, so that is the SAME between battery and track power.

What is different is cleaning the oxidation from rail. I addressed that on #5. If you want to go track power, my only recommendation is stainless steel, and you will NEVER have to clean oxidation from it. So, it's really a matter of cost.

Battery power is great for lots of people. Realize it is an investment in specialized proprietary controllers, batteries, chargers, and lots of work cramming batteries in the locos. Also, you will have to take them out every so often, so there will be additional wear and tear on your rolling stock.

It definitely solves the track cleaning (oxide removal) problem. You can run your trains on other people's layouts without regard to how their layout is set up.

Recommendations

I'd recommend battery power for small to medium size layouts where you rarely run more than a couple of trains at the same time. If you get a large roster of locomotives, seriously consider putting the batteries in a battery car that is coupled behind the locos. Make it so you can remove the battery packs easily.

Battery power does not work well for people that run a lot of trains at the same time, or with lots of lighted cars, or if you want to run at a moment's notice, or if you want to run more than a couple of hours at a time. 

Russ MCintyre's Bachmann Davenport with radio control, 5 AA li-ions, and a phoenix P8 with speaker all under the hood. .

Track power - DC

This is the way your locos come out of the box. This is the cheapest initial solution, and usually the most limiting, but one of the best starting points.

Track power has the advantage of basically running as many locos at a time as you want, and not worrying about having enough room to fit batteries in your locos. Keeping the rails powered used to be tough, but with the advent of stainless steel rail and rail clamps, it's a snap. This can cost more in track, but can be much more convenient, no batteries to charge.

Go see several layouts, talk to people, and above all, think about your future, not just right now.

A word of advice, it you cannot make up your mind, assume you will use track power. Even if you start with battery power, you might find yourself going to track power later if you start using more engines, or have engines that cannot hold enough batteries, or you want lighted cars, or charging batteries gets painful.

The point is be sure to consider the future.

Track power and DC may be the best for you, if you are OK with the following:

  1. You are ok with running a track cleaner on brass track

  2. You don't mind the extra cost of Stainless Steel track (especially if you don't want to ever clean the rails)

  3. If you run only one train per "loop" of track, this makes sense.

  4. If your layout is divided into separate loops, you can put a controller on each one easily. This is the typical application of the old Aristo "Trackside" Train Engineer, basically a wireless throttle lever and reversing switch. Bridgeworks also makes a remote for it's power supplies.

More than one train per track means using breaking the track into separate electrical blocks. This can be done, but usually the hassle of having the multiple feeds and switches for block power and to switch different controllers is not good outside. While this has worked successfully for the smaller indoor scales, very few people do this outdoors since things get so much farther apart.

Long term, you will most likely have to upgrade the stock rail joiners to rail clamps or solder jumpers on brass track. The clamps can be expensive, but easy to do, the jumpers are the opposite, basically free, but labor to solder them to the rail ends.

 Track power and R/C allowing multiple trains on one track - Proprietary systems

I'm going to address more full-featured systems here, the older systems were not as "friendly" to adding sound and accessories.

  • Aristo-Craft makes a system whereby a receiver goes into each loco, and will run from track or battery power. They have basically obsoleted their 27 and 75 MHz stuff, the new system is called the "revolution", released in 2009.
  • AirWire makes a system, and has gotten support from QSI and NCE. You can buy an AirWire receiver or a QSI with an add-on receiver. NCE is making a throttle you can use instead of the AirWire thottles. This system is basically DCC over the air. It's less proprietary in the sense that you can connect any DCC sound decoder or function decoder to the AirWire receiver. In addition, QSI makes a compatible receiver/decoder combination, and NCE makes a compatible wireless throttle.
  • MTH (Mike's train house) makes a system that almost rivals DCC in capability. It's more "tuned" towards sound than motor tuning/performance and lighting effects, but it has some great feature.

These systems can work very well, but since the receiver/decoders in the locos have antennas, many people have problems with installations, and poor range it they are not near the loco at all times.

Interference from the motors and other electronics in the locos, nearby radio sources and other home appliances can cause problems (your cordless phone, your microwave, your wireless computer and your Bluetooth headset all work on 2.4 GHz).

When it works well, it is great. Many people have good luck with the system. A big advantage is constant power on the rails, so lighted cars are always lit, and you do not need to break the track into blocks.

Of course, as with any track powered system, you will have to handle reversing loops, etc.

This can be quite an investment, so make sure it will work for you. Most R/C systems are set up for battery operation, and are proprietary system, and no other systems will work with them. The exception is AirWire, it is basically DCC over the air, and the AirWire receivers will support almost any DCC sound system.

Recommended for people running multiple trains. MU/doubleheading/consisting works, can be a pain with the Aristo, works well with the AirWire. I do not recommend this for people who are not handy with electronics, some installations require additional noise suppression components and a bit of fiddling with antennas. The QSI and Aristo systems will plug and play in an Aristo loco though, very easy to install.

Track power - DCC

DCC is an NMRA standard for a track powered system with multiple receivers, one in each loco.

You can mix and match components between manufacturers, and it is wildly popular with smaller scales.

The prices have been falling dramatically, and most manufacturers make LS receivers (called decoders) that handle the additional amperage of LS locos.

There are a tremendous amount of features and functions available, and there are many different types of controllers from simple to complex. There are also computer interfaces to allow remote or automatic control.

Decoders are now becoming available that have a sound system as part of the motor drive system, and actually change the sounds based on the actual load of the loco. The effect is incredible.

Speeds of locos can be matched exactly, so you can doublehead or MU any loco with any other loco.

Some unique features: 

  • Fine tuning running characteristics such as top speed, starting speed, mid range speed
  • Matching the speeds of two or more locos EXACTLY so you can MU/doublehead ANY locomotive, and run helpers in the middle and end of trains.
  • Lots of special effects.
  • Track power is constant, so you can tap it for lights, etc.
  • Run hundreds of accessories from the same controller
  • Many different manufacturers to choose from
  • Sophisticated wireless control, multiple base stations, virtually no limit on layout size or wireless range.

This is definitely where the future is going for track power and remote control. Highly recommended for anyone who will run multiple trains and/or multiple locos on one train.

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