Battery power and Remote Control (R/C) systems

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Overview:

This subject can be very confusing, since there are many variations in how to do this.

I'll try to break it down in a way that helps people decide what is best for them, by giving the features available, limitations, i.e. pretty much the pro's and con's.

Definitions:

I want to define R/C as a non-centralized system, where the throttle transmits directly to the locomotive (or accessory), i.e. when in use there is a 1 to 1 relationship between that throttle and the locomotive.

The reason is that it is important to distinguish between the above type, and a system where the throttle is wireless, but works with a central unit (for example a DCC Central Station as defined by the NMRA) which then sends information to the locomotives.

Deadrail is "dead"

Deadrail also needs definition, but I will discuss it here and then discard it. Originally Deadrail was meant to be DCC over the air somehow, that the "rails were dead". It's a great idea, using a known protocol with lots of hardware (especially decoders) available. Because DCC is defined (by the NMRA) and it is a standard, if you send DCC commands from a throttle to a locomotive, and do not have a central "command station" then not only are you losing major features of DCC, but you are technically violating the DCC standard. Therefore this needed special consideration of what you were giving up in a DCC "system", features like "all stop", consisting database, handing locomotives and consists to other throttles, a common database all users could share.

But to make the term Deadrail completely useless, now many people (including the Deadrail society itself) use Deadrail to mean ANY R/C system that does not power the rails. So the specific issues with DCC over the air are now not even considered by many using the term Deadrail. Thus the term is meaningless, in opposition to the original meaning and also superfulous: just use "R/C" for what you are doing..

Why is battery power lumped in with Remote Control here?

Over the years, there have been many abortive attempts to combine R/C with track power. It really makes little sense for 90% of the applications. While the casual observer this could have many advantages, it really doesn not make sense. I'm going to list the reasons "given" and then why they usually do not make sense. Remember I said 90% of the time, so there are indeed cases where track power combined with R/C make sense.

Reasons given to use R/C with track power:

  1. I can run locos from track power so no batteries, which solves a space problem in small locos, the recharging issues, the cost of replacement batteries every so many years, and all the other issues with batteries.
  2. I can recharge my locos from the track, so the batteries are always topped off, never need separate recharging, or I can use smaller batteries.

Why these reasons don't make sense:

  1. For this idea, the basic premise is that your track power is good enough to reliabily power your loco. Well, then why not use DCC to run your locos? It's the cheapest remote control of your locos, and with the huge and competitive HO market, it has been proven to be simple to just add more output power to handle the larger locomotives. Basically it's the least expensive, most powerful, most available track power remote control system
  2. This is the one that comes up over and over. Theoretically this could work. Often the idea is to just power most of the track, and you have no reverse loop issues, and don't have to wire/power switches, and it really seems at first glance this could be really cool. Here's the basic issue: Most people want to go to battery to save money. It's not the maintenance of the track power, putting in the cost for rail clamps or soldering jumpers will make track power solid. It's really believing they are saving money. The issue is that in order to charge batteries, you need a REALLY smart charger... your power to the charger will be interrupted often, so the charger will have to restart quickly to resume the charge. If you learn about smart chargers, it takes some time for the charger to determine the current state of a battery pack BEFORE it can start charging. So, you need a really smart charger for this to even work and not overcharge batteries, and one with a really quick "analysis" time. The bottom line is this charger has (and cannot be) invented to actually allow any reasonable charging help. It's just not worth the cost and effort, and again, if you have track power reliable enough for this, DCC will be less costly and more performance.

So the bottom line is forget trying to charge batteries from track power. (There are good applications for this though, like museums that have displays, and can "park" a train or automobile to recharge them on the layout, of course they are inactive and you do not interrupt the charging.

OK, now we are assuming R/C, one to one throttle to loco, battery power

Battery power combined with remote control (R/C) can be the ideal setup for many users. Note: Battery powered DCC will be in the DCC section, since it is merely a way to put the DCC signal that is traditionally on the rails, to over the air, whether track powered or battery powered. There are unique aspects to this implementation of DCC, since the standard is defined, and works as, an integrated system over all locomotives.

Battery vs. track power is an endless debate between users. There are advantages, but typically it is NOT cost. Straight DC track power is cheapest. If you need remote control, i.e. several locos on the same track, then track powered remote control systems are still cheaper (yes even accounting for aluminum rail vs other rail) once you get over about 3 or 4 locos.

The main reason you find that people are running batteries is that they either cannot maintain power to the track, or they have been told that battery is cheaper/better (or they only have a few locos). There's also a reason if you don't have a layout, or bringing your locos to somewhere that there is no track power, that is a very good reason if you have no layout to run your trains on .

A few last comments on track vs. battery power myths:

I already mentioned the "cheaper" issue. True, you can buy a really cheap control that runs a train with virtually no more control than a cheap toy, but with sound even that goes out the window. You have to compare apples to apples. I could pull a train with a string too.

On the "cannot maintain track power", there are examples of where there's legitimate reasons for this being an issue, there are people who live in the desert where dirt and dust blows all the time. I cannot think of many other venues. Sorry TOC, rain does not bother track power either, and I don't think running trains where the tracks are submerged is a large user base.

If cost is really an issue, aluminum track can make things cheaper, but people do run track power on aluminum. Some environments do oxidize rails quickly, and in those environments and where you don't want to do oxidation removal, and/orif you cannot afford stainless rail, then maybe battery power is better for you. (remember that twigs, rocks, etc. will stop any loco, track powered or not).

The lesson here is don't just believe things you are told without questioning.

Let's help you choose the type of batteries, and then we get into the R/C systems.

 

Why this first? Mostly because it is an easier decision, and also it's unfortunately a question people address way too early in the process. So rather than fight it, I will address it.

Which type of batteries?

The first thing people agonize over is the chemistry (type) of batteries to use. I suggest you read up on the types of batteries from an unbiased source, here's a good link: http://www.batteryuniversity.com/. Mind you this is a pretty good source, but it's NOT perfect.

I will give you a good piece of advice: As you talk to people about batteries, AVOID anyone who says "this type is the best, and all others are bad". A person biased that way will not help you make the RIGHT decision for yourself. All the major battery types have advantages and disadvantages.

OK, the answer first: the batteries I would consider for most installations would be LiIon, normally cylindrical cells in a pack. Not Lithium polymer, they are too easily physically damaged.

What types are there?:

SLA (sealed lead acid, or "gel cells"):

Bulky, heavy, and they sulphate if let sit a long time. Basically they take too much space for most installations. They are easy to charge, and are more like a car battery. They don't fast charge really well, and they can take a bit of an overcharge.

Nickle Cadmium (nicad)

Long time favorite, if you don't use LiIon, use these, quality nicads can last many years if charged and used properly. They can have reasonable energy density, high current, and are easy to charge, and not real finicky. They come in many sizes and shapes, mostly cylindrical. There is a myth about "memory", but this "symptom" is from poor charging. With today's smart chargers, "memory" is a thing of the past.

Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMiH)

This chemisrty has approximately double the energy density of Nicads. They can be less "sturdy" if poorly charged. My belief is that this is because a charger has to be a bit "smarter" to to sense a charge complete situation. They have a little higher self-discharge than I like. There are some newer types, notably the Eneloop ones, that have very low self discharge. Make sure you have the right charger for them. Given the right charger and if you get the new technology, these really should be the successor to nicads.

Lithium Ion

Quite a breakthrough in battery technology, and about every modern electronic gadget is using them or Lithium Polymer. Higher energy density, lighter, and pretty well standardized close to a "4/3 A" in size. The 18650 cells are what most packs are made from. There's less variety available to the hobbiest, and these batteries are significantly more expensive than the others.

Lithium Polymer (LiPo) is basically the same as LiIon, but normally in a somewhat flexible pack. They are much more susceptable to damage, and I don't recommend them for most people.

There are also more advanced Lithium deriviatves, which are great, but you need to be sure you have the right charger.

Buy QUALITY stuff, this is not the technology to buy cheap junk. Get pre-made packs with the "PCB" (printed circuit board) in them, that senses damaged cells, limits over discharge, etc.

Note that you have to charge these correctly, and make sure you discard damaged batteries. Yes, significant overcharge or charging damaged batteries can catch fire. If you are really paranoid and want to rail on about the dangers of these batteries, then I submit you also discard your cell phone, your laptop computer, your cordless toothbrush, and all the other dozens of LiIon-powered devices in your house.

Charging:

Boy this is another place that there are many "experts", many of whom really don't know squat. Basically you need a "smart" charger, and unfortunately the "smarter" it is, often the more complex it is to operate.

If you have a battery pack made by a company, the easiest way is to get a smart charger that is pre-set to the number of cells, the chemistry, and the amp-hour capacity of your specific pack. Of course unless all your battery packs are the same, this means more chargers. (battery power is cheaper right?)

Universal chargers can often lead to damage, since you usually have to set the above parameters for them to charge safely. Make a mistake and you can damage the battery, and overcharging some batteries will result in fire. So if you feel that you won't be able to navigate the menus on a universal charger, go back to the "charger per pack" idea above.

As an aside, I have one that has worked for years, and is no longer available the Maha C777 Plus II. There were 3 models, the C777, the C777 Plus, and the one I use, the C777 Plus II. I use it for many different battery packs, and it has worked well for years. It automatically senses the number of cells, a nice feature not found a lot currently.

Why am I mentioning it here? Because I need to archive an undocumented feature. This charger has a discharge button and pressing it will discharge the battery, and indicate the time and amp-hours of capacity it measured, wait 15 minutes and then do a full charge. When in this mode, called the conditioning mode, the word "DISCHARGE" blinks on the display. If you enter this mode and then press and hold the discharge button, "DISCHARGE" stops blinking, and now it will stop at the end of the discharge cycle so you can record the value. This is called the "ANALYZE" mode, and was not in all the manuals. This way you can set it and leave it, come back later and see what the true capacity of your pack is. Boy I do miss this charger, mine are over 10 years old, one is 30 years old.

Some examples of chargers:

TOC uses this: Model:F12.0-24.0-008-D by RCP, a.k.a. Rich China Power company, a.k.a. Shenzhen Rich China Power Electronics Technology Co. LTD, http://www.fhy-power.com/EN/Channels/Home/index.asp It works on Nicad and NiMih. autodetects number of cells, fixed charge current of 800 ma, terminates charge on "End charge by detect negative delta V"

The Tenergy line of chargers are good, but some people get confused with the menus, since they are universal chargers. I think the menu is straightforward, but be honest with yourself and don't buy one if you hate menus and getting to the details of setting it up, otherwise the destroyed batteries will cost more than the "fixed" chargers.

 

OK Greg, I have been very patient: what R/C system should I buy?

This is the biggest area of debate, a huge source of controversy and opinions. Basically, the systems available range from inexpensive to complex. (note I did not say inexpensive to expensive, or simple to complex, this is because all of this is involved, but normally simple and inexpensive go hand in hand, as well as expensive/complex/full featured are usually all together.

The typical way this question is attacked, is each proponent of a system (usually the manufacturer) beats his chest about the positives of their system and also spends equal time putting down the competition.

As in most arguments, you need the pros AND the cons of each system.

But before you do this, there is something you need to do that is most fundamental, you have to decide what is important to you, i.e. your priorities. If you don't do this, you will never make the right decision except by random chance.

So: what you want from your system. For years, it was enough to just go forwards and reverse and have speed control. Over the years, lighting control has been added, and now sound is mandatory for almost everyone. Most people don't use smoke due to fact that current draw from the smoke unit is almost as much as the motor. (too bad!)

So at this point, let's assume battery power is best for you, so now you need to determine a few things:

    • will you be using smoke? (most battery power guys do not because of the extra power draw)
    • will you be using sound? (90% of modern day users want sound)
    • what are the grades on your layout?
    • how long will the trains be? (also do you have ball bearings on your rolling stock?)
    • how much space will you have in the loco?
    • do you mind having a trailing car for the battery?

Categories:

This is going to be tough, since many of these systems developed their features slightly differently. I'm going make arbitrary categories of Minimal/Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced. I may change these over time, and I'm not making the categories "competition" between manufacturers.

  • Minimal/Basic: basically just speed and direction, and maybe headlights that follow direction
  • Intermediate: This is where most R/C systems fall in my opinion, since full DCC-like or ABOVE features is where I draw the line of comparision.
  • Advanced: This is where you basically get almost everything (or more) than a full blown DCC system. I use DCC as a comparison since it is a standard for control internationally.

 

Minimal/basic control systems:

This is stuff with a very basic control system, sometimes even without a remote.

Critter Control:

 

I'm going to use a number of products from G Scale Graphics as examples, since he makes some products not available elsewhere, and quality and customer satisfaction is high:   http://www.gscalegraphics.net/store/c1/Featured_Products.html

A small board that generates PWM output to a motor. As stripped down as it gets, no on/off, no direction switch, just a speed control about $40. This is really not even remote control, but I wanted to show the ends of the spectrum.

There is an enhanced critter control which has direction and gentle speed up and slow down, but this becomes $100. It does have inputs for reed switches to do station stops and back and forth operation with magnets on the track. For this use, it's a good setup.

 

more to come in this section....

 

Medium capability systems:

One system that works well and has professional installation available is Remote Control Systems. http://www.rcs-rc.com They have a line of systems that are easy to use, simple throttles, and they have excellent support. The two US distributors both do excellent custom installations.

Another system is the Aristo Train Engineer system (TE). Now there can be some confusion here, since there are different models and impmenetations. There is an "on board" receiver that plugs into the Aristo locos. This wireless system uses 75 MHz and constant power to the track. I would not recommend this system as there seems to be a number of range issues, and the power capability is limited. BUT many users have used this system. It could be set up to work from battery, but you would have to do a bit of surgery, since the receiver only has pins to plug in to the loco.

The unit that is very popular is the "Trackside TE". The intended use is for the 27 MHz receiver to be attached to the track, and power one loco from there. Enterprising souls have removed the receiver from the box, and you can get it into a large loco or boxcar, and power it from batteries.

This system works well, and has a lot of following. It is relatively inexpensive. Both systems are "one way", in that there is closed loop system that ensures commands are received. If you get out of range, your first indication will be that you cannot control your loco.

 

There is a lot of experimentation with Bluetooth receivers/decoders, since it's easy to use your $1,000 phone as a transmitter. (you save money because you already have a phone).

The decoders can be cheap, a bluetooth receiver and a motor driver. Things like momentum can be done in the phone.

Here is one called Blue Tom (facebook only page) https://www.facebook.com/GScaleBT/

Something more specific

more to do here, and cleanup of the basic text

 

Railboss 4:

 A very nicely designed, compact, inexpensive remote control.

And the basic receiver:

 

---- all the following needs checking and updating ----

From the site:

It is actually an integrated ESC (electronic speed control) and 2.4 GHZ RX (radio receiver). 

The Basic model provides:

  • Speed control
  • Momentum
  • Directional lighting
  • 4 sound triggers (user programmable for other types of outputs).

All done with a small 6-button transmitter (sold separately). All connections are made via screw terminals. Six user programmable functions. Compatible with Phoenix Sound systems and others.

Choose the 10 amp motor driver option for heavy duty applications or multi-unit diesel consists.

 

Prices are $99 for the remote and from $90 to $130 - the high end is an advanced model with:

  • Automated station stops
  • Multiple trains on the same track with automatic separation
  • Statistical control of both station stops and track activated whistle
  • Low battery warning and cutoff system for Lithium batteries
  • Dual 5 amp outputs for Phoenix Sound Remote Un-Couplers or Smoke units.
  • Twelve user programmable functions. Compatible with Phoenix Sound systems and others.

 

  ------ re-processing for re-write/update below here ----

 

 

Maximum capability systems:

 Need to define the level of capability, and the idea of a "system...

Talk about pros and cons of proprietary hardware

Where can interchangability be?

Reference making an off the shelf DCC system wireless...

 

 

AirWire

This system has a 900 MHz throttle, and a decoder/receiver in the loco. The receiver has a goofy way of handling the higher voltages required by most G scale locos, you have to "split" the battery packs, and send the lower voltage to the receiver, and the higher voltage to the output stage that runs the motors. The system work very well, and allows the addition of virtually any standard DCC sound decoder. This gives a much greater range in sound systems you can operate. Recently QSI Solutions made an interface on it's G scale DCC decoder that allows the addition of an $80 receiver to the decoder, so you have a wireless QSI system. This system only needs a single voltage as input. A nice addition to the possibilities for an AirWire system.

 

DCC over the air:

Tam Valley

AirWire Convrtr

others

 

Ring Engineering

http://ringengineering.com/index.html

http://youtu.be/BIEexmNhGrE

Sub-Pages

Click the links below to go "deeper" into details on battery power and remote control system manufacturers

  Aristo-Craft R/C    MTH DCS    LocoLinc   G Scale Graphics
  Train Engineer Revolution    AirWire    
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