Battery power and Remote Control (R/C) systems

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Overview:

Battery power combined with remote control (R/C) can be the ideal setup for many users. I've lumped battery power in with R/C systems since this is pretty common, most R/C systems run from batteries. The definition of R/C here is that the throttle/cab transmits directly to the locomotive.

Note: I have put "DeadRail" 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.

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).

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

A few last items on track vs. battery power:

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.

On the "cannot maintain track power", there are many good reasons for this being a big deal, for example: you live where there is dirt and dust blowing all the time. Sorry TOC, water from rain does not bother track power either.

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 if you cannot afford stainless rail, then maybe battery power is better for you.

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

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?
    • what are the grades on your layout?
    • how long will the trains be? (also ball bearings on the rolling stock?)
    • how much space will you have in the loco?
    • do you mind having a trailing car for the battery?

OK, so the first section below will help you choose the type of batteries, and then we get into the R/C systems.

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 tell 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. Not Lithium polymer, they are too easily physically damaged.

What types are there:

SLA (sealed lead acid, or "gel cells") are 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.

Nickle Cadmium (nicad) are a 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 good 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.

Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMiH) 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. They have a little higher self-discharge than I like. There are some newer types, notably the Eneloop ones, that have very low seld 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, 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.

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 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. It 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 an 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. 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.

Charging in or out of the loco?

Another controversial topic. There are people who have burned stuff up, and those people will tell you to remove the batteries to charge, or even put them in the ceramic jar the R/C plane guys use. Also many of these people will tell you to NOT use LiIon and will point you to videos of fires.

First, ANY rechargeable battery pack SHOULD have a thermal cutout, that will stop current if the pack overheats. Period. They are too cheap to not use them. Second, LiIon batteries are less tolerant of overcharging, and can indeed catch fire if significantly overcharged, so buy battery packs with the "protection PCB" bundled with it.

Lastly, operator error: Let's be honest, many of the people in this hobby are older, can be forgetful, and few are engineers, so mistakes are made. use chargers, wiring and procedures that avoid mistakes. Also, if you physically dent or damage a rechargeable battery DISPOSE OF IT. NOW.

Can I charge my batteries on my railroad while they run around?

The main answer: there is no easy, simple way to do this where it works well.

But, if you are determined, you don't need clean track, or even continuous track power to do this, in fact quite the opposite, by having battery power, and "topping up" whenever it is opportune, you are quite the opposite.

The tough thing is to be able to fast charge and have the charger work properly in a situation where source power is interrupted often.

The idea of fast charging is having enough voltage and current to run a fast charger well enough. This normally means voltage higher than your batteries.

So, for example, you have 18v batteries, you would probably need 24v on the rails, to handle voltage losses by the charger.

The show stopper is having a charger that can quickly recover from power interruptions and continue fast charging. This is well neigh impossible.

If you are fast charging, then this means a microprocessor based charger. These chargers typically apply voltage to the battery, then stop then measure the voltage and then start on a charging "curve".

The issue is that you would be interrupting this system so often it would basically never offer you fast charging.

So, you might say, ok, just trickle charge, with a circuit with a voltage regulator. This could be done, but the voltage to a battery needs to be controlled within one or 2 hundreths of a volt for a fixed regulator to work. This could be done, but it's not easy or cheap. Now the final kicker in this idea: as a battery ages, the terminal voltage for a complete charge changes... so the fixed regulator does not work.

If you charge to a lower voltage, then you no longer have fast charging, and also now your loco speed changes according to whether you are charging or not.

Basically no easy or good solution. The right solution would be a microprocessor based charger that "remembers" through a power interruption, does periodic recalibrations on charge state and progress, and restarts fast. While this is technically feasible, now the circuitry cost is higher and takes up space you could just use for more batteries.

Now, if you Really want to do this:

With no interruptions in power, a small li-ion charger inside the loco would be effective with track pickups.

So parking and charging for convenience would be, well, convenient. Something like a covered track, with a transparent top so charging status leds could be visible.

 You could have parking spots that are actually the output of the charger.

And you put put a diode in the track pickups so it's "charge only", i.e. the battery cannot discharge through the rails.

 

so two ways: put the charger in the loco and power it from the rails... don't even need a switch, if it's not on the charging rails, the charger won't function, no power.

the other way, where the charger powers the rails, you can probably leave it on all the time, and it only draws significant current when there is a loco on the track.

The way I am thinking, no extra external switches, although you must have a master on off for the battery right?

What type of R/C system should I buy?

Of course, another huge source of controversy and opinions. Basically, the systems available range from inexpensive to complex.

The first thing you should do is determine 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 is almost as much as the motor.

Minimal control systems:

This is stuff with a very basic control system, sometimes even without a remote. I'm ging 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

Critter Control:

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.

 

Railboss 4:

 A very nicely designed, compact, inexpensive remote control.

And the basic receiver:

 

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.

 

 

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

 

Maximum capability systems:

 

A relative newcomer is 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.

 

http://ringengineering.com/index.html

http://youtu.be/BIEexmNhGrE

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