Summary: Starter sets are packaged systems offered by Digital Command Control manufacturers which provide all the components needed by a new user to get started with Digital Command Control.
The easiest way to get up and running with Digital Command Control is to buy a DCC starter set as it provides most all the features a new user need to get started with DCC. At a minimum, a starter set includes the command station and booster (many are now integrated into a single unit), and a throttle. Buying a starter set will give you everything you need right out of the box and are more cost effective than buying individual items. A starter set may include a power supply, so you'll have to read the package and buy accordingly. Please note, if it does include a power supply, expect to replace it once you start running more trains as the included ones are usually under powered. Additionally, a starter set may also contain include a decoder or a decoder equipped locomotive.
DCC starter sets typically do not include tracks, trains, or rolling stock. A starter set is just for the power components. Don't confuse a DCC starter set with a "holiday" or analog starter set which includes an analog power supply, a few sections of track, and a non-DCC equipped locomotive.
Starter sets usually fall into two categories, entry level or advanced. There are some Train Set quality DCC systems available which lack features and expansion possibilities, which will not be discussed in this article.
Where to start
One of the most important choices in getting started in will be selecting which DCC brand. For help on selecting a brand, or manufacturer, please see the selecting a system article.
If someone insists on comparing the cost of a Digital Command Control system to an Analog (Direct Current) system, always compare a high end Analog controller to a DCC System for a fair comparison. A basic, low cost power pack doesn't equal what a basic DCC Starter Set can offer.
NMRA Digital Command Control standards assure that NMRA DCC conforming products are compatible at the track. command stations and throttles are not interchangeable between manufacturers. The decision on which brand to go with is crucial as changing to another brand can be expensive. Some manufacturers do not offer upgradeable systems, so keep that in mind. The ideal system should grow with your needs, and have the option to add additional features in the future. Another important point is a computer interface incase you ever want to automate or control your layout by connecting a computer to your layout. This feature will allow even more capabilities using third party software for signals, automation and even programming sound decoders.
Another consideration is the throttle network, which connects the throttles to the command station. Different manufacturers approach this in different ways - some are very limited where others offer a full set of features. The throttle network can also connect to other devices such as stationary decoders, block detectors, and other accessories. Not all companies employ a full featured throttle network, so read up on the features available before settling on a brand.
Although, you wouldn't be the first, or the last, to change brands but if you do, you won't have to replace the various decoders that are already installed in rolling stock or around the layout. This is thanks to the NMRA DCC standards.
How Much Power?
- Main article: Power Management
The next question you will have to answer is "How much power do I need?". Starter sets come in amperages ranging from 1.5 to 8 Amps. This decision is not as crucial as the first decision as you can always add additional boosters to your layout at any time. Again, do your research, as upgrading your DCC system may be difficult with some systems.
You do not need to concern yourself with track length when calculating power needs. The length of track is not important as you are powering your locomotives and other devices. Assuming the track is properly wired, the track just delivers the power, it doesn't consume it. See Track wiring on how to properly wire your track.
As each locomotive, piece of rolling stock and layout is different, the following is a rough guideline to get you started. These calculations are based on an HO scale layout. You'll need to double these numbers for S or O scales. You'll have to halve these numbers for N or Z scales. For G scale, 8amps should be your minimum starting point for outdoor layouts. Keep in mind, you can always add more power to your track layout with the use of an additional booster.
A typical HO scale locomotive equipped with a sound decoder will draw 500mA. Locomotives made before the arrival of DCC can draw up to an amp. So, a new motor will be a good idea. Older motors draw more current, and as the magnets age and lose power, the current needed increases as well.
A typical 5A (nominal) booster could operate 10 locomotives. Locomotives at idle will draw less current. In fact, according to NCE, you could probably add 50% to that number without any problems, thanks to more efficient motors and better drivetrains. (Sorry, this estimate does not apply to Brass.)
- The term nominal is used as many boosters advertised as having a 5A output will often have only 4.5A available to the track.
If more power is needed, additional boosters can be used to increase the number of locomotives you can operate simultaneously. An auxiliary booster could also be used to power an engine facility and yard, allowing the main booster to run the mainline.
You might be asking yourself "Why not just get the largest power supply and booster I can afford?"
Initially this may sound like a great idea, additionally you would be prepared for some expansion or more running trains on your layout. However, too much power (amps) on the track can cause some serious damage to your locomotives and other rolling stock. For example, if wheels derail, for whatever reason - a bad turn out, sharp turn, etc - then you are at risk of causing a short. This short can melt the plastic mounts inside locomotives, burn up engines, melt sideframes or damage other rolling stock. It can also weld metal pieces together. The risk is minimized by the booster's short circuit protection devices, but if your track is not properly wired, the booster may not detect the short and thus keeps the power flowing while your locomotive starts smoking - and not from the smoke stacks. Power management devices, such as the Digitrax PM42, can split up the power from your booster into individual districts to help detect short circuits, without shutting down the entire layout.
The following is a list of items that can be purchased to expand your layout. These are ideas to keep you on track to running your locomotives. You can pick and choose from below which best suits you.
- The starter set is just that, a starter set. You'll need a multifunction decoder. See the decoder section for multifunction decoder selection and installation.
- However, before installing that decoder, we recommend you test it with a decoder tester. They can be found from various vendors.
- If you have a reverse section, you need an automatic reverser. Boosters typically have these built in, but if you have a reverse section, it's best to wire that independent of the main track. There are many different auto-reversers from various manufacturers.
- It's fun running trains with friends. You will need an additional throttle for each engineer. The Digitrax Zephyr lets you use 2 "old-style" DC power packs as 'jump throttles,' so you get 3 throttles for the price of the one Zephyr. Or select a system compatible with the other layouts in your operations group, and you can bring your throttle to other layouts, as can they.
- Your need a throttle network to plug those additional throttles into. Each manufacturer has various ways of setting up their network. This typically involved running a wire from the command station to the area(s) where you will want to control the trains. The wire is terminated into a jack that allows you to plug throttles into.
Entry Level Starter Set
Entry Level Starter Sets are designed to sell at a price point that will be attractive to a beginner. Currently in the US that means a suggested retail price under US$300. Entry level sets often have limited capabilities, such as the ability to control a lesser number of trains compared to the manufacturer's more fully featured command station. They may also lack expandability, such as fewer cabs compared to their advanced equipment. They may even limit the number of addresses available to the user.
Starter sets often combine the cab or throttle, command station, and booster into a single package. This is analogous to a table top audio system that combines the receiver, tape deck/CD Player and speakers into a single package, rather than having a separate tuner, amplifier, tape deck/CD player, and speakers.
These sets are more likely to provide a power supply as part of the package.
Some first-generation starter sets had severe limitations, such as restricting decoder addresses to the older two-digit standard, or even a more restricted range, such as ten addresses maximum. They may also limit what functions may be controlled on a decoder. These limited the usability of these systems, for example a friend's engine may not be able to be run due to an inability of the command station to handle a four-digit address.
Most modern starter sets provide full functionality as to addressing and function control. Be sure to read the specifications to determine the capabilities of the system under consideration, as low-end systems may limit some features.
If you are considering Digital Command Control, and are looking at a DCC system, be sure to compare features and options available between choices. Keep in mind the future: How expandable is the system? As noted above, many low-cost systems have a limited feature set and may not be expandable. Or lack the ability to add options like a computer interface.
Examples of Entry Level Starter Sets
- Digitrax Zephyr Basic Set and Digitrax Zephyr Xtra. in 2019 Digitrax upgraded this product to the Zephyr Express.
- NCE Twin
- NCE Power Cab
- Hornby Select
- Lenz English Webpage
These are only a few of the starter sets on the market.
- Some starter sets may be very limited in features, such as only supporting 10 locomotives or not using a 4 digit addresses. Read the manufacturer's web site and the package for more information.
Advanced Starter Set
The Advanced Starter Set provides a convenient way for a user to get a start on configuring an advanced DCC system. They usually consist of a fully featured command station, a dispatcher's cab, and a booster. The command station and booster may also be combined into one unit. Power supplies are often not provided, and must be purchased separately.
These sets are designed for expansion in mind, and can control a large number of locomotives and accessory decoders and support a large number of cabs. The command station, booster and cab will usually be separate components. They may have a computer interface, and may be designed to work with infra-red or radio cabs.
One feature is a more powerful booster, which supplies more current to the track. The manufacturer may offer optional high current power supplies to complement their system. In many cases, you are not required to buy a power supply of the same brand, allowing you to choose from a number of power supplies from a variety of suppliers.
Examples of Advanced Starter Sets
The NCE PowerPro is also in this category.
A typical starter train set comes with a tiny, low-cost analog power supply -- literally a throw away item due to its rudimentary controls, limited power availability, etc. Many people will use this starter power supply for their programming track as this initial power supply is good for only powering one engine on a small loop of track